Ted Chiang's 'Exhalation' Calmly Stares Oblivion in the Face

With his second collection of short stories, Exhalation, master of existential science fiction Ted Chiang explores AI, time travel, and alternate realities with the studious eye of an anthropologist.

Ted Chiang


May 2019


Our tendency, as a culture, to explore science fiction either as a gimmick or as a means of forecasting the apocalypse can be limiting in scope. As much as we can be sure that the world will end someday, we might also find solace in the fact that even the most dire of circumstances will always find a way of becoming mundane. Much like a dictator's reign becomes increasingly normalized, the proliferation of AI, flying cars, and even the end of the world will not be particularly extraordinary to those alive at the time. Science fiction and fantasy, across all art forms, is frequently a clever vessel for nostalgic escapism; the fact that these wondrous places and lives are so foreign to us is intentional, the allure so potent as to be almost promising even if unachievably so. It's not unlike imagining life in a new city, with the idealism of a fresh start giving way to banality once the unknown becomes routine.

This all isn't to disparage escapism, but to apply a critical eye to a wider scope of science fiction stories — many of which have become popular in recent years. Black Mirror, a reworking of the immortal Twilight Zone, first ran on Channel 4 in 2011 but slowly gathered notoriety and ended up on Netflix, revitalized and Americanized, in 2016. As of today, four seasons of the series, in addition to an interactive film (Bandersnatch, 2018), have been released; following the anthology format, it explores moments of peculiar, technofuturistic terror with an eerily realistic eye. Black Mirror is anti-escapism — the show's best episodes pin down real human fears and offer them as parables for a time nearing the end of the world. It's what you might call bleak, devastating or, given your tolerance for being virtually dragged to hell and back, nearly unwatchable. But it's also irresistible, its potent insights revealing a lucidity about the unknown that's difficult to achieve.

Ted Chiang's science fiction is like Black Mirror, but also not. His short stories are often bleak — haunting, even — but they're never cynical. His work forecasts hope. His best known novella, Story of Your Life, which became the basis for the 2016 film Arrival, concerned a linguist and a physicist confronting an alien species as it visits Earth. The timeline, adhering to that of the alien species, is nonlinear, but Chiang reveals the kicker in measured bursts: In the future, the linguist and the physicist have a child who dies young, but the linguist's mastery of the alien language enables her to see time as a circle rather than a line. In short, she knows about her daughter's forthcoming death but chooses to have her anyway.

Story of Your Life deals with a time much like our own and, although far-fetched, with a reality within the realm of possibility. Other stories in the first collection, like "Tower of Babylon" (Stories of Your Life and Others, Tor Books, 2002), were more like fables, age-old tales and reappropriated myths in pursuit of an all-encompassing truth. In "Babylon", a miner joins a group of climbers on a long, arduous journey to the top of the tower. The miner, Hillalum, hopes to reach Heaven's gates, higher than any man has been before. Near the top, the climbers approach Yahweh's floodgates and Hillalum barely survives, climbing just a bit more toward the light. When he emerges, he realizes that he's back on Earth. In fact, he's just a few towns away from where he started; Heaven and Earth may as well be one and the same.

Hand in Water by TheDigital Artist (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

This reckoning with a greater purpose extends into Exhalation, Chiang's second collection of stories, as do questions of free will and morality. The title story, one of the shortest in the collection, acts in many ways as the guiding principle behind Chiang's work. In the story, a scientist muses about the source and meaning of life:

"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. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on."

The passage perhaps best exemplifies Chiang's optimism in place of much of sci-fi's more cynical urges. Throughout the collection, he returns to the idea of meaning and purpose, concluding that much of what we know about the universe, and of free will, is bogus; we humans are not the center of the universe, but rather just another inevitable cog in a massive overarching scheme. Chiang's characters greet this knowledge with a myriad of positive and negative reactions — some become catatonic with the realization of meaninglessness while others decide to locate a defiant purpose within themselves — but Chiang himself seems to regard this fact with wonder rather than despair.

One of the best stories in the collection, "The Lifecycle of Software Objects", follows a young woman named Ana, who works for a startup that makes animal-like digital organisms called "digients". The digients live in an online gaming server, and Ana's job is to raise them; she worked for years at a zoo handling live animals, but after it closed she changed careers. She treats both jobs similarly, handling her digient, Jax, with the same amount of empathy as she would a live animal. Of course, not everyone shares her sensibility. Throughout the course of the story (which, at over 100 pages, is more like a novella), Ana's company struggles to stay afloat as other companies develop new features and breeding methods, and the incentive to sell Jax grows. But Ana refuses, determined through it all to raise him as best as she can.

"Software Objects" is, in many ways, Exhalation's answer to "Story of Your Life", but instead of considering the meaning of parenthood, it tests its limits in the digital age. There's never a question, even to Ana, who evaluates her options intelligently and logically, that Jax poses different ethical questions than a living pet or child would. But in the end, her decision is more of a feeling — of doing the "right" thing — than an entirely practical choice.

The story immediately after, "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny", flips the scenario on its head. Written as a catalog article, it details the invention of the mathematician Reginald Dacey. The invention, as the title suggests, is a robotic nanny for children. Unlike Ana's, his story doesn't end well — the nannies raise children who end up dependent on machines and unresponsive to human contact. Dacey's product loses popular favor and lives on in infamy. This is the ultimate contradiction in Chiang's fiction: His stories deal with speculative and at-times fantastical scenarios, but they're all grounded in fundamentally human concerns.

"The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling", another longer story, goes as far as to include humans outside of the industrialized Western tradition. Half of the story deals with a man who uses a service called Remem to watch old footage of arguments between him and his daughter, and the other half takes place in Tivland, in West Africa, as an English missionary teaches a young Tiv boy how to read. In the first half (which bears a resemblance to the Black Mirror episode "The Entire History of You"), the man slowly comes to terms with the fact that he was a much worse father than he remembers. In the second half, the missionary ponders oral tradition for the first time, weighing the benefits of the written word's precision against an oral performance's emotional rightness. Both halves of the story explore not only the limits of human memory, but the costs of using modern invention to transcend nature's bounds.

The following stories, "The Great Silence" and "Omphalos", put this same quandary on a larger scale. The former, which was initially a text accompanying an art installation by the duo Allora & Calzadilla, is narrated by a parrot who laments humans' negligence as they drive many species extinct. It's a matter-of-fact denouncement: "Hundreds of years ago, my kind was so plentiful that the Rio Abajo forest resounded with our voices. Now we're almost gone." The next story, "Omphalos", tracks a religious archaeologist as she absorbs new and irrefutable proof that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Like Ana, she eventually decides that her own internal sense of purpose is enough.

The last story in the collection, "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom", is a symphonic narrative that centers on people who use artifacts called "prisms" to communicate with alternate reality versions of themselves. The two main characters are Nat, a former drug addict who sells prisms, and Dana, a support group leader for those who have become addicted to using prisms. Nat attends Dana's meetings, but she's actually working undercover, trying to get intel on other weakened souls to reap a profit. It's a startling way to end the collection, because it's the story that deals most directly with morality. What does it mean to be a good person? Or, as several of the characters ask themselves, What good are our choices if there are endless numbers of alternate selves making the opposite choice? Like Ana, like the archaeologist and, we might assume, like Chiang, Nat finds it in her heart to be good.

Exhalation is a groundbreaking work of science fiction, but not just because its influence can be felt across many corners of the mainstream. When confronting life's biggest questions, there's something undeniably powerful about being able to stare oblivion in the face and retain hope at the same time. It's unfortunate that short fiction doesn't have the reach of other art forms, but we can only hope Chiang's work continues to exert its influence on us. In another decade or so, as more climate disasters rapidly dismantle the inhabitability of our planet, may there be another collection of his work to offer a guiding light.

(courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf)






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