Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

My head was delighted by this collection, but my heart was slightly disappointed. All the big ideas are here, as they always are in Ted Chiang's work. You won't find a better treatment of the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics and parallel universes anywhere, this is how it would work. And there's a lot of heart, too. One story about raising digital creatures unexpectedly resonated with my own experiencing parenting teenagers. Every story is a notch above average -- it's like other authors have their ideas in standard definition but Chiang's grasp of the science and its implications is high-res. But there's no story that stands out as much as "Story of Your Life" in its sheer scope, originality, and depth. I didn't develop a deep emotional connection to any of the characters in this collection. I was most excited by "Omphalos," a story in which a 19th-century scientist follows a chain of discoveries and surprises in a world like ours that was created only a few tens of thousands of years ago. But for all the prayers we read from the central character, I don't feel like her faith is quite recognizable or tangible. It's not "high-resolution" like the science is. This is the same issue I had with Chiang's previous collection: he deals with science so well, and characters so well, that his slight shortcomings dealing with the deep nature of faith stand out all the more. The conclusion of "Omphalos" throws up unnecessary walls, describing certain aspects of science as problems to faith when a robust theology like JRR Tolkien's theory of subcreation would not only endure the problems but use them to strengthen the role of faith. It's hard to talk about this without spoilers, so I'll leave it at that. There is a five-star story here about parrots by the Arecibo observatory, but it's too short to lift the whole collection to the level of Chiang's previous collection. I am sure that I'd give this four stars if I hadn't read Stories of Your Life and Others, but since I gave that one four (while considering five), I'll have to give this one three (while considering four).