Synopsis The “prism” is a quantum mechanical device which allows communication with a parallel world in the multiverse. The parallel world is branched off with the first use of the prism, there is no travelling between worlds, to the past or to the future. They differ initially only by one ion which is interpreted as a blue light in one of the worlds and red in the other. From there, the worlds start to diverge, slightly at first, but ever more. Of course, differences can be enforced, e.g. by taking decisions based on the colored lights – “marry him if blue, don’t if red”, or “shoot myself” – but mostly, people use the device to talk to themselves in the other world.
The story revolves around Nat, an employee at a prism broker shop, and Dana, a group therapist trying to make amends to a friend she wronged in the past. Nat is involved in prism related scams which lead her to Dana’s group. Dana continues giving money to her friend. In the end, prism demonstrates that both paths are predetermined and that they are not at the same time – it is all a matter of freedom.
Review Chiang must be admired by the numerous different scenarios and implications he draws of his concepts. This story is different than most, offering a real plot with a tension arc in the style of a Swanwick like scam, a character development of the two main protagonists Nat and Dana, and a satisfying ending – story elements you won’t find often in Chiang’s style which is quite often didactic, but not so in this novella. Typical is the sentimentality and the quiet flow of the narration and relationship to philosophy. In this case it is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s “The Concept of Anxiety“, where he tried to maintain traditional freedom in a new therapeutic context:
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go.
Chiang discusses the topic of freedom with the problem of contingency posed by quantum mechanics: Does anything matter at all, if every good deed is opposed by a bad deed in a parallel universum? Chiang disagrees with this nihilistic perspective several times in the story. Nat gets a better person by choosing ever more the good side.
That’s SF at its best: given a new invention, how would society and singly individuums react to it? I think, this is one of Chiang’s best stories and I highly recommend reading it.