Review: Exhalation

May contain spoilers.

In the titular story from Ted Chiang's latest collection, the universe is a sphere, its inhabitants mechanical humanoids who run on air, and whose lungs need refilling at regular intervals. Our nameless narrator is a scientist, an anatomist to be precise: in this land of strange beings driven by gears and actuators, the study of their anatomy is as fundamental a science as physics is in our world.

The anatomists are preoccupied with questions about memory: how is it formed and stored in the brain? The nature of memory is deeply entwined with the nature of the brain itself, and there are two competing schools of thought. Are memories inscribed on sheets of gold foil inside their heads? Or are they stored in the precise and dynamic configuration of moving parts in the brain?

At some point, someone noticed that the clocks, which run on air themselves, seem to be going faster. Not slowed down, but sped up. The narrator is convinced that the answer to this bizarre phenomenon lies in understanding how their brains work. In an extreme example of experimenting on oneself, the narrator devises a contraption that lets them observe and manipulate the inner workings of their brain.

The narrator arrives at a devastating conclusion: the air pressure of the universe is decreasing. When everything, including thought itself, depends on air flow, this means the end of all life is clearly visible on the horizon. Every thought and action inevitably accelerates the clocks.

What a gorgeous piece. I devoured this story in one sitting and now, weeks later, it remains fresh and resonant in my mind. The prose is elegant and flowing, the ideas wildly imaginative. The notion of human thought slowing to a halt as the universe approaches its heat death is haunting and melancholic, yet strangely beautiful. Our dying sighs echo that of the universe as it exhales in one deep long-held breath, first drawn in during the Big Bang aeons ago. And even the smaller details captivate: the design of the experimental setup that lets the narrator perform self-dissection; the intricate pieces that make up their brains; the copper sheets on which these words are supposedly recorded1.

This story is framed as a journal left behind by the narrator for a future explorer to find. It drives home the fact that all life has to end someday, even if that day is as far ahead as the eventual death of the universe itself. But perhaps questions of when and how the end will arrive are less important than they seem; the fact that we have existed is a cause for celebration and wonder. To experience life--to encounter others, to love and be loved, to create and appreciate art in all its forms--imbues our existence with plenty of meaning, regardless of why we're here in the first place.

It's remarkable how many ideas are featured within the confines of the word count. Ted Chiang introduces these fascinating ideas and fleshes them out in mind-boggling detail. For example, the fact that these humanoids run on air isn't merely a premise to prop up the story; we see how this shapes their society, in the way the filling stations serve as social hubs for the humanoids to congregate and exchange their lungs. I also thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of the inner workings of their brains, as well as the different hypotheses about memory. The idea of an inevitable tendency towards a state of perfect equilibrium contains echoes of Taoism.

This is easily my favourite in a collection chock full of brilliant stories. I heartily recommend checking it out, which you can do so for free at Lightspeed magazine.


1 I would totally buy a copy of Exhalations inscribed on copper.

Day 6 of #100DaysToOffload

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