‘Exhalation’ is a Breath of Fresh Air

The thing that is striking about Ted Chiang’s work is how well thought out everything is.

His are not stories that blossom from a singular thought. His are not suppositions of a singular event spun out a different way. When reading his stories, you get a strong sense that the ideas and the characters are the products of many thought and many questions, left to bubble and rise on their own accord.

The result is stunning.

Chiang, whose short story The Story of Your Life was adapted into the hit movie Arrival, has a new collection (well, new-ish; I’m making good progress on this list but it’s a long one), and Exhalation might be even better than the first. This is not something I say lightly—it’s been a few years since I read his previous collection, and I still think of it often. I even made my husband read one story, Understand, so he could, well, understand why I was blown away.

Real* picture of me** reading this book.

*not real **not me

I say this not merely to gush about Chiang, but also to underscore how high my expectations were going into Exhalation. I tried to temper them; I’ve been burned before. But Exhalation was wonderful and I wanted to tear through it as much as I wanted to stop and savor every word.

Rather than give a blow-by-blow, let me mention a few favorites. The first story in the collection, The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate, opens new doors (pun intended) to the question of time travel, and does so in a dreamy sort of 1,001 Arabian Nights version of Medieval Baghdad and Cairo. (If you want to hear this story read by the incomparable Levar Burton, check it out here and here.) What good can it do to visit our future or past when we cannot change the course of fate, the story asks, and subsequently answers.

For most of the book, my clear favorite was also the longest story, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. The story revolves around a pair of employees, and then ex-employees, of a company that creates “digients,” digital pet-children-things that people can raise and care for in a VR world. But as technology moves on and leaves the digients behind, their owners have to adapt to the new technological landscape, making tough moral choices along the way. It’s a fascinating exploration of a new ethical frontier that we are realistically not far from reaching, even if not to this exact extent.

I’m feeling really bad about my old Neopets now.

The only threat to my favoritism of The Lifecycle of Software Objects was the final, and second-to-longest, story, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom. In it, prisms allow people to view a world in which they made a single different decision at the time they activated the prism, and talk with their parallel selves to see how things turned out. For some, seeing the other them provides an opportunity for comfort or collaboration; others only dismay at how much better their other self seems to be faring. Still others see these parallel universes and the growing public dependency on them as opportunity for exploitation.

These, and the rest of the stories, are all different shades of fascinating and thought-provoking and wonderful.

You don’t have to forgive me for the pun in the headline. I regret nothing.

I want to say I love Chiang’s work so much that I wish I could read a novel of it, but saying that would imply that there was something inherently inferior about the short story, and I don’t believe that is the case. The length of the short belies the difficulty in fitting an arc and compelling characters in the time it takes a novel to set up its conflict. There’s an art all its own to writing an excellent short story, and Chiang has mastered it.

Earlier, I mentioned that Chiang’s stories have the feel of things allowed to develop into complex entities. One of the things I especially liked about Exhalation was the story notes at the back detailing the seed from which each story grew, which in turn let me further appreciate how fully realized the final work was. For example, The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate came from theories of time travel; Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom is based on the many worlds theory and clashing questions about free will. When I read something I really enjoy, I like trying to reverse-engineer the thoughts that eventually became story. I’m glad Chiang provided his, because I could not have guessed on my own.

Chiang is not a fast writer—his first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, came out in 2002—but I get a sense that his acceptance with that pace of writing is one of the things that allows his ideas to develop so ingeniously. If we get only one collection every seventeen years but each collection is as strong as this, I will be satisfied.

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