Review: Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”

by Miles Raymer


Each story in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation feels whispered onto the page from a different dimension. In a voice both lyrical and mysterious, Chiang toys with classical philosophical questions and contemporary scientific problems, whipping up beautiful narrative blends that tease, inspire, baffle and delight.

The main thing that makes this book stand out is the impressive number of great ideas and turns of phrase Chiang manages to squeeze into just a few hundred pages. Here are some of my favorites:

Coincidence and intention are two sides of a tapestry, my lord. You may find one more agreeable to look at, but you cannot say one is true and the other is false. (31)

Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience. (163)

Words were not just the pieces of speaking; they were the pieces of thinking. When you wrote them down, you could grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, make them stronger and more elaborate. (205)

I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory. The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong…Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulations that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that––I hope––acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others. (228-9)

While each of us must find our own way forward through this forest of doubt, it is only with the support of others that we’ll be able to do so. (266)

Set up a rack of billiard balls and execute a flawless break. Imagine the table has no pockets and is frictionless, so the balls just keep rebounding, never coming to a stop; how accurately can you predict the path of any given ball as it collides against the others? In 1978, the physicist Michael Berry calculated that you could predict only nine collisions before you would need to account for the gravitational effect of a person standing in the room. If your initial measurement of a ball’s position is off by even a nanometer, your prediction becomes useless within a matter of seconds. (284)

For a hypothetical time traveler who wanted to prevent Hitler’s rise to power, the minimal intervention wasn’t smothering the baby Adolf in his crib; all that was needed was to travel back to a month before his conception and disturb an oxygen molecule. Not only would this replace Adolf with a sibling, it would replace everyone his age or younger. By 1920 that would have composed half of the world’s population. (290)

Even taken completely out of context, these quotes provide sufficient proof of Chiang’s high-grade intellect, excellent prose, and compassionate mindset.

Exhalation explores a wide variety of topics and tropes. While all the stories are good, there are two that I think merit special attention. The first of these is the last in the book: “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”. Chiang depicts a world where quantum-based “prism” technology allows people to generate a temporary connection with a “paraself” in a “branched” parallel universe. When a prism is activated, a quantum branching event is created, allowing the person to interact with their paraself via typing, speaking, or video chat. The relationship can continue until the prism’s “pad” runs out, at which point the connection to that particular paraself and branch of reality is forever lost. Typing uses up the least amount of pad––not very intimate but conserves the connection. Speaking and video chatting use more pad but bring the connection to a swifter end.

People use prisms in all sorts of ways, for good and ill. Some become addicts who torture themselves with concrete examples of “what could have been,” while others commit crimes, conduct scientific research, or pursue self-improvement. Ultimately, Chiang delivers a simple but profound lesson about how character arises from our willingness to make consistent choices over time:

Every decision you make contributes to your character and shapes the kind of person you are…Each time you do something generous, you’re shaping yourself into someone who’s more likely to be generous next time, and that matters. And it’s not just your behavior in this branch that you’re changing: you’re inoculating all the versions of you that split off in the future. By becoming a better person, you’re ensuring that more and more of the branches that split off from this point forward are populated by better versions of you. (328-9)

I find this quantum–charged version of virtue ethics extremely clever and appealing. And given how difficult it can be to use the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics in a way that’s both scientifically literate and emotionally resonant, I tip my hat to Chiang for pulling it off.

Now let’s turn to the book’s eponymous story: “Exhalation”. Here we meet a robot scientist from another universe that creates a machine to examine its own brain. The scientist describes the process of building the machine, then watches its mind working in real time and draws observational conclusions. Upon learning that its consciousness is produced by air pressure differentials flowing through the subtle contours of its mechanical brain, it proclaims:

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. (53)

The scientist also realizes that the air pressure in its environment will eventually equalize, which will bring an end to its way of life. But instead of falling into despair, the scientist records its findings in hopes that a visitor from another universe may one day discover them:

Your lives will end just as ours did, just as everyone’s must. No matter how long it takes, eventually equilibrium will be reached. I hope you are not saddened by that awareness. I hope that your expedition was more than a search for other universes to use as reservoirs. I hope that you were motivated by a desire for knowledge, a yearning to see what can arise from a universe’s exhalation. Because even if a universe’s life span is calculable, the variety of life that is generated within it is not…Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same. (56-7)

This touching obeisance to the ineluctable onslaught of entropy brought me to tears.

Rating: 9/10