BSFA/Hugo nominee: “Exhalation”

I’m going to be lazy with this one, and quote other people. In the pro camp, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro:

And now for something quite extraordinary. If you’re looking for a single reason to purchase Eclipse Two then you may be out of luck, because Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” is at least three of them. It is without a doubt one of the finest and freshest breaths of story I’ve ever come across. It is immediately compelling, a superlative example of a story that pulls on a seemingly mundane observational thread, and reasonably proceeds from it to unwrap the entire fabric of existence. Though time will be the ultimate judge, I have no reservation in calling it a masterpiece. The story is narrated in the first person by a character who appears to make a crucial discovery about air. What he is able to deduce from his initial and further experiments comprises the narrative’s unforgettable journey into expanding consciousness. The story’s execution, on the whole minimalist in approach, is flawless. It unfolds in gradual revelation, and every component fits as perfectly as those described in the character’s empirical forays into literal self-reflexivity. Of course, it also functions superbly on a metaphorical level and pays tribute to classic SF stories dealing with entropy and thermodynamics. The intellectual thrill of reading it might be compared to directly experiencing William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand” and “eternity in an hour,” except in this case contained in a few molecules of air.

Rich Horton also likes it:

“Exhalation” is quite as spectacular as last year’s Hugo winner, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, and yet completely different. It depicts an utterly unusual artificial world, apparently completely made of metal, whose inhabitants are likewise metal, and who breathe air supplied by replaceable lungs. It is told by one of these people, who discovers how their brains work, as it becomes clear that the supply of air is diminishing. The setup seems to imply some history that other writers might have exploited — is this a society of robots after humans have left, perhaps? — but Chiang’s interests are elsewhere, and the story explores deeper philosophical questions, and comes to a very moving conclusion. To make the obvious pun — it took my breath away.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation,” though a chilly thought exercise of a story, is a chilly thought exercise by Ted Chiang and therefore cooler, more inventive, and more interesting than just about anyone else’s chilly thought exercises.

But Martin Lewis is less keen:

If you had told me before I had read the stories that I would be rating the Chiang bottom I would have told you to pull the other one. Generally, it is much as you would expect a Chiang story to be: typically rigourous, taking a single idea and working it through. Unfortunately it is a lame idea. Chiang sits us down and explains the terrible beauty of, er, entropy. Great. Oh, and it contains no dialogue which must make it slipstream.

EDIT: And Ian Sales:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Chiang is one of the best writers of short science fiction currently being published. Which means every Chiang story is not only judged against all others published around the same time but against every other Chiang story. Which does him no favours. Especially in this case. ‘Exhalation’ is pretty much a thought experiment, with very little in the way of plot. It’s well-written, but it failed for me in several aspects. It lectures the reader… and the explanation for this doesn’t quite justify the up-front info-dumping. Further, the central premise isn’t actually that interesting, and all the story does is provide a slow and cumbersome vehicle for the narrator to figure out that entropy exists.

So: read the story (or listen), and while I’m driving home, post a comment to tell me which camp you fall into — and, most importantly, why. (Spoiler! I liked it. And my why will wait until later.)

Two Links

1. Voting for the David Gemmell Legend Award closes midnight today, March 31st. It’s free to sign up and vote, so why don’t you?

2. A sad one for the Angel fans: Lorne has died. I’m going to have to figure out which episode to watch in tribute.

(“Exhalation” discussion will get kicked off today, just somewhat later today.)

This week’s BSFA meeting — audio online

Yes, to complete this morning’s trilogy of BSFA-related posts, I’m pleased to be able to direct you to the BSFA website, where you can listen to a recording of Wednesday’s panel discussion of this year’s BSFA Award nominees. Enjoy.

The Rest of the Mailing

Really, never mind Vector, how ’bout the rest of that mailing?

It’s turned out to be a fiction-heavy mailing, but that’s no bad thing (and don’t worry, non-fiction fans, there are counterbalancing projects in the pipeline for later this year). We have:

  • Focus fiction special — presenting the winner and final shortlist of the BSFA’s 50th anniversary short story competition: “Nestbuster” by Roderick Gladwish, plus stories by Nina Allan, James Bloomer, Nigel Envarli Crowe, Gary Spencer, and Andy West
  • Postscripts sampler issue — a special issue of the magazine for BSFA members, featuring stories by Stephen Baxter, Joe Hill, Lisa Tuttle, Gene Wolfe, Paul McAuley and others.
  • BSFA Awards Short Fiction Shortlist — for the first time, we’ve been able to make all the nominees for this year’s BSFA short fiction award available to members. Many thanks to the authors and venues involved for making this possible; and to members, you’ve got just over a week to read them. Final ballots are due, by post, or by email to awards at, by Monday April 6th

Given the latter of these, I’m going to postpone my planned Hugo short fiction reading for a week, and instead read the four BSFA nominees, then make discussion posts here. For those who’d like to play along at home, the schedule I’m going to follow is:

(EDIT: In the comments, Tony reminds me that anyone going to Eastercon will be able to vote there, until late Saturday afternoon; it’s only people who aren’t going, like me, who have to vote by April 6th.

And on an unrelated note, I meant to mention the details of this year’s BSFA AGM, as announced on the cover sheet of this mailing — Saturday 27th June 2009, at 12pm, in Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London.)

Review of 2008

The latest BSFA mailing should have been dropping through peoples’ doors this week, including Vector 259:

Torque Control — editorial
Letters — from Farah Mendlesohn, Bob Ardler, and Rich Horton
Vector Reviewers’ Poll — edited by Kari Sperring
You Sound Like You’re Having Fun Already: The SF Films of 2008 — by Colin Odell and Mitch LeBlanc
Progressive Scan: 2008 TV in Review — a column by Abigail Nussbaum
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Resonances — a column by Stephen Baxter
Foundations Favourites — a column by Andy Sawyer
The New X — a column by Graham Sleight
Celebrating 30 years of Luther Arkwright — Bryan Talbot interviewed by James Bacon

Enjoy, and send letters to the usual address; and, as ever, if your copy doesn’t arrive in a timely fashion, let us know. There is an updated website in the works, to be more fully incorporated with the main BSFA site; but if nothing else, I’ll put some content up on the old site next weekend.

London Meeting: BSFA Awards Discussion

A Very Special Meeting, tonight: instead of an interview, a panel discussion about this year’s BSFA Awards, featuring Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Alastair Reynolds, and Adam Roberts.

The time and place stay the same, though: turn up from 6pm for discussion from 7pm, in the upstairs room of The Antelope (22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here). The meeting is free, and open to any and all; and there will be a raffle with books as prizes.

Further thoughts on Dollhouse

Episode six of Dollhouse was widely hyped as the point where the show kicked up a gear, probably so that the fans would hang in there through the opening episodes, which ranged from mediocre to mediocre with a side helping of exploitation cake. And surprisingly, while it doesn’t live up to the hype, coupled with the episode before it does give me hope that there’s something more to the series than I initially thought.

The first four episodes were hampered by a mission of the week which never convinced me that there was any need for a doll, rather than a similarly skilled person who would do the job for a lot less money. I wouldn’t mind an unconvincing scenario so much if it was entertaining. Episode five, ‘True Believer’, was the first sign that there was the potential for something better, with a more convincing need for a doll and a less predictable plot, as well as more scenes with a fully-clothed Eliza Dushku, but it still fell some way short of greatness.

‘Man on the Street’ is another step up in quality. In Joel Myner’s hiring of a woman to pretend, if only for a day, that the woman he loved is still alive and well, we get a situation I can see that someone would hire a doll for, instead of the non-active with the same skills who could do the job for a lot less money and a lot less hassle. It’s even briefly sympathetic, until Ballard punctures it with the difference between his fantasies and Myner’s – however unhealthy his fantasies about Caroline/Echo are, he isn’t using an innocent to make them come true. And the final scene, where Echo returns to complete the assignment cut short by Ballard, nicely conflicts our sympathy towards Myner with the inherent skeeviness of the dollhouses, and guest star Patton Oswalt pulls off a tricky role which could easily have been unredeemably loathsome. (Even if it was distracting when I spent the first scene wondering why he was so damn familiar.)

It’s also the episode where Ballard gets to be more than the cliche of FBI agent chasing the case no one else believes in, even if I suspect some of it is unintentional. It’s clear that while he might be a good investigator, he’s also obsessive about this case, and not afraid to use violence against anyone who he sees as standing in his way, although I think that what I’m supposed to take away from the fight scenes is how enjoyably badass he is, not how much he enjoys a fight. This being a Joss Whedon show, once he got to the happy post-coital scene with his neighbour it was inevitable that something horrible was about to befall her, and while the revelation of her secret active identity is not much of a revelation, I’d rather have that than have her end up dead, and it sets up the potentially interesting conflicts when Ballard realises what and who she is. And is an FBI agent really supposed to reveal the details of his cases to the woman next door, even if she does make him lasagne?

The third pairing, and probably the least satisfactory, is that of Sierra and her rape at the hands of her handler. Despite the red herring of Victor, her handler was so obviously dodgy that the identity of her abuser wasn’t a surprise, and it was deeply unsettling because of both the doll’s downtime personalities being so naive and childlike, and the speedy resolution of how Sierra would be just fine now he’s out of the way. My interest in this development is more for the character of Boyd – I want to see just how a character who feels so strongly about Sierra’s abuse that he punches a man through a plate glass window can reconcile that with working for the Dollhouse, which performs the same abuse on a wider scale, and how he fell so far from his presumably moral and upstanding past as an officer of the law.

The episode also delivers some hints about where the overall plot is heading, with the Dollhouse revealed to be an international organisation which does not necessarily exist just to provide the doll’s services. This makes sense not just because the Dollhouses themselves take some hiding, but because it gives them a purpose beyond the rather unconvincing mission of the week assignments. And there’s a mole in the Dollhouse, which I am hoping will be Topher, if only because I still find him to be creepy and arrogant and not at all funny.

Dollhouse stil has an uphill struggle to get past the problems inherent in the premise – it’s noteable that the best episode so far is one which keeps Echo and her assignment in the background for much of the episode. I still can’t see where it can go in the long-term, because the more they engage with the disturbing nature of the dollhouses, the less I want to watch them try and do a fun personality of the week episode. For now they’ve demonstrated enough potential to keep me watching.