Despite the descriptive prose style, Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” can be difficult to understand simply because of how alien its content is. On its most basic level, it is a story about a race of immortal robots who live in an enclosure and breathe argon air for sustenance. The main character is a anatomist who sets out to discover why all the clocks seem to be moving one hour faster than normal. He suspects it is because the robots’s brains are slowing down, so he dissects his own brain. He discovers that their brains work by shifting currents of air, and that they are slowing down because the air pressure of the enclosure they live in is increasing. Eventually, the pressure would equalize, and all the robots would die. The anatomist is writing the story to anyone who comes from beyond the enclosure after all the robots have died, so they can understand what happened.
The story as a whole is a fascinating take on living with entropy. In the story, all air pressure will eventually equalize and all movement will cease. This bears a striking resemblance to the concept on the heat death of the universe, the leading theory of how our universe will end. The idea is that all mass and energy decay into heat so in the end the universe is left as a spread out cloud of slight warmth in which nothing happens. So much sci-fi is hopeful about the future – even though there will be problems and wars, humanity survives and makes great strides in science in technology. But this is ignoring the ultimate fate of humanity, something no amount of technology and research can help – heat death, and the universe will end. “Exhalation” takes a character discovering this inevitability, and how he copes with the idea that everything will end, no matter what he does. But he manages to stay hopeful, to focus on the present, allowing Ted Chiang to present an alternate reaction to this knowledge, when most people’s first response would be depression.
“Exhalation” works as more than just a moral essay on entropy, however. The gradual drop of information about the world the robots live in keeps the reader engaged throughout the first half of the story, and the excitement of discovery bears the emotional arc of the story to the ground-shaking conclusion. It must be said, though, that “Exhalation” relies on the reader’s knowledge of entropy and the heat death theory. The main character is relatively bland, possessing no chronic tension that comes up beyond his species, and there is relatively little action and no dialogue throughout the story. The worldbuilding, though excellent, is not enough to justify a fifteen-page monologue by the narrator – most of the emotional punch comes from realizing that this is not just a fanciful idea Chiang had, that it is a microcosm of our world, and these characters are having to struggle through the same things we must eventually struggle through.