Review: Exhalation

5 stars
Stories worth holding your breath for

Ted Chiang’s stories are meticulously crafted thought experiments. Many of them are science fiction; “Story of Your Life“, first published in 1998, became the basis of the 2016 blockbuster movie Arrival. Others defy classification. The 2001 story “Hell Is the Absence of God” imagines a world in which God, angels, heaven and hell are real—and angelic visitations are more like natural disasters, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Exhalation is the second collection of Chiang stories. It contains nine stories, two of which have never been published before. My favorite one is “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” (the title references an observation by existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard).

The premise is that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. Through laptop-like consumer devices, anyone can create branch universes and communicate with their duplicates—their “paraselves”—in those universes, for a limited time.

The devices are called Prisms, which stands for “Plaga interworld signaling mechanism”. Why “Plaga”? That’s never explained, but some googling reveals a 1995 pre-print by Rainer Plaga titled “Proposal for an experimental test of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics”; the mechanism described in Chiang’s story matches the description in Plaga’s paper. This gives you an idea of the attention to detail in Chiang’s work.

From this premise, Chiang explores how the knowledge of an infinite number of universes—and the ability to speak with the inhabitants of some of them—would impact crime, grief, love, and loss. Through his characters’ experiences, Chiang makes us imagine that we might live in just such a world one day, while conveying a powerful moral lesson for the one we do live in today.

Other ideas Chiang explores in Exhalation include:

  • What would a world look like in which, instead of discovering ever more irrefutable evidence for the evolution of life on an Earth that’s billions of years old, scientists had discovered irrefutable evidence of a single creation event thousands of years ago? What would the relationship between science and religion be in such a world, and what would shake its faith?

  • What if we could keep life-long recordings of everything we see, hear and say, and search those recordings through the power of thought alone? How would this technologically mediated perfect memory impact our behavior, our relationships, our sense of self?

  • What if raising a healthy, capable artificial intelligence was just as time-consuming and difficult as raising a healthy, capable human child? How would such AI children be treated in a world that regards them as “software objects”?

I found “The Great Silence” (originally written to accompany an art exhibit) and “What’s Expected of Us” (inspired by the neuroscience of free will) to be the least captivating, but both are quite brief, and they are still fine stories. The best stories in Exhalation are so good that the entire volume deserves five stars. It’s been 17 years since Chiang’s first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, was published, but it was worth the wait.