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Ted Chiang Part 4: The Problem of Free Will

April 25, 2021 at 8:00 pm EDT

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Étienne Fortier-Dubois leads a series of thematic discussions on the work of science fiction author Ted Chiang. In Part 4, we discuss free will — is it a thing? How would the world change if free will were proven to exist, or not?

Ted Chiang ranks among the best living authors of science fiction. Though he cannot be described as prolific — his entire published oeuvre since 1990 fits into just two books — he manages the rare feat of achieving consistent quality across his short stories. With his clear, lucid prose, Chiang plays with fascinating ideas in a fresh and often uplifting way.

In this ii Book Club series, we discuss most of Chiang’s stories over the course of several months. Each monthly Salon focuses on two to three stories, united by a common theme.

This fourth session will delve into the idea of free will. Are we the masters of our own choices? Is the universe deterministic? What happens if we make certain narrative assumptions about, for instance, time travel?

The first story, “What’s Expected of Us,” is a very short exploration of what would happen if humanity discovered that free will didn’t exist, through the means of a small gadget called a Predictor. Hint: it doesn’t go well.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is a time travel story set in the Islamic Golden Age. What if the device to travel through time wasn’t a machine or vehicle, but a gate that links to a specific temporal distance? In this novelette, several people travel through such a gate to discover that they can’t change the past.

In “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” Chiang imagines a new technology, called prisms, that allows limited communication between an infinity of parallel, divergent universes. This means that you can always compare your behavior with that of a parallel you, in an almost identical universe. Is it the same, or did parallel you act differently?

This book club is open to everyone, whether you’re interested in Ted Chiang’s work, tormented by the problem of free will, or simply fond of good science fiction stories.


Reading List:

All stories are included in the book Exhalation.

Optional reading: “Story of Your Life,” which we already discussed in the last Salon, but has relevant themes.


Time zones:

  • 5:00 pm San Francisco
  • 8:00 pm New York
  • (Monday) 12:00 pm Sydney


Cover image from the movie Lola rennt


April 25, 2021
8:00 pm EDT
Salon Category: