An essay analyzing Ted Chiang’s Exhalation.
“When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as a naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent… After five years’ work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes…”
It is with these words that Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species begins. It frames his magnum opus both as a description of personal experience, but also as an attempt at an objective description of the wider world and an attempt to reveal insight into it. Ted Chiang’s Exhalation begins similarly:
“It has long been said that air (which others call argon) is the source of life. This is not in fact the case, and I engrave these words to describe how I came to understand the true source of life and, as a corollary, the means by which life will one day end.”
With the opening paragraph, we learn three things. The first is that the world of Exhalation is not our own. It is one dramatically different from ours, where argon, a noble gas of no use to our biological bodies, is perceived as the life-giving force in their world. This ‘hook’ gives our initial motivation for reading on: to learn more about this world.
The second thing we learn is the manner in which this story is told. It is framed as the journal of a person in this world, and the discoveries they’ve (the protagonist’s gender is not given) made. Whilst we are not told explicitly that our protagonist is a scientist of some sort (at this juncture), the language they use implies it. The way in which the protagonist structures their sentences (“It has long been said that air….”) and phrases like “as a corollary” suggest someone who is accustomed to writing in an objective and analytical tone of voice.
Combined with the framing of this story as a journal, Chiang alludes to the long history of scientific journals like Darwin’s and the impact on science such personal writings have had. This is something we will continue to see throughout the story.
The last thing we learn is that the world of Exhalation is coming to an end. With barely an introduction into the world, we are already told it is on the verge of dying, and that the protagonist intends to educate us on the unique nature of their world and the reason for its impending doom.
Chiang employed a similar technique in Story of Your Life, in which we learn a crucial detail about the daughter of the protagonist very early on in the story. By ‘giving away’ the ending like so, Chiang is, at a more fundamental level, attempting to hook us in with intrigue, but also telling us that the details of the world’s end are uninteresting. What is more interesting is how it got there to begin with, and what can be learnt from it.
“For most of history, the proposition that we drew life from air was so obvious that there was no need to assert it. Every day we consume two lungs heavy with air; every day we remove the empty ones from our chest and replace them with full ones. If a person is careless and lets his air level run too low, he feels the heaviness of his limbs and the growing need for replenishment. It is exceedingly rare that a person is unable to get at least one replacement lung before his installed pair runs empty; on those unfortunate occasions where this has happened — when a person is trapped and unable to move, with no one nearby to assist him — he dies within seconds of his air running out.
But in the normal course of life, our need for air is far from our thoughts, and indeed many would say that satisfying that need is the least important part of going to the filling stations. For the filling stations are the primary venue for social conversation, the places from which we draw emotional sustenance as well as physical. 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.”
The next paragraph gives us a more detailed description of the biology of the people in this world. In this paragraph, we learn the precise nature in which their air acts as their sustenance, drawing closer parallels with our own biological necessities like food, water and oxygen. These parallels are crucial to one of the fundamental themes Chiang is attempting to express with Exhalation, that of our symbiotic relationship with our world’s ecosystems. This theme only grows clear near the end of the story, but the setup here remains important.
The scientific voice the protagonist writes with continues here. When describing their need for air and the consequences of not replenishing it, the protagonist writes impersonally, speaking of a hypothetical ‘person’ rather than using ‘you’ or ‘I’ as an example.
This scientific voice continues into the next paragraph, where the protagonist writes of air replenishment as a communal activity using a passive voice (“when one is alone…”). The mention of filling stations and the conversations that occur there are an obvious parallel to the typical water cooler conversation in an office. This parallel is meant to impress upon the reader: despite the bizarre and unique nature of their biology, the structure of their society is very similar to ours, i.e. we should not think of them as robots or androids. They should not be perceived as the ontological Other, but as their world’s equivalent of humans.
As strange time anomalies happen throughout their world, the protagonist undertakes a risky experiment to explore and understand their anatomy. With the experiment underway, they describe:
“As I contemplated this vista, I wondered, where was my body? The conduits which displaced my vision and action around the room were in principle no different from those which connected my original eyes and hands to my brain. For the duration of this experiment, were these manipulators not essentially my hands? Were the magnifying lenses at the end of my periscope not essentially my eyes? I was an everted person, with my tiny, fragmented body situated at the center of my own distended brain. It was in this unlikely configuration that I began to explore myself.”
In 1633, Rene Descartes wrote Treatise of Man, a work describing his theories on the nature of the human body based on his experiences visiting butcher shops and participating in underground human cadaver dissections. Fearing that Galileo’s fate under the iron first of the Catholic Church might befall him too, the treatise remained unpublished till after his death.
In Treatise of Man, Descartes describes the human body by drawing parallels with mechanical water fountains, with blood vessels being like the pipes in such fountains. His work was emblematic of an era in the Scientific Revolution in which scientists and philosophers began to comprehend and understand the human body not merely as a sacred temple to god, pure and untouchable, but something mechanical, something to be understood and researched.
Here in Exhalation, with our protagonist risking their life by conducting a never-before-done vivisection on themselves, Chiang draws connections with the Scientific Revolution, and the numerous illegal vivisections and dissections done to further the cause of science. With the historical context of the Scientific Revolution, Chiang contextualizes our curiosity in the story, having it mirror the curiosity of scientists on the verge of a breakthrough.
Our protagonist questions and philosophizes, “where was my body?”, “Were the magnifying lenses at the end of my periscope not essentially my eyes?”.
Chiang calls attention to the fact that for our protagonist, the once-clear lines of where the world ends and our bodies begin are not so clear, and that there is nothing fundamentally spiritual or ethereal about our bodies, like what scientists and philosophers discovered during the Scientific Revolution.
This bodily deconstruction goes further though. by highlighting how the lines between the world around them and their own body are not so clear, Chiang emphasizes the inextricable link between an individual and their environment and the ecosystems within. This connection between body and ecosystem, like the one highlighted in the introduction, again serves one of Chiang’s main themes, to be revealed as the story moves on.
“I turned my microscope to one of the memory subassemblies, and began examining its design. I had no expectation that I would be able to decipher my memories, only that I might divine the means by which they were recorded. As I had predicted, there were no reams of foil pages visible, but to my surprise neither did I see banks of gearwheels or switches. Instead, the subassembly seemed to consist almost entirely of a bank of air tubules. Through the interstices between the tubules I was able to glimpse ripples passing through the bank’s interior.
With careful inspection and increasing magnification, I discerned that the tubules ramified into tiny air capillaries, which were interwoven with a dense latticework of wires on which gold leaves were hinged. Under the influence of air escaping from the capillaries, the leaves were held in a variety of positions. These were not switches in the conventional sense, for they did not retain their position without a current of air to support them, but I hypothesized that these were the switches I had sought, the medium in which my memories were recorded. The ripples I saw must have been acts of recall, as an arrangement of leaves was read and sent back to the cognition engine.”
Here Chiang writes with a surgical eye for detail. Our protagonist is about to discover the true fundamental nature of cognition, and to build the appropriate anticipation for such a momentous scientific discovery, Chiang meticulously describes each step. As Chiang describes the ‘bank of air tubules’ or the ‘tiny air capillaries’ that ‘were interwoven with a dense latticework of wires’, the reader’s pace naturally slows down to capture this detail and to parse the complex technical language used. The moment of discovery is thus stretched to amplify its significance. Furthermore, the detailed description of their brain reveals to the reader its inherent wondrous complexity, in keeping with the atmosphere of scientific discovery.
It is here that our protagonist discovers how cognition is physically manifested: not as physical etchings on gold foil, but as the patterns of air that interleave that gold foil (“Air is in fact the very medium of our thoughts”).
Prior to our modern understanding of thermal energy and the laws of thermodynamics, it was believed that heat was a form of liquid called caloric, that tended to flow from warm objects to colder ones. As our understanding of heat as the motion of gas particles developed, Ludwig Boltzmann developed statistical mechanics, and with it our understanding of how heat dissipates towards a state of equilibrium.
Like Boltzmann and many other scientists, our protagonist has discovered that some phenomena, like heat or in their case, cognition, are not encoded in a lasting physical medium, but one that is ephemeral, one that is a layer removed from the physical position of particles.
This new understanding is symptomatic of the development of a new paradigm. After caloric or ether (the hypothesized medium through which light and gravity moved), there came the laws of thermodynamics and Einstein’s theories of relativity. After Newtonian physics, there came quantum mechanics.
For our protagonist, this too is a new paradigm. They learn not only of the nature of their own cognition, but how their consciousness and life is dependent on the ecosystem of argon within their world, and how the wider ecosystem, like thermal energy, tends towards equilibrium.
It is with this revelation that Chiang subtly introduces one of his main themes. In our real world, the relationship between our ecosystems and our survival are abstracted away, encapsulated by agricultural and industrial systems that put food on our table and roofs over our heads, amongst other things. The impact and nature of our way of life is not inherently obvious. It is encoded in raw data like temperature readings over decades or the redshift of light from distant galaxies. It is thus emotionally easy to ignore the impending danger to our existence from climate change, or asteroid strikes, or the eventual heat death of the universe.
By making the dependence of Exhalation’s beings on the argon ecosystem pure, simple and inextricably clear, whether in the refilling of air from the underground explained in the introduction, or the encoding of thought in airflow demonstrated in this turning point, Chiang shows us how the beings in their world are fundamentally reliant and beholden to the world around them, just like we are.
As the world of Exhalation begins to understand the ramifications of our protagonist’s discovery, they, along with our protagonist, come to terms with their impending end:
“I wish you well, explorer, but I wonder: Does the same fate that befell me await you? I can only imagine that it must, that the tendency toward equilibrium is not a trait peculiar to our universe but inherent in all universes. Perhaps that is just a limitation of my thinking, and your people have discovered a source of pressure that is truly eternal. But my speculations are fanciful enough already. I will assume that one day your thoughts too will cease, although I cannot fathom how far in the future that might be. 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 lifespan is calculable, the variety of life that is generated within it is not. The buildings we have erected, the art and music and verse we have composed, the very lives we’ve led: None of them could have been predicted, because none of them were inevitable. Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.
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. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”
In this conclusion, our protagonist’s writing style shifts. Whilst their language remains formal and elegant, it has grown personal, poetic even. Sentences start with ‘I wish’, ‘I feel’, ‘I hope’. Having moved beyond the objective description of their discoveries, the protagonist moves towards expressing their personal sentiment and feelings. They leave us on a personal note, hoping that their writings would be of some use to us.
In the first paragraph, we are prompted to consider our own universe’s entropy. As the reader pores over this passage, they are prompted to consider the fragile nature of humanity. Some might think of the impending dangers of climate change and what means we might have of overcoming it. Others might think of the universe’s eventual death, and with it, all existence.
With existential anxiety now firmly implanted in us, the protagonist then addresses it. Despite our temporal nature, we should still feel joy in the miracle of our existence and the things we have created. The scientific language remains present here, with flowery terms like ‘equilibrium’ and ‘calculable’ still used in places, but here they are used to describe not scientific phenomena, but human phenomena, in the form of the art we have created and the edifices we have constructed and the inherent miracle of it all. Science does not exist independently of human identity, but reinforces it, just as we have seen in this story.
The protagonist then leaves us with a final philosophical message: Bask in the miracle of existence, despite its temporality.
Fundamentally, Ted Chiang’s Exhalation is an exaltation to science. By framing this story as a scientific journal through the language used and the framing device, Chiang hooks us in with intrigue and curiosity, then steeps us in the historical context of the Scientific Revolution through the flow of the narrative and the protagonist’s discovery. For Chiang however, science is not merely the discovery of cold hard truth. As such, he shifts our perspectives away from intrigue and curiosity and instead ends by leaving us to contemplate how science has informed our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with the world around us, and how this understanding might allow us to better ourselves, or at the very least, bask in the opportunity we’ve been given to bear witness to the universe.