Monday, June 29, 2020

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

I have had a really good reading year, but at the halfway point, this collection is among the best things I've read so far, not counting rereads (discounting for the fact I’ve read two of the stories before). There are five perfect stories and four others that are still very good, but suffer a little by comparison.

The opener The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is one of the perfect stories. It has a 1001 nights structure and is about gates through time in the ancient Middle East. On one level it is a thought experiment about being able to time travel but not change history. One of the best things about this collection is Chiang’s knack for combining relatively high concept scifi, believable people and genuine self reflection. All this is on full display here. (This is one of the stories I had read before, or rather heard on the Levar Burton Reads podcast last summer. I highly recommend giving that a listen. Burton is a wonderful narrator.)

The title story is the first time in a long time that hard scifi moved me to tears.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects was actually the first thing I read by Chiang (it was published as a standalone novella). It is even better on a second pass. It posits the idea that if it takes 20 years for humans to be fully formed that's probably true of artificial intelligence as well. It takes AI and the idea of digipets and makes something incredibly moving and human out of them.

The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling is superb. It's a near future scifi parable of sorts that uses a technology that records all of a person's interactions as a tool of self-knowledge. It explores the idea of how our technology changes us by comparing those digital technologies to the introduction of writing. Seeing the actuality of your past would destroy the narrative you’ve created for yourself. It’s disconcerting to contemplate. I don’t throw the term wise around often, but this is a wise story.

The final novella in the collection, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, gives a resounding answer of yes to the question, “Could someone write a mashup of scifi con job and ethical Socratic dialog and make it a compelling story?”

The collection as a whole requires the reader to do some self reflection without being preachy. The stories are perfectly constructed in both conception and execution. Chiang's previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others (the title story of which was the basis for the excellent movie Arrival), may be more consistent, but the best stuff in this collection is on par with it. I can't recommend this highly enough.

The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate- Canon
Exhalation- Canon Worthy
What’s Expected of Us- Recommended
The Lifecycle of Software Objects- Canon Worthy
Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny- Recommended
The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling- Canon Worthy
The Great Silence- Recommended
Omphalos- Highly Recommended
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom- Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 43/75

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