Exhalation by Ted Chiang 2019

Other than romance novels, science fiction is probably the genre that I least often read, but Chiang’s book was listed by the New York Times Book Review as one of the ‘Ten Best’ of 2020, so when I saw it on the shelf at the Norwich Bookstore, I bought it impulsively.

Glad that I did.  He writes in a lucid, easily flowing style and his topics, while sometimes appearing to require an advanced degree in physics or computer science, are fascinating—-artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, consciousness, alternative universes, free will, evolution, religion.  These are not lightweight topics, and Chiang has the deep understanding of them that enable him to explore them for the lay reader.  His story about computers that allow individuals to follow the lives of their ‘paraselves’ draws deeply upon the quantum theory concept of superposition, something I had no idea about until I was also reading Carlo Revelli’s ‘Helgoland’ at the same time.

My favorite story was the eponymous, Exhalation, in which an anatomy professor devises a method to explore the inside of his brain while remaining conscious and aware.  His discovery that the brain is composed of thin gold leaves which are moved about by air currents forming patterns that coincide with thoughts and memory is the key to his understanding mysterious dislocations of time in his world.  The air pressure responsible for the constancy of time, memories, events, etc. on his planet is decreasing due to the activity of the population and will ultimately doom the planet—-any echo of climate change here????

Don’t be put off by the esoteric concepts or topics.  Chiang doesn’t require his reader to be knowledgeable about the ideas, since he brings you along with just enough information to make the stories credible and fascinating.  His skill has been recognized with four Nebula and four Hugo awards, the Nobels of science fiction.  I started the book with some skepticism; I was sorry to finish it.  Along with Ursula LeGuin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, this is a sci fi volume well worth reading.