Sunday, July 19, 2020

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

From the recommendation of my friend Ashfaq, I finished listening to the short story collection Exhalation by Ted Chiang yesterday. Ted Chiang has won four Nebula awards, four Hugo awards, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and four Locus awards. His short story, Story of Your Life, was the basis of the film Arrival (2016). In the 9 short stories and novelette of Exhalation, Ted Chiang brings out a fusion of science, technology, religion, philosophy, ethics, morality, relationship, fantasy with great mastery. He takes an idea and gives it a very human touch instead of just focusing on the core technical idea, exactly the type I like. After Cixin Liu's Three-Body Problem trilogy that I finished 3 years back, Exhalation is the book that is going to instill FOMO (fear of missing out) in me for the new breed of sci-fi books (I still can't come out of Asimov).

The stories in this collection are listed below. The first two are particularly better than the rest of the stories. The first one, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, I would rate as one of the best short stories (in all categories, not just sci-fi) I have read in recent times.
  1. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate - What would you do if you are given a choice to meet your own self 20 years in the future or 20 years in the past? I chose 20 years in the future (when my friend asked me) as Alhamdulillah I am content with my past. Ted touched on what destiny means in the style of Arabian Nights i.e. story-within-story in an Islamic context. Apart from the time travel part, he didn't try to use science in it, and hence this may better be classified under fantasy or philosophy rather than sci-fi. The way Ted wrote, I felt he has talked to his Muslim friends or scholars to properly understand Qadr (Predestination), fate, and the relevant arguments and counter-arguments within Islam about destiny. Just this story alone is worth buying the whole book for. It won the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novelette and the 2008 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.
  2. Exhalation - You may read the story online here. This is a story based on the second law of thermodynamics (total entropy, thermodynamic equilibrium) in a civilization led by air-driven mechanical human-like robots. The story is epistolary in nature, taking the form of a scientist's journal entry who first identifies the upcoming eventual demise of the universe they live in. Exhalation won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
  3. What's Expected of Us - You may read this very short story online here.
  4. The Lifecycle of Software Objects - I was surprised to read how familiar the author sounded in this novella about software startups and the ecosystem. So later I found he is by profession a technical writer in the software industry. It won the 2011 Locus Award for Best Novella and the Hugo Award for Best Novella.
  5. Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny
  6. The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling
  7. The Great Silence - You may read this short story online here.
  8. Omphalos
  9. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom

Thoughts on Life, Death, and Overcoming Fear

I've been pondering a topic that's universally relevant yet rarely discussed - death and the anxieties it evokes. As I delve deeper ...