Exhalation • 2008 • SF short story by Ted Chiang


Synopsis Mechanical-pneumatic robots depend upon artificial lungs, regularly refilled with compressed air from a source at the world’s center. They live in a steampunk similar society in a bizarre world. One scientist dissects its own head in an attempt to understand how the flaps of gold leaf inside its brain generate its thoughts.

I began by removing the deeply curved plate that formed the back and top of my head. . . . What I saw exposed was my own brain. . . . 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.

In this dangerous experiment, he discovers a profound truth: “the great lung of the world, the source of all our nourishment,” is going to fail within the next couple of generations and all life will fail with it, because the great exhalation powers everything.

Review The story is narrated as the scientist’s laboratory notes, pondering about the meaning of life and the nature of his universe contrasting his system of belief. Chiang draws a fascinating world without humans, without electricity, just based on pneumatics and breaths life into his protagonist. The scientist works just like the natural philosophers and starts to find out what’s the driving force behind their universe. The message about the equilibrium is soothing and heartrending at the same time.

This is one of the best stories from Chiang and I highly recommend it.

Meta: isfdb. This novella won Hugo and Nebula Awards.



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