Ted Chiang, Exhalation (Vintage 2020) [IBR2020]

TC: OK, so the term conceptual breakthrough is sometimes used in science fiction criticism to describe the moment in the story in which a character’s understanding of their universe changes in some fundamental manner. They are experiencing a sort of paradigm shift about their place in the universe. I think that’s a way of dramatizing the process of scientific discovery. That process is one of the reasons I was interested in reading about science as a kid; I could vicariously experience that thrill. Stories about conceptual breakthrough offer a way to re-create that experience in fiction. In the actual history of science, there are only a handful of really dramatic scientific discoveries, but you can’t keep telling their stories over and over again. Most of the history of science isn’t actually that dramatic. In science fiction, you can have your characters make discoveries that radically expand their view of the world just as much as Galileo’s or Darwin’s discoveries expanded ours.
BLVR: Do you feel that emotional and psychological breakthroughs can be used similarly?
TC: I would categorize those as being something different. Science fiction is known for the sense of wonder it can engender, and I think that sense of wonder is something that is generated by stories of conceptual breakthrough. I don’t know if a sense of wonder is engendered by stories of personal epiphany.

Interview with James Yeh for The Believer

In the category of Oh, I Get It Now: That explanation articulates for me the difference between these stories as science fiction, and literary fiction stories that use science to explain a setting or move into the future. Take, for example, Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” or Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure.” I greatly enjoyed those two stories, which tell personal stories in settings understood through science and time. But the connection between the science and the impact point of the story – the character’s epiphanies, decisions, and changes – is metaphor. In Chiang’s science fiction stories, the impact point is the moment a character sees the universe differently: understands the link between present, past, and future; debates the consequences of perfect memory technology; discovers entropy; sees evidence their world is not the center of the universe it has always been assumed to be.

But, having read this collection, my favorite stories of his are those that do both: where the expanded understanding of the universe contains the answer to a personal struggle. The man who understands the nature of time travel does so against the magic of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness, and learns that the immutability of the past – or the future – is not necessarily tragic; the father who debates new technology also finds the human-ness of memory as he realizes an error in a key recollection of his own.  Or maybe it gives us as readers a window to view the extinction of one species against our fascination with extraterrestrial life, and leaves us wondering why one is considered expendible and the other is eagerly sought, and whether we ought to see that differently, all while mourning the death of the last parrot. 

There’s something paradoxical about many of these stories. They might end in failure, loss, or tragedy, yet the sense at the end is one of hope, of purposeful momentum. They aren’t necessarily happy endings, but there’s a definite uplift that’s rare in literary fiction.

I must again admit I am not a big reader of contemporary science fiction, so there are references and nuances I may be missing. What’s interesting is that I’ve read a couple of Chiang stories before now: a friend recommended “The Story of Your Life” (which became the film Arrival), and I read “The Great Silence,” included in this collection, when I read BASS 2016. I greatly enjoyed both of those, so I was looking forward to this. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course several of these stories have won major prizes. Chiang isn’t a prolific writer, but he sure has a knack for hitting the sweet spot.

One exciting thing about this book had nothing to do with the stories themselves: it includes story notes! I’ve always loved the Contributor Notes in BASS; this is the first time I’ve encountered them in an author’s collection. In the Believer interview quoted above, he says he included them because he enjoys them in other collections (they’re more popular in science fiction than literary fiction) and it’s a handy way to reframe the question, “Where did you get the idea for the story” in a way that fits the circumstances. I know literary fiction writers are trained in “the story must stand on its own” but it’s so great to have a little more insight – and often, the context he chooses to share is surprising.

One of my clear favorites was the first story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” possibly because I’d just read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and was primed for the stories-within-a-story approach, this time in Baghdad and Cairo instead of Anatolia.

All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat’s words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

from “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

Of the story, Chiang says: “While we can all understand the desire to change things in our past, I wanted to try writing a time-travel story where the inability to do so wasn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.” In the first two of the embedded stories, the future enables the past to enfold in that head-spinning way time travel stories tend to work, yet nothing changes; the future and the past are linked, but immutable. The third of these tales delivers the impact point: we can’t change the past, but we can change how we feel about it.

“Exhalation,” the title story, is literally the discovery of entropy, albeit in a universe very different from ours.

Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.

from “Exhalation”

The protagonist engages in self-study via dissection of her own self, a task perhaps easier than ours would be since she is made of metal. Chiang’s Note tells us this was inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “The Electric Ant,” involving a robot discovering his own nature; “That image of a person literally looking at his own mind has always stayed with me.” A lot of beginning neuroscience courses express the same wonder, as brains examine brains, though I’ve yet to read of a scientist studying his own brain. Such a thing via EEG or PET scan would not be impossible, however.

The story moves into the contemplation of the mechanism of life for the protagonist’s universe. It’s based on air pressure forming a gradient. This happens to coincide with the biological creation, in our universe, of ATP, the molecule of energy, through the creation of a proton gradient in our mitochondria. though it’s on a microscopic scale. Even the idea of air comes into it, as oxygen accepting protons becomes the last step allowing ATP production to continue. We breathe to enable this chain. It’s one of those elements of biochemistry that amazes me. And here, Chiang has my counterpart just as amazed as she notices the crucial function of air pressure.

But in doing this, she  makes another terrifying discovery: air pressure must, of necessity, be evening out all over the universe, just as, in our universe, entropy increases. He puts it very well in his Note, drawing from Roger Penrose: “In effect, we are consuming order and generating disorder; we live by increasing the disorder or the universe. It’s only because the universe started in a highly ordered state that we are able to exist at all.”

Our protagonist moves beyond this terrifying discovery, however, to hope, and this is where the power of the story lies. In envisioning a multiverse, she imagines other beings able to visit her universe and discover what remains even after the air pressure has equalized and life is no longer possible. And in that, she believes, her world will live again. It’s something like the way we send records with music and art and literature into space, hoping to show others who we were, when Voyager at last finds someone who can, and wants to, examine it. It’s an amazing feat to combine so many different scientific elements into one story, and yet have it be so emotionally satisfying. This is why this guy wins all the awards.

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they are the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. … Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulation’s that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that – I hope – acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.

Story note on “Exhalation”

“The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” is another story that, when described, sounds like a mess, but works  beautifully to examine the difference between objective and subjective memory; that is, what we record in pictures and notes and data, and what we remember.

In most cases we have to forget a little bit before we can forgive; when we no longer experience the pain as fresh, the insult is easier to forgive, which in turn makes it less memorable, and so on. It’s this psychological feedback loop that makes initially infuriating offenses seeing pardonable in the mirror of hindsight.
What I feared was that Remem would make it impossible for this feedback loop to get rolling. By fixing every detail of an insult in indelible video, it would prevent the softening that’s needed for forgiveness to begin.

from “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

It’s two stories alternating in sections, one in the future, one in the past. The future story often reads more like a lecture, as it describes new technology that allows digital recording of everything we see, available on instant recall with merely a thought. The past story recounts the change from orality to literacy in a Nigerian village as European missionaries arrive. In his Note, Chiang cites Walter Ong’s work and notes, “…[T]here might be a parallel to be drawn between the last time a technology changed our cognition and the next time.”

The protagonist in the future story is a father whose primary emotional drive is his relationship with his daughter. They’ve recovered somewhat from a nasty fight years before, but ties between them are still strained. The past story focuses on one villager who learns to read and works with Europeans to keep records of tribal disputes. Both protagonists make discoveries about objective vs subjective memory that have great impact on their lives, and on how they view truth itself.

I keep running into this hazy idea of truth when I read memoirs, nonfiction essays that, theoretically, reflect what happened. Several scandals of embroidered memoirs have made this a touchy subject, and I’m probably too much of a hardass for expecting nonfiction to be, well, nonfiction. I went into this extensively in my post about Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” so I won’t relitigate. I’m perfectly fine with errors of memory, and with writing techniques that allow for lack of recall, but it seems to me if you add a conversation or a scene because it makes the story read better and don’t acknowledge it, that writing is called fiction.

In another of the coincidences that seem to happen with some regularity when I read good work, I happened to be looking at Plato’s Symposium for another book I’ll be posting about in a week or so, and came across this:

For what is implied in the word ‘recollection,’ but the departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection, and appears to be the same although in reality new, according to that law of succession by which all mortal things are preserved, not absolutely the same, but by substitution, the old worn-out mortality leaving another new and similar existence behind unlike the divine, which is always the same and not another?

Plato, Symposium

This connects memory with immortality via the love one has for one’s offspring, for the closest we can come to living forever is to leave someone to carry on for us.

But this story is more about how we sometimes remember wrong, not because we’re trying to lie, but because we can’t face the truth. It invites us to consider the wisdom of turning memory, with all its inconsistencies and glitches and individuations, into data. When I consider how the father-daughter relationship played out, I wonder what would have happened had the father’s recollection been more accurate. Better? Worse? By what means could that quality be measured, if at all?

“Omphalos” puts an interesting twist on the relationship between religion and science, in a world where they serve each other – until they don’t:

Is it wrong of me to question whether the construction of cathedrals is, as we approach the twenty-first century, the best use of countless millions of dollars and the effort of generations of people? I agree that a project lasting longer than a human life span provides its participants with aspirations beyond the temporal. I even understand the motivation for carving a cathedral out of the Earth’s substrate, to create a testament to both human and divine architecture. But for me, science is the true modern cathedral, an edifice of knowledge every bit as majestic as anything made of stone.

from “Omphalos”

This story takes the form of a prayer, but not from a priest. The pray-er is a scientist who works on discovering artifacts of the original creation dated to eight thousand years before, when trees had no rings, and people had no navels. The central tenet of the religion was that the universe was created as a setting for humanity. The scientist encounters evidence that may shift that view. This is the moment at which science may need to split off from religion, or it may be the end of religion. It’s interesting because while it recalls certain historical conflicts between religion and science in Western history, it shifts things around sufficiently to keep us off-balance and the story fresh and new.

I’ve already written about “The Great Silence” so I’ll just link to that post; I did want to include it in this list of my favorite stories from this collection.

Here’s where I usually stop when I’m writing about story collections. But what about my not-favorite stories? I usually don’t mention them.  Time for a change-up: I want to mention one of my most not-favorite stories, because it won a Hugo, is universally adored by reviewers I’ve found (with one exception) and, hey, there isn’t anyone who really cares about my opinion of Ted Chiang, let’s be honest. That gives me a little freedom to state: I really did not like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” at all.

Based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person, and I see no reason that teaching an artificial being would go any faster. I wanted to write a story about what might happen during those twenty years.

Story note on “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

I’m not a gamer, and I suspect it would be a lot more fun for those who enjoy interacting with virtual characters and imagining how AI could take them to the next level. And remember: I’m not really a science fiction reader at heart.

I get the general idea: the ways in which AI digients (digital entities) might develop over time can be compared to some degree with raising a child, and certain issues develop. The issues are interesting, particularly set against the instability of the technical milieu required to instantiate the digients. What do you do when a website goes bust, if your digient’s existence depends on that website? What about when huge sums are offered to uses digients in ways that would be unspeakable if they were considered people or even pets? Can they gain autonomy (yes, along the lines of Asimov’s “Bicentenial Man”)? At what point can they make major decisions on their own, even against their owner’s (or is it parent’s) advice? These are all good questions.

And I have no doubt it was a good story. At 110 pages, it was the longest story in the book, and yet I think one of the problems was that it was too short. Paul Kincaid at SFSite gives his analysis:

In the pursuit of realism, or at least verisimilitude, therefore, how do you enclose the whole mystery of passing time within the relatively limited confines of a story or play? There are, essentially, two strategies. You can cherry-pick key moments along the timeline, describe those moments in detail and allow the reader to imagine what might fill in the gaps. At its most extreme, this means offering just the beginning and end of the process. This strategy allows full novelistic depth for those points along the line, but at the expense of any full representation of, and hence awareness of, the time scales involved.
Alternatively, you can present a synopsis of the entire period. This gives a clear impression of the time scales involved, the various forces that come into play shaping and directing the flow of history. But it necessarily skims across the surface, refusing the depth that allows us to share the individual experience of the historical momentum.
This dilemma becomes more pronounced, of course, the longer the period that has to be encompassed by the story. And this dilemma lies at the heart of the new novella from Ted Chiang…. His solution is a mixture of the two strategies, though as so often happens in such circumstances, highlighting the worst elements of both.

Paul Kincaid for SFSite

As I read, I felt the disconnect between the world at large, and the world of the story, was problematic. The only outside events were in the romantic lives of the two humans each raising digients, with a kind of hint that they would eventually get together. As much as that possibility dismayed me – it just seemed too Lifetime TV Movie – the fact that it went nowhere dismayed me more. Why not replace that with interactions with the world at large? Something significant must have happened during that time: a must-read book, a war, a hurricane or earthquake, a pandemic, an election… yes, I’m letting Real Life bleed through, but it’s like they were digients themselves. In fact, I thought that might be how things wrapped up. And yes, I was relieved when that didn’t happen, either, because if I can see it coming, it has to be cheesy.

I have a feeling that, in a novel setting, there might be more substrate for the main interaction to play out against. Alternatively, cutting it down might have worked better for me, since I really didn’t care about entire sections discussing various software issues.

But, it was not a story written for me; it was written for people who would be enthralled with such issues. And it seems they loved it. As a SF tourist, I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t expect Japan to stop serving sushi just because I chose to visit, after all; I can just eat something else. I have no complaints. There was plenty in this book that I loved.

Because I encountered him in a literary fiction setting, I tend to think of Chiang as a literary fiction writer. He does manage to write stories overflowing with human connections, with love and loss and moments of joy and pain. That they are based on science, and show a kind of wonder at the way the universe works at the same time as laying bare the human soul, is a plus. One of these days I’m going to pick up his first collection. Probably sooner than later. I suspect I’ll learn a lot there, too.

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