The Exhalation by Ted Chiang

8/10 Chiang is very good at taking odd, original, eccentric or cutting-edge concepts and playing with them in stories

The titular tale in Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, The Exhalation, is written with a pictorial clarity that cannot fail to engage the reader. The cyborg narrator, a student of his beings’ anatomy, knows the physical borders of his hermetically sealed world for he has travelled to its edge and seen the enclosing wall of solid chromium. Refilled artificial lungs are as readily available at filling stations – think air pumps in garage forecourts - and it is at one of these stations that he hears of something that he decides to investigate (as one does) by way of open surgery on its own brain.

The experiment begins by the construction of a rectangular arrangement of four prisms on mounting brackets so that a beam of light makes a quadrilateral loop, allowing for a clear view of the back of one’s head.

Banks of actuating rods and precision tools allow for an intricate disassembly of the brain. What is discovered is a latticework of wires that are the hinges for oscillating, tiny gold leaves, all variously positioned and supported by currents of air. The leaves act like capillaries: ‘temporary conduits and valves that existed just long enough to redirect air at other leaves in turn’, making the lattice ‘a page on which the machine was written, and on which the machine itself ceaselessly wrote.’ The cyborg’s eureka moment is the realisation that air itself is the medium of thought.

This is a Ted Chiang short story at its best, tickling the brain with fictions of science, though most of the other stories in this collection fail to match its elan. As a new voice in sci-fi, Chiang has by some been genealogically related to Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. Le Guin and China Miéville but this is extravagantly and misleadingly over the top. He may be the current go-to writer for ingenious and quirky tales but at a literary level they leave something to be desired. Creating characters in short stories cannot be compared with characterisation in novels but telling details in acutely observed descriptions can leave memorable impressions of a person’s psyche and open little windows into their soul. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge Chiang on something he does not do but it helps explain why his style of writing feels pedestrian at times.

The writing tends to work at a painstakingly slow pace and you are likely to find yourself speed reading in order to stay interested. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ fills over a hundred pages (making ‘The Exhalation’ a sprightly read in less than a quarter of the space) and its narrative - about what one reviewer neatly summed up as ‘souped-up Tamagotchis’ - has a less than provocative moral: parenting skills, it seems, will be highly desirable in treating digitally conscious machines of the future.

Chiang is very good at taking odd, original, eccentric or cutting-edge concepts, the sources of which he happily acknowledges in his story notes at the back of the book, and playing with them in stories. This is something he has in common with Philip K. Dick and it’s not surprising that one of the tales in his début collection, Stories of Your Life and Others (Chiang hasn’t published a novel), provided the basis for the interesting movie Arrival.

You may feel short-changed by the mediocre prose and characterisation but the ideas themselves can sparkle. ‘Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom’, for example, is about a mechanism that allows people to connect with their doppelgängers in an alternative universe where different crucial life decisions were made. Knowing the outcome of a path you did not take earlier in life is a scary thought. Comfort, on the other hand, is to be found in the way the opening story of this collection, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, handles a time travel paradox. In this tale, there is time travel but no way of altering the past or future: ‘we cannot change either, only know them more fully’ is the truth that emerges: ‘Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough’.

Going back to those prisms for the brain self-surgery in ‘The Exhalation’, it might have been easier to have used, à la hairdressers, a couple of mirrors - but, then again, cyborgs don’t need haircuts so perhaps the idea just never occurred.

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