Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Publisher – Picador

Price – £16.99 Hardback

Published – Out Now

From an award-winning science fiction writer, the long-awaited new collection of stunningly original, human and already celebrated short stories. This much anticipated second collection of stories is signature Ted Chiang, full of revelatory ideas and sympathetic characters.

For me science fiction is the best place to discuss ‘what if’. A genre that focuses on examining possibilities both good and bad of technology, alien life, and biology. One of my favourite con memories is two celebrated authors in a panel debating technology and its future risks and there was a beautiful back and forth of ideas and counter ideas being debated (probably enough for at least two dozen books) it was like watching a fine tennis match or two musicians do a jazz piece. In Ted Chiang’s new collection of short stories and novellas however I feel more like I’ve watched a world class pianist with a performance that showcases an ability to play all songs, tempos and notes in any way they please.

In this collection particularly noteworthy tales such as:-

The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate – the opening story slightly throws you off as it is told in the style of an old Arabian folk tale but looking closer this tale mixes an ancient Arabic setting with an adventure involving time travel and the laws of relativity.  Our narrator gives us three tales exploring the gate’s mysterious powers and then we see what links them.  Elegantly explaining complex scientific ideas as ‘magical’ rules while also pulling on the heartstrings of human nature.

Exhalation – a world of machine intelligences who live in a non-oxygen atmosphere explore their world. One in particular makes a discovery showing that they are all doomed.  This story is a gorgeous tribute to science and curiosity. It shows the lengths some scientists go to explore the universe (including effectively self-operated brain surgery) but also that in examining universe even when possibly revealing our universe’s eventual fate we are making a mark on the world for others to notice. What could easily be a tragedy is actually a vindication of the scientific method.

What’s Expected of Us – A seemingly innocent toy that allows a basic form of predicting the future snowballs into a planet wide crisis of apathy as free will seems to be a thing of the past.  Only a few pages but it is amazingly disconcerting as you think the logic problem through.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects – This novella is my favourite part of the collection.  A VR company has created digients artificial digital lifeforms that are both amazingly cute and have a higher degree of self-consciousness than your standard Tamagotchi or Pokémon.  The digients learn from their owners and a former zookeeper and a digital designer end up being around the digients evolution in an ever changing DataSphere. This is a prime example of Chiang’s ability to ask what if. What seems a tale of basic AI marketing turns into a debate on the rights of digital intelligences, consent and how future corporations may behave towards our digital spaces. It’s a fascinating exploration over a few decades of how technology evolves and becomes out of fashion. Your future treatment of digital creatures may substantially alter after reading this tale!

The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling – Another of my favourites explores our relationship with recoding our memories. In the near future a journalist raises doubts about a new video recording system that will record every element of your life.  Over a century earlier in Tivland a young man learns about the power of writing to record what took place. This become a fascinating examination of memory, truth and our relationship with the written word.  I loved how we ourselves are shown to have an unconscious bias to believe what we read, and it achieves us to think about the benefits of such technology not just the dangers which in itself felt quite refreshing.

The Great Silence – One of the most sobering stories here examines our quest for intelligent life. It points out on our own planet we seem to have an ability to miss it just because it is not human shaped. A novel that manages to praise our desire to seek it out but also curse our ability to destroy things we don’t appreciate enough.

Omphalos – an unusual story exploring a world where creationist-based science is the guiding scientific principle.  A VERY devout scientist and Christian finds her faith tempered as the theory meets uncomfortable truths. It manages to expose the threat of dogma stalling science and yet at the same time praise the scientific ability to start to change your mind. Really cleverly played how our allegiances to our narrator shift as the story progresses.  I also like dhow a fairly devout lead character is still shown to be human in how they react to the world.

Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom – The final tale is a novella where the human race has developed computers that allow us to explore what is happening thousands of parallel universes. Again, we get the exploration of the ramifications that such an invention has for society – what kind of business can evolve; what type of crimes or psychological effects knowing another you are having a different life to the one you chose. While there is the weighty exploration of parallel earths this also manages to be a tale about guilt and redemption as two characters find themselves having t justify their own actions alone. I loved how the science actually complimented the discussion of human nature

Overall this is a stunning collection. Chiang clearly has an interest in free will and choices as that’s a recurring theme in the work, but I was impressed how those what ifs were played with and taken to a logical conclusion I just never saw coming.  The best books are those that will be on your mind many years after closing the covers and this is easily going to be one of those tales.  If you enjoy intelligent and thoughtful science fiction this is definitely one collection to savour and now, I am clearly going to have to read Chiang’s earlier collection soon!!