Exhalation Discussion Journal

What makes a story science fiction? We didn’t discuss this at our meeting, but we probably should have.[i] In the past ten years, our group has read about twelve books I would classify as speculative fiction and fantasy, with War of the Worlds, The Martian, and Frankenstein the most technology based. And two of those were written in the nineteenth century! In addition, I believe this is only our second collection of short stories.EXHALATION

I encouraged everyone to read at least the first story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” because I believed it was the most likely to be enjoyed. According to the Author’s “Story Notes,” he set out intentionally to make a story in which the inability to change the past was not “necessarily a cause for sadness.”[ii]

In general, the majority of our responders liked this story, and several mentioned the author’s final sentences: “Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.” During the meeting, we few discussed the idea of destiny and free will, a theme in most of the stories in this collection. If you can travel into the future but not do anything differently in the past when you return to change that destiny, do you still have free will? At what age is traveling to view the future less appealing? KC identified with the desire to revisit the past in order better to understand and perhaps find closure for histories that are hard to let go.  I also mentioned Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist (1988), an oft-requested allegorical novella that concerns making one’s destiny happen. Why did Chiang choose an alchemist as the creator of the time portal?

As we discussed this first story, we segued into other stories as well as personal reflections. Ted Chiang’s stories, even when they are filled with technology as is the title story “Exhalation,” are primarily philosophical. Our science fiction readers have noted that some of the ideas covered in this collection—time travel, artificial intelligence, multi-world theory—are not new, but the author’s humanity impresses me even as the science and philosophy make my brain hurt!

Several responders could not get interested in many of the stories beyond “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” So much has been lost this year that I would like to include these excerpts from this story, even though we did not discuss them:

  • “like eternal fire, grief burns but does not consume, instead it makes the heart vulnerable to further suffering.”
  • “grief owes no debt.”

I miss our larger meetings, even though sometimes in the past the group size was overwhelming. I appreciate how connected we have stayed, at least through email, and I will post responses for Exhalation in the comments. A good story or idea may return to us for years and be very different when revisited! This journal may not be as accurately recorded as the video from the story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” but I hope you will find it a reliable catalyst for these times of our lives and our reading. Thank you for sharing your time and memories with us.

  • (Descending order when read by Whitney Book Bistro)

  • Spoonbenders (2017) Daryl Gregory   MAY 2019
  • Elevation (2018) Stephen King  DECEMBER 2019
  • The Martian (2014) Andy Weir  MARCH 2018
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) Michael Chabon  MAY 2017
  • Station Eleven (2014) Emily St. John Mandel    MAY 2016
  • Frankenstein (1818) Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley   JANUARY 2015
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) Neil Gaiman   JUNE 2015
  • Wicked (1995) Gregory Maguire   APRIL 2014
  • Dog Stars (2012) Peter Heller   JUNE 2014
  • Flight Behavior (2012) Barbara Kingsolver  DECEMBER 2013

Previous Short Story Collection selected:  This Is How You Lose Her (2012) Junot Diaz

  • Classic Sci-Fi:  War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
  • Fantasy: Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
  • If you want to think:  Dragon’s Egg, Robert L. Forward and Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  • If you want to read a very long saga, try the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov
  • [i] According to dictionary.com, Science Fiction is “a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation in its plot, setting, theme, etc.” Based on the THE RANDOM HOUSE UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY, © RANDOM HOUSE, INC. 2021. Web accessed 5-13, 2021:  https://www.dictionary.com/browse/science-fiction.   Several other definitions include more specifically “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals.” Similar definitions were found through Google and Britannica.com.  This particular definition came from Merriam-webster.com and was web accessed 5-13-2021: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science%20fiction.
  • [ii] At the end of the book, the author includes “Story Notes” in which he explains his inspiration for writing each story and reading these can not only help with understanding the stories, but is interesting in general.

4 thoughts on “Exhalation Discussion Journal

  1. From MM: I am definitely hoping to make it in August! I hope you have a lively discussion on Tuesday, and I’m sure you will because Exhalation is quite unique and filled with thought-provoking stories and ideas.
    I read most of the stories, and I think Ted Chang is a genius! He is so creative and has a wonderful imagination. His stories are filled with futuristic science that quite often, for me at least, was hard to keep straight, but interesting nonetheless. I especially liked Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom. How cool to think there are alternative universes with parallel versions of ourselves! The climax for me was when Dana discovered that Vanessa’s life turned out bad in many scenarios which made Dana realize that, although she felt guilty about accusing Vanessa of bringing the drugs to the hotel, no matter what course of action she might have taken, Vanessa would still have a bad future. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate was fun. I loved how all the comings and goings meshed together for a satisfying ending. The Lifecycle of Software Objects showed a lot about human nature. Some people are interested in mostly themselves with little regard for anyone or anything which are not helpful to them. Many other people are compassionate, and don’t always put themselves first. I liked The Great Silence where the parrot knew it was hopeless that people would actually do research and discover that parrots are much more intelligent than realized!
    I could type much more about this book, but I won’t. Too bad I’ll miss the discussion , but I will look forward to reading all the comments in your journal.

  2. From RMP: I will be with you in spirit but am still avoiding getting out. Read Exhalation; First story very interesting and entertaining; from there I am afraid my interest in his stories went down hill. Will be interested to read comments from other readers.

  3. From JT: I am not a fan of science fiction so this was not a favorite of mine. I read the 1st 6 stories. The 1st story was interesting, going back or forward in time. I thought this story was the most interesting. I’m guessing in my misspent youth if I could go forward & see where my life was going I probably would have. Just for curiosity sake. At this point in my life it’s not really that important.

    The rest of the stories I didn’t really understand. Bisecting one’s own brain, predictors that drive you crazy, a universe of digients, & automatic nannies was just past my comprehension. I’m sure the discussion will lead to much more insight than I have into any of this, I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Have a great summer, see you in Sept.

  4. From CB:
    I like science fiction, and I was happy to see that the May book was s-f. I was not disappointed.

    The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate: This story was ok. It was a different take on the usual time travel story. I liked the ending: “Nothing erases the past.”

    Exhalation: This was my favorite story. I spent quite some time pondering who (or what) created this world and populated it with non-organic but self-aware beings. I also enjoyed the creativity and imagination required to invent this world.

    The Lifecycle of Software Objects: I didn’t care for this story much. I thought the idea of using artificial beings for sex toys is somehow repugnant, although I am not sure why.

    Omphalos: This is a creative story. I bet creationists would love it if the world worked this way.

    Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom: This story seems quite outdated in the way it describes computer memory capacity. It also made me quite sad to think that the two surviving celebrities would only be able to talk to each other for a brief time. The theory about all the different branches of reality is not new; I have heard it before, and it’s simply too big to wrap my little mind around. I think I’ll just stay in this reality.

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