Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library. 


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. However, this one was an exception, because this was my nomination.


I chose Exhalation because it was on Barack Obama’s reading list last year, and his choices tend to be interesting reads. (I miss having a president who actually reads and thinks.) I found this book to be a bit different than I expected, but quite thought provoking. 

 Ted Chiang is best known for writing the story that became the movie Arrival. That story is in his earlier collection, not this one, and I haven’t actually seen the movie. So I came to this book knowing very little about Chiang, other than the publicity blurb about the book. Chiang does not appear to write particularly prolifically, but if this book is any indication, he polishes his stories until they are perfectly plotted, written without superfluous detail or digressions, and exactly how he wants them. Chiang is meticulous about his details, with everything internally consistent, which is no easy task. He clearly spends a lot of time thinking before writing. 


Two of the nine stories in this book are approaching novella-length, while the shortest is a mere four pages. In addition, they are all very different from each other, although Chiang explores different dimensions of time and the human psyche throughout. The dilemmas he raises are fascinating, and intersect with the works of other authors in interesting ways. For example, one member of our club mentioned a number of parallels with and references to stories by Jorge Luis Borges. Many of the ideas are timeless, even though the fictional technologies used in the stories are not. And really, at its best, science fiction is a way of looking at the present human issues we face by removing them from the automatic defensiveness and prejudices that we have as they relate to our own lives. 


I also appreciated that Chiang wrote a brief explanation of how each story came to be. The sources of some of the stories are...interesting to say the least. 


As I have done in a few other cases, I decided to discuss each story in turn, rather than just reference the whole. 


“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”


The Arabian Nights meets time travel? Why not? I mean, the original is all about magic and stuff, so…


Chiang does take a fascinating approach to the concept, however, by ruling out the possibility of changing the past. Whatever you do will not change the past timeline in any way, but the traveler can learn from either the past or the future. This becomes interesting because the various travelers do seem to be able to affect their futures, but, in the actual fact, all they have done is create the future that they will have, not change it. I found it a fascinating story, in part because of the way that the characters of the travelers seem to determine their lives much more than the time travel itself. (That idea reappears in the last story as well.) 




This may well be my favorite of the stories, because of its immaculate worldbuilding. The story envisions a race of mechanical, pneumatically powered sentient beings. They must swap out their lungs with a set that has been refilled by a subterranean compressed air mine, or they die. But nobody really understands why. A peculiar event causes a scientist to become curious: the reading of a proclamation designed to take one hour is, it appears, starting to take slightly longer. This annual event is getting slower everywhere, so it is unlikely to be a faulty clock. 


In order to see the inner workings of his own mind, the scientist performs surgery on himself, discovering that his brain is tiny gold leaf that is moved by the flow of air, creating patterns. The reason lack of air causes death is that the patterns of the gold leaf is in essence the thought and memory. 


The scientist then realizes that the reason that his race is gradually slowing down is that the pressure between the reservoir and the atmosphere is being equalized. Less pressure differential means less power and slower everything, from moving to thinking. Thus, the future points inexorably to full equalization, and death of all life. 


Yeah, a bit of a downer, but it is completely true in our case too. Given what we currently know about the physical laws of the universe, eventually, the universe will reach thermodynamic equilibrium, and nothing will be able to happen because change will be impossible. That’s not going to happen for (calculating)...a really long time, so long my brain can’t even truly comprehend it. And the earth and sun will be long gone and made up into other stars and planets many times over, in all likelihood. So, not going to affect me personally, but…


The beauty of this story really is in the details and in the mood he creates. And also in this line:


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.


“What’s Expected of Us”


This four-page vignette is all about free will. Chiang imagines a “predictor,” which has a “negative time delay.” In essence, it is a button and a light. You press the button after seeing a flash of light. Except that, well, the light is caused by the pressing of the button a second before. So the light predicts when you will press the button. If you refuse to press the button, you never see a light. And if you try to press the button, the light will come on right before you do. 


As the narrator points out, this destroys the idea of free will. When people realize they do not have free will, they can suffer mental illness and become unable to care for themselves. 


There is, of course, no consensus on determinism beyond the obvious that at least some of our outcomes are determined by our nature and past experiences. You can certainly go down the philosophical rabbit hole pretty fast if you want. Chiang, though, assumes free will doesn’t exist, then asks what that means. In fact, can civilization (or even sentience) survive a discovery that free will doesn’t exist? For Chiang, the answer is that if free will doesn’t exist, then our ability to function relies on believing the myth that it does. 


Now, I could be entirely wrong, but I am a pretty strong believer in free will. Not in the American Right Wing sense that “anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” but in the more basic sense that we can indeed make choices and choices affect our lives. The options are not endless, but we still have them. 


One big reason that I do believe in free will is my own experience (which obviously doesn’t prove it), but experience is ultimately the source of all of our beliefs. If a belief doesn’t “work,” so to speak, it isn’t, in the practical sense, true. I may choose to disbelieve in gravity - or, like most people, not really understand or care about what spacetime has to do with it - but I know if I fall, it hurts, and if I drop my glass, it shatters. Is my belief in free will a delusion on my part? Maybe, but it is a spectacularly useful one. 


Another reason that I am skeptical of pure determinism is that I know way too many Calvinists. Now, I respect a few - I can count them on one hand - but an observation that another lawyer made is very true: the most unethical people we know are Calvinists. And, on average, Calvinists are far more likely than others to be unethical, cruel, and devoid of compassion. And the belief in theological determinism is at the heart of that. If we do not truly have free will, then we are not actually responsible morally for our own actions. 


Chiang also explores this idea in the last story. 


“The Lifecycle of Software Objects”


This was one hell of a disconcerting story. And also one that got a lot of discussion. It is the longest in the book, and one that may be perhaps a bit longer than necessary. (I’m torn on that. The length may be intentional as part of the concept.) 


The basic idea is an interesting use of Artificial Intelligence. This company invents what is essentially a virtual pet, but one that has the ability to learn and communicate. Eventually, with time, the pets can learn to talk and in some cases read. The thing is, though, that like other sentient...whatever they are...they don’t develop by being fed information. They need to interact. It isn’t a defect in the digital genome for the creatures that they go bad, so to speak, if neglected. 


[C]omplex minds can’t develop on their own. If they could, feral children would be like any others. And minds don’t grow the way weeds do, flourishing under indifferent attention; otherwise all children in orphanages would thrive. For a mind to even approach its full potential, it needs cultivation by other minds. 


In the story, two of the employees of the corporation work with these creatures for twenty years. Derek, a programmer,  has a set of (more or less) twins; while Ana, a former zookeeper hired to assist in training and developing the creatures, has a single one. 


As time goes by, people just suspend their accounts and move on to a new toy, but a handful keep going. The virtual reality platform that the creatures can access (along with all of humanity) becomes obsolete, so it becomes necessary, if the “Digiants” are to survive, that they be ported to the new platform, an obscenely expensive proposition. 


The second half of so of the story is devoted to the complexities of finding funding to make this happen. And along the way raises a lot of uncomfortable ethical questions. Including, at what point do sentient software entities become “persons” in the legal sense? Is it age? Experience? A certain IQ? 


Oh, and the ethics of trying to create the “perfect worker” - one that has all the abilities of a person, but without the messiness of actual people. 


They want something that responds like a person, but isn’t owed the same obligations as a person...


Hmm, does that sound familiar? That’s exactly the reason slavery was created. And why the billionaire predator class works so hard politically to convince uneducated white people that “those people” are too lazy to get things like healthcare and a living wage. That’s the perfect worker, right? But the problem with that is that while you may get some form of labor, getting true human ability requires the investment in raising a human. 


[F]luency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.

She wants to tell them that Blue Gamma was more right than it knew: experience isn;t merely the best teacher; it’s the only teacher. If she’s learned anything raising Jax, it’s that there are no shortcuts; if you want to create the common sense that comes from twenty years of being in the world, you need to devote twenty years to the task. 


And, because in the story’s world, like our own, only profit truly matters, nobody is willing to invest in the Digiants. Kind of like how our own country chooses not to invest in its lower-income citizens. They won’t bring giant profits, so why bother? Americans are so disgustingly selfish, utterly unwilling it seems to expend even the minimum on “other people’s babies.” Even though everyone would ultimately benefit. 


And there’s more too. It’s a fascinating story. 


“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny”


This story isn’t an entirely original idea, as the “robot nanny” idea has been used for many decades in various science fiction stories. (One makes an appearance in a Gene Wolfe story I read last year, to name just one.) Apparently, Chiang wrote this story for an anthology put together by Jeff Vandermeer, centering on a fictional museum of imaginary artifacts. 


This wasn’t my favorite of the stories, as it seemed a bit predictable. It does, however, have a good line. The Victorian inventor of the nanny, after a mechanical failure that killed a child (spring blew up…), announced that his next child would be raised by one, to show that the new version was safe. 


If he had successfully followed through with this, he might have restored public confidence in the machine, but Dacey never got the chance because of his habit of telling prospective wives of his plans for their offspring. The inventor framed his proposal as an invitation to partake in a grand scientific undertaking and was baffled that none of the women he courted found this an appealing prospect. 


This reminds me a bit of the real life guy who had difficulty getting a woman to buy into his child-rearing scheme...

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”


This story explores, through two parallel plots, the nature of memory and truth. As any lawyer can tell you, memory is a tricky thing. We “remember” things differently than how they happened. In essence, memories are our story about ourselves, not the naked facts. For us lawyers, that means that if we have five witnesses, we will have (at least) five different and often contradictory stories - even (especially) if nobody is intentionally lying. It’s just the way we humans experience and remember things. That’s why one of the skills of a good judge is the ability to determine what is merely a faulty or biased memory, what is an intentional lie, and what is straight-up bullshit.  


In this story, the first plot is about a man who discovers (through the ubiquitous videos of everything in the world of the future combined with a new “search” feature for those videos) that he completely misrembers an incident in which he behaved like a dick to his daughter. He has to wrestle with the implications of knowing his memory (and all memories) are faulty. In the second plot, (based loosely on a real events in colonial-era Africa), an oral culture gives way to the written culture of the Europeans, and has to, similarly, account for the difference between what is “book true” and what is “ethically right.” 


Chiang is right about the parallels too. Writing itself, the killer app that humanity created, has both caused an explosion of knowledge, and caused its own problems, just as a perfect memory would. 


Likewise, writing was the first step in outsourcing our memories. Man because a kind of cyborg the first time he made a written record - he uploaded part of his brain to a machine. 


We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound. 


The question that stuck with me the most from this story was this: our knowledge that memories are faulty and biased can push us in one of two directions. For dysfunctional people, a perfect memory would become ammunition to be used against others. (Giving divorce lawyers more clients…) Or, it could cause us to gain empathy, and use the tools of technological memory enhancement to learn from our mistakes and be kind. 


“The Great Silence”


This is another very brief story. Well, sort of a story? It was originally written as part of a multi-media art installation involving footage of the giant radio telescope in Arecibo (recently collapsed, alas), footage of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots, and the text of this story. Which assumes that parrots are as sentient as we are - maybe more so, as they learn our language but we don’t learn theirs. The story is told from the parrots’ point of view.




The title is taken from the round stone at the oracles (such as Delphi) that represented the navel of the earth. And navels are part of this story. And Young Earth Creationism


So, some of the problems posed by the actual reality of the universe for believers in a literal reading of Genesis (I mean, aside from the fact that it is rather clearly written as a myth…) are mentioned in this story. In the world Chiang creates, the evidence of a young earth literally created are everywhere. Fossil trees lack rings in their center - because they were created partly grown. Ditto for fossil shells. And the frozen original humans discovered do not have navels. Because, why would they?


The stars become visible as soon as the light from their creation reaches the earth. And also, the earth is the center of the universe. Except that...maybe it isn’t. And that causes a questioning of faith for the devout narrator. Not about the existence of God, but about whether humans are the reason creation exists. 


Of course, in OUR world, there are NONE of these “evidences” of a young earth, or of sudden creation of everything in its current form. Rather, there is overwhelming evidence of a universe that is billions of years old, an earth that has been here for nearly five billion years, the appearance and evolution of life over the last two billion years, and so on. For many of my generation, this has caused a loss of faith - an unnecessary one in my opinion. Because, at least as early as Augustine, thoughtful Christians have recognized the metaphorical nature of Genesis, and thus haven’t tied their faith to a particular (and increasingly impossible) interpretation of an ancient text. Chiang understands the central issue:


Then I told them that, while trees without growth rings and men without navels are wondrous and surprising, they are also logically necessary. To help them understand why, I asked them to consider the alternative. What would it mean, Lord, if you had created primordial trees with growth rings all the way to their centers? It would mean that you had created evidence of summers and winters that never took place. That would be a deception, no different than if you had given a primordial man a scar on his brow as a remnant of an injury suffered during a childhood he never experienced. 


This is the ultimate implication: given the world we have, either God has lied to us by creating an earth that appears old; OR, the dogma cannot possibly be true. The implications of the first are horrifying - God would be a liar. But the implications of the second are also difficult, particularly if you are determined to believe that humanity is the pinnacle of creation and the one thing God cares about. As Peter Enns put it in a recent podcast, the vast scale and age of the universe has implications for our theology and conception of God and humanity. Chiang’s protagonist realizes this too. 


If we could identify trends in stone-knapping technique, we hoped to learn if knappers’ expertise grew or waned in the first generations after creation, and from there draw deductions about what your intentions were regarding human knowledge, Lord. But that was based on the assumption that the primordial humans were the most direct expression of your will. If humanity’s creation wasn’t deliberate on your part, then whatever skills primordial humans possessed tell us nothing about your intentions. Their endowments would have been purely accidental. 


This idea that humans as first created were the direct expression of God’s will has had some really bizarre - and damaging - corollaries. The worst is the idea of the Descent of Man. Not in the Darwinian sense of how we evolved over the years. But in the sense that humans as first created were perfect, then have gradually degenerated through the centuries, with each generation a bit worse than the previous one. (Hmm, this sounds like the “Millennials are the worst” crap, doesn’t it?) In order to understand the will of God, therefore, we must look to the practices of the past, when people were “better.” The practical result of this has been, as I have noted in many previous posts, is that the past is worshipped as being inherently more “godly” than the present, and recreating the injustices of the past (particularly when it comes to race and gender and sexuality) becomes the priority, hence the Culture Wars™. 


In contrast, an understanding of the truth of our origins places a lot of responsibility on to us as humans. Are we willing to evolve as a species together? Or are we going to destroy ourselves through tribalism and hate? This remains to be seen. 


“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”


This is the other longer story in the book, and also centers on time and technology. The tech in question is the “prism,” which is kind of like a laptop that can view your “paraself,” the life that could have occurred at some quantum vibration gone the other direction. Only so much information can pass between the two worlds, so eventually the prism bricks and is worthless. In the meantime, though, as it gets older, it becomes more valuable, as it has more information to share - anything after its creation. 


This has led to some bad social results. Obviously, addiction and withdrawal from real life. But also a weird moral hazard. In the infinite multiverses, perhaps you killed your annoying boss. So, if it happened somewhere, maybe it happened in this universe. And statistically, people are doing more bad stuff as a result. 


The central plot centers around a pair of resellers Nat and Morrow, who purchase old Prisms, then sell them to people who are desperate to see their alternative lives. In particular, there is a gay couple who were in a car collision together. In the “real” world, one was killed. There are many alternative realities in which neither is killed, but the really valuable one is where the other spouse was killed, so the two could essentially be (briefly) reunited. 


At the same time, there is a subplot of the 12 Step support group for Prism addicts. Nat has infiltrated it with the hope of getting the recovering addicts to sell their Prisms to Morrow. And Dana, the counsellor, is being emotionally blackmailed by her friend, who went down a bad path after an incident in college, where Dana threw the friend under the bus. 


Along the way, there are a lot of questions about free will, character, and possibilities. In the end, the story seems to conclude that character determines destiny more than quantum fluctuations. There are some good lines in the story. 


It’s a commonly held belief that you would have been born in any branch where your parents met and had children, but no one’s birth is inevitable. 


This is an uncomfortable thought, of course. I am me, but would not have been “me” as I am had a different sperm met the egg. I slight change in anything, and I would have been Tammy. I might have been conceived the next month, so different egg, different sperm. Or, my parents could have decided not to have children. I’m a firstborn, so I am, I guess, more likely. My parents had three children, so numbers four through ? never existed. This kind of explains some of the various beliefs about souls - nobody wants to feel like their existence is a matter of random chance, but that we were always inevitable. 


I particularly thought of some people I know who have a fiercely strong attachment to the anti-abortion cause, because they were conceived in circumstances that might have led to an abortion. So, they feel they owe their existence to the decision to continue the pregnancy. And they are not wrong. But, they also owe their existence to a lot of other factors. Such as a rape. None of them think we should legalize rape, because without the rape they wouldn’t exist. And few if any would mandate the “quiverfull” approach and force everyone to have as many children as possible, so they have the chance to exist. It is uncomfortable to contemplate the idea that one may have never existed. And equally uncomfortable to contemplate the possibility that we will cease to exist. In my view, the way to deal with the discomfort is not to obsess over other women’s reproductive choices, though. 


Another interesting idea posed in this story is that of Adolf Hitler. I mean, the classic ethical question is whether someone should have smothered baby Adolf in his crib to prevent millions of unnecessary deaths. Chiang points out that really, all that would be needed was to disturb an oxygen molecule, and Adolf would not have existed - the baby born would have been a sibling, perhaps a girl. 


My final observation from this story has to do with the way that we want to believe in the universe being somehow controllable. Perhaps we can’t control it, but someone can. This is the attraction of conspiracy theories. Rather than believing that life sucks and nobody is at fault, it is easier to believe in vast malevolent forces that control everything. Hey, kill the witch, right? But one of the great epiphanies of modern times is that “shit happens.”


We like the idea that there’s always someone responsible for any given event, because that helps us make sense of the world. We like that so much that sometimes we blame ourselves, just so that there’s someone to blame. But not everything is under our control, or even anyone’s control.


There is a lot of wisdom in that. And it has profound consequences for our public policy. If poverty, illness, mental illness, or other hardships are not people’s fault, then perhaps we should try to alleviate the suffering. And perhaps we shouldn’t blame ourselves quite as much when we fail. I mean, of course we should learn from mistakes, do our best, etc. But not everything is under our control. A lot less than we like to think, actually. 


This book was definitely a bit different than the others we have read for our club. I like the variety - that’s obvious from this blog. Chiang’s writing is good, and his ideas are the sort of thoughtful stuff that I like in my Science Fiction. I’ll put his other book on my list.  




Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 


Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Broad Band by Claire Evans

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore



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