“Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.”

Ted Chiang, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

I don’t quite remember how I came to buy Exhalation by Ted Chiang. It was likely the result of a late-night, gin fuelled dive through the depths of some obscure subreddit which led me to pre-order a novel I’d never heard of by an author about whom I knew nothing. However it happened, last week a copy of Ted Chiang’s latest novel dropped onto my doormat and I managed, with relative success, to convince my wife that in fact, Ted Chiang is one of my absolute favourite writers.

I had no clue who he was. At that point the priority was to convince my better-half that I hadn’t bought yet another science-fiction novel which would sit on my bookshelf for six months until I got around to reading it. It turns out, however, that fortune favours the forgetful and slightly tipsy.

Who on god’s green Earth is Ted Chaing?

Ted Chiang is the author of the acclaimed collection of shorts, Stories of Your Life and Others, which was the basis for the brilliant science-fiction film, Arrival — and if you haven’t watched Arrival yet, you should do so immediately. On second thoughts, read the book first.

Exhalation is a collection of science-fiction shorts gathering together some of Chiang’s best work from the last decade. What makes Chiang’s writing so sublime is that he wields science-fiction tropes like a clinical tool, probing the depths of the human condition, exploring ageless philosophical questions and boring holes in the psyche of man.

The usual aliens, spaceships and green-skinned seductresses are all there but in Exhalation Chiang takes science-fiction to unexpected places, such as ancient Iraq, and does so with convincing detail.

Exhalation Ted Chiang

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The first story in the collection, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, takes us to ancient Baghdad where we meet fabric seller, Fuwaad ibn Abbas, who is forced to deal with the consequences of his past mistakes when he discovers a portal through time. The story reads like a parable, with lean, efficient writing, not unlike late Hemmingway, but is solidly in the sci-fi tradition using the trope of the time-machine to explore Fuwaad’s failings.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate won the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novelette and the 2008 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and can be picked up on its own for the perfectly reasonable price of £163.52 on Amazon. Alternatively, buy Exhalation and you get this and a plethora of other stories, including two previously unreleased tales, for the bargain price of £10. If budgeting isn’t your thing, I recommend the latter option.

You should buy Exhalation

I haven’t finished the collection yet, but it’s wonderfully written and touches on artificial intelligence, the purpose of the universe, and attempts to decipher the meaning of reality.

If you’re going to buy Exhalation make sure you pick up the beautifully bound hardback version, it’s worth the extra cash. The black and white striking patterns of the cover and inside sleeve perfectly mirror Chiang’s style of story telling and pulls together the whole package.

This is the first Ted Chiang I’ve read but, once I’ve worked my way through the rest of the book, I’ll be reading more. You should also read it. Go!

“Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”

Exhalation Ted Chiang Inside Cover
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