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When Henry James remarked, in his preface to "The Portrait of a Lady," that "the house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million," he could not have anticipated the genre of fiction to which we have given the inexact term "science fiction." Still less could he have anticipated the sort of literary-humanist science fiction associated with Ted Chiang, whose début collection, "Stories of Your Life and Others" (2002), garnered multiple awards in the science-fiction community, and contained the beautifully elegiac novella "Story of Your Life," which reëxamined the phenomena of time and memory in terms of language. (The novella was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film "Arrival.") Other stories in the collection reinterpreted the Biblical Tower of Babel, imagined an industrial era powered by Kabbalistic golems, and revisited the oldest of theological arguments regarding the nature of God. Like such eclectic predecessors as Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr., Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, and Kazuo Ishiguro, Chiang has explored conventional tropes of science fiction in highly unconventional ways.
In his new collection, "Exhalation" (Knopf), his second, Chiang again presents elaborate thought experiments in narrative modes that initially seem familiar. Contemporary issues relating to bioethics, virtual reality, free will and determinism, time travel, and the uses of robotic forms of A.I. are addressed in plain, forthright prose. If Chiang’s stories can strike us as riddles, concerned with asking rather than with answering difficult questions, there is little ambiguity about his language. When an entire story is metaphorical, focussed on a single surreal image, it’s helpful that individual sentences possess the windowpane transparency that George Orwell advocated as a prose ideal.
The new collection starts with "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate," a quirkily original exploration of time travel set in a mythical, ancient Baghdad and told as if it were a tale out of "The Arabian Nights." Here, Chiang imagines time travel as a "gate" through which one steps into another dimension to confront a past or future self without having the ability to affect anything in that dimension. A series of linked tales-within-the-tale show that the goal of the time traveller must be insight, not intervention. "Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully," our narrator explains. "My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything. . . . Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough." In an appendix to the collection, headed "Story Notes," Chiang says that "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" was inspired by the physicist Kip Thorne, who speculated that one might be able to create a time machine that obeyed Einstein’s theory of relativity. The setting in a Muslim civilization had seemed appropriate to Chiang "because acceptance of fate is one of the basic articles of faith in Islam." That interplay between cutting-edge theory and age-old tradition is a regular feature of Chiang’s imagination.
An ingenious turn-of-the-twentieth-century automaton is the subject of "Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny," which purports to be an excerpt from the catalogue of a museum exhibit titled "Little Defective Adults—Attitudes Toward Children from 1700 to 1950." The Automatic Nanny, devised by a proponent of "rational child-rearing," proves all too successful in modelling an ideal parent: a child in its care subsequently languishes under human parenting, craving "not more contact with a person, but more contact with a machine."
Where that brief story plays with the format of dry catalogue copy, "The Great Silence," which is even briefer, is the most lyrical and the most heartrending story in the collection. The narrator is a parrot from a forest in Puerto Rico, whose species is facing extinction. "Hundreds of years ago, my kind was so plentiful that the Río Abajo Forest resounded with our voices," the parrot says. "Now we’re almost gone. Soon this rainforest may be as silent as the rest of the universe." A larger silence is the mystery that eludes solution:
The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even one technological species would have had time to expand and fill the galaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on Earth. Humans call this the Fermi Paradox. . . . The Fermi Paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it is disconcertingly quiet.
Even as humans search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the narrator observes, they can’t hear the messages being sent by an imperilled species on their own planet.
In another small bombshell of a story, "What’s Expected of Us," a newly developed gadget called a Predictor flashes a green light a second before you press a button, thereby undermining the notion of free will. As it turns out, the Predictor is a sort of miniature time machine. ("The heart of each Predictor is a circuit with a negative time delay; it sends a signal back in time.") One of the consequences of the Predictor is an existential malaise suffered by people who can no longer believe in their own volition—"akinetic mutism, a kind of waking coma." The narrator, whose message is being sent "from just over a year in your future," has urgent advice for the inhabitants of this world:
Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.
Another sort of civilizational threat is illustrated in the parable "Exhalation," where we learn that "the great lung of the world, the source of all our nourishment," is gradually failing. Already, everyone depends upon artificial lungs, regularly refilled with air, for survival. Individuals who have died when their lungs are depleted can be revived by installing full lungs, but, puzzlingly, they fail to retain their old memories. To explore the matter, the narrator, who isn’t exactly human, undertakes to inspect his own brain: