February 14, 2020

Review: Exhalation

Exhalation Exhalation by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang is generally regarded as one of the finest writers in science fiction, and his reputation has been built entirely on his infrequently published short stories. (One of his earlier stories, "Story of Your Life," was adapted into one of the best SF movies of the past decade, Arrival.) The stories in this collection have publication dates ranging from 2005 to 2015, with the last two--"Omphalos" and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom"--the two new stories, or at least the stories never before published.

These stories are definitely not for someone who wants a quick, action-packed read. They demand your attention, and they demand your thought. Looking back at them, even though they have varying levels of characterization and worldbuilding, it seems to me they are not so much stories as thought experiments. (The "Story Notes" at the back lays this bare, revealing the central idea behind each story and the author's thought process in writing it.) "Omphalos," for example, is written from the viewpoint of an archaeologist in a young creationist universe; she talks about mummies with no navels, and eight-thousand-year-old fossilized wood with a solid core at the center, with no growth rings, signifying the "primordial tree" at the moment of creation. As the narrator says:

I asked them to imagine what it would be like if we lived in a world where, no matter how deeply we dug, we kept finding traces of an earlier era of the world. I asked them to imagine being confronted with proof of a past extending so far back that the numbers lost all meaning: a hundred thousand years, a million years, ten million years. Then I asked, wouldn't they feel lost, like a castaway adrift on an ocean of time? The only sane response would be despair.

I told them that we are not so adrift. We have dropped an anchor and struck bottom; we can be certain that the shoreline is close by, even if we can't see it. We know that you made this universe with a purpose in mind; we know that a harbor awaits. I told them that our means of navigation is scientific inquiry. And, I said, this is why I am a scientist: because I wish to discover your purpose for us, Lord.

This sets up the narrator's crisis of faith, upon her discovery of a soon to be published paper that asserts that humans are not the center of this young universe; that a nearby star, 58 Eridani, orbits around a fixed world that apparently is, and humans are "an experiment or unintended side effect" to the main purpose of creation, the Earth-like and presumably inhabited planet the star is orbiting. She returns to her archaeological dig with her faith not...destroyed, precisely, but certainly upended:

So I will return to the Arisona dig, Lord, whether it is under your watchful eye or not. Even if humanity is not the reason for which the universe was made, i still wish to understand the way it operates. We human beings may not be the answer to the question why, but I will keep looking for the answer to how.

This is just an example of what makes Chiang's stories so meaty, philosophical, and unique. (Also, for this particular story, since the universe is just under nine thousand years old, there are no dinosaur or megafauna fossils--no mammoths or sabertooth tigers--which strikes me as a terribly sad thing. Their lives are definitely bereft for not knowing T-Rex.) But for all that characterization is not the main focus of his tales, he still handles it quite well, especially in the standout stories "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" and "The Great Silence." In the latter, told from the viewpoint of a parrot whose species will soon be extinct, the final line will most likely bring a tear to your eye. It did mine.

This is an outstanding collection, and one that every fan of intelligent, profound science fiction should read.

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