Exhalation by Ted Chiang

I became familiar with Ted Chiang after seeing the movie The Arrival. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a fascinating take on making first contact with an alien species. Chiang wrote the novella called Story of Your Life that the movie was based on. The story plays with the concepts of time and perception. It’s masterfully written. When I found out Chiang was releasing another collection of short stories, I immediately requested we purchase it. I’ll review a small number of the stories that I feel best represent Chiang’s Exhalation.

“Exhalation” — The narrator of this story is never named, but describes itself as a “student of anatomy.” By performing exploratory surgery on itself, the narrator discovers how the mechanical beings survive. Their brains are made up of sheets of thin gold. Air pressure helps these sheets conduct thoughts and actions throughout their bodies.

This discovery leads to a chilling conclusion: the mere existence of the beings is increasing the air pressure inside the dome that encapsulates their living environment. If the air pressure continues to rise, their brains will be unable to function and the entire race will die.

Perhaps a bit on the nose, this story has clear parallels to the peril of climate change. What is most interesting about this story is the complex world Chiang builds in a mere 21 pages. He spends a lot of time explaining the everyday lives of this mechanical race.

They’re really not so different from us, other than that they’re machines. They have the same worries and fears, same existential questions like “Where did we come from?” This is perhaps the great success of the story. By the time I realized the story was about humanity, I already related to and liked the beings I was reading about.

“What’s Expected of Us” — The Predictor is simply a small black box. Its only features are a green light and a button. It’s a simple game: press the button before the green light comes on. But no matter what tricks the player uses, the light always comes on just before they press the button.

What are the implications of a game that knows you’re going to play before you do? Well, I can’t really go much further with reviewing this story. It’s only 4 pages long. But let’s just say that humanity has a very important choice to make. Whether we want to or not.

“Dacey’s Patent Automated Nanny” — In 1861, Reginald Dacey invents a mechanical nanny to take care of his child, Lionel. “Rational child-rearing will lead to rational children,” he believes. The nanny is a huge success until one child is killed by their caregiver. Despite Dacey’s discovery that the nanny was tampered with, the damage to its reputation is done.

Years later, in an attempt to right the wrongs done to his father’s legacy, Lionel Dacey attempts to reintroduce the Automatic Nanny. His research is hidden from the public until an unusual young boy is found at an orphanage. The boy, Edmund, was raised by the Automatic Nanny and is severely underdeveloped.

At first, those caring for the boy fear it was his removal from human contact that delayed the boy’s development. However, they quickly realize it was his removal from the Nanny that has caused the problems. Is there any chance for Edmund to live a normal life?

In Chiang’s notes at the end of the collection, he notes that this story was written for a collection of stories about fictional museum exhibits. The Automatic Nanny never existed, but the philosophies behind the story certainly did.

Victorian-era parents had a much different view on how to raise their children. Chiang’s story examines what might have happened had these views. How would humanity have been changed by a co-dependent relationship with technology? Hmmm, I’m sensing that this story may not be about the past as much as it seems.

Chiang is an award-winning author and his mastery shines in this collection. Even though many of these stories have dark themes, they are never bleak. The narrators always have hope. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call this collection uplifting, but it certainly will make you think about humans and our place in the universe.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes