Last month, the world became a little brighter – Ted Chiang published Exhalation, a short story collection brimming with another nine short stories. Some of these stories were published previously while others are brand new and original to this collection. All are heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Throughout, this collection contains the same balance of fanciful speculation and hard science fiction as his last collection. This, in short, is very Ted Chiang.
Of these nine stories, I was moved to tears by five. I was so moved by three that I immediately sent quotes to friends and family. During one, I had to pause twice: once to cry, and once to head to Amazon and order two more copies for friends.
It’s safe to say that I’m a fan.
As a whole, the collection is admittedly a little disjointed. Most of the stories in this collection are a familiar length, while one is over a hundred pages. No matter how good the stories are (and they are good – have I said that enough?) this was jarring. The stories also swing wildly in tone and genre. While Chiang’s last collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, covered a similar tonal scope, something about these felt somehow disjointed. Knowing how much care Chiang puts into his work I can only believe that this impression is intentional. I’m afraid, however, that the effect was lost on me.
As the titular story from this collection, Exhalation may be perfect. I hardly know what to say about it. The story is breathtaking and very, very Chiang.
Told from the perspective of characters it’s immediately apparent are not entirely human, it covers so many of the science fiction throughlines: the impact scientific advancement has on society, the way personal perspectives limit research, where consciousness comes from, where memory resides.
None of us can remember much more than a hundred years in the past, and written records – accounts that we ourselves inscribed but have scant memory of doing so – extend only a few hundred years before that. How many years did we live before the beginning of written history?
Where did we come from?
Full disclosure: this is the story that moved me so thoroughly I had to buy two more copies for friends. They’re currently in transit. I fully expect that 15 years from now I’ll still be referencing this story (one specific visual in particular). Be forewarned.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
This story is a bit of a sleeper. It’s on the longer side for this collection (still not even half the length of the longest story) and uses every page to great effect. While it’s entirely science fiction in familiar ways, Chiang introduces its themes subtly and carefully, so that you’re half-way through before you realize the water around you is boiling and you’re lost to the story.
Or at least I was.
It may be that I was easy prey for this one, though. It lines up a lot of my favorite themes, delivering them in a way that’s simultaneously intriguingly fresh and comfortingly familiar. It’s also one of the only stories that didn’t remind me of other works of fiction. For me, at least, while it played with all these familiar and beloved bits it was somehow not just unique but singular in that special way only art can be.
This story, too, contained the most human characters. There’s something about them – their cares, their woes – that felt elevated, and the characters were more vivid and realized than you really find in short fiction.
Jijingi realized that, if he thought hard about it, he was now able to identify the words when people spoke in an ordinary conversation. The sounds that came from a person’s mouth hadn’t changed, but he understood them differently; he was aware of the pieces from which the whole was made. He himself had been speaking in words all along. He just hadn’t known it until now.
Omphalos is perhaps the most ponderous inclusion in this collection. It’s a meditative read, with a very narrow narrative perspective, assembled solely of ruminations. It is a meditation on nothing short of man’s place in the universe, and is exemplar of what I believe is Chiang’s great strength – a fully-realized fictional world, whose oddities, rules, and circumstances he illustrates perfectly as the narrative unfolds. I’ve not encountered anyone does this better than he.
I began my lecture by discussing the growth rings of a tree trunk, and how the thickness of each ring depends on the rainfall during that year of the tree’s growth, so that a succession of narrow rings indicated a period of drought. I explained that by counting back from the year a tree was felled, we can compile a chronology of weather patterns going back many decades, beyond the memory of any person living. The past has left its traces on the world, and we only have to know how to read them.
Imagine, now, a world in which the oldest trees have no growth rings at their core. In which the oldest mammals have no growth plates in their bones. What could the far reaches of the past in this world hold? What mystery? What miracle?