Yesterday, I read a memoir from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Despite our obvious differences, namely them being mechanical and me organic, the message I received still managed to relate quite significantly to my life, my world and almost everything in it.
The passage I am talking about is from Ted Chiang’s book ‘Exhalation‘, from the novelette of the same name. If you don’t want any spoilers from the book, I suggest bookmarking this page and revisiting it at a later date.
This fictional story tells how an alien scientist comes to discover that the air on his planet is finite. The whole civilisation, from memories to mechanics to every subconscious function, runs entirely on the flow of air. After some self-experimentation, without wanting to ruin the story too much, the scientist discovers that time is running out for his people.
Despite only being twenty pages in length, the short story tackles deep philosophical questions such as what it means to be, memories, the way the universe came into fruition, living on beyond death and the marvels of all creation. Like with most of Chiang’s stories, it alters the perspective on this magical thing called life and helps us, in turn, to live it better.
Here are some of the main themes to ponder over:
After making the shocking discovery about life inevitably coming to an end for his civilisation (as it must do for us all), the scientist manages to make the connection between the air and the universe and produces a wonderful metaphor that inspires the title of the short book:
The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I am glad that it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.
The same is true for us. We don’t know how our ‘Big Bang’ came about or when the expansion of our universe will finish, if ever. All we know is that whatever happened all of those billions of years ago, the crazy chain of events of the universe and matter and evolution has led you to read this post on the internet. I hope you are happy.
Living on, neural patterns and idea viruses
The scientist begins his account by addressing the reader, or the explorer, directly:
Which is why I have written this account. You, I hope, are one of those explorers. You, I hope, found these sheets of copper and deciphered the words engraved on their surfaces. And whether or not your brain is impelled by the air that once impelled mine, through the act of reading my words, the patterns that form your thoughts become an imitation of the patterns that once formed mine. And in that way I live again, through you.
There are a lot of themes to unpack in just this short section alone that relate heavily to our own lives. I had never thought of ideas as having their own mental imprint or having their own distinct patterns on thought. Whether that is neurophysically true or not, the point still stands. Through the act of reading words or speaking ideas, we take one ‘imprint’ and attach it to our own brains. Whether the idea is printed in The Bible, The Communist Manifesto or this book, the ideas of one person or people, if read by others, can live on way longer than the physical entities that thought up the ideas do.
The idea of ‘living on’ through thoughts and memory is expanded upon by the scientist when they contemplate the explorers’ future visit to their long-deceased city.
Your fellow explorers will have found and read the other books that we left behind, and through the collaborative action of your imaginations, my entire civilization lives again. As you walk through our silent districts, imagine them as they were: with the turret clocks striking the hours, the filling stations crowded with gossiping neighbors, criers reciting verse in the public squares, and anatomists giving lectures in the classrooms. Visualize all of these the next time you look at the frozen world around you, and it will become, in your minds, animated and vital again.
This theme reflects the fact that in our own lives, nothing is ever completely gone until it is lost to memory. Whether it be a childhood experience, the loss of a loved one or history books telling you about an ancient civilisation, for as long as our memories and visualisations are functioning, the past lives on.
On the randomness, uniqueness and beauty of us
I’ve previously written about how amazing it is that we live when and where we do and also about how weird this whole thing called life is. The scientist adds to those thoughts with their own take on their own universe:
I hope that you were motivated by a desire for knowledge, a yearning to see what can arise from a universe’s exhalation. Because even if a universe’s life span is calculable, the variety of life that is generated within it is not. The buildings we have erected, the art and music and verse we have composed, the very lives we’ve led: none of them could have been predicted, because none of them was inevitable. Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.
Though I am long dead as you read this explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.
The closing words from the scientist are a stark reminder that within the universe that surrounds us, not just out amongst the galaxies but right here in our own immediate environment, there are things to be marvelled at, of which we have no idea how they arrived. Most of the universe is darkness, a vacuum, nothingness. Yet here in this impossible-to-comprehend-how-miniscule-it-is corner of it all, there is an explosion of complex life – with us at the centre of it all.
Whether you believe that it happened randomly, by design, was determined or just by dumb luck, the universe that you inhabit is immensely complicated and beautiful. It didn’t have to have anything, yet it has everything.
That is something worth reflecting on.