The title gives me an excuse to talk about the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Concept_of_Anxiety ) except I know very little about Søren Kierkegaard other than that he makes me nervous. Suffice to say if you entitle a story with a quote from Kierkegaard you are pointing to questions of what it means as a person to be. For the stories collated in Ted Chiang’s anthology Exhalation that was already clearly a theme. The pneumatic robot scientist dissecting his own brain to discover a terrible revelation about the certainty of entropy in the title story is a distinctly science fictional take on the them of existentialism. Likewise the introspective shift in Omphalos when the devout scientist protagonist comes to understand that (the very real and manifest) God’s centre of attention is not humanity brings us back to the question of what is it like to be. That two letter English irregular verb is the centre of metaphysics but the sense here is one of psychology.
Ultimately, in Omphalos the complex premise takes the central character down a path of acceptance that in many ways is unremarkable and the same can be said of the scientist in Exhalation. Taken together, the common idea could be stated that the core question doesn’t change with circumstance. Chiang utterly changes the universe in both examples and the clever, nimble minded protagonists find themselves contemplating the same issues as those same characters might if translated to our universe. The same spectrum of responses is open to them and both characters look for a way of maintaining a personal equilibrium in the face of a universe or a god that is perhaps indifferent to them.
“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” has a similar quality in that we meet people in a world in which there is a highly pertinent science-fiction conceit that impacts questions of personal choice and identity and what it is to be but which, in the end, does not fundamentally change how we or the characters engage with those questions. I think it does so more successfully than either Exhalation of Omphalos by centring ordinary people in a story where the technology informs the setting rather than providing a surprising revelation about the universe.
The conceit is very well done. In a world not unlike ours, there is a marvellous invention called a Prism. This is a machine that use quantum mechanics to provide a means of communicating across branching realities spawned by quantum bifurcations in line with the many worlds interpretation. The Prism machines have distinct limits, each one is tied to a specific quantum event that machine itself induces when first activated which provides access to an alternate reality only from that point forward. Also, while large amounts of information can be exchanged (including audio and video) the exchange of information is finite — you will eventually use it all up.
The nature of a Prism means that once you activate it, a parallel you has also activated the machine (or rather you split Schroedinger’s cat-style into two prism owning people) allowing communication with this version of you that up until that moment was exactly the same as you. At this point the value of the Prism practically (and monetarily) is very limited as this other person is basically you living in (almost) exactly the same world. Only over time do timelines diverge as random and/or chaotic events accumulate giving both of yourselves insights into how your lives might have gone.
The story follows two interrelated plots: firstly a psychologist who runs a support group for people who have become obsessed with the paths their alternate selves have taken and secondly a woman who works in a dodgy Prism shop who is running a scam that involves trying to con a member of said support group into selling their Prism. The con relies on the fact that the value of the information in an alternate universe may not lie with the specific alternate self but with other people in that universe. In the case of the Prism at the heart of the con, a celebrity couple who suffered a fatal car crash have a different survivor in each universe making the Prism potentially a means for the grieving survivor to speak with their dead soulmate (and vice-versa).
Meanwhile the psychologist is still dealing with her own issues around a choice made when she was a teenager — a choice that she feels set her best-friend off on a bad path. In a world were people can trace where alternate choices have led themselves, such questions have the potential of empirical exploration. However, as the people in the support group reveal this additional information often leads to deeper issues of people trying to second guess themselves or even issues of jealousy and envy of alternate more successful versions.
Ultimately the Prisms cannot answer how we should behave ethically but Chiang is also careful to avoid fatalism, predestination and chaotic indeterminism as views of the world. The Prisms do offer ways of doing controlled experiments to reveal true facts about the world or even personal choices but they simply cannot resolve a person’s individual dilemmas because one way or another a version of you will have to live with the choice that has been made.
Regret is the central emotion here rather than the anxiety of the title. The two key characters experience regret in different ways and come to terms with past choices in their own ways.