There are books so jammed with brilliant, mind-exploding ideas it's like the author packed fireworks between the covers, all strung together on a very short fuse. There are others that take a single fascinating notion and walk all the way around it; that take the time to examine it from all angles and see the way the light hits it at dawn and midday and dusk.
To read the first kind of book is to walk behind a madman spilling diamonds from a hole in his pocket. To read the second is like contemplating eternity at the bar with a friend you've known forever.
And to read Ted Chiang is to do both at the same time.
Chiang is, among other things, a short story specialist. A man who has never bothered to write a novel because, you know, why bother? He takes an idea (sometimes big, sometimes small, most often somewhere nebulously in-between) and gives it exactly the number of words it needs. His voice and style are so beautifully trim it makes you think that, like one of his characters, he has a magical looking-box hidden in his basement that shows him nothing except the final texts of stories he has already written — just so he'll know exactly how to write them well in the first place.
His new collection, Exhalation, is out now. Nine stories plus a collection of notes on those nine stories. Some have appeared elsewhere, some are brand new. Some are ridiculously short ("What's Expected of Us" is a letter from the future to us in the past — a warning that runs three pages and change) and one, "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," is a novella-length exploration of emergent AI, artificial digital life and how we love our pets, our children, each other. Weirdly, the brief chapter of notes is almost the best story of all — just to witness Chiang's inspiration and the way his mind works — but each of the others, the stories themselves, operate with a simple logic: Chiang is telling the stories of consequences.
In "What's Expected of Us," it is the consequence of a stupidly simple piece of technology: A little light that will always light a second before we push a button, disproving utterly the notion of free will. A tiny thing that ruins humanity. In "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny" it is the dead-end of a B.F. Skinneresque experiment in the mechanization of nurturing done in the style of a museum catalog description (originally for an entire collection of same).
"The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" is a dual-track parable, past and future, on the consequence of writing and the consequence of its loss. And "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom" would be just another "What if you could talk to a parallel-universe version of you?" story in lesser hands. Here, it is a meditation on choices made and choices shied from and the ripple effect of a single disruptive technology on things as varied as banking, psychology and murder.
"Lifecycle" covers years. It weaves together a whole future, dancing between the march of progress (as seen through everyday objects, software updates, marriages failing, friends falling away) and a very intimate story of two people and their digital "pets" all in under a hundred pages. Because Chiang can do that. Like Annie Proulx or Jim Harrison, he has that tool in his box that makes him capable of telling a story of decades in a handful of words. And when he puts that away, he can write "Exhalation," the collection's namesake, about a few vital days in the life of a being so entirely alien as to be unrecognizable, save that it has the same concerns as any of us: What is memory? What is life? And what happens when we die?
The stories in Exhalation are largely that way — these tightly focused, closely held dramas of individuals whom the future has struck like a wave, or a bomb. Something entirely beyond their control. And whether the "future" is tomorrow or a hundred years ago (as seen from someone witnessing it from one-hundred-and-one), it has the weight of inexorability to it. Tomorrow comes whether we want it to or not. The world changes no matter how tightly we cling to yesterday. And Chiang writes often (almost always) with an understanding that nothing we do, nothing he does, nothing any of his characters do, can change that. Consequence comes of every choice, of every breath (the entire point of Exhalation), and even the time travelers at the heart of his Scheherazade-style opener, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," know that.
"Nothing erases the past," says the narrator. "There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough."
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.