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"We don't normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology," the narrator of Ted Chiang's "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" (Subterranean Online, Fall 2013) informs us near the end of the story. It's the sort of statement—plainly true and yet hardly intuitive—that seems to sum up Chiang's appeal, the reason that despite publishing barely more than a dozen stories in twenty-plus years, he remains one of the most respected names in the genre, whose work is greeted with fanfare and excitement. Chiang's stories are frequently narrated by people who are trying to quantify, dissect, taxonomize, and thus explain their worlds—perhaps most notably in "Exhalation" (2008) the mechanical narrator dismantles his own brain in order to understand how he, and his entire universe, work—but they also frequently revolve around the ways in which this knowledge changes the people who possess it. In "Story of Your Life" (1998), possibly Chiang's most famous story, the narrator learns the language of aliens and thus their habits of thought, and finds her perception of reality, of causality and the progress of time, irrevocably altered.

"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" takes this approach to writing, and specifically to the function of writing as a repository of information outside of a single human memory, circumventing the oral transmission of history and knowledge, and creating a single, more or less reliable, more or less immutable, version of events. But "writing," as defined by Chiang, means different things in the story's two plot strands and time periods. In its opening paragraphs, the narrator, who lives in the near future, notes that his thirtyish daughter Nicole "writes" by sub-vocalizing and then rearranging and editing the resulting, projected text. She can recognize words, but she can't spell them. If this account creates in us a sense that we and the narrator are on the same side of the generational divide, however, his next observation might give us pause: "take away the assistive software and give [Nicole] nothing but . . ." When I first read this sentence, I expected the next words to be "paper and pencil," but instead the narrator's idea of the kind of unassisted writing that his daughter can't handle is a keyboard.

In that sense, present day readers of "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" might find themselves in greater sympathy with Jijingi, the protagonist of the story's second plot strand. A young boy of the Tiv nation (a West African ethnic group currently found mainly in Nigeria and Cameroon) in the first half of the twentieth century, Jijingi is taught to write by Moseby, a missionary who settles in his village. For Jijingi, writing is indeed a technological advancement—being literate makes him eligible for a cushy, influential job as his village's scribe when such a position is imposed by European colonists. But as we follow his coming of age and his immersement in this new skill, we realize that it is also rewriting his brain, overriding the Tiv notions of reality with European ones. When Moseby tries to explain the concept of words to Jijingi by telling him to look for the pauses when people speak, Jijingi replies that his people speak quickly, without pauses. Only later does the semantic concept of a word become clear to him.

Jijingi realized that, if he thought hard about it, he was now able to identify the words when people spoke in an ordinary conversation. The sounds that came from a person’s mouth hadn't changed, but he understood them differently; he was aware of the pieces from which the whole was made. He himself had been speaking in words all along. He just hadn't known it until now.

Later, Moseby tries to explain to Jijingi why he writes his sermons before delivering them, but Jijingi is unable to understand how a person might forget what he wants to say (he concludes that Moseby must be senile) or how written composition can improve and refine one's thoughts. It's only once he compares a written account of the performance of a Tiv story to another recitation, noticing different word choices, that Jijingi realizes Moseby's meaning. Though the storyteller scoffs at the notion that changing a few words means that he's told the story differently, Jijingi muses that

Even though Kokwa was telling the same story, he might arrange the words differently each time he told it; he was skilled enough as a storyteller that the arrangement of words didn’t matter. It was different for Moseby, who never acted anything out when he gave his sermons; for him, the words were what was important. Jijingi realized that Moseby wrote down his sermons not because his memory was terrible, but because he was looking for a specific arrangement of words. Once he found the one he wanted, he could hold on to it for as long as he needed.

The accuracy of memory, and the seeming reliability of written accounts, is where the Tivland segments of "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" intersect with its near-future plot strand, and its own version of writing—memory. The nameless narrator in this segment of the story is researching a feature article on Remem, a new technology that allows people to search their own memories. Though "lifelogging" technology is common in the story's world, the sheer amount of information makes finding any specific memory, unless its location is obvious, difficult to impossible. Remem offers a fast and seemingly flawless search engine, allowing you to, for example, search for the first time you went to a certain restaurant, or to recall precisely the events of a long-ago party. The technology's manufacturers, the narrator tells us, envision it eventually replacing our fallible, fuzzy, fading biological memory, essentially granting humanity complete and total recall. As the narrator and the story suggest, this transition might amount to something like a society transitioning from the oral transmission of information—fuzzy, unreliable, emotionally charged—to its transmission through writing.

In several of his stories, Chiang has employed the device of a journalistic voice, reporting on the story's events in a detached tone and often musing about their wider implications. "Hell Is the Absence of God" (2001) uses its distanced narrator to stand apart from the fantastic, awe-inspiring events it describes, while "Liking What You See: A Documentary" (2002) anticipates "The Truth of Fact"'s structure by interspersing a journalistic account of a technology that prevents people from recognizing human beauty with the diary of a teenage girl who is about to have the technology turned off for the first time. "The Truth of Fact" complicates this device somewhat. Though the narrator tells us that he's researching an article, and though much of what he writes reads like general-interest technology journalism—complete with personal anecdotes, pro and con soundbites, and quasi-alarmist speculation—the mimicry is imperfect. Too much of the narrator's personal life creeps into the story—indeed, we eventually learn that he abandoned his assignment—and yet it continues to be interspersed with impersonal speculation. The result isn't believable, as either a journalistic account or a personal narrative.

Some of the narrator's speculations about the effects of Remem are thought-provoking, and not a little worrying. Would childhood hold the same charm for us, he wonders, if our memories of it weren't hazy and impressionistic? Will eliminating the personal touch that infuses all of our recollections flatten our personality correspondingly? Will we be able to forgive hurts and get over anger with perfect recall to remind us why we were angry in the first place? These questions, however, aren't introduced organically through the story, but merely laid before the readers, as if "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" had come prepackaged with its own reading guide. At times, Chiang seems to be underlining and repeating his own themes.

Before a culture adopts the use of writing, when its knowledge is transmitted exclusively through oral means, it can very easily revise its history. It's not intentional, but it is inevitable; throughout the world, bards and griots have adapted their material to their audiences, and thus gradually adjusted the past to suit the needs of the present. The idea that accounts of the past shouldn't change is a product of literate cultures' reverence for the written word. Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don't need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself. So it wouldn't be correct to say that their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.

While true, this point has already been made far more elegantly in the Tivland plot strand, in which Jijingi discovers that the genealogy insisted on by his village elder—which will determine which tribe his village will merge with, and thus has great political and economic significance—is contradicted by a written account given by the elders of a previous generation and written down by the Europeans. When Jijingi insists that the written account should be taken as paramount, the elder chides him for adopting European habits of thought, preferring an accurate but unhelpful truth to one that will do the best for his village. It's an effective illustration of the two different kinds of accuracy described by the near-future narrator, all the more so because of the emotional punch of Jijingi—the story's most sympathetic character and the one we've come to identify with—accepting the elder's observation that he has lost sight of the Tiv ways and choosing to turn his back on literacy except as a useful job skill, and to burn the notebooks in which he's been experimenting with composition. It is therefore completely unnecessary for Chiang to follow it up with such a bald-faced restatement of what we've just learned (especially since the Tivland segments of the story, as we've seen above, are already fairly baldly stated in themselves, though more emotionally resonant).

The near-future plot strand tries to reach for a similar emotional resonance through the narrator's relationship with his daughter Nicole. Fourteen years ago, we're told, Nicole's mother left, which precipitated a crisis for both father and daughter, culminating in a screaming fight in which Nicole shouted at her father that "You're the reason she left! You drove her away! You can leave too, for all I care. I sure as hell would be better off without you." This outburst, the narrator tells us, made him realize that he'd been wallowing in his own self-pity instead of attending to his daughter's feelings of abandonment, and he slowly worked to repair their relationship. When the narrator uses Remem to reexamine the fight, however, he discovers—in the story's most shocking and wrong-footing moment—that the person shouting such terrible abuse wasn't Nicole, but himself. Stunned by this blow to his worldview, he confronts his daughter and discovers that her take on their relationship is very different from his:

I told her how I felt like I had turned around as a father and rebuilt our relationship, culminating in a moment of bonding at her college graduation. Nicole wasn't openly derisive, but her expression caused me to stop talking; it was obvious I was embarrassing myself.

"Did you still hate me at graduation?" I asked. "Was I completely making it up that you and I got along then?"

"No, we did get along at graduation. But it wasn't because you had magically become a good father."

"What was it, then?"

She paused, took a deep breath, and then said, "I started seeing a therapist when I went to college." She paused again. "She pretty much saved my life."

The revelation that it was our narrator who behaved unforgivably towards his sixteen-year-old daughter and not the other way around is just the right kind of shocking. In an instant, it dismantles his pretense of journalistic objectivity and reliability, and makes everything he's told us, about himself and Remem, suspect. His conversation with Nicole, however, carries the trick too far. We're now expected to believe that our narrator has constructed, virtually from whole cloth, an entire alternate version of the last decade and a half of his life. That he failed to notice the years during which his daughter, who was still living under his roof, was angry and miserable—perhaps even suicidal—and instead convinced himself that he was making headway with her. This isn't impossible, of course. But to be believable in a work of fiction it requires much more careful character work, the construction of an obviously unreliable narrator and hints of what it is that he is refusing to see, than Chiang has done in this story. The uncomfortable balance in this segment of the story, between journalistic and personal accounts, leaves no room for such a complex character, and the narrator thus ends up seeming unbelievable rather than shocking.

"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" is trying to do something very typical of Chiang's fiction, using an imaginary technology to make us wonder about the building blocks of our consciousness, and the ways in which that consciousness has already been altered by technology. In the Tivland plot strand, with its meditations on the effect of writing on a society with an oral tradition, it is quite successful, but the near-future plot strand fails to find its balance. It overreaches in its attempt to shock us with unreliable memory, and thus draws attention to the problems with its semi-journalistic, semi-naturalistic narration. While Chiang's musings on the potential effects of a technology like Remem are intriguing—and, when he suggests a way that the technology could be used to repair the narrator's relationship with his daughter, evocative—the failings of the story in this plot strand mean that they never transcend beyond interesting SFnal ideas, and fail to achieve the standard that has set Chiang apart as a genre author.

Abigail Nussbaum (anusbaum@netvision.net.il) is the Strange Horizons reviews editor. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.



Abigail Nussbaum is a blogger and critic. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions and tweets as @NussbaumAbigail.
4 comments on “Short Fiction Snapshot #7: "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang”
LadiesAndGentlemen

I think these are all things that I thought about while reading Ted Chiang's story, but I wasn't able to parce them until reading this. Thanks!

The difference in quality between the two halves of the story is so great that I wondered if it was some sort of meta-commentary: the nameless narrator representing fact and Jijingi feeling and the overall story a verdict in favour of feeling. But then I thought the near-future half just wasn't very good.

Kit

It really was unusually clunky for a Ted Chiang story, wasn't it? Just... heavy-handed and missing his usual cleverness.
What makes the whole thing worse is that Charlie Brooker did a much better treatment of the Remem concept in the third episode of Black Mirror back in 2011. And while Black Mirror is a perfectly adequate science fiction show, it's certainly not something that should be more sophisticated than a Ted Chiang story. The first episode was about the Prime Minister screwing a pig, for God's sake.
But Brooker realized something which Chiang seems to have missed: most of the narrative in our memories comes not from the bare facts, but our interpretation of them. Being able to keep records of your past narratives does mark a huge transition from an oral tradition in which the past is always mutable, but they're still narratives, not a cold, dispassionate recounting of reality. Even with perfect digital recall, the details we pick out will be the ones that support our side of an argument or our ideas of ourselves.

Mister Bigglesworth

Without trying to get too cute, I feel like I read a completely different story from the same words. 🙂 Also, in true oral-history fashion, I'm going to try to explain my divergent interpretation without going back and obsessively reading the story over again to confirm details.
The best wrong-footing is definitely the moment the narrator realizes he's completely rewritten his memory of a pivotal incident in his daughter's life. In a few seconds our entire trust in his narration is pretty much gone. This is where, in his personal timeline, the article he is writing goes from dispassionate, journalistic NYTimes-style trend piece to a much more personal story that might be more appropriate for the new generation of internet journalism venues - Slate, maybe. These younger places, to generalize hugely, take a more lax view of mixing the subject with the narrator, and so it isn't so odd that the narrator might write a still-publishable article in this voice, explaining how he tried to maintain traditional objective distance and failed.
But I think my favorite, more subtle twisty bit is at the end, when we learn that the Jijingi parts of the story are ALSO ostensibly written by the narrator to help illustrate his struggles. The Jijingi story is more simplistic, setting up a conflict of interests and letting the character make a moralistic choice at the end that reeks of every subtly anti-newfangled-technology story ever. The narrator hastens to add that he is not against progress. I see this hamhanded treatment as a clue that the narrator is not as good a writer as Chiang himself.
The narrator as I came to understand him is very subtle and well-described. At his simplest he can be understood as a writer cranking out a confessional/trend piece for the internet age. But the little personal details he adds paint a picture (without the narrator's intention) of a man who was deeply unprepared for single parenthood, a guy with some kind of borderline personality disorder who is prone to inappropriate emotional outbursts at his own daughter, a tendency to blame others for his own faults and indiscretions -- hence the recasting of his memory of the fight -- and a weakness for grand gestures.
When the narrator realizes how badly he's fucked up he essentially throws himself at his daughter's feet to ostentatiously beg for her forgiveness, as if a word from her now will somehow erase his years of emotional abuse. She is as unable to work with this grandiose self-flagellation as with his previous unselfconscious viciousness. He is still being a shitty parent even as he writes that his eyes have been opened and everything is going to be better now. He's still an idiot who only sees how any situation might affect himself, completely unable to empathize with or understand his own child.
His final grandiose gesture is to throw open his own lifelog so the "readers" can analyze his life, barely pausing to ask his daughter's permission. How the idea that thousands of strangers witnessing her miserable childhood might affect her, might reopen wounds she is still struggling to heal, never seems to cross his mind. Look at me, look at me. This is still all about him.
The Chiang-ian theme of the imaginary technology which makes us pick apart our own consciousness is strong, here, but I would argue that Chiang was reaching for something beyond just that. It's almost a pastiche of his earlier work. The narrator, a journalist who does not habitually dabble in fiction, is writing his own inferior version of a Chiang story, which only serves to point a big blinking neon arrow at the narrator himself, at how deeply fallible he is, at how perfect recall does NOT particularly change who he is. The narrator wonders at how Remem will affect that nebulous quality of "humanity" even as he unconsciously demonstrates that, humans being human, things are probably going to stay pretty much the same.
IN CONCLUSION AND ALSO MY HUMBLE OPINION: This isn't a basic exploration of increasing levels of perfect recall, it's a story about the stories we tell ourselves, the convoluted logic we use to justify and edit the facts to fit our own interpretations. The narrator, like Jijingi, practices a skill -- in Jijingi's case, basic writing, and in the narrator's case, journalistic writing -- which in the end he sets aside as useful but imperfect for the task at hand.
Kit's comment above has said it already -- writing anything down is a narrative. Remem is its own narrative. The story surrounding the story is Chiang's fascinating portrait of someone whose natural self-centeredness makes all questions of objective truth moot. I think this is a new and interesting direction for this writer to take, a criticism and response to his own previous work; and whether or not you believe he achieved his goal, I'm glad it didn't go into a trunk, and interested in seeing where he goes next.

 

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