Review – Exhalation – Ted Chiang

Reviewed by Srijani Ganguly 

If you’ve read ‘Story of Your Life’ or seen its film adaptation, Arrival, you’ll be well-versed with Ted Chiang’s style of science fiction. It’s filled with high-level theories and otherworldly phenomena, but at the heart of the story there is always an emotional plot; the kind which will not only make you a bit teary-eyed but also make you stop and consider your own life and the world around you for a minute. And while he has written many short stories since ‘Story of Your Life’, and had written many before it, too, I strongly believe it to be the best ever tale he has produced. Perhaps, the best story anyone has ever produced.

But this review isn’t about the ‘Story of Your Life’, which appeared in Chiang’s first short story collection, in 2002. From now till the end of this write-up, my focus will be on the nine tales packed inside Chiang’s most recent publication, Exhalation, which was released into the world in 2019. 

One story (‘The Great Silence’) is about a certain animal species, and their lament with mankind; another (‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’) is about a robot who works to help take care of children; and there is one (‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’) that adds new life to all the animals, people, and plants that we grow/interact with in our computer games. (Those of us obsessed with Animal Crossing will find this tale especially interesting.)

There is a lesson to be learnt from them all—a moral of the story that is sometimes explicitly stated by the narrator towards the end, or is left for us, the reader, to interpret by the time the plot concludes. No short story captures both these points more than the very first tale in the collection. Set in the Baghdad of the past, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ features a ‘gate’ with a most incredible power, two fable-like narrations within the story itself, and an impossible desire. “What a strange and sad story,” the titular merchant tells the alchemist about one of the fable-stories, and, indeed, the same can be said of ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ itself. 

Like the ‘gate’, an object plays a major role in a few other tales: in ‘Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom’, there is a briefcase-sized device called a prism that allows people to interact with their alternate selves; in ’What’s Expected of Us’ all there is a small, remote with a button and a green LED light on it; in ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ there is what its title says there is—a mechanical nanny who takes care of children; and in ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ there are personal cameras that keep tabs on the wearer’s memories. In all of them, it’s not the object itself that drives the plot forward. No, it’s the ways in which the said object affects someone’s life—sometimes just changing their perspective but often times totally, and irrevocably, altering the way they live—that throws conflict into the narration. 

There is more to it. If you divide the four stories, taking the first two on one hand and the last two on the other, you’ll realise how both ‘Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom’ and ’What’s Expected of Us’ deal with the subject of freewill, in two very different ways; and in the case of ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ there is no doubt that the theme is father and child.

A story that delves into its opposite, the maternal, is ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. The longest tale in the collection has the larger theme of building a consciousness in AI, of debating if they have legal rights, and the ever-changing fads of the gaming world. But on a more personal level, it is about the relationship that forms between a human woman and a virtual childlike animal. There is great joy in this one, when the ‘software objects’ learn new things—new words or new ideas—but great sadness in it as well when things don’t last, as they hardly ever do.

This uncertainty, this feeling of an impending doom, plays a larger role in three other stories – ‘The Great Silence’, ‘Omphalos’, and the title story, ‘Exhalation’. The first one is one of the shorter ones in the book, and ends on a sweet yet grim note. The existential element, here, is set in stone. But in ‘Omphalos’ there is still some doubt, and the question is more of a life-altering kind rather than a life-ending one. And yet, that doesn’t take away any poignancy and power from the last few lines of the tale.

And then there is the heart-achingly beautiful ‘Exhalation’, the story that, perhaps, comes closest to ‘Story of Your Life’ in terms of the woeful acceptance of one’s fate. There is no human in this, an entirely different (and fictional) intelligent species is in focus here. But the questions that are raised here, despite an intrinsic difference in their life and ours, are the same ones we sometimes find ourselves asking, usually in the dead of night when we have nothing to distract us. That’s the great thing about Chiang’s stories, they make you think!

And this why, there is a nice, nifty section at the end of the book that will be of much interest to you if you so desire to take a peek into his own thought-process. Called ‘Study Notes’, it is where the author talks about the inspirations, the ideas, and the thematic significance of all nine short stories. What’s delightful to see is how his mind works; how one panel discussion or one book can propel him to such wonderfully weird worlds.

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