Top positive review
Wide range of scifi ideas exploring human nature but varying quality of stories in this collection
Reviewed in India on 30 July 2020
Exhalation is a collection of nine short stories with varying lengths, from 3 pages to over 100 pages. Each of them combines science fiction with human emotions such as longing, love, greed, regret and redemption, and that combination makes many of these stories incredible reads.
Most of these short stories had been published previously, but nevertheless, the range of ideas that these stories explore and the imagination behind them is extremely impressive. These nine stories cover a gamut of ideas that include a doorway that allows one to travel 20 years, intelligent digital objects, a robotic nanny, the ability to recall any memory instantly, and a device to communicate with oneself in other branches of the universe.
My favourite stories include The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, written like an Arabian Nights story, that uses time travel to explore lessons learnt by the protagonists from their experiences. In The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, Chiang explores the delicate balance between mimi (what one considers right) and vough (a precise fact) through two sub-stories involving colonised tribesmen's struggles with written words replacing oral memories and a modern world where humans can recall any memory instantly. Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom explores greed, regret and redemption using the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which humans can communicate and collaborate with versions of their self in other branches of the universe.
The problem with anthologies, as to be expected, is one of mixed quality of the stories. For example, and the reason for only a 4-star rating, The Lifecycle Of Software Objects takes up a third of the book and fails to grip. It talks about the gradual maturing of AI objects (called digients) and their ability to experience love, independence and even sexual attractions. But overall, Chiang's imagination, the variety in the stories, and the underlying messages in them make Exhalation a satisfying read.
Pros: Very imaginative, wide range of ideas, couples science fiction with human nature, well-written
Cons: Disparate quality with a less interesting story taking a third of the book