Exhalation Book Review: Sci-Fi at Its Most Inviting

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ted chiang exhalation book with wine and computer screens

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Exhalation is Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, delving into sci-fi concepts with Chiang’s unique brand of optimism and talent for the genre. This collection comes nearly 20 years after his first, which included the story that was adapted into the film Arrival. Chiang’s stories have earned awards and accolades, including the praise of former President Barack Obama, who included Exhalation in his Summer 2019 Reading List:

Exhalation by Ted Chiang is a collection of short stories that will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction.

Barack Obama, via Facebook

Whether you are new to the sci-fi genre or a seasoned fan, Exhalation will be a treat!

Exhalation contains nine stories exploring how technological advancements present new ethical questions—and how these questions can help us understand our responsibilities to be kind and fair to one another. The stories also explore how we interact with our world, the nature of faith, and the nature of free will. Each story is successful to different degrees, and some I absolutely adored and will likely never forget.

The Stories Summarized (No Spoilers)

  • The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
    • Because of its use of archaic language, this story almost put off one of our book club members. The setting is enticingly uncommon for science fiction: the story takes place in ancient Baghdad. With its unique setting and positive messages, this story sets the tone for the rest of the book.
  • Exhalation
    • An utterly engrossing story that talks about concepts essential to our world in a way you’ve likely never thought of them. There is more than one ‘aha!’ moment. Very rewarding and quick read.  
  • What’s Expected of Us
    • This story explores the concept of an idea that is destructive to society, but only if you believe it.
  • The Lifecycle of Software Objects
    • The longest of the short stories and the most complex, we follow two programmers as they cultivate artificial intelligence programs. Chiang’s story proposes that artificial intelligence does not reach human-level (or super-human) without direct human interaction. This also means that the development of artificial intelligence is tied to human timelines—no singularity in this universe. 
  • Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny
    • The title describes the premise…obviously, the nanny doesn’t work as expected.
  • The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
    • A fascinating look at what would happen if you could record every moment of your life, told through two different timelines. Great for conversation with an SO or spouse XD.
  • The Great Silence
    • A view of humanity from a different perspective.
  • Omphalos
    • In an alternate version of our world, science and faith have co-mingled. What happens when a new discovery rocks the foundation of this science-based faith?
  • Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom
    • Another example of a new technology disrupting society—this time around the idea of parallel universes. This one was another totally new perspective I hadn’t encountered before.  

Check out Exhalation for yourself, and continue reading for wine pairing recommendation, discussion questions, and spoiler-laden review…

Wine Selection & Tasting Notes

Hello World Petite Verdot. Scent of blueberries, raspberries, green bell pepper, cinnamon spice. Tastes of tart raspberry, hint of cassis. It is worth mentioning that there is an adorable frog on the bottle.

Full Review (aka Spoilers Ahead)

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

I really appreciated the uniqueness of the setting for a science fiction story. I can’t think of a single other time I’ve read sci-fi in the ancient middle east, so it was a refreshing change of pace. In Chiang’s story notes, he shares how the Muslim setting was central to the time-travel component of the story, as he wanted to incorporate how “acceptance of fate is a basic article of faith in Islam.” It is rare to have a story of time travel and to also accept one’s faith rather than fighting to change your story. As a group we really enjoyed the woman’s storyline, how she ended up coaching her future husband as a lover. It was funny and adorable and a great time-travel tale. Unexpected to have come from a male author, so doubly delightful for that.  

I must admit, I kept waiting for the twist…stories of time travelers burdened with unexpected punishment are so prevalent that, as Chiang points out, he pointedly wanted to diverge from this standard. Time travel stories usually tend to be cautionary tales: something so valuable must come with a price or must not truly be for sale after all. Well, in Chiang’s story there is no price…and there is no boon. There is exactly what there was before…

Exhalation

I was totally absorbed into this short story. Every mystery the reader gets to uncover is so gratifying. First is the discovery that the narrator is not organic and instead some kind of android. That’s a blast. (How did he come to be?) Then we get to hear theories of how his brain works—both his own and the opposing theories of his peers. Next he comes to understand that his world will slowly become unlivable as his people equalize its pressure. This was a brilliant simplification of our own consumption of resources. This brilliant scientist’s world is coming to an end and he must acknowledge that he is powerful to stop it—that’s the call to action. Think of all the things we’re doing to speed our eventual resource depletion…

The description of humans as agents of entropy that Chiang included in the notes was instructive and a bit unsettling. I appreciated that he made an effort to put a positive spin on the narrator’s grim situation, by giving him a optimistic view of future explorers—hopeful they would receive his message.   

What’s Expected of Us

The idea that an idea could short-circuit your brain is rather fascinating. It’s hard to imagine something that we simply hear or read could have such a profound effect on us. And at the same time, aren’t we all seeking something that is so affecting? With drugs and alcohol we use to alter our perception. With the entertainment we seek: the heightened experience of immersive VR, the escalating hyperviolence on shows, and the depth and breadth of pornography being made. And with scientific research: aren’t we hoping that the next thing we discover will be paradigm changing or perhaps so exciting we’ll feel like children again?  

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

For anyone that’s ever cared for a child, the challenges that Derek and Ana encountered ranged from difficult to horrifying. The world that the digients lived in changed quickly and security did not keep pace. In one of the more disturbing events of the story, hackers accessed the digients and made copies to do whatever twisted/evil things they wanted and then displayed those actions back in video form. The digients are not human children, but they are like them in many ways: innocent, impressionable, capable of giving and receiving affection. A question in the story that people could not agree on was this: are the digients worthy of the same respect we give humans? If not, why? Another question is, are they worthy of the same rights and protections we give even animals? If so, we would need to invest in infrastructure to ensure they were not copied and tortured. Chiang does not state this explicitly, but he makes it clear in his story: once an artificial intelligence is capable of sensation, it is capable of being tortured. And if it is capable of being tortured, it is our duty to protect it.  

This is not very different from animal rights and protection from torture—because we are the superior intelligence and because we can control what happens to animals, we have a responsibility to protect them from torture and mistreatment in any context.

Chiang argues with this story that we can’t program human characteristics into an AI. I am torn. Is this human hubris to assume there is something unprogrammable about us? Or is “humanity” truly unprogrammable? In any foreseeable future, I agree with Chiang, that we will need to work alongside our AIs to teach them about humanity. But for their benefit, or ours? Would we be “teaching” them about us, or would we be learning to appreciate each other’s unique characteristics and strengths? Also a worthy pursuit.

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

I was excited to find in Chiang’s notes that part of the inspiration for this story was from a Jeff VanderMeer anthology (we loved VanderMeer’s book Annihilation!). Unfortunately, I found this story to be the least successful of the bunch. Mainly because to truly explore the idea of robots mis-managing child-rearing, you have to go much much darker, and that doesn’t appear to be Chiang’s style.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

This was a truly thought-provoking look at the subject of recording memory. Thankfully, the technology in the story is a long way away. I’m grateful, because while it would solve many problems, it would introduce some problems, as well. While not discussed in the story, I immediately think of applications for the judicial system—if you have video from every (or most) people’s perspective, it would help solve more crimes, speed up the conviction process, and reduce false convictions.

But to speak to interpersonal relationships, I completely see how having a recording of your worst moments would mean you could never rebuild trust with someone. I can also imagine replaying moments where I acted shamefully to torture myself, or replaying moments when someone hurt me so I remembered and didn’t trust them again.

We loved the two timelines—particularly how you couldn’t tell at first how they would relate.  

The Great Silence

I was very moved at the end when Chiang brought this sad story to a positive note, similar to Exhalation. It is remarkable to think that a parrot’s last words could have had so much meaning, but…why not think that way? Chiang is quite right that we don’t know what is going on inside that bird’s head, and his far-fetched suggestion brings us closer to animals and closer to the higher version of ourselves.

Omphalos

While this is not central to the story, I find this conversation fascinating. Society needs us to lie when it is justified and be prepared to take responsibility. Following the rules without thinking is not what a good citizen should do to be a productive member of society.

“…I know I’ve broken rules in doing so, but it’s the rules that need to be changed, not my behavior.” I told her that people couldn’t simply disobey rules just because they disagreed with them, because society would cease to function if everyone did that. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You lied when you sent that mailgram as Mr. Dahl. Was that because you believe we should all be free to lie? Of course not. You thought about the situation and concluded that lying was justified. You’re prepared to take responsibility for what you did, aren’t you? Well, so am I. That’s what society needs us to do, not to follow rules without thinking.”

Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom

We loved how Chiang explored the concept of parallel worlds as a function of free will. Ie, how would your knowledge of other worlds impact your actions—right now, and into the future? Some of us felt the story notes for this one were the most redundant or even reductive of the original story. Chiang’s optimism is infused into this story, as well. If you can suffer for seeing your parallel selves, you can also choose to improve:

None of us are saints, but we can all try to be better. Each time you do something generous, you’re shaping yourself into someone who’s more likely to be generous next time, and that matters. “And it’s not just your behavior in this branch that you’re changing: you’re inoculating all the versions of you that split off in the future. By becoming a better person, you’re ensuring that more and more of the branches that split off from this point forward are populated by better versions of you.”

To Story Note or Not to Story Note?

At our book club meeting we had a discussion on whether Chiang’s story notes added value or detracted from the overall experience. One book club member felt that explaining your story robs the reader of the opportunity to interpret it on their own. Many of the story notes that seemed to include his inspirations. When I got to the story notes, it was unexpected delight, like an interview with the author. Still, I understand how a reader would want the opportunity to develop their own thoughts after reading, rather than be led to its meaning.   

Final Thoughts in Exhalation

What connects these short stories is Chiang’s unstoppable optimism—which is both unusual and unexpected in the realm of science fiction. Whereas other authors will take you to the deep dark of a hypothetical future (I’m looking at you Altered Carbon!), Chiang keeps you looking toward the future with a positive mien.


Exhalation Discussion Questions

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

  1. Were you surprised at the setting of the story for a sci-fi story? Have you ever read a sci-fi story before that was set in historic Baghdad? How did it affect the time travel elements?
  2. Chiang shared in the story notes that he purposefully wanted to write a time travel story in which you could not alter your fate, which is why he chose a Muslim setting because “acceptance of fate is one of the basic articles of faith in Islam”. How did the story demonstrate acceptance of faith? How did the setting in a Muslim country support this theme? Compare this time travel story and its theme of acceptance to other time travel stories you have read/seen.
  3. “Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully.” Did you find this concept uplifting or deflating?

Exhalation

  1. How many times was your mind blown?

What’s Expected of Us

  1. What would be your reaction to a device that proved your actions were predetermined? Do you think you would react like the population in the story, that you would end up not caring and stop making decisions altogether? 

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

  1. Do you agree with Chiang’s proposal that artificial intelligence is bounded by human interaction? That AI requires “good parenting” if we ever want to give it any major responsibilities?
  2. If (read: When) AI achieves human-level intelligence, should those entities be able to incorporate in order to make decisions for themselves?
  3. Do you think dating AIs will ever ‘be a thing’?
    • In a relationship context, would incorporation be required first? To what extent should the AI be protected, specifically from torture? What sort of programming would be acceptable, specifically regarding incentivizing?
    • Would you let your child date an AI? What if they had an android body that appeared human? Is that better or worse?
  4. What was your reaction to the more disturbing events that Ana and Derek faced, such as the digients being copied and tortured and pornography being shown the digients? Was Chiang successful in communicating the level of innocence and impressionability of the digients and also the level of affection between digient and own? 
  5. In his story notes, Chiang makes a case for treating machines with respect. He argues that they will do their job better if we do not abuse them. Do you find this argument persuasive? 
    • Can you think of another argument for treating machines with respect?

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

  1. Could you ever trust a robot with the task of caring for a newborn?

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

  1. If you had access to a technology that recorded your life, would you use it?
    • Would you let your children use it? If so, at what age?
    • Would you use it to win a fight with your spouse/SO? Could you stop yourself?
    • How do you think this technology would change your relationships? How do you think it would change crime and the judicial system? How do you think it would change society? Would any of these things be made better or worse or simply different with this new technology?
    • Would file corruption and/or manipulation ever not be a concern? 
  2. In the story, the narrator misremembers a fight with his daughter so incorrectly that his entire identity as a father is upset when he learns the truth of the fight. Do you think you may have re-written your own memories to suit your own narrative? 
  3. Before reading this story, had you ever before considered the technology of writing in a negative light?
  4. Discuss the following concepts of truth in the quote below:

“Our language has two words for what in your language is called ‘true.’ There is what’s right, mimi, and what’s precise, vough. In a dispute the principals say what they consider right; they speak mimi. The witnesses, however, are sworn to say precisely what happened; they speak vough. When Sabe has heard what happened he can decide what action is mimi for everyone. But it’s not lying if the principals don’t speak vough, as long as they speak mimi.”

Moseby clearly disapproved.

“In the land I come from, everyone who testifies in court must swear to speak vough, even the principals.”

Jijingi didn’t see the point of that, but all he said was “Every tribe has its own customs.”

The Great Silence

  1. What is your theory on The Fermi Paradox or the “Great Silence”?

Omphalos

  1. Did Chiang paint a believable picture of a faith based in science?
  2. Discussion the concept of lying when you believe it is necessary and accepting the consequences…How is this better for society than following all the rules all the time?

Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom

  1. How would you use a window into a parallel universe/ parallel self?
  2. How do you think observing a parralel self would affect your actions?
  3. How does the existence of parallel universes impact our understanding of free will?