“Those who know the future don’t talk about it.”
I was introduced to Ted Chiang’s brilliant writings after having watched the movie “Arrival”. The movie is loosely based on his short story “Story of Your Life”, an enigmatic title in itself given the plot. Usage of the word “Your” in the title is multifarious, as it could refer to the reader’s life from the narrator’s perspective, or within context of the story, the “Your” represents a mother’s relationship with her daughter. Integrating hard science with poignant story telling is Chiang’s hallmark and he does not fail to induce thinking on part of the reader, without any didacticism.
“For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place”
“Story of Your Life” is written from first person perspective, recounting Dr. Louise Banks’ life as she is recruited by the military to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings. The story weaves her professional encounter with these beings with her personal life. These aliens, known as heptapods, have the ability to see all events, past, present and future in one coalesced moment (reminiscent of Trafalmadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) which also shapes their language. Their philology is neither linear nor time-bound, which is where Dr. Banks is needed to help understand and interpret their language for conversational purposes. Once she becomes adept at “semagrams”, her thought patterns begin to alter as her brain is able to process collective moments of past, present and the future simultaneously.
“There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams with my mind’s eye, sprouting like frost on a windowpane”
“Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose”
The revelation of the book comes as much as a surprise as it was in its portrayal in the movie, which is why I will not touch upon any spoilers. This story deals with thematic concepts of free-will and predestination, the inherent power of endurance in relationships (and where it falters), utilization of science and pursuit of pervasive Truth as a yardstick to measure cause and effect, linearity of time and how it shapes human thinking and actions, and limits to human knowledge to affect changes that could alter the course of this universe.
“The existence of free will meant that we couldn’t know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness”
Technicalities of linguistics and science are employed to unearth possible answers to big questions concerning our actions and their bearings on the present as well as the future.
“Everyone at a wedding anticipated the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” but until the minister actually said them, the ceremony didn’t count. With performative language, saying equalled doing”
The most emotive aspects of the story encompass Dr. Banks’ role as a mother, keeping in view of the painful knowledge she lives with. The style ascribed to her is of directly addressing her daughter from the tender age of being one day old and onwards.
“The word “infant” is derived from the Latin word for “unable to speak,” but you’ll be perfectly capable of saying one thing: “I suffer,” and you’ll do it tirelessly and without hesitation”
We witness the child growing with all her fits and tantrums, having rebellious nature as a teenager and blossoming into a determined young lady through the mothers’ eyes. Their relationship is cordial at times, critical at others. The sincerity and devotion in this mother-daughter relationship is heartrending, with echoes of a tragedy just leering under the surface.
“It will forever astonish me how quickly you grow out of one phase and enter another. Living with you will be like aiming for a moving target; you’ll always be further along than I expect”
Like in “Division by Zero” where the two characters are affected by their professions in the most unlikely of manners, here Dr. Louise Banks’ life is rewired too owing to her professional engagement. The amalgamation of physics and linguistics drifts towards a harrowing realization from which our character cannot escape. The sagacity to either resort to fate or employ free-will remains voluntary, but what will be, will be. No prior knowledge can alter what providence has in store for us.
“The ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in”