The difficult second book is something of a cliché in writing, and mostly untrue. There are plenty of second novels and collections that prove better than someone’s debut. But there is a kernel of truth of that notion at the heart of Exhalation, the second collection of stories by Ted Chiang. Chiang’s first short fiction collection, Stories of Your Life and Others was a marvel of science-fiction, garnering awards and leading to the adaptation of the titular ‘Story of Your Life’ into the brilliant film Arrival. At the time, China Mieville said of the stories, “it is the rationalism of the characters – and the writer – that makes them emotional and human.” That was the crux of what made Stories of Your Life work so well, that ability to mine extremely high concept science-fiction with deeply resonant human stories. ‘Story of Your Life’ may well be about first contact with aliens, but it is about parenthood and the fears and anxieties that go along with it, it is about language and how we perceive ourselves and others through the way we speak. That book was exceptional, and, as it turns out with Exhalation, it may well also be the exception.
There is good stuff in Exhalation, which is comprised of nine stories. The clear highlight of the book is the final story, ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ in which devices known as Prisms enable users to communicate with a version of themselves from a parallel world. The key to it all being that the parallel world is created at the point a user activates the Prism, leading to users worried that the terrible things they see in those parallel worlds were caused by them activating their devices. Others are addicted to using them, constantly talking with and comparing themselves to their parallel selves, attending support groups to try and come to terms with this new kind of addiction. At the centre of this story are Dana, a therapist running a support group, and Nat, who is running a scam, attending the group under false pretences. Chiang’s focus on themes of addiction and the ways in which we feel jealously towards others, amplified a hundred fold when we see another version of ourselves succeed, is smart, and the story itself is tightly focused on the characters. It works well, and though it may end rather too tidily, it earns it.
Elsewhere, the Arabian Nights esque, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ in which the titular Merchant finds a gate that allows him to travel twenty years to the past, presents interesting ideas and has close ties with Muslim faith. The structure as well, in which shorter stories are nestled within the narrative, is clever and interesting.
The novella, ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ likewise puts character front and centre and is all the better for it. Here, a software company creates a race of digital animals, known as Digients and hires a former zookeeper, Ana, to help raise them. It starts off similarly to the excellent ‘Story of Your Life’, an outsider brought in to help discover something brand new (in that story, a linguist is hired by the army to help make first contact with aliens), but it doesn’t reach the kind of heady space that ‘Story…’ does. Instead it’s far more interested in the ups and downs of, as the title suggests, software. As the digients grow and evolve, the company dries up and goes into administration, and Ana and her former co-worker Derek take their digients and try to raise them outside of the company, seeking funding and support where they can, battling new technologies and outside influences. ‘Lifecycle…’ is too long, but it winds its way towards some heartbreaking and fascinating moments: digients learning language and wanting their own independence, companies trying to prostitute the creations (literally), and relationships breaking apart. It asks difficult questions about how we perceive and define life, but it is meandering. Too often, Chiang relies on dull, direct exposition; a subplot involving an unrequited romance between Derek and Ana is said to be taking place, but never really cements itself in the readers mind.
Ultimately, that reliance on exposition is the downfall of the book. Too often Chiang’s ideas overtake any sense of story. Several pieces in the book, most notably ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’, the titular ‘Exhalation’, and ‘What’s Expected of Us’ have terrific ideas at their hearts, but simply do nothing but explain the concept. Elsewhere, stories like ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ were written as part of art installations and fictional design books, and divorced from their original context they just don’t work at all.
Perhaps Chiang has become a victim of hype. ‘Story of Your Life’ is one of the finest sci-fi stories of the 2000’s and his debut collection was outstanding, so there was considerable weight placed on Exhalation. But in truth, it is a lacklustre, oftentimes dull, book that is somehow almost paradoxically also packed to the rafters with fascinating and compelling high-concept ideas.
Any Cop?: On balance, this is worth it for the stories that work, but it’s likely that just as much about this will frustrate readers.