A handful of living science fiction writers have attained godlike status—N.K. Jemisin, Cixin Liu, and Ann Leckie, to name a few. But Ted Chiang is the only one who’s done it without writing a novel ... oh, his stories. They’re a religious experience ... In Exhalation, which could be subtitled 'Black Mirror For Optimists,' every story seems crafted with one objective in mind—pure awe ... The three longer stories in Exhalation are Chiang’s finest work to date ... Savor all nine of these stories. Read them one sitting at a time, somewhere still and quiet, and let them sink in.
Chiang’s ongoing interest in questions of free will and determinism is the motif that emerges most strongly across this collection ... [His] stories are clearly philosophical thought experiments, they are also what we might call parables of the human condition, albeit without the didacticism this term might imply. Chiang’s stories are about choice and regret, about taking responsibility for one’s actions, about love, and about forgiveness, of oneself as much as of others ... brief notes at the end of the volume in which Chiang explains the occasions or ideas that motivated each story. His reflections significantly enhance the collection, providing, as they do, a brief insight into Chiang’s mind at work ... a ready-to-hand comparison that encapsulates his method is to think of his work as a prose version of ideas similar to those explored by the highly popular Black Mirror television series. Yet this comparison also does an injustice to Chiang’s work in that it might incline us to overlook the magnificent subtlety and nuance with which Chiang proceeds, in contrast to the often heavy-handed polemic of the series. This collection is a stunning achievement in speculative fiction, from an author whose star will only continue to rise.
Contemporary issues relating to bioethics, virtual reality, free will and determinism, time travel, and the uses of robotic forms of A.I. are addressed in plain, forthright prose. If Chiang’s stories can strike us as riddles, concerned with asking rather than with answering difficult questions, there is little ambiguity about his language ...
The new collection starts with 'The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,' a quirkily original exploration of time travel set in a mythical, ancient Baghdad ... An ingenious turn-of-the-twentieth-century automaton is the subject of 'Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny' ... It is both a surprise and a relief to encounter fiction that explores counterfactual worlds like these with something of the ardor and earnestness of much young-adult fiction, asking anew philosophical questions that have been posed repeatedly through millennia to no avail ... Chiang spends a good deal of time describing the science behind the device, with an almost Rube Goldbergian delight in elucidating the improbable ... The stories in Exhalation are mostly not so magically inventive as those in Chiang’s first collection, but each is still likely to linger in the memory the way riddles may linger.
...deeply beautiful ... each individual tale feels like its own conversation, several of them centered on discussions between intelligent people with different opinions exploring a difficult subject together ... In addition to the patient clarity of the stories, there are notes to each one at the end of the book, adding an extra dimension to the collection ... Reading this book felt like being seated at dinner with a friend, one who will explain the state of the sciences to you without an ounce of condescension, making you a participant in the knowledge. It is as generous as it is marvelous, and I’m left feeling nothing so much as grateful for it.
Chiang’s stories are uniformly notable for a fusion of pure intellect and molten emotion. At the core of each is some deep conceptual notion rich with arcane metaphysical or scientific allure. But surrounding each is a narrative of refined human sensitivity and soulfulness. This, the ideal definition and practice of all science fiction, is seldom achieved ... The two stories original to this collection are both masterful and striking ... His challenging and rewarding fiction proves that a sizable and appreciative audience exists for the kind of speculative fiction that doesn’t merely offer cosmic explosions, but that instead plucks both heartstrings and gray matter in equal measure.
... presents Chiang’s unique talent in abundance, though those who have been following his work closely for some time may be disappointed to discover that most of the stories have been published before. But this is a minor gripe. Ultimately, the collection offers convenient, one-stop access to a selection of Chiang’s finest works from the past fourteen years ... Chiang’s unadorned and straightforward writing style keeps the focus on what’s most special about his stories: their ingenuity, their sheer and exhilarating inventiveness. This inventiveness is all the more remarkable for the insights it provides into the complexities of our relationships with other people and with the world around us, as well as into the technologies we create that, in turn, define who we are.
There are books so jammed with brilliant, mind-exploding ideas it's like the author packed fireworks between the covers, all strung together on a very short fuse. There are others that take a single fascinating notion and walk all the way around it ... to read Ted Chiang is to do both at the same time. Chiang is, among other things, a short story specialist ... His voice and style are so beautifully trim it makes you think that, like one of his characters, he has a magical looking-box hidden in his basement that shows him nothing except the final texts of stories ... Like Annie Proulx or Jim Harrison, he has that tool in his box that makes him capable of telling a story of decades in a handful of words.
Chiang...has an original—and gratifyingly accessible—way of contending with the ethical and existential quandaries that regularly crop up in his work. These are humane, skillfully assembled stories, populated by vivid and memorable characters. Even his lone misstep is interesting ... If not always upbeat, his best stories boast a beguiling mix of compassion and awe ... Worthy of comparisons to the work of sci-fi innovators like Philip K. Dick ... Chiang’s formal inventiveness drives several...stories ... He likes to hop around, exploring a varied set of ideas and employing whatever narrative style suits his aims. His versatility and intellectual restlessness have yielded an immensely pleasing book.
Ted Chiang has the powers of analysis and invention necessary for the alchemy ... The stories in Exhalation for the most part continue in this vein of patient, methodical elaboration ... the perfection of the weave may add to a reader’s impression that there is something inexorable about Chiang’s writing. Is the control a mere demonstration of skill, or does it have a deeper significance? The voice in the stories is never personal, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where, in any of them, Chiang himself seems to be writing from. It’s possible that he regards the world as a somewhat remorseless pattern, and his personal self as no more than a component of it ... Some readers may find it quixotic for Chiang to work through the ethical implications of alternate universes so methodically. But fiction does more or less what the prisms in his story do: provide a finite glimpse, through an imperfect medium, of one way things might have turned out ... Considered in this light, multiple selves and speculative responsibilities turn out not to be all that abstruse; what Chiang has done is take the idea of fiction seriously.
Chiang’s stories are among the most complex and fascinating in modern science fiction, and each one creates a tremor when it first appears ... Each of his stories, from microfiction to novella, is a thought experiment played out through human lives ... Chiang’s prose is liquid and seductive, and his emotional entanglements create subtle agony. His writing shows how crucial written fiction still is ... If Jorge Luis Borges’ fables had deep human dimension, they would read like Chiang’s tales; Chiang’s writing deserves to be treated with equal respect and reverence.
Reading a Ted Chiang anthology is an experience that slowly claims little corners of your brain until eventually your whole head is devoted to it ... each tale is so compelling and complex ... One after another, Chiang’s stories claim their place in your mind until you’re completely swept up in his provocative and at times even charming world ... Each story is a carefully considered, finely honed machine designed to entertain, but this collection also forces you to look at things like your smartphone or your pet with new eyes. What makes Exhalation particularly brilliant is that not one of the stories feels like it’s designed to be thought-provoking in a stilted, academic way ... a must-read.
[Chiang's] uniqueness as a sci-fi author is that he chooses different paths than most of other writers – in The Lifecycle for example he focuses on the process, not the result, he takes his time and stays true to what he thinks is the most likely scenario, not to what would look 'cool' ... Chiang’s greatness is that with all of that he manages to write compelling stories. He takes the more difficult paths, the longer ones, and still manages to hold our attention throughout the whole story. Yes, he focuses on science, but his fiction isn’t worse because of it.
... from the first stories he published, Chiang established a style of storytelling that is his alone ... In science fiction (SF)—which is what Chiang writes, though sometimes just barely—the science-fictional things are what bear the meaning and produce the emotional force of the story, and Chiang’s science-fictional things are like no other writers’, even when they turn on much-used (and abused) concepts such as quantum mechanics, time reversals, or alien contact ... Chiang’s SF differs from most SF in many ways, but the most striking—and pleasing—difference is that there are almost no villains in his stories.
... not jewel-like. It’s closer to a grand machine. And this machine is made up of intricately connected parts, all moving in a pattern of such complexity that you can’t always be sure that you’re following it. But you can always trust that the machine’s inventor has plotted out that pattern with exquisite precision ... Chiang is thoughtful about the rules of his imagined technologies. They have the kind of precise, airtight internal logic that makes a tech geek shiver with happiness ... he will never, ever veer away from the laws he’s set for himself ... The other big robot book of the spring, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, comes off as clumsy in comparison ... The stories in Exhalation are a shining example of science fiction at its best. They take both science and humanism deeply seriously, which is why it’s so satisfying to watch Chiang’s shining, intricate machine at work: You know that whatever the machine builds, it will tell you something new about human beings.
Ted Chiang's science fiction is like Black Mirror,but also not. His short stories are often bleak — haunting, even — but they're never cynical. His work forecasts hope ... Throughout the collection, he returns to the idea of meaning and purpose, concluding that much of what we know about the universe, and of free will, is bogus; we humans are not the center of the universe, but rather just another inevitable cog in a massive overarching scheme ... Chiang himself seems to regard this fact with wonder rather than despair ... Exhalation is a groundbreaking work of science fiction, but not just because its influence can be felt across many corners of the mainstream. When confronting life's biggest questions, there's something undeniably powerful about being able to stare oblivion in the face and retain hope at the same time. It's unfortunate that short fiction doesn't have the reach of other art forms, but we can only hope Chiang's work continues to exert its influence on us. In another decade or so, as more climate disasters rapidly dismantle the inhabitability of our planet, may there be another collection of his work to offer a guiding light.
The greatness of the latest collection of stories by Ted Chiang isn’t in the answers to the big questions that he asks. It’s the questions themselves ... His prose is smooth and guileless, artful without pretension, always propelling the story forward. Page after page, the reader is drawn deeper into his worlds as he carefully considers a variety of hypotheses ... Here, every little bit is believable, conceived carefully and thoughtfully ... Sure, there are some complicated, scientific-sounding passages, but it never impedes the narrative; Chiang’s prose always remains accessible. Size helps, too — most of the stories are short and easily digestible.
The best way to convey the appeal of Chiang’s stories is simply to describe their premisses ... In his day job, Chiang is a technical writer, and the precision and expertise that undergirds such work is present in his stories, which adhere to the rules of whichever field he is exploring ... The tales in Exhalation aren’t as dynamic as those in his previous collection – the title story, about a cyborg performing surgery on his own brain, turns on lengthy descriptions of scientific theories, and several surf along without reaching the sharp revelations that characterize the best of Chiang’s work. The stories rely heavily on their premisses, but, while this can be a liability, it also frees the author to explore the radical implications of his ideas ... The main insight in Exhalation – and indeed, in all of Chiang’s stories – is not only that we don’t fully understand the universe or our role within it, but that we barely grasp our present; and that the future is already here, if we look carefully.
... a breath of fresh air. The nine offerings here, all intricately constructed, range from four-page think pieces to knottily clever novellas, and tackle familiar science-fiction topics — time travel, artificial intelligence, parallel universes, the effects of technological advances on society, the clash between science and religion — but in markedly unfamiliar ways. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s that we should take time to appreciate the miracle of existence and cherish the free will we have to pursue our destinies — while we still can.
Exhalation’s nine stories are … fine. A couple are excellent, most are good, a couple don’t really work. It feels like damning the book with faint praise to say so, but isn’t that exactly how short-story collections generally work? ... there are enough classic Chiang shorts to make the collection something special ... The collection’s two finest stories both achieve this expert balance of the emotional and the cerebral. . The Merchant and the Alchemist’s GateRead Full Review >>
...Exhalation demonstrates Chiang’s commitment to form as well as ideation. Across the collection he finds shrewd ways to meld perspective and setting, using prayers, museum plaques, and journal entries to channel character voices and outline his peculiar worlds ... In Exhalation, Chiang gives us storytelling as a kind of terraforming: He builds worlds and makes them inhabitable, for their characters, for their readers, and for their ideas. Exhalation follows scientists, con artists, merchants, software designers, and even parrots across time, space, and dimensions. This impressive range and Chiang’s visible respect for his characters’ differences have led him to be characterized by some critics as a humanist, but that term fails to capture the ambition on display here ... He isn’t simply affirming life’s value; he’s probing its specific resonance, exploring how the nature and value of existence—for both the human and the nonhuman—arise through particular experiences, even the specter of death ... Chiang takes technologies and scientific principles and dares us to imagine them as more than just devices to be controlled or problems to be solved. The robots do not want to kill us, and the animals are not (yet) resigned to our stupidity. Ultimately, it is each of us who makes our world.
... remarkable ... One of Chiang’s many gifts is his ability to construct dire scenarios that manage to demonstrate both our determination by forces out of our control—physics, technology, human frailty—and the necessity of committing ourselves to our choices ... Chiang excels at unspooling this kind of quantum moral logic, though sometimes his concern with the human consequences of technology and theoretical physics can veer into the sentimental.
It may be, in fact, that Chiang’s detached and self-effacing voices – a number of his stories are humbly addressed to specific audiences, like a caliph, or later explorers of a doomed world – are keys to what his wildly disparate fictions have in common. At their best they have much the same kind of appeal of Borges’s most provocative tales – not without feeling and empathy, but, fundamentally, explorations of the sheer romance of thinking.
Exhalation coheres in the sheer breadth of its styles, the differences between its stories and vantage points, the places in time that we’re brought to. Chiang is consistent in his variety ... For the characters in Chiang’s stories, desolation or existential crisis is brought on by the limitations of your frame of understanding. Redemption is possible, but only through the most difficult of tasks: changing your mind. ... The stories in Exhalation are not sadistic or dour in their estimation of the future. He writes with wonder and excitement about the problems he ponders. Each entry is an opportunity to work out a problem long-hand. There is endless possibility in the ambiguity he instills in his stories. They build toward emotion, toward the revelation of an irresistible idea ... Indeed, you will be hard-pressed to find Chiang’s tone or narration approaching anything resembling the dogmatic, an expectation that can come with material that handles such philosophical thinking and which is written by a man. Though his opinion on things may be clear, you are left with a desire to understand your reaction to it. Chiang is diligent in his curiosity. There is little space given to grand musings about the meaning of life—because that would assume there is anything commonly agreed upon about what life even is ...
Ted Chiang is without any doubt, the most important science fiction author of our time ... Ted Chiang is an amazingly powerful writer, one who chooses to work in the science fiction genre because of what it allows him to do, and we are all better for it ... For someone who really doesn't even like science fiction, I would still recommend Exhalation. Again, the genre aspects of Chiang's work really isn't the draw here. Chiang has the ability to create fantastic worlds, yes, but there are hundreds of authors that can check that block. The real beauty of Exhalation isn't the world building, but rather what is accomplished in the world. Chiang uses his fiction to pose questions that are both heartfelt and profound, and then has both the skill and the faith in his readers to build in the space for you to explore those questions and maybe formulate some answers. This is as good as it gets and not only is this collection going to spin off two movies at this point, but it is the kind of fiction that deserves to be taught and explored for many years.
Chiang’s stories operate a bit like speculative essays, though they’re a lot more fun than that sounds. Few authors working today are as good at exploring our intimate connection to technology. In The Lifecycle of Software Objects, he gives us what may be the best look yet at what it means to fall in love with an artificial intelligence, with all of the feelings of responsibility and dependency that love entails ... It’s a short step in a Chiang story from the everyday to the bizarre: a time-travel portal or a fidget-like toy may equally teach us profound truths about ourselves. Truths we may conclude we’re better off not knowing
...luminous ... New work from the notoriously non-prolific Chiang is, to put it mildly, an event ... Exhalation is the sort of book that’s so good it’s hard to know what to say about it besides 'read it.' Every sentence fits; every word glimmers; the level of precision, like an engineer crafting a line of code, is evident in every line. It’s immediately clear, too, why Chiang is so revered in genre circles, or why his small body of work has swept just about every science fiction award you can name ... For the true brilliance of Chiang’s work lies in his range and versatility as a storyteller. No two of Exhalation’s stories are alike ... Each page of Exhalation bursts with color, with heart, with probing curiosity about faith, parenthood, free will, and their place in the universe.
[Chiang] continues to explore emotional and metaphysical landscapes with precise and incisive prose ... Chiang remains one of the most skilled stylists in sf, and this will appeal to genre and literary-fiction fans alike.
...groundbreaking ... nine stunningly original, provocative and poignant stories. These are tales that tackle some of humanity’s oldest questions along with new quandaries only Ted Chiang could imagine ... Ted Chiang at his best: profound, sympathetic—revelatory.
[A] stellar collection ... Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, 'The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,' which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008 ... Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.
[A] standout second collection ... In each, Chiang produces deeply moving drama from fascinating first premises ... Chiang’s rigorous worldbuilding makes hard science fiction out of stories that would otherwise be fable ... these stories are brilliant experiments, and his commitment to exploring deep human questions elevates them to among the very best science fiction.