TED CHIANG’s amazing imagination together with his knowledge of math, science, mechanics, and linguistics has gifted us with a volume of previously published short stories collected as: STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS (Vintage Books, 2016).
Every story is a gem, but here I focus on the most family-centered but possibly most complex tale of all: ‘STORY OF YOUR LIFE.’ The narrative swerves from technical, to wry, or, to quote a character, to “highly neat.”
Narrator: Louise Banks, a linguist, a teacher, a mother, and a re-married divorcee.
Characters: Neither Louise’s first husband nor her daughter are named, as if the original family role preempts the requirement to distinguish them except in relation to her.
Set-Up: A world-wide alien visitation at a US site
Setting: Apart from flashbacks, the makeshift lab is in a meadow containing a “looking glass,” the aliens’ two-way communications device.
Structure: Episodic narrative of interwoven vignettes from Louise’s life and her participation in making meaningful contact with the enigmatic Heptapods whose spoken and written languages claim the attention of linguists as well as the guarded interest of governments across the globe.
Although the alternating episodes, from personal to professional, appear to be random, and are far from chronological, they are precisely juxtaposed to originate, explicate, or cement narrative connectivity in the construction of Louise’s newly emerging matrix of cognition.
For example: Her lengthy narrative of the alien presence and earliest attempts at oral communication is followed by two examples of cultural dissonance: an allusion to her teaching career and the apocryphal naming of Australian kangaroos, followed right away by her daughter’s misconception, at the age of five, of the nature of a “made” of honor.
Underlying Premise: The basic premise is the scramble to decode any alien language should one come to our attention, but here, specifically, the need to understand the language(s) and seemingly minimalist culture of the larynx-less Heptapods through their mediated communications devices known as looking glasses. Scientific and political entities focus on learning the visitors’ language; motives–whether benign or hostile; and insights into their presumably advanced technologies or potential susceptibility to trade or exploitation.
SPOILER ALERT: THEMES
A. The nature of time:
Ostensibly, the story is a mother’s narration of fragments of personal history to her now-dead daughter, beginning with the privileging of that daughter’s imminent conception. As the story proceeds, it transpires that the central premise may well be Louise’s partial adaptation to the Heptapod mode of abstract thought that relies not on our own cause-and-effect sequence but a mandala-like awareness wherein simultaneity prevails, wherein all components of thought have identical precedence.
Past and future are thus to be deemed, physically, one and the same. By the story’s closure, when the aliens mysteriously take off after a trade of technological information already known on Earth, Louise is convinced that she knew her “destination” from the moment of her choice to conceive, and chose her route accordingly.
B. The nature of language, Fermat’s Principle, and free will
The breakthrough in Louise’s understanding of the aliens’ language(s) stems from the seemingly self-directed behavior of light taking the quickest route to pass through the air from point A to angle through the water to point B. The crux of her growing comprehension is the play of ambiguity as she investigates differences between speech and writing; between human and Heptapod modes of perception; and between spoken language/ linear writing/and grapheme-based written communications (which the author terms semasiographic).
C. The nature of family
Past events that Louise recalls anchor her linguistic study to the gestalt of her life, and are typically touching or maddening reflections on her daughter’s brief life and early death in a rock-climbing accident. While Louise would have preferred to share an enduring similitude with her newborn infant, whom she claims she would have known among thousands, she accepts, through the mystery of the aliens’ visitation and linguistic intricacy, that the mother-daughter bond likewise comprises squabbles, essential differences, and miscommunications.