Exhalation

 

The universe began as an enormous breath being held.

 

ExhalationExhalation by Ted Chiang is a collection of nine stories ranging from 4 pages in length to 111. Therefore, I would not consider this a short story collection. Simply a collection of stories. This is Chiang’s second collection with the first being Stories of Your Life and Others, where the title story was the basis for the film Arrival.

Several of these stories have been published previously but a few make their debut in this collection. The story I was most looking forward to reading was “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” I remembered seeing it was published as a novella back when I looked into Chiang’s bibliography after reading his first collection. I can’t remember why I didn’t pick it up at the time, but it added to my desire to get my hands on this collection.

Though I will admit that my favorite story in this collection ended up being either the title story “Exhalation” or “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” with “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” and “Omphalos” as close seconds, all of the stories in this collection are worth a read.

I feel compelled to compare Chiang’s work to Philip K. Dick’s. Not because they both write science fiction, but because both of them write stories that linger. Stories that keep you thinking after you have read them. I think this is because they frame a story around a larger question. A story that provides glimpses of the question as you read. Their writing encourages me to ponder questions I haven’t considered. They often make me see something in a new way. And best of all, they inspire me to write stories of my own that may tackle bigger questions and hopefully keep the reader thinking after they finish the last page.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that “Exhalation” was partly inspired by Dick’s story “The Electric Ant,” which Chiang states he had read as a teenager. I am a big fan of Dick’s work and I have become a fan of Chiang’s. I very much look forward to following his career and reading everything he produces.

I couldn’t help but notice a theme to this collection though. One I can’t quite explain with accuracy. The best I can do is say that many of the stories include some form of fatalism. They either question free will or question the reasoning behind our choices. None of this is done directly, which may be the genius of Chiang’s writing, but these might hint at the larger questions I mentioned earlier. There are story notes in the back of this collection that give brief insights into what inspired each story. It’s fun to see where he got some of these ideas, especially since some of them came from unexpected sources.

I hope you read one or two of Chiang’s stories to see if they interest you. I was hooked after the first one.

Happy Reading.

The Eye of the Sibyl

PK DickToday I am recommending The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick. This is the second short story collection by Philip K. Dick that I’ve recommended. The first was The Philip K. Dick ReaderI didn’t know it when I picked this book up, but apparently there are six “Collected Stories” of which this and the Reader are two of them. If I’m completely honest with you, I think the Reader is a better collection than Sibyl, but that is really only my opinion and my overall opinion is that Philip K. Dick is an excellent author. So I think if you like his style or prose or concepts then you’ll like this collection just as much as any of the other ones.

I’ve technically read more collections of short stories than I have novels by Dick at this point, which is a bit surprising even to myself (though I have plenty of his books on the old TBR list). The opening story in this collection is “The Little Black Box” which was later used in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the only novel of his I’ve read so far). There is a “Notes” section in the back of this collection that have comments by Dick himself regarding most of the stories contained within. His notes about “The Little Black Box” talk about how he thinks the short story does a better job regarding the initial idea than how he uses it in the novel.

Other stories in this collection include “The Faith of Our Fathers” and “The Pre-Persons” both of which apparently caused quite a ruckus when they were first published. “The Pre-Persons” is a story that covers the ever taboo subject of abortion in an elaborate lens of absurdity. It was published in 1974. In Dick’s notes on this story, he explains how he received hate mail and even the “nastiest letter I’ve ever received” but he was also unapologetic for the story itself. He wrote about what he believed and though he was sorry it upset people (topics like these always upset someone) he wasn’t sorry for writing it.

I never would have known that “The Faith of Our Fathers” had any reference to the Cold War or was written when hallucinogenic drugs were first being used in experiments. This story was written in 1966. Over 50 years ago and well before my time. Reading it today doesn’t seem like many of the concepts are strange considering what has occurred in the past 50 years. Dick says he “[doesn’t] advocate any of the ideas” in this story (from his notes in 1966), and he even goes on to say he actually regretted writing this one (from his notes in 1976). A strange stance from a writer’s perspective but maybe I’m just saying that because I’m still new to this writing game. I’m sure much can be said about regret but we won’t dive into that here.

I hate to admit that one reason I picked up this collection was for the title story “The Eye of the Sibyl.” I was already a fan of his work, but I couldn’t help but be drawn to the title of this one story. The reason is that I first heard of Philip K. Dick in a strange way. I heard one of his books referenced in a show that I really enjoy called Psycho-Pass. In the show there is a central system called the Sibyl System that effectively governs the people. Of course the Sybil story turned out to be quite different from what was in the show, but I’m always fascinated when I can find allusions to other artists in works that I enjoy. I also discovered William Gibson from the same show. It may show my age that I did not know of these authors previously, but there is no shame in admitting how you learned of something. Especially since you may have missed it otherwise.

I could go into why I think Dick’s work is so fascinating to me, but I think I’ll save that for its own post. Until then.

Happy Reading.

Rashomon & Other Stories

RashomonToday I am recommending Rashomon & Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. This collection holds six short stories by Akutagawa. The title story “Rashomon” has become widely recognized because of the movie of the same name first released in 1950. However, the movie follows the storyline of a different short story titled “In a Grove,” which is also found in this collection. Akutagawa was considered the “Father of the Japanese short story.” Many of his works have inspired movies and he wrote well over 100 stories before his untimely death in 1927 at the age of 35.

The six stories in this collection are: “In a Grove” “Rashomon” “Yam Gruel” “The Martyr” “Kesa and Morito” and “The Dragon.” I first encountered Akutagawa’s work during my MFA program. We read “In a Grove,” which I think is the strongest story in this collection. It is a great example of Akutagawa’s work and sets the tone for many of the other stories. It is also a great example of what fiction can do and I recommend it to all writers who may be unfamiliar with his work. After all, it is used in many educational settings and has inspired several movies with it’s simple yet complicated storytelling.

These stories are not traditional stories that follow a structured plot and have happy endings. The main characters tend to be the forgotten or downtrodden who are overlooked or mocked despite holding high positions. Though I wasn’t alive at the end of the 19th century (though I did get to see the end of the 20th), I can see, through these stories, the strife Akutagawa felt during his own time. I believe a great short story keeps you thinking long after it ends. Most of these do just that. Despite their often strong critique of humanity and the status quo, some of them end with a tinge of hope.

Some of these stories may not sit well with you. Others may make you wonder what times were like 100+ years ago, and yet others may make you see that certain societal problems have existed for a long time. These six stories span roughly 100 pages and can be read all at once or picked up here and there. This may be outside of your usual reading bubble, but that’s a good thing. Give it a try. You may love it or you may hate it. You will probably learn something nonetheless.

Happy Reading.

Stories of Your Life and Others

stories-of-your-life-and-others-2This week’s book recommendation is Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. The title story of this collection was the inspiration for the movie Arrival, which came out two years ago in 2016. The movie was good and when I found out it was based on a written work, I went out and read it. I’ve discovered so many good books because of movies and have seen many movies because they were based on a book I’d previously read. It’s fun when a book you enjoy gets a screen adaptation. It’s also exciting to discover new authors because of screen adaptations, especially when the old adage “the book is always better” rings true.

As for this case, the movie was based on a short story. This means the movie had more room to create new or original content. When a movie is based on a book, it often has to cut out material while also changing things to make them exciting on screen. With a short story, there is usually little to cut for a full two-hour movie and there is actually room to add some content.

There are some excellent stories beyond the title story of this collection. The first page opens to “Tower of Babylon” which made me immediately become a fan of Ted Chiang’s ingenuity and style (I’m actually wanting to get a book of his and read it right now).

A great thing about a short story collection is that you can put it down and pick it back up whenever you like because each story is complete and you don’t need to remember what had happened previously as with a book. I went through and read every story in this collection is a short time though. Another great thing is, due to their structure, you can read them quickly and in between the busy tasks of life.

If you liked the movie Arrival, read “Stories of Your Life” which inspired it. If you didn’t like it, then read the other stories in this collection because they are great. “Stories of Your Life” wasn’t my favorite honestly. I liked it, but I liked some of the “and Others” better. If you’ve never read Ted Chiang, I suggest trying at least one of his stories to see if his writing captures your interest. The world of stories is vast and wild. May this gem be only one that you find along your way.

Happy Reading.

The Philip K. Dick Reader

PK DickThis week’s book recommendation is The Philip K. Dick Reader. This is the second short story collection I’ve recommended and the second book I’ve recommended by Philip K. Dick. The first was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. For anyone who likes science fiction, Philip K. Dick is one of the masters and was/continues to be influential in the genre. His stories have inspired several movies. I know that there are several collections of P.K. Dick’s work out there so I will simply say pick up whichever you find first or most interesting.

I picked this one up a while back and (with a few long breaks) worked through it over the course of two years. Short stories are great for many reasons. They can impact and inspire as much as novels do, and they can be read quickly (I read many of the stories in this collection while on lunch breaks). “Minority Report” and “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” are two short stories in this collection that inspired the movies Minority Report and Total Recall, and to be honest, I think I liked the short stories better. His book The Man in the High Castle is a series on Amazon right now. I haven’t yet read the book or watched the show, but have heard good things. Having read his other works, I feel obliged to agree that it is great. Amazon also put out a show recently called Electric Dreams which is based on many of Philip K. Dick’s short stories. Each episode is standalone. I’ll be looking into it shortly.

Philip K. Dick died in 1982 at the age of 53. I can only wonder what more he could have written and passed on. I do know his work will be around for a long time. Not all of his stories are science fiction. Even the ones that are tend to use science fiction as a brace for a discussion of humanity (as most successful genre stories do). I hope you try out some of his work (in whatever medium), or even short stories in general.

Happy reading.