Chiang’s collections of science fiction short stories are pretty much unanimously highly regarded. In a conscious attempt to read a variety of genres, I’ve had Stories of Your Life and Others as well as Exhalation on my kindle for about two years. I decided to pick up Exhalation first because I wanted to get an idea of Chiang’s style and also because Stories of Your Life and Others included the short story that the highly regarded movie Arrival is based on- which I wanted to save for later.
Chiang’s writing is thoughtful. For each of the nine short stories, he includes brief notes about his intentions for the story and the moral quandaries he wanted to explore. At its best, I think science fiction serves as a tool to allow us to grapple with deeply human questions that are difficult, uncomfortable, controversial, and provocative. Chiang does that profoundly well here by holding up a mirror for us to look into. He makes space for the reader to question their assumptions and belief systems, without judgement. For someone like me, who isn’t too invested in this genre, reading most of these stories did two things. It made me uncomfortable while at the same time taking my breath away.
The title essay, Exhalation, is brilliant, original, and reading it for the first time was a thrill. The plot twist in The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling left me gobsmacked. For me,The Lifecycle of Software Objects seemed like a bit of a drag, nevertheless, it is a heartening tale. Omphalos and What’s Expected of Us succeeded in delivering maximum discomfort. I had a small-scale existential crisis just like the characters in those stories- and this is what I want from science fiction.
I’ll be thinking about and discussing these stories for a long time. So go get yourself this brilliant, original, thought-provoking, amusing collection of short stories.
Here are some of my highlights.
- “Just as we grow to understand the purpose of customs that seemed pointless to us in our youth, Hassan realized that there was merit in withholding information as well as in disclosing it.” - The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
- “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.” - Exhalation
- “And I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory. The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.” - The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling