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Thought Patterns

By George Rushton

Exhalation: Stories

Ted Chiang, Knopf Publishing Group, 2019

Seventeen years after the success of his debut collection Stories of Your Life and Others (2002), Ted Chiang has released his next: Exhalation. His stories have the remarkable quality of being able to compress an enormous scope of ideas into a very tight space, and his carefully hewn clarity has been much praised by critics. He is also profoundly in tune with his surroundings; though science fiction looks ahead, we know that the best of this genre is rooted in our own everyday fears and anxieties.

Chiang makes his living as a technical writer in the software industry, a fact which makes itself apparent in his simple but eloquent style. In an interview with the sci-fi magazine Interzone, he admitted that he doesn’t get that many ideas: ‘if I had more ideas, I would write them.’ He describes himself as an ‘occasional writer’ – these occasions, though, are worth waiting for.

Amongst the stories in his first collection is ‘Story of Your Life’, known to many as the piece which gave rise to the hit film Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve. It follows a linguist, Louise, as she attempts to translate the language of an alien race while coming to grips with the loss of her daughter’s life. Chiang has said that his primary goal in writing fiction is to ‘engage in philosophical questions and thought experiments’ while trying to ‘work out the consequences of certain ideas’. Yet his stories are more than mental exercises – beneath the surfaces of scientific exploration these are tales of stunning emotional impact. The distant quality of his polished prose belies the skill with which he navigates the world of human passions.

Through a range of settings distinctive to his genre, Chiang asks what it means to question one’s own faith, how to deal with misfortunes in a deterministic world, and what it means to live in a world with undefined meaning. All this continues in Exhalation.

The collection opens with ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, set in ancient Baghdad and Cairo. The conceit is that a shopkeeper has, in his possession, a gate to the past. If you go through the gate, you step into the same world, but twenty years earlier. You do not replace your earlier self – you can even interact with him or her – but you cannot change the present by changing the past. The time-line is self-consistent: everything that is, always was and always shall be. If the ‘you’ of twenty years ago happily came into some good fortune, then there is a very good chance that it was the result of the future ‘you’, which placed it there.

In this ancient world, Chiang sketches a protagonist whose predicament is defined by time: a man who wishes that he could go back to rectify a mistake that he made years ago. He is warned from the beginning that ‘nothing erases the past … here is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness … that is all, but that is enough’, and the message suffuses both story and reader as the story unfolds.

The story places this concept in a Muslim setting, Baghdad and Cairo, ‘because acceptance of fate is one of the basic articles of Islam’. The literary meets the scientific, as the recursive nature of time-travel is located in the world of the Arabian Nights, where stories are completely comfortable telling themselves while nestled in the confines of another, and another, and another.

In ‘Exhalation’, the title story, we find another character who must come to terms with a determined fate. It paints a world enclosed by chromium, populated by characters made of titanium; they are sustained by air drawn from a reservoir deep underground, ‘the great lung of the world, the source of all our nourishment.’ The characters notice that the passage of time is slowing down; the narrator, a professor of anatomy, decides to auto-dissect his mind, with the aim of finding out why. What would we say if we could see our own minds in action, made out of gears that we could watch turning? At one point in the story, the narrator’s brain is hanging all around him, ‘an explosion frozen an infinitesimal fraction of a second after the detonation’. Science fiction allows the mind to be embodied.

Minds and memories work by a complex patterning of air running over a thin lattice of gold leaf, which shifts about as the world around it is imposed on it; as the narrator tells us, ‘this was an engine undergoing continuous transformation, indeed modifying itself as part of its operation … the lattice was not so much a machine as it was a page on which the machine was written, and on which the machine itself ceaselessly wrote.’

In ‘Exhalation’, the brain is a medium that reacts and changes according to shifts in the world around it. The story suggests that an organism cannot be separated from the world around it. The mind does not react to its own picture of the world – it is always of that world. Hence, it has no other being apart from its relation to it.

In Le Rêve de d’Alembert, Denis Diderot, a determinist and materialist, makes a similar point using the example of a harpsichord – another ‘instrument’ of art – as an illustration:

Suppose that the harpsichord has the power to feel and to remember [as the narrator, and we, do], and tell me if it will not know and repeat of its own accord the airs that you have played on its keys. We are instruments endowed with sensibility and memory; our sense are so many keys that are struck by surrounding nature, and that often strike themselves …

When the brain is understood in this way – as a medium that reacts to its surroundings unable to exist independent of it – it may be analogized to Chiang’s own medium of writing. A text, in some respects, is defined more in its relations to other things than as a self-sufficient object; it exists in the interplay, in the ‘pattern’ of sensibility and memory which it generates between itself and the reader. Meaning is produced at the juncture of the reader and the text. Chiang seems to agree. Meaning, in ‘Exhalation’, is similarly produced by a ‘pattern’ of moving air over the lattice in the narrator’s utterly exposed mind. In this telling, the brain is like a book and Chiang is writing not only about minds, but also about the very form of the medium through which he communicates.

Chiang doesn’t stop there. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines digital creatures initially made as part of a multiplayer online game. Thanks to a clever programme for machine learning, these ‘digients’ develop sentience, and gain the faculties of a young human child. When the company which created them runs into trouble, they run the risk of being stranded alone in a digital world. The story revolves around the main character’s battle for their legal rights.

In the context of a discussion about embodied mind, this is curious. These creatures are able to feel pain, whatever that means, and yet they have no body in our ‘real’ sense. The waters are muddied further when technology is developed that allows the avatars to transfer their consciousness into a robotic body in the real world. Chiang, with his crystal style, seems to locate the mind in the interplay of person and person, of text and reader, of music and listener. There is a real emotional connection between the narrator of ‘Lifecycle’ and her creature: the pattern of the connection is all that matters.

In this particular case Chiang falls a little slack. The story is 111 pages long, significantly longer than the rest. He is lucid, as ever, but loose. A legal battle stretched over this length is difficult to sustain. Perhaps he is a victim of his typical technique, which is to build up the conceptual ideas which ground the story as the narrative progresses. Here, the ideas don’t develop as steadily as elsewhere – the story is just too long to maintain and gather momentum in such a way.

The collection is shot through with other short pieces, some totalling only a few pages. Subjects range from a robotic nanny, to talking parrots, to a world with machines which can let you communicate with a parallel universe. Even if they don’t explore in absolute detail every implication of their premises, their fictional nature means that they can be resonant beyond their words.

The tales are technically deft, but are able to get at the same questions as any good writing does: what does it mean to be lonely? What does it mean to feel, at all – to be a body in the clutches of a brain balancing chemicals? The answer, if there is one, is in the patterning; in the movement of air in and out of our lungs as we sigh, reading a story.

Art by Alex Haveron-Jones


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