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.