Perhaps the world’s least hasty writer, Ted Chiang has built his fiercely dedicated fanbase slowly but surely. His first story, “Tower of Babylon”, appeared in 1990. During the 90s he published only three more pieces. Eleven further stories have appeared since 2000. He has never published a novel, yet his 15 stories have won all the genre’s most prestigious awards: Hugos and Nebulas, Sturgeons, Tiptrees and BSFAs galore – more than two dozen prizes in all.
In 2016 Chiang came to the attention of a much larger audience when his “Story of Your Life” was adapted for the big screen as Arrival, starring Amy Adams. But it hasn’t changed him. He continues on his slow-paced way, occasionally releasing another carefully thought-through, precisely worked SF short to the world.
Picador’s advance publicity for this, only his second collection, betrays a certain excitability. “In the world of the science-fiction short story Chiang’s work is legendary. Now is the time for the rest of us to discover his unique imagination.” That “rest of us” is, perhaps, ill-judged (don’t you rest-of-us me, sunshine: I’ve been reading Chiang for decades), but there’s no denying that it is an appealing prospect.
That said, there is an inevitable danger in accelerating SF hype into hyperspace. Exhalation’s nine stories are … fine. A couple are excellent, most are good, a couple don’t really work. It feels like damning the book with faint praise to say so, but isn’t that exactly how short-story collections generally work?
The weakest piece is “The Great Silence”, a five-page squib based on the idea that we’ve been looking in the wrong place in our search for alien intelligence, and should have been talking to, er, parrots. (Who’s a pretty borg, then?) “What’s Expected of Us” is even shorter: a three-page speculation about what would happen to human mental health if it were conclusively proved that there is no such thing as free will. At the other end of the scale lengthwise is “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, an 110-page novella about “digients”, souped-up Tamagotchis in shared online virtual worlds that are sold to people as pets. A small group of owners become obsessed with seeing how far these e-creatures can evolve: interacting with them, tutoring them, hiring or buying them robotic bodies so they can move around the real world. Chiang asks some fascinating questions in this story: at what point does a programmed entity become “alive”? What would our ethical obligations be to such creatures? If digients are programmed to love their owners in a sexual way, is the result deplorable digital bestiality, or an exciting new sexual frontier? But without his usual concision this story drags. Its human characters, intensely focused on their virtual pets, live lives of emotional disconnect that, while presumably part of Chiang’s point, make for a rather unsatisfying read.
If this story suggests that his strengths are not those of a full-length novelist, there are enough classic Chiang shorts to make the collection something special. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, about a near-future in which fallible human memory is superseded by searchable digital video, manages to grow beyond its rather sub-Black Mirror premise into a wise and moving meditation on its titular distinction. “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” is a clever piece of steampunk, and “Omphalos” a lovely exploration of what the solar system would be like if God had indeed created it only a few thousands of years ago. In “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” it is possible, via a kind of quantum iPad, to interact with versions of ourselves who made different choices at crucial life moments, and are living with the consequences in a different timeline. It’s a story that does what Chiang does best: develops an ingenious, rigorously worked-through SF premise in ways that are emotionally resonant, examining how deeply vulnerable human beings are to “if only … ” thinking.
The collection’s two finest stories both achieve this expert balance of the emotional and the cerebral. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is an intricate and delightful Arabian Nights-style yarn about a time gate; and the title story deftly creates an alien world, bounded by solid chromium, in which live touchingly thoughtful robotic creatures. One dissects its own head in an attempt to understand how the myriad flaps of gold leaf inside its brain generate its consciousness and in doing so discovers a profound truth about the strange cosmos it inhabits. Chiang makes this entropic revelation ring like a bell, and his quaint world suddenly focuses a truth about all existence. It’s Chiang at his best, and worth the price of admission on its own.
• Adam Roberts’s The Real-Town Murders is published by Gollancz. Exhalation by Ted Chiang is published by Picador (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
Source: The Guardian