“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” the first story in Ted Chiang’s luminous new collection Exhalation, opens with a benediction: “O mighty caliph and commander of the faithful, I am humbled to be in the splendor of your presence.” Our narrator, Fuwaad ibn Abbas, informs us that he was born “here in Baghdad, City of Peace,” and that he has spent his life as a “purveyor of fine fabrics…silk from Damascus and linen from Egypt and scarves from Morocco that are embroidered with gold.” Now, he stands in attendance before the caliph “without a single dirham in my purse,” but with a strange and winding story to tell. “If it pleases your Majesty,” he offers, “I will recount it here.”
Fuwaad’s loquacious introduction is the perfect beginning for “The Merchant,” which loops tales within tales and riffs on the intricate narrative structure of 1001 Arabian Nights. But it doubles as a preamble for Chiang’s entire oeuvre, especially for those first-time readers who, lured by the author who wrote the short story that inspired 2016’s soulful sci-fi blockbuster Arrival, are likely double-checking the dust jacket right around now to make sure they picked up the right book. It’s true that “The Merchant,” at least in its opening pages, bears little resemblance to Arrival’s alien invasion dramatics, or for that matter, the sci-fi genre in general. But the patient reader who heeds Fuwaad’s—and Chiang’s—entreaty will find a narrative every bit as dizzying and mindbending as the writer’s reputation suggests: 1001 Arabian Nights by way of Back to the Future Part II.
New work from the notoriously non-prolific Chiang is, to put it mildly, an event. Exhalation is his first book in nearly two decades—since 2002’s Stories of Your Life and Others—and brings together the mere seven (!) stories he’s published in the last 17 (!!) years, plus two new stories written for this book. Yet if two decades are the cost of admission for stories as immaculate as these, so be it. Exhalation is the sort of book that’s so good it’s hard to know what to say about it besides “read it.” Every sentence fits; every word glimmers; the level of precision, like an engineer crafting a line of code, is evident in every line. It’s immediately clear, too, why Chiang is so revered in genre circles, or why his small body of work has swept just about every science fiction award you can name. The word “genius” gets bandied around a lot these days; Exhalation proves that Chiang deserves it.
For the true brilliance of Chiang’s work lies in his range and versatility as a storyteller. No two of Exhalation’s stories are alike. The longest, the moving and magisterial “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” spans more than a hundred pages; the shortest barely cracks four. Many embrace unconventional structures, like “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” framed as a catalog entry for a museum of “imaginary artifacts,” or the brilliant “The Truth of Fact, The Fact of Feeling,” which weaves together two tales separated by continents and centuries to explore the relationship between human memory and the emergence of new technologies. Exhalation, like its predecessor, also ends with a brief, fascinating appendix of “story notes” detailing Chiang’s inspiration and process for each story. Don’t skip it.
Whatever the case, Chiang’s worlds are vividly realized, immersive and utterly unexpected—and not a single one gives up its secrets easily, leaving it to the reader to peel back the layers and puzzle out what kind of story they’ve stepped into. This is great fun, in part because Chiang is so skilled at marrying his premises to scientific reality that it can be hard to tell where the two even diverge. Narrators who, at first glance, appear to be human turn out to be anything but; settings that seem like our world are gradually revealed to be…something else entirely. If these descriptions sound overly vague, it’s because reading a Ted Chiang story is like watching a story-length plot twist unfold, sentence by sentence. There’s a joy in it, the thrill of discovery, of following Chiang’s inquisitive mind wherever it may lead. To give even the barest summary risks doing you, the reader, a disservice.
Besides, to reduce Chiang’s fiction to its sci-fi components—alternate timelines, artificial intelligence, etc.—is to grossly miss the point. Each page of Exhalation bursts with color, with heart, with probing curiosity about faith, parenthood, free will, and their place in the universe. For who’s to say the human condition is limited to humanity? Across its nine stories, the discovery of a parallel Earth sparks an existential crisis for the devout; self-aware automatons organize and demand their rights; and a colony of robots gazes toward the sky and ponders its imminent demise. “The universe began as a giant breath being held,” Chiang writes in the title story, likening the ever-expanding space around us as a “giant exhalation.” Within these nine, glittering narratives, we can glimpse the possibilities such an exhalation might hold: the thrumming complexities of the heart, the malleability of time, a universe that only grows more expansive and mysterious with each passing minute.
Publication Date: May 7, 2019
Reviewed by Will Preston