Ted Chiang’s second book, “Exhalation: Stories,” is another collection of mind-expanding stories from one of the most talented SF writers of his generation. Much anticipation preceded this tome, as Chiang’s much-lauded first book, “Stories of Your Life,” featured stories that saw the author win several Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. Its titular tale was the basis for the also-excellent film “Arrival,” starring Amy Adams and directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Chiang’s stories are characterized by challenging ideas, gracefully teased and then fleshed out in well-considered worlds and scenarios populated by interesting characters. It’s not high-octane future tech shoot-’em-ups but cogent ruminations on the kinds of ideas that would radically alter civilization. Some of the ideas feel inevitable, perhaps a decade or so away were it not hampered by the current limits of technology. In this some newer readers will perhaps sense a familiarity, as these short stories and one novella would not be out of place in a season of Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror.” “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” calls to mind the episode “The Complete History of You,” with its embedded cameras recording every moment of a person’s life, complete with a twist that recalls “Macross Plus.”
In the longest piece, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” (perhaps Chiang’s longest work ever), whole years transpire in the tale of digital creatures called digients that can learn. First existing virtually, they can eventually inhabit robot bodies. It raises questions about artificial intelligence, autonomy, responsibility, with “smaller,” more personal crises like maintaining a relationship when both parties aren’t on the same page.
Chiang’s skill at playing devil’s advocate is impressive, slowly and gently unpacking multiple perspectives and ramifications of new tech (and thus new possibilities); he’ll have you so convinced of a certain stand to take on an issue only to pull the rug out from under you. It’s like watching a particularly skillful magician at work.
The stories’ publication dates range from 2005-2015, but some themes emerge that unite the anthology. Free will crops up at least thrice. Memory and how its imperfection keeps us sane is another. There are very short pieces, average-length ones, and two longer works that aren’t quite novella-length.
Story Notes at the end are a nice bonus as Chiang provides context and unpacks some of his thinking in writing the stories.
It is gratifying to see the promise Chiang exhibited with his first collection be continued with such aplomb in this latest anthology. One can only hope that his next gathering comes sooner than later, unless he’s finally embarking on a novel-length story. That will almost certainly be worth the wait.