sturgeonslawyer (sturgeonslawyer) wrote,

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang (2019-33)

Ted Chiang has some mighty big boots to fill, and they are his own. His first collection, _Stories of Your Life and Others_, with stories like "Tower of Babylon," "Seventy-two Letters," and of course,"The Story of Your Live," is so massively good that the "sophomore" volume might easily disappoint.

It doesn't, I am happy to say. Each of the nine stories in _Exhalation_  is a gem of stfnal alienation, neither longer nor shorter than it needs to be to do the job it does.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is a time travel tale that evokes the "Thousand Nights and a Night" tales, and takes on the question of free will and inevitability -- a recurring theme in this collection.

"Exhalation" is easily the weirdest tale in this collection, and I admit it took me a few pages to get into it. It might be an allegory of environmental decay. It is certainly an illustration of the Third Law of Thermodynamics.

"What's Expected of Us" is another take on free will. The shortest story in the collection, it is less a story than a _gedankenexperiment_. What if a machine could accurately know what you will do in five seconds? (Shades of resublimated thiotimoline!)

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects," is the longest. Here we have software agents designed to be cute, as pets, with fairly-strong AI powering them. Directly attacks the question of animal rights, which we will see again in a short while.

"Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny" is an almost-plausible bit of alternate Victoriana -  not quite steampunk, but certainly compatible with it. A bit of a horror story under the tale of a marvelous invention that isn't so marvelous after all.

"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" is about the kind of stories we construct about ourselves, and two kinds of truth: what we "know" to be true, and facts.

"The Great Silence" is told by a parrot, who wants to know why we are wasting our time on SETI when we have other species to talk to right here.

"Omphalos" is the second weirdest story in the book. Its basic premise is an alternate world where archaeology turns up proof of a young Earth, rather than the extensive fossil record, and what it would take to shake faith in a world like that.

"Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom" is another meditation on free will, as well as an exploration of how to turn your life around. "Prisms" let you talk to alternate versions of yourself, in worlds that branch off just as the prism is activated.

The thing is, Chiang isn't just doing intellectual exploration of "big ideas". Other than a couple of thought-experiment stories, these stories all go for the feels, putting human beings into situations derived from the big ideas - and they do it well. 
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