“Exhalation”, by Ted Chiang (2009) K

Date Read: 8.11.09
Read In: Night Shade Download
Reviewer: Kakaner

Exhalation is one of those special gems of short fiction that comes along only once in a while. The story belongs in a pocket of science fiction that not many people write in, and really stands out from the usual space fiction, sci-fi/fantasy meld, dystopia, or cyberpunk. It is about a world encased in a chromium bubble, in which the inhabitants are walking, living metal machines that survive on argon air, and one doctor sets out to discover the truth about their bodies.

The prose is fresh yet straightforward, very fitting for a scientist narrator. It’s also one of those stories that never drags but only continuously draws you in. I think the best part about Exhalation is its own “temporal ambiguity”– you really can’t tell if it’s supposed to be futuristic sci-fi, an AU, space fiction, or perhaps even “historical” sci-fi, and this quality lends the entire story a delicate air of surrealism. The conclusions drawn at the end by the doctor also indicate that this account, although short and delivered by one man, has serious implications and ramifications against the backdrop of the universe. Yet despite all the positive attributes, I didn’t feel an incredible emotional connection to the story. Perhaps it was the very precise narration, but I definitely felt like an observer instead of a participant.

I can’t say yet whether I believe this was the right choice for the 2009 Hugo Short Story winner. I feel like I understand one of the main reasons why it won, and that would be the cleverly crafted hard science fiction of the story. It’s been hard to find hard sci-fi like that of Exhalation in contemporary sci-fi. With cyberpunk on the rise, despite what I suspect to be at least half its readership having no background in cryptography or computation theory,  I think it’s been a while since people have found truly great and accessible science fiction. Chiang’s fiction is logical, with great attention to detail, and the technology in his story is definitely based on science while still allowing every person to understand the mechanics of his world, and it is this accessibility makes Exhalation real and relatable. I am going to read the other Hugo nominations for a stronger basis of comparison.

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Ted Chiang

3 thoughts on ““Exhalation”, by Ted Chiang (2009) K”

  1. The thing that I loved about Exhalation was that its basic concept was so simple (a universe based around an entirely different energy source, but still bounded by entropy), yet Chiang executed it so convincingly, and with so much complexity and beauty. (the image of the golden leaves flitting back and forth…!) It also looks as though I felt more actively engaged in the story than you, however.

    That’s also a really good point about it being a throwback to the days of accessible but hard sf – a comment that I was going to make in my review was that it reminded me of a lot of my favorite Asimov short stories.

    I definitely want to try to make a clean sweep of the Hugo, Nebula, & WFA short story nominees. Should be pretty easy since publications have been putting nominees online in order to increase their reach.

  2. Let’s make that sweep together! Yay!

    I agree about Asimov– except Exhalation was even “harder”, if you know what I mean. Asimov is still extremely soft sci-fi if you really think about it… all his details are in the concepts as opposed to the technology, but it’s still great and simply a different type of intelligence.

  3. True – Asimov is conceptual & philosophical, whereas Chiang (who is a computer scientist) is very mechanistic, at least in this one story. I know he’s renowned in general for his hard SF, and pretty much all of his stories are really highly lauded (his *first* published won the Nebula, and a later won the Hugo, Nebula, AND Locus), so we should definitely hit up more of his work, too!

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