The Technologies That Remake Us: On Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation: Stories”
By Sherryl VintMay 25, 2019
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Chiang is a writer of precision and grace. His stories extrapolate from first premises with the logic and rigor of a well-designed experiment but at the same time are deeply affecting, responsive to the complexities and variability of human life. The impetus for a story will often be a potent philosophical question — free will versus determinism, the purpose and meaning of life, the relationship between memory and truth, the essence of one’s personality — but their denouement hinges on quiet moments of human illumination or connection. His work offers glimpses of a possible future wrought by technology, but more importantly, it interrogates who we may become in this future as technology changes the patterns of daily life.
The title story, “Exhalation” (2008), is in fact written in the form of laboratory notes to accompany an experiment, in the voice of an artificial being who ponders the source and hence the meaning of its life. Like many of Chiang’s works, such as his earlier “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001, reprinted in Stories of Your Life and Others) and “Omphalos” (one of the new stories in Exhalation: Stories), “Exhalation” explores how systems of belief work and to what ends. In this story, the mechanical being explores the complex design of its “brain” — so beautiful that it must be of divine design, it concludes — and ultimately the relationship between its existence and the nature of the universe. Although this being seeks understanding, wonder is the true reward. As the title — a Greek word meaning center of the world — suggests, “Omphalos” is also interested in the ultimate meaning and interconnection of all things, here positing a world that can be described using science as we know it, and yet one that also shows material evidence of a specific moment of creation. Such stories do not necessarily convey religious themes and certainly do not validate a specific theology; instead, they are interested in the function religion has within our systems of meaning, how it shapes the way we understand the world and our purpose in it.
Chiang’s ongoing interest in questions of free will and determinism is the motif that emerges most strongly across this collection. Indeed, this was a central question of “Story of Your Life”; that is, would already knowing the future change how one behaves, and if not, would this mean that free will is impossible? Here Chiang returns to probe other conundrums that flow from this opposition. For example, in “What’s Expected of Us?” (2005), he questions our degree of freedom to deviate from this metric. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007) considers the desire to change a fated past in a clever narrative experiment about the difference between events and outcomes. The other new story in Exhalation: Stories, “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” is premised on the idea of multiple worlds and selves that could result from moments of decisive choice; it asks whether something like a “core” or immutable self is possible in such circumstances. While such stories are clearly philosophical thought experiments, they are also what we might call parables of the human condition, albeit without the didacticism this term might imply. Chiang’s stories are about choice and regret, about taking responsibility for one’s actions, about love, and about forgiveness, of oneself as much as of others. One of the most powerful stories in this collection, “The Great Silence” (2015), is written in the voice of a parrot and asks us to contemplate whether interspecies forgiveness is possible in this era of anthropogenic extinction.
Another persistent theme asks how humans are changed by the technologies we make part of our affective world and intimate connections. The clever “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” (2011), written as the museum catalog description of this imaginary Victorian-era invention, subtly draws attention to the dehumanization of working-class servants as it gently satirizes contemporary faith in technological progress. Chiang’s previously published novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010) is reprinted here, a work I would argue is among the top three of all of Chiang’s fictions. (Among the things to celebrate about the publication of this collection is that more readers can now experience this long-out-of-print masterpiece about “digients,” digital entities.) The novella suggests that the only way to create true AI is by long-term, immersive interaction and teaching, just as one must mold the intelligence and capacities of a child. Cognition, in other words, cannot be programmed but is something that must develop and mature through experience. More centrally, this is a story of love and what true reciprocity demands of us and those we love. The relationships that trainers/owners develop with their digients are imagined as analogous to the combination of caring for a companion animal and raising a child: digients are dependents and how they mature is shaped by how they are treated, yet they also have the potential to surpass their guardians in at least some registers. This work remains one of the most nuanced explorations of the ethical challenges we face should we create a digital entity capable of sentience, one perhaps deserving of personhood.
Alongside Lifecycle, the standout work for me in this collection is “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” (2013), which is similarly interested in how deeply entwined our lives and social relationships have become with technologies of social mediation. Another story about parenting, it posits a future of ubiquitous life logging, including wearable cameras that create an archive of all one’s experiences. Our narrator, a journalist, takes for granted this and other futuristic communication technologies, such as the replacement of reading and writing by subvocalization and using a “retinal projector” that “displays the words in [one’s] field of vision”; revisions are made “using a combination of gestures and eye movements.” What gives him pause is a new technology called Remem, a search algorithm that takes note of comments such as “remember when” and responds by projecting the life log of said incident onto the retinal projector. As the title reveals, one question the story asks has to do with the nature of truth: what is more real, the factual log of events, or the way we remembered them via our organic memories, colored by our emotions? The latter, while not strictly accurate, has historically been foundational to how we understand our past and become the specific individuals we are. Will a forensic record of the truth help us to heal our troubled relationships, often broken by misunderstanding or misinterpretation of events? Or is something less rational required?
What truly makes “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” brilliant, however, is its structure. The narrator’s story of his troubled relationship with his daughter and how that is changed by the invention of Remem is interspersed with another narrative, set in the distant past, about a person from an oral culture being confronted by the assumptions of a literate one. Writing, too, is a technology, Chiang reminds us, one that transformed human cultures in myriad ways — from our capacity to transmit knowledge and hence to add to it, to the ways that our thoughts are expressed in language, to even what distinct trajectories our thoughts traverse. The shift from oral to literate cultures enacted profound changes in social structures and relationships, even in human consciousness, as Walter J. Ong’s scholarship has shown us. In our contemporary moment, as social media technologies and the ease of video recording pushes us into another revolution in technologies for communication and the storage of knowledge, what might we yet become? And what could this mean for the future of storytelling?
Exhalation: Stories contains brief notes at the end of the volume in which Chiang explains the occasions or ideas that motivated each story. His reflections significantly enhance the collection, providing, as they do, a brief insight into Chiang’s mind at work — perhaps not unlike how the mechanical protagonist of “Exhalation” peers into its own cognitive processes. For readers who have yet to experience the exquisiteness of Chiang’s achievements, a ready-to-hand comparison that encapsulates his method is to think of his work as a prose version of ideas similar to those explored by the highly popular Black Mirror television series. Yet this comparison also does an injustice to Chiang’s work in that it might incline us to overlook the magnificent subtlety and nuance with which Chiang proceeds, in contrast to the often heavy-handed polemic of the series. This collection is a stunning achievement in speculative fiction, from an author whose star will only continue to rise.
Sherryl Vint teaches media and cultural studies, with a focus on speculative fiction, at the University of California, Riverside.
Sherryl Vint teaches at the University of California, Riverside. She co-edits the journals Science Fiction Studies, Science Fiction Film and Television and Humanimalia. She is the author of Bodies of Tomorrow and Animal Alterity, co-author of The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction, and co-editor of the books The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and Beyond Cyberpunk.
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