Bookish Quick Facts:
- Title: Exhalation: Stories
- Author: Ted Chiang
- Publisher & Release: Knopf, 2019 (this edition anyway)
- Length: 368 pages
- Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I finished the Exhalation collection yesterday and after browsing the top reviews on GoodReads, immediately decided that I was not smart enough to write any kind of reaction to this collection. I actually sprung a headache trying to decipher some of these people’s essays. Anyway, then I shook myself out of that idiotic train of thought because if a review is more complex than the original text, and it’s giving my fairly literate brain a headache, what service is it doing?
As I was dwelling on the complexity and profundity I didn’t feel, it occurred to me that I read most of this book while in a haze of exhaustion and general feelings of “f*ck me my face hurts”, but I also don’t think that affected my absorption or comprehension of the text and ideas. So anyway, go read BlackOxford’s review if you want to feel smart, read mine if you want to feel like not a theological historian 🤣
Was I reading in a brain haze this week? Yes. Did I find any profound ideological connection to this? Not really. Did I enjoy reading it? Heck yes. Chiang has a straightforward, no nonsense writing style that is easy to read while not being overwhelming. One can pick or choose how deeply to dive into the context of any given story. I’ll admit I’m not in the best place to emotionally connect to stories right now though, so when I revisit Chiang in the future I’ll be sure to do so in a clear mind.
As in any collection (short stories aren’t necessarily my favorite thing to read) there are some really great stories, as well as some that I didn’t connect with at all. Some ideas were interesting enough that I would put the book down and think it out a bit prior to reading the next, while some I admit my reaction to was: huh?
One thing I liked was that no matter how off track Chiang would get in the middle of a story, even if I had NO clue how he was going from point A to point C, he would wrap each story up with a powerful conclusion that let me come around and say -“OH OK yes that’s what he was getting at”! As in, he left no doubt between the conclusion and the author’s note what the takeaway idea/food for thought was intended to be.
My favorite part of the book in general was how each story had an author’s note at the end, so that the process of reading felt more like a conversation. It was interesting to hear where he got his inspiration from, what ideas were important, and he tossed in a few anecdotes too. Any major questions I had were usually answered by the author’s note which is somewhat validating because I assumed it meant I was asking the right questions.
To talk about a few specific stories and ideas I liked –
The Lifecycle of Software Objects – I’m still just wondering what exactly that lady intended to do to that robot at the end. That said, it was a cool story (and the longest at 150 pages) because you can’t go wrong with AI and ethics and Chiang certainly didn’t. I also liked all the platonic, unrequited, interesting character relationships that evolved as the humans and AI interacted with one another.
My favorite story to read was The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling, because I just think it’s cool to examine memory and remembrance and the written form across cultures and society. I would certainly not want to remember every detail and argument of my life, I would go absolutely insane. It was the most relatable to me as far as the forgiving vs forgetting theme and how we piece memories together. Oh Nicole, I feel you.
In Exhalation: so this was probably the most “profound” story but I’m a critical care nurse in real life and I don’t need anyone to preach inevitability to me. Been there, had that existential crisis already. The robot surgery was for sure an interesting idea.
So yes, yes, go examine your life and have profound thoughts, for sure, don’t let me dissuade you from writing a dissertation on this story but I’m only here to enjoy the ride.
The other story that stood out was Omphalos and the lady that had to reassess her world view regarding the existence of God as science evolved. It was another story where I wasn’t sure what Chiang was getting at until the end and I ended up struck by the theme of finding your own peace and satisfaction in the day to day, and, I guess finding your own validation.
Overall, the best I can do is advise people to read Chiang on a fresh brain and stay open minded throughout each story, since the ending always brings the story around full circle. Don’t let a few really, really smart sounding reviews and elitists scare you away.
I would definitely recommend Chiang to hard sci-fi fans and those who like to chew on big ideas, or, those who just enjoy a good story. There’s enough slice of life thrown in that I think just about anyone can read these and get some enjoyment out of it.
What made me feel small today was standing under these 8+ foot fall sunflower type variants, I don’t need the graveyard of space to feel like an inevitable ant thanks 🤣