BooksOfTheMoon

Exhalation

By Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 stars

Ted Chiang isn’t a prolific author, but that means that every new story is a big deal. This collects his most recent stories and it’s an astoundingly good collection. I try to avoid hyperbole for the most part, but this is one of the best set of stories that I’ve read in a very long time. Of the nine stories collected, six were either award-nominated or award-winners. That is an astonishing ratio and the stories really live up to it. They’re almost platonic ideals of science fiction: taking a single “what if? and running with it. What if there was a device that effectively made human memory perfect? What if young earth creationism was right after all? What if you could talk to other versions of yourself in parallel universes?

The title story, Exhalation is a discussion of thermodynamics and the ultimate end of the universe through the medium of air-powered sentient robots, one of whom auto-dissects himself in order to find out how his brain works. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a wonderful story about time travel wrapped in a fable told in the style of the Arabian Nights. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest work in the book. It’s a novella about raising an artificial intelligence. The story tells of next generation virtual pets some of whose owners get very attached to them, and keep them running for years, running into decades. In the notes at the end, Chiang notes that humans take constant interaction and 15-20 years before they become mature, why should that be different for AI? It’s a great story, tying the lives of the humans into that of the AIs that they’re raising. There’s a few short pieces as well, usually written for specific things, such as The Great Silence, a piece about the forthcoming extinction of parrots, with a killer last line that choked me right up.

A friend gave me her copy of Chiang’s previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others because she felt that he wasn’t good with characters and characterisation. This is something I fundamentally disagree with (we didn’t quite fall out over it, and I’m glad I was able to give her copy of the book a good home), and this book has some wonderful characters. Ana, the protagonist of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is really interesting in her obsession; Dr Dorothea Morrell, the archaeologist in Omphalos, whose faith is tested; and most complex and interesting of all is Nat from Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, someone who’s trying to leave her past behind her and whose brush with alternate universes help her come to terms with herself.

Chiang’s genius comes with teasing out the big questions of life, and presenting them in a thought-provoking and entertaining manner that will stay with you for a long time after you finish the story. Unreservedly recommended to any lover of literature and student of the human condition.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529014495

Stories of Your Life and Others

By Ted Chiang

Rating: 4 stars

This book was loaned to me by a friend who was saying that Story of Your Life isn’t nearly as good as the film it spawned (Arrival) and that she disliked the rest of the stories too. I thought the film was pretty good and had vague memories of liking Ted Chiang when I’d heard his stories in podcast form. Having now read the collection, I have to completely disagree with my friend – I loved this collection. For me it has echoes of golden age SF in both positive and negative ways – the ideas are sometimes immense, but the characterisation is correspondingly lacking.

I thought Tower of Babylon was a lovely piece, where the weirdness in the world is slowly revealed, ending with a massive revelation, that somehow completely fits with the world as we have come to know it. It involves the building of a giant tower in Babylon that reaches up to Heaven and the miners brought in from Elam to help penetrate the vault of Heaven.

Understand was an interesting piece about intelligence amplification, and the different directions it could go. I must confess that I was expecting a bit of a Flowers for Algernon thing but Chiang took the story in a different direction to what I was expecting. Division by Zero was also a strong piece, with some really good characterisation, I thought, about what happens when one of the fundamental pillars of mathematics is discovered to be unsound. The title story focussed more on the linguistic side of the story than the film, but I thought it was strong, and it still had the same narrative device of the protagonist’s child.

Seventy-two Letters again had some really neat ideas in it – combining some ideas from Victorian naturalism, before the real explanations were understood with name-powered golems. I liked the world-building in this one a lot, with little things like pickled mermaids and unicorn horns in the British Museum thrown in to make it very clear that this isn’t our Victorian era. The Evolution of Human Science is a short piece for the science journal Nature, toying with the idea of what humans could learn from post-human science.

Hell is the Absence of God is one of the stories that I first encountered in audio form. It’s a great story, taking as its core conceit the idea that god and angels are real and they visit the mortal plane randomly, leaving miracles – positive and negative – in their wake. It’s also completely horrific, leaving me with a strong desire to rebel against this apparently uncaring and arbitrary deity.

The final story was Liking What You See: A Documentary, and was probably my favourite story in the collection. Told in the style of a documentary, the central idea is that brain manipulation has reached the point where we can cure various conditions and has been extended to broad-scale (reversible) alternative alterations. One of these, calliagnosia, is the inability to detect attractiveness in faces. There are a number of lovely things here, from the community that gave all their kids ‘calli’ to try and make them better people, to the beauty industry hiring PR firms to fight against a student body in a US college arguing for it to be made compulsory to study in that college. This one had me going backwards and forwards on which position was better and I still keep coming back to the ideas in it.

This book has done nothing but raise my impression of Chiang as an author. His ideas come thick and fast, and he develops and analyses them well and often in some depth. Definitely worth reading as long as you don’t mind the ideas taking top billing over characterisation.

Book details

ISBN: 9781447289234
Publisher: Picador
Year of publication: 2002

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