Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”: Return of the King

Ted Chiang's "Exhalation" is a wonderful return to form from the master of science fiction short stories.

It's no secret that I have a passion for creators who make me wait between releases. By the time you're reading this, Tool is on the eve of releasing their first new album in 13 years. I have had three children since the 2006 release of 10,000 Days.
Even worse is Ted Chiang, whose last collection, Stories of Your Life, was released in 2002. Think about that: He must have written most of those stories before 9/11, a time my children believe in on the same level as the Jurassic period. It was therefore with great excitement that I heard his second collection, Exhalation, was being released this year. I'm not tuned in enough to catch when magazines publish his stories over the years, so this is the first I've read of him since I finished the last collection.

You're probably most familiar with Chiang from the movie "Arrival," which shocked movie-goers by providing a thoughtful, psycholinguistics-based take on a first-encounter story. "Arrival" was based on "Stories of Your Life", the hero story in his first collection. Though the movie made some major changes from the story, it was thematically on point.

I consider Chiang a genius, a word I don't toss around. If you read his stories blindly, you might find yourself hard-pressed to determine why they're considered science fiction. In Exhalation, though, he handily provides story notes collected at the end of the collection that explains which physicist lecture inspired him to write a given piece. Some stories, such as "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," show an obvious inspiration. Others, such as "Omphalos," may require a flip to the back.

There are nine stories in this collection. A few of them I consider must-reads. I did not particularly love "What's Expected of Us" or "The Great Silence" (Which, admittedly, is only half of an art installation and wasn't altogether terrible.) However, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," "Exhalation," "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom" blew me away*.

To give you an idea of what you're getting into, let me set up "Alchemist's Gate." It is an Arabian-Night's style collection of three vignettes about the perils of time travel. The method is hand-waved as alchemy, but the notes explain the thought behind it. I won't spoil the story, but one vignette concerns a woman who travels back to meet her husband in the days before their wedding to teach him to be a better lover.

Chiang remains perhaps my favorite science fiction author, precisely because it's almost unrecognizable as science fiction. Do yourself a favor and borrow Exhalation from your local library or buy it from your preferred retailer. It's well worth your time and the price of admission.

*If you read the story "Exhalation," you'll realize that's a hilarious joke.

 

 

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