Contemplate the marvel that is existence
April 29, 2014 5:06 AM   Subscribe

Sadly not new.

If you haven't read it, please do. Ted Chiang is writing some of the best philosophical sci-fi today.
posted by flippant at 5:24 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Eh, that were great.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:24 AM on April 29, 2014

Indeed! But now I can't stop thinking about my breathing.
posted by ianso at 5:32 AM on April 29, 2014

Lovely. Reminds me a bit of Pynchon's "Entropy."
posted by chavenet at 5:45 AM on April 29, 2014

There's an audio version here.
posted by ver at 6:04 AM on April 29, 2014

Exhalation was available in this monster Ted Chiang post. Always nice to be reminded of it though.
posted by HumanComplex at 6:05 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Brilliant. That was wonderful. Thank you.
posted by trif at 7:43 AM on April 29, 2014

This was a really interesting take. It was new to me!
posted by Naib at 10:53 AM on April 29, 2014

Wonderful story!
posted by brambleboy at 12:27 PM on April 29, 2014

Very cool.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:05 PM on April 29, 2014

I love Ted Chiang but was wondering more about this particular setting. Does anyone have any insight wrt it? What kind of world that was? What was it supposed to be? I'm not sure how to phrase it exactly.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 6:49 PM on April 29, 2014

(spoilers ahead)

It is, like many Chiang stories, a sort of toy universe that takes a particular concept and treats it as literally true, exploring its ramifications while expounding a lesson. In "Tower of Babylon" it was ancient Hebrew cosmology and the limits of human understanding; in "Hell is the Absence of God" it was the Old Testament God and the nature of faith; in "Seventy-Two Letters" it was golems and class struggle.

"Exhalation" is a metaphor for entropy. Instead of a universe of beings driven by chemical energy and electricity -- neurons firing, muscles flexing, all powered by food nourished by solar reactions that ultimately descend from the Big Bang -- it posits a universe of mechanical beings powered by pneumatics. Everything from their physical movements to the processing of their brains is driven and animated by the movement of air, continually resupplied by ubiquitous high-pressure air tanks, which in turn tap into a vast well of high pressure that underlies their world.

Like our own world, this air supply is not infinite -- the vast pressure differential slowly degrades and equalizes as time goes on. When the pressure between the well and their world is the same, nothing can move and no thought will be possible -- just like when the stars in our universe exhaust all their fuel, resulting in the eventual heat death of the universe.

It also relates this universal death to the death of the individual -- when the passage of air ceases, the mechanical brain still exists, but the essential patterns of thought and memory vanish, just like the chemical and electrical impulses that define the human mind. Which sets up his beautiful ending metaphor -- that his own personality, memories, and self are ultimately just one small eddy of a vast exhaled breath playing out over millennia across his whole world. A sort of "steampunk" take on Sagan's "We are all starstuff."

Also, a PSA to all Chiang fans: His arguably best work, "Story of Your Life", is getting the big screen treatment in the near future! They've already cast Amy Adams in the lead role. Here's hoping they don't screw it up.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:26 PM on April 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

It is, like many Chiang stories, a sort of toy universe…

That's the technical / science side of things, yes. And that's interesting in and of itself, but I also find this story compelling because of how he uses that unusual perspective to look at human issues, even today's issues, in a different light.

For example, how does a society respond to the realization that a resource that once seemed infinite, is in fact finite and dwindling fast. For example, argon air, or oil, or the resilience of the natural environment. I'm sure I'm not the only one who noted the analogy to all those geoengineering people who say, "Let's capture the excess carbon dioxide and sequester it underground!" and things like that.

Another example is the moment the narrator realized that he was designed by an Intelligent Designer… which in the story's world, seems to be true: there is no mention of "birth", his brain seems to be nicely and neatly modular for tidy disassembly, death is by accident not aging, and written history and personal history correspond both to 100 years.

Probably Trurl or Klaupacious made them.
posted by brambleboy at 12:30 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Excellent. Thanks, Gilgongo.
posted by homunculus at 11:44 PM on April 30, 2014

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