EXHALATION by Ted Chiang

exhalation by ted chiangExhalation is quite simply one of the most breathtaking collections I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I’ve admired Chiang’s work for a long time, though I’ve shamefully read little of it until now. This will hopefully change now. It’s certainly reignited an interest in short fiction, which I find myself seeking out more after starting this. 

Which is interesting because one running thought I had throughout my reading of Exhalation was that I wouldn’t really call a lot of its entries stories — at least not in the traditional sense. A good portion of them read more like thought experiments than they do proper narratives. The fact that they explore exceedingly interesting hypotheticals meant that I enjoyed my time with them, although perhaps in a different way than I would, say, something by more traditional fabulists. 

I guess it’s to be expected. Chiang comes from a scientific background, after all, and his approach to stories is less “what if” than it is “how would this work for real.” He takes these speculative realities and, rather than tell us a conventional narrative within, he often opts to define them to us. It works because Chiang is nothing if not a brilliant communicator of ideas. It’s probably why the writer he brought to my mind the most was Carl Sagan, one of the great explainers of our age.

Then, of course, I realized this was just me making unnecessary distinctions. Because what is to elucidate something efficiently and effortlessly if not telling a damn good story, be it fiction or fact? It’s all stories, in the end.

So yes, Ted Chiang is one hell of a teller of tales, and it’s never more evident than in my three favorite pieces in this collection:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” reads like a fable straight out of the Arabian Nights with a transtemporal bent about a fabric merchant that stumbles upon a store full of alchemical wonders, one of which is a stone arch that acts as a gateway through time. I was so struck by it that by the time I got to the first of what I was certain must be three tales-within-the-tale I was already exclaiming, “Oh my god.” It reminded me of just how much truly excellent stories excite me. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though: both “Story of Your Life” (the basis for the film Arrival) and “Tower of Babylon,” the only two other stories by Chiang I had read before this collection, elicited the same sort of response. A beautifully complex piece of fiction masterfully told.
  • A few pages into “Exhalation,” the collection’s title story, and I was already utterly fascinated by the world it was creating: one of mechanical brings, very much like humans in thought and behavior, but composed of brass and gold instead of organic material, run artificially by air (which in this story acts as a secular, natural explanation for the soul — a notion that I love). I finished it with tears in my eyes. A beautiful meditation on life and death; our role in the universe and the responsibility we have to know it and explore it. (Also, I really liked picturing the main character as this world’s equivalent to Leonardo da Vinci. Setting up a device to dissect your own brain is a Leo move if I’ve ever heard one.)
  • “Omphalos” is one of the many stories in which Chiang toys with theological themes. It’s set in a world that is very much like our own, but in which Young Earth creationism is factually true. Again, points for Chiang for rendering a belief for which I have no patience for in real life so fascinating and sympathetic. The story proper deals with the discovery of a truly geocentric system, and the religious implications this holds for our characters.

And although it wasn’t one of the stories that connected with me, Chiang’s grasp on narrative is also obvious in “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” which explores the ways in which our ability to recall moments and events perfectly could impact the human psyche. Told in two complementary threads: one set in the near future in which technology that records every single moment of your life is readily available, and about a father struggling with what that means for human relationships; the other set in the distant past, centering on a man learning how to read and write and the ways in which this clashes with his tribe’s oral tradition. 

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. Each of us noticed the details that caught our attention and remembered what was important to us, and the narratives we built shaped our personalities in turn.

A wonderful collection of stories, and one I see myself revisiting.

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