Book Review: Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

One of the top science fiction books of 2019, even reaching the summer reading list of former President Barack Obama, was Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. This collection compiles nine recent short stories by the author of “Story of Your Life,” on which the movie Arrival was based.

I don’t read that many short stories, and I almost never read anthologies. I generally find full-length novels more interesting. But this book came up on my book club’s reading list, so I gave it a shot.

I admit I was underwhelmed by Arrival when it came out, although its worst excesses seem to have been added to the original novella. But I also wasn’t thrilled with the premise. The linguistics part was fun, but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is long since debunked, and the idea of learning a new language hacking your brain to give you superpowers is just plain silly, and I think Robert Heinlein did it better in Stranger in a Strange Land.

All this means that my expectations weren’t high when I started Exhalation: Stories, but I was pleasantly surprised. These stories, on the whole, are cleverly told and entertaining, and they ask deep questions of the same kind presented in Arrival. I might have wanted to review some of the stories individually, but I feel confident in reviewing the collection as a single unit because of the clear themes running through it. What does it mean to be human, or even just alive? How do we face the concepts of free will and destiny in an incomprehensible universe? Chiang does a good job of making the reader think about these questions while letting them draw their own conclusions.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

I do still want to comment on the individual stories because there are some very interesting and thought-provoking things in there. So, obviously, spoilers below.

I. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is a time travel story told Arabian Nights-style with stories within stories. The Alchemist (living in medieval Baghdad) builds a wormhole-style time machine that lets you access the past (or the future), but not change it. It’s pretty standard fare, but the interesting part is how he moves the story away from a Western point of view, where people are usually either fighting to change the past or lamenting their inability to do so. Chiang draws on the Islamic value of acceptance of Allah’s will to tell a different kind of time travel story. I admit I still felt like it was lacking in some way. It’s hard to articulate why—just that I feel like Connie Willis did it better in Doomsday Book, even though that was both very western in style and not the main focus of the story. Still, it was an interesting take.

II. “Exhalation,” the title story, is an allegory for the concept of entropy (whereby the useful energy available in the universe always decreases over time). In an alternate universe surrounded by solid metal, the people are robots who are powered entirely by compressed air. As the pressure equalizes between the underground air reservoir and the atmosphere, they begin to run slower, with less power available. And…that’s about it. It’s one of the shorter ones. But it’s a fun story and told well, and it might help readers understand the concept better.

III. “What’s Expected of Us” is another time travel story, but kind of in the opposite direction. Instead of finding peace or even empowerment through returning to the past, this story is told as a letter from the future, warning of people suffering existential crises after time travel seems to prove that there is no such thing as free will.

This story is very short, but what I find most interesting about it is that it really just asks old questions in a new way (and it’s far from the only story to do so). The theological conundrum of how God’s perfect foreknowledge of the future squares with free will is as old as theology itself. It’s just that these questions are relatively new in the philosophy of scientific materialism, and indeed, many people who hold to that belief are convinced that free will is an illusion. Either way, in modern physics, we have to answer these questions all over again.

As an aside, I once met the famous mathematician John Conway at Princeton, and he said he had a mathematical theory that (as I interpret it) says that free will is an incoherent concept in the first place (even with quantum physics involved). And that sort of makes sense in a materialistic worldview because if someone makes a decision, you can’t really point to what is physically doing the deciding and how, outside of unthinking physical laws. Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions?

IV. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” In the longest story in the book, computer scientists take care of digital AIs that are sold as intelligent pets, but really have more in common with human children. They raise and educate these AIs over many years, struggling to cope with the problems of both software development and raising human children along the way.

Other than being a bit longer than it needed to be (or maybe shorter if you wanted to continue the story further), I really enjoyed this. I agree with author David Brin when he says that the best way to ensure AIs don’t take over the world is to raise them like human children so that they come to value the same things we value (something far too complex to just program). I also tend to be among those who say that AI won’t come from Skynet becoming self-aware all in one go. It will probably have to be grown bit by bit (pun intended). This was a very fun take on how that process could go, and how it won’t be an easy one.

V. “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny.” This is a fictional museum catalog description of an invention that never existed. The museum piece is a Victorian-era mechanical “nanny” that would hold, feed, and clean up after a baby, and the article describes the misadventures of the father and son would tried to make it work. This one is probably the most off-theme, but it was a fun and funny read.

VI. “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.” In this story, a tech writer explores how a new invention that can play your recorded memories back to you with perfect clarity alters our understanding of truth. To help make his point, he writes a fictionalized account of a hunter-gatherer society encountering writing for the first time (based on real people and events), and he asks the provocative question of whether perfect access to objective truth might do more harm than good.

This was an odd story, and it made me kind of uncomfortable. The tech writer ultimately accepts the memory-enhancement technology as a way to (among other things) better understand the mistakes he has made in his life. But at the same time, the hunter-gatherer in his story-in-a-story rejects the factual truth of writing when it contradicts his elders and returns to his cultural concept of the truth of what is right and just, even when it disagrees. It’s a very non-Western way of thinking, and in that light, it’s probably wise that Chiang didn’t embrace one over the other. I have to think it might also be deliberate that he portrayed both technologies as opposite to how most readers would probably receive them, with his characters rejecting writing, but accepting the creepy memory enhancement implants. But even then, I’m still not very comfortable with his conclusions.

VII. “The Great Silence” has a sentient parrot reflecting on humans searching for intelligent life among the stars while failing to recognize it on Earth as they thoughtlessly push its species toward extinction. It’s…kind of thin when you think about it. The idea is that the parrot’s intelligence and/or language is so alien that we are unable to recognize it as more than simple mimicry or a child’s level of understanding, when it’s actually as intelligent as we are. It could be a good concept, but I feel like trying to mash together the environmental message and the message about overlooking minds that are different from ours wasn’t a very good choice.

VIII. “Omphalos.” This was another really fun one, and it’s another interestingly religious story. It’s set in a created universe where the truth of Creationism is everywhere and obvious. The oldest trees are found without growth rings, and the oldest human mummies are found without navels, because they were created as adults and didn’t need them. The stars that are visible to the naked eye are the only stars there are because they were put there for our benefit. And the Christian Church is ascendant worldwide.

Then, astronomers find a sign that Earth might not be the center of the universe after all, leading people to question whether humans were ever part of God’s plan in the first place.

(I’ll be honest. I kind of wanted one of the characters to burst out laughing at that point, and say, “Oh ye of little faith. If you think that God does anything by accident, you’re thinking too small.)

Of course, the irony is that in this world, the Church has still had to accept the inaccuracy of the Genesis account, because the first humans were created in tribes all over the world instead of just Adam and Eve. This world is obviously created, but there’s still wiggle room on the particular religion. I’m honestly not sure if that makes the story more or less impactful, or if it doesn’t really matter.

IX. “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” postulates technology whereby quantum superposition allows people to communicate with their alternate selves in parallel universes (for the record, this isn’t allowed by known physics) and see the outcomes of different choices they could have made. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, and I’ve heard it called the best-suited story in the book to being adapted as another movie. Long story short, it explores self-doubt over people’s choices that would have gone better the other way and how people deal with the consequences of their actions. And on this one, I think I’m going to say, it’s too good to just leave to my interpretation. Go check it out for yourself.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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