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Exhalation – Review

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Written by Ted Chiang

Published in 2019 by Alfred A. Knopf

Medieval Baghdad. Alien worlds. The far future. These are just a few of the places Ted Chiang takes the reader in his short story collection, Exhalation. Chiang is a master of the short story. He writes in the science-fiction genre and specializes in speculative fiction. Even though he's never written a full length novel, his short stories have been nominated for a plethora of literary awards. He's won multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for his short stories, including several that are included in this collection.

Whenever I think of speculative fiction, I tend to think of stories set in the future. Throughout the book, and especially in the first story, Chiang redefined speculative fiction for me. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate was a great story with which to open the collection. This story was like a science-fiction inspired Arabian Nights. The story ignited my imagination and put me in the perfect mindset to appreciate the stories that would follow.

There were several stories I found very interesting. The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling felt like an updated and more plausible version of the premise behind Phillip K. Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. I loved that The Great Silence is written from the perspective of a parrot. It made the philosophical examination of the nature of communication and vocalization all the more intriguing. There were other stories that were objectively good but that I had a hard time getting interested in. The science described in the story Omphalos and the eponymous Exhalation was over my head. This made these stories less relatable.

My favorite story was the novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects. This story centers around virtual worlds and the digital lifeforms created within them. These lifeforms, called digients, possess embodied artificial intelligence. They are born in the digital space where they learn and grow just like the organic animals of the real world. Like all living creatures, they development best when receiving guidance and instruction from caregivers. The story follows several digients, and their artificial-life hobbyist owners, from their inception through the first half of their lives. This story really triggered my nostalgia. It was like reading a story about realistic Tamagotchi or Digimon. In this novella, Chiang creates a world that is both fantastical and realistic. Just like their owners, the reader comes to really care about the lives and fates of the digients in the story.

The book's final story, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, had my favorite narrative. I didn't understand all of the science, but was intrigued by the story's premise and the implications such a premise brought up. Retroactive fortune telling via divergent timelines is a concept I'd love to see explored further. In addition, I've always found philosophies on morality to be fascinating. It was interesting to see morality concepts and questions of free will examined through Chiang's unique lens of speculative fiction.

Chiang includes author notes for each story at the back of the book. A fact I didn't realize until I reached the end. The insights offered by these notes changed by perspective on some stories and made me like others that I didn't care for beforehand. I'd suggest readers check out the specific author's notes upon completion of each individual story. Full of accurate science, complex characters, and thought provoking concepts, Exhalation is an amazing collection of short stories, novelettes, and novellas. These works of short fiction explore themes that many readers will find enjoyable, even those who aren't usually fans of science-fiction.