I wanted to commit to something more “bite-sized”, and decided to read a famed anthology. All in all, Exhalation had some interesting theories on the nature of the universe, although the novel may have been better written as a series of speculative essays rather than attempting to disguise them as fiction stories using flimsy characters and plot.
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Genres: Science Fiction, Short Stories
Barnes and Noble
This much-anticipated second collection of stories is signature Ted Chiang, full of revelatory ideas and deeply sympathetic characters. In “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and the temptation of second chances. In the epistolary “Exhalation,” an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications not just for his own people, but for all of reality. And in “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a woman cares for an artificial intelligence over twenty years, elevating a faddish digital pet into what might be a true living being. Also included are two brand-new stories: “Omphalos” and “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom.”
In this fantastical and elegant collection, Ted Chiang wrestles with the oldest questions on earth—What is the nature of the universe? What does it mean to be human?—and ones that no one else has even imagined. And, each in its own way, the stories prove that complex and thoughtful science fiction can rise to new heights of beauty, meaning, and compassion.
An exploration of technology reminiscent of Black Mirror. With each story is a completely new world, brought about by a series of “what ifs” proposed by Chiang and reimagined as the future of mankind. Chiang’s imagination runs wild with each story, dreaming up a magical gate that transports you through time as well as a world where humans have progressed to the point that they are now built by machinery and run by air. I was always left in awe of the innovation and creativity apparent in every dystopian story Chiang penned.
A plethora of innovative ideas but little else. My biggest gripe with Chiang’s writing was the lack of depth present in the characters and plot of most of his stories. He is entranced with world-building and places a lot of focus on describing the intricacies of the imaginative technologies or transformed world order he’s proposed – the nature of its conception, the science behind how it works, its limitations, etcetera. Oftentimes Chiang would pause the story altogether to go on a long exposition that felt abrupt and out of place in an effort to tell you more about the world he so lovingly created. His shorter, narrative pieces felt like excuses for a character to go on a monologue describing a lengthy thought experiment. Without interesting characters or plots to hold on to, these stories felt meaningless and empty.
Several standouts worth mentioning. I found that I generally appreciated Chiang’s longer novellas as opposed to his short ones. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a moving story of a woman who grows attached to an AI pet and her heartfelt efforts to ensure his survival in a rapidly evolving digital world. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” echoes the episode “Shut Up and Dance” from Black Mirror, and explores the impact of using a recording device to preserve all one’s memories on the relationship between a father and his daughter. “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” delves into the negative emotions of anger, jealousy, and sadness that could arise with the ability to observe other parallel timelines, and questions what looking at these timelines could reveal about one’s moral character. With these stories I got to know the characters and grow attached to them, and there was real character development stemming from their interaction with the novel technologies Chiang spins up in these stories. When Chiang focuses on the people in his stories and allows the technology to stay in the background, they become a lot more emotionally appealing and compelling to read.
If you’re a fan of science fiction and dystopia, Chiang delivers an plethora of stories that is sure to sate your appetite!