Exhalation [Review]


by Ted Chiang
Alfred A. Knopf, 2019


Ted Chiang is a SFF writer who’s been around for a while but has yet to produce a novel. This collection came out in the early days of 2020 and features his work up to 2019. I checked it out of the Seattle Public Library a year ago as I haven’t read a lot of recent SF work. This was before COVID hit, before I became too scatterbrained to read and went back to Narnia for solace.

There are some wonderful short stories in here. Chiang is one of those old fashioned SFF writers, where execution carries the story through. He’s not a wonderful prose stylist; his style is invisible for the most part, which, for certain kinds of stories, it should be. He’s a technical writer by trade, and there’s no room for individual style in that, only clarity of communication. This is something he does very well. I enjoyed all of the stories in this collection, some more than others, and all made an impression on me. I admire his ability to take any conceit, any subject, and really work it and not shy off from its more difficult aspects.

The title story “Exhalation” is the highlight. A race of unnamed, robotlike beings seeks, in a limited world, why their mental and physical processes are running down. A maverick scientist among them does so by disconnecting all the high-pressure lines (for these creatures run on some kind of compressed gas) instead his own skull to investigate by using a system of microscopes and mirrors for disassembly. It’s investigational, creepy, hopeful, and human, all at once. It well deserved its accolades.

The other major story, almost a novelette, is “The Life Cycle of Software Objects” which satirizes, in a loving way, the online gaming industry and its many frustrating, mandated upgrades. Randomly generated AI creatures are adopted by humans and achieve sentience of a sort (the story doesn’t go into if this sentience is “real” or not, that is, actual consciousness) but to develop further from their randomized AI actions, they need nurturing from their human adopters. Tragedy looms when their platform is no longer viable and they must be transferred to another, and the crowdsourcing isn’t there, but all is righted in the end. The story is all the more affecting for the deadpan technical tone of it. At the time I read it, it wasn’t my favorite, but now months later I think of it a lot, and fondly.

Other stories highlight the ways exotic technology can be used to heal humans’ psyches, even if that is not its intended use. In the Arabian Nights pastiche “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” a “slow time machine” allows users to travel to the past, finding that it accommodates the present and offers comfort through “The Will of Allah.”

Another favorite of mine, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is about how an amazing piece of technology known colloquially as a “prism” has affected human society in the small scale. A prism is a laptop-like device that opens a portal through to an alternate universe where face-to-face communication is possible. Operating through the magic of quantum physics, it has a limited number of charges. The act of its first use creates a twin universe from that point in time forward which gradually diverges from the main one, simply through random actions of one thing on another. (Of course, the users in the alternate universe think they are the original universe.) The prisms have become consumer goods the same way cell phones have. Some buyers communicate with their alternate selves to figure out personal problems, even becoming envious of their alternate selves. There’s even a black-market trade in prisms that have especially novel futures. All this way written not to showcase and grandstand the technology, as a flashier writer might do, but to gradually reveal the human, healing side.

All in all, this collection is very recommended by me.

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