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Exhalation by Ted Chiang

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“Exhalation” is a 2008 science fiction short story by Ted Chiang. It is about a civilization of mechanical beings who make a startling discovery about the nature of their universe.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:

Lungs!Air is the source of life – at least that’s what has long been believed by the air-driven mechanical beings in this story. Yet when reports of several fast clocks are spread, one being decides to use the opportunity to construct some devices that will allow him to dissect his own brain. Yikes! As he begins to learn what it is that really makes him tick (Ha! Pun intended!) he makes a startling and sad discovery not only about his own anatomy but also the universe in which he lives.

Assembling all of this equipment took months, but I could not afford to be anything less than meticulous. Once the preparations were complete, I was able to place each of my hands on a nest of knobs and levers and control a pair of manipulators situated behind my head, and use the periscope to see what they worked on. I would then be able to dissect my own brain.

My Two Cents:

• The good:

  • Like all Ted Chiang stories I have read this one is extremely well written. It doesn’t feel like it was rushed, or slapped together hap hazardously. Every word feels like it belongs and was carefully labored over. Very well done indeed.
  • It was really fun discovering how the beings functioned and how their society worked. That kept my interest high.

• The bad:

  • While I certainly enjoyed “Exhalation”, I do realize that it may not be for everyone. It is not an action oriented story, and it has long sections explaining the details of scientific instruments. If this sounds like something you won’t like then maybe you should skip it.

Fact Sheet:
• Page Count: 15
• Word Count: 6,510
“Exhalation” garnered the following awards:

  • It was nominated for the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
  • It was also nominated for the 2009 British Science Fiction Association Awards, Short Fiction category.

Where you can find “Exhalation”:

Some Interesting Links:

  • Did you know that Ted Chiang almost gave up on writing SF – that is until he attended the Clarion workshop. Lucky for us! Learn more about this science fiction author by reading Fantastic Metropolis’s 2003 interview with Ted Chiang.
  • If you enjoyed this story be sure to check out Ted Chiang’s excellent short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others .

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like Tower of Babylon, about the journey of a young miner who ascends the great tower of Babylon to help break through the vault of heaven, also by Ted Chiang.

4 thoughts to “Exhalation by Ted Chiang”

  1. Omphalos,

    While I can definitely see your point of view (I mentioned above that this story may not be for everyone) I must disagree. I quite liked the meticulous and subtle nature of the story… but I am a big Ted Chiang fan so my view may be tinted. 🙂

    Have you liked any of his other stories?

  2. Considering the other nominations, this will win the Hugo straight up, I promise you now.

  3. I absolutely love Chiang. Ive written a ton about him.

    Ive said many times that he and David Marusek are my two favorite modern, productive authors. Which is why I was so disappointed with this story. He is usually meticulous, but something was missing this time. IMHO the story was interesting, but there was nothing bigger at the end then I encountered as I went through it. It was missing that big punch of deep meaning that I find so often in Chiang’s work.

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