By: Ted Chiang

Published: 2019

Read: 2020


This collection of short stories is a highly satisfying blend of intelligent imagination, speculation and empathy. Most of the stories explore the social, every day implications of a variety of more or less speculative ideas and concepts (including time travel, the ethics of developing a complex mind, free will, the impact of oral and literate cultures on collective and individual memory, the importance of stories, and multiverses). Or, what will it be like to live in a world that veers off in different directions.  

I really enjoyed his previous collection, “Stories of Your Life and Others”, and I may have enjoyed reading this one even more.

Key Quotes

  • Complex minds can’t develop on their own.
    • Minds don’t grow the way weeds do, flourishing under indifferent attention.
    • For a mind to even approach its full potential, it needs cultivation by other minds.
  • Experience is (algorithmically) incompressible.
    • Experience isn’t merely the best teacher; it’s the only teacher.
    • If you want to create the common sense that comes from twenty years of being in the world, you need to devote twenty years to the task.
    • You can’t assemble an equivalent collection of heuristics in less time.
  • Loving someone means making sacrifices for them.
    • Having a real relationship, whether with a lover or a child or a pet, requires that you are willing to balance the other party’s wants and needs with your own.
  • A child’s emotional state is an example of a system in unstable equilibrium.
  • On writing.
    • Not just a way to record what someone said.
    • Writing can help you decide what you say before say it.
    • Words are not just the pieces of speaking, they are the pieces of thinking.
    • Writing lets you look at your thoughts in a way you can’t when you are just talking.
    • Writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated.
    • As we become fluent readers, we become cognitive cyborgs.
  • On oral cultures.
    • In oral cultures, history is easily revised as it is transmitted.
    • The past is adjusted to suit the needs of the present.
    • History doesn’t need to be accurate, it needs to validate the community’s understanding of itself.
    • Their histories are not unreliable, they do what they need to do.
    • Our private culture is oral: we rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves.
  • On literate cultures.
    • The idea that accounts of the past shouldn’t change is a product of literate cultures.
    • Literacy encourages a culture to place more value on documentation and less on subjective experience.
    • Still, written records are subject to error and interpretation is subject to change.
    • Our private culture (perhaps) is becoming more literate as well.
    • Benefit of a fixed record: not to prove you are right, but to admit when you are wrong.
    • When you acknowledge your fallibility, you may be less judgmental about the fallibility of others.
  • On stories.
    • People are made of stories.
    • Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments.
    • The criteria for selecting moments are different for each of us, reflecting our personalities.
    • As we remember what is important to us, the narratives we build in turn shape our personalities.
  • On responsibility, blame.
    • We like the idea that there’s always someone responsible for any given event, because that helps us make sense of the world.
    • Sometimes we blame ourselves, just so that there’s someone to blame.
  • We can all try to be better.
    • Each time you do something generous, you’re shaping yourself into someone who’s more likely to be generous next time.
  • On entropy.
    • We are consuming order and generating disorder.
    • We live by increasing the disorder of the universe.
    • It’s only because the universe started in a highly ordered state that we are able to exist at all.
    • [Minor quibble. We don’t only increase disorder. We also, locally, increase order and complexity.]

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