Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Posted on January 18, 2020
Sometimes, I really miss my university days. One of my favorite classes I ever took was a humanities course called Topics: Science Fiction as Myth. I signed up because I had just taken a fantastic Intro to Classic Greek Myth course with the professor who was going to teach it. A couple of times a week, in one of a hundred cramped classrooms within a deteriorating liberal arts building, we would all whip out our gigantic Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction and discuss the short stories within.
The professor created this class by combining his extensive knowledge of ancient myths with the relatively nascent genre of science fiction. His assertion was that sci-fi literature was modern myth-making. Myths are stories that play a fundamental role in society; they seek to explain, teach, warn, and predict. Whenever technology or scientific understanding progresses, science fiction writers are the prophesiers who evaluate and explore the possible repercussions of that advancement. How is humanity going to tackle the problems that face us in the coming centuries? Our ever-creeping progress (e.g. cloning, genetic engineering, A.I., etc.) is leading to moral quandaries that ask us what it means to be human.
Reading Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Exhalation, summoned me back to that tiny classroom. I can easily imagine us reading any one of Chiang’s stories and the thought provoking discussions that would ensue. Exhalation is not just a short story collection, it is an achievement. Chiang’s voice stands out in exploring the complex mythos sprouting from the age of information and technology. Some words to describe the nine short stories – clear, cerebral, clean, contained, confident. Every short story is distinct from the next, almost as if each one was a new exploratory album by the same genius artist. His language isn’t necessarily poetic, but it doesn’t have to be; however, there is a poetic quality to the depth in which he explores his ideas. The themes he investigates are wide ranging, such as the development and maturation of artificial intelligence, the acquisition of language, the truth of memory, the search for God, and the meaning of consciousness.
Don’t read these stories in a hurry, as I wouldn’t describe this collection as casual reading. Each story dives deep into its topic, and deserves to be savored. I was going to list my favorites from the collection, but I just about wrote down every story. Suffice it to say, this is a must read for any science fiction aficionados.