Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

Who knows where the timeline goes?: Ted Chiang, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”

Illustration of a stylized computing device, resembling a briefcase

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” is the last story in Ted Chiang’s collection, Exhalation (2019). At about 19,750 words, it’s one of two very long stories in that volume — I have seen it referred to as a novella. I haven’t got a copy of the collection — I read it as an ebook borrowed from the library — but the story I want to discuss today can also be read on OneZero, a Medium publication.

At a crucial point in the story, a data broker named Morrow is confronted by a man wielding a pistol, Glenn Oehlsen. Morrow has conned Oehlsen’s mother out of $20,000 shortly before her death, and the gunman wants to recover the money he believes he ought to have inherited. Morrow faces him down, gambling on Oehlsen’s unwillingness to serve a life sentence for murder. Oehlsen goes away unsatisfied and Morrow relaxes. Almost immediately, Oehlsen comes back.

“Fuck it,” he said, “what difference does it make?” He raised the pistol, shot Morrow in the face, and walked away.

Before he left the first time, Oehlsen had argued that, since there were certainly “timelines” — branches of reality that had split off from “this” one at myriad past quantum events — in which he killed Morrow, he couldn’t see any good reason why this shouldn’t be one of them. Morrow had replied that, if he did shoot, he’d be going to prison in this branch of reality. In the end, though, Morrow’s unanswerably reasonable argument didn’t save him.

Several other characters wonder what the existence of “parallel” universes signifies for the culpability of their actions, and the kinds of people they are. A man named Jorge whose therapist thinks of him as “funny and kind, and always well-intentioned”, though suffering from “poor self-image”, had punctured all four tyres on the car of his “mean-spirited tyrant” of a manager. Jorge then paid a lot of money to discover that none of the versions of him in the other timelines he was able to contact had done likewise, though some had been tempted to.

Jorge explained to his therapist that he’d gone to all this expense to satisfy himself that he was generally a good person and that his aberrant behaviour in “this” timeline was out of character.

The central character in the story is a young woman named Nat, Morrow’s subordinate in the data brokerage where he’s a manager, and his accomplice in some questionable dealings in devices which allow a very limited kind of “communication” between timelines. Nat is a drug addict who has been clean for a long time.

His side hustles had been fun; she’d always been good at that sort of thing, and she told herself that it helped keep her from relapsing, because the pleasure of conning people was a safe substitute for getting high.

But when Morrow wants to increase the pressure on a mark by stealing his identity and ruining his credit, she isn’t happy.

Nat grimaced. “Is that the sort of thing we’re doing now?”

After Morrow’s murder, Nat needs to consider her future and reassess her behaviour. She has been attending a support group for people who are having problems because of the device, which enables messaging between timelines. It’s called a prism: the last three letters of the name standing for “interworld signaling mechanism”. Nat is in the group under false pretences: she doesn’t really have any problems with a prism but she wants to nudge another member, Lyle, into selling his, which is unusually valuable for reasons of which he’s unaware. But now she has a genuine question:

“I want to know whether my decisions matter! … when I have a choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing, am I always choosing to do both in different branches? Why should I bother being nice to other people, if every time I’m also being a dick to them?” (ellipsis added)

She accepts the answer suggested by the group leader (who is also Jorge’s therapist): that choosing to act altruistically or selflessly now makes it more likely that you will do so in the future, irrespective of what your past or “parallel” selves might have done or be doing. Good behaviour gives your future personae, in this branch and in the ones which will diverge from it in future, an ethical headstart.

So, in the this story is revealed to be — like some of the others in the collection — in large part a fable or morality tale. When in doubt, do the right thing, it says. Of course, it says more than that, and perhaps the most interesting thing it says is that it might theoretically be possible to “communicate” between divergent branches of reality.

I’ve been putting “parallel” in quotation marks. The kind of separate, “alternative” realities that — if the “many universes” theory is true — spring into existence when a quantum event occurs, are not parallel in the geometric sense, like lines. If they were, they could never have touched in the past, but would always have been separate, and would have no explanatory value when it came to accounting for the utterly shocking quantum behaviour of subatomic particles. The realities that Chiang has been writing about diverge, they break away from each other.

But, having diverged, they never touch again, but remain entirely separate from each other. There is no jumping between them, no messaging or communication. That’s largely why in our everyday lives, we don’t need to worry about them. Is the theory of increasingly many universes true or false? It’s a fascinating question but there’s no way (so far) to know for sure and, in practical terms, it doesn’t matter a whole lot.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is that Chiang seems to have found a way to make something resembling communication between divergent realities appear possible.

We know that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. We also know that by observing one particle we can instantly learn about the state of another particle whose quantum state it shares, however far away the entangled particles may be from each other. In theory, if you had enough such particles (it wouldn’t be easy) you could use quantum entanglement to send instantaneous messages. If the particles were any distance from each other, the messages might appear to be breaking the universal speed limit.

What Chiang has done in “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” is to ask us to imagine that the entangled particles are in different timelines, because the quantum event which caused the split was the measurement of their state or position:

When the prism was activated and the universal wave function split into two branches, these ions remained in a state of coherent superposition, balanced on a knife’s edge and accessible to either branch. Each ion could be used to send a single bit of information, a yes or a no, from one branch to the other. The act of reading that yes/no caused the ion to decohere, permanently knocking it off the knife’s edge and onto one side. To send another bit, you needed another ion. With an array of ions, you could transmit a string of bits that encoded text; with a long-enough array, you could send images, sound, even video.

A “long-enough array”, yeah.

Chiang’s reimagining of quantum entanglement to add an extra layer of possibility — quantum entanglement across diverging timelines — is reminiscent of what he does in the collection’s title story, where he conceives of the respiratory system or an alien mechanical species as an analogue for the second law of thermodynamics. In reading the story, I was struck by implications of the second law of thermodynamics that I hadn’t thought of before. It is (excuse the pun) a breathtaking story, and one I highly recommend.

The fact of ever-increasing entropy and the hypothesis of multiple universes are startling, shocking ideas that have become over familiar, so that we are now inclined to pass over them with a blasé toss of the head. In these two stories, Chiang gets us to look at them, and think about them, afresh.

Spy stories

Two previous issues of this newsletter have been about spy fiction, “Reluctant defectors” (Greene and le Carré) in April and “A fabulist’s adventure: Kate Atkinson, Transcription” in June. I felt that I hadn’t said all I wanted to on the subject of Smiley’s People, so I mentioned in the Atkinson issue that I was going to write a supplementary note about le Carré’s novel. I did indeed post the note on my personal site the following weekend but I forgot to link to it from the next newsletter email. So, a bit late, here it is:

“A preferable technique to bribery”: The nature of coercion in Smiley’s People


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