Posts Tagged ‘ted chiang’

The Merchant And The Alchemist’s Gate 

A merchant from Iraq is looking for the perfect gift, he goes to a new shop in the marketplace in Baghdad, and finds a portal from which he can travel into the future.  The merchant also finds out that there is a portal in Cairo where he can travel into the past.  He goes to Cairo to try  ro rectify a mistake from the past, does the merchant succeed? 

This is somewhat of a standard time travel story with something of a twist.  It was an encouraging start to eight other short stories. 

Exhalation 

A robot air-breathing scientist is doing an operation to replace his own lungs, and documenting the operation at the same time. 

This is a story that leaves many questions.  What is a robot scientist?  Why does he need air to live?  Humans need air, robots do not.  Who built the air breathing robot?  Why can’t that entity do the surgery?  his is a puzzling story, that is thankfully short.  The book is named after this short story, it should have been better. 

What’s Expected of Us 

A button compels people to press it by flashing a light when people don’t comply.  It’s called the Predictor, can people stop pressing the button, or will they feel compelled to keep pressing it?  It’s really a philosophical story, that asks whether humans have free will or are events predestined to happen. 

This story tries to express a lot of ideas in a short space, it’s up to the reader to decide if the story makes it’s point effectively.  The story is structured like a joke, with the last line as a punchline, which diminishes the impact of the story a great deal. 

The Lifecycle of Software Objects 

Ana, a former zoo trainer, and Derek, a software developer, take care of digients, digital pets on a new software platform.  Ana trains Jax and Derek trains Marco.  But as digital pets become just another fad like Rubik’s Cube, the platform goes bankrupt and the digients have nowhere to go.  Ana learns that the digients have the potential to reach levels of human intelligence, but if they don’t have a platform, can they show their incredible intelligence off to other humans? 

The concept of digital pets with the potential of human intelligence is an intriguing concept, but the story spans 20 years and Chiang makes the reader experience every minute of those twenty years.  No action, no matter how insignificant is documented, and the concept and any moral, like neglect or abuse if animals, is lost in the minutiae of the digient’s life.  And that is the downfall of this story. 

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny 

Reginald Dacey creates a robot to help rear children.  He meets with some success at first, but then, one of the nannies malfunctioned and other customers returned their nannies and Reginald was humiliated.  His son, Lionel, seemed determined to prove that the Automated Nanny worked.  He vowed to use his own son to prove the efficacy of the Automated Nanny.  Does the experiment work? 

This is probably the best story in the collection, it’s straightforward, well-told and even has a bit of pathos as the story ends.  If all the stories were as enjoyable as this one. the whole collection would be a pleasure to read.  Unfortunately, this is the pinnacle of Chiang’s storytelling abilities. 

The Truth Of Fact, The Truth of Feeling 

A journalist and his daughter experience the pitfalls of Remem, a liveblog technology.  The father and daughter remember a life-changing argument differently.  The argument led to their estrangement, and now the journalist is trying to find out how Remem remembers the argument. Does this end their hostilities or make matters worse?  In another part of the world a member of the Tiv ethnic group learns to read and write from a passing missionary.  Does the Tiv man feel good about his newfound skills? 

The storytelling seems pretty dry here, until an explosion of conflict between the father and daughter, which seemed unnecessary and superfluous.  The relationship between the initial storyline and the Tiv man seem tenuous at best, unless Chiang is making some general commentary about how we as humans choose to communicate, and what we choose to remember.  The disparate nature of the storylines makes the underlying theme difficult to discern. 

The Great Silence 

A parrot wonders why human don’t talk to parrots to unlock the secrets of the universe, instead of embracing the Fermi Paradox and looking for intelligent life on other planets. 

This is a light, whimsical, story that does express a view at least on serious issue.  If more of Chiang’s stories had the simplicity and directness of this story, they would be a lot more enjoyable.  It was also entertaining to learn what the Fermi Paradox was as a result of this story. 

Omphalos 

Doretha Morell, an archeologist, unearths some inconvenient fossils in a society where Creationism is accepted as fact. 

Chiang simply turns the tables on the science vs. faith argument.  Faith, here is unquestionably accepted, and scientific facts are shunted to the background.  The problem is, Doretha is not very interesting as a character, and the subject is not very shocking in a country where more people are moving away from Christianity in America in general, and “fervent” Christians don’t sound very much like Jesus.  Still the tone of this story is condescending towards people of faith, portraying them as monolithic believers in only one set of facts, and that is disappointing.  The title comes from the name of a hypothesis that tries to explain the age of the earth from a creationist standpoint.  Chiang doesn’t seem to think that people can believe in seemingly conflicting ideas at once. 

Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom 

The prism is a technology that allows people to look at their parallel selves if they make different decisions in thier lives.  Nat and her partner in crime, Morrow, are con artists, who buy prisms and sell them at a profit.  Nat infiltrates a prism support group, and tries to convince someone to sell his prism, while Morrow lines up a customer.  But something happens to Morrow as a result of one of his many scams, does this make Nat rethink her trajectory as a con artist. 

This is another story with one of Chiang’s favorite themes, free will vs. predestination.  Are all our parallel selves destined to end up in the same place, no matter what decisions we make?  That is an exciting idea to delve into, but again, Chiang seems to get in his own way with too many characters, going down too many rabbit holes, and stepping all over his own narrative.  Te ending of the story is too saccharine, and doesn’t really fit what comes before.  The title is taken from a quote from Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher.  The use of this quote is pretentious. 

My Overall Impressions of Exhalation: 

This is a difficult book to read, and it shouldn’t be.  Short stories are called short stories for a reason, they should be short and to the point.  Often, in this collection, Chiang misses that directive.  His best stories like the Great Silence, are short, to the point and have a definite point of view. 

Exhalatiion is a well-researched book, maybe too well-researched.   The story of the Tiv man learning to read and write seemed like it was forced, and detracted from the other storyline in this story, if he was trying to make some larger comment on communication or human memory, that point was lost on me.  The point here is that Chiang too often digresses into tangents within his stories and that makes his own cental ideas lose power.  A perfect example of a story with too many tangents is The Lifecycle of Software Objects.  Chiang gets so intimately involved in every second of the digients’ lives, that he forgets that all those details are not so interesting to the readers.  By the time he gets to the point of the story, it’s hard to care about these characters. 

Another issue with this book is that sometimes the subject matter is so esoteric that it’s difficult to even have an initial interest in the story.  Is a creationist archeologist living in a society with a creationist worldview really all that interesting to a non-Christian or an Evangelical Christian, or sny other Christian?  Is an air-breathing robot interesting to anyone besides other air-breathing robots?  No.  But Chiang continues to pack this book with concepts and characters that many readers would find unapproachable. 

If he’s writing another set of short stories, he should try the minimalist approach, a paucity of words of ideas of characters.  He should actively try to make his point in as few words as possible.  But hey, that’s only one opinion.  Critics love this book, Barrack Obama put it on his reading list in 2019, so maybe my opinion is wrong.  That’s ok.  In the final analysis, is this book worth reading?  No.  It simply wasn’t worth the struggle. 

Exhalation:  Don’t hold your breath hoping for good storytelling.