Exhalation by Chiang, Ted, 2008
Ted Chiang is one of the greatest authors of the nineties, and as far as I am concerned he has only one serious contender for the position of the "best author of the oughts," and that is Paulo Bacigalupi. I'm pretty sure that I have read every single word of SF that Chiang has ever published, and I have been eagerly awaiting two new stories by him since mid-2008 when I heard that he was back at work. The Night Shade Books on-line library has recently put up Chiang's newest work, Exhalation at their website. Itís a robot story about an interesting race's contemplation of its fate.
A race of metal creatures, obviously robots, exists within a world that is encircled by an immensely high chromium dome. The robots breathe from replaceable tanks of argon gas that sit in their chest cavities, which are replaced daily with spares like gas grill tanks. The main character, an unnamed robot, is an anatomist. The robots know nothing of their origins. Their individual memories only go back a few hundred years each, after which they seem to have forgotten what happened, and their written histories only go back a few hundred years before that. They are curious about their natures and the way they are built. They are very, very human-like in that regard. They are driven by their curiosities to fool-hardy extremes, and they see the mark of a divine creator in virtually everything they see and do. But for their metal shells, they were human in almost every respect. However, they are pretty near immortal, though they may die due to misadventure. Their brains are not resistant to trauma, and if damaged the individual will die. If they allow themselves to run out of argon gas they can be revived, but they will have lost all their memories.
Their society is also mechanized and largely controlled centrally. One day the robots realize that the clocks in all of the tower halls were running fast. The main character became curious about the real cause, thinking that it was a problem with them and not the clocks. He invented a device and came up with a procedure to access his own brain, and learned that the problem had to do with atmospheric pressure.
I began by removing the deeply curved plate that formed the back and top of my head; then the two, more shallowly curved plates that formed the sides. Only my faceplate remained, but it was locked into a restraining bracket, and I could not see its inner surface from the vantage point of my periscope; what I saw exposed was my own brain. It consisted of a dozen or more subassemblies, whose exteriors were covered by intricately molded shells; by positioning the periscope near the fissures that separated them, I gained a tantalizing glimpse at the fabulous mechanisms within their interiors. Even with what little I could see, I could tell it was the most beautifully complex engine I had ever beheld, so far beyond any device man had constructed that it was incontrovertibly of divine origin. The sight was both exhilarating and dizzying, and I savored it on a strictly aesthetic basis for several minutes before proceeding with my explorations.
Their brains were fed by the argon they breathed, and that gas was delivered at pressure. The anatomist learned that the pressure of the atmosphere in general was increasing, which affected the relative pressure of the gas inside their bodies: As the atmospheric pressure increased the speed at which their brains worked slowed. The robots came up with a variety of solutions, but none of them were permanent. The anatomist contemplated the end of his race and prayed that the life of his species would count for something.
As I finished the story I was left wondering what the point of it was. The plot is dominated by the procedure the anatomist used to access his brain, and what he found inside his own head after he opened up his own cranium. Chiang takes the reader through practically every meticulous turn of the screwdriver. Prior to reading this I had grown accustomed to Chiang making some big, important point with his stories. He's is a master world builder, and he usually comes up with something quite different for each tale, but he usually brings things home quite well in the end, meaning that whatever odd topic he is writing about, he usually relates it well to the human experience before ending the story. With this one though I'm afraid that he has gone pretty far afield, and the usual impact just is not there this time. Coupled with the virtually mind-numbing detail, I just did not think that this one measured up.
As I write this I have had a day or two to think about it. I still cannot decide if I was impressed or not. The story is very tightly plotted, and I think I have figured out what Chiang's real point of departure from tradition was. This story is a form of the "slow death' tale that can be contrasted with the heat death of the universe. Consider George Zebrowski's Macrolife. Set partly at the end of an open universe, entire galaxies have wound down and cooled off; nothing works any longer due to entropy. The universe has come to its natural conclusion. In Chiang's story the opposite has occurred. The end here will be brought about by an increase in heat due to pressure. This story is about death of life by something other than entropy, but akin to it in its finality.
There is a big part of me that worries that I have in my own mind pigeonholed Chiang, and that I'm judging his work under too tight a standard; one that is informed too much by his older work. Chiang is incredibly skilled, and I will probably count days forever, waiting for his next story. This one though is unique in my mind in that I don't ever see myself holding it up as a shining example of what the genre, or Chiang for that matter, is capable of producing. I am not saying that it is weak, or bad. I'm just saying that it's not typical of the quality that Chiang usually produces.
Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell