Exhalation by Ted Chiang: Summary, Plot Analysis, Review

the words "exhalation by ted chiang" written next to a picture of ted chiang

Exhalation is a short story written by Ted Chiang. It’s a short story from his collection titled “Exhalation: Stories”. It is a story about cyborgs who live on a different planet and use metal lungs to breathe everyday.

‘Will it be preferable to remain mute to prolong our ability to think, or to talk until the very end?’

Exhalation is every bit mind boggling and overwhelming as his more famed piece Story of your Life (which also inspired a Hollywood movie called Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) if not more.

This short story is a perfect blend of science and philosophy and has something to offer to avid readers of both philosophy and science.

Exhalation: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story is set on a planet inhabited by Cyborgs, who install mental lungs to breathe every day. Filling stations – where they replenish their air supply – also serve as the primary means for social conversations.

They derive shared pleasure through this communal activity of replacing lungs. Just as lungs are passed between persons and districts, so are news and gossip.

In one of those conversations, the protagonist, an unnamed scientist, gets to hear the rumor about turret clocks in their district to have sped up, chiming earlier than they were supposed to. He also got to hear about same news from nearby districts as well.

Horologists investigated further but couldn’t find any imperfections in those turret clocks, which piqued his curiosity.

Due to lack of available reference material to research this, the scientist takes it upon himself to solve the mystery. He decides to perform auto-dissection.

He sets up a complex machinery, stocks up on additional lungs, creates a backup plan for rescue in case of a mishap.

Through his deftly performed surgery, he begins to see the structure of his brain and eventually realizes that their memory was the pattern of air flow in their brains.

He realizes that it was not the clocks that were fast but that the air flowing through every person’s brain was slow.

Based on his understanding that they were simply converting air at high pressure to air at low leading to achievement of final albeit fatal state of equilibrium. Due to an increase in the background air pressure of the universe, thoughts were slowing down.

The scientist’s findings spur a lot of debate in the community to an ultimate confirmations that they actually seemed true and that end to their world, as they knew it, was a certain thing.

This understanding bestows upon our protagonist an appreciation for the life that he is living right now and he records this for the future explorers.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang: Review and My thoughts

This story will appeal to the scientist and the philosopher alike. However, scientifically you would see the messages worded, there are always some deep philosophical messages to take home.

Consider for example, the scientists discovery of the truth that death is certain.

“It will be the end of pressure, the end of motive power, the end of thought. The universe will have reached perfect equilibrium.”

Perfect equilibrium and death are synonymous. It cannot get any more eye-opening than that. Ah Ted!

Although the scientist does talk about the cyborgs and presents a very futuristic view, he does not do that without making them humane, cyborgs enjoying community time, loving to be social, Chiang asserts very humanely, through his writing that science fiction does not have to be dystopian.

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.

And then there are observations made within the story that are as applicable to humans as to cyborgs. I am sure human meditation enthusiasts will attest to this understanding-

Air is in fact the very medium of our thoughts. All that we are is a pattern of air flow.

He does leave us with this gripping message, simple yet no less profound-

“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.”

You will find it extremely difficult not to be pulled into this universe so tastefully created by Chiang, that’s bound to leave you pondering, aching for more.

In an interview to Manifold, Chiang defines hard science fiction as something that spurs an endless debate.

Exhalation does just that.


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