Few theological lessons stuck with me through eight years of Catholic school, at least not the ones my teachers would have liked. I was more interested in, say, the practical reality of guardian angels, what the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’s side on the cross did when he returned home that day, the thorniness of free will given by an omniscient god. The spiritual answers to these questions differ from the historical ones. Ambiguity is imbued into every type of belief: the upper limit of what is known is the beginning boundary of faith. In the absence of evidence—from scripture, correspondence, or official doctrine—there is at least an absolute ambiguity. Religion, and the avenue toward belief, is a black box.
Within this gap, questions begin to be asked. What does it mean to be good? How can a person lead a moral life? Is it a matter of determined application of free will? Is your will determined for you?
The title story of Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s new story collection, offers a nice microcosm of the themes to which Chiang often returns concerning human behavior, the beliefs we try to sustain in order to go through life with confidence, and encounters with that which is beyond our comprehension. There is inevitability and predictability, what has already been recorded and what has yet to be written. There are deliberations about determinism and free will, and the large gap in knowledge that might offer a definitive answer as to which is more true.
Chiang introduces us to a world of androids that are basically immortal. These metallic, piston-operated sentient beings are so old that a period of a few hundreds years is by no means considered a long stretch. But with this timescale comes faulty memory. Though ostensibly machines, these beings don’t have perfect recall. A single android is often unable to remember writing a passage or note that they themselves had copied a few hundred years ago. Time is too long, memory too fungible, and death such a minor anxiety that members of this society don’t understand much of who or what they are.
As a consequence, anatomy is a burgeoning field of study. The inner workings of the brain are largely a mystery, as is the mechanism of memory itself. This is because, beyond the fuzziness of subjective experience, the main reason for such rampant ignorance is the fragile nature of the androids’ construction. All androids run on metal “lungs” of air that are replaced and filled every day. Air, drawn from vast stores underground, acts as a medium much like blood. If a lung is improperly installed and air cannot flow properly throughout the body, motor functions slow down and limbs begin to feel heavy. In some cases, “death” comes in seconds. Since these are synthetic beings, the installation of a new pair of lungs in the body of a deceased android has the ability to restore them to life. In fact, it’s implied that there are no permanently deceased androids at all. But the resurrected are lifeless, their memories disappeared, their personalities irrevocably changed. Just as well: if an accident results in the breaching of an android’s skull, the entire body will combust into a fine gold dust that leaves nothing behind. There are rarely corpses to bury, or to study. Air is the arbiter of life and the medium that prevents the androids from understanding more about it.
One of the main threads in the story “Exhalation” is the protagonist’s quest to understand how memory works. In a society of immortals there is no concern for the future, with the past posing the only landscape for study. Indeed, the androids who live in this world have never considered the possibility of life without an endless supply of air. Their studies are directed inward toward the body, to its functions and its origins. There are no grand plans to explore the universe, to travel up into the sky, even though they believe the boundaries of the horizon are limitless. Certainty prevails. But a disruption in air pressure around the world changes all of that: soon, an upper limit of sustainable conditions is present—and a ticking, mortal clock manifests in the minds of the androids for the first time. What is there to do in a world that’s doomed? How can meaning be imbued into a life that has only one logical conclusion?
To the protagonist, the prospect of a true end to things is unavoidable, but not futile. “No matter how long it takes, eventually equilibrium will be reached,” they say. “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.”
In 2016, Ted Chiang was interviewed by Meghan McCarron for Electric Lit.
The questions asked ranged from the philosophical to the craft-oriented. Most profiles of Chiang note the meticulous nature of his stories, the tangible language employed to describe the fantastical worlds that he creates, the minutiae of his process. In Chiang’s case, the question is an interesting one given that writing fiction isn’t his full-time job; he’s also a technical writer for software. This would seem to be an informative marriage, technology and science fiction. He’s not so sure. “Technical writing is radically different from fiction writing for me,” he tells McCarron. “The only thing they have in common is that they draw on the sentence-creation part of my brain. I’m not sure that technical writing has had a direct impact on my fiction, but I think the impulse that originally drew me to technical writing is also one that underlies my fiction, and that is a desire to explain an idea clearly. I think there’s something beautiful about a good explanation; reading one isn’t just useful, it can be pleasurable, too.”
It’s true that one of the pleasures of Exhalation is how patient Chiang is about the context he creates for each story. But there is also a sincerity and a thoughtful curiosity that belies any attempt at sensationalism. To fully explore the concept of, say, a world where it’s possible to raise an artificial intelligence as a pet or even as your own child, Chiang first considers the requisite virtues of parenting: in “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” he explores the landscape necessary for a society to achieve a frequency of technology that renders normal the prospect of caring for and caring about a computer-generated being. He tracks the development of that technology through the eyes of the unlikely people who are responsible for writing the code, for giving the AI idiosyncrasies and personalities that can mature over time. Here, a former zookeeper and an animator are just as consequential to the execution of this reality as a software engineer, perhaps even more so. There is no techno-babble, only careful consideration through the biases and opinions of the people involved.
In many Christian denominations, including Catholicism, God is described as all-knowing, all-seeing. In this vision of the cosmos, the universe, and all life in it, is determined. God’s perfect knowledge is aided by his vantage point, as the “highest” being and the creator. But choice under the gaze of any prevailing power is limited, anxious, self-effacing. Free will—true unfettered agency—can’t be possible to its fullest extent when it’s in your best interest to act a certain way, to be a good person, to find your way back to God.
In “What’s Expected of Us,” Chiang imagines the disruption caused by the revelation that free will doesn’t exist, all at the hands of a simple device called the Predictor. The Predictor is really a kind of handheld game with a seemingly innocuous feature: a light flashes once you press the large button on the device. Except the light flashes just before you press the button, every time. There is no way to fool it. It’s as if the device knows how you’ll act. Soon, the mechanism for this device is explained: a signal is sent back in time, an instruction to the device to respond according to what will transpire in the future. There is only one conclusion to draw from this: that the universe, and every decision made in it, is determined. An epidemic of akinetic mutism spreads across the world, a waking coma brought on by the realization that every choice has already been decided, that it’s all been an illusion. The narrator responds: “My message to you is this: Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”
When we search for the ideas and moments that give our life meaning, we can often seem to be supplanting the desire for a grand purpose. Without direction, everywhere is the wrong destination. For a long time, I believed that conviction in faith was the same as choosing to commit to a good life. After a while, I realized it was mostly because I thought I was being watched, an integral component to that infamous sensation of “Catholic guilt.” Outside the imagined scrutiny of a higher power was when I felt most free. To my teacher, that would have put my soul at risk. In the Fox television reboot of The Exorcist, a demon puts it a bit more poetically: “The eye of God dilated wide, and you were at the center of His disinterest.”
Sometimes, Chiang takes these capital-B big questions at face value, as he does in “Omphalos,” which posits a world where the claims of creationism—in this case, the recent origin of the cosmos—can be scientifically proven. Sometimes, he internalizes a question—for example, “Will it eventually be possible to record every moment of your life?”—and shapes a story like “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” around it, seeking simply to watch what happens if the premise were true. Those latent remnants of Catholic school theology tugged at me as I progressed through the book. What are the moral implications of situations like these? Should we always be striving toward knowledge via technology, at the expense of “human” behaviors? In a world governed by rationalism, is it possible to still leave room for the complexities of emotion?
Coming away from Exhalation without the superficial notion that Ted Chiang is cynical or nihilistic is an exercise in critical thinking. I say this as an indictment of myself rather than the author. I don’t think Chiang finds life to be pointless or free will to be nonexistent. I do think it’s a mistake to take the scenarios presented in the book as an indication of his vision for the world. If the scrutiny of intention were to fall on the stories collected here as a way to understand Chiang the takeaway would be confusing. Exhalation coheres in the sheer breadth of its styles, the differences between its stories and vantage points, the places in time that we’re brought to. Chiang is consistent in his variety.
When asked by Meghan McCarron if there is a deliberate moral perspective to his stories, Chiang responds, “I don’t set out to teach any moral lessons with my fiction, but I also don’t like writing about characters who are, shall we say, doomed ... I prefer to write about characters who seek redemption when it’s available.” For the characters in Chiang’s stories, desolation or existential crisis is brought on by the limitations of your frame of understanding. Redemption is possible, but only through the most difficult of tasks: changing your mind. But Chiang is true to his word. The stories in Exhalation are not sadistic or dour in their estimation of the future. He writes with wonder and excitement about the problems he ponders. Each entry is an opportunity to work out a problem long-hand. There is endless possibility in the ambiguity he instills in his stories. They build toward emotion, toward the revelation of an irresistible idea. Your captivation is absolute.
Indeed, you will be hard-pressed to find Chiang’s tone or narration approaching anything resembling the dogmatic, an expectation that can come with material that handles such philosophical thinking and which is written by a man. Though his opinion on things may be clear, you are left with a desire to understand your reaction to it. Chiang is diligent in his curiosity. There is little space given to grand musings about the meaning of life—because that would assume there is anything commonly agreed upon about what life even is. To me, it seems Chiang is interested in the possibilities and logics of different worlds, in placing you there on the street level. In order to extract a sample of what the true reality of a fantastic situation would be like, he compresses the premise of a story and turns it into a fundamental law of that universe.
Upon finishing Exhalation, I spent quite a bit of time wondering about the title. It drew my attention to the beauty of the word itself, a string of letters the length of a sigh. But I also thought of the action. Breathing is one of the few functions performed by our bodies that can be both voluntary or involuntary. You can make yourself conscious of your breath, choose how deeply you draw in, or completely forget about it while still doing it. But there is an overarching directive: you can’t not breathe.
An exhalation is inevitable because it’s necessary, a function that must happen so that a system might continue. This is one way of looking at determinism. I appreciated that Chiang presents you with options.