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BOOK REVIEW: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

| 17 August 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

May 2019
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Science Fiction / Short Stories / Novellas

84% Rocking


From the 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.


Despite an opening story which was rather underwhelming for this reader and is likely to be the same for quite a few science fiction lovers, Ted Chiang is a master of the craft, and this collection on a whole is quite exceptional.

This is no real surprise given the author penned the novella that went on to become the multiple award-winning and highly praised Arrival, and has won many an award for his writing in the past.

Avid followers of Chiang’s work will not find much they haven’t seen from him before, as only two of the nine stories in this collection haven’t been published elsewhere before. But, long-time reader of Chiang or not, this is a brilliant collection to explore and to have on your shelf.

Throughout these stories, readers are bound to feel some Black Mirror vibes, and the world-building is so exceptional that you won’t want to step away from this book until it’s gone and you’re looking around for more of this author’s genius.

As a reader, I usually have a problem sticking with a short story collection, finding it too easy to set down between stories and forget about. With the exception of the two weeks between reading the underwhelming first story and the intriguing second story, I flew through this collection like very few before. As such, if you pick this collection up and stall on the first story, I urge you to push past it.


Of particular note in this collection were the following stories:

The Lifecycle of Software Objects – digital entities are developed with an unprecedented level of intelligence, but over time new software becomes the latest fad and the digients are no longer in demand. A select few people show ongoing loyalty to these old-school beings, and step into a parental role of sorts.
There are metaphors here for real parental experience, but also comments on the way some might see animals as “just pets” while others see them as family.

The Great Silence – a parrot laments the fact that humans won’t take the time to listen to its kind – an intelligent species that share the same planet as them rather than searching the universe for signs of life they might be able to converse with.
There are comments here on the lack of care humans show their own planet and the beings who share it with us, about looking for something off in the distance when we should be more aware of what’s in our own back yard… and also a kind of unrequited love, though not of the romantic kind.

Omphalos – in a highly religious world, where science and faith are inextricably linked, and there are signs of the creation in the primordial animals whose skeletons appear to have come into being when they were fully-grown and humans without bellybuttons.
The highly-religious tone nearly lost me (the story itself is the main characters prayers to her God), but the world-building here is so phenomenal, and there’s more to this story than its religiosity.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom – With the invention of Prisms, which allow people to talk to their parallel selves across an infinite variety of worlds after the date of activation, a whole new world is born… many, in fact.
The world-building here is exceptional, with specialist retailers, data brokers who can source information from other timelines, support groups, and scams. It’s the kind of world that could easily and enjoyably be expanded into a novel, but it also stopped at just the right time to leave the reader satisfied with the story in itself, but with the collection as a whole.

I have yet to read The Story of Your Life and Others, but it has been moved well up the pile after the experience this collection provided.


Have you read Chiang’s work before? Are you interested in reading him if you haven’t already?

After this amazing ride, I’m interested in trying more short story collections and would love to hear your suggestions of collections, as well as authors you think do the short story/novella format justice.

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