The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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    My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie...
by Ted Chiang

Hardcover (7 May 2019), 368 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9781101947883

From an award-winning science fiction writer, the long-awaited new collection of stunningly original, humane, and already celebrated short stories.

This much-anticipated second collection of stories is signature Ted Chiang, full of revelatory ideas and deeply sympathetic characters. In "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and the temptation of second chances. In the epistolary "Exhalation," an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications not just for his own people, but for all of reality. And in "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," a woman cares for an artificial intelligence over twenty years, elevating a faddish digital pet into what might be a true living being. Also included are two brand-new stories: "Omphalos" and "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom."

In this fantastical and elegant collection, Ted Chiang wrestles with the oldest questions on earth--What is the nature of the universe? What does it mean to be human?--and ones that no one else has even imagined. And, each in its own way, the stories prove that complex and thoughtful science fiction can rise to new heights of beauty, meaning, and compassion.

Some of the stories in this collection have been published elsewhere, including the title story at Lightspeed (link opens in a new window).


Somewhere between science fiction and philosophy, these short stories confront humanity's past and future.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Exhalation is an assemblage of nine short stories and novellas written by Ted Chiang, a computer scientist, and technical and fiction writer. He published his first book, Stories of Your Life and Others in 2002. Nearly two decades later, he brings a new set of stories to readers, with fresh, visionary ideas and sensitive, sympathetic characters.

Although they are firmly planted in science fiction, Chiang's stories lack the staleness that can sometimes accompany over-done plots and themes in this genre. Instead, he approaches each story with care and intention, piecing together little capsules of narrative that are equally innovative, cerebral and wise. Some of the stories' premises are absolutely bizarre, while others come eerily close to encroaching on the "real world." Yet, they all have some degree of familiarity to them, either from characters who experience universal emotions, or plots that reveal relatable moral predicaments. These elements ground the stories.

In "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," Chiang mimics an "Arabian Nights," tale-within-a-tale structure as he creates a world in which time travel abides by the rules set out in Einstein's theory of relativity. "The Great Silence" supposes that alien intelligence exists on Earth but is largely ignored by humans in pursuit of extraterrestrial alien life. "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" engages with the idea of artificial intelligence (see Beyond the Book), supposing that as AI entities become increasingly human-like, their relationships with people may take on a parent-child dynamic, wherein humans connect, teach and raise their digital companions. Other stories explore quantum mechanics, language acquisition, free will, video technologies and first contact with tribal peoples.

Those who follow Chiang will recognize some of the selections in this book from other places. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," and "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" have appeared in Subterranean Press magazine. A few other stories have appeared in anthologies and collaborative art projects, though they have been modified for this collection. Two brand-new stories are included— "Omphalos" and "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom."

One of the wonderful things about Exhalation is that these stories linger. They stick to the mind, dense enough to chew. This is largely because Chiang is comfortable leaving readers with more questions than answers. Readers are left to wonder, what fuels scientific discovery? What role should artificial intelligence play in one's life? How is knowledge created? To what extent should knowledge be shared, and with whom? Do people have free will? What are the consequences of humanity's actions? These queries are scientific, but they are also anthropological, philosophical, religious and sociological; they are questions about humanity— past, present and future.

While many authors choose to take a distanced stance when asked about their writing, leaving readers to work through their intentions, Chiang provides a chapter of "Story Notes." In this section, he dips into each of the book's nine pieces, stating his inspirations, cultural references, scientific concepts and curiosities. These insights are helpful, without revealing so much that readers feel omniscient in Chiang's worlds. It is like a brief conversation about each of the stories, a chance to inhabit the author's inventive mind.

Although this may not be a great choice for readers who find comfort in thematically-oriented stories that have tidy resolutions, those with more experimental tastes will find a lot to enjoy in Exhalation. The book offers nine distinct and fascinating worlds, making it perfect for either dipping in-and-out or reading all in one go. Sci-fi fans will appreciate the different experimental lenses through which to view humanity. Those new to the genre might find themselves hooked by the interdisciplinary threads of subjects such as sociology, anthropology, philosophy, religion, language and more.

The title story from this collection is available in full online from Lightspeed Magazine, and readers may also be interested in checking out Ted Chiang's May 2019 interview with the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

Reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

Library Journal (starred review)
Any SF reader can dive into these stories and find something exciting. Especially recommended for fans of Greg Egan, Ken Liu, and Netflix's Black Mirror.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
As Chiang's endnotes attest, these stories are brilliant experiments, and his commitment to exploring deep human questions elevates them to among the very best science fiction.

Booklist (starred review)
Chiang remains one of the most skilled stylists in SF, and this will appeal to genre and literary-fiction fans alike.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Author Blurb Rachel Khong, author of Goodbye, Vitamin
From Ted Chiang's singular mind comes another innovative and mind-bending collection of short stories...Chiang's writing does what good writing should: make the universe feel both vast and small at the same time.

Author Blurb Kevin Brockmeier, author of The View From the Seventh Layer
Ted Chiang brings to science fiction both the refined human insight of the best contemporary literature and the shapeliness and resonance of myth. Stories of Your Life and Others has proven to be one of the finest collections of the last twenty years, and Exhalation, if anything, outdistances it. Surely the grace, lucidity, intensity, heart, and intelligence of these stories will allow them to endure.

Author Blurb Aja Gabel, author of The Ensemble
There's so much excellence in the labyrinth of ideas in Exhalation—machines that question free will, AIs that challenge love, software that shapes memory—what truly astounds is the tenderness that pulses through each story like a heartbeat...He is not only at the top of his genre, but a true storyteller, and one of our most skilled and fascinating. I am so excited to live in a world where Ted Chiang is writing.

Author Blurb Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad
Ted Chiang's stories are lean, relentless, and incandescent.

Author Blurb Karen Russell, author of Orange World
Ted Chiang writes with such a matter-of-fact grace and visionary power that one simply takes on faith that his worlds and his characters exist, whether they are human or robot or parrot; he is the rare author who makes me feel, also, that he believes in his readers, in our integrity and our imagination.

Author Blurb Blake Crouch, author of Dark Matter
Ted Chiang has no contemporary peers when it comes to the short story form. His name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Carver, Poe, Borges, and Kafka. Every story is a universe. Every story is a diamond. You will inhale Exhalation in a single, stunned sitting, because true genius doesn't come along nearly as often as advertised. This is the real thing.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is an idea that extends to ancient times, when Hephaestus—a character in Greek mythology, son of Zeus and Hera—used his skills as a blacksmith to create mechanical servants. Despite this longstanding fascination, it was not until the 1950s that AI became a feasible technology with the invention of stored-program electronic computers. Today, streaming services, social media platforms, vehicles, virtual assistants and other technologies all function in part using AI-related systems.

But what is artificial intelligence? Those within the scientific community have yet to agree on a definition, with at least three distinct schools of thought:

  • According to Stanford professor of engineering and computer science Nils J. Nilsson, "artificial intelligence is that activity devoted to making machines intelligent, and intelligence is that quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment."
  • In their 2013 article "Applicability of Artificial Intelligence in Different Fields of Life", researchers Shukla Shubhendu and Jaiswal Vijay approach AI from a slightly different angle, understanding AI in relation to human intelligence. To them, AI refers to "machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment, and intention."
  • Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institute defines AI by three distinct qualities: intentions, intelligence and adaptability. In other words, AI devices should be able to use data, trends and analysis to make conclusions and adapt those conclusions—or learn—in light of new information.

What AI experts can agree on is that it is the ability of a machine or program to learn and adapt. So how can it be measured? Mostly, effectiveness is measured in terms of an AI-device's ability to perform a variety of tasks. According to John McCarthy—who coined the term "artificial intelligence" in 1956—AI can recognize patterns, conduct searches, make inferences, apply heuristic (problem-solving) models, learn through experiences and plan things (among other functions).

This list of tasks, concepts and branches is already long, but it will continue to expand as AI evolves. The 1950s saw the development of neural networks, computing systems that interconnected much like brain neurons. Scientists used these networks to teach early AI machines to do basic math, understand English and solve mazes.

The 1980s saw the rise of "machine learning," a type of data analysis that builds models automatically. For example, a scientist could feed data about different types of fruit to the machine (weight, color, texture, etc.), and the machine could use that data to build a model that would allow it to differentiate one fruit from another.

In the present day, there are remarkable innovations in AI, mainly focused on deep learning, a special category of machine learning that teaches computers to perform human-like tasks, such as facial recognition or understanding a user's vocal inflections and speech patterns. Using the fruit example, deep learning networks allow the machine to recognize the fruit without the data, simply by processing images and recognizing what it has "seen" before.

Many modern technologies are forms of AI. Some are highly specialized; others are integral to how people live and function. When someone asks Siri—or Alexa, Bixby or Google Assistant—to make calls, send texts, schedule appointments or answer questions, AI is at work. As these applications improve their ability to predict and understand people's answers and requests, pseudo-intelligence is achieved.

AI also works behind the scenes of most streaming platforms. Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and others use predictive AI technologies to anticipate customer reactions to media. This type of AI compares someone's responses—ratings, favorites, likes or dislikes—against countless films and songs to generate recommendations. A given piece of media is split into a variety of characteristics or identifiers to create data and make connections. The more data that is added, the more accurate the results will be. When someone goes on social media—whether it is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat—something similar happens. AI considers user behaviors in order to customize what people see on the application, from posts to ads. When someone uses global positioning services (GPS) technologies such as Google Maps or Waze, AI is again responsible for making decisions, providing route instructions for walking, biking, busing and driving.

It's difficult to predict where AI will lead next. Its significance is undeniable, especially as it comes closer and closer to reaching sophisticated human intelligence. To explore AI through an interdisciplinary and fictionalized framework, consider reading Exhalation by Ted Chiang. This collection of short stories offers a fresh and thought-provoking narrative on AI and other topics, ranging from quantum mechanics to language acquisition.

By Jamie Chornoby

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