Gosh, it feels kinda weird reviewing this as its own entity, but I’m still only partway through reading Exhalation, the collection it comes from, and won’t be able to finish the whole book for a while. Anxiety Is The Dizziness Of Freedom is the last story in the volume, after the also-Hugo-nominated Omphalos, with both tales providing quite different variations on the theme of alternate realities.
AitDoF follows Nat, a former addict trying to get her life back on track, and Dana, a counselor racked by feelings of guilt, as their paths intersect at a weekly meeting for prism users. Loosely speaking, a prism is a finite device that allows you to communicate with an alternate reality split off from this one — there’s a lot of quantum theorizing on how this technology works, and it makes for an interesting thought experiment, as explored in long interludes in the text. Anyway, Nat joins Dana’s group in order to run a scam dreamed up by the manager at the prism shop she works at, and finds herself in several morally questionable positions that Ted Chiang examines through the prism of, well, prisms.
On the one hand, I greatly enjoyed the tech and the people in this novella. On the other, I don’t have time for the wankery of paralysis based on how successful or otherwise your alternate reality selves are. That’s possibly a personal thing, as I was raised not to compare myself to other people but to do the right thing in the here and now. That said, I did like how the ending showed that no matter what you do, you can’t fix other people, as well as how it neatly avoided the trap of giving rich people things for free, a current societal practice that still rankles. Overall, I preferred this to Omphalos, and thought it on par with Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, If Fortunate, another nominee for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella, but I wasn’t blown away.