Exhalation by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a book of ideas. The stories are philosophical essays tucked into sci-fi wrappers. Most of science fiction is idea-based, but these stories are more so than most. Two stories struck a chord with me, and a third deserves a special mention.
The Great Silence
This story moved me the most. It’s written from the point of view of one of the few remaining parrots in Puerto Rico’s rain forest. According to Wikipedia, as of 2021 it was estimated that only 500 existed after hurricane Maria. I learned about a gray parrot, Alex, who was quite smart and Irene Pepperberg, who trained and studied Alex. The narrator parrot says this:
“Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.” (Italics mine.) First, do you think humans would be so forgiving? And second, we do not pay enough attention to a lot of things.
What’s Expected of Us
This story explores the question: What if there were a device that could definitively prove that free will did not exist? What would happen to society? From the story: “Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.” So true, from our conception of America versus it’s true history to our economic system, self-deception has proved invaluable.
A friend of mine loaned me this book (Al – I will return it next time we have dinner). He told me, before I read any of the stories, that the story Exhalation affected him deeply. I didn’t have that same reaction. This is one of the advantages of a book about ideas though. Next time we meet he’ll explain to me what affected him and I might have an “ah ha” moment. Or, he might.
It does have some interesting concepts such as the idea that obtaining sustenance is better in the company of others. It also explores the concept of entropy, though I think based on my limited knowledge of entropy that the story has the ramifications backwards. The last paragraph does have a line that we should all consider: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”
I really liked the story notes at the end. I always enjoy reading what influenced an author in the creation process. In the notes for Exhalation, he notes a book that got him thinking about entropy and now I have another book on my list to read!
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