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Exhalation: Stories

So, this is what I wrote on a Saturday 3 years ago - August 12, 2017 to be exact.

I'm going to try to start doing shorter reviews. This way, I can write a short review after each book I read, instead of only doing long ones every fifth book or so. The structure I just thought of is as follows. First, I'll give a short summary. Then, I'll give my opinion of the book, also short. Finally, I'll list some interesting tidbits or something. Let's see how this goes.

That went well.

Fast forward to today. It turns out I have some time on my hands, and I've read some good books lately. Let's try bringing back that old format for a few posts.

First, a short note. I read this book a few months ago (Katherine got it as part of my Christmas present), so I don't remember it all that well. So we'll see how this goes...


This book is composed of 9 science fiction short stories of varying lengths. According to Wikipedia, 7 of them were initially published between 2005 and 2015, and "Omphalos" and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom" are originals. "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" deserves a special mention because it's the longest story (111 pages in my book) and was originally published as a novella.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

This is a great introduction to this book. It might even be my favorite story. The author explains the time traveling mechanic so simply, and illustrates it brilliantly with a series of short stories (stories within the story). The basic idea is that there's this thing called the Gate of Years - if you step through one way, you go forward in time 20 years, if you step through the other way, you go backwards in time 20 years. The catch (or really, just the way time travel works in this story), is that when you travel through time, you are traveling along a "single, self-consistent timeline." This means if you go backwards in time 20 years, you cannot mess with things so that 20 years later, you will be rich. It also means that if you go forward in time 20 years and steal from yourself, then go back to your present time... then 20 years later, your past self will steal from you. That was probably kind of confusing. Anyways, the author explores this time traveling mechanism in a bunch of interesting ways, including a story where a woman goes back in time to sleep with a younger version of her husband (weird).


I don't remember this story that well. My short summary: there's a type of being for whom air is supposedly the source of life. Recently, their brains have started to function less well. One of their scientists inspects his own air, realizes that air pressure makes them function, and that once the universe reaches a state of equilbrium, they will cease to exist.

What's Expected of Us

Writing out summaries for each of these is kind of a lot. Luckily, this story is quite short!

This story describes a device called a Predictor.

By now you've probably seen a Preedictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you're reading this. For those who haven't seen one, it's a small device, like a remote for opening your card door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button. (58)

The story is told from the POV of someone who is sending a message from the future. The message is a warning that people should pretend they have free will. This is because ~1/3 of those who play with a Predictor end up hospitalized in a coma-like state.

This is an interesting thought experiment. I would've thought that some of the people would turn to crime/savagery/etc. in the story. If I think about how I would hypothetically react... I don't think I would be that affected. Everything could very well be deterministic, but it's not like that practically changes much. Hard to say for sure though, knowing for sure is much different than hypothesizing.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

This one is too long to properly summarize, especially because this post is already pretty long. My very inadequate summary without re-reading anything is that it's about souped up AI neopets that are not economically viable and thus cast away to live in a sad, deprecated, unmaintained virtual world. However, there are some zealous fans of these things called "digients" (ok, I had to look that up), so they're not just some collection of ignored bits floating around. Some of the digients still have owners, and these owners still regularly interact with the digients. However, the digients are isolated from other similar software objects because they are old and deprecated and whatnot. In the end, the owners of the digients sell their rights to a sex doll company because they will upgrade the digients software. There's also a love story in there.

Given the huge popularity of Pokemon, and similar games, I think it's pretty realistic that we'll see something that looks something like this story in the future. My imagining of it also involves virtual and augmented reality. For example, I can very easily imagine having something similar to digients in the context of an open-world game. Perhaps even cooler would be having something like a digient paired with augmented reality, so they can always be "with you." That might also get kind of weird though. But I think it would mostly be cool? You would also be able to see other peoples' digients, battle them, capture wild ones - basically the future is going to be Pokemon in real life.

Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny

This story isn't that memorable to me, so I'll skim over it quickly. It's about this guy who creates a robot nanny because he has some bad experiences with human nannies. He tries it out on his child. It doesn't work well.

It brings to mind some interesting questions, since more and more things are getting automated - just look at the Snoo!

Also, this story kind of reminded me of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. I.e. Dacey reminded me a bit of Babbage. For some reason I have this de ja vu-esque feeling that Babbage also built a robot nanny in The Thrilling Adventures, but I don't think that actually happened.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

I totally forgot about this story, but I really liked it. It's similar to a Black Mirror episode called "The Entire History of You" in which people have "access to a memory implant that records everything they do, see and hear." Actually, the technological basis is basically exactly the same. In the story the technology is called "Remem." The story centers on a father and his daughter. The father is against Remem, the daughter is not. By the end of the story the father is more accepting of it. There's also a parallel story about a tribe that is resistant to the introduction of reading and writing, as they are used to oral communication.

The story's opinion seems to be that forward progress is good, but there are some tradeoffs. E.g. oral -> reading/writing was a step forward, but we lost somethings some might deem positive, and most people overlook those. Similarly, going from reading/writing -> remem will probably be a step forward, but might have some negative effects.

This is also my general viewpoint. I think having this sort of technology would be a net positive, as long all the privacy and legal issues are sorted out properly (which doesn't seem all that trivial). For example... where is that data being stored?

The Great Silence

A love story to parrots?


I don't remember this one that well and I'm too lazy to skim it or find a good summary. For some reason there's no Wikipedia summary for this one.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

The last story, and one of my favorites! This and "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" are my favorites from this book.

This story is centered around these devices called Prisms - "Plaga interworld signaling mechanisms". This devices let you communicate between different timelines. E.g. if you activate a Prism, you can talk to a version of yourself that is living some separate timeline. This is a really trippy/cool idea.

The main characters work at a store that sells Prisms. They get money by selling valuable Prisms. Prisms can be more valuable is something interesting is happening in the other timeline or if they're older (well, this really just increases the chance of the former, since divergences in the timeline only start until after the Prism is first used).

The main plot is that the two main characters are trying to obtain this really valuable Prism. It's really valuable because in the other timeline, this famous guy is alive and his partner got killed. In their timeline, it's the opposite - the other famous guy is alive and the other guy got killed. So they want to get the Prism and sell it to the alive guy in their timeline.

Anyways, the plot is interesting, the talk about the Prisms is interesting, everything is interesting! It's cool to think about what things would be like if these devices really existed. I don't think I would want to talk to my alternate self though... don't think that would be healthy.


My main opinion is that writing summaries for short story collections is too hard. Maybe next time I'll just link to Wikipedia for the summaries, or write summaries for the stories that aren't already summarized on Wikipedia.

Anyways, time for opinions. My second main opinion is that this is some of the best sci-fi I've read in years. To be fair, I haven't been reading much sci-fi recently. Before this the last sci-fi I remember reading is The Three-Body Problem, which is also quite good. Then I tried to read the sequel and didn't like it at all. After reading this, I'm excited about sci-fi again. I want to read more. The ideas, while maybe not entirely original (e.g. one of the stories is really similar to a Black Mirror episode), are written about extremely well. By that, I mean the ideas are presented in ways that are both thought provoking and easy to understand. For example, the basic concepts of the time travel stuff are fairly easy to grasp, but all the different ways the time travel mechanisms are utilized really made me sit back and think... what would I do in that scenario... what would I do with that piece of technology... would having that technology be good or bad for society... etc.

On a recent call with a friend (Sihui), we were talking about the reasons why you should read fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, etc. I think this is an interesting question - why read sci-fi? An easy answer is because you enjoy it. A different, but similar question is - how would you convince someone else to read sci-fi? I think most sci-fi is about the plot and the ideas, and less, for example, about the characters, and that holds true for Exhalation. Since they're short stories, there's even less attention on the plot for a lot of the stories, and even more emphasis on illustrating an idea really well. So, I would say that you should read this sci-fi book in particular if you want to be exposed to and think about some really interesting, thought provoking, and probably new ideas.

Cool Stuff & Quotes

The universe began as an enormous breath being held. (53)

Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. (57)

It is worth noting that, rather than promoting the raising of rational children, the advertising preys on parents' fears of untrustworthy nursemaids. (177)

It would be easy for me to assert that literate cultures are better off than oral ones, but my bias should be obvious, since I'm writing these words rather than speaking them to you. Instead I will say that it's easier for me to appreciate the benefits of literacy and harder to recognize everything it has cost us. Literacy encourages a culture to place more value on documentation and less on subjective experience, and overall I think the positives outweigh the negatives. Written records are vulnerable to every kind of error, and their interpretation is subject to change, but at least the words on the page remain fixed, and thre is real merit in that. (227)

Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don't blame them for it. They didn't do it maliciously. They just weren't paying attention. (235)