Ted Chiang's two collections: Stories of Your Life and Exhalation

A mind-breaking agglomeration of speculative philosophy grounded in scientific, mathematical and technological principles.

Ted Chiang's two collections: Stories of Your Life and Exhalation
Illustration by Ben Kirchner

The sci-fi genre in particular is known for its short fiction. Stories revolve around semi-futuristic to far-flung (or ancient with a twist) settings, with few character perspectives and a single change/ device that causes a reaction within said character/s.

Whilst I am enjoying longer form science-fiction (see Dune part 2 for reference), I want to explore the genre through its various short stories and novellas. To kickstart this series I am focusing on Ted Chiang's works, particularly as I recently enjoyed Arrival, a film based off of Chiang's most famous story.

I will update this series accordingly as I explore awarded and intriguing short stories to learn more about the basis and breadth of the genre.

Overall Review

A thought-provoking and dense collection of sci-fi short stories. As a brief note up-front, there is nothing explicitly tying these stories together - each tale stands alone in its own unique setting and with new characters. However, you can expect each story to feature strong internal consistency and distinct but open-ended social discussion, with a lesser focus on individual people.

Chiang's writing style at first seems to conform to hard sci-fi conventions, where a plot is driven by or has a new technological development (or novum) based in known science principles. It makes sense that Chiang has a computer science degree, but I was honestly surprised that he did not have an even more academic background. This is due to the in-depth explanations and ingenuous utilisations of often high-level scientific and mathematical concepts featured in all his stories. When the technology or concept seems to be mundane, the story takes over with some intriguing outcomes and effects on individuals explored.

This is also why I believe Chiang's writing often falls into the soft sci-fi classification as well, which explores societal aspects and human emotions in the foreground of an alternative world (or alterity). There are two stories especially in Story of Your Life and Others which are more fantastical than sci-fi (Tower of Babylon and Hell is the Absence of God), but all the stories in both his collections have some sort of social commentary being explored, with some more on the surface than others.

This is Chiang's strength, as he links deep scientific connections with philosophical discussions in often brain-breaking stories. As a reader, I was surprised at how much time I needed to complete his works. Not only are you meeting new characters and a unique setting, but you have to understand and then keep track of the technology's implications as well as the narrative - and this introductory phase is repeated for each story! This is not at all a knock on Chiang's writing style or the collection, but an acknowledgement that this cannot be approached with the same reading style as that of a typical novel.

I certainly enjoyed the mind-blowing aspect of his storytelling, and the diversity of ideas featured. From fables, world-views and existentialism to CIA action, agency and choice, each story was written slightly differently and distinct in its purpose. After completing the Exhalation collection I'll be moving on to some longer-form sci-fi (which removes the breaks mentioned above), but I whole-heartedly recommend even just a few of Chiang's stories to a curious sci-fi/ fantasy reader. If you do decide to read all of his works, it shouldn't be a time-consuming task but will likely require short breaks between stories so that you are able to absorb the narrative and social deliberation displayed.:

Overall Spoiler-Free Story Ranking

Non-italics = from Stories of Your Life and Others
Italics = from Exhalation

  1. The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction - 5/5 ⭐
  2. Liking What You See: A Documentary - 5/5 ⭐
  3. Tower of Babylon - 4.5/5 ⭐
  4. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate - 4.5/5 ⭐
  5. Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom - 4.5/5 ⭐
  6. Division by Zero - 4.5/5 ⭐
  7. Hell is the Absence of God - 4/5 ⭐
  8. Story of Your Life - 4/5 ⭐
  9. Exhalation - 4/5 ⭐
  10. Seventy-Two Letters - 3.5/5 ⭐
  11. The Lifecycle of Software Objects - 3.5/5 ⭐
  12. Understanding - 3/5 ⭐
  13. Omphalos - 3/5 ⭐
  14. What's Expected of Us - 2.5/5 ⭐
  15. The Evolution of Human Science - 2.5/5 ⭐
  16. The Great Silence - 2.5/5 ⭐
  17. Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny - 2/5 ⭐

Stories of Your Life and Others - Spoilers

Published: 2002
Read: 28th December 2021


1. Tower of Babylon - 4.5/5
A fable-like tale of man's obsession, hubris and dedication as Hillalum and his fellow miners attempt to break the Vault of Heaven and see Yahweh. Great sense of scale in the height of the Tower, and despite its ancient setting the ending has a mind-breaking mathematical model.

The high rating also likely has something to do with this being my first Ted Chiang short story.

2. Understand - 3/5
First-person character becomes hyper-intelligent and begins to explore the gestalt of all fields, and masters the human body/ brain. Using financial and technological skills he eludes the CIA before encountering another super-intelligence.

3. Division by Zero - 4.5/5
World-renowned mathematics professor Renee attempts suicide after proving that arithmetic is inconsistent, and in-turn realising the field has no meaning for reality. Her husband Carl is a survivor and this short intrusion into their married life is a spectacularly haunting short piece of fiction about identity. It is tied together by a structure which provides mathematical history at the beginning of each section, before 1a and 1b end in 9a = 9b.

4. Story of Your Life - 4/5
A mind-melting mix of semantic jargon that explores the notions of free will, causality versus teleology and parenthood. While the twist is made clear far earlier in the novella when compared to the film Arrival, this gave Chiang space to dive deeper into both the scientific and emotional ramifications of the two-dimensional Heptapod B language. For this reason I do think Villeneuve's movie leaves a far more powerful impact on its audience, despite being more scientifically shallow than that of the short story.

With Stories of Your Life being less focused on having a momentum-driven plot with exciting visual conflict however readers are given more spaced out, non-linear glimpses of how linguist Dr. Louise Banks raises her child. It really does feel like stepping inside captured moments which summarise a mother-daughter relationship, and properly explains the inevitability of knowing the future.

5. Seventy-Two Letters - 3.5/5
Robert Stratton is an up-and-coming automaton developer in a world where scientists have discovered the Kabbalistic (ancient Jewish religious thinking in Hebrew language) names of objects, and animated automatons and health jewellery with them. The steampunk, pre-industrial English setting is a perfect backdrop as Stratton becomes involved in a secret society to prevent the extinction of the human race within the next few generations due to reproduction issues.

Following the recursive, almost programming-like relationship between ova name-injection and rapid large foetus growth, Stratton is blind to the motivations of others leading to moments of tense conflict. Clay sculptors, aristocrats and kabbalists assist him in seeing the letters needed to save humanity and continue personal, procreative agency.

6. The Evolution of Human Science - 2.5/5
Short article-style summary of divergence between meta-human geniuses and good old-fashioned people. This single novum has changed communication, parenting styles and restricted new discoveries only to the higher intelligence group.

7. Hell Is The Absence of God - 4/5
Difficult to rate something that is so subjective to its reader's own religious beliefs. Neil Fisk is a recent widower, whose wife died painfully during an angel visitation before her soul ascended to Heaven. He now seeks Heaven over Hell, which many souls are destined for and seems not dissimilar to the mortal plane. A similar visitation gave legs back to formerly disabled motivational speaker Janice Reilly, and she is followed by Ethan Mead who always believed he would have a higher purpose.

The force of nature like descriptions alongside names of different angel visitations creates a realistic depiction of such biblical events, albeit in stark contrast to what general audiences may expect. Chiang admirably tries to touch upon the idea of God through constant discussion around finding faith, different motivations for praying and general approaches to living with visitations in Hell is The Absence of God. However, the powerful stream of consciousness conclusion ties this idea together, and was personally as satisfying and dissatisfying as one could expect when describing an indescribable phenomena. In saying that, I am conscious of the fact that not every reader may feel the same.

8. Liking What You See: A Documentary - 5/5
I found this to be an excellent discourse around both the personal and societal notions of beauty in a digital age. The basic premise is calliagnosia, a new non-invasive medical procedure that stops individuals from seeing the features that define a face as pretty or ugly. The story is told through blog-like messages from various key players in the debate around callignosia as it is to be implemented for all students at Pembleton Collge.

Arguments for include the predisposed advantage of good looks in work and life generally, as well as the ability to judge people by their internal charm. Arguments against cover the individual right to maintain bodily autonomy and take responsibility for avoiding bias/ distractions rather than being coddled and having it done for you. The way each idea was explored, attached to a human voice or story (such as when corporations get involved) make it that much more of an interesting read. And as if this all wasn't enough, Chiang throws in some more feasible-in-the-near-future technologies such as spex and personalised ads that definitely attempt to leverage an individual's perception and decision-making beyond what the brain has naturally grown to control. This all makes for an educative, reflective and exciting read!

9. Story Notes
I loved that these were short explanations on some of the thought processes and germination of ideas for Chiang. I would recommend reading the notes for each story directly or soon after completing it.

Exhalation: Stories - Spoilers

Published: 2019
Read: 16th January 2022


1. What's Expected of Us - 2.5/5
Very short story that sets up a neat conclusion around the idea of signals sent backwards through time in a fun little game device The Predictor breaking the illusion of free will. Whilst short and entertaining, I found the idea better explored in Stories of Your Life.

2. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate - 4.5/5
I found this to be a beautiful tale of storytelling, atonement and science that is closer to magic. In something out of an Arabian tale, Fuwaad ibn Abbas encounters a merchant specialising in intricate metalworks but whose prized possession is a a Gate through time using wormholes in the fabric of space. One side allows his arm to travel seconds into the future, the other sends it backwards through time over the same period. The merchant than conveys three stories, which Abbas then conveys to "His Majesty" the caliph as he explains his story. However, the key concept across each fable is that both past and future cannot be changed.

3. Exhalation - 4/5
Ambitious in all the right ways. All the reader is told about this world is that every day its inhabitants must replace their metal lungs. Our unnamed protagonist is a scientist who hears stories about clocks running fast within the chromium dome that they reside. Thinking that the issue is internal rather than external, we learn about the way these mechanical people operate as he performs an auto-dissection on his brain.

Questions about the world, neurology and the mechanical beings' creation are suitably answered in a highly scientific manner. Alongside this, questions regarding records of society's progress and one's will to live leave philosophical imprints on the reader's mind, like leaves of gold in the wind.

4. The Lifecycle of Software Objects - 3.5/5
Former zoo-trainer Ana is given a unique opportunity in the meta-verse, raising digital pets with the moniker Digients who are powered by Artificial Intelligence. We also get the viewpoint of Derek, a visual designer on these cute beings who are initially products to be sold and played with in online worlds.

What grows from this initial start-up experience is a true love and attachment to the pets, as well as all the real troubles of running a business and maintaining personal hobbies. I thought this was one of Chiang's strongest character works, as both Ana and Derek have believable lives and motives that shift over the course of the narrative as obstacles arise. This is likely due to the fact that The Lifecycle of Software Objects is Chiang's longest work to date, something I could unfortunately feel throughout my reading experience.

There was also a lot to take in technologically here, with quite a few different developments that each have multiple outcomes. The story is also unafraid of exploring a whole range of growing experiences, questions and products. However, a short story is short and not everything can be properly explored here. Whilst I appreciated Chiang's emotional through-line, it leads to a somewhat heavy-handed and didactic conclusion that leaves the rest of the world's storytelling and discussion potential untouched.

I have to admit I loved how the Digients and their competitor counterparts developed, with Marco, Polo, Jax and others all wearing suits and exploring the tactile nature of the physical world before slowly but surely learning to read and possessing independent thinking concepts that shape a unique worldview. I found the central message of the story much more digestible after reading Chiang's Story Notes afterwards, which explains how robots/ AI can learn certain things at "hot-house"/ fast computer-only speeds, but will likely always need to undergo experiences including making and living with life-consequences to properly be free-thinking beings.

5. Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny - 2/5
A short-lived but interesting tale. Reginald Dacey is a mathematician committed to developing his entrepreneurial "teaching robots", which he then transforms into nannies upon becoming a single father. Despite making sales using negative marketing against human nannies, an accidental death causes the invention to be forgotten. We then follow his son Lionel Dacey, who without knowing raises his father's illegitimate child using the robotic nanny technology in an attempt to show the worth of the creation, and the psychological institute that becomes involved in the child-raising process.

Whilst the sweet ending means to highlight the positive and necessary presence of a human parent, the lack of compassionate characterisation within the Dacey family reduces the overall story impact.

6. The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling - 5/5
Possibly Ted Chiang's best short story yet. A powerful cross-cultural examination of many facets of the human condition. The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling is actually made up of two concurrent stories. The first occurs in the near-future where a journalist is questioning the effects of an additional technology to the "lifelogs" that most people wear - instead of just recording moments from your life, Remem allows individuals to search and automatically locate specific moments from their lengthy video volumes. At first discussing its effects on wider society, his usage of Remem causes the article to be entangled with his personal life, especially his relationship with his daughter. In an almost opposite manner, Jijingi is a young Tiv man with close personal ties who begins learning how to write when European missionaries arrive in his village. As he grows he comes to understand the differences between written details and oral tales, and which is better for his people.

Chiang explores a vast range of themes, smartly using them to unify the two disparate tales as he alternates perspective. The clearest idea being explored is the truth of our memories; as humans we attempt to chop, change and highlight a certain range of moments from our past, sometimes without realising it. Whether they are truthful or not, we are drawn to the notion of storytelling and therefore our personal history tends to fit a narrative structure, making me realise how incredibly vain we can be (even with good intentions). Extrapolating from this, Chiang explores what makes a good story - is it the consistency of the words, intonation of a speaker or a combination of both? And perhaps most importantly, what happens when we sacrifice or prioritise the truth?

The use of different time periods and settings accentuates the fact that these are universal aspects of the human condition. Chiang describes common childhood situations, relationship disputes (especially between married couples, and parents and children), corporations and religious institutions, all the while respecting the African culture depicted. These do not just act as examples for the psychological discussion he puts forward on searchable lifelogging, but are actively explored through the believable characters he has written.

Overall, it is hard to pick between this and Liking What You See: A Documentary as my favourites from Chiang's works. Both explore a collective social issue due highlighted through a new technology in smart and nuanced ways, and with great writing of perspectives to boot. However, I still have three stories left in the Exhalation collection, so this brace may be added to!

7. The Great Silence - 2.5/5
A story about the Arecibo message and non-human intelligence from the perspective of parrots. These intelligent beings quite rightfully highlight that they not only have their own communication methods but are capable of more abstract thinking, and cannot fathom why humans are so obsessed with the great "graveyard" of extraterrestrial life when such extraordinary wonders exist naturally on Earth. For me the main takeaway was to appreciate and further study the flora and fauna that is soon to go extinct here and now, rather than observing another time or place.

The Story Notes for this one had an interesting story!

8. Omphalos - 3/5
This was a difficult one to complete and rate, simply because to me the conclusion felt like Chiang's message of support for atheism. Obviously this then becomes a deeply personal read that will likely be a different experience from reader to reader.

The plot is rather straightforward as archeologist Dorothea Morrell shares her experiences at the end of each day in prayer/ conversation with God. On an Earth with Chicagou among other places creationism is scientifically proven through the growth rings in trees and lack of navels in the mummified preservations of primordial humans. However when a profound paper is published in astrology, a field long thought to be completely exhausted, Dorothea among other devout religious individuals are left to question their creator's grand design, and whether they are even a central part of it.

In an almost inversion of Hell is the Absence of God, Chiang effectively justifies an atheist worldview by discarding a universal creator and instead stating that volition (free will) is evidence of our own individual divinity, free from a plan. This was my reading of the story, though I would be curious to hear others as articles online range from agreeance to seeing that Chiang is more widely criticising anyone who believes in there being no free will. Despite all this, I appreciate Chiang's efforts to push different ways of thinking forward in his texts that could be seen to contradict one another but from a wider view just ensure that he has a story for every person out there. The question is, is this one right for you?

Illustration for Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom by Jinhwa Jang

9. Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom - 4.5/5
A fantastic exploration of a world in which we could view and interact with alternate versions of ourselves who made different choices at key moments in our lives. Well, that's a bit of a simplification of a story that is rooted in complicated quantum mechanics and computer "pads" with limited lifetimes - but it makes for a fascinating read nonetheless.

We follow Nat, one half of a "data broker" duo with her partner Morris, and an experienced young therapist Dana. Both characters have issues in the past that they are yet to properly confront, but their existing lifestyles propagate them through each day without much challenge. This changes when the more financially opportunistic (see: shady) Morris tries to raise money for their suffering branch, concocting a scheme that involves two halves of a celebrity couple grieving after a car crash kills their partner.

Whilst the plot may sound simple, there is a lot of great world-building done between each story point, including realistic scientific experiments and a look at how this invention affects wider society. The Prism is one of those inventions that just upon hearing of it one can imagine how radically it can change our entire world, and further how unhinged it would be to have constant access to what are effectively our alternate lives. The group therapy mechanism and mental health discussion was the right avenue to approach this idea, yet Chiang does not forget about the real-world traumas that push people to these places such as drugs and violence.

The conclusion of the story is highly satisfactory, uplifting and realistic. Chiang postulates that our character is not made of moments in isolation, but rather the continual choices we make each day that push us in one direction or another. It not only perfectly cleared my conscience of the slight distress this story was causing, but tied up all the plot points from the story itself.

10. Story Notes
I loved that these were short explanations on some of the thought processes and germination of ideas for Chiang. I would recommend reading the notes for each story directly or soon after completing it.

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