“Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang
This skillfully and scientifically executed short story (published 1998) was recently released as the film, Arrival, which I enjoyed very much. If you’ve seen it, good, because this is an instance where the screenwriting effectively enhances the story. As a short story, it is cerebral, nostalgic, thought provoking, and in some ways underwhelming. As a movie, many of the storytelling elements, like tension and conflict, are filled out much better.
Gill says the thing that caused the salty discharge from his eyes was the parent’s choice to have the child, no matter what the future. The notion that Chiang toys with is that even if you know the future, you can’t change it. In fact, knowing the future obliges you to fulfill it.
The heptapods bring a new temporal awareness to humanity, conveyed through their written language. Non-causal, telelogical reality. Knowing the end as you begin and going through all of the performance of communication anyway to get there. Similar ends, different means.
Set in opposition, narratively speaking, to the human’s causal linear historical style of thinking. Word order is entirely irrelevant to heptapods, as is the practical difference between the present and the future. One tempting anecdotal illustration of the concept in humans: the child insisting on the story being read to her, not because she wants to know the end, but because she wants to hear it read aloud; the performance, like listing to the music of life, like listening to a good album. You know exactly how it ends before you begin, then immerse yourself in the cycle of songs. A good album can be listened to hundreds of times without losing relevance. That is what the heptapod time perception resembles, based on the clues in their languages. And since linguistic context builds a person’s world (the controversial [is language a technology or a biology?] Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a cultural comparison through language. Which engenders the old sink hole of “aliens” basically just being some other terrestrial ethnicity. How outside the box is it possible to get?) Again, same ends, different means, but in heptapod, ends and means are essentially interchangeable and each integral.
Of course Arrival was a pleasing enhancement of “Story of Your Life.” The short story uses scant suspense or tension, all of the surprises aren’t; because well, that’s the nature of heptapod’s temporal awareness – no surprises. The bits that the movie did which were very satisfying, like the Chinese prime minister stuff (the secret he gives her in the future), the keyed up military intrigue, and the explanation that the heptapods came to us now because they already knew they would be helped by us in the far future (which echos the Chinese prime minister stuff) – none of that is in the short story. Kudos, Arrival. Way to use a good screenplay.
Telelogical vs. Causal
When you know the future, if you can see the future, you can’t choose to live otherwise; having the child or not, though already knowing the future of the child.
Gill: “Philosophically, it’s bullshit. A good existentialist would say that’s not some choice you can make.”
Knowing the future doesn’t empower you to change it, even if you have the illusion that you can change it. Living out the present becomes a performance of well-known music, rather than a causal chain of events.
A good pairing/contrast with Reiko’s Universe Box. Where “Story of Your Life” is about almost too much science, in “Reiko’s” the science only functions metaphorically (except for the elementary astronomy Reiko begins reading).
Gill: “This contrast of the two stories, these two uses of science, gave me some insight into the kind of science fiction writer I am.”
Tune in next time for more on science fiction that does not ask you to learn science, and trip out with us over “Reiko’s Universe Box.”
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!