Bookbed reviews: ‘Exhalation: Stories’ by Ted Chiang

by Jodesz Gavilan

THE STORY

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. Available in bookstores / Read reviews: Goodreads

WHAT I LIKED

The stories are well-written and not too mechanical. Many science and speculative fiction works tend to be that way. While the stories fit right in the Black Mirror universe, they are not excessive and are not dark just for the sake of having that shock factor. The elements fit the plot, and are there for reasons beyond just being there to bolster the science fiction part. But if need be, the author expertly explains technological concepts that sound too foreign for the uninitiated.

The resulting product is a collection of stories that both invite compassion and demand attention, at its core is the beauty of life and the many ways we are all the by-product of not just our actions but of the whole universe.

The premises of the stories include the superficiality of having choices, challenging one’s faith in the face of a great scientific discovery, and the vulnerability of memories, among others. I particularly loved the first story, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, which tackles mistakes and second chances, as well as Omphalos which explores the effect of purpose.

tl;dr

If all science fiction works present the same level of trust to readers the way Ted Chiang did with Exhalation, I can dive right back into the genre. Otherwise, give me all the emotional takes! ☁️

This review is originally published @jodeszgavilan on Instagram. Follow her for more book recommendations. Read our Review Policy here.

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