Story of Your Life by Chiang, Ted, 1998

Story of Your Life by Chiang, Ted - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I have read a ton of short stories in my life, and I like to think that I have gone pretty far here on these pages to showing you which are my favorites. In case you are taking notes, this one is number one, with a bullet. Story of Your Life is about a mission to Earth by a very strange and very different race of aliens. Because of the way they experience reality, and the unique qualities of their language, the gifts that they leave are profound.

Louise was a member of one of 112 two member teams, consisting each of a linguist and a physicist. The teams were assigned to devices called "looking glasses," which were two way communication devices that appeared all over the globe one day, and allowed humans to converse with a race we called the Heptapods, which we assumed were in orbit. The Heptapods had a very odd appearance. They were large cylinders with evenly spaced eyes and arms, seven of each. With that many evenly spaced eyes around their bodies, the Heptapods could look in all directions at once. All of the teams, Louise's included, were tasked with deciphering the Heptapods language, then trying to trade information. She and her team-mate, a physicist named Gary, plodded as slowly as the rest of the teams at first. Louise made some headway with the spoken language by using computer recordings played back. But when it came to written language, Louise thought that the Heptapods had a simple semasiographic language. She was right about that, but simple was definitely the wrong term to describe it.

The physicists were having a much rougher time of it with the Heptapods. Gary and his ilk tried to communicate very simple things to them, such as velocity, in an attempt to build to something more complex. But the Heptapods were just not getting it, until one day when one of the physicists described something called Fermat's principle of least time. That was a complex theory that could only be demonstrated with high order calculus that described the way that photons bent when they hit the surface of water. You've probably seen the theory in action before: Just look at a straw coming out of a glass of water and you will understand the idea. The theory is so complex because when light travels from point A to point B, where one of the two points is under water, photons just happen to take the path that requires the least time to traverse. Incredibly though, to the Heptapods this principle was as easily describable in their math as something like Delta-V is in ours. It was almost a given to them, whereas we had to go through a series of enormous proofs to describe exactly the same thing. As it turned out, this difference highlighted a very important distinction between the human and the Heptapod worldview.

Consider the phenomenon of light hitting water at one angle, and travelling through it at a different angle. Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it. Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the Heptapods saw it. Two very different interpretations.

The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that should be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available.

When the ancestors of humans and Heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness, they both perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the worldviews that ultimately arose were the end result of that divergence. 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 events all at once, and perceived a purpose underling them all.

Now if this were really all that was going on with this story, I would say that it was cool, and probably memorable, but that's all. But there was more going on. Louise was a divorced mother of a beautiful, wonderful young woman who had died due to misadventure when she was 25, and Louise's life was utterly empty save for work when the Heptapods came along. She was also a linguist par excellence, and loved to immerse herself totally into new languages. The Heptapod languages were no exception, and Louise developed a facility with them both that nobody else could manage. She dreamed in Heptapod A (the spoken language), and did her best to master the written language, Heptapod B. And through her total immersion she began to experience the world the way that the Heptapods did. She partly adopted the Heptapod's worldview, and in doing so lost some of our worldview's causation restrictions. Because of their worldview the Heptapods could see past causation, and in a non-linear manner. They did not use language to inform each other, because they did not have to. They used it to actualize what they had already seen, because the Heptapods were able to take an entire experience in merely by living through a small part of it: The gestalt that they experienced when interacting was not even necessary, because the Heptapods could see up and down the time-stream, and had already experienced everything that we had to take in measured doses, one moment at a time. So when Louise adopted the worldview of the Heptapods, she was able in times of inspiration to take her entire life in one gestalt. She could go back and re-experience, as if for the first time, every moment that she had with her daughter. Chang told this story is a very jumpy, distorted manner, leaping frequently from interactions with the Heptapods to descriptions of Louise's life with her daughter before she died. When I realized that the parts with the daughter were not memories, but were experiences she was having at that moment, I was flabbergasted and blown away.

For those of you who have read Slaughterhouse-Five or The Sirens of Titan you may recognize some of this. Vonnegut's alien race, the Tralfamadorians seemed to experience their reality in this way too. But they were actually slightly different. The Tralfamadorians seemed to view time as a stream: To them the stream probably ran in a circle, and an individual who knew how may have been able to jump in and out of that stream at will, but it was still a causal stream. The Heptapods on the other hand reduced all of existence to one single gestalt moment. They in fact were able to write a single semasiogram that encompassed that entire worldview; a symbolic representation of the way they saw the world. Their actual worldview was much the same. Instead of a stream of consciousness, Louise was viewed her entire life as encompassing her daughter’s. I visualized it as a mother cat wrapping its body lovingly around its kitten. I think that is probably how Louise saw it too.

I know that I have said in the past that book X or story Y was the best thing that I had ever read before. I tend to gush a lot. Just know that with this one I am not. Once you read this story, you will be hard pressed to ever find anything better.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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