December 27, 2022

Short Story Reviews: Ted Chiang's Exhalation

Here are my reviews for each of the short stories in Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Exhalation (2019), organized into categories: Forgettable, Good but Not Great, and Excellent. In general, Chiang is masterful when he develops the story elements fully, and is weaker the closer his stories are to essays; he has a tendency to tell rather than show, and The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling almost got bumped down to Good But Not Great for that reason. However, when he does find the specific human experiences in the ideas he’s exploring, he’s unbeatable. Highly recommend.


The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

A seemingly well-worn concept (time travel) that Chiang somehow manages to make fresh, mashed up with the Arabian Nights-style nested story structure. Moving and beautiful. It’s the first story in the collection and when I finished it, I flipped back to page 1 and re-read it instead of continuing on, and waited a bit to start the next story so I could savor this one.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

For anyone who loved Black Mirror’s The Entire History of You: an exploration of memory technology held up side-by-side with the effects of writing as a technology.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

A better inquiry about fate, free will, and responsibiliy than What’s Expected of Us. While both have ingenious devices as their intuition-pump premises, this is much more fleshed out and human.

Good But Not Great


Great premise, almost made it to Excellent but for the lack of characters and emotion, and a weaker ending. Has themes about the scientific method, global warming, and self-reflection. On-point steampunk vibes. Clearly at least somewhat inspired by parts of Gödel, Escher, and Bach, one of my favorite books.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

A tender and complex story about AI that isn’t about it taking over the world, but instead it taking the form of pet-like creatures who are less conscious and capable than humans, and asking what responsibilities we’d have toward them. Chiang clearly has had to upgrade software libraries and feels the pain of cross-compatibility issues and open source. Unfortunately, its premise (AI will never progress past a certain point) already feels dated given recent GPT advances, which made it harder for me to feel fully immersed, and the human side of the story was less compelling for me.


Alt-world origin of life investigation from the perspective of a religious scientist in a world where there is physical evidence for the young world hypothesis. Fascinating details but a bit trite at the end. Likely would hit harder for anyone who’s actually felt religious in their life, or has had a crisis of faith.


What’s Expected of Us

Barely a story, more a meditation on free will. Short and worthwhile, but not memorable.

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

Boring, about the hubris of outsourcing human jobs to automatons.

The Great Silence

Cute short piece about the Fermi Paradox trying to answer the question: would we even recognize intelligent life if we saw it? Funny but literally forgettable; I elided this with Omphalos when trying to compile this list by mistake.