Story of Your Life

By Ted Chiang

I’ve taught ‘Story of Your Life’ in many different ways over the years, depending on the focus of the course and the interests of the students. I wrote down a bunch of thoughts here, so it’s a long post. Our discussion on 2/9/2024 focused mostly on #2, #3 and #5.

I’m not going to try to avoid spoilers here, so proceed at your own risk!

#1. Formal linguistics. This is by far the most linguistic-y story we’ve read. The narrator-protagonist Louise Banks is a linguist, an academic with a field-research background. Aliens have arrived on Earth and she’s been hired to learn their language and figure out what they want.

Chiang sprinkles linguistics jargon unapologetically throughout the narration: we hear about phonemes and graphemes, spectrograms and vocal tracts, logograms, ideograms, case markers, center-embedding. I’ve spent an hour or two with Languages of the World students trying to reconstruct a Heptapod-B-like language based on the descriptions on pp. 105-114. It’s a lot of fun, and I hope students eventually see that while Heptapod B is formally very different from English, every one of its features has a close analogue in some human language. What makes this language different is not its formal structure but its social function, which does not become clear until late in the story (see #3).

#2. The structure of the novella is remarkable, and I make sure to spend at least a few minutes talking about it. It’s broken down into about 45 segments, ranging in length from a few lines to a few pages, and alternating between two narratives:

1. past-tense narrative about Louise’s research on the aliens (heptapods)
2. future-tense narrative about the life of Louise’s child, who is addressed and referred to as you (we never learn her name)

Narrative 1 progresses chronologically and gives a complete account of Louise’s research: It begins with her being hired onto the team, describes how the work proceeds, and ends with the aliens’ departure.

Narrative 2 is neither chronological nor complete. We read first about the child’s death (99), then about the child as a teen (102, 107), then about the child as a 6-year-old (111), then about her college graduation (114), and so on. Many of these segments begin with I remember followed by a future-tense complement: ‘I remember a conversation we’ll have when you’re in your junior year of high school’ (107), ‘I remember when we’ll be driving to the mall’ (114), ‘I remember when you’ll be a month old’ (136).

The first and last paragraphs of the story narrate the same moment: just before the child’s conception, when the father asks, ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ (91, 145) These ‘bookend’ paragraphs are narrated in the present tense, and can thus (as MJ pointed out in class) be understood to be describing the moment of the narration.

Here’s a plot diagram/reverse outline I made for the story, inspired by one of my students last semester (thanks, Nico). So cool!

#3. Social function of language; speech acts. As Louise gains proficiency in the Heptapods’ language, she comes to understand a profound difference between their cognition and ours. Human cognition is sequential and causal, so we experience events chronologically and believe that each event directly influences the next. Heptapods instead experience ‘all events at once,’ with a ‘purpose underlying them all’ (134, 140). A heptapod already knows everything it will ever experience. Its life, Chiang suggests, can be explained teleologically, like Fermat’s account of a ray of light: the endpoint of the life is given, and the path to that final state can be understood as the optimal way to arrive there.

Whoa. It takes a lot of work to get your head around this idea, and I encourage students to talk about it at length (see #5). Somewhere in that discussion, I make sure to spend a few minutes on its linguistic implications.

Near the end of the story Louise poses the hypothetical question: ‘If the heptapods already knew everything that they would ever say or hear, what was the point of their using language at all?’ And then she answers the question for us: ‘For the heptapods, all language was performative.’ (137-138)

We recognize the performative capacity of language in utterances like I hereby pronounce you husband and wife; we discussed this at length with The Easthound. For the heptapods, every utterance enacts reality. Using language the way the heptapods do is ‘like performing in a play’ (139); every utterance is ‘a ritual recitation,’ ‘the realization of a plan.’ (140) Language is still meaningful, but not as a way to share new information, rather as a way to recognize a moment, give moment to the moment.

Remember Mazes? That poor narrator kept trying to perform gorgeous, meaningful dances, while the clueless alien thought the narrator was just trying (and failing) to find food. Neither character ever understood the other; they were doing entirely different things with the maze.

The heptapods are in some ways like the narrator of ‘Mazes’—performing with great intention, awareness and meaning, while (most of) the humans around them are completely missing the point, obsessively fixed on why did the aliens come, what’s their goal, what do they want? The last scene, the botched gift exchange and the heptapods’ sudden unexplained departure, leaves Colonel Weber and the State Department reps as unsatisfied and deflated as the alien at the end of ‘Mazes.’

#4. Whorfian stuff. As Louise gains proficiency in Heptapod B, the language starts changing the way she thinks (126): ‘My thoughts were becoming graphically coded. 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…articulating even complex ideas all at once.’ (127)

By the end of the story Louise has gained a heptapod-like knowledge of her own future—including her child’s life and death, as well as her own death. She no longer ‘exercises freedom of choice’; instead she senses her ‘motives coincid[ing] with history’s purposes’ (p. 137).

This sounds a lot like linguistic relativity—the idea (usually attributed to Edward Sapir & Benjamin Whorf) that the grammar and lexicon of your native language have a non-trivial influence on your cognition. But it’s not clear to me that this story is really trying to show us linguistic relativity (or determinism) per se.

For one thing, I think it’s important that Chiang, with all his knowledge of linguistics and willingness to drop linguistic jargon, never mentions Sapir, Whorf, relativism or determinism by name. It just never seems to occur to Louise to frame her experience this way.

Moreover, Louise explicitly says that the effect of Heptapod B is ‘something more than language.’ (127) What does she mean by this? The semagrams are ‘almost like mandalas’; when looking at them, she enters ‘a meditative state, contemplating the ways in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable.’

This description is mysterious, mystical, incomplete. Louise could be experiencing the effects of prolonged meditation, a suspension or infiltration of the mind brought about by her disciplined practice rather than by the grammar of Heptapod B itself. Eventually, Louise says, ‘new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration’ (140). Perhaps learning Heptapod B activates a part of the brain that’s normally latent? Perhaps it has effects like those of a psychotropic drug? The story leaves this a mystery. It’s a fascinating mystery—I’m just not sure how much it helps us understand the Whorfian hypothesis.

The film adaptation Arrival (2016) makes the Whorfian connection much more explicitly, and I think inaccurately. I may write about that later on.

#5. Free will. The aspect of Louise’s story that’s probably hardest for us to accept is that she—and the heptapods—do not have free will. This means that she will answer ‘yes’ to ‘Do you want to make a baby?’, even knowing that the child they conceive will die young and probably in great pain.

The story tries to help us understand that the absence of free will is not necessarily coercion, that there is another way to know both past and future and still live intelligently and meaningfully. To do the story justice, I think we need to spend some time in class really grappling with this idea.

I think it was Micah who helped get this discussion going yesterday. Here are some of the questions we talked about, as well as some others I’ve thought about:

  • What does it mean to ‘come to terms with’ some terrible piece of knowledge? Why do very painful memories tend to get less painful over time?
  • Why is it that even if we already know much of what will happen to us, we still experience it as a surprise or shock? I think Katheryn talked here about the whole story of humankind being framed as predestination in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
  • Why do we love re-reading books, re-watching movies, re-listening to songs?
  • Why do people so often say they ‘don’t regret a single day’ they spent with a loved one they lost, even when that loss has brought them such excruciating pain?
  • The story begins and ends with Louise telling herself to ‘pay attention, note every detail’ (91, 145). Solitude ended with a very similar exhortation: ‘Listen!…Be aware!’ Louise and Serenity are very different characters with different worldviews; what do they have in common that makes them both say these things?
  • Some of you (Emilio and Emily, I think) spoke with affection about how your grandparents take great pleasure in mundane activities like grocery shopping; is this because, as we live through more and more of our experiences, we learn to better appreciate the present moment?
  • What would it really be like for us to suddenly acquire the heptapods’ simultaneous awareness of time? I think Gwen likened it to a profound trauma, something that might induce insanity.

I find it deeply moving to talk about these questions with students. I try not to be maudlin, but these discussions always make me recognize (and remember) how difficult young adulthood is. Our society encourages us to believe that our lives are entirely in our hands, that every decision is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and that the ‘wrong’ choice may lead to crippling regret and turn your whole life into a giant failure. It’s terrible to believe this and virtually impossible to make yourself stop. Ted Chiang, in his story commentary, leaves us with this quote from the elderly Kurt Vonnegut (on the 25th anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five); I offer his words here as an antidote:

[R]emembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now… To … all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and loves you no matter what you are.’ (278)

One thought on “Story of Your Life

  1. Marjorie Pak

    Here are a few nonfiction pieces by Ted Chiang; we mentioned #1 and #2 in class:
    1. ‘Will AI become the new McKinsey?’ New Yorker (5/4/23):
    2. Ted Chiang on magic and sci-fi, Interview with Ezra Klein, New York Times (3/3/2021, transcript and audio),
    3. ‘Facing the Future’ (2022, originally published as a foreword to The Art and Science of Arrival):


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