Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Publication date: 11 July 2019
Genre: Science fiction
Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review.
I’ve been wanting to read Ted Chiang’s short science fiction works ever since his much acclaimed Stories of Your Life and Others. His work gets loads of praise from literary types who don’t usually look twice at genre fiction, so I was definitely curious and picked up a copy. When two of the works in the book were nominated for Hugo awards, I finally picked up Exhalation and read it. I was absolutely blown away by his incredible writing and thought-provoking plots.
From an award-winning science fiction writer (whose short story “The Story of Your Life” was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated movie Arrival), the long-awaited new collection of stunningly original, humane, and already celebrated short stories
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.
This will be a fairly short review, as I don’t want to dive into each individual work. I was very surprised by how much I absolutely loved this collection for a few reasons:
- I don’t typically like short fiction or collections very often, however this is one of the few times I’ve read a collection from a single author rather than an anthology of various authors.
- I’m always a little suspicious when literary fiction types praise genre fiction writing. I know it’s a little silly, but I often feel like that praise comes from people who know nothing (or almost nothing) about the genre they’re discussing.
With nine stories of varying lengths, Exhalation contains a variety of stories, varying from the fantastical to the realistic, that will capture any speculative fiction lover’s imagination. Although I had favourites, there wasn’t a single work that I didn’t like in the book — something that really took me by surprise. Favourites of mine include:
- Omphalos: a story about a scientist in an alternate world in which the existence of God is not only widely accepted as fact, it is provable by science. However, she makes a discover that could change her world forever.
- The Lifecycle of Software Objects: the longest story in the book, which watches a software invention from initiation, through the fad-like popularity, and into obsoletion. That software happens to be an artificial intelligence that can learn and grow in the form of adorable digital pets.
- Exhalation: a scientist from an robotic alien species dissects his own brain in an attempt to discover how memory is stored. In the process, he makes a startling discover about the universe.
Chiang’s stories are wonderful and thought-provoking, perfect for any lover of science or literary fiction. He went from essentially an unknown author to me, to a new favourite. I absolutely cannot wait to read more from him and eagerly await a new collection of stories.
Want to pick up a copy of Exhalation for yourself? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):