apologetics, Current Events, Literary Apologetics, Popular Books

Ted Chiang’s Religious Vision and Critique in “Exhalation”

Ted Chiang is one of the more well-known names publishing science fiction and fantasy short stories today. His short story, “Stories of Your Life” was the basis for the film “Arrival” (which I discussed here). His latest collection, Exhalation: Stories is another thought-provoking, moving collection of stories that will make readers think deeply about many questions. What struck me is that, despite Chiang being an atheist, his is remarkably knowledgeable about religion and, though he challenges various religious traditions at points, he also writes stories that resonate with them. I wanted to discuss his religious vision and critique in this book. There will be SPOILERS for some of these stories ahead.


Readers who have done a lot of digging into the esoteric origins of young earth creationism will recognize the title of this short story a nod to one of the most obscure but also earliest examples of young earth literature, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot by Philip Henry Gosse. In Gosse’s book, written before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, he argues that the fossil record was actually created with the appearance of age and thus doesn’t give evidence of the actual age of the earth. Gosse effectively introduced the argument of “appearance of age” into the young earth creationist repertoire of arguments for their position, and he did it before the evidence for evolution had reached the stage it has now.

In Chiang’s short story, he imagines a scientist interacting with the world that genuinely does appear to be young. In this world, fossils are found that show no evidence of prior age. Tree rings do not falsify a young earth. The evidence on the planet all gives way to yielding the result that the Earth really is young. But some evidence isn’t fixed. The multiplicity of language begins to show that it is from accident rather than by design. Moreover, some question comes into mind as to why the universe was created–was it really made for us, or for some other group of beings somewhere else? The evidence for the miraculous continues, but the purpose of the character we follow in the story begins to get called into question. This leads to the challenge that if this person was not created with a specific purpose, they are left to their own devices to find purpose, and they choose to search… for purpose.

“Omphalos” serves as a lens to question: what would it mean if the universe were not made for humans? (I don’t think it was, and wrote this article to that effect, though it has diverged some from my current views in 6 years.) Chiang’s story is a masterful look at how we might perceive the universe differently as what we think collapses around us. It also asks questions about purpose in a universe in which we don’t have our own, unique purpose. It’s a thought experiment but one that needs to challenge us.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The first story in the collection, “The Merchant…” is a series of smaller stories about how some different rings that allowed for time travel impacted people’s lives in a fantastic setting with explicitly Muslim religious expression. As the stories told by the merchant make the reader understand, the longing to be able to change the past and set events right to make up for mistakes is strong. But the concluding lines of the story make clear the point:

Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough. (36)

I have read this story before in another collection of Chiang’s, but it still struck me as forcefully as it did the first time. The deep yearning to change the past is found in so many of us now. But it is a longing we can’t fulfill. Yet even without magical rings that allow for time travel by passing through them, we can still find what is enough: repentance, atonement, and forgiveness.

Exhalation: Self-Destruction and Miracle

The title story of this collection, “Exhalation,” was a Hugo Award winner for best short story. In this story, there is a society of mechanical beings with brains that work based on pressure of the air. One of these beings discovers that its society is beginning to slow down in computations and the reason is due to the way they’re using their resources, pumping air from one place to another, which changes the air pressure and thus their capacities. From this, the being basically finds the second law of thermodynamics and posits that all things will eventually move towards equilibrium–dooming its society.

This short story has many intriguing threads. First, the notion of self-destruction by actions that are initially seen as good or profitable or beneficial. Clear parallels exist between this story and our own, as humanity continues to destroy the good creation of God through our own efforts to seek ease of transportation, luxury, and profit over all else.

Another startling aspect of “Exhalation” is the conclusion towards the end, that life itself is miraculous, because it manages to survive in a universe that is bent upon ultimately driving it out (the second law of thermodynamics means there will be an inevitable heat death of the universe). Life does seem to be a miracle: its diversity, persistence, the emergence of consciousness, and the very fact that life exists stand out. Though there may be natural explanations for these stages, the wonder of them cannot be totally explained in such naturalistic means. There is a sense of the miraculous in life.


There are many other themes found throughout this collection of stories, as well as his others. Questions about what it means to be a person; what mental life is like; how we destroy ourselves; and more. What are some themes you’ve picked up? What stories resonated with you? Check out Exhalation: Stories for some though-provoking stories.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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