“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang

I’ve been reading a lot of short story collections lately. It might have something to do with a certain instability in my life. My family and I moved to New Mexico, just to see what would happen. What happened is that four months later my wife was diagnosed with cancer. We’re from the Seattle area, where all of the best oncology is, and also where all of our family lives, and had moved to the middle of the desert where there was no oncologist, and no other people. So, in a rush, we moved back.

I changed jobs to move down there, then quickly had to find another job in order to move back. In fact, my wife and children moved to Washington 6 weeks before I could. The reason, as you might have guessed, is that I had the health insurance, and we needed to keep it. Our bills, almost entirely covered by my insurance, topped $500,000. I cannot imagine what life must be like for people who aren’t covered. The fact that getting cancer, already a pretty shitty card to be dealt, could also bankrupt somebody for life is, to be frank, super fucked up.

My wife is doing well, thank doctors, and we’re on our way back to a relatively stable position in life. Perhaps, when the dust does settle, I will feel able to sit and invest in a novel. For these last few months, it hasn’t been possible. I have sparse remaining concern to invest into the long winded lives of fictional characters. Short stories, however, do not ask for such investment. Instead they distract from the real world, and then, before my brain begins asking, “Who actually gives a fuck?”, I am freed.

Some collections are boring, if I am being honest, and that’s ok. There’s a lot of short stories out there that lean heavily on sex to make it seem as though they are interesting, when they aren’t really, and that’s ok too. They are fine, it’s ok to read them. Ted Chiang’s stories are not like those. They are not ok. They are really good.

They are good because while the use of a short story as a means of revealing the sordidness of a seemingly mundane life is fine, if as well worn as dad’s old catcher’s mitt, using them to expand just slightly on really good ideas from full length books is way better. Each of the stories Chiang has here reads like the condensed version of an amazing novel he’s working on.

Ok, that might not sound positive, but it is. The first story, about a time machine, tells several individual stories, each with their own little moral, and collectively uses the inability to alter the past or the future as inspiration for being decent. It’s only 36 pages! All the rad storytelling, none of the bulk. The title story is this amazing visualization of how learning and memory kind of actually work, but via analogy using old timey robots, and then reminds the reader of the inevitable end of the universe. I’ve never had a clearer image of how the mind functions (I think about the universe ending plenty though). On and on, stories that raise an amazing idea, spin it so it comments on the world as it actually is, and then finishes, sometimes with a surprise, sometimes with simplicity, with depth. 

Look, Barack Obama likes this book, what else do you need? It’s great. Also, to whoever it is that might read any of this, it’s good to be back. Here’s hoping there’s plenty of novels ahead. 


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