“The Axiom of Choice” is a story that I encountered recently which I think is just fantastic. Written by David Goldman, it originally appeared in the Winter 2011 edition of The New Haven Review, but I first encountered it as episode 211 of Podcastle, a fantasy podcast that I listen to on occasion.
To clarify, “The Axiom of Choice” is a somewhat confusing rule that comes from math which says (as I understand it) that we are allowed to choose from the choices in a given set of numbers while trying to figure something out (as opposed to not having the logical ability to make selections at all). I think it’s pretty straightforward to just make a selection, but I suppose math requires you to spell every little thing out in black and white.
The story itself is simple enough, it follows a musician over the course of his life as he makes certain decisions, such as going on this trip or not, or talking to that girl or not, and then deals with the consequences of those decisions. What makes this story unique is how it is framed. “Axiom of Choice” is written in second person voice and is written like one of those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels (if the whole “choice” metaphor is getting a bit thick, you’ve been paying attention), where you read a section, then are presented with a choice of actions, which call on you to turn to a specific page to follow through on that action, allowing you to have many different adventures in a book.
Since this is a short story, not a full “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, we do not have all the pages (and all the options) a full novel might afford. “Axiom of Choice” gives you a passage, closes that passage by saying “If you wish to do this, go to page 70. If you wish to do that, go to page 94” as if we actually had those pages (which we don’t, in this 28 page story), but then the story continues on with the passage the author selected to follow through with, leaving us to wonder where the other option might have taken us. So while the story masquerades as granting free will to the reader, we really have no say in what happens, except to choose between continuing to read or putting the book down(just like with most short stories). I kept reading because the story is very playful in how it examines choice and free will and very clever in how it uses the constraints of the medium (in this case, the limited pages and space allowed for a printed or read-aloud short story) to highlight the concepts being explored in the story itself.
Because of its cleverness in playing within the rules of a printed short story, exploration of philosophical questions about determination and destiny, and still telling an interesting story, I award “The Axiom of Choice” a gold star, and I highly recommend that you check it out. Print or podcast, the choice is yours.