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Scifi Friday: Exhalation

I’m going to try a theme here: posting about scifi on Fridays. It probably won’t be every Friday because.. who has time for that? But I come across really poignant thoughts while reading, hearing, or watching scifi. And I like sharing.

Note that these little thoughts and reviews will contain spoilers. I want to talk about content and ideas, not entice you to read the book. So don’t read on until you’ve read/heard/uploaded the story. (Or… maybe you like spoilers cause TLDR? Thanks, ADHD…)

So, without further ado, I present:


by Ted Chiang

I discovered this book by perusing Escape Pod’s recommended stories for new listeners. Ted Chiang released a compilation of stories under the same name, so finding the individual story (which is presumably the namesake) is a little difficult. That said, the Escape Pod audio version is easy to find and perfect to listen to during a nice cool fall stroll through the park. There is also a full text available , helpfully preserved by the Internet Archive.

As I mentioned in the intro, I found the parallels between this fictional setting character and our real world to be extremely poignant. As the protagonist examines their own “brain”, they realize a couple stark truths:

  1. Though the mechanism by which it’s brain functions is fundamentally and elegantly simple – compressed air directed through a maze of flip-flopping metal leaves – it can never be started again if it stops because it would require a complex configuration of every leaf before the air could make it function. It follows that the function of the brain would depend greatly upon its initial state.

  2. Everything they know is contained inside a gigantic sealed dome, and as they all “exhale” air, the dome slowly pressurizes. Eventually the air source and the dome will read equilibrium and everything will stop.

Now I don’t believe in fate, and (I think) I believe in agency. But it’s helpful to remember that my brain, and everyone else, are just a jello full of neurons that control a bunch of muscles and organs. And each brain is originally formed according to a genetic blueprint, then modified by a life full of fear, greed, joy, and pleasure. It’s easier for me to see mistakes as accidents and insults as unintended consequences with this in mind. On the same hand, it makes me wonder if I have as much control over my future as I think.

As for the second realization, isn’t the parallel dreadfully obvious? We’re burning, eating, chopping, and polluting our way through thousands of years worth of natural resource reserves. Faster than the earth could ever keep up with. The pressure is certainly rising, and we better hope there’s a way out of the dome.

There’s also a more philosophical and less applicable parallel in the thought that everything that sustains life is dependent on energy sources which are not infinite. Heat from the sun, momentum of the planets, heat in the center of the earth, etc. The scale of this is outside of comprehension, but it’s fun to try.