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Exhalation Overall a very good and interesting short story collection Definitely worth checking out The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate ⭐️⭐️⭐️Exhalation ⭐️⭐️⭐️What's expected of us ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️The Lifecycle of Software Objects ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny⭐️⭐️⭐️The Truth of Fact the Truth of Feeling ⭐️⭐️⭐️The Great Silence ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️Omphalos⭐️⭐️⭐️Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Every story has a mind boggling idea as its fulcrum A prism replaces the smart phone as favoured piece of handbag technology which allows the owner to communicate with her paraself in an alternate universe; virtual ai pets are brought into the real world via robotic bodies as their owners seek to discover how fruitful a bond can be created with them; a robot performs an anatomical study on its own brain; in another story we're told we've been hunting aliens in the wrong places we should be consulting parrots The first story reminded me of Paolo Thingybob's The Alchemist one of my all time pet hates platitude dressed up as parable with camels bazaars and desert storms roped in to provide some soap opera mysticism We can't change the past but we can change the way we experience it isn't that the bedrock of psychoanalysis? Perhaps what it's inadvertently about is the megalomania of self pitying men A man has an argument with his wife and then she dies He obliterates every other moment they've shared to dwell solely on this one argument Otherwise we're led to believe their relationship was exemplary One moment never defines a history of love It was a trite choice of personal dilemma There are so many miles better ideas out there to provide a dramatic example of one moment in a life someone is desperate to replay And this was a problem throughout these stories When it comes to scientific possibility he has a great imagination; when it comes to human drama his imagination has a tendency towards cliché The human aspect of the narratives with which he dramatized his ideas always seemed a bit lame and lifeless to me There were a couple of stories I enjoyed but on the whole I was left underwhelmed alternate cover for ISBN 9781101947883From an award winning science fiction writer whose short story The Story of Your Life was the basis for the Academy Award nominated movie Arrival the long awaited new collection of stunningly original humane and already celebrated short storiesThis much anticipated second collection of stories is signature Ted Chiang full of revelatory ideas and deeply sympathetic characters In The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and the temptation of second chances In the epistolary Exhalation an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications not just for his own people but for all of reality And in The Lifecycle of Software Objects a woman cares for an artificial intelligence over twenty years elevating a faddish digital pet into what might be a true living being Also included are two brand new stories Omphalos and Anxiety Is the Dizziness of FreedomIn this fantastical and elegant collection Ted Chiang wrestles with the oldest uestions on earth What is the nature of the universe What does it mean to be human and ones that no one else has even imagined And each in its own way the stories prove that complex and thoughtful science fiction can rise to new heights of beauty meaning and compassion Ted Chiang is the master of the short form His execution of short stories and novellas is nearly always flawless the ideas are great and his writing style is versatile This is a writer who has mastered his craft and his infreuent offerings are well worth the waitThis is the second time I read his brilliant second collection Exhalation this time on the uest to read or reread this year’s Hugo and Nebula nominees Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom nominated for both and Omphalos nominated for Hugo for best novelette But Chiang’s writing is just so good or at least perfect for my tastes that I ended up revisiting the entire collection I’ll try to briefly touch on all of them——————— Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom is one of the two novellas in this collection and is a gem Here through a great SF idea Chiang explores the themes of moral choices and responsibility for those choices as well as the conundrum of free willA few decades prior the Prisms were invented devices whose activation splits the world into two parallel branches initially differing by a single choice or even a single photon — and which for a while allow you to communicate with your paraself parallel world self in the branched off reality and see how your lives diverge based on the smallest of choices Two issues arise from this paraself communications through the PrismsFirst is obvious If you manage to fare better than your paraself your choices at or after the activation of the Prism are validated Pat on the back moral superiority the whole shebang But if your paraself fares better in life after your realities have diverged this can lead to a serious self esteem and identity crisis as that self validation no longer applies Some people spiral down the guilt rabbitholes blaming themselves and their actions for whatever makes their branch worse than the parallel branch No wonder that there are support groups for Prism users “I want to know whether my decisions matter Forget about murder; that’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about But when I have a choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing am I always choosing to do both in different branches? Why should I bother being nice to other people if every time I’m also being a dick to them?” The second issue is subtle Many eventually subscribe to the idea that by the nature of uantum mechanics and that infamous Schroedinger’s cat our moral choices are meaningless because no matter what you do there’s always another you in one of the many universes who makes an opposite choice So if one of your many paraselves is destined to pull the trigger or cheat a store clerk or kick a puppy — then why the hell shouldn’t it be you? “But the uestion was given that we know about other branches whether making good choices is worth doing I think it absolutely is None of us are saints but we can all try to be better Each time you do something generous you’re shaping yourself into someone who’s likely to be generous next time and that mattersAnd it’s not just your behavior in this branch that you’re changing you’re inoculating all the versions of you that split off in the future By becoming a better person you’re ensuring that and of the branches that split off from this point forward are populated by better versions of you” The point is — choose the right thing You are the sum of choices you make after all and right and wrong do not simply cancel out Support groups childhood guilt soulless scams and even murder — all of this is mixed in this smart and thoughtful story — and all of it boils down to whether you would want to be a better version of yourself5 stars——————— Omphalos gives us a glimpse into the world where science has proven young Earth creationism It’s obvious that the world is eight thousand years old proven by ringless trees and mummies without navels and fossilized bones without epiphyses and mollusk shells without growth ringsThis is the world where there is no doubt ever that God created it for a purpose and divine purpose drives every aspect of life “My teachers told me that God wanted us to reason things out for ourselves But what if that’s not true? What if”—his voice cracked—“what if God had no intentions about us at all?” The crisis of faith in this world does not come from the clash between religion and atheism It comes from the immensely frightening possibility that maybe there was no divine purpose for this particular world except for it being a failed experiment a trial run before the creation of the actual world with God’s purpose And just the thought of that can be shattering “I’ve devoted my life to studying the wondrous mechanism that is the universe and doing so has given me a sense of fulfillment I’ve always assumed that this meant that I was acting in accordance with your will Lord and your reason for making me But if it’s in fact true that you have no purpose in mind for me then that sense of fulfillment has arisen solely from within myself What that demonstrates to me is that we as humans are capable of creating meaning for our own lives” When all meaning is lost can you create new purpose? “Even if humanity is not the reason for which the universe was made I still wish to understand the way it operates We human beings may not be the answer to the uestion why but I will keep looking for the answer to howThis search is my purpose; not because you chose it for me Lord but because I chose it for myself” 45 stars —————— The Lifecycle of Software Objects — an old favorite reviewed separately here stars———————— The Truth of Fact the Truth of Feeling — A brilliant 5 star story of the nature of memory the impact of recording our experiences and how objective memory can change our identity and self understanding as compared to the highly subjective experience of remembering that we have now “And I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong” ———————— The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a cleverly plotted story of time travel in medieval Baghdad and Cairo Three stories within a story told in the style of ‘Arabian Nights’ dealing with the nature and circularity of time 45 stars “Past and future are the same and we cannot change either only know them fully My journey to the past had changed nothing but what I had learned had changed everything” ———————— The Great Silence As people are searching for the possibility of communication with so far only theoretical extraterrestrial intelligences there is a uiet extinction of a nonhuman species capable of communication right here on Earth Very short very lyrical very poignant 5 stars————————— What’s Expected of Us Another story about free will 2 pages of sheer brilliance 5 stars “My message to you is this Pretend that you have free will It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter even though you know they don’t The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma Civilization now depends on self deception Perhaps it always has” ———————— Exhalation — a strange one about the nature of mind and entropy and also mechanical life forms containing these exact words “Auto dissection was the only option” 4 stars———————— Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny — 3 stars a rare misstep from Chiang but not enough to affect the brilliance of this story collection————————————————Overall it is a brilliant thoughtful highly original collection This will certainly not be my last reread5 stars for the collection as a whole———————My Hugo and Nebula Awards Reading Project 2020 If you're into stuff like this you can read the full reviewNothing Erases the Past Exhalation Stories by Ted Chiang“Nothing erases the past There is repentance there is atonement and there is forgiveness That is all but that is enough”In “The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate” by Ted ChiangI could write a review for each one of the stories in this collection but my favourite is the “The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate”If I had a Time Machine I would save my time machine journey time just in case it breaks down after too much use until I had paid someone to type out the whole Harry Potter series for me and would travel back to just before JK Rowling started writing them and start negotiations with publishers All said Chiang's new collection rocks I've read a good number of these in other places but it doesn't diminish my enjoyment I'm referencing the stories I liked the mostThe Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate 1001 Nights meets fixed timeline time travel Easily one of my favoritesExhalation A rather interesting logical breakdown of universal principles from the PoV of a robot raceThe Lifecycle of Software Objects Novella and easily the most wrenching exploratory of the lot Touches not only on artificial life and AI but the same kind of feelings we might have for autistic children and trying to save Zoos For pretty much the same reasons And I got rather invested in this I can see it becoming a problem in our futureDacey's Patent Automatic Nanny So cool A mix of our recentish Science History and a very plausible alternate past part psychology part 'oh crap we definitely could have done this to ourselves'The Great Silence A Fermi gut punchOmphalos A great reversal of an alternate reality where proof of god's intervention creation is everywhere but scientists come to a startlingly different conclusion Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom Another novella and fascinating as hell Part self help group part scam and all focusing on the nature of alternate reality informational crosstalk I'm really surprised at how well this one worked for me I keep noticing how much Chiang loves to mess with our understanding of our basic reality It's a Thing A great Thing How does it compare to the previous collection? Neither better nor worse because it is all him uality a lot of exploration in different ways but always reaching for the same high standard I loved it No complaints at all We spoke for than an hour and my fascination and respect bloomed like a flower warmed by the dawn until he mentioned his experiments in alchemy cWe don’t normally think of it as such but writing is a technology which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers and the conseuences of that were profoundBefore a culture adopts the use of writing when its knowledge is transmitted exclusively through oral means it can very easily revise its history It’s not intentional but it is inevitable; throughout the world bards and griots have adapted their material to their audiences and thus gradually adjusted the past to suit the needs of the present The idea that accounts of the past shouldn’t change is a product of literate cultures’ reverence for the written word Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them their histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself So it wouldn’t be correct to say that their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to doRight now each of us is a private oral culture We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves With our memories we are all guilty of a Whig interpretation of our personal histories seeing our former selves as steps toward our glorious present selvesBut that era is coming to an end Remem is merely the first of a new generation of memory prostheses and as these products gain widespread adoption we will be replacing our malleable organic memories with perfect digital archives We will have a record of what we actually did instead of stories that evolve over repeated tellings Within our minds each of us will be transformed from an oral culture into a literate oneIt would be easy for me to assert that literate cultures are better off than oral ones but my bias should be obvious since I’m writing these words rather than speaking them to you Instead I will say that it’s easier for me to appreciate the benefits of literacy and harder to recognize everything it has cost us Literacy encourages a culture to place value on documentation and less on subjective experience It would be easy for me to assert that literate cultures are better off than oral ones but my bias should be obvious since I’m writing these words rather than speaking them to you Instead I will say that it’s easier for me to appreciate the benefits of literacy and harder to recognize everything it has cost us Literacy encourages a culture to place value on documentation and less on subjective experience and overall I think the positives outweigh the negatives Written records are vulnerable to every kind of error and their interpretation is subject to change but at least the words on the page remain fixed and there is real merit in thatWhen it comes to our individual memories I live on the opposite side of the divide As someone whose identity was built on organic memory I’m threatened by the prospect of removing subjectivity from our recall of events I used to think it could be valuable for individuals to tell stories about themselves valuable in a way that it couldn’t be for cultures but I’m a product of my time and times change We can’t prevent the adoption of digital memory any than oral cultures could stop the arrival of literacy so the best I can do is look for something positive in itAnd I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrongBecause all of us have been wrong on various occasions engaged in cruelty and hypocrisy and we’ve forgotten most of those occasions And that means we don’t really know ourselves How much personal insight can I claim if I can’t trust my memory? How much can you? You’re probably thinking that while your memory isn’t perfect you’ve never engaged in revisionism of the magnitude I’m guilty of But I was just as certain as you and I was wrong You may say “I know I’m not perfect I’ve made mistakes” I am here to tell you that you have made than you think that some of the core assumptions on which your self image is built are actually lies cThe Fermi Paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices but instead it is disconcertingly uiet cOnly a species of vocal learners would ascribe such importance to sound in their mythologies We parrots can appreciate that cLord I place myself in your presence and ask you to shine your light into my heart as I look back upon this day so that I may see clearly your grace in everything that has happened c for myself the most precious knowledge I possess is thisNothing erases the past There is repentance there is atonement and there is forgiveness That is all but that is enough c This is a collection of 9 short stories from author Ted Chiang I was less impressed by this collection than the previous one I read The Story of Your Life Several sounded like minor Black Mirror episodes others were just not that plausible or interesting I think my favorite was the first one with the time portals Not sure I am even up to analyzing each story here There are some interesting ideas but overall I found this collection wanting and hardly as good as for example the magical Paper Menagerie by Ken LiuPprizecom had this one in their Pulitzer 2020 prediction list but I am not buying it For my money of the 4 candidates I read so far Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips is still the leader On to The Topeka School hoping to be impressedMy List of 2020 Pulitzer Candidates blog about the 2020 Pulitzer “A collection of short stories that will make you think grapple with big uestions and feel human The best kind of science fiction”President Obama’s summer 2019 reads It’s an incredible yet credible collection of highly original profound stories of the personal and societal implications of future tech From a 3 page snippet to a 100 page novella they explore humanity’s relationship with technology and hence ourselves science literacy parallel and alternative worlds faith and free willYou can’t fault the writing but you don’t read for lyricism pithy uotes and deep characterisation You read for the brain twisting mind expansionNote The individual reviews are in spoiler tags for easy scrolling; they don't contain plot spoilersThe Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate 4Nested stories of portals to alternative lives like a Tale of Arabian Knightsview spoiler Coincidence and intention are two sides of a tapestry my lord You may find one agreeable to look at but you cannot say one is true and the other is false Image Front and back of tapestry cushion depicting Esther and Ahasuerus N Netherlands 1650 80 so wrong culture and wrong period SourceTraditional sci fi writers tackle the mechanics and paradoxical conseuences of time travel They include futuristic space faring alien planets and exotic lifeforms Chiang takes a theological philosophical alchemical approach and sets it on Earth hundreds of years ago Sit comfortably and submit to the tangled enchantment of a matryoshka like story with an ancient mythical tone See hear and touch the buzz of a Baghdad bazaar long ago Wander wonder and ponder This has a moral but does not preach It might be a tale of Scheherazade Framing Story“ My heart was troubled and neither the purchase of luxuries nor the giving of alms was able to soothe it Now I stand before you without a single dirham in my purse but I am at peace”A penniless man tells his story to a mighty caliph Middle LayerHis story begins when he entered the shop of a metalsmith where he found wares varied exotic and fine than he had ever seen “ an astrolabe euipped with seven plates inlaid with silver a water clock that chimed on the hour and a nightingale made of brass that sang when the wind blew” The owner chatted and then took him to a back room where he told three fantastic stories all relating to knowledge understanding and acceptance of the past and the future free will versus destiny the will of Allah The “alchemy” of which the metalsmith spoke is a time portal“ He offered an explanation speaking of his search for tiny pores in the skin of reality like the holes that worms bore into wood and how upon finding one he was able to expand and stretch it the way a glassblower turns a dollop of molten glass into a long necked pipe and how he then allowed time to flow like water at one mouth while causing it to thicken like syrup at the other”Three More StoriesThe metalsmith’s tales are of those who used his gate The Fortunate Rope Maker The Weaver Who Stole From Himself and The Wife and Her Lover All of life is here treasure travel love loss robbers deceit disguise and sacrifice There is guilt repentance atonement and forgiveness “ That is all but that is enough”What Does it Mean?Chiang does confront paradoxes but not the “What if I kill my grandfather?” kind He drills into the human psyche and soul And the deeper he goes the pleasingly tangled the knots in the back of the tapestry become“ Past and future are the same and we cannot change either only know them fully My journey to the past had changed nothing but what I had learned had changed everything”LinksThere are echoes of style setting and tone of JL Borges’ stories See my review HERE Telling a wondrous story to a great man reminded of Calvino’s Invisible Cities which I reviewed HERE hide spoiler Self Consciousness and Its Discontents The cost of awareness is the knowledge of inevitability This is the inherent irony of the universe It doesn’t matter what we know our fate has already been fixed The idea of predestination is simultaneously an intellectual triumph and a spiritual dead end mind realising its own impotenceThis self consciousness is the dominant theme throughout Chiang’s stories In a tale that could be from the Arabian Nights the protagonist discovers that “Coincidence and intention are two sides of a tapestry” Our apparent purposes are just as much a product of the systematic causality of the universe as desert sandstorms and random tragedies So “past and future are the same and we cannot change either” Not even that modern dream of time travel can affect our fates Everything has been programmed from the beginningIn the title story which takes place in a world of robots who are effectively immortal one daring individual seeks to uncover the source of his consciousness within his own mechanism But in succeeding he also discovers the inescapable law of increasing entropy that points to the inevitable doom of the robot civilisation The allusion to our current concerns about global warming is unmistakeable Thus the robot’s conclusion “Some find irony in the fact that a study of our brains revealed to us not the secrets of the past but what ultimately awaits us” Another little gem shows the profound but unanticipated conseuences of a new high tech toy The Predictor is a small hand held device which accurately anticipates when the owner will activate it by lighting a green LED “There’s no way to fool a Predictor” It works every time So much for the idea of free will and our ability to change the course of universal development And the implication? “Civilization now depends on self deception Perhaps it always has” The longest tale takes place in a pop up AI company that has developed a “Neuroblast genome” for a species of virtual creatures called “digients” Digients are adept at language and learning and are sold commercially to be nurtured like high tech Tamagotchis They can also be installed temporarily in robots and become part of the physical world Digients are ‘taught’ by their owners but also teach each other Conseuently they develop their own language and independent culture with unpleasant revelations for their ownersSo Chiang’s attitude toward technology indeed toward the conscious life which produces it may seem rather grim But he is surprising in his uasi editorial observations For example one of his characters concludes that “Nothing erases the past There is repentance there is atonement and there is forgiveness That is all but that is enough” Another makes a virtue out of impotence “My message to you is this Pretend that you have free will It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter even though you know they don’t” And ultimately he provides some sensible spiritual advice to “Contemplate the marvel that is existence” Perhaps not a complete dead end after all