Exhalation

Author: Ted Chiang

Finished: May 20, 2020

Goodreads link


I was pleasantly surprised by this collection of short stories. I normally do not read sci-fi, but I enjoyed all of Ted Chiang's short stories. Each story left me thinking about the common questions of humanity (who are we? are we special in the universe? what makes us human? do we have free will?). The technological elements of the stories were definitely really cool, but it felt like the main focuses of the stories were not the cool parts of technology, but rather the questions that humans have always asked about humanity, and will always continue to ask.

I also felt like I was reading the short-story equivalent of Black Mirror or Love Sex Robots. I enjoyed the questions that Chiang posed and got me thinking a lot about. Below are my notes for some of my favorite stories from the collection.

Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate was my favorite story. While many of the later stories went more in depth exploring different technological or scientific themes and ideas, I liked Merchant the most because it felt the tightest in terms of its storytelling. Of course, I loved the recursive story structure (and how the writing style "mirrored" the themes), and I'm always a sucker for frame narratives.

"Even though the past is unchangeable, one may encounter the unexpected when visiting it... Do you understand why I say the future and the past are the same? We cannot change either, but we can know both more fully" (25)

Lifecycle of Software Objects was very interesting, if a bit too long. I understand that maybe it had to be so long to convey that you really DO need to spend 20 years raising a life-form, but parts of it felt like it could have been condensed. The story reminded me that child development and child psychology are both super important fields but not as focused upon in AI fields... It's not enough to have the right genes and DNA, you also need the write support and development and "parental" figures... In fact, because I am also reading the Body Keeps the Score right now as well, I am more partial to the ideas that early childhood models are super important for growth.

"Complex minds can't develop on their own. If they could, feral children would be like any others. And minds don't grow the way weeds do, flourishing under indifferent attention; otherwise all children in orphanages would thrive. For a mind to even approach its full potential, it needs cultivation by other minds." (106)

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling: I liked the ideas he asked about what does it mean to have a perfect memory, and how will that affect our humanity? Feels very relevant to the current research I am doing about archives now as well. The substory with Jijingi and the minister made me think about the demarcation of thoughts before writing, and how writing is just another way of discretizing the continuous.

"People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we've lived; they're the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments..." (208)