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Author Spotlight: Ted Chiang

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us about your story, “Exhalation”! Where did this one come from?

There were two inspirations for the story. The first was the Philip K. Dick story “The Electric Ant.” It’s about a guy who goes in to see his doctor and is told he’s actually a robot. This comes as a shock to him, but once he gets over his surprise, he decides to open up his chest and take a look at his inner workings. He can see a little spool of punch-tape slowly unrolling inside of himself, and that’s his consciousness, more or less. I always thought that was a terrific image, and it stuck with me for years.

The second was the chapter in Roger Penrose’s book The Emperor’s New Mind in which he talks about entropy. He notes that we usually say that we eat food because we need the energy it contains, but that’s not completely accurate. We radiate energy at pretty much the same rate that we absorb it; we’re not actually increasing the amount of energy we contain. We eat food because we’re radiating a high-entropy form of energy, and we need a low-entropy form of energy to compensate; we’re entropy generators. I thought that was an interesting observation, and I wanted to try presenting it in a more concrete form.

Your protagonist and his fellow mechanical beings remind me a little of Asimov’s positronic robots: Why do we envision these sorts of beings as confined to logic, whereas we’re not?

That’s a good question. The idea that robots don’t feel emotions is even older than the word “robot”; Tik-Tok, the mechanical man of Baum’s Oz, predates Čapek’s work by many years, and Tik-Tok was described as being incapable of emotion. I think it might be because we associate the coldness of metal with emotional coldness; I’d bet that the earliest stories of rag dolls coming to life didn’t portray them as being unemotional.

I don’t think the characters in “Exhalation” behave in a particularly robotic manner. Admittedly the story is not centered around emotion; it’s more of a philosophical fantasy, like a Borges or Calvino story. I think it’s the fact that the characters are made of metal that makes you perceive them as acting like robots, but they’re living beings just like us.

(It’s also worth remembering that living beings in our universe face the exact same problem as the characters in the story. Our universe is vastly larger than theirs so the timescale is vastly longer, but heat death awaits us all.)

The narrator here is trying to get to the bottom of reality while potentially altering his own perception of reality. Can a sentient being ever truly understand the world around one’s self?

The narrator makes modifications to his body, but he doesn’t alter his own perception of reality; he comes to understand something fundamental about the nature of his universe.

As for whether it’s possible to truly understand the world, that depends on what you mean by “truly understand.” We understand a lot of things about the world quite well, I think. There are still unanswered questions, but I don’t think that means our understanding is flawed; just incomplete.

What do you have coming up next that we should keep an eye out for?

I had a new novelette, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” appear on Subterranean Online a few months ago. Nothing else in the publication pipeline, alas.

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Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak is the Weekend Editor for The Verge. He is the co-editor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, (Apex Publications, 2014). His writing has also appeared in io9, Gizmodo, Kirkus Reviews, Tor.com, BN Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Clarkesworld and others. He lives in Vermont.