Artifact Title: Exhalation

Medium: Text

Author: Ted Chiang

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Story Title: Exhalation

Pages in Image: 56-57

Image Credit: Mikayla Collins

TERA Curator: Judith Ellen Brunton


Ted Chiang’s short story “Exhalation,” published in 2008 in Eclipse 2, and then again in 2019 in a short story collection, is told as a diary left behind by a scientist as they discover the mechanisms that allow life to flourish. The narrator comes to the conclusion that, for their species, air pressure is the source of all life. Through this, they realize air pressure is very slowly decreasing, and eventually there will be no pressure left; the universe will be done with its long exhalation and all bodies and machines will stop. As the diarist philosophizes about this mortality, the story serves as a parable about energy and meaning. The exhalation of the universe is inevitable. But, as the diarist explains “even if a universe’s life span is calculable, the variety of life generated within it is not.” In our universe we use energy. That we can’t decide. But we can decide how we use energy, and what we use energy for?