Monday, May 13, 2019

Review: Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Exhalation: Stories
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Publication: May 7th, 2019
Hardcover. 352 pages.

About Exhalation:

"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."

Short stories collections are always hit or miss with me--more of the 'miss' than 'hit,' if we're being honest--so I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed these stories. Chiang tackles some sci-fi related quandaries that I've come across and considered myself many times before. Time travel, AI robots, parallel universes--Chiang explores all of it and does it with an ease of storytelling that makes these stories a truly entertaining and thought-provoking experience. My preferred method of reviewing short story collections is to dive into a select few specific stories with some brief comments on each, so let's move onto that!

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate": This is the first story of the collection and also the one that felt the least "sci-fi" to me and had a much stronger fantasy fairy tale/child story sort of vibe. It's not at all a fairy tale and it's not for children, but the more matter-of-fact writing style that tells the story in a very simple manner has a 'moral story' sort of feel to it that I really enjoyed. I was excited with how it explored some time travel ideas that pop up a lot in sci-fi, which I found particularly worthwhile to read. 4/5

"Exhalation": This one wasn't a favorite necessarily, but it still had an exceptionally thought-provoking basis that went in some really unexpected but fascinating direction. I enjoyed the ideas it explored about resources for breathing and how that was threatened. It was fun trying to figure out what the protagonist was. 3/5

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects": This was easily one of my favorites. It had a super interesting AI robot concept that took its time in setting up and developing a really fascinating look at how AI 'pets' can become a part of people's lives, both those that last and those that only act as a fad. This was also one of the longest stories, almost novella-length, and it had a slower pace, but I never really found myself losing interest. 5/5

"Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny": I didn't find this one to be quite as 'deep' as others, but I still found it rather amusing and entertaining. It did explore some interesting concepts regarding the possibility of robots raising children and the effect it can have on a child's upbringing, but it wasn't particularly groundbreaking. Still, a highly enjoyable read. 4/5

"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling": This story was one of the ones that felt unsettingly due to its plausibility (not fully plausible, but close) that explores ideas of truth and memory. It follows two separate but familiar storylines and  4/5

"The Great Silence": A short, extremely bittersweet story told from the perspective of a parrot and that explores the Fermi Paradox. I don't really know what else to say about this one other than I loved it! It's one of the better really short works of fiction I've read in a while. Extremely thought-provoking. 5/5

"Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom": A perfect conclusion for this conclusion, "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" is one of the other longer stories in this collection. It features a story centered on the idea of parallel lives and what would happen if we were able to communicate with parallel versions of ourselves. I was particularly drawn to this one because parallel lives is something that pops up in my head weirdly often, so I found it interesting to see how similar this was to some of the things I think about--and how much more interesting and in-depth it was. I loved the different characters this followed and seeing how having a parallel self to talk to affected people's decisions in their various lives. 4/5

Overall, I've given Exhalation 4.5 stars! This is a solid, highly interesting collection of sci-fi stories that I highly recommend. Whether you read much sci-fi or not, I guarantee there's something in here that will make you stop and think.

*I received a copy of Exhalation in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating of the novel.*

Buy the book: Amazon | Book Depository | IndieBound

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