We’re cruising through the short stories in Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation. Today, we read one of the most popular from the set, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, which Lux Capital’s Josh Wolfe described in our end-of-year books guide a few weeks ago:
This year for me it was Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”. The gap between sci-fi and sci-fact keeps shrinking. I contend either our authors are becoming less creative or our scientists more creative. Chiang disproves the former. One of the most provocative stories in this collection is The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling which parallels two protagonists set in the near future and the not-too-distant past. One sub-story centers on a Black Mirror-esque technology that gives high-fidelity perfect recall and recordings of prior experience. The other story is of a tribe that lives by oral tradition that has one member encounter an outsider with the technology of writing. Together they make a provocative poignant point on the distinction between being precise and being right—and the meaning in our lives between them.
Gift Guide: Leading VCs recommend their favorite reads from 2019
It’s a great story, with tough questions that don’t posit easy answers. In short: it’s fantastic fodder for a book club. Read on for some analysis, plus some questions for the next (super) short story in the collection, The Great Silence.
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Reading The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
This is a deeply meditative story on the purpose and mechanisms of memory. Perhaps not gorgeously written like some of the earlier short stories in this collection, but Chiang manages to interrogate an incredibly deep and intellectual question about what truth means in a world of digital remembrance.
Dichotomies flow throughout the text. The core of the story are twin narratives set in different eras. In one, a first-person narrator who works as a journalist discusses testing a new device called Remem that can search all data ever generated about a person and instantly recall that information to the user (photos, videos, or what have you). The parallel story is about a tribe called the Tiv and what happens when they encounter a European missionary who teaches some members of the tribe writing and literacy.
Those dual storylines create a kaleidoscope of other dualities. In the language of the Tiv are two words that describe different kinds of truths: “‘There is what’s right, mimi, and what’s precise, vough.’” That relates directly to the dichotomy in this short story’s title and its primary question around forgetting and forgiving.
Chiang structures the stories in such a way that we are compelled to confront our typical response to memory, that “forgiving” quite literally requires “forgetting,” and that new technologies — whether Remem, writing, or other ways of transmitting information — damage our ability to redefine and improve ourselves and others. A perfect memory will create a very imperfect society.
Plus, these technologies always lose information in their transcription process, as when the author describes what happens with storytelling among the Tiv:
When Kokwa told the story, he didn’t merely use words; he used the sound of his voice, the movement of his hands, the light in his eyes. He told you the story with his whole body, and you understood it the same way. None of that was captured on paper; only the bare words could be written down. And reading just the words gave you only a hint of the experience of listening to Kokwa himself, as if one were licking the pot in which okra had been cooked instead of eating the okra itself.
This whole frame is an illuminating if somewhat banal point, and if that was all this story offered, it would be an interesting meditation on a classic question if fairly unremarkable. But then Chiang does something surprising: he basically reverses the entire course of the plot, showing that in fact these technologies don’t really create problems themselves, but instead foist demands on people to confront their own memories and the underlying problems they signify.
In the case of the Tiv, writing forces the group’s elders to confront the fact that they have differing views on their own family lineages, and that they no longer believe in the same historical narrative of the tribe. In the case of the main narrator, his relationship with his daughter turns a corner when he realizes that he has, over the years, completely mis-remembered one of their major arguments from when she was young. In fact, he has essentially misremembered the entire period, casually transforming himself into a decent person rather than the pitiful father he has actually been.
Chiang thus turns the idea of “forgive and forget” into “remember and forgive,” and not just about forgiving others, but ourselves as well. We want to believe in the best possible narrative of our actions, and in so doing, construct stories for ourselves that carefully elide facts and memories that don’t fit. But technology will change this:
And I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory. The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.
With Remem providing only the unvarnished facts, my image of myself will never stray too far from the truth in the first place.
Far from constraining our potential or forcing us to stay the same, remembering more precisely who we are is exactly what we need to evolve and improve from where we have been before. In the words of the Tiv, we need vough in order to find mimi. Even after reading the story twice, I find myself enchanted by how deep a perspective this point raises.
Chiang lays on the thesis a bit thick at times (“I’ve told a story in order to make a case for the truth. I recognize the contradiction here.”) But with cynicism of “technology” at a zenith, he has carefully structured the story to create an empathetic connection with a narrator asking similar questions about our joint futures and holding similar fears as ours. The about-face hits us like whiplash, but also seems contextually reasonable — opening our minds to further questions around the meaning of memory.
Perhaps ironically given the title, I found that the thread around emotion seemed to drop out a bit in the story. Talking about childhood amnesia, Chiang writes:
In fact, I suspect I no longer remember the day itself. It’s more likely that I manufactured the memory when I was first show the snapshots, and over time, I’ve imbued it with the emotion I imagine I felt that day.
But while many of the scenes and memories in the story are indeed fraught with emotion, his thesis around remembering doesn’t seem to answer why memories are hard to handle in the first place: some of our experiences may be just too intense or negative for us to ever want to remember again anyway.
While I did find this story to be a bit more didactic and direct with its conclusions than some of the previous short stories we have reviewed here, I do want to point out one beautiful symbol that he chose. The European missionary, Moseby, himself is a symbol of memory and technology, clutching a Bible that itself has been scribed and re-scribed throughout the centuries and represents the bedrock of European civilization. The motif of writing in the context of religion — of memory within culture and civilization — is a subtle layer that whispers throughout the text and that I appreciated.
Better, digital memories are coming — rapidly. And while dystopian accounts abound about what that all means, Chiang actually proposes maybe not a utopia, but a more human depiction of what’s to come next. Perhaps remembering who we are reminds us that we have the power to change who we want to become.
The Great Silence
Here’s a short short story for everyone, and some questions to think about as you are reading:
What message does the story present about empathy?
Would we recognize a different species if we met them?
Aspiration is a motif in this piece — how does that relate to some of the other stories in this collection?
What does the story say about attentiveness and focus?
What would be humanity’s contact call?
With the development of generalized AI, what’s the meaning of a person?