Fiction Reviews


(2019) Ted Chiang, Picador, £13.99, trdpbk, 351pp, ISBN 978-1-529-01448-8


This collection of short stories contains nine stories, ranging from four pages to one hundred and eleven pages.  They are followed by ten pages of notes where the author briefly explains the inspirations for each story and these added to my understanding of what he was trying to achieve because, to be honest, I found them rather dry and lacking any sparkle.

‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ opens the book and is set in ancient Baghdad. Fuwaad, a fabric seller, enters a new shop and is surprised at the richness and quality of goods on offer.  He is especially interested when the merchant Bashaarat shows him a door frame, a portal which can allow him to step either forward or backward twenty years through time. Using the Gate of Years Fuwaad finds that one cannot change the past but one can gain understanding.  In this story, the aforementioned dryness worked well with the style of the story telling, which was as a wordy account from Fuwaad to the Caliph.

The next story, ‘Exhalation’, follows a scientist in a very different world - he is a mechanical being.  He ponders on aspects of life and thought and so he devises a method for examining his own brain and this leads to some startling revelations.  Moving on to ‘What’s Expected of Us’ we come across the Predictor, a simple device that lights up one second before you press its only button - so how much choice do we really have?

This is followed by ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ in which we follow Anna, who is employed by Blue Gamma to help create digients - digital organisms that live in virtual worlds such as Data Earth.  As she had previously worked in a zoo her understanding of animals will help them create more lifelike digients, ones that learn and interact well with humans.  As technology marches relentlessly onwards, digients such as Anna’s get left behind and discarded yet she wishes them to reach their full potential.  To do this, she and likeminded others must spend much time over the following years looking after their charges.  The story goes into great detail about the progress of the digients but, even though it is the longest story in the book, not a great deal actually happens and by the end of the story Anna still has many more years of nurturing to do.  We do not find the outcome, only the length of her journey.  I felt I too had been on a long journey though without the satisfaction of an end to her story; ultimately it was a lot of reading yet left the story hanging.

Moving on to ‘Daceys’ Patent Automatic Nanny’ we have a story about a machine created to look after babies and avoid the problem of finding a suitable human Nanny.  It follows the inventor’s use of the machine to raise his son and, later, his son’s use of it for his own son.  All does not go well.

‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ tells of young Jijingi, an inhabitant of Tivland, which relies on oral history, as he learns about the Europeans’ writing and written history.  It is a cultural difference which illustrates their different approaches to life. In a parallel account set many years later, it also tells of a journalist as he tries Remem, a technology which allows instant access to all of one’s life blogs and therefore total recall of the exact details of every moment. Is this really an improvement?

Next comes ‘The Great Silence’ in which we discover that parrots are as intelligent and communicative as humans but the humans have never noticed.  Instead, they use the Arecibo telescope to search the stars for other intelligent life, little realising that in so doing they are destroying the habitat of that very same intelligent life for which they are looking.

‘Omphalos’ is set in a world which was created by God over seven thousand years ago and it has been proven and exactly dated by science (for example, when the world was created the trees were created in various sizes but have none of the growth rings for before the moment of creation).  Astronomers have discovered strange behaviour in a particular star which implies that creating humanity might not have been God’s purpose - perhaps they were an experiment, or a by-product?

We finish with ‘Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom’, in which we encounter prisms (Plaga interworld signalling mechanisms).  When one of these devices is first activated a quantum measurement is performed inside it resulting in either the blue LED or the red LED lighting; as the possibilities are exactly equal this causes a split in the time stream.  The clever bit is that the two time-versions of a prism can be used to communicate with each other, thus allowing its owner to talk to his/her time-alternative.  Timelines diverge and down at SelfTalk, Morrow, the store manager and con artist, has plans to make extra money out of his customers.  However, it will be up to his assistant Nat to make the plans work and deal with the outcome, and she has problems of her own.

The first and last stories were my favourites, perhaps because they examined choice and outcomes, but also because to me they got on with telling an interesting story at a reasonable pace.  Generally though, I felt that whilst these stories did indeed allow the author to look at interesting situations and run with his ideas, they did not entertain me in any way and I often felt I was just plodding through the text for the sake of it.  The author has won a number of awards. including Nebulas and Hugos, but he would not get my vote.  However, one of his short stories, ‘Story Of Your Life’ (not in this collection), was the basis of the film Arrival and that I greatly enjoyed watching.

Peter Tyers

Note:  Posted elsewhere on this site, as one of our choices as to the Best of Nature's'Futures' short stories, is Ted Chiang's 'What’s expected of us'.

See also Allen's review of Exhaltation.


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