Book review: Exhalation

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories continues to demonstrate his ability to take “big idea” science fiction themes like time travel and parallel universes, and relate them at a personal level or present them in ways that are fresh and inventive. Long after reading them I am still lingering over the questions they raise, playing out various “What if?” scenarios in my head.

Two of the nine stories are originals and one, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is a perfect example of what Chiang does so well. Here, he imagines a near-future where devices called prisms allow people to communicate with others–including themselves–in parallel dimensions. The design of the prisms means each one eventually exhausts itself, forcing any communication to ultimately end. Around this Chiang weaves the stories of several characters caught at crossroads in their lives, hung up on actions or decisions in the past that have kept them from moving forward, and how the prisms help (or hinder) them.

The longest piece is “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, a novella which imagines another near-future where “digients”, basically cute-looking AI pets that are capable of learning (and acting) like small children, are made as companions for virtual worlds people can visit.

Over a period of twenty years the main character of Ana Alvarado works to not only keep her digient and others like it alive after the company that created them shuts down, she works with others to get them to evolve past their child-like minds, to learn and become more. Chiang convincingly presents the idea that there is no shortcut available in doing this, that the teaching of the AI is slow and methodical, and has costs on the emotional and mental energy of its teachers. He also manages to create convincing relationships between Ana, her AI robot Jax and others that feels authentic without becoming creepy or weird. The people in the story are flawed, but smart and believable.

The other stories are just as entertaining and thought-provoking. If you enjoy speculative science fiction, this is among the best. Highly recommended.

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