A worthy successor to Chiang’s previous work, showing a mind wrestling with Big Ideas – only sometimes to the detriment of Good Fiction.
Ted Chiang’s stories straddle the border between hard science fiction and philosophical thought experiment. Exhalation, his most recent collection, continues in this vein. Known for publishing only scarcely – this collection is only Chiang’s second in nearly 30 years of writing – the intricate construction of his stories are a testament to the time he takes to compose them. While occasionally falling prey to the hackneyed fake-deep premises of something like a Black Mirror episode, the stories collected in Exhalation are often interesting and a few, even, masterful.
The first story in Exhalation, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” is written in a gothic register, with nested narratives. Riffing on the thousand and one nights, the story centers around a rigid form of time-travel – the titular gate – in which one can either go 20 years into the past or 20 years into the future. Importantly, however, events cannot be changed. Time, in this world, is a fixed story. Some readers might blanch at this seeming theft of free will, but far from causing them to despair, the characters in the story come to realize that their understanding of the events in their own lives can be deepened by this traveling.
Other stories in the collection play with the idea of free will, as well. “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” posits a world where a device has been invented that allows the user to communicate with their “paraself” in an alternate dimension created by the workings of the communication device itself. Characters become addicted to the devices and come to question whether their choices matter in a universe where, theoretically at least, they have made all the possible choices available to them. The story is hampered by its near-novella length and thin characterization, however. Far more effective at exploring the theme of free will is the shortest story in the collection: “What’s Expected of Us.” In this story, a simple, toy-like device proves once and for all that the future is pre-written, leading to an outbreak of madness and despair. It is a short and thrilling story, and perhaps the most effective horror story Chiang has ever written.
In general, the best stories in Exhalation tend to run shorter. “The Great Silence” is a wrenching elegy to the “alien” life (i.e. non-human species) quickly disappearing from earth. “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” takes the form of an exhibition catalogue for the imaginary object in the title. “Omphalos” imagines a world in which scientific inquiry proves young earth creationism to be true and the church and the scientific community work hand in hand to draw a complete picture of the earth’s natural history. This world is destabilized by a discovery made by astronomers that another planet, similar to this “earth,” is, in fact, at the center of the universe. Making the world of the story undergo a crisis of faith. Taking the form of the protagonist’s prayers, the story, as it grows longer, strains to sustain the theological and scientific ideas at play. Instead of exploring why the assumed centrality of human life on earth is such a simplistic and misguided piece of theology, the story settles for the safe and clichéd notion that life and its meaning or non-meaning is simply what we make of it.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a long story that suffer from stretching an interesting idea too thin, as well. It is really less of a story than a novella chronicling the 20-year relationship of a few humans and their life-like AIs. While the story probes at the usual moral problems associated with the technology, the characters it focuses on hardly warrant the 100+ pages the reader spends with them. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is half the length of the former story, and far more successful. It follows a man writing about the ubiquity of a widely-adopted technology that allows people to not only record every moment of their life, but instantly search the recordings. Predictably, the leads to petty arguments. More troublingly, it leads the narrator to question the narrative he has constructed about his own life. In one of the more interesting resolutions in the book, Chiang ends the story not on an apocalyptic note, but a hopeful one.
Chiang’s prose is not particularly interesting from a stylistic standpoint. It is best applied to taking up the challenge of explaining detailed, speculative scientific or theoretical concepts in his stories. “Exhalation” is maybe the best example of this. The titular story details a world in which life depends entirely on air pressure. In a memorable scene, the narrator conducts an auto-dissection on his own mechanical brain, describing the workings therein and coming to a startling conclusion about the world he inhabits.
While Exhalation, as a whole, is a bit uneven, it is a worthy successor to Chiang’s previous work, showing a mind wrestling with Big Ideas – only sometimes to the detriment of Good Fiction. One wishes Chiang’s subject matter would push his prose further afield of the literary realist mode, but nevertheless, these stories are worth the reader’s time and consideration.