(2019) Ted Chiang, Picador, £16.99, hrdbk, 353pp, ISBN 978-1-529-01448-8
This much awaited second collection of short stories from Ted Chiang brings together his work from the last two decades. Most of these Chiang stories have been published in the some of the best genre magazines in the world and have been nominated and won a variety of different awards.
On first reading it is clear that this is a disparate collection. There are a variety of writing styles and techniques at play that have been used to describe and deliver a specific idea. Chiang’s stories have a way of developing small things, little changes in the world into discoveries of vast significance. His handling of the time travel conceit in ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ explores the trope on a number of levels, transforming a series of intervention stories into a tapestry of interwoven events as each layered on protagonist attempts to influence the course of the past and the future for their own ends. Ethics and morality are explored in this discourse, with a surprising set of choices being made.
The titular story of the collection – ‘Exhalation’ is one that has been feted amongst critics and creatives alike for a number of years and won the Hugo, the Locus and The BSFA Award for short fiction in 2008. The meticulous detail of this work gives an absorbing insight into the method of the writer and his ability to translate highly complex ideas into a narrative with a message and purpose. ‘Escalation’ is a dense read and at times tricky to follow, but well worth the perseverance.
‘What’s Expected of Us’ is flash fiction at its best. Again, using a time travel idea, Chiang speaks directly through the narrator and warning of the dangers of gamification on the fragile human psyche.
‘The Life Cycle of Software Objects’ is also a Hugo and Locus Award winning novella. The story uses a variety of modes of address, beginning as a third person present story, but then incorporating emails and other devices that allow Chiang to engage with the significant scenes and then pull back to narrate the timeline of events as they happen. The subject of the work is the development of artificial intelligence, and the evolution of the digient – a set of semi-sentient artificial creatures. This is the longest story of the collection and there is a cinematic quality to it.
‘Darcey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ is a short-reported story, presented as an authentic historical account. Again, Chiang conceals an important message amidst this recollection of Victorian invention, to be revealed in the final paragraphs.
‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’ is a story that resonates within modern culture where technology alters the way in which we live our lives. In many ways, this is the strength of Chiang’s work, to interrogate these kind of proposed changes utilising a variety of different approaches, like a journalist or a person writing an academic blog, evaluating the value of accurate information and the value of a person’s emotions in a selection of different contexts.
‘The Great Silence’ is an amusing short. The perspective of the narrator poses some flipped questions related to the Fermi Paradox. It is possibly the weakest story in the collection as a fair bit of the argument feels contrived and the voice of the narrator fails to convince this reader of its character.
‘Omphalos’ is another authoritative work from Chiang where he uses the 1857 hypothesis of Phillip Henry Gosse to interrogate our assumptions over the current balance between our beliefs in science and religion. In the face of irrefutable evidence, Chiang’s alternative world has debunked some of what we generally consider to be fact and embraced as fact things that we consider to be untrue. This reframing of the argument between two dogmas allows the reader to question their assumptions, which is at least part of the point.
The collection ends with ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’. A story that attempts to reframe the reality debate, establishing a pseudoscientific premise for being able to communicate across realities and revealing that all things that could happen, do happen somewhere. In many ways, this set of infinite possibilities leads towards a similar paralysis of choice as ‘The Great Silence’ but for very different reasons.
Exhalation is an excellent, disparate collection of work from Picador that places Chiang’s stories in an attractive hardback volume that has a simple purpose – allowing readers to place him on their bookshelf rather than go hunting for his work in a variety of different websites or magazines.
See also Peter's review of Exhaltation.
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'.
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