So I started reading Ted Chiang’s Exhalation because one of the novelettes in it, “Omphalos,” was Hugo-nominated. I didn’t actually like that story much, but I’ve liked Chiang’s short fiction in the past, so figured the rest of the book would be better. Alas, it mostly wasn’t.
The problem is that most of these stories aren’t really stories at all—they’re just thinkpiece essays with a light veneer of fictionalization on them. More than anything else, they’re exploring a science-fictional premise in detail rather than narrating a set of events that occur to characters we’re supposed to care about. Chiang is particularly interested in the themes of free will and the exploration of truth, and most of the essays… er, stories touch on those themes in one way or another.
To be fair, there are two exceptions: The Lifestyle of Software Objects and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom both have multiple characters who interact with each other in a way that relates a sequence of events in narrative form, which is to say, they’re actual friggin’ stories. And they’re pretty good! And as you can tell from my italics, they’re both novellas, so make up a significant fraction of the book’s total verbiage.
I’ve been pretty negative here, but really, you can probably make a case that it’s worth reading this collection for two good novellas alone, and it’s not like the shorter fiction is terrible; if you like thought experiments, Chiang runs them with the best. Recommended for fans of Chiang, people who like SF short fiction better than I do, and people who are more interested in big ideas than characters or plots.