EXHALATION – Ted Chiang (2008)

ExhalationI was conflicted about Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang’s much lauded first collection. There’s something about this guy: he can write – but are these really, truly stories?

So at first I decided to skip Exhalation: Stories, his second collection, published in 2019. But then I read a glowing review on Speculiction that dubbed the title story “one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written”. It also won three major awards: the Hugo, Locus and BSFA. As it is available for free on Lightspeed Magazine’s site, I decided to read just that.

It turned out to be a typical Chiang story: exquisitely crafted, good prose, convincing atmosphere, smart ideas. But sadly, for my taste, it’s also a bit too didactic, for two reasons.

It tries to convey a message – the clichéd ‘be thankful for the wonder of existence’, but more importantly, because it follows the typical Chiang template: he read some interesting stuff, and tries to mold his newfound wisdom into a story.

This time the main focus is on neuroscience, and the debate on the classic boxological Theory Of Mind: do our brains have representations of their content inside their brains, or not? The Nobel Prize winning research by Kandel and O’Keefe & the Mosers on rats has proven the classic T.o.M. wrong, and Chiang has managed to translate that into a kind of steampunk-ish robot setting. At least, that’s my guess, as I haven’t read any author notes. I know Chiang included those in this first collection, but I’m not sure if they exist for this particular story. (If they do exist, and somebody could prove or disprove my hypothesis in the comments, that would be great.)

The other focus is a classic cosmology conundrum: is our universe finite, and will it get to a final (dead) state of equilibrium? He cleverly inserts a bit of speculation about possible multiverses too.

What Chiang does absolutely brilliantly is marry these two ingeniously via a subdued steampunk setting, and as such this is a truly great science fiction story indeed. It is really a tour de force.

What Chiang fails to do, is tell a compelling story about characters. As the story progresses, the clinical, mechanical nature of his modus operandus becomes clear. One could say: it suits this particular story about automatons, and that’s definitely true, but for my tastes Exhalation lacks emotion & something resembling a real character – instead of a mouthpiece for ideas. I even dare to claim that ‘Exhalation’ lacks a real plot, and at times it felt a bit drawn out. As such, it kinda reads as something formulaic, written for a creative writing class – however brilliantly done.

So where does that leave me re: Exhalation: Stories? I might try and source a few of the other recommended stories for free online, but at the moment I’m not buying the collection.


Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

20 responses to “EXHALATION – Ted Chiang (2008)

  1. My view is this sort of thing is fine in moderation, but in my experience is that contemporary SF short fiction (and contemporary short fiction in general) lean very heavily away from any sort of viable plot, even by the standards of the short story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I guess I don’t read enough contemporary short fiction to concur, but what you point out might be one of the reasons for that, so you may be very well right that it’s becoming inherent to the genre. Short story collections that have worked for me, like the first collection by Ken Liu, might be an exception. I also really liked M. John Harrison’s collection ‘You Should Come With Me Now’, but that one is in an whole other league.


  2. I guess it’s a difficult genre. My last read in this category was the classic The Illustrated Man by Bradbury. That’s hard to beat.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sorry, another short comment. These ideas sound fascinating but without the coherence you say that is missing, I would think the same about them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No prob. It’s not that there’s coherence missing, I’m sorry if my review led you to believe that – not at all even, on the contrary, it’s a very coherent story.

      I also very much agree with your previous comment btw, that the short story is a difficult genre. I think it is underestimated because most aspiring writers try short fiction first, even get that advice, and as such it seems an entry level thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve read Chiang’s first collection and I enjoyed them for their cleverness and intriguing structure – well, most of them, some were better than others – but you’re right, none of them (maybe except for my favorite, “Understand”, which was arguably fast-paced and emotionally rewarding) struck a resonant emotional chord with me. I’d say Reynolds has a similar problem, plus some others 😉 Still, I like Chiang’s control over the ideas he analyses – he doesn’t show off, but he gets to the point and intrigues his reader with possible consequences of those ideas.
    Cool review, Bart, as usual! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you liked the first collection, do check this story out, it’s not that long. Maybe my review is too negative – then again, isn’t emotion everything when reading? Awe is an emotion too I guess, but I didn’t feel that either, even though I admire Chiang’s cleverness. So maybe you shouldn’t read it 🙂 Oh well…

      Reynolds’ short fiction has more problems indeed – so much even that I stopped half way a collection of his that I didn’t even review. I don’t really remember why, just that I’d had it with Reynolds. I guess it wasn’t only his short fiction by the way, a few of his full length novels that really disappointed me after Revelation Space probably installed such a big bias against Reynolds that I will never be able to enjoy anything by him again. I even fear a reread of the RS trilogy. At least I got a few nice negative reviews out of it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll check out Chiang’s story, we’ll compare notes afterwards 😀

        I enjoyed Reynolds’s short stories, but somehow didn’t feel the need to check out his Revelation Space trilogy – maybe it will come, but right now I’m a bit fed up with Lee who spoiled such a perfect beginning to his Machineries of the Empire trilogy with a really hacked up ending… I was dismayed enough that I think I’ll abstain from SF novels for a time 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    • And you’re very right, Chiang’s control is superb. This one is even the best story on that front I’ve read of him yet. I guess you should read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This story sounds more like an exercise in style rather than… well, a *story*: good core concepts tend to remain just that without the support of relatable characters and a connection with the reader. Sorry this did not work out as expected…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really conflicted about it. The marriage of the core concepts into a speculative world is so well done I can forgive the lack of relatable characters, but on the other hand that frustrated me too.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I hear you, but I liked the first volume way more… I definitely have different expectations when I read short stories. Things that would indeed tire me in a long novel, are acceptable, and a witty exploration of a novel idea is enough, even if characterisation leaves sth to be desired. I’ll use your link and read this one 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please report back after you’ve read it! I’m still in 2 minds about this, as I wrote in some comments above. I do admire Chiang’s control for sure.
      You’re also right about expectations. I guess this maybe shouldn’t be judged on factors like characterisation, it clearly wasn’t Chiangs intention. But I cannot not talk about it in the review, as it bugged me.

      Liked by 1 person

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