Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Minimal spoilers only – no major twists, but does reveal headline content and comments on characterisation, quality of endings and so forth.

I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed by this collection, largely because of how brilliant I’d found Stories of Your Life and Others. That being said, it’s still a good collection, with all of the stories enjoyable and some very good – they just didn’t blow me away the way they did in the first collection. Like the first, there are a number of stories in the highly unusual subgenres of historical science-fiction and theological spec fic. 4/5

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate: A compelling time-travel story set in the Baghdad of The Thousand and One Nights – the setting was compelling enough that I could have believed it was from the original collection. There’s a nice use of frame stories and some interesting twists in how different people make use of the time gate. Like Stories of our Lives, it assumes a fixed, unchangeable time dimension. (4/5)

Exhalation: A story based around sentient robots for whom pressure difference takes an analogous role to temperature differences in our world, in terms of entropy. It was well-written, but the robot society wasn’t particularly interesting and I found the metaphor very obvious. (3/5).

What’s Expected of Us: A very short, hard-hitting, story about what might happen if we created a device that disproved free will. The sort of story it’s hard to get out of your head. Like Stories of our Lives, it assumes a fixed, unchangeable time dimension. (4/5)

The Lifecycle of Software Objects: One of only two stories that truly lived up to the 4 and 5 star rated stories in the previous collection, this was a genuinely thought-provoking exploration of what it might mean to create digital life, following the ‘lives’ of digients, software creatures created as pets, as some individuals cared for them over 20 years, during which they developed a high child’s level of sentience – yet could still be but on stand-by, deleted, rolled back and so on. (5/5).

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny: A Victorian man creates a robotic nanny with predictable effects. I got very little from this story; it wasn’t a patch on 72 Letters. (2/5).

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling: Like Liking What You See, this explores a new technology that tests the edges of what it means to be human – in this case a digital memory devise that would essentially supplant our natural organic memory. However, while Liking What You See cleverly explored it from a number of angles and perspectives, repeatedly making you sway as to which side you favoured, this had a much more linear and pedestrian approach. The comparison with the development of writing didn’t add much perspective though in many ways was a more interesting story line. (3/5).

The Great Silence: This was originally written as an accompaniment to an art installation; it is essentially a lament for creatures going extinct and asking why we bother looking for alien life when we are wiping out other species on earth. It is well-written, but I couldn’t suspend disbelief enough to take the central conceit – that parrots are sentient – seriously: while I wish we were doing more to preserve other species, I’d still want to search for alien life.

Omphalos: The other story that matched the four and five star rated stories of the first collection, this is told through the perspective of a devout scientist in a world where Enlightenment science repeatedly discovered confirmation of a near-term creation date – until suddenly this is challenged. I love the concept of ‘primordial’ creatures and plants – i.e. trees with no growth rings at the centre, because they had been created whole at the moment of creation. (5/5)

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom: A fascinating exploration of whether free will has meaning in a many worlds universe, based on devices which allowed limited communication between two such universes – and the implications of this. The characters felt real, well-developed and unfolded in complexity as the story developed. (4/5)