Exhalation – Brilliance With Every Breath It Takes

71wcezdltrlEveryone should read this book. Last year I decided to watch the movie Arrival on a whim. It was already late, I just wanted something on in the background while I did work in bed, and I thought it looked like a fun movie I might enjoy half watching. Two hours later, I woke my wife up because I was sobbing so hard and then since she was now awake, I proceeded to rave to her about one of my new favorite movies. If you haven’t seen Arrival, you should do so. But what does that have to do with today’s review? Well if you live under a rock like me and are also somehow unaware of the Science Fiction sensation Ted Chiang, the movie Arrival is based on a short story that he wrote. Although he is quite famous and accomplished, I somehow hadn’t heard of him. Luckily for me, a kind and thoughtful friend, who knew of my love for Arrival, purchased Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalation, for my birthday. I don’t usually like short stories because I feel they have a harder time telling meaningful stories compared to full novels. So while I was excited to check out more from Chiang, I put the book low in my to-read pile, but with the looming deadline of our best of 2019 list, I decided to read it in case it deserved a spot on our best of 2019 list. Spoilers, it does, and way at the top.

As I mentioned before, Exhalation is a short story collection that is about three hundred pages long. There are nine stories in the collection, and they vary wildly in length with one being less than four pages long and another taking up a third of the page count at around one hundred and ten pages. I decided I was going to read one story a night over a week and some and use the book as a nice palette cleanser for my larger books. That did not happen; I read the entire thing in a single sitting and then went back and reread some of the stories I liked more. What I expected was a brilliant and talented sci-fi writer spitballing some ideas in a stream of consciousness. What I got was some of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing explorations of both classic science fiction quandaries and new ideas I had never considered. The nine stories in the collection and a quick line on their topics are:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Time travel and destiny
  • “Exhalation” – Nature of the universe
  • “What’s Expected of Us” – Nature of free will
  • “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – Nature of AI
  • “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” – Human development
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” – Historical accuracy
  • “The Great Silence” – The search for intelligent life
  • “Omphalos” – Creationism
  • “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” – Decisions and their Consequences

Many of the stories have been previously published in other places and cover a long period of time in Chiang’s writing career. Chiang clearly curated the selection, allowing the stories to enhance each other and the larger themes of the collection. I loved almost all of the stories and feel it was probably the strongest short story collection I have read. The only story I wasn’t completely enamored with was the longest one, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, because I felt it was a little slow and was about a subject I find less interesting. That said, even my least favorite story I still consider a work of art.

Chiang has beautiful prose that is both efficient and evocative in its descriptions. He seems like an author that thrives in the short story format and knows how to do more with less than most other authors I have read. He also has an Einstein-esk quality about him in that he seems to strive to make complicated topics as comprehensible and accessible as possible. I think anyone, regardless of their affinity with science fiction, can pick up and enjoy this book. Chiang presents complex, nuanced ideas and arguments but compacts them with brilliant minimalism to make them easily digestible, without sacrificing depth.

The two shorts that best exemplify Chiang’s incredible ability to emotionally and intellectually capture his reader are What’s Expected of Us and The Great Silence. At less than four pages, I laughed when I opened the book to What’s Expected of Us? I thought, “What argument can an author possibly make in four pages that is meaningful?”. The story is about a simple beeper that is precognitive. It knows when you are going to press it and will light up a second before you do. In the four pages of the story, Chiang argues that the existence of such a device disproves the idea of free will and if you can accurately predict any event in the future, you can accurately predict all events in the future. It would be an impressive concept in a full book but is all the more so because it is explored in depth in such a short space. The second story, The Great Silence, is based on the actual grey parrot Alex who showed signs of self-awareness and high intelligence while he was alive. The story is about how in humanities search for extraterrestrial life they are so focused on the stars that they can’t recognize intelligent life right in front of them. At eight pages in length, this story managed to move me and break my heart at the same time.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Exhalation is there is an author’s note at the back. In it, Chiang talks about the inspiration and experience that inspired each story and helps you better understand the motivations and meanings of each story. As a whole, the collection exudes purpose, thoughtfulness, and curiosity. I think this would be a perfect book for any book club because there is so much that I want to talk about with people who have finished the stories. Since finishing the book I have harassed multiple friends into buying it and going on the journey through the stories. If you are looking for a Holiday gift for a reader than look no further. Exhalation by Ted Chiang is easily one of the best books that have come out this year, and you absolutely should have a copy on your shelves. To the person who bought it for me as a gift, thank you.

Rating: Exhalation – 10/10
-Andrew