In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novella Finalists, and what makes each of them great.
What makes Ted Chiang’s fiction so memorable—and so resonant—is his ability to take two seemingly disparate concepts and turn them into something altogether new. By and large, Chiang’s concepts elude elevator-pitch dryness and head into uncharted territory. In a world of builders and technicians—both entirely solid professions—Chiang is a kind of alchemist, transforming the familiar and the profound.
His novella “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” (collected in Exhalation) offers ample evidence of this. From one perspective, it’s the kind of working-class crime story that the likes of George Pelecanos specialize in: a story of people working dead-end jobs for which they’re underpaid, and the unnerving turns their lives take when they opt to engage in some low-level criminal activity.
It’s possible to imagine a world in which Chiang decided to go full crime fiction; based on the lived-in descriptions of his characters’ lives, he could probably write something entirely memorable without venturing into the uncanny at all. But “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is also about parallel universes, quantum theory, and how the smallest possible decisions can change the world.
The setting is a near future in which devices called prisms allow people to contact parallel timelines. How does that work? Turns out the prisms also create the parallel timelines, via quantum mechanics.
In colloquial terms, the prism created two newly divergent timelines, one in which the red LED lit up and one in which the blue one did, and it allowed communication between the two.
Central to the novella’s setting is the idea that even the smallest of changes—in this case, a light being different—will have massive consequences, creating subtle differences between the two timelines, including different children being born as a result of different timelines’ versions of the same pregnancies. That, in turn, translates into a head-spinning take on a classic science fictional ethical question.
For a hypothetical time traveler who wanted to prevent Hitler’s rise to power, the minimum intervention wasn’t smothering the baby Adolf in his crib; all that was needed was to travel back to a month before his conception and disturb an oxygen molecule. Not only would this replace Adolf with a sibling, it would replace everyone his age or younger.
The prisms cause timelines to split at the point where they’re activated—but if you can get a hold of an older prism, you might also be able to communicate with your counterpart from a different timeline. Prisms have a finite lifespan, at which point communication between those two timelines will cease. At the center of the novella are Morrow and Nat, co-workers at a failing business called SelfTalk, launched at a time when prism technology was less effective than it is at the time the novella begins.
Morrow and Nat are working on several scams. One involves convincing a dying woman to give them her money by convincing her it will go to her counterpart in another timeline; another involves selling a prism to a celebrity that will allow him to reconnect with another timeline’s version of his deceased husband. The idea of people getting in way over their heads with bad decisions is a familiar one to the crime-fiction side of this story, but the emphasis on decisions baked into the premise of the story magnifies that element dramatically, and elevates it into something deeply haunting.
The small details of the world of “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” also help make it stand out. Chiang describes a world in which die hard fans of a sports team or a celebrity obsessively track the different versions of their favorites across timelines. Nat attends a support group for people grappling with complex feelings about their “paraselves”—another word for their counterparts in parallel timelines.
The novella’s third major character is Dana, who runs the support group in question. If Morrow is someone actively embracing bad decisions and Nat is more on the fence, Dana represents a third option—namely, someone actively looking to shake off the results of bad decisions they’ve made in the past. Dana’s own struggles offer another spin on the novella’s themes and mechanics, namely: How does someone do good when they’re still haunted by the bad things in their own past, and the unsettling feeling that somewhere out there, a better version of them exists?
In his commentary on the novella, which appears at the end of Exhalation, Chiang describes himself as agnostic on the “many-worlds” theory: “I’m pretty confident that even if the many-worlds interpretation is correct, it doesn’t mean that all of our decisions are canceled out,” he writes. “If we say that an individual’s character is revealed by the choices they make over time, then, in a similar fashion, an individual’s character would also be revealed by the choices they make across many worlds.”
This is a story about flawed characters making bad decisions and trying to make better ones. Its central concept is staggering in its implications, but its central characters also feel deeply singular—even when the point of the story involves multiple variations on them. This is a novella that offers shocks and empathy both; like the prisms within it, it contains far more than you might think.