20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

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Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, is even better than his exhilarating Stories of Your Life and Others (although I’m sad about the UK cover; why can’t we have this beautiful US one, as well as a decently produced hardback?) For me, more of the stories in Exhalation than in Stories of Your Life managed to blend Chiang’s incredible intelligence with a solid emotional core, and when Chiang does this, he’s unbeatable. The opening story, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was, for me, the most satisfying: Chiang effortlessly handles complicated single-timeline time travel and its emotional consequences, while packaging it in a literary form – the nested stories of The Arabian Nights – to which it is absolutely suited. Although, [spoiler] I couldn’t help speculating that the narrator, by travelling back to intercept the comforting news being brought to his former self, had inadvertently condemned his former self to a lifetime of guilt, motivating him to travel back in the first place, which he doesn’t seem to register! [spoilers end]. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to write time travel this elegantly, and I can only applaud (and envy) Chiang.

The two novellas included in the collection are also both fantastic, although for me, not quite as perfect as ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and the ethical issues that this throws up. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. As ever, Chiang thinks about the details: one obstacle the owners face is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. However, this story is particularly notable for the potential parallels it draws. The analogy with human children is somewhat imperfect (digients seem much less capable than children, even when the number of years they’ve been alive is factored in) but works when we start thinking about why we have children: can it ever be right to create something just so we can love it?

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (the title is taken from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety) also dissects a familiar time-travel trope, although it’s not a time travel story: in this novella, humans are able to converse with their ‘paraselves’ who are living in alternative timelines that have split off from the timeline they are living in following quantum events. A lot of time travel novels (including mine…) use this trope, drawn from  Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, to allow time travel between parallel timelines rather than within a single timeline. Chiang stresses that new timelines, in this story, don’t break off whenever anyone makes a decision but only in certain circumstances; however, it is often possible to converse with a paraself in a timeline where a significant decision has turned out differently, whether that’s leaving a marriage, taking a new job, or admitting to a crime. Chiang glosses this story most succinctly in his own ‘Story Notes’ (I could happily read a volume of Chiang’s ‘Story Notes’): ‘Some have pointed out that when Martin Luther defended his actions to the church in 1521, he reportedly said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” i.e. he couldn’t have done anything else. But does that mean we shouldn’t give Luther credit for his actions? Surely we don’t think he would be worthier of praise if he had said, “I could have gone either way.”… If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you’d have to go far afield to find one that didn’t defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.’

These kinds of themes – our relationship with our former or alternative selves, our moral responsibility for the choices we make that could have ‘gone either way’, and whether we are the sum of our choices or our circumstances – are prominent in all of my own fiction, so unsurprisingly, I found the story fascinating, although the ending was a little unsatisfying. Chiang is rightly concerned to demonstrate that the many-worlds interpretation does not mean our choices are meaningless (because there is an alternative universe where we made the opposite choice) and I agree with his take on it; parallel timelines can surely be separated from our own world by various degrees of difference, and some situations are not so neatly reducible to a single individual’s choice.  However, in a particular incident that dogs one character, it seems to be suggested that a choice she regrets made no difference because the friend she betrayed would have taken the same path in life anyway. I would like Chiang to have delved a little deeper into this theme (which he does address in a parallel plotline): how does making selfish choices hurt us and our future selves, even if they have no actual impact? (Coincidentally, while reading background material on Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song, another of my 20 Books of Summer, I came across this interview where she discusses exactly that.)

There are other excellent stories in this collection, such as ‘Omphalos’, which considers what would have happened if God had created the world, and humanity realised we were not at the centre of his universe – but a few of the others fell into the trap I wrote about in my review of Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, lacking emotional commitment and taking place in a blank void: ‘Exhalation’, ‘What’s Expected Of Us’, ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’. Chiang always gives you lots to think about, but he doesn’t always make you feel. Meanwhile, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’, which postulates that interwar American behaviourist child psychologists such as John F. Watson and B.F. Skinner went a step further by designing a mechanical automaton to see to a child’s needs, made me smile, but didn’t feel terribly fresh to me (probably because I’ve written on behaviourism in my historical research, and thought this was a bit of a simplistic take on how childrearing advice developed in the first half of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this collection is stunning, the percentage of hits is higher than in Stories of Your Life, and it’s got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far.

14 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

  1. It’s really bloody good, I agree. The Lifecycle of Software Objects has stayed with me for a long time, and The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate felt almost like a perfect little short film. I liked the title story a bit better than you (it did make me feel!), and I’m pleased to have started my acquaintance with Chiang’s work.

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    • I had to stop and think for some time about ‘The Merchant…’, I couldn’t just go on reading. The body horror of Exhalation turned me off a bit (yes I know they’re robots, but operating on your own brain is literally my worst nightmare).

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    • I really liked ‘Anxiety’, but it’s not his very best – my favourites are ‘Story of Your Life’ and ‘Merchant’ (annoyingly in two different collections)!

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