Review of The Best of Subterranean by William Schafer
The Best of Subterranean
by William Schafer
I actually read this back when Subterranean Press first published it online. I almost didn’t re-read it when I found it in the Hugo Voters Packet … but then I decided that I wanted to write a review of it, and I wanted to refresh my memory. I’m glad I did this, because “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is even better than I remember. (I am aware of the irony of this statement given the story’s subject matter.)
The subjectivity of human memory is a subject open to endless interesting speculation. It drives one of my favourite devices, the unreliable narrator, and it informs the motives and choices of every person, real or fictional. We all edit our memories, recollect experiences imperfectly, hide inconvient truths or simply blur and half-forget past events. Ted Chiang points out in this novelette that writing has altered the way in which we remember. It is writing, he argues, that was our first step towards being “cognitive cyborgs” rather than any of the lifelogging, search-driven tools that are just beginning to creep onto the public stage today.
As a reader and a writer, I’ve long found the development of writing a fascinating subject for study. Our brains are naturally wired for language, yet we must learn to read and write. What is it like not to be literate? I can’t read non-Latin alphabets; I can’t even read most non-English languages in the Latin alphabet—yet, as a result of my literacy in English, I understand the concept of reading for information and pleasure. Through the character of Jijingi, Chiang allows the literate individual a glimpse at a grown person’s journey from illiteracy literacy. The revelation of what words are, and of how writing allows one to compose and order one’s thoughts in a predetermined manner, is fascinating, and it’s not something that those of us who are literate from an early age often consider. We take our literacy and the mindset that comes with it for granted.
But what Chiang also explores is the idea, perhaps unsettling, that literacy is a form of colonization. We colonize our past with it, appropriating it and fixing it. In pre-literate societies like the Tiv, history is oral. It requires better memory—something true of most societies prior to the onset of easy access to books—but even the best memories are fallible, as Chiang demonstrates with the squabble over the Shangev’s ancestors. The Tiv view writing as a European idea and therefore view it with suspicion. They do not think it can replicate the “truth of feeling”, mimi, that they use to speak of what is right. And maybe, to some extent, they are correct.
Chiang juxtaposes this ambivalence towards literacy with a narrator’s review of Remem, software that contextually searches one’s lifelog. In this way he comments concurrently on many popular trends today in society as well as in science fiction. We live in a surveillance state; the only question is the degree to which we are surveilled. Much of that surveillance is done by the government or its proxies, but almost as much happens on behalf of the individual. We record and photograph and otherwise document and tag our lives—hence lifelogging. We’re just now beginning to understand how this will affect us down the road, when Google produces that embarrassing photo you wish you had never shared. Remem is Google on speed and with impeccable timing, and as Chiang’s narrator explains, it is a tool with great advantages and great disadvantages.
Now, Chiang could have written about either of these tools—writing or Remem—in isolation and produced a good story. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” excels, however, precisely because of this skilful juxtaposition. Interspersing the narrator’s Remem tale with Jijingi’s tale is very effective. It allows Chiang to make points about both technologies, and as a result, the story isn’t just about our relationship with writing or our relationship with remembering—it’s a combination of both, greater than the sum of its parts.
Short stories and novelettes seldom make their mark through their characters or even, often, their events. They are too short to build towards massive climaxes. Their significance lies in the ability of the writer to capture a single Big Idea and whittle it down into a memorable Notion. Chiang showcases that ability here. This story is entertaining and moving, because it has the human elements: Jijingi’s tragic relationship with his own writing; the narrator’s fragile relationship with his daughter. But it also makes the reader think, hopefully in new and interesting ways.
This is probably my favourite nominee for Hugo novelette this year, because it comes close to a perfect short-form work of science fiction. So, take that with the grain of salt that you will.