Ted Chiang’s Exhalation could possibly be the best collection you read this year

Gautham Shenoy June 15, 2019

Over the course of almost 30 years of his writing career, Ted Chiang has come to be acknowledged as a contemporary great of science fiction, not just by readers but by fellow SF writers, and critics as well. He’s been described as a science fiction genius, a superstar and the best science fiction writer of his generation, but there’s one word no one would use when speaking about him: Prolific*. Because he has – since 1990 – published just 17 pieces of short fiction only, and nine of these find a place in his second collection, Exhalation, which includes two short stories never published before.

As with his first collection, Stories of Your Life And Others – from which Story of Your Life was the basis for the film Arrival – this latest collection, Exhalation is proof that not all mind expanding substances are illegal. And with this collection too, Ted Chiang continues to explore the themes that he has come to be known for, in a way only he can – tackling big questions (by way of first premises) about free will & the immutability of fate, implications of technology on our lives, and how people see themselves in a new light and grapple with themselves when their most cherished, fundamental beliefs and truths are challenged. The settings are as varied as medieval Baghdad and the near-future to a universe made of metal, and within the pages of this collection, you will find time travel, artificial intelligence, religion, androids and automatons, alternate dimensions, parallel universes, and Peurto Rican parrots, but ultimately each story is an introspective look at humanity, with the shortest story being under four pages and the longest clocking in at just over a 100 pages.

Kicking off the collection is the story that won the Seiun, Hugo and Nebula Awards, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Inspired by the work of physicist and Nobel laureate Kip Thorne on time dilation, told in the recursive nature of the Arabian Nights tradition, and in which a time machine that obeys Einstein’s Theory of Relativity teaches a fabric merchant that the past cannot be erased or undone, but where – unlike many time-travel stories – the inability to do so isn’t necessarily a cause for sadness, as Ted Chiang comments in the Story Notes. (Sidenote: Readers of Exhalation would be well-advised to look for a specific tale’s story notes at the end of the book just before or immediately after reading said tale; for in these Ted Chiang writes about the background, inspirations and questions that led him to craft that particular story).

A contemporary great: Science fiction author Ted Chiang (photo credit: Alan Berner)
A contemporary great: Science fiction author Ted Chiang (photo credit: Alan Berner)

Inspired by both, a short story by SF legend Philip K. Dick and Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, the short story that follows next, the titular Hugo-winning Exhalation, is a highly original take on entropy and equilibrium (read: the second law of thermodynamics), and is set in a world populated by air-driven androids. What would you do if you knew for sure that free will does not exist? Not through an airtight logical argument, but with a physical device that demonstrates that all your decisions – and ultimately life – are pointless? This forms the basis of What’s Expected of Us, in which a device that flashes exactly one second before you press its button forms the centrepiece of a very thought-provoking story that is just about four pages long.

It could be said that this collection is all about Consequences, be it of the choices we make and the decisions we take; or the result of emergent technology on people, relationships, the meaning we attach to them thereof, and the way they can change us as much as we can shape the products of said technology.

These themes come to the fore in ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ in which children are raised by robotic nannies, ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ which deals with assistive-memory technologies that record every moment of one’s existence and make a person’s entire life searchable through Lifelogs, making you wonder about the nature of memories and their role on shaping our self-image and our interpersonal relationships.  Most of all this theme of human-ness in the context of technology (and vice versa) comes to the fore in the acclaimed novella, ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’, in which a zookeeper must come to terms with herself and her emotions regarding the lifecycle of sentient software – originally intended as virtual pets, now marked for deletion – that she has built a relationship over years with. At the core of this brilliant novella is the emotional relationships between humans and AI, and the question of treating conscious machines with respect (irrespective of whether AI deserve legal rights). As Ted Chiang writes in the story notes for ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’, “Sex isn’t what makes a relationship real; the willingness to expend effort maintaining it is. Some lovers break up with each other the first time they have a big argument; some parents do as little for their children as they can get away with; some pet owners ignore their pets whenever they become inconvenient…Having a relationship, whether with a lover or a child or a pet, requires that you balance the other party’s wants and needs with your own”.

Cover of Ted Chain’s second collection, Exhalation (Picador; 2019)
Cover of Ted Chain’s second collection, Exhalation (Picador; 2019)

‘According to Hindu mythology, the universe was created with a sound: “Om.” It’s a syllable that contains within it everything that ever was and everything that will be. When the Arecibo telescope is pointed at the space between stars, it hears a faint hum.

Astronomers call that the “cosmic microwave background.” It’s the residual radiation of the Big Bang, the explosion that created the universe fourteen billion years ago. But you can also think of it as a barely audible reverberation of that original “Om.” That syllable was so resonant that the night sky will keep vibrating for as long as the universe exists.’

The above is an extract from the second-to-last story in the collection, The Great Silence – also a term the Fermi Paradox is known by – and has for its protagonist a parrot in the vicinity of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and asks the poignant question of why we humans are so interested in listening for signs of intelligence among the stars while being deaf to all the many creatures that exhibit it here, amongst us, on Earth.

Rounding off the anthology are two new Ted Chiang stories never published before. Omphalos which deals with young-Earth creationism, set in a world where there is tangible proof of (the Christian) God’s creation and in which Science – rather than disproving the existence of an omnipotent creator – provides proof and hard evidence of, and strengthens peoples belief in, creationism. Told in the form of prayers by the protagonist, a scientist, who over the course of the story is confronted with evidence that shakes her faith in God’s plan for humanity, Omphalos is an exploration of the pain and doubt that comes from having your innermost and faithfully-held beliefs called into doubt. One of the standout stories – and that’s saying a lot when speaking of a Ted Chiang collection – is the last story, and the second of the stories original to ExhalationAnxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom which is based on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, returns to the theme of free will and introduces the reader to a world where parallel universes are accessible; in which a person with a ‘prism’ can communicate with his paraself across alternate dimensions.

There is nary a Ted Chiang story that disappoints or fails to get the reader thinking, and all of the stories in Exhalation are no exception; each one a masterpiece, impeccably crafted and told through uncomplicated prose as with all of his writing. A great showcase of science fiction at its very best, this second collection from a master of short fiction is a thoughtful, timely and thought-provoking book that is recommended for anyone who wishes to enjoy a good read, and chew on big ideas by way of bite-sized short stories.

*Ted Chiang is only un-prolific when it comes to writing stories. He is prolific though, when it comes to winning awards, having won more than most could even dream of winning, including multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards with such a (relatively) small body of work – all short fiction – over the course of 30 years.


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