Ted Chiang is one of my all time favorite living writers of science fiction. He may even be my all time favorite short story writer. Ever since EXHALATION was released, I was chomping at the bit to read it, since while I could go elsewhere to read these stories, having a condensed book of just him, is so much more appealing, plus the two last stories in the collection were completely new. I do have his previous collection, but have yet to read it cover to cover after reading the utterly soul crushing title story, “Story of Your Life”.
EXHALATION is exactly what you expect from Chiang. If you have never read him before, then be prepared to have your perspective warped by huge mind-splitting perceptions. What I also loved about this collection is the “story notes” at the end, which goes story by story to explain where he received the idea for it and why he chose to execute it that way.
The collection begins with a strange time-travel tale set in the Middle east. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” plays with fate, and meta storytelling, all while executing a startling exploration of the human soul, as Chiang often does. It’s a fantastically beautiful story to begin a collection with and the experience of reading it, stayed with me throughout.
The title story, “Exhalation” looks at order & chaos and decides to mess with these universal principles through the lens of an alien. It is a meditative kind of story and one I will have to return to in order to think further through.
I recently read and reviewed “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” so I actually skipped over this story, considering I did not want to endure that kind of emotional pain twice in one year, but I can assure you that it is an excellent story. Please go read my review if you’re curious.
“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a subversive story that flirts with ideas that could be found on a Black Mirror episode, I believe it was actually explored, where lives could be recorded in their entirety by the individual. Chiang’s unflinching resolve to deal with what could be seen as a horrifying reality. The questions of history and memory are all put into question by this development.
Before I talk about my two absolute favorites of this collection, I need to mention the two that did not land with me all that well. “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” & “Omphalos.” The first story was originally included in an anthology about strange & weird objects, which help clarifies why the story was told in such a unique way. It just did not click with me.
“Omphalos” deals with how God’s presence is explicitly clear in the world, but after relics begin to be bought and sold, the narrator’s steadfast faith begins to falter. This story also did not land all that well with me, purely on the basis that the narrator’s voice seemed too stilted to be truly engaged with.
Now to talk about my favorite stories.
“The Great Silence” is a fantastic homage to the human race, if not framed in a tragic tone. Told by a parrot, it narrates humankind’s struggle to reach for other intelligent life. It muses on the ways that humans and parrots are similar and how their speech and ways of communicating mirror one another, yet humanity does not see parrots as worthy of understanding. It’s a short little story that will leave you slightly shell-shocked.
The final story, “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” has the best title in the whole collection, but also has the most humanity. Chiang’s strength as a writer has always rested on his plots and overall large scope ideas, but his characters at times seem as mere vehicles, ferrying his plot forward and enacting their fated roles.
In this story though, it seems that he fleshes out the main character, Nat, as she navigates the new world that follows after the creation of prisms. These devices open up connections or as long as their data caps allow, to parallel realities. People can meet and collaborate with their “para-selves” and this naturally leads to conflicts, strained emotions, and loss. This story, to me, comes the closest to recapturing the utter strange magic of “Story of Your Life.” The conflicted nature of Nat, along with her very flawed humanity was fantastic to follow.
In short, this is not a collection to miss, Ted Chiang is a sheer master of short form prose and there is no doubt in my mind that he will be forever placed alongside the other masters of science fiction.