Book Review – Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

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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.

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I’ve been trying to read through some of the novel and novella nominees for the Nebula awards this year, and that’s when this collection of stories came onto my radar. I was also quite disappointed in myself that I had never heard of such an accomplished Asian SFF author and immediately decided to read the whole collection, not just the nominated story because a few of the stories are also previously Hugo/Nebula winners. And wow was this a revelation. The stories here are written beautifully and they cover such a wide range of topics and I was also impressed by how scientific and technical the author could be in his writing while also raising some immensely philosophical questions which would make us think for a long while. And I was even more fascinated by the reasoning behind why the author chose to tell each story and what was his inspiration behind them. I’m totally gonna checkout his other works and I would recommend you do the same.

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The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

A very beautifully written philosophical tale about past and future, the importance of forgiveness, repentance and atonement and the joy in following God’s teachings. The story within a story within a story format was very intriguing, and while I was confused slightly sometimes, the stories were like parables with interesting lessons and I enjoyed them a lot.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5


Exhalation

This was very sciency and full of technical jargon, but the idea of an augmented human performing brain dissection on themselves to understand its working mechanism was fascinating to read about. There is a lot more going on here but ultimately, it’s about marveling at the life we have and the universe we live, gain knowledge and take joy in all our experiences without worrying about the end which is inevitable.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


What’s Expected Of Us

This was a fascinating tale about what would happen if humans realize there is no such thing as free will and everything is predetermined, and what kind of consequences can occur due to this shattering of the illusion. And even though I didn’t understand it completely, that last line was a master stroke.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.5


The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Firstly, this was too long compared to the usual lengths of short stories and I won’t deny that I got bored quite a bit. It raises a lot of philosophical and ethical questions about creating digital animals in the virtual world and then raising them almost like children, what types of expectations can we have from them, can we apply human growth and cognition standards to them, how much consent can they give, what’s the difference between an AI that develops through experience vs an AI that is developed algorithmically etc etc. These are all interesting questions to ponder and kept me engaged for a while, but when the discussion turned towards the morality of humans having sex with actual animals, I kinda lost it. And the ending is also very open and I felt like such a long story deserved a more concrete conclusion.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️


Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

Another intriguing story about how a child’s cognitive and physical development depends on the kind of care they receive in their infancy and early years. The implications of the use of a mechanical nanny as described in the story are so fascinating and it definitely makes me think how the use of devices by children since very young is affecting them in our present day and age.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

Told through two stories – one historical and one in a technologically advanced setting, this has many philosophical questions but ultimately it’s about the nature of truth and memory – how there is written word or digital memory which can be relied upon to be objective truth, but there’s also oral history or the memories that we remember which are a part of who we are and in their case, their objectivity doesn’t matter because they are the truth that we believe. The story goes quite deep into these discussions and I found it very fascinating.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


The Great Silence

A heartbreaking story narrated by a parrot, this is about the creation of the universe and the huge aspirations of humans to contact extra terrestrial life but how we continue to ignore and neglect the species that coexist with us.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


Omphalos

Written as a series of diary entries by a scientist addressing God, this is about her complete faith in God and her belief that her scientific and archeological endeavors are all in tune with her faith, finding out more about how God created humanity. But when some contradictory scientific claims are made, she has to grapple with uncertainty in her faith and what it means to have a purpose that is not in service of God. Another fascinating story with lots to think about, and definitely one I found very relatable.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

A story about quantum divergence and how our actions or any small change in weather or anything not even related to us occurred, it would be spawn multiple timelines of ourselves . I found the idea of communicating with our alternate selves using devices utterly intriguing but it was the myriad of questions it raises about free will, actions and consequences, how much different or similar we can be across the different timelines, the morality of being able to communicate or selling such devices etc was what that made it so compelling. I know I’m probably not explaining it well but this was a great story and I definitely understand why it’s a Nebula nominee.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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7 thoughts on “Book Review – Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

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  1. I’m so freaking excited someone has read and reviewed this collection! It’s on my list so I can read Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom and I’ve been wondering if the other stories would be any good. Thanks for taking the time to review it!!!

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  2. I’m also trying to read as many Nebula & Hugo finalists as I can, and I don’t know if I’ll get to this one – I usually don’t reach for collections by authors I don’t know – but if before reading this review I had no interest, now I have some. I’ll see if I can fit this one in before the winners are announced. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Two stories in this are nominated this year and I found them fascinating and I think a couple are previous nominees/winners. Even if I did read due to the awards, I’m actually glad I discovered the author because I’m very impressed and wanna read more 😊😊

      Liked by 1 person

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