Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsExhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsExhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s stories are the very best kind of speculative fiction. They’re modern, sophisticated, intelligent, clever, thoughtful, and entertaining. Best of all, they’re full of futuristic science and explorations of the personal, sociological, and ethical considerations we may be facing as science and technology advance.

Most of the stories in Exhalation have seen print before; only two are new. Here are my thoughts on each:

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” — Originally published in 2007 by Subterranean Press, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards. A man in Baghdad visits a merchant who shows him a gate that allows his customers to go backward and forward in time. Both amusing and poignant, and told in a series of nested vignettes, this thoughtful novelette explores the possibilities and consequences of being able to change our pasts and futures. Tadiana, who reviewed this novelette a couple of years ago, said that Chiang “channels the Persian storytelling style so well, while offering insights into life, time, repentance and forgiveness.”

“Exhalation” — Originally published in 2008 in Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse Two: New Science Fiction and Fantasy, winner of the Hugo, Locus, and BSFA Awards, previously reviewed by Tadiana. A robot who thinks of himself as a person studies his own brain to figure out how it works. He thinks he’ll learn about the past and how his race was created, but he ends up discovering more about his race’s future. As a neuroscientist, I especially enjoyed hearing the robot’s hypotheses for why his brain was made the way it was. I think he had some really good ideas.

“What’s Expected of Us” — Originally published in 2005 in the scientific journal Nature. (I love it when my favorite journal publishes science fiction!) This story is based on a series of neuroscience papers which seem to indicate that the brain decides what we will do before we become consciously aware of making the decision. An implication of this is that we have no free will. I gave a talk about this to a philosophy club in a hookah bar recently, so this story was particularly fun for me. What’s interesting is that we’re perfectly willing to accept the science that implies we have no free will, but we’re not willing to accept its implication.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects — Originally published in 2010 by Subterranean Press. Digients are virtual pets that use machine learning to gradually mature, like children do. When the platform that hosts these digients becomes obsolete, their owners have hard choices to make about the upkeep of their beloved virtual pets. Terry reviewed this novella several years ago and she goes into more of the plot than I’d like to do here, so I’d encourage you to read her review. It bothered Terry that the story wasn’t long enough but, since it was the longest work in this collection, I didn’t feel too short to me, though I did wish it had an epilogue since there were a few plot questions I still had at the end. This story worked for me because it got me thinking about the consequences of creating this type of software, especially the possibility of emerging consciousness. On a more practical level, the story has something to say about the importance of nurture and experiences if we hope to raise well-adjusted children.

“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” — Originally published in 2011 in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. In this story, inspired by the writings of behaviorist John B. Watson, who warned that parents shouldn’t coddle their children, an inventor creates a robot that will act as a nanny. There are also echoes of Henry Harlow’s attachment experiments here. Like the previous story, this one focuses on how to (or how not to) raise well-adjusted children.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” — Originally published in 2013 by Subterranean Press; previously reviewed by Terry. Psychologists know that memory is malleable and that much of what we remember is based not on what actually happened but on our biased faulty reconstructions of events. What would happen to our psyches and our relationships if everything we said and did was recorded so that memories could be verified? In “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” Chiang alternates between two parallel stories that at first seem unrelated. In one, a father talks about a new memory recording device and reminisces about his strained relationship with his daughter. In the other, a missionary is teaching an illiterate tribal man how to read. Besides dealing with the malleability of memory, this novelette is about how a leap in technology (memory recording / reading and writing) can change people and their societies. Again, I found much to think about here.

“The Great Silence” — This very short fable was written to accompany an arts display at a 2015 conference about bridging the gap between science and the arts. You can find it online here, and here is Marion’s review. Similar to the previous story, it juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated concepts: the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and an endangered species of parrot that lives nearby. As humans use the telescope to attempt to communicate with other intelligent species, the parrots lament that they’ve been trying to communicate with us for many years.

“Omphalos” — Original to this collection. What if the universe was only a few thousand years old and was Earth-centric? What would science look like? Chiang speculates on this idea with a protagonist who’s an archaeologist. She has a crisis of faith when presented with evidence that the Earth may not be the center of the universe after all.

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” — Original to this collection. What if the multiverse theory is true and what if we had the technology to communicate with our other selves in the alternate universes that spring up when we make one decision instead of another? In this fascinating story, scientists have created devices which people can purchase to get in touch with their other selves. This leads to a host of consequences, some good, some bad. Chiang explores these through the perspectives of characters who are in group therapy seeking counsel about their use of the devices. This novelette may be the best treatment of the Butterfly Effect that I’ve ever read.

I loved all of the stories in Exhalation. All are smart and entertaining as they explore recurrent themes such as child-rearing and how emerging technologies change the way we think. In the stories’ afterwords, Chiang often gives us background information that explains the story’s source and purpose. If you want to read some truly excellent speculative fiction stories, try these. I enjoyed the audiobook version produced by Random House Audio. It’s narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, Dominic Hoffman, Amy Landon, and Ted Chiang (the afterwords).

~Kat HooperExhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSince Kat has done such a good job of summarizing the plot of each of the stories in this collection, I’m just going to briefly add my own thoughts about each.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate:” Probably my favorite story in the collection. I love the nested story within the story Arabian Nights structure, the narrative voice, and the quietly moving intertwined themes of regret, redemption, and forgiveness.

“Exhalation:” A neat sideways twist on entropy in our universe and a lovely paean to the marvel of existence.

“What’s Expected of Us:” A cute exploration of free will that is exactly as long as it should be.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects:” I loved the idea of exploring the implications of artificial/virtual life: how people would bond (or not) with them, how they would grow and develop, the legalities of their personhood, the potential for abuse. The problem for me was that the story felt betwixt and between, feeling not long enough to bear the weight of all Chiang is trying to do with the detail he’s trying to employ. I’d have been happy to see it stripped of some of its details and events to create a zippier short story and even happier to see it longer for better characterization, transitions, and a richer style.

“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny:” A solid enough story that didn’t do a lot for me but as with “What’s Expected of Us,” Chiang shows a strong sense of just how far to take the concept.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling:” The theme of how our memories work both individually and culturally is a fascinating one, and I liked how Chiang uses the parallel structure here to make the point about the impact of new technology and ways of remembering/expressing on a culture (as well as a point about about colonialism in the earlier timeline story). It’s a thought-provoking tale, though the language was a little flat and at times the narrator’s voice a bit too on the nose for my personal liking.

“The Great Silence:” This one didn’t do much for me. It was an interesting tidbit, and again, Chiang knows not to run too long with it, but it just didn’t hold together for me.

“Omphalos:” Similar to “Exhalation,” I liked how Chiang took an idea from our world and turned it slantwise. Like “The Truth of Fact,” I liked the concept and thoughtfulness of this story, but felt the language was somewhat flat.

“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom:” My second favorite of the collection. I loved the concept of the parauniverses connected by “pads” and how Chiang used the strict parameters of allowable communication to drive the plot. Even better was the emotional journey of the main character and that melding of sci-fi concept and character-driven emotionality was what made this so appealing to me.

Exhalation is a strong collection with some slight tales and some that didn’t fully work, but none that were weak or that failed to inspire some thought or emotional response.

~Bill Capossere

From an award-winning science fiction writer (whose short story “The Story of Your Life” was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated movie Arrival), the long-awaited new collection of stunningly original, humane, and already celebrated short stories. This much-anticipated second collection of stories is signature Ted Chiang, full of revelatory ideas and deeply sympathetic characters. In “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and the temptation of second chances. In the epistolary “Exhalation,” an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications not just for his own people, but for all of reality. And in “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a woman cares for an artificial intelligence over twenty years, elevating a faddish digital pet into what might be a true living being. Also included are two brand-new stories: “Omphalos” and “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom.” In this fantastical and elegant collection, Ted Chiang wrestles with the oldest questions on earth—What is the nature of the universe? What does it mean to be human?—and ones that no one else has even imagined. And, each in its own way, the stories prove that complex and thoughtful science fiction can rise to new heights of beauty, meaning, and compassion.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

    View all posts
  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

    View all posts