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EP194: Exhalation

2009 Hugo Nominee!

By Ted Chiang.
Read by Ray Sizemore (of X-Ray Visions).

First appeared in Eclipse 2, ed. Jonathan Strahan.

Narration first appeared at and produced by Starship Sofa. Special thanks to Tony Smith and Ray Sizemore for their kind permission to resyndicate this award nominee.

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But in the normal course of life, our need for air is far from our thoughts, and indeed many would say that satisfying that need is the least important part of going to the filling stations. For the filling stations are the primary venue for social conversation, the places from which we draw emotional sustenance as well as physical. We all keep spare sets of full lungs in our homes, but when one is alone, the act of opening one’s chest and replacing one’s lungs can seem little better than a chore. In the company of others, however, it becomes a communal activity, a shared pleasure.

Rated PG. Contains entropy, eschatology, and empirical evisceration.

Comments (51)

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  1. Yargling says:

    I enjoyed this one greatly. The truly alien machine people and their world are very effectively built up in the style of “The Origin of Species” audiobook, or so it seems to me.

    And it somehow makes the concept of the heat-death of the Universe less scary.

  2. AndyD says:

    I enjoyed this story very much!

    I find myself really hoping that they are somehow able to generate power that doesn’t rely on air from the reservoir.

    I can just picture in my mind a machine of gears and clockwork where one person would be able to turn a crank and have that action magnified to the point that they would be able to store more air than they used.

    This is what science fiction is all about, a story that really gets the imagination going.

  3. [...] Pod appearance A pleasant surprise: Escape Pod has resyndicated my reading of “Exhalation” that originally aired on Starship [...]

  4. Anemone says:

    I loved this story … Thanks so much!

    Also, I was very excited to hear someone mention ‘The Day of the Triffids.’ Perhaps I move in somewhat truncated science fiction circles, but I had read this a few years ago, and never heard anyone else mention it. At the time I read it, I wrote a review on one of my sites. Thanks for sharing your enjoyment of this classic!

  5. JennyM says:

    I haven’t yet listened to this podcast but did read this story recently. I just wanted to say how beautifully written it is – a real object lesson to writers in how to create and sustain an atmosphere at its own pace. I sometimes despair of the fact so many writers feel pressured to start their stories with a hook, bang or elephant trap; and that so many editors seem to require it. This story insisted on a gentle build-up, fitting to the characters’ world. It’s very refreshing to read a story that requires the reader to come to it, rather than be bashed around the head with its demand for attention.

  6. Divya says:

    Loved the story. Is the writer some kind of robot? And could this have been one way colonists devised to eventually make a place habitable?

  7. Church says:

    I adore this story. Steam/Cyberpunk meditation on entropy FTW!

    Ray does an insanely good job with the narration, and I’m very happy to see SSS and EP sharing resources (I don’t mind hearing the good stuff twice.

  8. [...] “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang ( Eclipse Two) Read Online – listen on EscapePod [...]

  9. scatterbrain says:

    I think the proper term is “clockpunk” Church.

    I don’t know how Chiang does it, but I’m brimming with excitement to know just where his next story is going to come from.

  10. steve potter says:

    this story cut opened my scalp, tore my brain out, gave it a good spit shinning like a mad drunk doing a windshield for $100, and then whammed my brain back down in there again before mask tapping my head shut again ..

    funny thing is I enjoyed it !!

  11. ADerksen says:

    This story was an excellent example of how science fiction frequently works best in written or audio form – the way the author gradually sneaks up on you and overturns your assumptions about the world that is slowly being revealed. Instead of a medieval town crier inspiring an anatomist to explore the human soul, we find a clockwork automaton exploring the heat-death of the universe. That was the other brilliant conceit of this tale – that this story could be used as an educational piece by analogy. The protagonist rapidly works his way through an understanding of the brain, and how life and personality exist as patterns of electrochemical activity, and then follows this to its logical conclusion with the pressure-death of its universe. This comparative analysis and explanation make this tale about what it means to be alive or to think or to remember also puts it firmly in the world of hard science fiction with its explanations of these twin transient phenomena.

  12. Church says:

    @Scatterbrain: Yes, “Clockpunk” works nicely, but I haven’t heard that term used outside of boingboing.

    @ADerksen: Well put.

  13. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    Outstanding story! Now this is Hugo-worthy. Good hard science, excellent writing. It could have been written by Douglas Hoffstadter (“Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”).

    My only complaint? The robot would have used up a lot less air if he didn’t keep over explaining everything.

  14. Bill says:

    Great story, one of my favorites so far!

  15. maxiewawa says:

    Awesome. I know I probably won’t get on the show without anything more constructive to say, but I can’t think of anything else to say.

  16. mitch says:

    Go to maxiewawa.com
    it’s out of this world ! ;)

  17. [...] the science fiction lovers out there, I highly recommend giving the Hugo nominated Exhalation, by Ted Chiang, a listen. A “clockpunk” meditation on entropy, and the heat- (or [...]

  18. L33tminion says:

    I’m not sure whether I liked the ending, a dragged-out epilogue trying to pull some hope out of a mechanistic, finite universe. It wasn’t what I expected, though, and I did like the intellectual honesty of it, that the main character couldn’t pull off the “we’ll live again in your imagination” without noting “until you die, too”.

    There were some big details that were left out: Where does light come from in that universe? (And why don’t they consider using that as a (admittedly still temporary) source of power?) How did that universe and the life within it originate?

    But the image of flip-flops and whole neural networks being implemented in gold foil and compressed argon is one I find incredibly cool. And the overarching analogy is solid.

  19. L33tminion says:

    The link for flip-flops was supposed to be that. Too bad you can’t preview your comments…

  20. Brave Space Monkey says:

    Wow! What a great story. What an amazing world the writer created for us.

  21. Ed from Texas says:

    Definitely a high point in the history of Escape Pod. A Clockwork Eschatology that is engaging, inventive, alien and yet easy to identify with.

  22. Lexicat says:

    “clockpunk?!” why does every new genre fad have to have the suffix -punk appended to it? does the agrandizing of the fad, necessitate the diminishment of what actual punk is?

  23. Rob says:

    Really fantastic. Opened my brain, made me question the way everything works, and left me excited to be alive.

    I loved the Victorian, letter style of the piece as well, and in case it hasn’t already been mentioned: the voicing and reading were perfect.

    10/10

  24. Traxer says:

    Reading the above comments, perhaps I’m being too cynical about this piece after a listen. I mean, there is a vast depth to this piece, with incredible detail and thought obviously put into the prose, but it ended up rather…too deep for its own good in the end.

    I listened to this for a long time, listening through the descriptive Victorian prose, then looked to find there was ten minutes left, and slapped my forehead. I usually love the reflective first-person view on an alien society, but, to be candid, this was boring. It just keeps pounding its final lesson again and again and again in a slow, plodding, matter that I couldn’t connect to.

    But, that said, I will admit it is a piece of quality and perhaps I should take a read of the original before I make a final opinion.

  25. max Roberts says:

    Here is a tortured sole measuring out his last days in a brilliant
    essay that can’t fail to make us
    ponder our own fate.
    The parallel between his destiny in his world and ours in this one is
    wonderfully descrbed.
    The narrator lives his part.
    The slightly metallic edge to the
    voice lends a slight threat to his
    character.
    It’s a wonderful production overall
    giving life to the literature.
    Fantastic!

  26. stw says:

    This was a really really beautiful story. I loved the emphasis on the universe’s tendency toward equilibrium. It was kind of sad, but at the same time emphasized the need to hold every day for its true value.

    I also had a really fun time trying to imagine who or what constructed the beings, and why they were stuck in the chromium shell…

  27. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    Lexicat: Would science fiction written about punks be “punkpunk”?

    I agree, suffixing “punk” to the end of words to describe genres is about as annoying as appending “gate” to scandals.

  28. Aesculapius says:

    Amazing story. One of the best EP has ever run.

  29. purplehez says:

    Stories like this are the reason I love science fiction. It entertained me, it made me think and it made me happy. Fantastic.

  30. john says:

    a second listen reveals a number of “bugs” to the story which leads me to ask other questions.

    like how did “our hero” know that he needed to lengthen air hoses to move parts of his brain out of the way? it seems there is an initial discovery operation missing. “the first time I opened my head I found…” would have gone far to build a case for the obsession with building the elaborate lab.

    we know they don’t reproduce because of the “precious life” references.

    how long is a “year?”

    what about wear and tear on limbs? are they replaced or do they just stop working?

    where did material for tools and other things come from?

    is there a single source of light?

    speaking of that. how do “eyes” work in a air driven brain? is there a photon to air converter?

  31. Paul Fischer says:

    This may be one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. It’s certainly in my personal top ten. The way the story built allowed the author to play with my assumptions about the nature of the world and then surprise me little by little as the story built.

    It truly deserves to be a Hugo nominee.

  32. James M says:

    Best story I’ve heard on EP.

  33. [...] Escape Pod #194:  Hugo nominee “Exhalation,” by Ted Chiang. [...]

  34. MasterThief says:

    Any story that involves a main character dissecting his own brain and then reassembling it for research purposes is a good story.

    (But only if the main character is a robot. Otherwise, it’s pure nightmare fuel.)

  35. The ending dragged on a bit, and the narrator used up a lot of air for a guy who was contemplating the impending pressure-death of his universe, but that’s a very small smudge on this otherwise very, very shiny story.

  36. Gary H says:

    Wow. That was a cool story. A lot of humanity for a steam punk robot.

  37. aranya says:

    i agree with gary h.

    the first run was boring, but i loved the imagery and i gave it a second try and loved it.
    the reading was amazing, and the way everything looked in my head was great.

    i think this one should win the hugo!

  38. Mal McClenaghan says:

    One of the best short SF pieces I have ever heard/read. How nice to hear a story that has been thought through from every angle, and doesn’t contain plot holes and loose ends. Engaging and imaginative. Pure genius.

  39. [...] recent re-syndication, followed by an appearance on the fledgling Sofanauts podcast, have served as my introduction to [...]

  40. Blaine Boy says:

    woah! Robo-metal people with gold brains dependent on an ENERGY SOURCE that is being completely USED UP and they are just now TRYING TO FIX IT. Hmm… I wonder what Mr. Chiang is remarking at. (By the way, it was an awesome story. I particularly the way the guy set up his equipment to check out his own brain. If only somebody out here was cool enough to do that ;) ). Leaves a lot of questions, but he it’s only short fiction and that’s sort of the appeal isn’t it?

    Well guys, I’m all done talking for today (I just made comments to all sort of stories).

    Sincerely,
    TBB

  41. [...] really liked stories such as Exhalation, which is a truly amazing story – an alien “on the origin of species”; Article of [...]

  42. [...] really liked stories such as Exhalation, which is a truly amazing story – an alien “on the origin of species”; Article of [...]

  43. [...] a listen toExhalation, a Hugo Award nominee by Ted Chiang and a mind-blowing (ha!) story. It’s all kinds of [...]

  44. LaShawn says:

    I guess I’ll be among the very tiny minority who found this incredibly boring. Maybe it was because of the reader’s plodding, clinical voice, which I’m sure was intentional and in character, still put me to sleep. Not my style of story, I guess.

  45. [...] wait. It stole my brain and turned it inside out in one long thought experiment.  The reading on Escape Pod perfectly matches the dry tone of the narration. Opening with the jarring image of exchanging lungs [...]

  46. Lungdoc says:

    I love this story! I started listening in bits while on a trip and at first was curious about the readng..then it became clear and after multiple few minute listens, i had to go back and listen fully from the beginning. was walking the streets of basel switzerland, crying by the end….love love love this story

  47. Kabur Naj says:

    I loved this story! One of the reasons (which noone else seems to have mentioned here) is that it turns the traditional creationist/atheist narrative on it’s head. Here we have a universe which—if I read the story as hard SF—is very probably an artificial construct in some laboratory somewhere. However, it’s denizens are wired in such a way that they only derive conclusions from the direct evidence of their senses, and they happen to be physically constrained from detecting anything outside of the chromium shell. As a result, the best they can do is postulate the existence of parallel, but identically pressure-driven, universes. By embodying the rationalist ideal, their cosmology will necessarily remain incomplete.

    As an atheist and a materialist, that was a bit of a mind-fuck for me. And really, isn’t that the grandest aim of science fiction? To give your worldview a good shove once in a while.

    BTW, long-time listener, first-time commenter. In fact, I just finished working my way through the entire EP archive. Steve Eley, your commentaries are fantastic! (And presented in a way that people of differing opinions can still enjoy them. Bravo!)

  48. Kabur Naj says:

    Oops, I stand corrected. I just relistened to the story and at the 17:00 mark, the narrator indicates that he is indeed a deist.

    Also, I see that the story just took the Hugo award last week. Woot!

  49. [...] by Ted Chiang. Escape Pod also has an audio podcast here if you would rather listen than read. Share and [...]