Yesterday’s cheery hypothetical came about because I’ve agreed to do a guest lecture in a Science Fiction class in the English department. I’m going to be talking about Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” whose connection to the hypothetical should be obvious to people who have read it, but is a spoiler for those who haven’t.

My guest spot will be this Friday, and I sat in on a class last week (where they discussed a Zelazny story and one of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles) to get an idea of what the class is usually like. This will be a different experience for me. It’s been fifteen years since I took a literature class, and I’ve never really taught a discussion class. My usual mode involves lecturing and equations, so trying to lead a discussion of a literary work will be an unusual experience.

So that I don’t make a complete ass of myself, I’m making some notes about the important features of the story. Since I have this blog, I figure I might as well post them, and see if anybody has any useful suggestions (beyond “That’s way too much for one hour-long class…” which I already know). This will include MASSIVE SPOILERS, so don’t click through unless you’ve already read the story.

Structural Stuff: The class I sat in on spent a bit of time discussing the structure of the stories being studied, and the structure here is pretty interesting. There are two main threads to the plot: one covers the story of the narrator’s involvement in the attempt to communicate with mysterious aliens. The other thread jumps around, telling the story of the narrator’s daughter’s life through anecdotes at various different ages.

The daughter’s story is told in the second person, through anecdotes related as if being told on the night of her conception.

Character Stuff: There are three main characters in the story: Louise Banks, the linguist narrator; Gary Donnelly, the physicist teamed with her, who she eventually marries; and their daughter, who isn’t named.

The daughter’s story is told only through second-person anecdotes jumping around in time. The story of the relationship between Louise and Gary is pretty straightforward from their meeting up until the conception, but their history after that is only hinted at indirectly, though the basic shape is clear.

The daughter’s story jumps around, but you can get the basic outline. It’s all in second-person future tense, and covers everything from her conception to her death in a climbing accident at the age of twenty-five.

I think Chiang does a really good job of depicting the course of these lives and relationships with minimal direct information. The little details are just perfect, like the way Louise only refers to Gary’s second wife as “what’s her name.” I’ll be interested to see how much of this the students pick up, though.

Language Stuff: There’s a lot of detail here about linguistics, which I can’t really evaluate. I think the basic description of the slow process of establishing communication is really well done, and much better than the Star Trek “universal translator” sort of shtick, or the “aliens who learned English from tv” routine. I can’t really say whether it’s plausible, though.

There’s a strong Sapir-Whorf sort of element to the story, in which learning the alien language produces a dramatic change in the way Louise sees the world. I’m not sure I really want to get into that, but it’s a possible angle if the discussion goes that way.

Physics Stuff: This is one of the aspects that really draws me to this story, because it’s rare to see such a solid presentation of a physics idea that doesn’t involve explosions. The description of least-action principles is very good, and seems fairly comprehensible, though I’m obviously not sure how it plays to a real layperson (I’ll know after Friday, I guess…).

There’s some room here to discuss things like the Feynman formulation of quantum mechanics, but I should probably try to restrain myself…

Thematic Stuff: To a large extent, the linguistics and physics are just expertly deployed props to enable the exploration of the Big Question here, namely “What would it be like to go through life knowing what would happen in the future, but being unable to change it?”

The story is great not just because it makes good use of science and linguistics, but because it provides a sensitive and moving portrayal of a person living in an impossible situation. Louise knows the whole course of her daughter’s life before she’s even conceived. In the second paragraph of the story, she says “I’d love to tell you the story of this evening, the night you’re conceived, but the right time to do that would be when you’re ready to have children of your own, and we’ll never get that chance.”

That’s an incredibly painful sort of knowledge to have to live with, and it makes for a powerful story. It was an affecting story when I first read it as a single grad student, and now as an expectant parent… Well, let’s just say that Kate’s not going to be re-reading this one in the near future.

At first glance, it seems like Louise is remarkably accepting of this knowledge, but there are lots of little hints through the story about how painful it is– the recurring dream of her daughter’s death, that she starts having even before the conception, the way she clings to her daughter’s hand when she climbs stairs. It’s the little details that really make the story work.

This is where the angsty hypothetical question comes in, as a way to more directly illustrate the situation Louise is facing. She knows she will have a daughter, and she knows her daughter will die young, and she has to make the best of the good times they’ll have, knowing that there’s tragedy ahead, and there’s nothing she can do to change it. She doesn’t have a choice in the story, but I think presenting it as a choice might make the idea a little more concrete for the students.

High Culture Reference: The Greek story of Cassandra, who was given the gift of prophecy, but cursed to have nobody believe her.

Pop Culture Reference: Terminator/ The Sarah Conner Chronicles, where the lead character knows of an impending apocalypse, which she may or may not be able to stop.

Pop Culture Reference (Older): Twelve Monkeys, where all the actions of the time-travelling hero are already fixed, and can’t change the future.

Comments? Suggestions?

Comments

  1. #1 Dan Blum
    February 28, 2008

    Re the linguistics, you might want to read what the Tensor had to say about the story (executive summary – he thought the linguistic aspects were well thought-out and that Banks was a plausible linguist).

  2. #2 Kate Nepveu
    February 28, 2008

    The daughter’s story is told in the second person

    Nit: it’s told in (quasi-epistolary?) first, *to* the daughter.

  3. #3 Mark P
    February 28, 2008

    I think I might have read the story. Part of the impact is the context of modern Western civilization. We have come to believe that the natural course of events is that children survive their parents. In the past, and not all that far in the past, it was not rare for children to die young. I’m sure it made it no easier, but it did not seem unnatural.

    I can also see some relationship to Slaughterhouse-Five, in that a man who “comes unstuck in time” can see his entire life, from birth to death, but cannot change it.

  4. #4 Derek James
    February 28, 2008

    There’s a strong Sapir-Whorf sort of element to the story, in which learning the alien language produces a dramatic change in the way Louise sees the world. I’m not sure I really want to get into that, but it’s a possible angle if the discussion goes that way.

    Hmmm…I’m pretty sure the way the story is structured (i.e. jumping around in time) is meant to be an explicit reflection of Louise’s changed perception of time from learning the Heptapod language. It would seem strange to talk about the structure of the story divorced from Louise’s changed perception of time.

    Mark just mentioned Slaughterhouse-Five, which I assumed was direct inspiration for Chiang’s story when I first read it. The narrative in that novel also jumps around in time, and the aliens, the Tralfamadorians also see “in four dimensions”, viewing time “all at once”. I remember a description of how they view humans, as giant worms, with one end emerging from our mother’s wombs, snaking all over the place for a few decades, with the other end usually under a pile of dirt. I believe their art was also a reflection of their perception of time. They didn’t like sequential art (e.g. novels or movies) because they knew what was going to happen, so there was no surprise. So they enjoyed more holistic pieces of art that tended to evoke a particular emotion.

    I couldn’t suspend my disbelief about this way of perceiving the universe, even though I found it interesting, and enjoyed both Vonnegut’s novel and Chiang’s story very much (I don’t believe backward time travel is possibly either, but I can still enjoy Back to the Future).

  5. #5 John Novak
    February 28, 2008

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the scenario you poased has quite the same ennui.

    You give a choice about a fairly narrow range of knowledge and one specific event; the short story gives no choice, but opens up all knowledge– the narrator doesn’t just know she’ll be happy, but knows all the details of how and why she’ll be happy because she knows all the details of future events. (Unless I’m just dramatically misremembering the story.)

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    February 28, 2008

    Hmmm…I’m pretty sure the way the story is structured (i.e. jumping around in time) is meant to be an explicit reflection of Louise’s changed perception of time from learning the Heptapod language. It would seem strange to talk about the structure of the story divorced from Louise’s changed perception of time.

    I meant that I don’t want to get into the Sapir-Whorf stuff, and trying to explain what that means and whether or not it’s a bunch of crap. I’m vaguely aware of the basic hypothesis and some of the debate, but it’s not something I know well, and I think it would bog down horribly.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the scenario you posed has quite the same ennui.

    You give a choice about a fairly narrow range of knowledge and one specific event; the short story gives no choice, but opens up all knowledge– the narrator doesn’t just know she’ll be happy, but knows all the details of how and why she’ll be happy because she knows all the details of future events. (Unless I’m just dramatically misremembering the story.)

    No, you’re remembering it right.
    The hypothetical is intended to be sort of a scaled-down version of the dilemma in the story, to bring it more within the grasp of the students. If they’re like I was as a college student (or, hell, ten years ago), the idea of raising kids is probably very distant and largely hypothetical. They’re right at the age for really melodramatic romantic relationship stuff, though.

  7. #7 Derek Lowe
    February 28, 2008

    That’s an excellent story in a lot of ways, and it struck me immediately as such when I read it. Ted Chiang has written several that have hit me like that.

    On another topic you mentioned – I found that after having infant children, a number of themes and subjects suddenly became charged with emotion. Before, news of a baby being hurt or killed was very unpleasant to hear about, but afterwards it made me almost physically sick. In the same manner, I realized that I was completely prepared to do all sorts of physical violence to anyone who threatened either of my children, and I’m not known as a violent guy.

    I have to think that all this has some strong evolutionary angle, but it’s strange to feel it happen to you – the closest analog I can come up with are the mental changes that come about when you become interested in the opposite sex. Pretty good-sized evolutionary component in there, too.

  8. #8 John Novak
    February 28, 2008

    The hypothetical is intended to be sort of a scaled-down version of the dilemma in the story, to bring it more within the grasp of the students.

    Okay, fair enough. I drew a different conclusion (or a different question, at least) from the story itself: Not, “Is it worth the pain,” but rather, “Why bother?”

    Of course, you’re really not even left with the why bother question, because you already know you will bother, because otherwise, you wouldn’t have the foreknowledge you do. This is, I admit, probably not what Chiang wanted me to focus on, but in many ways that particular story was the weakest of the collection for me.

  9. #9 Waterdog
    February 29, 2008

    Rather than focusing on Sapir-Whorf, I would be inclined to consider the science of perception, i.e., optical illusions, different ways of interpreting things. There are some things you can cause yourself to see, but once you first experience it, you can never go back to not seeing it afterwards.

    This seems like a close analogue, though it’s still tied to Sapir-Whorf since it’s more a conceptual change, one which is imbedded in the language, but which cannot be discarded once discovered.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 29, 2008

    I agree that the story Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” depends on an ultra-strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    I agree that it depends on a duality between two modes of perceiving reality, least-action principles being at the heart.

    I agree that the story depends on how the viewpoint character changes in her perception of and linkage to space-time as she learns the extraterrestrial language/weorld-view.

    However, I find all the comments naive about either the classical usage in Science Fiction of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (cf. “The Languages of Pao” by Jack Vance); and/or the protocols of First Contact in actual United Nations reality (see hotlink) and in Science Fiction; and/or the emotional text and subtext of the story from each character’s viewpoint.

    It is a deeper story, and a masterpiece, if one does that homework first.

    The teacher MUST stay at least one step ahead of the students. Two steps is better. I applaud Chad’s taking this one on; his notes will be worth posting (or publishing in Analog of the New York Review of Science Fiction or Science Fiction Review) once his preparation is completed, and then meets combat with the students.

    References:

    Me Human, You Alien: How to Talk to an Extraterrestrial
    by
    Jonathan Vos Post

    (c) 1996 by Emerald City Publishing
    an excerpt from a book entitled MAKING CONTACT: A SERIOUS HANDBOOK FOR
    LOCATING AND COMMUNICATING WITH EXTRATERRESTRIALS, edited by Bill Fawcett,
    July 1997, New York: William Morrow & Co.

  11. #11 sirix
    March 3, 2008

    I enjoyed this story (like all other by Chiang). However, from the purely scientific point of view , I think it is more interesitng to consider Heptapods who are aware of everything in the next, say, 10 seconds, rather than Chiang’s Heptapods.

    It is still plausible that such Heptapods would put the least-action principle at the center of their science (which is the most interesting idea of the story for me), and a possibility that such beings actually exist is, in my view, much more reallistic (and therefore much more interesting).

    No hard dilemmas to solve, and no Saphiro-Wolf then, but these were the aspects of the story that weren’t very convincing to me.

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