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Ted Chiang's 'Exhalation: Stories' forces you to think about the big questions

·4 mins

Over the course of nine tales in Exhalation: Stories, Ted Chiang examines what it means to be alive, and what role scientific advances shape our understanding of ourselves. The stories vary extensively in length - from over three hours of audiobook narration to a few minutes–but all imprint in the reader a transformed view of time, temporal range, memory, free will (twice!), religion and science, artificial sentience, the search for extraterrestrial life, and more. They each use imaginative world –which, not to the detriment of the narrative, lean towards softer sci-fi–to put humans at the centre of these large questions. How does technology shape the way in which we perceive the world and our own memories of it–and to what extent is that even a good thing? Are religion and science reconcilable, in an alternate world in which they are deeply intertwined? Does free will exist, and does knowing the answer to do that benefit us in any way? And how does one measure sentience and emotional maturity in artificial intelligence, and use that to determine at which point personal autonomy should be allowed by its creators? The perspectives presented in the book challenge conventional answers to these questions.

One of the shortest chapters of the book, The Great Silence, remains the most striking example of this for me. In a story about the search for extraterrestrial life Chiang ignores the search itself, rather, focuses on the setting of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, from which a radio message from humanity was sent in 1974 into deep space in the hopes of making contact with technologically advanced extraterrestrials. The story, though, is told from the perspective of a parrot–a parrot perplexed at the prominent production of populations that the telescope is, given that, as it puts: ‘We’re a nonhuman species capable of communicating with them,” the parrot muses. “Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?"

The parrot’s–or rather, Chiang’s–elaboration into the displacement and destruction induced by the building of the telescope challenged my enthusiasm for this category of research—it’s hard to deny that I, and in all likelihood most people, have devoted far more of our attention to grandiose outer-spae efforts than to that which we can find and are failing to protect on our own planet. While I’m not convinced that we should majorly divert our attention as a species–just as I’m confident that wasn’t Chiang’s goal either - the story did surprise me in all the right ways and shift my perspective on the topic closer towards cautious attention. It serves as an unusual approach to a topic often debated from a vastly different perspective.

Chiang is also at his best in the titular story, Exhalation. Narrated by a scientist who is a member of another universe’s species of mechanically functional, air-powered beings, the story explores the relationship between personal actions and the temporal range (the range of time a species exists) of their species. Not only do they themselves depend on the pressure difference of argon in the atmosphere and within an elaborate mechanism in their minds, but so do their devices and mechanisms. Every breath anyone takes, then, measurably reduces the overall time for which their species can survive, before the entire universe is at equilibrium and their bodies have stopped to function. The story serves as an unorthodox and vaguely unsettling thought experiment about mortality. The highly irregular functioning of the narrator’s universe–antithetical to the way we often imagine alien civilizations - is what enables the story to ask these deep questions about individual responsibility and civilization, and serves as a testament to the power of the genre of science fiction.

Exhalation: Stories is subsequently a nuanced exploration of both many of the dilemmas at the centre of futurology and innovation right now, and questions that are as old as humanity. I recommend it to anyone who wants to broaden their understanding of these questions, or is looking for a comfortable science fiction read that pushes the limits of its genre.