The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling • 2013 • Near Future SF novelette by Ted Chiang


Summary:  What would a perfect memory mean for us and our culture? How changed literacy our subjectivity? A journalist explores the pros and cons of a Cyborgish memory enhancement gadget called Remem which lets you capture, search, and replay every instance of your liveblog. It would bring a change similar to reading and writing for our Western culture, so he writes the story of the savage folk of Tev who slowly learn the impact of written truth versus oral truth. He can’t stop people adopting the gadget like the tribes oral culture could stop writing on paper; so, he tried to find the positive in it.

Review:  First, I feared yet another linguistic exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which Chiang already explored in Story of your Life), but then it gladly developed in a different direction, that of literacy. The story contains lots of brain food about different sorts of truth – the harsh truth of facts versus smoothening truth of feeling, the stories of yourself which you need to comfort yourself or your tribe, which are based on forgiving and forgetting. The author gave us two interposed point of views for comparison, and to understand the concept: one set in the future in first person perspective of the journalist who wrote the whole story. It is mostly about the relationship to his daughter, and his finding out with the help of the memory gadget that he was wrong about his history:

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.

The tribal version of adopting new forms of memory was narrated in the point of view of a boy who learned reading and writing from a missionary. I found the insights into the process wonderful and bringing a lot to understand what the futuristic gadget would bring to our culture. Just one sample:

It was only many lessons later that Jijingi finally understood where he should leave spaces, and what Moseby meant when he said “word.” You could not find the places where words began and ended by listening. The sounds a person made while speaking were as smooth and unbroken as the hide of a goat’s leg, but the words were like the bones underneath the meat, and the space between them was the joint where you’d cut if you wanted to separate it into pieces. By leaving spaces when he wrote, Moseby was making visible the bones in what he said.

This gadget will change our „private oral culture“ just as writing changed the tribal’s oral culture. It will be difficult to rewrite our pasts to our needs.

Sometimes the narration feels more like an essay than a story, it moves slowly, even contemplative. And then, it isn’t an essay at all but character driven, providing a lot of character development and insights into the main characters. Anyways, it is a masterful usage of futuristic technology to explore philosophical topics in the frame of a short story: Chiang focuses on the searchable story telling capabilities of technology only, and left out several other aspects that this gadget could be used for (think of medical usages).

I fully recommend this novelette to everyone searching for more heavy-weight stories: It will stay with you for some time: Did you already think about your own made-up story?

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean, Fall 2013. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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