Collection: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

For a good long while, Ted Chiang has been considered one of speculative fiction’s best short fiction writers. On that score, I’m feeling late to the party, but I’ll definitely add my voice to the chorus after reading Exhalation (2019). Like Stories of Your Life and Others, this second collection is full of terrific high-concept thought experiments, but I liked it even better: it’s more accessible, more engrossing, and ultimately more satisfying.

In a collection where almost every story feels like an event, only “Dacey’s Automatic Patent Nanny” struck me as slight, but it’s still kind of a delight: an amusing curiosity about a Victorian Era robotic nanny that shows the author at his most playful. The rest of the contents are universally first-rate, not that I didn’t struggle at times. “Omphalos,” one of the collection’s originals, generates an elaborate alternate universe wherein science “confirms” the existence of God. But a scientist’s faith is tested when she investigates primordial relics, and new evidence comes to life. It’s a richly detailed examination of its premise with thought-provoking ideas, but I found it somewhat more difficult to penetrate than the volume’s other selections—though it rewards a thorough read.

Quibbles aside, the collection is exceptional. Leading off is “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a confident, fascinating time travel story-within-a-story about a Muslim trader relating a chronicle of his journeys through time—which remains immutable despite the protagonist’s actions. It’s an intricate puzzle-box of a story filled with elements I wasn’t certain I would enjoy…until I found myself totally swept away by them. The title story “Exhalation” follows, a rich, inventive piece of worldbuilding about a mechnical being’s painstaking self-dissection. This is one of those deviously clever stories that establishes a complex, idea-saturated landscape and then resolves its elements brilliantly into something quite heartfelt and magical in its final moments.

Sometimes, the core premise of a Chiang story boils down neatly into a fictional technological device that serves as a jumping-off point for speculative discussion. In “What’s Expected of Us,” the author posits the advent of a trendy, futuristic device called the Predictor which has profound ramifications for human understanding of free will. It’s a fiendishly clever short-short that packs a punch, with a killer final line. A similarly disruptive piece of consumer technology powers the impressive closing novella “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.” In this case, the device is the “prism,” which enables people to generate parallel universes and communicate with their alternate selves. This piece rigorously builds out and explores the “magic system” behind its core conceit, in intricate detail. But on a larger scale, it reflects on the ramifications of a world where people can literally peer down the roads not taken—and how witnessing the results of crucial decision points and divergences might influence personal growth and ethics. This is the collection’s other original piece, and it’s an absolute gem.

Perhaps the collection’s most peculiar story is “The Great Silence,” but it’s rather deligthful: an upbeat, thoughtful mosaic of ruminations—through the first-person narration of a parrot!—on communication, the Fermi Paradox, and humanity’s inward and outward scientific curiosity. This one is the accompanying text of a collaborative multimedia exhibit, but it works remarkably well as a standalone piece of unconventional SF.

I’ve saved my favorites for last. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a novella I reviewed a while back after its original book release, remains a favorite. It’s a beautiful, futuristic love story about the creation, marketing, and ultimate plight of the “digients,” sentient digital beings whose fates are dictated by the the fast pace of technology and the fickle interest of their consumer owners. The colorful speculative vision of VR environments and gaming worlds mixes with heartfelt character-building, to make for a memorable journey with a rather touching resolution. Finally, there’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” another substantial piece I found to be a fascinating reflection on memory, literacy, and transformative technology on the human experience. The futuristic premise this time is the ubiquity of “lifelogs,” which are about to be upgraded to the pointing of perfecting the human memory—with profoundly transformative consequences. That in itself would be rich turf for a lengthy SF story, but Chiang alternates and intertwines this tale with a parallel, historical story about the introduction of literacy to a remote African tribe in the 1940s, which has a similar world-shaking effect. Like many of the author’s strongest works, this one’s themes come into crystal-clear focus in the closing moments, but the entire journey is riveting. An exceptional science fiction collection.

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