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This new short-story collection from the author behind Arrival is sci-fi at its smartest

Cute robots, time portals, and digital memories mingle in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang Knopf
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The go-to cliché when a critic is reviewing a particularly lovely collection of short stories is to say that they are “jewel-like”: that they are elegant and discrete little gems of story, shimmering away on the page.

Exhalation — the newest short-story collection from Ted Chiang, author of the novella that was adapted into the 2016 Amy Adams movie Arrival — is not jewel-like. It’s closer to a grand machine. And this machine is made up of intricately connected parts, all moving in a pattern of such complexity that you can’t always be sure that you’re following it. But you can always trust that the machine’s inventor has plotted out that pattern with exquisite precision.

Chiang writes what could be loosely described as “thinky sci-fi.” His stories tend to introduce a single scientific idea or paradox, and then dramatize it. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” imagines a time machine that obeys Einstein’s theory of relativity — essentially a doorway that you walk through from the present, emerging on the other side a fixed period of time into either the past or the future — and riffs on ideas about predestination in an Arabian Nights-inspired nest of stories. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” imagines a software product that works as a kind of digital memory, always exact and always precise, and puts it in parallel with the way the technology of reading and writing has already shaped human memory.

Chiang is thoughtful about the rules of his imagined technologies. They have the kind of precise, airtight internal logic that makes a tech geek shiver with happiness: When Chiang tells you that time travel works a certain way, he’ll always provide the scientific theory to back up what he’s written, and he will never, ever veer away from the laws he’s set for himself.

But Chiang is just as concerned with the human beings in his stories as he is with their technologies. He’s not necessarily interested in how human beings interact with one another (a few of his stories contain romantic subplots, and they are noticeably less compelling than anything else he writes). Instead, he focuses on how human beings interact with and are shaped by their technologies, like he’s writing a particularly utopian episode of Black Mirror.

That’s why “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is so effective: The story lands not only because Chiang has sweated every detail of how a digital memory would function, but because he shows us a human being who is trying to decide whether a digital memory is a good thing or not. If we can remember everything as it really happened, Chiang points out, then we lose the ability to let our traumas and our quarrels get fuzzy with time. What does that mean for our abilities to forgive and forget, to move past horror? And what does that mean for our tendency to recast the past to hold our present selves in the best possible light?

The longest and most ambitious of the stories in Exhalation is the novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” which is Chiang’s take on the robot story. Chiang’s robots are AIs called digients, developed to be digital companions, and as the story opens, the digients seem to be part robot, part pet, and part toddler. The digients are convincingly adorable on the page — “Jax spinning lying din!” says a digient named Jax as he teaches himself to roll down a hill — but for most of the world, they’re a passing fad.

Eventually, the company that programs the digients goes bust, and then the protected software platform where they “live” becomes obsolete. The few humans who haven’t abandoned their digients are left struggling to protect them from the wilds of the internet, where robot sadists and sex toy companies with an interest in robots roam.

As “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” goes on, it becomes clear that the early ambiguity of the digients — are they robots, pets, or toddlers? — is the key to the story. In order for the digients to survive, their human companions must decide whether their digital friends are robots, in which case it would be okay to shut them down; pets, in which case it’s the humans’ duty to protect them forever; or children. And if they’re children, their human companions have a duty to push the digients to evolve and grow as much as they can.

In its 110 pages, “Lifecycle” manages to be sweet, heartbreaking, and deeply thought-provoking. The other big robot book of the spring, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, comes off as clumsy in comparison, and after reading Chiang, McEwan’s infamous dismissal of most of sci-fi as “traveling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots” seems even more tone deaf than it did before.

The stories in Exhalation are a shining example of science fiction at its best. They take both science and humanism deeply seriously, which is why it’s so satisfying to watch Chiang’s shining, intricate machine at work: You know that whatever the machine builds, it will tell you something new about human beings.

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