Friday, June 21, 2019

Review: Exhalation: Stories

Exhalation: Stories
From Exhalation: Stories, by Ted Chiang:

Open quote 
Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons."

Nine science fiction stories of all kinds: time travel, entropy, artificial intelligence, alternate universes, free will, robotic childcare, total recall, SETI, and creationism. Most of the stories have been published elsewhere, but they are new to me — the stories anyway, not the ideas. The ideas aren't fresh, but I suppose the value of sci-fi is telling stories to make hard-to-grasp scientific concepts accessible to the non-scientist.

Grade: C+

The best thing about these stories is that they are more or less true to the science. The paradoxes of time travel have been explored well enough that we know what the gotchas are. Ted Chiang spins a captivating tale that stays true to the limits of time travel, even in fiction.

Maybe the worst thing is a lack of imagination in some stories. In one, a way has been found to use "prisms" as a communication device between parallel universes created by quantum physical effects. Instead of imagining all the world-changing possibilities such a discovery would open up, Ted Chiang imagines society using the prisms for what-if questions. For example, some people want to know how their parallel lives turned out if they had turned down a job or broke a marriage engagement in a parallel universe.

The longest story is also the one that lost my attention the soonest. It's a tale of virtual reality pets that reminded me of the 1990s children's craze Tamagotchis. Only these creations have fully unique DNA makeups and the virtual reality they inhabit is almost as real as our own. The story shows what happens when individual humans become attached to these creations just as society as a whole moves on to newer iterations of virtual reality. Second Life, anyone? The story covers all the legal and moral issues surrounding artificial life but not in a way that's makes for compelling storytelling.

I guess my main criticism of this collection is not the sci-fi topics and not the science, but the storytelling. Maybe adapted to television by a program like Black Mirror, the stories might come alive. but Ted Chiang's words on paper had me turning pages, but only to get to the next story.

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