Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Chiang, Ted. Exhalation. New York: Knopf.

Wow. This is some of the best science fiction I have read in a very long time. Chiang uses the flexibility afforded by the implicit rules (or lack of rules) of the genre to craft shorts stories that meditate on various philosophical issues, stories richly informed, it seems, by reading of the relevant literatures.

The one that resonated most for me is "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" which concerns the difference between, bluntly, what actually happened and the narratives that people construct around their pasts. One strand of the story plays out in the context of the world where some people create "life logs" - essentially videos of their entire lives - and the cost of searching the lifelog suddenly falls dramatically, leading to a lot more sometimes wrenching comparisons between actual facts and remembered narratives. I tend to think about these issue in terms of my last few years at Michigan, as my mental narrative of those years differs dramatically from that of others (and, of course, I think mine does a much better job of tracking actual events).

I also quite enjoyed "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," which  conemplates the moral status of artificial intelligences, and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," which concerns the ethical implications of parallel universes.

The book concludes with a few pages of notes about the origins of each of the stories, a feature I would be happy to see in basically every fiction book (and mybe in non-fiction books and papers too).

Highly recommended.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks and mortar bookstore at which I purchased the book

Addendum: A market test of sorts: used hardcover copies of Chiang's first book of short stories - Exhalation is his second - in good condition go for nearly $200 on

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