PRINT December 2019


Elvia Wilk

A Ted Chiang story is easy to recognize and impossible to imitate. Seven of the nine comprising his new collection, Exhalation (Knopf), have been previously published, but taken together they are enlightening. Each piece feels invented from scratch, as Chiang masterfully moves between references to, say, steampunk, classical mythology, and Black Mirror–esque corporate dystopia on a single page. And yet he resists inhabiting any genre, instead retaining his own voice and distinct aesthetic sensibility throughout.

I’m not the only one obsessed. Chiang has a cult following, due as much to his writing as to its scarcity: Although he’s put out only fifteen stories in his thirty-year career, he has won every major award for science-fiction writing. The texts in Exhalation range from three to 110 pages long. Some are brief meditations—on alien life or free will—while others are full-fledged speculative narratives about imagined technologies like virtual pets and mechanical babysitters. What unites the pieces is a sensitivity to timeless questions about scientific progress and a deep ambivalence regarding its so-called virtues.

My favorite, the lengthy “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” alternates between two time periods: a future in which brain implants allow users to record every moment of their lives and recall memories on command; and roughly the late nineteenth century, during which the oral tradition of a West African village is transformed by the colonial introduction of writing as an archival tool. Chiang’s stories prove powerful not only for their nuanced explorations of how technologies reinvent human experience, but also for the way in which they reenvision the technology of the short story itself.

Elvia Wilk is a writer living in New York. She is an editor of E-flux Journal and will be a 2020 Fellow at the Berggruen Institute. Oval, her first novel, was published this year by Soft Skull Press.