Ted Chiang


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

July 10,2021

tories of Your Life was an excellent collection of short stories that Chiang published in 2010. Almost a decade later, in 2019, Chiang put out another collection of short stories, Exhalation, but I only got around to reading it now. Looking at the dates when the stories were written, it appears most were first published quite a few years ago. Does this mean Chiang is not producing stories any more? That would disappointing if true.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (2007) Winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards. The first story in the collection is excellent. It tells the story of a merchant who encounters an Alchemist who has constructed a wonderous device, called the Gate of Years. It is a time travel device, it permits anyone who steps through to go back in time 20 years. But you can't change the past. Chiang does a great job of telling a story that illuminates how, although the past cannot be changed, information can be learned that changes your understanding of the events that transpired long ago.

Exhalation (2008) Winner of the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. This is written as a report by a mechanical being who describes how it came to understand the nature of life for its species. The robot society lives in an enclosed environment, but entropy is gradually eroding the air pressure. This is such a marvelous, off-beat idea. Maybe the robot predicament is just like our own - our own universe will one day perish, whether by Heat Death or Big Crunch, but there will be an end.

What's Expected of Us (2005) This is another surprising idea from Chiang. What would happen if we knew that there was no free will, if we learned that our choices are merely illusions, that there can be only one timeline?

The Life Cycle of Software Objects (2010) This was the longest story (by far), and also my least favorite. Chiang writes about a company that creates software personalities called digients that people can adopt as pets. The software is upgraded constantly, but to truly raise a digient takes effort and time and patience. This seemed unlikely to me - who would invest so much effort (20 years!) into a software-constructed personality? I love our cats because I know that they are alive and truly have needs and personalities. A digient is just a program, its apparent personality is just code.

Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny (2011) This story is written about a fictional museum object, an invention that was supposed to be a robot nanny.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling (2013) Hugo Award Nominee. I once actually had a similar idea to this one - what if everything we did was recorded on video? I imagined a small drone always flying just behind your right shoulder, filming every event in your life. Chiang doesn't explain how the recordings are made, and (unlike me), he then wrote a story about the ramifications of always having available everything you said or did.

The Great Silence (2015) This brief story was my favorite in a strong collection of good stories. It is narrated by a Puerto Rican parrot whose species is facing extinction, because humans are so careless we can't be bother to appreciate the parrot's existence. The parrot marvels how humans have constructed a giant radio telescope at Arecibo to attempt to communicate with aliens, and yet right here on earth there are parrots that could be communicated with. Why don't humans try to contact and understand the animals around us?

Omphalos Nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award Another excellent idea from Chiang - what if the earth really was created just 6000 years ago. Scientists would keep turning up evidence that supports that date of creation (such as counting tree rings, or finding mummies with no belly buttons). This is the story of a devout archeaologist and the surprising, unsettling meaning of the latest scientific discoveries.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom(2019 Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee. Chiang constructs a world where every decision we make causes the universe to split - one where we choose to do one thing and the other where the opposite choice was made. Obviously, this leads to infinite number of universes. Chiang has an invention called a prism that allows a limited amount of contact between the two universes. What if you could talk to yourself from the opposite universe and find out what the consequences were of your decision? A great idea, and Chiang always executes these clever, tricky ideas so smoothly that there isn't any confusion. Another excellent story.

I hope Chiang is still writing, and continues to produce great stories. Maybe because they seem so rare, they are all the more precious.