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.


Atompunk: A retro-futuristic aesthetic centered around the technology of the 1950s extended into the 21st century and beyond. It often depicts “traditionally American” values such as the nuclear family and a suburban lifestyle; conversely, the totalitarian regimes of Communist Russia and its satellites with their emphasis on technological power. I define its heyday as the years between 1944, when the U.S. Manhattan Project began, and 1964, with the rise of The Beatles.

The antenna ruled in this age, indicating the power of radio and radio waves to connect the world (and also spew propaganda.)

A prime feature of Atompunk is a robust faith in the power of technology to create a better world even when that technology belonged to the enemy, as Sputnik did in the illustration above. Walt Disney leveraged American’s fascination with the early Space Age into fodder for his TV show Walt Disney’s Disneyland and, in 1957, the Tomorrowland section of his Disneyland theme park.

The park employed couples dressed in silver spacesuits and bubble helmets to pose for pictures with visitors. Here, though, they seem more interested in flirting with each other.

Monsanto’s plastic House of the Future was another original Tomorrowland feature. Everything in it and around it was made of, you guessed it, plastic. Big picture windows were covered with drapes that could be swept aside at the touch of a button to let in the California sun. Inside, all was neat, orderly, and sterile.

Not a hint of homey clutter here.

The interior is, perhaps, too late and sophisticated to be truly Atompunk. Note the Eero Saarinen chair, for example. The palette of Atompunk, I think, is more drab and neutral than depicted: black, white, beige, shades of gray, touches of rocketry red and yellow, and grayish blues. Technology, though full of promise, was serious business and there was no room for extraneous hues like the gold, turquoise, and red-orange seen here. The fussy dried flower arrangement, too, may be considered extraneous, though it certainly fit with Atompunk’s no-fuss ethos. Preserved plants need never be watered, after all. The oddity of their shapes adds a touch of the alien. 

The House of the Future lasted a mere ten years, 1957 to 1967, and the original version of Tomorrowland is long gone as well in favor of a more Steampunk, Jules Verne vibe. But in its heyday it was Atompunk at its finest.

Another Atompunk kitchen featured its trademark curving, swooping lines, odd angles, and silver chrome. The woman’s tight shirtwaist dress is not Atompunk, however. It’s the real world of painful support garments and starched-to-hell crispness intruding. Her smile, though, seems genuine and not forced like the piece of cheesecake below.

Is this an Atompunk girl? Maybe, but she’s late in the era with her girlish makeup and naturalistic pose.

These models aren’t Atompunk either. They’re too casual and colorful, without the restrained, womanly gravity of the era. Despite their childlike clothes, they look more than a little wan and jaded. They’re ready to spring off into some adventure, not futz around at home. I’d call them Jetpunk or Modpunk.

These robots, from the 1954 movie Gog, seemed plausible at the time the movie was released. But now they look overly clunky and clumsy. All it would is a couple of sharp tacks under their thin tire treads to stop them. (The movie itself, though, is a good example of the Atompunk palette I talked about above, perhaps because of the Eastmancolor process.)

Atompunk bathrooms need Atompunk tile. I hope this still exists somewhere.

A favorite feature of the time period was the free-standing spire, as exemplified by the Space Needle of the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, the GPO Tower of London, and the Toronto X. Here they’re depicted as a series of souvenier pens.

TV sets from the Atompunk age. These hadn’t evolved into the clumsy, wood-cabineted pieces of furniture they would in the late 1960s and 1970s, where they attempted to blend in with the real pieces of furniture. In Atompunk, they reveled in the display of a dazzling new technology.

Of course the U.S. military would be sending rockets into space at this point complete with its star logo.

See you next time. Bye!


Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/3/21: Fairy Tales III

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

This illustration by Arthur Rackham appeared on the cover of a book of Grimm’s fairy tales given to me by my parents. I forget the name of the story, but in it, the child hero, who is peeking out of the stove at the illustration’s approximate center, is hiding from the ogre. He has been hidden there by the ogre’s sympathetic mother, who is standing at the table waiting to cook dinner for her son.  Oddly, the ogre is giant-sized while the mother is a normal human. The live cows swinging from the ogre’s belt seem smaller than they should be, considering the mother’s size, while the frying pan seems larger. It’s a wonderful, evocative depiction — and that’s why I remember it, all these years later — but when you think about it, really confusing.

But that’s the nature of fairy tales. They don’t always make sense.

More untold fairy tales that could have been, but weren’t.


Unwritten Fairy Tales III

The Prince With Cat’s Ears

The Tale of the Devil’s She-Goats

The Immortal Heart of Klaus the Beggar

Puss in Mittens

The Girl Who Wanted To Dance in the Rain

The Greedy Wyvern


The Elm Tree That Was Envious of the Bridle

The Seven Lonely Sisters

The Fair Shepherdess

Princess Poetra

The Troll’s One-Eyed Uncle

The Salt Tower and the Sugar Tower

The Village Where No One Was Industrious

The Riddle of Walter the Miller

The Boat that Made Marvelous the Devil

The Mystery of the Emperor’s Napkin

The Girl Who Tried to Ride a Sparrow

The Garden Made of Glass

The Seven Laughing Princesses

The Goodwife Who Could Change Clay into Gold


The Clever Good Sense of the Alewife

Snow Gold

The Canary Who Poorly Judged a Fox

Locks of Copper, Feet of Dust

Spindaleena and the Glass Robe

The Hat Made of Gold

The Wolf Girl


Just Passing Through

Never mind me, just passing through.

Yellow Fairy Book

The first collections of fairy tales, like Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book above, were intended for offspring of wealthy consumers. The book itself is sturdily made and sumptuously illustrated with pen drawings in a flowing, Art Nouveau style. More decoration is seen on the spine and cover, which has embossing as well as a two-ink stamped illustration with the title and publisher ornamented in gold leaf. These books were designed to entertain several generations of children and still delight adults as well.


Blackfish City [Review]

Blackfish City

by Sam J. Miller
Ecco, 2018

Look at this cover. Isn’t this one of coolest book covers you’ve ever seen? The black background, the red, white, and blue neon tubes, the circular orca logo surmounted by an Inuit hunter, done in a style harkening to NW Coast Indian art… now this promises excitement!

Well, no.

The story sounded promising: a floating city in the North Sea, a woman that rides on a killer whale, a cast of characters who deal with the changes she brings. In execution, eehhhhh. As it turned out the city doesn’t have an Inuit culture at all, it’s more like Hong Kong on an oil rig. The “Blackfish” in the title was clearly stuck on there clearly to capitalize on the runaway success of the movie documentary of the same name, because  the orca rider, and orcas in general, do not play a big part in the plot. The main character was, in fact, a polar bear, with his paws enclosed in little cages to avoid clawing someone.

Now, how cool would such a city have been with an actual Inuit-based culture? But the author didn’t go there. Instead there’s the same old coffin hotels, messenger boy punks, brain implants that deliver email messages, yadda yadda yadda. It was more like this.

Much of the first half of the book was worldbuilding about the city along with some vague global history  that led to its founding, and the setup wasn’t too interesting, for me at least. Something about a AIDS-like disease that transmits the memories from infectee to infectee. No one in the city seems superconcerned about it. It was hard for me to care about it too, and hard to care about the four POV characters who have to deal with it.

There were a number of writing peeves in here I dislike, authorial tropes. There’s the zingy shocker and its stronger cousin, the last word zingy shocker. There’s wishy-washy ambiguity played out for suspense, and hipster cyberpunk window dressing, usually culturally appropriated. All the characters talk alike and are mouthpieces for the opinions of the author. One of which is LANDLORDS ARE BAD EVIL PEOPLE because they hold real estate empty and don’t let it out because of… reasons. Never mind that in such a future world surely corporations would hold such quantities of empty buildings, not flesh and blood people. And for a super-futuristic city there sure are a lot of reminders of the 2010s, like offices with desks, reception areas, and fancy decor. Already, in 2020, we’re moving away from that.

The four major characters mope through proceedings accomplishing nothing, and I suppose the author wants us to think of them as Beautiful Losers, but they’re really just jaded unpleasant to be around. They walk around in weary ennui, interacting every once in a while with a cheery street vendor or passerby (Authorial Trope #382 – the Glimpse of Sunlight) or display teeth-baring annoyance to a prissy co worker, but the end result is, they are all just spoiled brats.

Let me explain The Glimpse of Sunlight trope a little better.  In the midst of grim surroundings, the trope acts like a bit of sun coming out from between dark clouds, acting on the reader to let them know there is something good in this world or with these characters, something to make their struggles worthwhile, something worth fighting for. But if done poorly, it has the opposite effect: it shows the reader how contrived everything really is. It’s a glimpse behind the curtain at the author’s machinations.

I made it halfway through and couldn’t finish.

Kriss: The Gift of Wrath [Review]

Kriss: The Gift of Wrath

 by Ted Naifeh
Art by Warren Wucinich
Oni Press, 2019

This graphic novel is the perfect gift for a middle school child of 11 – 12 who is getting into experiencing  adolescent angst, heavy metal, Goth culture, and fantasy fiction. The story is a time-worn one: a young orphan and outsider, Kriss, the son of a vanished king, is raised among incurious  Medieval village folk and must come into his own. Black haired, pale, and running around in torn black clothing, he discovers the power of three supernatural beings — Borgir the Blood Drinker, Erikk the Dark King, and Tove the Mistress of Sabrecats, and suspects Erikk is his father.

My inner 11-year-old enjoyed this a lot, but even she became tired of the three-times-you’re-out trope: Kriss is betrayed not once, but twice, by the villagers and/or the local Duke, and against all common sense, sets himself up for a third betrayal, after he is strung up and whipped. Like the Incredible Hulk, he explodes in white-hot rage, takes revenge, and goes into exile in search of his heritage. He leaves his childhood sweetie behind, who is now pregnant with the odious Duke’s child, another betrayal.

It sounds like every anime ever created, but there’s a reason for that — it’s readable, even if I wasn’t too happy with the yearning naivete of the hero and the obvious hostility of the villagers.

I thought the illustrations were perhaps stronger than the story. They were the sort of thing that would  appeal to a middle schooler, and also the sort of thing they might doodle themselves —  but imbued with an adult’s sophistication, no small feat on the part of artist Warren Wucinich. I had lots of fun drawing analogies from it to the 1970s costuming of the rock group KISS, to Gwar, to Northwest Coast Indian art.

Unfortunately Kriss, though intended to be a series, seems to be a one-off at this point, so it’s anyone’s guess where the story will go.


Worldbuilding Wednesday 2/17/21: Fairy Tales II

The plasticity of fairy tales is demonstrated by these illustrations of Beauty and the Beast from over the years. In the original fairy tale, the Beast is never explicitly described, so artists had to use their imaginations. From the top left, going clockwise, he’s a spotted hyena, a wolf-boar, a very weird walrus-mole hybrid, and a (rather appealing) brown bear who is kneeling to make his proposal.

The Disney version, which is perhaps the most famous (though not the most definitive) version, portrays the Beast as a composite creature with shaggy brown fur, buffalo ears and horns, a goat’s beard, and boar’s tusks. His posture is that of an animal standing on its hind legs. His profile, however, is human — he doesn’t have a snout.

The story itself — of a girl marrying an animal or supernatural being, and acting as the agent to restore his humanity — is an old one, told and retold in many cultures around the world. It showcases morality, the power of love, and good common sense. That the human partner is always female, and the monster one, male… well, I’m not going to go there, but it does imply something basic about human nature.

The Western version, the one we’re most familiar with, is one of those rare fairy tales that can be traced back to its author(s). It was published first in 1740 as “La Belle et la Bête” by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, then rewritten (plagiarised, really) in 1756 by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont for a collection of children’s stories. Andrew Lang re-wrote it yet again, in English, for his Blue Fairy Book published in 1889. Lang published 12 volumes of these stories, all named after colors, many of which I devoured as a child at a local library, and no doubt influenced me as a writer.

The genesis of the original French version of “La Belle et la Bête” may have influenced by the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, but also by real life. Petrus Gonsalvus was a 16th century Spanish man born in the Canary Islands who suffered from hypertrichosis — he grew hair all over his body, not just his scalp. Treated as a sideshow attraction, the King of France, Henry II, took pity on him and gave him an education, as well as court manners. Petrus later married the daughter of a royal servant and had seven children, four of which also suffered from hypertrichosis. The family was featured in many paintings over the years and was still in the news 200 years later. Jean Cocteau paid homage to it by designing the makeup of the Beast in his 1946 cinematic version of La Belle et la Bête to look like Petrus’ portrait, with the addition of catlike ears and fangs.

There were two Jeans in this movie… Jean Cocteau, the director, and Jean Marais, the actor, who played the Beast, and purportedly they were lovers.  As if things couldn’t get even more confusing about the tale.

Here’s a list of more names, any of which could inspire a story just as convoluted and fascinating.


Unwritten Fairy Tales II

Pigeons and Diamonds

The Marvelous Bell

The Orphan and the Frog

Faithful Beauty

The Tortoise Bride

How the Calf Became Silent

The Admirable Husband and the Greedy Wife

The Tale of Prince Roland and Princess Jenny

The Serf Who Became a Statue of Bronze

Little Black Boots

The Dutiful Drummer

The Hunchback and the Mouse

The Learned Beggar-Woman

The Ogress and the Cunning Bishop

Fingers of Stone

The Golden Mouse

The Heartless Heart

The Orphan and the Apple

The Bride Who Wouldn’t Smile for the King

The Serf Who Loved the Snow

Princess Tabitha and the Noisy Tower

The War of the Peacock and the Blackbird

The Thief Who Stole the Rain

Little Pomegranate Tips

Gold-mask and the Three Shy Bulls

Prince Guillaume and the Palace Of Gold

The Quest of Princess Merry-Lass

Empress of the Eagles

The Town Without Truth

The Pirate’s One-Legged Daughter


Reading Challenge 2021

“I particularly enjoyed the fable about the Leopard changing his spots.”


My Authors Water Cooler Reading Challenge selections for 2021. Out of a list of 50 categories, the participant chooses 12, the idea being you read one a month. I hope I do better at this year’s than last year’s. Last year, it seemed I just picked a lot of duds. Sorry any authors who were on that list! Or maybe I just was not in the mood to read much.

  1. Dearly Departed: A book by an author who died within the past four years.

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

  1. I spy: A book featuring spies or espionage.

Secret Agent: Britain’s Wartime Secret Service, David Stafford

  1. That old black magic: A paranormal novel.

Fledgling, Octavia Butler   OR
The Death of the Necromancer, Martha Wells

  1. East meets West: A book taking place in Asia.

Empress, Shan Sa

  1. Keep up with the Joneses: A book everyone else seems to have read but you have not.

Wicked, Gregory Maguire

  1. Tag team: A book by more than one author.

What a Character! 20th Century Advertising Icons, Warren Dotz, Jim Morton

  1. Matryoshka books: A book mentioned or discussed inside another book.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

  1. Bits and pieces: An anthology (poetry, short stories, whatever).

The Dragon Quintet, Marvin Kaye (ed.)

  1. Out of this world: A book taking place in space or on another planet.

Brightness Falls from the Air, Joan D. Vinge

  1. Freebies: A book you (legally) obtained without paying for.

You Look Like A Thing and I love You, Janelle Shae


Extra Credit:

  1. Read it again, Sam: Reread a book you have already read.

Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

  1. Out of the park on first at-bat: A debut.

The Ruin of Kings, Jenn Lyons

  1. Pixies and Dryads and Elves, oh my!: A high fantasy.
    Fire and Blood, George R.R. Martin


Questing Beast

Questing beast

The Questing Beast was a creature from Arthurian lore. It combined the features of a deer, snake, leopard, and dragon. Shy yet fierce, it was the quarry of King Pellinore, who spent his life searching for it. This Questing Beast was by artist Terri Whitlatch who specializes in speculative biology.