Ted Chiang is one of my favorite science fiction writers. His stories are like intricate carved puzzle boxes; science intersecting with fiction, one unlocking another, culminating in a reveal of the prize which is neatly tucked and hidden at its very core. The heart of his short stories are ideas. Ideas about people, place, technology and worlds that range from a construct like unraveling time to exploring virtual beings.
Exhalation is a collection of ideas in this regard. There are a total of nine stories and they explore ideas as diverse as time travel, causality, entropy, alternative timelines and metaverses. In this collection the ones that stuck to me are The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate; The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling; and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom. Without spoiling the specific machinations, these stories takes fantastical technologies and explores how people may exploit them for desire, nostalgia, insecurity and general fallibility. These three stories are on the longer side within this repertoire, and benefits from the space given to flesh out the characters and worlds. On the other end of the spectrum, a couple of stories were only a few delightful pages long.
I will refrain from discussing the ideas in these stories. There is a lot of awe in experiencing Chiang’s ideas for the first time and I do not wish to rob others of that agency. That is not to say that these stories diminish in efficacy after exhausting the reveal. The power of speculative fiction like this is in inventing novel settings and placing the characters in them. Then, the development and unfolding of the stories evoke our awe and empathy. Chiang works especially adeptly in the short story format. His work is in using fiction to explore concepts, and within this framework, each story goes through the lifetime the idea demands, and no more. Not for the companionship of the characters, nor the exploration of the worlds they inhibit in.
Chiang’s works remind me of Christopher Nolan’s movies, in that each entry is about fully realizing a singular idea. Similarly, and more so Nolan than Chiang, the characters can feel like props to the stage. The characters in the book are often unmemorable (and unnamed). I must say that I find it difficult to muster up much interest or empathy for them beyond their roles. Chiang alleviates some of that through first person narration by creating a story that is singularly focused on the inner world of the main character, but ultimately it is the idea or imagery that persists. That said, the more successful of his stories have an emotional linger, and within this collection I particularly like The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.
Chiang remains one of my favorite authors to read. I know this is not in the works, but I do want to see Chiang work some of his ideas into a longer form novel à la Neal Stephenson. Now, wouldn’t that deserve a deep exhalation?