Sunday, June 30, 2019

Review of Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is back—one of the greatest bits of speculative fiction news in 2019. Seventeen years since Chiang’s last collection Stories of Your Life and Others, the aged-wine approach the man uses writing has finally produced enough content to fill out a collection. Named Exhalation: Stories, let’s take a look at the vintages produced.

A Chiang version of a 1,001 Arabian Nights tale, “The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate” is the story of one Fuwaad ibn Abbas, and the encounter he has with a merchant in the bazaar one day. Passing through a gate that shifts time, ibn Abbas is never the same despite returning. But what does he ultimately make of it? Additional stories nested within his story, the whole is parables wrapped in a parable on the value of knowledge and the path to attaining knowledge, particularly the mindset regarding the passage of time and regret.

One of the greatest science fiction stories ever written, “Exhalation” is the fascinating story of a robot-man who dissects himself.   Not a grisly description of wires, fluids, tubes, and lubricants (and none of the paranoia PKD would imbue such a story with—see “The Ant Man”), it is set in a society wherein air tanks, called lungs, need to be replaced every day, and the brain is composed of leafed gold foils stamped with symbols and formulas.  Highly reminiscent of Stanisław Lem, this is the stand-out piece in not only in the collection, but all of sf short fiction.

Lopsided bookends, “What's Expected of Us” and “Omphalos” are both discussions on determinism and free will. The former a brief vignette of a technology so simple yet so profound, it strikes at the core of the human psyche to change society. The latter significantly more personal, it tells of a Christian scientist who makes a discovery, likewise profound, that has her questioning the roots of her beliefs. That set up may seem to make “Omphalos” predictable, which to some degree it is, but it’s the manner in which Chiang resolves the scientist’s conundrum that give the story its value.

The longest piece in the collection, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is the story of Ana and Derek and the digients—virtual AI pets—they come to raise.  Both employed at a start up called Blue Gamma, at first everything goes well for the company.  The digient product is a huge success.  Many consumers buy one of the impressionable pets to have in Data Earth, the virtual environment in which most everyone has a second life. The digients a product of both ‘nature’ and nurture, each turns out with a different personality and learns at varying rates, depending on how they are cared for.  Adding to the success, accessories are produced, including battery operated automatons into which the digients can upload for periods of time to experience the real world.  But, like all commercial products, there eventually comes a decline in the market.  Platforms are enhanced, newer, more advanced products by other firms are marketed, and the technological environment evolves, leaving Jax, Lolly, Marco, and Polo and the other digients in a fight for virtual place.  What ultimately becomes of their burgeoning intelligences is as moving as the real world. Autonomy, the unstoppable evolution of technology, and the responsibility we as humans have for what we create all come into the picture—in reality and virtually—form the core ideas of “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”. 

Chiang’s relative popularity/recognition translating into a couple of commissioned pieces since his last collection, “Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny”, written for Jeff VanderMeer’s Thackery T. Lambshead anthology, looks at the logic (or lack thereof) of implementing purely rational programs to raise children. Chiang’s afterword really puts this story in proper context. The second commissioned piece is “The Great Silence”. Somehow pulling off the correlation of Fermi’s Paradox to endangered parrots, Chiang throws a surprising spin on the origins of the story in the end notes.

Formerly future state now current state, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” tells of a father-daughter relationship affected by life-logging technology. Want to know who attended your fifteenth birthday, just google search your video content. Setup nice but resolution lacking subtlety, the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You” does this premise better justice, despite that Chiang accomplishes his goal of expressing the difference between truth and perceived truth.

Closing the collection with its weakest entry is Chiang’s parallel universe story, “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”. Giving several people’s perspectives as they try to understand, work within, and sometimes exploit technology that allows people to communicate cross-parallel universes, it’s a fascinating idea, so big in fact, that it feels relatively unpacked despite the multiple of directions the ideas flow. Appropriately (and relevantly) told through the lens of psychology, those quite familiar with Chiang’s oeuvre might be able to predict the outcome, even as its parts jostle and clank awkwardly to the finish.

Despite the closing tale, Exhalation: Stories is more of what makes Ted Chiang one of the great writers and humanists of science fiction: wonderfully unpacked ideas, touching personal presentations, and a finger on the pulse of the human implications for technology. Aside from bringing together all the stories Chiang published since Stories of Your Life and Others (except “Better Versions of You”) and adding author’s notes to each, Exhalation likewise gives readers two previously unpublished works, “Omphalos” and “Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom”. Neither feeling like bottom-of-the-drawer material resurrected for this collection (though the latter does feel as though it needs another 100 pages or complete revision), they nevertheless do not feel out of place or dragging. He’s back!

The following are the nine stories collected in Exhalation: Stories:

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
What's Expected of Us
The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny [Thackery T. Lambshead]
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
The Great Silence
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom

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