Should we never find proof of other life forms in the universe, perhaps it is a comfort that the people here on Earth can be compassionate, intelligent and, in the case of Ted Chiang, very good at crafting short fiction that inspires both warm thoughts and cosmic-level feelings. Other impressions the reader is liable to have when finishing one or more of his stories: the universe can be wonderful, or puzzling, or both; and technology, though capable of twisting life into different forms, is more likely to facilitate the usual human issues than to mess around too drastically with who we are deep down.
This does not result in predictable stories. Instead, it means that Exhalation, Chiang’s first book since his debut collection appeared in 2002, is committed to exploring not just advanced technological concepts but also their intersections with people – how invention responds or fails to respond to things we want, and how providing ourselves with different solutions, different options, subjects us to different pressures too.
Like the stories in the author’s first collection – which has been published under different titles, particularly since one story was adapted as the 2016 film Arrival – the nine pieces here come in varying lengths and have been devised and realised with great care. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is an elegant story that sets the pace for Exhalation: the collection’s close focus on regular protagonists gives it an earthy realism even when the circumstances are far-flung, while the stories’ premises are always thoughtful and provocative. Here, a man in ancient Baghdad is shown the Gate of Years, in which 20 years are separated by two sides of a doorway. First as we watch the man decide whether to cross the Gate of Years, and then as we experience the consequences of his decision, Chiang folds an Arabian Nights structure into the story, showing what science fiction and older styles of storytelling have in common: both are about characters making choices, even in a deterministic universe.
This point is underscored later in the collection by one of the flash fictions that punctuate the longer works, in which people learn that free will seems to be an illusion but the interest comes from how they choose (so to speak) to respond. In “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, the point of the past, at least for the people who have to deal with it, appears to be that it’s a destination, like the future; in other words, like any place where they have yet to go. “I realise now that, even though the past is unchangeable, one may encounter the unexpected when visiting it,” the protagonist says. The guardian of the Gate of Years goes him one better: “Do you now understand why I say the future and the past are the same? We cannot change either, but we can know both more fully.”
Many of Exhalation’s characters are motivated by learning and knowledge, including the inventor of a robotic nanny, and a father and daughter whose bruised relationship could potentially be healed or perhaps just further damaged by their spelunking through their recorded memories. The title story posits a world in which citizens breathe by filling canister-like lungs with oxygen from a mysterious source; the hero is a scientist who puts himself at risk in pursuit of knowledge that might save his society. “Omphalos”, a highlight, is an example of Chiang’s ability to marry spiritual and scientific thought, showing how religion and reason are both human enterprises that hold open the possibility of meaning. Another slight story looks at the Fermi paradox – which asks why, when there should be many other civilisations out there, we humans seem to be so chillingly alone – from the pointed and upsetting angle of animal life on Earth, putting a new spin on a familiar idea.
But the book goes from good to great in two longer stories that take advantage of their length to explore some of the weirder reaches of their central ideas; to introduce some surprising narrative turns; and to get the reader empathising more deeply with their characters through showing their experience over extended spans of time, including some of the boring parts.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is the first of these two knockouts. Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks are colleagues in the thick of what may turn out to be the artificial-intelligence revolution, designing and training creatures known as digients in a virtual world called Data Earth. They both bring great compassion to their assignments, Ana having worked in zoos until most live animals were driven to extinction. The story follows Ana and Derek over many years as they and their digients fall prey to the market, which can be kind, mysterious or cruel. Through the years, they are given many reasons to ask questions about the relationship of biological to digital life and the possible heartbreak of making animals through proprietary technology. It would be a mistake to go into this story knowing too many of its contours, but it manages to feel both economical and sweeping, showing how the everyday world can move very far from what any of us might recognise by taking several ordinary-looking steps away.
The other extraordinary piece in the collection is the closing story, “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, in which commercially traded prisms allow brief communications between time lines that diverge once the prism is activated. It has both a high-stakes plot that puts in question a character’s morality – there’s a get-rich-quick scheme that involves trusting colleagues who live in other time lines – and a commitment to exploring the effects of those other time lines on our understanding of our private worlds.
In another universe, all this could be weighty and ponderous, but these stories develop through the simplest of means, with big ideas told in relaxed language and shapely storytelling. Exhalation has been worth the long wait: it’s a stunning collection.
Picador, 368pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Ted Chiang, Exhalation". Subscribe here.