Date Read: 8.11.09
Read In: Night Shade Download
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.