Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang’s second collection of stories, Exhalation, reads like curious thought experiments in narrative form. The stories are science-heavy (unique concepts like blue shift, multiverse theory, and entropy inform each plot), and Chiang’s writing can be plain and weighted with the detailed mechanistic workings of devices and systems. But these unembellished words reveal whole worlds rich with insight, meaning, and humanity. Exhalation will leave you spinning in some heady thought but also caring about our fellow man.
“Omphalos,” one of the collection’s two previously unpublished stories, examines what today’s world would be like if creationism were literally true. The story is brilliantly told in first person by Dorothea Moore, a female archeologist. Chiang juxtaposes the biblical with the modern by showing Moore’s prayers and confessions: when a man chides Moore’s safety for walking in the city, she prays, “Forgive me, Lord, for being sharp to a man who only sought to assist me. I ask you for your help in being patient with those who believe women helpless.”
Moore lectures on humans without belly buttons and trees without rings as evidence of God’s creation of the earth. Religious thought is challenged when Moore learns of a paper that calls into question the purpose of the creation of humanity. As an archeologist, Moore still favors evidence over doctrine. The discussions in this section provide a moral compass that informs much of Chiang’s fiction—that science can be a religion. Overall, the story is layered and delightful and answers questions about the purpose of humanity.
“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is another stunning, inventive story that ponders the multiverse theory in quantum mechanics, the possibility of free will, and how one’s character and culpability fit in. In the story, a person can access a parallel timeline through a prism, a device that allows a person to talk to himself in another world, aka his “paraself”. The hypothetical “what if I had just done x instead of y?” that haunts the best of us becomes a reality when a person can know every detail of an alternative path. Chiang also poses this question about self-judgment: in how many different worlds does a person have to behave the same way in order to say that this is the essence of someone, his character?
The protagonist Nat is a reluctant con artist who swindles and then sells a prized prism that could reunite a celebrity couple. In order to execute this job, Nat becomes part of a prism support group where she hears of people’s addictions to learning about other, sometimes more successful, versions of themselves. Readers will witness the struggle of whether people can change the course of their trajectories in life, or if we are each just the “ruts in a person’s brain,” on an unstoppable path.
While the two aforementioned stories are particularly astounding, every story in this collection is a new world with intelligent conundrums, wonder, and heart. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a novella about humans raising AI “digient” pets like one would a child. With the mercurial behavior of toddlers, these “digients” fall out of consumers’ favor and risk becoming obsolete. However, a few devotees want to save them and ultimately must consider an offer of whether or not to let their robot kids be sex workers! Considering AI from a more nurturing perspective raises questions of personhood rights (“You not suspend me, right?,” says the digient Jax) and problems that even traditional parents face: do I mold my child into my exemplar, or do I respect my child’s own wishes and worldview?
Exhalation considers the function of communication. In some stories, experiences are conveyed for other civilizations or species to find. Communication can be an assertion of free will–or maybe not? Or through a time-traveling gate, we can communicate with our past and future selves, or in a multiverse scenario, encounter our alternate versions. These verbal exchanges have the power to change our understanding of ourselves and others. In Exhalation, the act of communication and the potential of science may be what saves us from our problems, both personal and existential, and are our greatest source of hope.