Ted Chiang – Exhalation

I am so happy Ted Chiang is nominated for two Hugo Awards this year because that gave me the necessary push to finally read something by him. Instead of just reading the nominated novella and novelette, I decided to read the entire collection. And boy, am I happy about that decision. His first story collection Stories of Your Life and Others is already on my e-reader and I cannot wait to read that as well. There may be some gushing below.

EXHALATION: STORIES
by Ted Chiang

Published: Knopf, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Collection
My rating: 8,5/10

Opening line: O mighty Caliph and Commander of the Faithful, I am humbled to be in the splendor of your presence; a man can hope for no greater blessing as long as he lives.

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.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The opening story is one that, after two or three pages, made me ask myself why I have waited so long to read Ted Chiang!
A merchant in Baghdad visits an alchemist’s shop where he is shown two gates. One whose right side precedes the left by a few seconds – meaning if you stick your hand in, it won’t come out the other side. At least not immediately, but only a few seconds later. He is then shown a second gate with a time difference of 20 years – essentially, a time travel portal. The alchemist then precedes to tell our merchant several stories of people who have gone through this gate and what befell them. These read almost like fairy tales, with simple characters, but clever ones nonetheless.
I am a sucker for fairy tales, the rule of three, and all that stuff, so I gobbled this up with joy. But it’s not only a fairy tale with a science fictional twist, it’s also a story about whether the past can be changed and, if yes, whether it should.

Exhalation

The titular story of this collection was both intriguing, thought-provoking, and a little weird. We follow a scientist who is trying to figure out two things. One, how does a person’s memory work, and two, why do all the clocks seem to run fast? It becomes apparent very early that the protagonist and his people are not humans but some sort of robots or cyborgs? A science experiment then leads to big revelations about their world and ones that translate pretty well into our world as well. There may not be exact parallels but it definitely got me thinking about climate change, entropy, and the fate of our universe in general.
I liked the story but it wasn’t my favorite and maybe a little too weird to hit me emotionally.

What’s Expected of Us

A very short tale with a cool premise that fell mostly flat for me because I had actually seen a documentary once, dealing with this very topic. The question posed – or rather, answered – is that of free will. Do humans have it? And if you could prove we don’t, do any of our actions still have meaning?

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

I had heard about this novella before but, to my shame, never read it until now. This was truly something else. It’s about a start-up that creates digients, sort of virtual pets, but ones that can and have to be be taught to mature – like the ultimate Tamagotchi (I’m totally showing my age here). Ana is a young woman who trains and teaches these creatures and gets quite attached to them. We then follow Ana and Derek – who animated the animal’s faces – and the digients themselves throughout the next years and get to watch an astounding development.
It’s hard to put into words how this story made me feel, but it made me feel A LOT! As much as we are reminded that the geniets are software, I couldn’t help but join Ana, Derek, and their friends in truly caring about them and their future. It poses questions of what makes a person, whether love to a string of code can be real love, and about human (and AI) rights. The ending was a bit of a let down because compared to the pacing of the novella so far, it happened too abrupt and wasn’t as satisfying for me as I’d hoped. But this is still one of the best novellas I have ever read.

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

Now this was very much up my alley. Framed as the description of a museum piece, it tells the story of a man who was looking for a better nanny for his infant and promptly invented a mechanical one. I don’t want to spoil anything about where this goes but while most of it is rather predictable, it is so well written and so entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time that I really loved it.
It also always amazes me when one author can switch voices so effortlessly. Chiang wrote this piece in a completely different style from the other stories here and it works beautifully. It feels authentic and puts you in a different time period.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

Another well-known story that I’d heard of but never read before, this felt very much like a Black Mirror episode, except not quite as dark. In fact, it uses one of the same gimmicks – a device calle Remem that records everything a person sees, hears, or says. This device can be used to win arguments over who said what, settle issues at court, and much more. So learns a father when he rediscovers his own past not as he remembers it, but as it truly happened…
A parallel story told is that of a people without written culture. They keep their memories by oral tradition, simply telling the next generation what needs to be remembered. When missionaries introduce writing into this culture, however, young Jijingi sees how it may change things.
I loved the ideas presented in this story despite the fact that I had encountered the technological gimmick in pop culture before. But what Ted Chiang does differently from Black Mirror is showing not the big impact technology has an humanity as a whole, but rather looking at the little things. Small conflicts that only affect two or three people, not world-changing questions are at the center of this story. It also asks questions about the reliability of human memory and whether what’s true is also right.

The Great Silence

This story is merely a few pages long and I didn’t much care for it until the very end. Told from a parrot’s perspective (yes, a parrot), it draws a parallel between a message sent out into the universe in the hopes of finding alien life and the “alien” life that exists alongside us on Earth, namely the parrots of the Río Abajo Forest.
It is a nicely written story but one that I only sort of enoyed. Until the ending, that is. The very last line hit me right in the guts and even made me tear up a bit.
The origin of this story, explained in the Story Notes at the end of the collection, is also highly interesting.

Omphalos

Here we are, at the first Hugo finalist for 2020. This novelette has many things going for it, first and foremost the world that is somewhat like ours, but also decidedly not. It is told through a series of long prayers to the Lord, said by Dorothea Morrell, an archeologist, recounting her days. You see, on this alternate Earth, archeologists can trace back artifacts to the creation of Earth by God. There are trees with no growth rings, human bones without signs of having grown; they simply came into existence fully-grown, and so on.
The plot revolves around the theft (probably) of some such artifacts, dating back to the creation of Earth, and Dorothea wants to make things right, but discovers something much bigger in the process.
I really liked discovering the world building of this particular story but the plot and language just couldn’t reach me the way some of the other tales in this collection did. Had I read this on its own, I may have liked it more, but with this sort of competition, I wasn’t really in it.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

The other Hugo nominated tale, up for Best Novella, had a much deeper impact on me. Again, a technological gimmick is the source (or the catalyst) for diving into deep questions about what it means to be human, whether our choices and actions have any meaning, and whether technology helps or hurts humanity.
Prisms are computer-like divices that set off different branches of the universe. In universe A you may go grab a coffee before work, in universe B you go straight to work and consequently get run over by a car – that’s my very short, simplified description of it but of course, things are much more complicated. People like to see what their paraselves – them in different universes – are up to. While differences usually aren’t drastic, depending on how long ago a prism created another branch, your paraself may be quite different from yourself. You might hate your job and have messed up your relationship while your paraself is happily married and loves their job…
Ted Chiang uses this idea and spins a fantastic story about a handful of characters who are all impacted by prisms in one way or another. Dana is a psychologist whose clients’ problems often have to do with prisms, Nat works at a place that rents out prism time for people to chat with their paraselves, and Nat’s boss Morrow has a plan to make them both very, very rich.
There was so much to unpack in this novella, so many things to think about, to ponder over, to endlessly discuss with friends, preferably when slightly drunk and feeling inspired and philosophical. I adored it!

General thoughts

What a collection! Of course, I didn’t like all stories equally, but I couldn’t say that any one of them was bad or that I didn’t enjoy it. But even with stories of this high quality, some are bound to appeal more to any individual than others. As a fan of fairy tales, I loved the opening story, but others might prefer more contemporary settings, even though that story does involve a time machine.
But what really tells me that this is an excellent collection is that I can’t really choose a favorite. Each story does something different, is set in a different place at a different time and deals with completely different characers. Sure, they have certain themes in common – free will, the impact of technoligal advance, the meaning of freaking life! – but it doesn’t feel right comparing them with each other.
The only remotely negative things I can say about this is that I was disappointed in the rather abrupt ending of “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” and that “What’s Expecte of Us” didn’t work for me. But when I say this it’s not the same as when I said it about other collections. Because while one story may not have been my jam and another ended differently than I had expected, they were still fantastic science fiction stories that deserve a wide audience and all the awards.

As much as I want to dive straight into Ted Chiang’s first collection Stories of Your Life and Others, I think I’ll have to let this one sink for a while. There’s a lot to digest, an enormous amount of food for thought, and characters (not all of them human) that will stick in my mind for a while. If it hasn’t come across yet – I am deeply impressed and will henceforth call myself a Ted Chiang fan.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – So very excellent!

6 thoughts on “Ted Chiang – Exhalation

  1. gehmeyr says:

    Great review!
    I found this collection even better than his first one (wanna check out my review?)
    Funny thing is, having read both, I also have read every story published by Chiang, so far. That’s a first for me, I can’t say that of any of my other favorite authors – not Tolkien, Le Guin, Herbert, Ellison, or Robinson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dina says:

      Thank you!
      I just read your review of Stories of Your Life and I am super excited to pick up the collection. I mean “steampunk novella” and “retake of Flowers for Algernon”? Yes please, I wants the precious! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carl V. Anderson says:

    He certainly has a gift. I’ve read several of his stories over the years as they appeared in various magazines or anthologies or online and I am always impressed, even when, like you, I don’t particularly resonate with the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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