Ted Chiang puts societies to the technological test in his new collection of science fiction stories, ‘Exhalation’

January 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 27, 2020

Writer Ted Chiang has a relatively slender publication history. His debut book was the 2002 anthology Stories of Your Life; last year, he published a second volume of stories, Exhalation. The website Fantastic Fiction lists the New York native as having stories in four annual genre-fiction anthologies and in 1998’s The Mammoth Book of Fantasy All-Time Greats.

Despite this, Chiang is prominent enough to have merited a 2017 New Yorker profile. This was due in no small part to Arrival, the splendid 2016 Denis Villeneuve movie about first contact with aliens, which is based on the 1999 Hugo and Nebula award–winning novella “The Story of Your Life” from Chiang’s first collection.

I’m happy to report that Chiang’s second book, Exhalation, is full of engaging, thought-provoking tales. The title story is a monograph written by, it soon emerges, a member of a race of robots that breathes not oxygen but argon. “Every day,” it writes near the start of the second paragraph,

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 too empty; on those 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.

With this, Chiang is well into constructing an intricate world in which, for instance, “filling stations are the primary venue for social conversation, the places from which we draw emotional sustenance as well as physical.”

The nameless narrator becomes concerned with the nature of its universe thanks to a seemingly innocuous incident: It hears reports that the ceremonial yearly recitation of a certain piece of poetry, which normally takes exactly one hour, has — first in one location and then in multiple districts — run over the allotted time.

This leads to the storyteller, an anatomist, conducting brain surgery on itself, which leads to a discovery that redefines its understanding of the nature of life. (In a fascinating afterword discussing all of the collection’s contents, Chiang calls this scene a tribute to the Philip K. Dick story “The Electric Ant,” in which the protagonist, upon being told he’s a robot, opens his torso. I was reminded of Stephen King’s gruesome 1982 tale “Survivor Type,” wherein the narrator, a marooned surgeon, is forced to operate on himself.)

The story continues from there, as the writer links its realization to entropy — the tendency of the universe toward disorder — and considers the ultimate fate of its and every other world. “Exhalation” is somewhat dryly written, but I ultimately became engrossed in the tale, which evolves into a fascinating consideration of the inevitable end of all things.

“Exhalation” highlights one of Chiang’s greatest gifts: An ability to render scientific concepts in clear, easy-to-understand language. It’s a quality on display in many of the works here.

The following story, “What’s Expected of Us,” is set in a near-future version of our world in which millions of Predictors have been sold. Outwardly, a Predictor appears to be a commonplace gadget, like a car key fob sporting a single button and one green light. But each one is actually a compact time machine that unfailingly flashes its light about a second before the button is pressed. This seemingly simple device has major consequences: It forces consumers to confront their lack of free will.

“What’s Expected of Us” is presented as a written warning to the public, such as you once might have found published on a newspaper op-ed page or on a blog. (These days, I imagine this kind of message first being propagated as a YouTube vlog.) This is very much a story of ideas; it’s interesting on that front, but I didn’t find it as emotionally engaging as the title story. The tale, originally published in 2005, appears to be the oldest work in the anthology.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is the longest story in Exhalation; in some ways, it’s also the most ambitious. In it, Chiang tracks two characters over the course of several years. One is Ana Alvarado, a dispirited job seeker who’s trying to get a software development job after the zoo where she worked closed. The other is Derek Brooks, an animator at Blue Gamma, the firm where Alvarado lands.

The company is preparing to market digients (a portmanteau of digital sentients), pets that inhabit online environments. But Blue Gamma’s digients have a distinctive feature: They’re capable of learning and modifying their behavior as a result. The product line’s unofficial slogan, a recruiter tells Alvarado, is “All the fun of monkeys, with none of the poop throwing.”

“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang.

Blue Gamma’s creations, which are capable of speech, are a huge hit — at first. Alvarado and Brooks come to care for the digients they adopt, but they’re part of a relatively small committed user base. When Blue Gamma folds, this group finds itself struggling to stay united in a world that is often indifferent to the fate of the digients.

There are exceptions. A company attempts to train a digient to serve as an intelligent digital assistant, with mixed results. And the digients and their owners have the occasional nasty run-in with griefers — an online version of sadists.

Along the way, the digients’ intellects expand and mature, forcing the owners (a term that becomes increasingly discomfiting for the reader) to make difficult choices. Is it appropriate to expose the creatures to a digital version of sex work if it funds their continued survival on newer virtual systems? Do digients deserve emancipation and autonomy?

This brave new world is challenging to regular human beings, too. Alvarado is offered a job that would require her to wear

one of the smart transdermals, a patch that delivers doses of an oxytocin-opioid cocktail whenever the wearer is in the presence of a specific person. It’s used to strengthen rocky marriages and strained parent-child relationships, and it’s recently become available without a prescription.

In other words, the people of Chiang’s future aren’t just subjecting artificial intelligence to coercion — they are, thanks to the marvels of science and capitalism, doing it to themselves.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” devises some fascinating scenarios and raises some interesting questions, but it’s a bit too didactic for my taste. Alvarado and Brooks are rather slight characters; I empathized with their struggles, but barely.

“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” is a sort of literary stunt — the story of a father and son told through different sorts of texts. (It was written for an illustrated Jeff VanderMeer anthology themed around imaginary museum exhibitions.) I forgot it almost immediately, although that may say more about myself as a reader and critic than Chiang’s text.

“The Great Silence” is a story that was originally written to accompany a video installation showing images of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico along with those of endangered birds that live in a nearby forest. The text, narrated by a parrot, discusses the human search for extraterrestrial intelligence — a hunt that has thus far turned up empty, of course.

But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?

We’re a nonhuman species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?

The resulting short story is, in a word, haunting.

“Omphalos” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” are two very different stories that have one commonality: Each is narrated by someone with strong religious beliefs. “Omphalos” largely consists of prolix prayers uttered by one Dorothea Morrell. Our narrator here is a devout archaeologist and author of science popularizations; she inhabits an alternative 20th-century America dominated by Christians who believe Earth to be the center of the universe. Using science, Chiang challenges her faith in a manner that I found rather satisfying.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is narrated by a Muslim in Iraq some centuries ago. Here, Chiang has devised a clever time-travel story involving fixed portals in bazaars. Unfortunately, the tale is a bit didactic — the characters are moving pieces that fit the story’s requirements more than they are fully realized people; it didn’t help matters that I’d read the story in a year’s-best collection and had a lukewarm reaction to it, which colored my feelings here.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is another exploration of how technology might affect us. Chiang posits two developments that may seem very plausible to adults who have witnessed the immense impact smartphones have had on American society since the iPhone hit the market in 2007.

First, he prophesies, sophisticated artificial intelligence capable of taking dictation and scanning text will be seamlessly integrated into our lives — so much so that some pundits prophesy that infants born a few decades hence may not have to learn how to read or write in order to lead productive lives. Now, this hasn’t actually happened in the world of “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” but the possibility that it might have happened, or still could, seemed (and potentially still seems) very real.

Second, Chiang introduces to this society a search tool called Remem, which enables users to summon effortlessly the video they and their relatives and friends have taken of particular occasions and conversations. The search tool maker, writes the narrator, a reporter, “is positioning Remem as more than a handy virtual assistant; they want it to take the place of your natural memory.”

The immediate question posed by these developments is how much mental activity humans can pawn off to machines without sacrificing something essential. But as the story title suggests, Chiang is actually getting at something quite different: How much of what we perceive to be true is subjective and how much is objective? Further, he asks whether objective truth — the kind that Remem might offer those with hazy or erroneous memories — is necessarily always superior.

Chiang incorporates a second narrative track to the tale, evidently set in 19th century Africa, in which an English missionary comes to live with a tribe and teaches an adolescent how to read and write. This ability, so natural to us, is fantastic and exciting to Jijingi, the young protagonist of this thread. But textual communication is a technology all its own — one that opens both opportunities and threats to the way of life of Jijingi’s tribe and their neighbors.

The second branch of the story was a bit puzzling to me at first, but eventually I came to find it even more fascinating than the reporter’s first-person tale. That’s partly because the characters in the future setting seemed more like plot devices than living, breathing human beings.

My favorite story in Exhalation was the last, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.” Like “Omphalos,” it appears to be original to this collection; like “What’s Expected of Us,” “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” and “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” “Anxiety” explores what might happen to our society if a development on the horizons of current technological or scientific theory were to come to market.

The world-changing products here are known as prisms, and they offer owners a glimpse into an alternative timeline launched at the instant the device was activated. Through text and video, prisms let users monitor the progress of their parallel-universe selves.

The differences, in both the “paraselves” and the larger world, tend to be trivial at first, but over time they add up. And people who buy multiple prisms, or access them through specialized research firms, can learn, for instance, that they were the only one of multiple selves to vandalize a supervisor’s car in a fit of rage. That kind of information can be reassuring if the individual in question determines that it shows he’s fundamentally a good person.

Each innovation is open to exploitation and abuse; each leaves damage in its wake. The story’s two main characters are Nat, a recovering junkie who works for a firm that rents prisms to curious members of the public, and Dana, a therapist with a painful past. Their lives intersect at a support group for prism users.

“Well, I looked up the Becca here.” Lyle’s parallel self had been seeing a woman named Becca for months, after a chance meeting at a bar.

“Bad idea, bad idea,” said Kevin, shaking his head.

“Kevin, please,” said Dana.

“Sorry, sorry.”

“Thanks, Dana,” said Lyle. “I messaged her, I told her why I was messaging her, I sent her a photo of my paraself and her paraself together, and I asked if I could take her out for coffee. She said sure.”

Dana nodded for him to continue.

“We met on Saturday afternoon, and at first we seemed to hit it off. She laughed at my jokes, I laughed at hers, and I was thinking, I’ll bet this is just how it went when my paraself met her. I felt like I was living my best life.” He looked embarrassed.

“And then it went all wrong. I was saying how great it was to meet her, and how I felt like things were turning around for me, and before I knew it I told her how using the prism had screwed things up for me. I talked about how jealous I was of my paraself for having met parallel Becca, how I was always second-guessing myself now, and on and on. And I could hear how pathetic I sounded as I was saying it. I knew I was losing her, so out of desperation I…” He hesitated, and then said, “I offered to let her borrow my prism so she could talk with parallel Becca, and that Becca could tell this one what a great guy I could be. You can imagine how well that went over. She was polite, but she made it clear that she didn’t want to see me again.”

Ultimately, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” shows the power prisms have both to wound and to succor. The story is satisfying on an intellectual and an emotional level.

Chiang has his limitations as a writer, but Exhalation offers material that’s mind-expanding and enjoyable. I look forward to reading more of his work.

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