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Author Topic: EP194: Exhalation  (Read 15386 times)
Heradel
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« on: April 10, 2009, 08:40:58 AM »

EP194: Exhalation

2009 Hugo Nominee Winner!

By Ted Chiang.

Read by Ray Sizemore (of X-Ray Visions).
First appeared in Eclipse 2 ed. Jonathan Strahan.

Narration first appeared at and produced by Starship Sofa. Special thanks to Tony Smith and Ray Sizemore for their kind permission to resyndicate this award nominee.

Audible.com Promotion!
Get your free audiobook at: http://audiblepodcast.com/escapepod

But in the normal course of life, our need for air is far from our thoughts, and indeed many would say that satisfying that need is the least important part of going to the filling stations. For the filling stations are the primary venue for social conversation, the places from which we draw emotional sustenance as well as physical. We all keep spare sets of full lungs in our homes, but when one is alone, the act of opening one’s chest and replacing one’s lungs can seem little better than a chore. In the company of others, however, it becomes a communal activity, a shared pleasure.

Rated PG. Contains entropy, eschatology, and empirical evisceration.
« Last Edit: August 09, 2009, 08:53:23 PM by Heradel » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: April 10, 2009, 12:09:25 PM »

Loved it.

The coda/denouement went on WAAAAAY too long, but it was worth it for the snippets, like "what if there are other universes and we're their argon source?" The "solipsistic telescope" and the autodissection were EXCEPTIONALLY cool.

Like Al, I loved the little glimpses into the world. By not giving away EVERYTHING or having a Captain Exposition character, the science really fit in well. I like stories with a little more science in them -- like this one.

For me, the narrator lived in a a very steampunky world -- steampunk robots, that is.

The story really makes you (okay, makes ME) think about who built/designed these robots, and when did they become sentient? Were they designed that way? The way the narrator refers to himself (itself?) makes me believe they were designed by an intelligent race (argon-breathers) who died off, and after a certain period of time, they made the leap to sentience and started building a society. Since they can't remember more than 100 years, and recorded history is only a few hundred more, I get the feeling that pre-history is the days when the argon-breathers used the robots as tools.

The reading annoyed me at first but when I realized they were robots, it got a lot better and made much more sense for the reader to choose that voice/style.
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« Reply #2 on: April 10, 2009, 01:28:27 PM »

The reading annoyed me at first but when I realized they were robots, it got a lot better and made much more sense for the reader to choose that voice/style.

I'm glad to hear that comment. It was exactly the response I was going for!

I wanted the listener to have an immediate sense of the alien, and so introduced a mild lilt to the character's inflection. Not an accent, so much, as a vague sense of the odd-- just enough to make the subconscious wonder just what type of person this is.
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« Reply #3 on: April 10, 2009, 03:26:44 PM »

I enjoyed this one greatly; It reminded me of listening to the "Origin of Species" audiobook in its style and form.

The world and it robot citizens is very easily and naturally established and built up in detail and complexity. At first, I thought the story would veer towards an origin story of the encased robot race - but I was surprised with the directions it went, and I'm enjoyed the trial of the story of discovery. Also, it made me feel somewhat better about the idea that one day our Universe will reach the 'equalibrium' of heat death.

Overall, create story and I'd be interested in seeing these pressure-punk people reappearing elsewhere.
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« Reply #4 on: April 11, 2009, 07:03:37 PM »

I disliked the narration.  Once the story got rolling, and the narration wasn't so new, I really liked  this.
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« Reply #5 on: April 12, 2009, 09:32:07 AM »

A great story of a race that becomes more self aware through basic science.  I really liked the very end, when sects formed to try to re-establish the gradient by pumping more argon.  It reminds me of our own human failures to look at the true costs of what we do.  Also loved the auto-dissection and the idea that the main character invited a friend over in a few days as a safety.
Tony Chiang is one to watch.
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« Reply #6 on: April 12, 2009, 09:58:41 AM »

I really enjoyed the idea of watching a Darwin or Newton as a robot.

Just like Listener, I found the ending too long.  And, honestly, I dropped off a bit in the middle of the "dissection". 

I was fascinated with the description of the new science, and if I had it written down I think I would have enjoyed it much more.

More stories in this universe would be welcome.
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« Reply #7 on: April 13, 2009, 12:03:34 AM »

I loved this one, though I as well felt it got kind of repetitive at the end.

Additionally, I wish more people learned about the principle of energy conservation.
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« Reply #8 on: April 13, 2009, 09:47:28 AM »

Cool!   I really liked this one.  I thought the narration was good.  He also narrated one of the Nebula stories on StarShip Sofa. 
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« Reply #9 on: April 14, 2009, 12:40:34 AM »

excellent. i don't need to hear the rest, this is my hugo favourite.

i imagined this taking place inside an industrial argon tank that had been abandoned so that the resident nanobots were left to adapt their own programming. by making the nanobot's power supply hydraulic the engineers incorporated an excellent failsafe that makes sure that they don't accidentally escape.
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« Reply #10 on: April 14, 2009, 12:15:00 PM »

Loved it.
+1

The reading annoyed me at first but when I realized they were robots, it got a lot better and made much more sense for the reader to choose that voice/style.
again +1, though as the story went on I think the narrator sounded less "robotic".
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« Reply #11 on: April 14, 2009, 01:41:07 PM »

Best "heat death of the universe" story ever! 

Of course, it's a lot more than that too - which is what makes it great.  The robots were a great alien society, and I loved the unanswered questions of who built them and how they got left there.  But mostly, as a physics dork, I thought the equalization of pressure was a great easy to grasp form of entropy, showing how that leads to the heat death of the universe.  Well done!
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« Reply #12 on: April 14, 2009, 07:23:04 PM »

What a great story!  It's truly original, and emotional without being maudlin.  I'd be delighted to see this one win the Hugo.

i imagined this taking place inside an industrial argon tank that had been abandoned so that the resident nanobots were left to adapt their own programming. by making the nanobot's power supply hydraulic the engineers incorporated an excellent failsafe that makes sure that they don't accidentally escape.

That's a really neat idea.
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Arion
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« Reply #13 on: April 14, 2009, 10:40:42 PM »

Best "heat death of the universe" story ever! 
I still have to give that accolade to Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question"

However I have to agree with all the comments on the physics and the world-building of the alien robot society which were all very well developed and handled superbly.

A very strong contender for the Hugo award, in my opinion.  If the rest of the stories are of this calibre then it's a bumper crop of SF this season, to be sure.
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« Reply #14 on: April 15, 2009, 05:19:05 AM »

I have nothing intelligent to add to the discussion here.  I just want to say that this was my favorite Escape Pod in quite a long time.

I've encountered about a half dozen Ted Chiang stories and every one has been, at the very least, interesting and thought-provoking.  If an anthology of his stories ever shows up round here, I'll buy it.
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« Reply #15 on: April 15, 2009, 11:14:55 AM »

I really liked the imagry presented by this, I spent some time imagining how boggling it'd be to study ones own brain strewn into hanging peices, and still be coherant. An interesting idea.  The story ran a bit long- but overall I really enjoyed this one. Well read, if a little dryly at moments.
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« Reply #16 on: April 15, 2009, 11:24:19 AM »

I have nothing intelligent to add to the discussion here.  I just want to say that this was my favorite Escape Pod in quite a long time.

I've encountered about a half dozen Ted Chiang stories and every one has been, at the very least, interesting and thought-provoking.  If an anthology of his stories ever shows up round here, I'll buy it.

I have this out from the NYPL right now, it's good. Stories of Your Life and Others
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« Reply #17 on: April 15, 2009, 11:46:07 PM »

Wow!
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« Reply #18 on: April 16, 2009, 12:10:37 PM »

Best "heat death of the universe" story ever! 
I still have to give that accolade to Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question"


The Last Question is a great story, no doubt.  And of course very explicitly about the heat death of the universe.  Maybe that's why I liked this story more.  It had more going on, and used the heat death of the universe only by analogy, just the simple evening out of pressures.  Easy to understand, that.  Much easier to comprehend than the stars going out.  The smaller scale is something you can wrap your brain around.  But either way, it's all entropy.

Also, the Asimov story has the ending where the computer becomes God.  Which is cute, but does sort of undermine the whole end of the universe thing.
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« Reply #19 on: April 16, 2009, 04:10:44 PM »

Best "heat death of the universe" story ever! 
I still have to give that accolade to Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question"


The Last Question is a great story, no doubt.  And of course very explicitly about the heat death of the universe.  Maybe that's why I liked this story more.  It had more going on, and used the heat death of the universe only by analogy, just the simple evening out of pressures.  Easy to understand, that.  Much easier to comprehend than the stars going out.  The smaller scale is something you can wrap your brain around.  But either way, it's all entropy.

Also, the Asimov story has the ending where the computer becomes God.  Which is cute, but does sort of undermine the whole end of the universe thing.

Yes, that was an interesting story ending choice for Prof.A to arrive at, being an avowed secular humanist, and all.  Still it did rather neatly answer the question "Did God make Man, or Vice-Versa" with the answer being "Yes."  One can assume Asimov is postulating a cyclic universe wherein the big bang leads to a complex universe with increasing entropy balanced with increasing information acqusition within the cosmic AC, leading to another big bang.  Over and over and over... again.  It does solve the questions about "what happened before the big-bang?" and "who laid the cosmic egg, anyway?"

It must be nice for a current author to have people debate whether his story is better than one by Asimov. 
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« Reply #20 on: April 17, 2009, 06:42:30 PM »

Best story I've heard on EscapePod in a long long while.

I particularly enjoyed the thought put into the construction of the world.  The mechanisms which ran the lifeforms and their tools were fairly believable.  Properly managed airflow works just like a babbage engine and pneumatics can otherwise power just about any mechanism.

What I liked most though was the detailed description of the world because it really stymied your attempts to think your way out of it.

If the atmosphere is pure argon, you can't make fire easily.
None of the elements in the world were as hard as the chromium shell so you couldn't dig your way out of it either.  The limited constraints made it hard to engineer a way out of the problem and instead forced you to consider the philosophical points.  A very fine tactic.

But I must confess it tickled the pure engineer in me more than the philosopher.  There was one VERY important force in the world that was missed.  The pendulums used it.   If the ceiling was so incredibly high, simply by climbing much higher in their atmosphere, they could largely escape their fate.  Simply build very high up and a giant pendulum, then stopper up the great breath.  The pendulum loads empty lungs on one side of it's swing and unloads full ones on the other.   The lungs have a simple pressure-switch that snaps the lid shut at a particular air pressure (the bottom of the pendulum arc)    There.  A simple mechanical solution. Smiley

Also, if you want to get really geek-crazy...  There were magnets and glass lenses and mirrors.  That's enough conductors and semi-conductors to build vacuum tubes and a few simple IC.  You might be able to create an electric generator and use that to power an argon laser to try to puncture the shell, or at least liquefy chromium for making other tools which could then be used for digging away at the shell.  Of course, if it's infinitely thick, it's a futile act, but we never gain knowledge if we don't try to gain knowledge, right?

I do enjoy the whole 'seat of consciousness' question though.  It's entertaining to wrestle with and his self-analysis was pretty neat and the whole universe did have a nice set up for making people think about that.
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« Reply #21 on: April 18, 2009, 08:36:28 PM »

EP runs a lot of really, really good fiction. 95% of it falls in that category for me. Much rarer is the piece that, in my opinion, falls into the "truly outstanding" category.

This story merits that distinction. Its been a while since I've heard a story that made me go "Wow!" and speculate for some time afterwards. I've enjoyed other Ted Chiang stories before, too, but this one takes the cake. the ideas were so original to me, and he went into amazing detail.. painted a pretty vivid picture in my head.

Kudos. Rooting for this one to win.
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« Reply #22 on: April 19, 2009, 09:32:59 AM »

Long time listener, first time caller here. I'm moved from lurking to say that this is my favourite Escape Pod story of recent memory. Really very good and filled with a pleasing internal logic that doesn't disappoint upon further examination.

Well done, that man!
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« Reply #23 on: April 19, 2009, 03:26:55 PM »

There was one VERY important force in the world that was missed.  The pendulums used it.   If the ceiling was so incredibly high, simply by climbing much higher in their atmosphere, they could largely escape their fate.  Simply build very high up and a giant pendulum, then stopper up the great breath.  The pendulum loads empty lungs on one side of it's swing and unloads full ones on the other.   The lungs have a simple pressure-switch that snaps the lid shut at a particular air pressure (the bottom of the pendulum arc)    There.  A simple mechanical solution. Smiley

Also, if you want to get really geek-crazy...  There were magnets and glass lenses and mirrors.  That's enough conductors and semi-conductors to build vacuum tubes and a few simple IC.  You might be able to create an electric generator and use that to power an argon laser to try to puncture the shell, or at least liquefy chromium for making other tools which could then be used for digging away at the shell.  Of course, if it's infinitely thick, it's a futile act, but we never gain knowledge if we don't try to gain knowledge, right?


Interesting points, but in my opinion, the key phrase here is "largely escape their fate."  Sadly, since none of your proposed suggestions are the engineering grail that is the perpetual motion machine, it only delays the inevitable.

Not knowing what's on the other side of chromium shell, it could well be that cutting through to the other side would rather hasten their end in a decidedly abrupt manner.  (Sort of like if human-kind came up with a way to generate a singularity to harness the power of all that infinitely dense mass, but screwed up and ended up spaghettifying the earth...)
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« Reply #24 on: April 19, 2009, 09:57:04 PM »

This is a great one. My favourite from at least the past year.
It had a unique combination of:
- robots,
- a Victorian flavour in the writing style, an alternate technology that is (not steam, and is) sufficiently plausible to generate semi-serious discussion, and
- a bit of an "Euuuw" factor in the self-dissection scene.

Pressure Death of the Universe. What's not to love?

There was one VERY important force in the world that was missed.  The pendulums used it.   If the ceiling was so incredibly high, simply by climbing much higher in their atmosphere, they could largely escape their fate.  Simply build very high up and a giant pendulum, then stopper up the great breath.  The pendulum loads empty lungs on one side of it's swing and unloads full ones on the other.   The lungs have a simple pressure-switch that snaps the lid shut at a particular air pressure (the bottom of the pendulum arc)    There.  A simple mechanical solution. Smiley
But - operating the pendulums for the clocks (or anything) also uses up pressure. Climbing up high uses up pressure. Hauling things up high (for the use of the survivalists), whether by rope or by being placed on a pendulum, uses up pressure. TANSTAAFL.
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« Reply #25 on: April 20, 2009, 07:36:14 AM »

Let me add my name to the list of accolades - as Talia said, while the overall level of stories on EP is quite high, every so often there's one that stands head and shoulders above the rest - and this was such a story. I agree that it took too long to finish, but the sheer brilliance of everything that came before the coda more than compensates for that.
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« Reply #26 on: April 20, 2009, 04:48:09 PM »

Interesting points, but in my opinion, the key phrase here is "largely escape their fate."  Sadly, since none of your proposed suggestions are the engineering grail that is the perpetual motion machine, it only delays the inevitable.

Not knowing what's on the other side of chromium shell, it could well be that cutting through to the other side would rather hasten their end in a decidedly abrupt manner.  (Sort of like if human-kind came up with a way to generate a singularity to harness the power of all that infinitely dense mass, but screwed up and ended up spaghettifying the earth...)

Well.  When I say 'largely escape', I meant 'significantly delay' it.  Who's to say that given more time to think about it, they couldn't find an  even better solution to their situation?  They were obviously still a learning, growing species.  Why resign themselves to a fate that they might be able to escape?

As for cutting through...  Yeah.  It might be terrible.  That's why you want to be very careful and thorough when experimenting with things and there's still the tiniest chance you might have missed something.  But...  If they were going to die anyhow, wouldn't it be a decent last-resort problem?

I mean..  Consider the possibilities of the other side.  A similar but different-pressured environment, they would either be better or no worse-off than they presently are.  Some noxious chemical?  Perhaps they can switch to a chemosythesis method of power generation.  If you never explore the unknown, you never learn.

It's a philosophical point really.  Die fighting or die peacefully.  Resist or surrender.  Both can be noble.  Both have their value.  I just felt that the anatomist was giving up a bit too easily.  This judgment is purely a personal aesthetic.
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« Reply #27 on: April 20, 2009, 05:17:17 PM »

I am seriously wondering whether iTunes screwed up my podcast feed. I can't believe the praises heaved on this to my mind monotonous, badly paced and altogether uninteresting story. I don't often criticize the episodes, I think, I tend to see something good in everything and usually emphasize the good over the bad, but with this one I just can't find anything. Weird, tastes do differ apparently. Hurray. (I will promise to listen again though, am a bit gobsmacked I can have such a different impression of a piece of fiction which tickles everyone else's fancy. Makes me doubt my sanity.)
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« Reply #28 on: April 20, 2009, 05:19:46 PM »

But - operating the pendulums for the clocks (or anything) also uses up pressure. Climbing up high uses up pressure. Hauling things up high (for the use of the survivalists), whether by rope or by being placed on a pendulum, uses up pressure. TANSTAAFL.

Pendulums do not use pressure. That's why their internal time was different from that of the clocks.  A pendulum uses gravity as its source of energy, much like a hydro-electric dam.  

You ears pop when you ascend or descend rapidly due to changes in pressure.  

A pendulum is NOT perpetual motion BUT, the amount of energy you need to add to a pendulum to make it swing to full height on the other end of its arc is very small relative to the overall energy you're using.  Ski-lifts and cable-cars use gravity of the cars going down to pull the cars going up.  IF the gravity/height  were sufficient, because gravity is doing the work of both driving your pendulum and compressing the gas, you would be gaining more pressure than you used.

Consider this design:  The pendulum can go a full 360 degrees.  At the top of it's rotation, empty lungs are automatically loaded/unloaded, sealed in both situations.  At the bottom of the rotation, a forward value opens on the sealed empty container.  The vacuum inside it from its descent now has suction, adding to the forward motion of the pendulum and filling the lung with the more-dense lower air.  It then automatically caps. It now weighs more than before, but on the opposite end of the pendulum, another empty canister has just been loaded, so the weight difference is minimal (canisters of any metal weighing a LOT more than Argon)  If still more energy was needed due to drag, at anywhere within 10 degrees of the top of the circuit, the pressure change is of minimal gain, so you could release a small amount of pressure from the lung as a 'jet' to generate that extra power, while reserving most of the pressure.  

Or maybe this wouldn't work.  Planets are not sealed containers, and I'm not sure Boyle's law considers containers of sufficient size to consider gravity.  Those are questions their world could answer pretty easily that ours cannot.  We also don't know all the external forces on their world, so we can't easily solve one way or another and say they are doomed.  Just seemed odd to me that after his dissection, the anatomist would so readily give in and say they can go no further.
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« Reply #29 on: April 20, 2009, 10:07:24 PM »

I am seriously wondering whether iTunes screwed up my podcast feed. I can't believe the praises heaved on this to my mind monotonous, badly paced and altogether uninteresting story. I don't often criticize the episodes, I think, I tend to see something good in everything and usually emphasize the good over the bad, but with this one I just can't find anything. Weird, tastes do differ apparently. Hurray. (I will promise to listen again though, am a bit gobsmacked I can have such a different impression of a piece of fiction which tickles everyone else's fancy. Makes me doubt my sanity.)

hey, now you know how I feel when praise is lavished upon the typical crappy Podcastle Miniature.  Tongue
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« Reply #30 on: April 20, 2009, 10:47:22 PM »

A pendulum uses gravity as its source of energy, much like a hydro-electric dam.

close but not quite right. a pendulum uses gravity to convert energy back and forth between potential and kinetic, the source of energy is whatever originally positioned the mass above a gravity well. in a hydro-electric dam this source of energy is the sun evaporating water from a lower region (which then condenses above the dam).

the device you describe would require a constant input of energy to counteract friction. it is one of those clever devices mentioned in the story which successfully refills a tank but requires more than a tank's worth of energy to do it.

and, in order to have any chance of working, the world must resemble an infinity tall cylinder of chromium that's wide enough to accommodate the swing of a pendulum so large that it dips into an argon atmosphere so deep that the ground level compression is substantial. nevermind questions of how gravity generated in such a bizarre universe.

a much more likely explanation is that these are remarkably small entities instead of the container being enormous.
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« Reply #31 on: April 21, 2009, 07:06:47 AM »

A pendulum uses gravity as its source of energy, much like a hydro-electric dam.

close but not quite right. a pendulum uses gravity to convert energy back and forth between potential and kinetic, the source of energy is whatever originally positioned the mass above a gravity well. in a hydro-electric dam this source of energy is the sun evaporating water from a lower region (which then condenses above the dam).

the device you describe would require a constant input of energy to counteract friction. it is one of those clever devices mentioned in the story which successfully refills a tank but requires more than a tank's worth of energy to do it.

and, in order to have any chance of working, the world must resemble an infinity tall cylinder of chromium that's wide enough to accommodate the swing of a pendulum so large that it dips into an argon atmosphere so deep that the ground level compression is substantial. nevermind questions of how gravity generated in such a bizarre universe.

a much more likely explanation is that these are remarkably small entities instead of the container being enormous.

Don't forget about friction, either.
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« Reply #32 on: April 21, 2009, 07:12:27 AM »

the device you describe would require a constant input of energy to counteract friction. it is one of those clever devices mentioned in the story which successfully refills a tank but requires more than a tank's worth of energy to do it.



Don't forget about friction, either.
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« Reply #33 on: April 21, 2009, 07:19:07 AM »

Thanks, Eytan.  I don't know how I missed that.  It's too early.  I guess I was focusing on the ground level compression.
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Talia
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« Reply #34 on: April 21, 2009, 09:15:19 AM »

Don't forget about friction, either.

Yeah, that was a great story too Tongue
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« Reply #35 on: April 21, 2009, 11:24:10 AM »

Like deflective, I had the image of these being very very small robots.  I kept going back and forth thinking that what they called "air" was actually electricity, and "lungs" were batteries/capacitors.  By the end (and after reading the comments) I guess it was literally air.  Still it almost works as electricity, energy is energy after all.

In any case, this is a *great* story and it hit a lot of right notes for me. Seemed to have a sort of classic 50's SF feel. I could hear it as an X-Minus 1 episode.

It does a really good job of one of the things that I love about SF: Show me my world/condition from a different perspective and let (make) me think about it from there.  Besides, I am a complete sucker for the pointed "does the same fate that befell me await you?" meta bit at the end.

Clearly Hugo worthy.  Awesome job alll around.
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« Reply #36 on: April 22, 2009, 01:41:20 PM »

A simply amazing story, and strangely timeless too, rather than getting angsty over his death, the narrator looks to the future beyond that with hope, they may be playthings of a cruel and fickle god, but there's no reason to go all emo about it.

So, when do you think the story was set, as the narrator was writing his story, or as future explorers were walking through a city of statues?
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« Reply #37 on: April 22, 2009, 02:32:25 PM »

Absolutely Great story! Smiley


As to climbing higher to get lower pressure, that may not be possible in this world especially if they are really tiny, perhaps the robots entire world is sitting on someones desk as a paper weight in which case climbing wouldn't give them an air pressure difference. Just thinking out loud.
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« Reply #38 on: April 22, 2009, 02:57:04 PM »

A pendulum uses gravity as its source of energy, much like a hydro-electric dam.

close but not quite right. a pendulum uses gravity to convert energy back and forth between potential and kinetic, the source of energy is whatever originally positioned the mass above a gravity well. in a hydro-electric dam this source of energy is the sun evaporating water from a lower region (which then condenses above the dam).
Very true.  Point conceded.

the device you describe would require a constant input of energy to counteract friction. it is one of those clever devices mentioned in the story which successfully refills a tank but requires more than a tank's worth of energy to do it.

and, in order to have any chance of working, the world must resemble an infinity tall cylinder of chromium that's wide enough to accommodate the swing of a pendulum so large that it dips into an argon atmosphere so deep that the ground level compression is substantial. nevermind questions of how gravity generated in such a bizarre universe.
Well.  Yes. Smiley  I just couldn't think of any other possible way to deal with argon.  Noble gas, no known solid state, liquid only at an obnoxiously low temp.  It's too stable for even fusion or fission to do much with it.  

My mental image was based on liquids really.  If you had two diving bells on a pulley system, both filled with water, and sunk one to the depths, it weighs no more than the other one.  As you hoist it up, you send the other down.  Requires very little energy.  But now that first diving bell has an incredible amount of pressure inside it, enough that I'm betting it would be more energy than the cost of pulling it up while sending its counter-balance down.  Strictly speaking, it's not a perpetual motion machine.  It is using an external force (gravity) to do work.   The devil is in the details of course.  The energy used to construct the vessel and the stresses it would endure mean you might not really get the total energy put into it back out.  We lack sufficient info on the specifics of their world to easily say.  

But you are right.  A universe with the right constraints for it to have a snowball's chance in Hell of working is very low.

a much more likely explanation is that these are remarkably small entities instead of the container being enormous.
Careful!  A tiny universe comes with its own set of problems.  Friction is the nemesis of nanomachines.  Also, given pendulums work as a moment-to-moment measurement of time that either their world is scaled to them OR it exists in some larger world.  A tiny world alone in the void is no different from a very large world alone in the void.  If it exists in some larger world, external forces are acting upon it and that means the potential for energy from outside the system, and that gives them a definite possibility of escaping their fate.  (Note:  The argon from the other chamber may or may not be evidence of an external system)

Hm.  Though I suppose the existence of gravity almost requires there be an external system of some kind.  I mean...

Think about it.  If they were a universe alone in a void of nothingness, the most concentrated point of mass in their world would be the bottom of their gravity well, yet all the mass in their universe is in contact with itself, so it would collapse in on itself, becoming infinitely dense and ceasing because once everything in universe is at the same point, gravity becomes unmeasurable.  It effectively ceases to exist.

.Unless, of course, the structure of the shell were solid enough to somehow hold that force in check.  But then you've got all sorts of unfathomable problems.  If the central mass is attached to the shell, the warping of spacetime would be such it would eventually be the same as a single-point universe.  If the central mass were unattached to the hull, it boggles the mind really.  Assuming the central mass holds itself coherent and the shell is also coherent, then...  Wow.  That will make your brain hurt.  It seems like there'd be a force almost like tension being generated, but where would it come from and how could you define it?  Augh.

Anyhow...  I got way off in left field.  So..  I think we both agree that their world must exist inside a larger universe.  (whether that makes US flatworlders or not is a separate debate)  I further submit that IF their world exists in a larger universe, there are external forces acting on their world.  Given that, no matter how slim the odds are, there exists the potential for them to use one of those external forces to escape their fate.

I suppose the same applies for heat death of the universe.  In order for time to begin or end, there must be something outside it.  Of course, from our POV, it would imply there's something outside that too and so on and so on.    But that's probably a limitation of us.  We live in 3D space, fixed in time.  Our eyes map this 3D world onto 2 dimensions.  If we truly saw things in 3D, we'd all be able to see what was sitting on the other side of the wall from our current vantage point.
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« Reply #39 on: April 22, 2009, 06:09:08 PM »

I suppose the existence of gravity almost requires there be an external system of some kind...

refilled gas cylinders are another good indication.

most likely, this is a hermetically sealed warehouse used to manufacture something extremely volatile or prone to corrosion (so the argon atmosphere).  the autonomous robots were used in construction.  they may be small but not necessarily tiny (maybe about the size of crickets?) and appear to be abandoned & modifying their own programing.  their pneumatic power supply reduces the chance of sparks, essential when working with volatile substances, and may be a failsafe ensuring that they would shut down within a day of escaping.

not everything in the plant is automated and pressure is, slowly, building up within the warehouse.
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« Reply #40 on: April 26, 2009, 06:47:36 PM »

Talking of Asimov comparisons, a part of this seemed to me almost an homage to his 'The Gods Themselves'.  In this novel humankind is contacted by the inhabitants of a parallel universe who offer us the designs of an 'electron pump'. By using this to transfer matter between the universes it appears that both sides can gain energy in much the same way that the narrator here speculates about exploiting a pressure difference with another world.

Exhalation was a lovely story and very well read I thought. It left me wondering about the society of these beings. A quite sophisticated and differentiated culture seemed to be hinted at. Of course, the story involves two universal puzzles. One concerns the ultimate pressure loss/heat death fate of all physical processes. Was the narrator's closing epiphany meant to emphasise the still more difficult question though? That is, the matter of how physical processes are related to meaning, culture and consciousness.
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« Reply #41 on: April 30, 2009, 07:04:55 AM »

One of the best stories I've heard in a while.
Gave me motivation to look at some of my stories again.
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« Reply #42 on: May 01, 2009, 11:03:05 PM »

i cried, but not because i was sad.
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« Reply #43 on: May 11, 2009, 01:00:46 PM »

Loved this story with a big big big deep love.  Everything about it.  Want to marry it and have, like, ten thousand of its babies.  See?  Chiang can so totally do better than the storm angel-chasers story.

Ahhhhhhh.  This one goes with the keepers.  Thanks Escape Pod!
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« Reply #44 on: June 01, 2009, 02:22:52 AM »

im nearing towards the end of this episode, and man i am loving this story! this is definitely one to keep! it ensnared me and kept me riveted throughout the whole story!  the reading was awesome too Smiley
i especially loved the dizzying imagery of looking through your own brain.  *shudder*
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« Reply #45 on: June 03, 2009, 03:27:21 PM »


This was an absolutely outstanding story.  The author did a fantastic job of creating a completely new world with it's own set of natural laws that was both alien and familiar.  Completely original.  I loved it.

Esteban
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« Reply #46 on: August 09, 2009, 08:57:17 PM »

And this one won the Hugo.

Please keep discussion to this story's relative merits against the others, the general Hugo thread is here: http://forum.escapeartists.net/index.php?topic=2756.0
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« Reply #47 on: August 09, 2009, 09:53:36 PM »

And this one won the Hugo.

Please keep discussion to this story's relative merits against the others, the general Hugo thread is here: http://forum.escapeartists.net/index.php?topic=2756.0

This story kicked the collective ass of the other contenders.


... I've forgotten which were the contenders.  Undecided  Well, it kicked their collective ass anyway; I do remember that much.
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« Reply #48 on: August 10, 2009, 11:38:35 PM »

This is the best EP story to date. IMHO.

It also serves as a wonder "heat death of the universe" introduction.
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« Reply #49 on: August 12, 2009, 08:29:19 PM »

Just want to add my voice: favourite EP story by far. Reading was ace. Actually, the exceptional nature of this story restored my faith in EP a little.
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« Reply #50 on: August 13, 2009, 02:23:53 AM »

I've raved about this story before; in my opinion, for anyone else to have won the hugo this year would have been ridiculous. Of course, this does not diminish the accomplishment here, but the reverse.
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« Reply #51 on: September 13, 2009, 08:36:45 AM »

Magnificent writing and performance both. A real stand out of an EP. Why? I enjoy many episodes but I return to this one and even after several listens, it holds up.
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« Reply #52 on: September 27, 2009, 11:36:36 PM »

My favorite three lit podcasts are EP, PseudoPod, and The Sherlock Holmes London Society.
This story will not be deleted from my Zune. Love it. Had to pull over on the drive to work to listen and pay attention to the final 15 minutes, it was such a compelling piece. Was 10 minutes late, didn't care.
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« Reply #53 on: January 28, 2010, 03:15:55 PM »

Wow, how did this story manage to slip through my fingers.  I orginally missed it because of my travels for work.  But I thought I had gone back and listened to everything I had missed.  Aparently not.

I am so happy to have rediscoved this absolute gem.  Very, very good story.  It triggers the imagination, geeks out on science, explores cool concepts, and makes one think about one's own existance.  It epitomizes science fiction!  My appraisal of Ted Chaing has skyrocketed.  Of course this won the Hugo.
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« Reply #54 on: January 28, 2010, 04:37:57 PM »

Wow, how did this story manage to slip through my fingers.  I orginally missed it because of my travels for work.  But I thought I had gone back and listened to everything I had missed.  Aparently not.

I am so happy to have rediscoved this absolute gem.  Very, very good story.  It triggers the imagination, geeks out on science, explores cool concepts, and makes one think about one's own existance.  It epitomizes science fiction!  My appraisal of Ted Chaing has skyrocketed.  Of course this won the Hugo.

And, incidentally, Small Beer press said they were going to bring his quite excellent short story collection (Stories of Your Life and Others) back into print today: http://smallbeerpress.com/not-a-journal/2010/01/28/stories-of-your-life/

Which is a good thing, because it's going for $50+ on Amazon right now. Luckily for me the NYPL has it (though I will likely be buying this as well).
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« Reply #55 on: April 20, 2010, 12:02:11 PM »

This story was amazing!  A contender for my #1 favorite EP episode (though that would require a grudge match with Friction), and probably in my top 5 short stories ever.

It really surprises me how much I like this, actually, since from a distance it seems to be the didactic hard SF that so often bore me in the big magazines.  But, really, it was great in every way.  The narrator did a great job reading it.  The oddity of these creatures and this world was given in digestible portions while the story unfolded WHILE not straying from the protagonists point of view.  The science was not just for the sake of science but also gave purpose to the character, an understanding of their world, and even philosophy of the mind. 

Especially compelling was the concept that the entire world is run by a long exhale from some higher power--following that idea further might imply that there will be a renewal of the world on the next breath (perhaps when someone realizes they've been neglecting these bots and renews the tank). 

I tend to get a little bored with scientist protagonists in classic stories (and this has a classic feel to it, in a good way).  Most scientist characters just aren't that interesting, they're smart in some generically defined way, and they come up with some clever solution to the problem to avert disaster at the last minute.  But THIS guy is not only smart, he's also got GUTS in a major way.  It takes some major courage to dissect your own brain.  Although it also requires your drive to learn to be more powerful than your concern for yourself and others.  What if he'd accidentally damaged his brain in a way that blocked the airflow to certain areas, he could have come out of there with psychopathic behaviors and harmed his fellow creatures.  I'm glad it didn't go that way, but I'm just sayin...

One thing that I did wonder about, though, is no one seemed to consider simplifying their life to prolong it.  For instance:  do they need so many clocks?  Presumably the clocks expend energy to run, so if you knew that every tick was a slice off of your life when you'd previously thought your life more or less indefinite, wouldn't it drive you nuts?
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« Reply #56 on: October 06, 2010, 06:12:22 PM »

Greetings all,

I'm very late to the game here and basically writing because I want to get some more free fiction, but hopefully I'll try and become a bit involved in the forums. I'm posting on this story since this is still one of my favorite Escape Pod stories and one that I push on innocent bystanders every chance I get.

I occasionally teach an undergraduate course on cognitive science at a school in upstate New York. The last time I taught the course I added a set of readings I called "cognitive science fiction." Basically, for each week's topic I assigned a technical reading covering the research into the field and also an optional fun reading, a piece of science fiction that delved into the issue from a literary perspective. We read some of Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad, some Asimov robot stories, some William Gibson and also some not-quite science fiction like Borges and Julio Cortazar. I also included some Escape Pod stories that were relevant to various topics.

Ted Chiang's _Exhalation_ went with a section on dynamic systems and cognition. Even after all my lectures on the neuroscience of the mind and the scientific data on how thought is represented in human brains (and other systems), I had a couple students tell me that the passage on the dissection and the description of air moving the gold foil leaves was when they finally "got" what I had been going on about all semester. I also had several students tell me this was one of the best readings in the class and that they were hooked on Escape Pod as a result.

So, thank you Ted Chiang for teaching my students what I could not, and thank you Escape Pod for bringing it to me! I haven't been vocal, but I have loved you from afar.
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« Reply #57 on: October 06, 2010, 06:40:33 PM »

Ted Chiang's _Exhalation_ went with a section on dynamic systems and cognition. Even after all my lectures on the neuroscience of the mind and the scientific data on how thought is represented in human brains (and other systems), I had a couple students tell me that the passage on the dissection and the description of air moving the gold foil leaves was when they finally "got" what I had been going on about all semester. I also had several students tell me this was one of the best readings in the class and that they were hooked on Escape Pod as a result.

I've thought of it as a great intelligent story from an entertainment perspective.  That it works for teaching cognitive science is very, very cool.
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« Reply #58 on: March 13, 2012, 10:54:09 PM »

loved it! a master work, but I agree the little epilogue at the end went on too long. inspiring nonetheless! Grin
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« Reply #59 on: December 29, 2013, 09:40:03 PM »

Amazing story. Wonderfully simple way of elucidating the idea of entropy and heat death, hints of other universes, exploration of philosophy of mind. Good stuff!

A number of the preceding comments refer to the poignant scene where the protagonist operates on his own brain. The term auto-dissection was used in several of these comments. A more accurate term is auto-vivisection. There's a compelling term one doesn't have cause to think about very often!
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« Reply #60 on: July 08, 2014, 05:18:49 PM »

Named this story #9 on my Best Podcast Fiction of All Time List:
http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2014/07/the-best-podcast-fiction-of-all-time-the-complete-list/
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« Reply #61 on: September 13, 2014, 07:21:10 PM »

second only to 'Understand'.  Although understand is a novella or novellette or some such thing and probably won't fit on epod.  I can't understand how it didn't win all the awards in 91.
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« Reply #62 on: November 07, 2014, 07:23:09 AM »

Great story, puts the 'science' back in 'SciFi'.

One point that no one mentioned, so I'm actually wondering whether I may have an incorrect recollection, is why wouldn't they explore the 'reservoir' that the use to refill their lungs and that is the source of the pressure difference?

While listening to the story, my impression of the reservoir was more like a steam vent in the earth's surface rather than a tank.

Also, one of the main character's hopes / speculations in the end was for a tunnel to connect different worlds.

What if the 'reservoir' was the entrance to such a tunnel?
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