Updated: Sep 12, 2021
Exhalation: Stories, by Ted Chiang (2019)
I didn't love this collection of stories, but I did really enjoy some of them, and the collection as a whole has a technology-based sci-fi, AI, Big Brother kind of spin that was cool and interesting.
There are nine stories in this collection, tackling such issues as fate vs free will, animal extinction, alien intelligence, the fallibility of memory, alternate universes, and the pitfalls of creating AI so sophisticated it needs the constant care of a pet or a child.
My favorite was the very first story, "The Merchant & the Alchemist's Gate," a time travel tale set in ancient Baghdad. A series of stories-within-the-story show that, while you can travel backwards or forwards in time to confront yourself in another time, fate ultimately dictates every turn of events. You travel through the time travel gates to learn about yourself and your loved ones, not to alter their realities. “Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully."
Others included "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling," in which digital memory, called Remem, begins to take the place of people's actual memories, "replacing our malleable organic memories with perfect digital archives." As with all technological advances, there are pluses and minuses to this advancement. Another story, "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," employs the idea of infinite parallel universes that split off with each decision you make, resulting in thousands of "yous" living slightly (or very) different lives. Here, by activating a prism you are able to converse with another you, or "paraself," on an alternate timeline. This leads to insights and collaborations, but also leads many down the dark path of wondering whether any of their actions have real meaning, when every choice is “counterbalanced by a branch in which they had made the opposite choice.”
Many of the stories have a similar thread of "Here's this amazing new technology we have! Now... is it actually good for us, or is it bad for us?" There is a purposeful focus on what these technological advances say about the human condition, which was definitely thought-provoking. But I found myself wishing for more in-depth character work, as opposed to the long descriptions of the workings of new technological gadgets.
One of the things I liked the most about this collection was the set of "Author's Notes" at the back of the book, where Chiang briefly describes the inspiration for each story. For books (or movies, TV shows, etc.) that I'm not initially very fond of, it's often the case that as I hear more about the author's thought process, I appreciate it a lot more.
While I'm not giving this book a very high rating, I'd still recommend it to anyone who really like science fiction!
Listed on Barack Obama's 2019 Summer Reading List
One of the top ten books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review
UP NEXT: The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern