Reading a Ted Chiang anthology is an experience that slowly claims little corners of your brain until eventually your whole head is devoted to it. You read and digest one story, but each tale is so compelling and complex that no matter how long you wait, that first story will continue to beg questions even as you try to digest a second. One after another, Chiang’s stories claim their place in your mind until you’re completely swept up in his provocative and at times even charming world.
Exhalation, Chiang’s latest collection of stories covering almost 20 years of his work, gathers nine tales that ponder questions of the nature of consciousness, the rigidity of history, our relationship with the machines that increasingly take control of our lives and more. In the title story, the narrator uses their own artificial lungs as the basis for a study on the nature of reality. In “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” Chiang explores time travel as it might have existed in a time before science fiction pushed it into the public consciousness. “The Great Silence,” one of the book’s shortest tales, explores the intellect and mortality of a parrot. Then there’s the collection’s centerpiece, the novella-length “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” which explores the growth and developing lives of a group of digital organisms and the humans who care for them.
Each story is a carefully considered, finely honed machine designed to entertain, but this collection also forces you to look at things like your smartphone or your pet with new eyes. What makes Exhalation particularly brilliant is that not one of the stories feels like it’s designed to be thought-provoking in a stilted, academic way. Chiang is an entertaining, empathetic writer first, before being one of contemporary sci-fi’s intellectual powerhouses, and each story reads that way.
Exhalation is a must-read for any fan of exquisitely crafted sci-fi. Chiang has reminded us once again that he’s one of the most exciting voices in his field, and that we shouldn’t expect him to wane any time soon.