By Ted Chiang
Knopf. 368 pp. $25.95
Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Ted Chiang’s first sale, “Tower of Babylon” — a story that instantly snapped up a Nebula Award. In the decades since, he has, consistently if at longish intervals, hewed to a course of delivering meticulously crafted and innovative short fiction, deliberately eschewing novel-length work. It’s an utterly noncommercial strategy that obviously reflects his preferred writing mode, one that has worked well for him and his dedicated audience. It has led, notably, to the 2016 film Arrival, the Oscar-nominated cinematic translation of his “Story of Your Life.” His career thus deservedly joins those of only a handful of past masters — Edgar Allan Poe, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon — who likewise did their best work in miniature.
His new volume, Exhalation, contains seven tales first published between 2005 and 2015, and two more that make their first appearance here. Chiang’s stories are uniformly notable for a fusion of pure intellect and molten emotion. At the core of each is some deep conceptual notion rich with arcane metaphysical or scientific allure. But surrounding each is a narrative of refined human sensitivity and soulfulness. This, the ideal definition and practice of all science fiction, is seldom achieved.
“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is set in that glorious heyday of the Islamic Caliphate, the era of Sinbad and Harun al-Rashid. A purveyor of fabrics visits a strange shop and is shown a functioning time gate. Step through in one direction, you are 20 years in the past. Choose the opposite entrance, and you are 20 years in the future. The gate’s inventor regales the merchant with anecdotes about the device, recited as though they were stories from 1001 Nights. When our protagonist employs the portal to remedy a past injustice, he instead learns an important lesson: “Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”
The title story is part of a grand sci-fi tradition: the depiction of an odd universe with different existential laws, as seen through the eyes of the natives. Our narrator is a mechanical man, a pioneering scientist who finally uncovers the secret of his own operation and of his universe’s parameters. Alas, all is entropy, with doom on the horizon, but the mind of the scientist can still imagine events beyond futility and nihilism. Chiang channels Stanislaw Lem and the David Bunch of Moderan fame for a poignant parable.
At more than 100 pages, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is Chiang’s longest piece. A near-future tale about the invention of artificial intelligence, it combines the hard-edge cyber-chops of Greg Egan with the whimsy of Japanese anime. Our heroes are Ana — a former zookeeper and animal lover — and Derek, a visual artist and graphic designer. Finding themselves at work for the same firm, they help to create “digients,” virtual-reality critters like Tamagotchi pets. But as the beings grow in sapience — over a jump-cut tale spanning many years — issues arise of loyalty, love, and independence, along with the cruel realities of capitalism. The title assumes a rich irony, given the very real human qualities of these “software objects.”
In "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling," another technological gadget is poised to trigger a paradigm shift in human behavior. The ability for every individual to access objective recordings from their "lifelogs" drives an orgy of recriminations and self-doubt. Chiang illuminates this phenomenon with a clever parallel narrative about a tribesman encountering simple literacy.
The two stories original to this collection are both masterful and striking. Reading “Omphalos,” I recalled Philip José Farmer’s classic “Sail On! Sail On!” about Christopher Columbus’ catastrophic voyage around an Earth that is indeed flat. Chiang gives us an intricately limned universe where Creationism is fact. But, as always, it’s only through the dark-night-of-the-soul musings of his heroine, archaeologist Dorothea Morrell, that the story acquires dramatic heft. Finally, “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” surveys with head-spinning intensity the implications of communication across divergent timelines. Combining Philip K. Dick paranoia with the matter-of-fact weirdness of William Gibson’s The Peripheral, Chiang brings us the pilgrim’s progress of Nat, a young woman whose cross-time scams lead her to hard-won enlightenment.
Despite Chiang’s approach to writing, both “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” are under development in Hollywood. His challenging and rewarding fiction proves that a sizable and appreciative audience exists for the kind of speculative fiction that doesn’t merely offer cosmic explosions, but that instead plucks both heartstrings and gray matter in equal measure.