by Ted Chiang
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ted Chiang does not publish enough fiction, but when he does, it is always the cause for celebration. Of course, when Chiang publishes stories, they frequently are in out of the way places and not necessarily easy to find, even if the reader is aware of them. Fortunately, Chiang has published his second collection of stories, Exhalation, a mere 17 years after he published Stories of Your Life and Others. These stories come from a variety of sources: magazines, e-zines, stand-alone volumes. Two are being published in this collection for the first time.
“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” tells the story of Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a merchant fallen on hard times. When the opportunity presents itself, he begins telling stories of a magical gate to another world to the Caliph of Baghdad. Each of the stories Fuwaad ibn Abbas tells the Caliph are different in the protagonists' intentions and the results of their work. Underlying all of them is a sense of predeterminism, as all that can be done is the will of Allah. Chiang packs in plenty of characterization and setting to make the story feel longer than it actually is.
"Exhalation" focuses on the theme of memory, which features in many of the stories in the collection. It is the story of a self-aware robot in a society of robots. When a regulated task appears to take longer than it should for robots in many districts, he comes up with an experiment to determine how robots' brains work, something they don't fully understand. In a theme that recurs throughout the collection, the robot is trying to understand how memory works and what can be done to improve, extend, and retrieve forgotten memories. The act of using a robot to do the research instead of a human (which don't appear to exist within the robot's consciousness) offers up a separation between the activity in the story and the reader/humans Chiang is writing about.
While “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” touches on the concept of predestination, that becomes the focus of “What’s Expected of Us,” which looks at a simple gizmo that reacts a second before it is activated, reminiscent in many ways of Isaac Asimov’s “The Endochronic Properties of Reublimated Thiotomoline.” Chiang explores the negative impact of the realization that free will is illusory, resulting a world that seems similar in some ways to Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways.” While the fate of Chiang’s narrator is less permanent than Niven’s, the worldview of this story is not any less bleak.
Originally published in its own volume, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” looks at the rise of artificial intelligence in a virtual world and how flesh and blood people will react to such constructs when they are linked to lovable avatars called digients. Chiang shows these digients maturing from simple constructs who essentially have play dates with each other, to individuals with their own cares and concerns, not least of which is the knowledge that digients frequently disappear when their owners lose interest or the fact that they can be rolled back and lose some of their experiences. The digients become even more interesting when Chiang allows them to develop their own personalities and interests.
“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” was written for Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, which is a collection of short stories focusing on the strange relics of a pseudo-Victorian England that have made their way into the titular doctor’s collection. Chiang focused on a mechanical nanny designed to raise Reginald Dacey’s son and also help Dacey raised the funds to create an educational engine that governesses could use to teach their charges. The machine worked, but after a publicized injury was a commercial failure. Chiang follows Dacey’s son’s attempts to reintroduce the device a generation later, using many of the same techniques his father used to sell an automated Mary Poppins.
Chiang takes a look at memory and technology in "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction," which examines the introduction of two different type sof technology for recording memories and how it impacts that way people view their history. In the primary story, the narrator is discussing the invention of Remem, a lifeloggingin service which uses the sort of videos, recordings, and photos people take of their own and other people's lives and indexes them so people can access the recordings of events instead of just relying on their memories. In a secondary story, he relates teh tale of the Tiv, a Nigerian people to whom the British introduced writing in the 1940s. In both cases, the introduction of a new way of recording memories causes the characters, both the narrator and the Tiv scribe Jijingi, to realize how malleable memory is and, perhaps even more importantly, how people can reject the evidence of what "really" happened when it clashes with their own memories of the events.
“The Great Silence” is a look at the Fermi Paradox, which questions why we haven’t been able to find any sign of alien life. However, while the humans are looking for intelligent life in the galaxy, Chiang is looked at intelligent life on Earth, focusing his attention of the parrots of Puerto Rico whose speech is a hint that there might be more to learn from and about them. The narrator, one of those parrots, is philosophical about humanity‘s quixotic search even as he realizes that parrots will most likely go extinct before humans realize the level of intelligence they possess, making for a bittersweet story about missing the things that are right under your nose.
"Omphalos" posits a young earth and looks, in part, at how that would impact science. Atacama mummies without navals and dendochronology that can be used to date the exact year of the creation are evidence of the creation. The world Chiang has built is similar, but not the same as ours and religion plays an enormous part in the social polity since the Biblical story of creation can be demonstrated as having a basis in fact. The discovery of a star that appears to orbit a distant planet sparks a crisis of faith since it implies that at best the humans on Earth were created as a test run for another race which is actually the primary focus of the divine.
“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” is an original story to the collection and it returns to the question of predestination that was discussed in earlier stories, with an even stronger parallel to Niven’s short story. Chiang has been worlds in which communications between timelines is possible via a device called a PRISM. Chiang meticulously sets up the rules for how the communications works and follows several people with intersecting paths. His protagonist is Nat, a woman who is a drug user working in a story that provides access to PRISMs and who helps her manager, Morrow, with scams to supplement her income. One of those scams involves her going to a PRISM support group run by Dana for people who are addicted to PRISM use the way Nat has been addicted to drugs. Using the stories of the various people in the support group, as well as Dana’s other patients, Chiang explores how the knowledge that there are multiple versions of oneself who can act and react in different ways raise questions about destiny and intention. While Niven’s story was focused on an individual, Chiang opens his worlds to a much broader interpretation, bringing a complexity to his story that Niven could only hint at.
|The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate||The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling|
|Exhalation||The Great Silence|
|What's Expected of Us||Omphalos|
|The Lifecycle of Software Objects||Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom|
|Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny|
|Purchase this book|