We are ready to wrap up our 116th Lite Reads selection, Exhalation by Ted Chiang. This selection was chosen with Asian Heritage Month (Canada) and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (USA) in mind. There were questions as food for thought on social media as people had the chance to read it and think about it. I will be sharing my own thoughts here. Spoilers ahead for those who have not read the story yet.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang is an award-winning science fiction short story that was originally published in 2008. The world in which the story is set features a robotic people that breathe argon that is stored in cannisters in their chests, lungs that are exchanged for fresh ones whenever the argon in them runs low. The unnamed narrator identifies themselves as a scientist, specifically an anatomist, and they tell the story as though writing a scientific treatise for one who might later discover it. The narrator describes how during a New Year’s tradition the local crier would recite a verse that always took under an hour, but they overheard a rumour in which several towns had reported that the crier had still been reciting the verse when the clock at the town centre struck the next hour. With many convinced that the clocks were running slow in some sort of mass anomaly, the narrator hypothesised that the cause was in a change in the people, not the clocks, which was further backed up by clocks using different mechanisms to track time having the same anomaly. When the narrator undergoes dangerous scientific experimentation, opening up their own head to view the mechanics within, they realise that their brains are powered by air as well, unlike many of the theories that had been proposed to explain thought. Unfortunately, this means that the problem is that due to their exhalations, the air in this world was reaching a similar pressure to the interior workings of the people living in it, leading to them functioning more slowly–and eventually leading to the death of them all. The world can only be described as a pre-apocalyptic one, in which everyone begins to realise that they face certain imminent doom if they do not find an alternative solution to the air pressure of their world or the ways they themselves function. The narrator is surprisingly calm, offering up their thoughts on their approaching end and the ways it may impact the worlds beyond their own.
While I enjoy science fiction a lot, my speculative fiction preferences lean towards fantasy and horror, so much of the science fiction that I read and enjoy (or watch and enjoy) tends to not lean into the science aspects of the story too hard. Exhalation is definitely an exception (and a reminder to read more science fiction based around specifically the science of a fictional world), offering up essentially a scientific treatise about anatomy and environment in a world that is entirely different from our own, and yet contains echoes of reality. The style reminded me of that of the journals of doctors many decades ago writing of groundbreaking works, so it presented as both personal and filled with knowledge and authority, offering an added sense of realness to the imagined aspects of the science. The exploration of the science itself was fascinating, and it felt real to me within the conditions of the created world. I’m not exactly a scientist, so I couldn’t attest to any errors in science anyway, but to a regular reader, it felt like reading the facts of existence on another planet rather than an imagined reality.
One of the most interesting things I found in reading Exhalation is that the questions didn’t come until the end. My suspension of disbelief was solid enough that I didn’t wonder about much until I was finished. I thought it was striking that Chiang constructed a world thorough enough for me to not wonder at what was not written until I was finished. I’m so curious about this world with robotic beings living human lives and doing regular people things while they breathe from removable lung cannisters filled with argon. At the same time, that curiosity didn’t impede my enjoyment of the story, allowing me to feel immersed without needing extraneous details. What I’m trying to say is that I’m impressed with the way the worldbuilding felt so thorough while still leaving many questions unanswered if they didn’t need to be answered. Focusing on the science of the world meant that I was less concerned with the elements that I’m normally most interested in, and it allowed me to be interested in the science aspects more than I typically would be.
I think Exhalation, like most speculative fiction, does have parallels with our own world even though the differences are quite stark. The way the narrator conducts their anatomical experiments on themselves definitely reflects our own histories, which have a long history of self experimentation in medicine and science (including vaccines, anaesthetic, self-surgery, and more), so it was interesting to see this used as an ethical solution to not wanting to subject others to experiments (a real reason self experimentation is done) but that led others to not initially believe the narrator’s findings. Beyond the experiments, there were plenty of examples of the world in the story echoing our own in the mundane aspects, such as socialization, needing to breathe to live, and so on. I also thought the notion of the ways the people existed in the world caused damage to the environment that would make it unlivable was certainly parallel to our own environmental crises, although the fictional one was much more hopeless in that no sustainable way to live existed. The narrator’s peace with all of this was striking, and left me thinking for awhile.
Overall, Exhalation by Ted Chiang was a fascinating story, with an immersive science ingrained in an imagined world. It was definitely the kind of science fiction that makes you contemplate existence more than anything. I definitely enjoyed it, and while it was my first Ted Chiang short story, I don’t intend for it to be my last.
I hope everyone who participated by reading the story and following along on social media has enjoyed themselves. If you have more thoughts to add, you can leave a comment here, or join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram. You can also join in on the discussion at Litsy by following @elizabethlk and the #litereads hashtag. The next selection (another chosen especially for Asian Heritage Month / Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month) will be available shortly, Monday, May 17.