‘Exhalation’ review: subtler and smarter than Black Mirror

Doug Johnstone hails the unique storytelling qualities of a writer who continues to explore how tech will help humanity evolve.

Tackling big ideas about the meaning of life can be difficult to pull off in fiction without seeming high-handed or abstract. But that’s not a problem for science-fiction writer Ted Chiang, who examines what it means to be human with incredible subtlety, emotional depth and painful clarity.

Exhalation is only Chiang’s second collection of short stories, coming a full 17 years after his first, but his work has won every prize possible in his genre, and recently his novella ‘Story of Your Life’ was adapted into the hugely successful and thoughtful movie Arrival.

That story was an acute and intimate examination of the nature of freewill – if we knew how the future would unfold, would we act any differently in the present? And that’s a theme Chiang returns to in several tales in this new collection.

In ‘What’s Expected of Us’, the invention of a device that flashes a second before you decide to press it has profound implications for civilisation. In the much longer ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (which I loved for the title alone) a quantum prism allows communication between other versions of yourself in parallel realities. When you make a decision, you can check in with the other versions of you who made a different choice, again leading to dramatic repercussions for the human psyche.

And a third story comes at a similar theme from a different angle. In ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, a collection of nested stories based around a time-travelling gate prod at the idea of changing the past or future. Written in the style of an Arabian Nights tale, it’s heartfelt, sad, uplifting and thought-provoking in equal measure.

When I finished this collection I felt like a changed person.

I could honestly write at length about every single story in this collection, such is Chiang’s skill at delivering emotional heft among life-changing ideas with precise, perfectly weighted prose. There are several tales that deal with how humans interact with technology, and a reasonable comparison would be Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, except Chiang’s work is more subtle, more humane and frankly much smarter (no disrespect to Black Mirror, which I love).

‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ frames this relationship in a Victorian context – many of Chiang’s stories are written in a historical or alternative historical setting – which deepens the resonances. In ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ we meet digients, virtual reality AIs abandoned by their manufacturers, who require the same amount of care and attention as a child or animal to fully
develop. There is a melancholic undertow to this story, which explores the intense relationship between parents and children with startling insight.

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And the finest story here, in my opinion, is ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’. In a future where all our experiences are recorded, software called Remem can instantly play back any memory into your eyeline. The narrator struggles to form a relationship with his daughter, with the use of Remem putting their lives under intense scrutiny. Chiang’s genius is to intercut this story with a historical thread where a Christian missionary introduces the new technology of writing to a primitive tribe. Chiang juxtaposes the two to highlight how technology can change the way we think about truth in deep, meaningful ways.

Similarly, when I finished this collection I felt like a changed person from when I started. I don’t think there’s any higher praise than that.

Illustration: Eva Bee