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Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
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Exhalation: Stories (original 2019; edition 2019)

by Ted Chiang (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
5592428,476 (4.25)23
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 Exhalation, 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.… (more)
Member:TheCriticalTimes
Title:Exhalation: Stories
Authors:Ted Chiang (Author)
Info:Knopf (2019), Edition: 1st Edition, 368 pages
Collections:Loaned from Library
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Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang (2019)

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
https://nwhyte.livejournal.com/3324965.html

Ted Chiang has published very few short stories, but they are all good and most of them have won awards. This is a collection of his more recent work. Some of these I remembered very vividly indeed - "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" and "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling". I had completely forgotten the title story, but I loved it when it was a Hugo finalist and I loved it again this time. There are two brand new stories here as well, "Omphalos" in which Young Earth cosmology is true, and "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" which opens communications with parallel Many-Worlds universes. All tremendously good stuff, getting my 2020 reading off to a good start. ( )
  nwhyte | Jan 22, 2020 |
Did not disappoint. Cerebral, morally invested science fiction. My favorites were the bookend stories, the first about time travel and the last about the implications of the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics for thinking about free will and moral responsibility. If you haven't read Chiang before, you should start with "The Story of Your Life" from his first book, which provides the basis for the movie Arrival. Then read everything else. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 4, 2020 |
A good collection of stories. All were enjoyable, and at least two were engrossing.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate": This was a standard time-travel story. It is well done in its particulars, but time-travel stories always give me a deja-vu feeling.

> The right side of the hoop precedes the left by several seconds. To pass through the hoop is to cross that duration instantly.

"Exhalation": "The filling stations are the primary venue for social conversation, the places from which we draw emotional sustenance as well as physical. We all keep spare sets of full lungs in our homes, but when one is alone, the act of opening one's chest and replacing one's lungs can seem little better than a chore." Chiang takes this concept and draws it out in an interesting direction, using lungs, air and air pressure in the fictional world as concrete analogies for bigger concepts in the real world. Chiang does this a lot in this collection, and I found it fun and unexpected (maybe too obvious for some, but I need to be hit on the head for symbolism to work).

"What's Expected of Us": "The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button." This concept elaborated. It didn't work as well.

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects": I had read this story before, somewhere. On a reread, it was still fun, but it needs a rewrite; it could have been so much better. The dilemma at the end wasn't convincing.

> The customer base has stabilized to a small community of hard-core digient owners, and they don't generate enough revenue to keep Blue Gamma afloat. The company will release a no-fee version of the food-dispensing software so those who want to can keep their digients running as long as they like, but otherwise, the customers are on their own.

… Skipping over a few, weaker stories …

"Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom": This was my favorite story in the collection.

> Every prism—the name was a near acronym of the original designation, "Plaga interworld signaling mechanism"—had two LEDs, one red and one blue. When a prism was activated, a quantum measurement was performed inside the device, with two possible outcomes of equal probability: one outcome was indicated by the red LED lighting up, while the other was indicated by the blue one. From that moment forward, the prism allowed information transfer between two branches of the universal wave function. In colloquial terms, the prism created two newly divergent timelines, one in which the red LED lit up and one in which the blue one did, and it allowed communication between the two. … Information was exchanged using an array of ions, isolated in magnetic traps within the prism. When the prism was activated and the universal wave function split into two branches, these ions remained in a state of coherent superposition, balanced on a knife's edge and accessible to either branch. Each ion could be used to send a single bit of information, a yes or a no, from one branch to the other. The act of reading that yes/no caused the ion to decohere, permanently knocking it off the knife's edge and onto one side. To send another bit, you needed another ion.

This explanation doesn't make much sense, as physics goes, but Chiang's elaborations of this multiple branching worlds concept were just fun to think about. The main plot line perhaps wasn't as interesting as some of the throwaway ideas along the way.

> The product that was most successful at winning over naysayers was one aimed at those who had lost a loved one: the data brokers would find a branch where the person was still alive and forward their social-media updates, so the bereaved could see the life their loved one might have lived.

> A popular use of a prism was to enable collaboration with yourself, increasing your productivity by dividing the tasks on a project between your two versions; each of you did one half the job, and then you shared the results. Some individuals tried to buy multiple prisms so that they'd be part of a team consisting solely of versions of themselves

> But when I have a choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing, am I always choosing to do both in different branches? Why should I bother being nice to other people, if every time I’m also being a dick to them? ( )
  breic | Dec 24, 2019 |
The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
Time travel meets the Arabian Nights with the fascinating tale of a man who walks through a mirror 20 years in the past, even knowing he can't change it. Beautifully told and a story that left me with a smile on my face.

Exhalation
What happens when a being intent on discovering how thoughts are made takes a look at how his own brain processes things? His place in the universe may never be the same.

What's Expected of Us
Short but powerful story about the illusion of free will.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Explores how AI sort-of pets could grow and change over the course of several years. In contrast to the previous story, on the long side and I thought would've been more powerful if a little shorter - I'd grown bored with the idea by the time the story was over.

Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny
How might childhood be affected by being raised by AI instead of humans?

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
What would happen if we had technology that could allow us to video our entire lives? How would it affect our relationships and our perception of memory? Interspersed with the futuristic story, we get a second one that brings us back into the past in a society that has no writing and an individual who learns to read and write. Thought-provoking and one I've been thinking about a lot the past few days as I have been second-guessing my own memory of events.

The Great Silence
A rather funny story told in the voice of parrots who wonder why humans are looking outside of the universe for beings to talk to instead of talking to parrots right here on our planet. His "Story Notes" at the end explain that this story was part of a collaboration with Jenniver Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla in which they created a video installation with footage of the radio telescope in Arecibo and footage of Puerto Rican parrots that are endangered and live in a forest nearby. This story began as a third video screen, a fable told from the parrot point of view. I thought it stood alone pretty well, but I'm intrigued by the larger context here too.

Omphalos
An interesting mind exercise in which scientists have proof of a young earth and an astronomical observation causes them to rethink their place in the universe. It's told in the form of a prayer, and I'm sure I missed some of the scientific nuance, but it was a fascinating concept.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom
A little on the longer side in the collection, but a really fun story anyways. Prisms exist that allow us to see into alternate universes and talk to ourselves. Two employees of a store that allows their customers to use these prisms have a scam going and want to make some money - but what choices will they make, and will they matter?

My main judge for a collection of short stories is, would I read it again? And yes, this collection of very different short stories, some short some long, some challenging, some funny, many thought-provoking, is one I would happily reread. ( )
  bell7 | Dec 23, 2019 |
Ted Chiang has a knack for manipulating timelines and does so in several stories, but there are no mind-blowing endings here, unlike Stories of Your Life. ( )
  jasoncomely | Dec 3, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Exhalation’s nine stories are … fine. A couple are excellent, most are good, a couple don’t really work. It feels like damning the book with faint praise to say so, but isn’t that exactly how short-story collections generally work?
 
I can’t think of another modern genre writer like him, myself: his tales make me think of the same sort of impact a Bradbury or a Heinlein story had in the Golden Age, where readers would read something just because it is written by the author.
 
In the hands of a truly fatalistic writer, the premises and conceits in Exhalation would frogmarch us down the tired path to dystopia. But Chiang takes the constraints on our freedom as a starting point from which we have to decide what it means to act as if our decisions still matter.
 
Chiang is a writer of precision and grace. His stories extrapolate from first premises with the logic and rigor of a well-designed experiment but at the same time are deeply affecting, responsive to the complexities and variability of human life.
 
[Chiang's] voice and style are so beautifully trim it makes you think that, like one of his characters, he has a magical looking-box hidden in his basement that shows him nothing except the final texts of stories he has already written — just so he'll know exactly how to write them well in the first place.
 
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To Marcia
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The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
O might caliph and commander of the faithful, I am humbled to be in the splendor of your presence; a man can hope for no greater blessing as long as he lives.
Quotations
Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.
--"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"
My message to you is this: Pretend that you have free will. It's essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don't. The reality isn't important; what's important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.
--"What's Expected of Us"
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren't they interested in listening to our voices?
  We're a nonhuman species capable of communicating with them. Aren't we exactly what humans are looking for?
--"The Great Silence"
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