Exhalation by Ted Chiang

★★★★★ (5/5)

It will be the end of pressure, the end of motive power, the end of thought. The universe will have reached perfect equilibrium

Visceral and intense, “Exhalation” from Ted Chiang’s “Stories of Your Life and Others” is another mind-bending, remarkable short story which left me overwhelmed and literally breathless by the end. It entwines neuroscience with hard sci-fi, the fantastical notion of a future where cyborgs install metal lungs to breathe and air carries all thoughts and memories of said creatures.

We all keep spare sets of full lungs in our homes, but when one is alone, the act of opening one’s chest and replacing one’s lungs can seem little better than a chore. In the company of others, however, it becomes a communal activity, a shared pleasure

Narrated as an epistolary, in form of journal entries by an unnamed scientist, the story tells of a dome-like world, encased in chromium, which these mechanical men inhabit. Life is drawn from transposable lungs filled with pressurized air from the underground. Our narrator observes the incongruity of perceiving time through a sermon which has always lasted an exact hour but now the hour hand chimes in seconds earlier. He sets out to discover the cause of this slight aberration in perceiving time through dissecting his own mechanical brain.

Air is in fact the very medium of our thoughts. All that we are is a pattern of air flow

His conclusions have tremendous ramifications not only for his own world but for the entire universe which is gradually working towards achieving ultimate equilibrium. His chronicles are a message as well as a warning to creatures of the future who may come across his obsolete civilization.

Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so

With its precise yet daunting narration, Chiang once again manages to pull the reader into his wonderfully crafted universe. The purely ingenious premise of this story rests on the realistic treatment with which it has been dealt with. Following are instances which lend the story its credibility and vivid imagery:

Communal Setting

These air-powered men have established a community lifestyle, replete with notions of sociability, variance of professions and acquiring knowledge to advance their civilization.

Filling stations provide them with an opportunity to socialise in order to fulfil basic emotional needs through conversing with like-bodied entities.

For the filling stations are the primary venue for social conversation, the places from which we draw emotional sustenance as well as physical

There is a variety of vocations available in this world, with assigned roles, all contributing to the smooth functioning of their society.

Horologists investigated the turret clocks in question, but on inspection they could discern no imperfection

Along with those who deliver sermons and study time, we have engineers, anatomists and theorists who are engaged in learning more about their bodies. They are keen on discovering the secrets of their highly mechanized brain, where memories transpire and the nature of death and reviving the dead.

Theoretical Understandings

Different theories are posited in order to better understand their existence. One such theory is known as the “Inscription Hypothesis” which states that all memories are engraved on gold leaves. Our narrator does not subscribe to this theory “for the simple reason that if all our experiences are in fact recorded, why is it that our memories are incomplete”.

Our narrator is a proponent of a competing school of thought, a theory that suggests that memories are stored in a medium where the process of deletion is no different than that of recording.

This theory implied that everything we had forgotten was indeed lost, and our brains contained no histories older than those found in our libraries. One advantage of this theory was that it better explained why, when lungs are installed in those who have died from lack of air, the revived have no memories and are all but mindless: somehow the shock of death had reset all the gears or switches.

Each theory has its own limitations which prompts our narrator to set forth on self-discovery by virtually operating on his own brain.

When I was done, my brain looked like an explosion frozen an infinitesimal fraction of a second after the detonation, and again I felt dizzy when I thought about it

Corollary Effect

The lattice was not so much a machine as it was a page on which the machine was written, and on which the machine itself ceaselessly wrote

His breakthrough findings reveal the truth of their existence, that air is not just providing them with physical sustenance but is also the very medium of their thoughts and in turn, their ability to learn and live.

My consciousness could be said to be encoded in the position of these tiny leaves, but it would be more accurate to say that it was encoded in the ever-shifting pattern of air driving these leaves.

The scientist then relates this conclusion to rapid changes in atmospheric pressure:

It is not that the turret clocks are running faster. What is happening is that our brains are running slower. The turret clocks are driven by pendulums, whose tempo never varies, or by the flow of mercury through a pipe, which does not change. But our brains rely on the passage of air, and when that air flows more slowly, our thoughts slow down, making the clocks seem to us to run faster

He also surmises the nature of their finite world, coming to a final assumption that their world is a dome-like structure:

Our sky must not be infinite in height. Somewhere above the limits of our vision, the chromium walls surrounding our world must curve inward to form a dome; our universe is a sealed chamber rather than an open well

Final Piece of the Puzzle

If air were all that we needed to live, we would never die. But in truth the source of life is a difference in air pressure, the flow of air from spaces where it is thick to those where it is thin

When the pressure everywhere in the universe is the same, all air will be motionless, and useless; one day we will be surrounded by motionless air and unable to derive any benefit from it

The doctor is able to put in finishing touches to his theory which must be publicised eventually. He comes to terms with gradual death of his fellow beings owing to the natural state of universe which is always attaining for equilibrium. All systems exist in a state of entropy, in perpetual pursuit of total symmetry and equilibrium. But life is driven from state of disorder of natural systems. Only in a perfectly disordered universe can life in all forms thrive.

With every movement of my body, I contribute to the equalization of pressure in our universe. With every thought that I have, I hasten the arrival of that fatal equilibrium

Eventually, all the air in our universe will be evenly distributed, no denser or more rarefied in one spot than in any other, unable to drive a piston, turn a rotor, or flip a leaf of gold foil

Fusing Existence and Death

 No matter how long it takes, eventually equilibrium will be reached

 The story leads to profound understanding of concepts of what it means to exist and die. These mechanical, power-driven men do expire but their physical bodies can be revived. Memories are analogous to souls where memories of the dead cannot be recuperated, yet the physical body can be inhabited by another entity. In this way, death isn’t absolute despite having parted with the thoughts of an older being.

Some find irony in the fact that a study of our brains revealed to us not the secrets of the past, but what ultimately awaits us in the future

Conclusive death, which is an absolute truth, is realized through our narrator’s findings. Regardless of their mechanical presence, the universe in the background has always been and always will work towards a finite end.

The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I am glad that it did, because I owe my existence to that fact

But, and herein lies a strong merit of the story, our narrator reconciles with this eventuality through taking relief in having existed at all. He is grateful for the very disorder which is spelling doom for the entire universe but which owed him a life in the first place.

And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on

Final Thoughts

Awash with philosophic introspection, “Exhalation” leads to inquiry into concepts of determinism and eventual demise. Inevitability of death is parallel to the miracle of existence in this brilliantly crafted short story, so sublime in its underlying message yet stunningly effective and hard-hitting prose.

Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss

I leave you with an incredibly poignant passage from the story:

Perhaps a few of us, in the days before we cease moving, will be able to connect our cerebral regulators directly to the dispensers in the filling stations, in effect replacing our lungs with the mighty lung of the world. If so, those few will be able to remain conscious right up to the final moments before all pressure is equalized. The last bit of air pressure left in our universe will be expended driving a person’s conscious thought. And then, our universe will be in a state of absolute equilibrium. All life and thought will cease, and with them, time itself.

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