Book Club: September: And other short stories

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by flatearthpandas, Sep 29, 2019.

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What did you think?

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  1. flatearthpandas

    flatearthpandas Round Moon Bears

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    Welcome to the September discussion of Exhalation by Ted Chiang. Unfortunately, I was not able to read this month's book but I'm very much looking forward to reading everyone's thoughts. Have at it!
     
  2. turmoil7

    turmoil7 more than six maelstroms

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    So what were everyone's most and least liked tales?

    Haven't read The Lifecycle of Software Objects yet so so far my favorite are The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling and What's is Expected of Us

    I think my least favorite one is The Great Silence, because I believe it is the one that lacks those fanciful narrative devices that plague the other stories.

    Also I didn't quite like The Alchemists' Gate at first but it gave me the feeling of being intended as a retelling of 1001 nights' The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Through a Dream so I warmed to it when I noticed, I haven't read 1001 nights, does anyone think there are more stories referenced on it?
     
  3. Pedro

    Pedro The Last Airbender is actually a great movie
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    Interesting! My favorite was The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, and it being different from the others made me have wrong expectations for the rest of the book; I wish any other could have been the first story (And by "different", I mean it was a sci-fi story that wasn't futuristic or modern). But beyond that, showing the futility of humans trying to cheat time and change their past/future, instead of confronting them and learning to accept that things have happened was delightful.

    My second favorite would also be The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, and my least favorite the parrots one too.

    In general, I liked how every story was very personal, even if they struggled with technologies that were much bigger than temselves. Human curiosity was the trigger to all of these stories, and made most of them a quick read (the only exception being The Lifecycle of Software Objects; not only that one was slow, by the end I thought it lacked some purpose and I couldn't draw much from it).
     
  4. Sawneeks

    Sawneeks Queen Doppelpopolis

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    In the back of the book it has a good breakdown of each story and where the author got their ideas from for each story. The Great Silence did feel out of place compared to the other stories so it fits that it was the only story in the book to be part of an artistic collaboration between the author and two others. The author here was asked to write a piece from the parrot's point of view while Allora & Calzadilla made the other half that you can find completed on YT.



    The text wasn't actually meant to be standalone according to Chiang but was recommended to publish it by itself by Allora and Calzadilla. Hence how we got the story.

    It was also one of my favorite little stories out of this collection. The Fermi Paradox is fascinating to think about and try to dissect so anything that tries to cover that usually gets my interest. It didn't have the same impact on human psychology as many of the other stories did but it also ended on a very hopeful and somber note. The parrot that is referenced is the story, Alex, was also real and his reported last words to his owner were "You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you."
     
  5. Sawneeks

    Sawneeks Queen Doppelpopolis

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    @turmoil7 Not too sure about other stories but there were a lot of references to other theories or scientific works throughout this whole book.

    The Fermi Paradox and The Great Silence is one. What's Expected of Us tackles free will and the power of choice. Omphalos covered scientific discovery and religion. Anxiety and the Dizziness of Freedom covered free will, choice, and forgiveness as well.

    One that fascinated me was Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny. It takes a lot not only from psychology and theories on how to raise children but it also felt a lot like an experiment that was done in the 1950s. A psychologist named Harry Harlow wanted to see whether a baby's attachment to their mother was based purely on physiological needs or was based on emotional needs. Since you can't perform this kind of experiment with humans he used baby rhesus monkeys instead and performed various different experiments with them using fake surrogate mothers. I'll spoiler tag the surrogate mothers since they're....kinda scary looking, but he had two different ones made. One was a wire mesh mother that provided milk and allowed the baby monkey to sleep on it while the other surrogate mother was the same base (wire mesh), provided milk, and space to sleep but had a terry cloth over it so it was soft and comfortable to the touch.

    [​IMG]

    He found two very important things from this. When given the option of both surrogate mothers the monkeys overwhelmingly went to the terry cloth one despite both providing the same level of food. This suggested that the emotional need, comfort and cuddling, was more important to the baby than purely food. Second, when he took separate babies and had each only interact with one mother (so one got the mesh, the other got the cloth) he found that the emotional development of the monkey who had the wire mesh mother was significantly worse than the cloth monkey. Highly recommend reading this if you're interested in learning more about the experiment itself but this was the difference in how the monkey's reacted. It's not very similar to the story but I think Chiang was on a very similar track with his thought process on the ramifications of not having emotional support for a child.

     
  6. Zippedpinhead

    Zippedpinhead I'm a wee bit mad at Weemad

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    I read them all very quickly this month, as the short story nature of the book lent itself well to reading entire swathes of the book in one go.

    I’ll admit, lifecycle of software objects was a really hard read for me. Having three children, all at young ages seeing the software engineers develop feelings for these objects that for lack of a human body exhumed this childlike wonder and knowledge of their surrounding it was hard.

    I was going through some stuff as well so this one almost broke me of reading the whole thing, after exhalation which was also So SO SO sad.

    I have more thoughts on omphalos and anxiety, but I want to read others thoughts too
     
  7. Natiko

    Natiko Town's Friendly Neighborhood Serial Killer

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    I thought the collection was okay. I only really enjoyed three of the stories - The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Lifecycle of Software Objects, and The Great Silence. The rest were merely okay, with the exception of Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny and Omphalos - neither of which I liked at all.

    Of the ones I didn’t list - they all just felt very generic. I guess Exhalation wasn’t generic, but it wasn’t particularly engaging either which is why it gets lumped in with the other average stories.

    I don’t want to seem like a complete downer - the stories that I enjoyed I enjoyed a lot. I actually talked them up enough that my fiancé is reading the book currently. I think maybe I just went in with higher expectations that I should have.
     
  8. Sawneeks

    Sawneeks Queen Doppelpopolis

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    Software Objects didn't really work for me as a story but I was wondering if part of it was because I didn't have kids or a reference for that feeling that the main character felt. That scene where one of the Digients first came into the 'real world' was a very sweet moment though and one of my favorites in the story. How they could see the little pores and surface textures being just so fascinating to them really did feel like a childlike moment of discovery.
     
  9. Sawneeks

    Sawneeks Queen Doppelpopolis

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    What did you not like about Omphalos?

    I do understand the generic feeling though. The 3 stories you listed that you enjoyed did feel like they had a point to tell about their story while ones like Exhalation and What's Expected of Us did not have as strong of a point. I do think that the worlds they create or help you imagine are the real takeaways for those but it's to each their own. The world created in Exhalation was just so interesting to think of and pick apart.
     
  10. Natiko

    Natiko Town's Friendly Neighborhood Serial Killer

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    Both of the ones I listed as not liking were primarily because I found them to be boring. I suspect due to the topics they’re riffing I’m just fundamentally not being ones that interest me much, even with understanding what it was putting a sci-fi spin on. I don’t think anything was particularly poorly written or done, just didn’t find them all to be engaging.
     
  11. Fireblend

    Fireblend ABLF

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    I loved most of the stories. If I had to pick favorites, they'd probably be The Merchant and the Alchemist Gate and The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.

    Alchemist Gate really captures the feeling of an Arabian Nights-esque story, it reads like a parable and I really enjoyed how the stories-within-the-story intertwined. I don't know if I agree with the conclusion of the "author" in Truth of Fact, Truth of Feeling, but the way it uses "reading and writing" to show how much technology reshapes the way our minds work blew me away. I definitely liked the Tiv story more than the "remem" one. That felt too similar to a Black Mirror episode to me, lol.

    Which is why my least favorite would be What's Expected of Us. The best thing I can say about it is it was as short as it needed to be, at least.

    Before reading the book I had already read Exhalation and Lifecycle; the first one is also one of my favorites; just the right length to say what it wanted to say, and expertly written. Lifecycle feels too long, but I understand what the author was going for with making it feel like "a childhood" for the reader too, growing up with the characters and coming to understand their identity as "persons".

    Ratings:
    • "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    • "Exhalation" ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    • "What's Expected of Us" ⭐⭐
    • "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    • "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny" ⭐⭐⭐
    • "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    • "The Great Silence" ⭐⭐
    • "Omphalos" ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    • "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom" ⭐⭐⭐⭐
     
  12. CaptainNuevo

    CaptainNuevo MDTLA Enthusiast
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    Wow I'm just now realizing how much I have no idea what half of these stories are in retrospect. The titles alone aren't doing it for me in recalling, so that's uh... maybe not a great sign? On a whole I definitely enjoyed it, even if I found some of the stories to be a drag to read through at times.

    The standout ones for me were The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (which caused me to go buy the actual book after finishing in the sample because it was that good), The Lifecycle of Software Objects, and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.

    I'll admit my reaction to the software one was probably a much different side than from the parents here, though similar. I think the thing that most interested me about it was the concept of having to support legacy code and systems well past the time period they were designed for. I did appreciate the dichotomy of showing both of the main characters' thoughts and reactions to show how they differed and thought of their digients differently, and I think it was a much stronger piece for it. I do think the whole relationship between them was a bit of an unnecessary addition here, and I found myself speed-reading through any of the sections where he was pining for the girl so I could get back to the part that was actually an interesting concept (digients).

    Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom was super interesting as a concept, but I got really annoyed at that point by something that seems to be very much Chiang's style: Spending large amounts of time writing sections about how humanity as a whole responded to the inventions at the expense of paying attention to the individual impacts present in the story. He did it in quite a few of these (including The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling) and it never really added a whole lot to my appreciation for the stories. What fascinated me here was more the concept of how the portals impacted people's psyche and interactions in the world, as well as how they grew or attempted to grow to not be constrained by them.


    I think the ones that fell flattest for me were the Automatic Nanny and Omphalos. Automatic Nanny I feel like I just didn't understand at the end, and while it's definitely interesting to see the parallels to real experiments which Sawneeks pointed out, I still don't really feel like it was a very well told story personally, and it didn't impact me any. I did appreciate the style of writing used here though, it felt very much like something from that time period which was cool to read.

    Omphalos for some reason really didn;'t land with me. Part of it might have been the heavy reliance on religion, which typically falls flat and misses me completely. The whole crisis of faith story concept as a whole is tough for me to relate to, even if I would have enjoyed reading a different plot in that type of world.
     
  13. Pedro

    Pedro The Last Airbender is actually a great movie
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    Hah, I might grab 1001 Nights since I haven't read it either.

    Wow, if only I had read the last story >.> Didn't have time to read that one so I stopped the book at Omphalos.
    Learning about the inspiration for The Great Silence made me appreciate it more, but I'd rather have read about the real life event than to imagine that parrots are as capable to think rationally as humans; that was a little beyond my suspension of disbelief.

    Even if I couldn't connect with those stories in the same way, I am super happy to see that they touched you in this way. It's what this book club should be about, sharing all kinds of different experiences <3

    Same here, I could not relate with the despair that would be realizing we're not the center of the universe. I wish I could, honestly, because it was an incredibly powerful revelation.
     
  14. Fireblend

    Fireblend ABLF

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    It's worth pointing out that Automatic Nanny was originally published as part of a "themed" short story compilation by different authors, which was supposed to work like a "cabinet of curiosities", so that's why it's not so much a story as much as it is a "description" of a hypothetical item. It still didn't do much for me other than making me think, this doesn't sound farfetched enough for me to immediately disbelieve it :P
     
  15. Fireblend

    Fireblend ABLF

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  16. Natiko

    Natiko Town's Friendly Neighborhood Serial Killer

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    This is slightly off-topic, but out of curiosity have any of you read his previous short story collection?
     
  17. Zippedpinhead

    Zippedpinhead I'm a wee bit mad at Weemad

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    I have not read his other book of short stories, but I had seen the movie based on one of his stories and thought it was good!

    Omphalos...

    As a relatively religious person, I found it absolutely fascinating to explore a world where proof of a god, creation and the beginnings of the universe existed, only to find out that it all exists not for you and your planet but another further planet. That everything you hold dear really revolves around another existence and sentience.
     
  18. Sawneeks

    Sawneeks Queen Doppelpopolis

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    One of my main dislikes of Truth of Fact, Truth of Feeling was the Black Mirror retread but it was also the way that European expansion of ideas was portrayed. It's somewhat touched on since Tiv ends up learning that that the 'new European way' was going to cause more problems than good but the problem of forcing a religion on another group, teaching them western ideals as the 'proper' way, and so on is just sort of there. Given how much Chiang comments on different aspects of humanity I was a little surprised, and disappointed, that goes relatively unacknowledged through the story.

    Honestly the same happened to me. I somehow mixed up the Nanny story and What's Expected of Us earlier which is kinda disappointing. It helps that the stories that do stand out are very memorable.

    Personally it's just a fun thing to imagine. Too much media is focused on other intelligence outside of humanity being hostile or war-driven so seeing one, even a minor one, being sympathetic and even encouraging was really nice. It's somewhat similar to the feeling of how Exhalation ended. It just ends on an optimistic note.

    Honestly I'm with Zipped on this. I was raised in a christian religion and the way the main character and the University Professor went through their loss of faith was something I immediately recognized. It's hard to totally describe how something a person holds dear and shapes so much of their world view can get torn down and shattered into pieces but Chiang gets really close with it here. Even the way the main character describes how they stopped praying and only went back later after the anger, doubt, and sadness ebbed away was fairly accurate.

    Though the twist being that there was a creation event but it wasn't this planet and was instead meant for another group is a realllyyy novel way of showing the loss of faith for these people. You typically only see the 'God(s) exist or they don't' narrative and not one where a God does exist but not for you.

    Reading everyone else's reaction to this story being negative/disinterest is interesting and highlights how Chiang's stories really do touch on different parts of humanity that some people just don't have a reference to. I'm sure there are people who read What's Expected of Us and came away from it as their important story from this whole collection.
     
  19. Sawneeks

    Sawneeks Queen Doppelpopolis

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    I am kinda curious what would've happened if The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate wasn't the first story of the book. Wonder if it would've ended up scored lower than what we're giving it if it was later in the group or if we only rated it so high since it was the first story to experience.
     
  20. Pedro

    Pedro The Last Airbender is actually a great movie
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    I touched on that earlier, but having it be the first set wrong expectations to me, because I assumed that stories would have different time periods and places and instead they were modern tales that discussed sci-fi from a western point of view mostly. It still would be my favorite because the topic itself was the most interesting to me, though.

    On Omphalos, I did find wonder in imagining a word where all things clearly have a purpose, and there are explicit, visible signs that point to the beginning of time.
     
  21. Zippedpinhead

    Zippedpinhead I'm a wee bit mad at Weemad

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    I never said I disliked the book,

    And there were stories that made me have emotional responses, it’s just most of them were sadness.

    Especially lifecycle, it’s going to stick with me I have a feeling, just something so human about how those A.I.s existed and “lived” even though they did not have corporal bodies.

    I’m not sure if I imagined the analogy in the short story, or if I came up with it myself but the beings seemed so stuck in the childish phase of life but wanting to be emancipated and adults. Almost like how a friend of mine’s brother with special needs is currently pushing for his own independence and freedom to pursue a life on their own.
     
    Natiko and Pedro like this.
  22. Swamped

    Swamped Dazzling Mafia Queen

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    I've only read the first 4 stories, just finished Life Cycle. I'm really liking this so far! Especially loved the first story, and how all the little stories inside were connected. I loved Exhalation too, didn't feel like a typical "story". Actually, Exhalation left me with more of a despondent feeling than Life Cycles lol.

    The third story is is just kinda nothing, but I did appreciate the return to the theme of a pre-determined future, which came up in The Merchant and the Alchemist too. What's Expected of Us evokes more of a feeling of uselessness, but I think the first story is more effective.

    I really enjoyed Life Cycles. I'm not sure what I got out of it though. The ending was satisfactory, but that it - I wanted an ending that made me feel something more. I guess I should have felt more when Derek sends his digients off, but I personally was more invested in Ana's story. And Jax ends up just fine. I dunno, maybe I am missing some subtlety with this one. With a title like "life cycle" I was expecting some kind of end to the digients but I'm glad it wasn't that overt because that would have been heartbreaking.

    On to the next few stories!

    I'm just so proud of myself for finding the time to read some meaningful books through this book club, so thanks!
     
  23. Sawneeks

    Sawneeks Queen Doppelpopolis

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    Not everything having a purpose was one of the main sticking points for Omphalos, wasn't it? We end up learning the humans aren't there on purpose and whatever is at the center of the universe is. Though I did find it neat how everything did have a defined 'start' point that was visible through almost everything that went back far enough. Technically the same can be argued about what we have now but it's less 'here's a solid ring in a tree' and more 'the Earth is this old but asteroids are like way older so wtf'.

    I feel the same way! So far all of these stories are something I likely wouldn't have read on my own so I'm glad we have this going. :>

    You'll have to share what you think of the remaining stories once you read them!
     
  24. Pedro

    Pedro The Last Airbender is actually a great movie
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    Yeah, I was referring to how the story was before the big reveal, where humans *thought* there was an explanation for their existence and everything else.