In the future, people will have access to quantum computing powers and be able to consult the quantum versions of themselves—a paraself, if you will—through these computers. Or so Ted Chiang imagines in the final story in Exhalation, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.”
What is the quantum version of yourself? It’s called a “paraself,” a version of you that has decided, at a crucial point, to either choose similarly or choose differently from yourself. The paraself has branched off, and so—among other things—presents the opportunity to consult oneself about the momentous decisions with which fate had met you.
The two central characters both are haunted by decisions from the past. The first, Nat, is a recovered/-ing drug addict, although she feels on a precipice. She works at a company called SelfTalk that buys and sells “prisms,” which is the name for the computer enabling people to converse with their paraself/-ves. The other, Dana, is a counselor among whose specialties is working with those who seem to be pathologically obsessed with their paraself/-ves. The story mainly focuses on Nat, but Dana plays a key role.
They meet not because Dana runs a frequent NA meeting, but because Nat has been joining one of Dana’s meeting with the paraself-addicted. Nat is there to find a person who can sell her a special prism—one that involves a timeline in which a famous person’s partner survives an accident in which they were involved. In Nat’s timeline, it was the famous person who survived. Nat’s boss sees the opportunity to sell this prism to the famous person and make a considerable profit.
In other words, Nat and her boss are not involved in the most ethical of dealings. Nat is not telling the person owning this prism about the possibility of the sale. Instead, she’s doing what’s in her power to convince him to sell his prism. Similarly, her boss has convinced an elderly woman to send her inheritance on to her paraself, a transaction which is not possible. Instead, the boss collects these funds.
But Nat has some conscience, as well as an eye for opportunity. She recognizes, for example, that Dana has a skeleton in her closet, while observing her reaction to a person’s tale of the betrayal of a close friend.
One of the central questions the characters ask is if the success or failure of a paraself to replicate a decision reflects on the meaning of that decision. One of Dana’s patients has, following a testy exchange with a superior he dislikes, slashed the latter’s tires. He is not happy that he’s done this. He’s embarassed and will not even tell his wife.
He wants to ask his paraself if he’d made the same decision. For this person, if the paraself has done the same action, it reflects the action being somewhat reasonable. But it also indicates a meaning attached to his character. If the paraself also slashed the tires, the man is someone who will act rashly in the face of emotional frustration. If the paraself has not, then it confirms the man’s own sense of shame, in part, as well as also indicating that he not the type of person that would normally do such a thing.
Eventually Dana gets him to see that regardless of the paraself’s answer, the man will still need to take responsibility for the action. He slashed those tires. If the paraself turns out to not have made the decision, then minute, indiscernible conditions could have had a hand in this action. His responsibility is thereby diminished because this was not a free act.
The references to character above are not accidental (ha!), but expressions of the inscription of virtue ethics into narrative. When people act out of character, their actions are free insofar as they emerge from a background of consistent actions. Those actions have shaped their character such that they are the kind of people who do those things.
So what insight does the paraself have into the self?