Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

A deep, emotional collection of stories that keeps you asking questions well after you’ve put it down.
Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

You may have heard of Ted Chiang, but probably only in one of two ways: he wrote the novella that became the 2016 movie Arrival; and he writes approximately one short story each year. He’s considered one of the best science fiction writers alive, and he’s won a plethora of awards, including four Hugos.

Exhalation is Chiang’s second collection and it builds on the concepts Chiang first spilled forth in Stories of Your Life and Others, his debut collection of 2002. It’s a deeper investigation into what makes us special as humans – and suggests, ‘Maybe nothing?’

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The collection is a tapestry of amazing and hideous ideas. Every story is a revelation; an undertaking; a deep breath of horror inside your heart. Chiang’s work is amazing because every moment where you think he’ll stop the story, where he’ll wrap it up, good or bad, is never actually the end; he keeps digging, and pressing, and poking, until all that’s left is your raw thoughts and the moments you try to avoid.

The whole collection is a challenge: of the obvious; of the elegant and the elegiac, of the subliminal and the liminal. It is a challenge to the reader now, here, in 2019, as our climate emergency deepens around us; and I can envision it as a challenge to the reader of the future, whatever shape that may take. It uses the past to teach us lessons; it uses the future to create questions and ramifications we should already be considering.

The stories are all challenging, but in different ways. No story truly connects to any other in the collection. The settings range from the well-past (a pastiche of the 1001 Nights, set in a similar time), the could-have-been past (Georgian England, a steampunk past), the pasts of other worlds; the futures of other worlds. There’s a slight lean towards the epistolary, to the meta-story within the story. Some are slow and some storm ahead, but they all leave you feeling exhausted and thrilled.

A confession: I am a fast reader who rarely savours the words, preferring to consume concepts rather than sentences. But I make an exception for Chiang, whose every syllable is carefully constructed. It is always worth the pause.

A second confession: I hate time travel. It is a trap and cannot be trusted. But for Chiang, time travel is not a trick; it is never an ‘a-ha’ or a sleight of hand. It is instead a bedrock for the ramifications of science and colonialism; it is a contemplation of wrong and right and nothingness.

This collection is liberally sprinkled with time travel, but it is justified. The title story, ‘Exhalation’, is an epistolary of discovery, science and revelation, of the ramifications that spread beyond the self and into the universes beyond.

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ is about the tragedy of knowing your missed chances, but it’s also a question of morality. What is ethical responsibility when multiple versions of you exist simultaneously?

Perhaps the most affecting of the stories is ‘The Great Silence,’ which speaks to the tragedy of humans investigating space while destroying the planet beneath our feet. It might seem churlish to say that the story about humans ruining the Earth is the strongest one but it is devastating and unforgettable.

Chiang uses traditional science fiction tropes to challenge our thinking about hope, memory, and what kinds of knowledge we trust, and it left me questioning myself and science fiction tropes for days after reading this collection.

4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆

Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Imprint: Picador
ISBN: 9781529014518
Format: Trade Paperback
Category: Fiction & related items / Short stories
Release Date: 14 May 2019
Pages: 368
RRP: $29.99

Stephanie Lai

Monday 3 June, 2019

About the author

Stephanie Lai is a Chinese-Australian writer and climate emergency specialist. Her areas of expertise are community behaviour change, waste management, and climate change adaptation. She has published non-fiction in The Big Issue, Peril magazine, The Toast, The Lifted Brow, Overland and Pencilled In. Her recent short fiction can be found in the the anthologies Cranky Ladies of History, Behind the Mask, In Your Face, and Mother of Invention.