Ranking the stories in Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Today I’m celebrating three years as Carla Ra, as a sci-fi writer. To commemorate the date, I decided to share some thoughts on stories I’m passionate about. And, if you’ve been here long enough, you know I’m talking about Ted Chiang’s stories.
I loved both of his collections, Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation. Of the two, the latter is my favorite. Mostly because Exhalation has more insightful stories that lingered the most with me. I had planned long ago on ranking both collections, and now the time came for Exhalation. Let me share with you my favorite stories in this book and my thoughts on them.
I’ll try my best to avoid spoilers, but, considering the length of these stories, it can be difficult not to give up important details of them. So here’s your SPOILER ALERT.
Let’s start with the best and get to my least favorite. Shall we begin?
1. The Truth Of Fact, The Truth Of Feeling
This Hugo Award finalist is hands down my favorite Ted Chiang story. It is a brilliant commentary on memory and its role in our personal and cultural narratives.
We follow two parallel stories involving technologies that extend our memory. In a near future, a father and daughter experiment with an implant that allows them to record every single moment of their lives and access it at any time. In the second narrative, we follow a young man from a tribe who learns to use another incredible recording device: ink and paper.
That’s right. We get to compare the experimentation of new technology to the wonders of writing!
We follow the father and the young man as they discover that our flawed memory shapes our personal narratives in a way to protect ourselves and our traditions.
Ted Chiang brilliantly traced those two stories in parallel to ground the reader with a familiar way to record memory, the written word. The futuristic gadget allows for eidetic memory, and Chiang points to the downfalls of this. Using writing as an anchor, he avoided sounding too dystopian in the near-future narrative, showing us that writing was too once overbearing to those accustomed to oral forms of storytelling.
I could write a whole essay about this story, but I would have to dive deep into spoilers. Let me know if this is something you would like to read.
Another Hugo Award finalist, Omphalos is the story of an anthropologist expert on the first humans created by God. With abundant evidence supporting Creation, scientists are among the most religious people in the world.
It is also evidence that makes their faith waiver. The protagonist found that God had created a special place in the universe. A center with a privileged view, let’s put it this way. And it’s not her planet, but our Earth!
We, Earthlings, are God’s favorites.
That’s right. God created her planet to practice his skills before starting his most special place. This sends our protagonist into an existential crisis—she is not God’s favorite but a prototype.
Deep right? It’s a great story!
3. The Merchant And The Alchemist’s Gate
The first story feature in the collection is my third favorite. Don’t let this number trick you, however. I think this story is a masterpiece! Together with Stories of Your Life, The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate is the one I most often recommend people to read when talking about Ted Chiang.
It is about time travel (and you folks know it’s my favorite trope ever), it’s about determinism (more on that later), and it is the most beautiful prose Ted Chiang ever wrote, in my opinion.
No wonder it won a Nebula, a Hugo, and a Seiun award for best novelette. If you haven’t read it yet, go and do it now! You won’t regret it.
4. Anxiety Is The Dizziness Of Freedom
In this multiverse story, the population has access to parallel realities via a particular gadget, each connected to a specific universe. The practice of stalking other versions of yourself is widespread, with people paying lots of money to find out what could have been of their lives.
We follow a couple of thieves trying to sell a famous person one of those gadgets. This famous person suffered an automobile accident, resulting in his husband’s death. The thieves realized that in the timeline their gadget connected, the famous man was the one who died and left an inconsolable husband behind. So the thieves try to sell the stolen machine, promising it will allow him to reconnect with his beloved late husband.
It is a story full of heart that tackles possible issues on the possibility of accessing different paths of our lives, knowing what could have been and wasn’t.
It has a similar premise to my work-in-progress novel, actually. However, the plot and fine details are quite different (obviously).
5. The Lifecycle Of Software Objects
In this Hugo and Locus winning novella, we follow two people as they raise and train digital beings through the rise and fall of this technology. These digital beings, the digients, are basically virtual pets. When the technology can no longer keep up with the state of the art, their owners start to abandon their pets, and our protagonists are among the few who actually care.
It is a commentary on consumerism, artificial intelligence, and the meaning of consciousness.
It is heartbreaking.
It is also my husband’s favorite.
6. What’s Expected Of Us
This is one of the shortest stories in the book. The plot revolves around a remote control with a light that flashes precisely one second before the button is pushed. What does it mean to have the causal effect of action and reaction broken?
When millions of these gadgets are sold, humanity faces an existential crisis. If our lives are already written, why bother trying anything?
Alone, the story is quite intriguing. But it truly shines when considering Ted Chiang’s recurrent theme of determinism. It is a motif he also used in Stories of Your Life and The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.
And that is why it is sixth on my list, higher than the other great shorter stories in the anthology.
7. Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny
Another heartbreaking story, Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny is told in a documentary-narration style, an essay about a machine that became a museum piece. The creator of the automatic nanny believed they were better at child tending than humans, and he put his thesis to the test with his own son, who was raised by a machine.
I’m sure you can guess the outcome. If not, I’ll leave the trigger warning. It contains child psychological abuse. This exploration of the interaction between humans and machines is emotional and tragic.
8. The Great Silence
Another story that pulls on your heartstrings, The Great Silence’s main character is a talking parrot who reasons with scientists to stop searching for intelligent life in the stars and to pay attention to the intelligent lives here on Earth, many on the verge of extinction.
The parrot was based on Alex, a real-life captive grey parrot who was the subject of a thirty-year experiment by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Reading about the parrot who inspired the story makes it even more meaningful.
And at last, the titular story. Meh.
Exhalation was the only one I did not enjoy in the whole collection. It did not inspire enthusiasm in me, so I don’t even know what to say about it. I could tell you that I am probably wrong in thinking it is not that good because Exhalation was a BSFA, Locus Award, and Hugo Award winner!
So don’t take my word for it. Go read it and take your own conclusions.
What is your favorite story from Exhalation? Let me know in the comments!
(Also, seriously, if you want me to write a whole post about The truth of facts, the truth of feeling, I’ll do it!)
See you next post! Ra.
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night. You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.