“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Dec 19, 2012 | Fiction/Lit/Movies

I just read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. You can find it here: Stories of Your Life and Others. The Kindle version is $7.69.

It's really good. It's reminded me (somewhat) of that Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode, "Darmok," where the universal translator doesn't work quite right because the alien language's referential function is kind of on a different wavelength than our own. In order to say, for example, something along the lines of, "Darn, this isn't working," the alien keeps saying, "Shaka, when the walls fell," referring to an historical event. In order to say, "You [Picard] and I [Captain Dathan] should fight together against a common enemy," the alien says, "Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra!" which is also an actual historical event involving people called, presumably, Darmok and Jalad. The episode resulted in this neat-o t-shirt:

(Credit to SA forums poster "Kirk," I think…?)

"Darmok" is probably one of the best TNG episodes.

Anyways, the Ted Chiang story is even better. (Some spoilers about the scifi and linguistic theory in the story.) "Story of Your Life" deals a whole bunch with semiotics. Like, what would a language be like if it came from a culture that understood the time-space continuum in a manner completely different from our own? I.e., if it came from a culture that experienced all events simultaneously?

Dr. Louise Banks is struck by the fact that, of all the math Earth has tried communicating with the aliens, they seem best able to communicate Fermat's principle of least time, which is, y'know, a pretty weird principle, because it means that light that hits water seems to "know" beforehand at which angle to travel in order to hit the water in just such a way that it travels in the least time. Eventually, Banks realizes that the aliens experience time non-sequentially. So how do they communicate?

Chiang (or the character-narrator, Dr. Louise Banks) posits that communication as such would be performative. Chiang basically lists the standard three examples that J.L. Austin gives of speech-act theory. Of the three, the one that illustrates the idea best is the one that's always given: we go through the ceremony of a wedding, knowing full well that it's going to end with "I do," but we still have to go through the full performance in order to make the ceremony "effective." We go through the motions to make those motions a reality.

This has thematic implications because of the side-plot relating to Dr. Louise Banks' daughter. The story uses the Sapir-Whorf hypthesis, which is the idea that the structure of a language structures thought. Steven Pinker doesn't like it. (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is different from what I call the Bashir-Worf hypothesis: the idea that learning to speak Klingon without the universal translator make you more attractive to Dax symbiotes.) Would we have children if we knew the future, and that future wasn't always good? If we knew the future, would we perform the motions of events in order to make them a reality? And, in a classic time-travel paradox kind of way, wouldn't [enough] foreknowledge of the future us to act on it?

Chiang's "Story of Your Life" is excellent because it ties together seamlessly the high-concept science fiction with the emotional implications it explores, in a way much more resonant than a lot of sci fi short stories I've read. (I've read a fair share of golden age sci fi, but I haven't read an absolute tonne, and I readily admit that there's a lot of new stuff of which I am ignorant. I mostly read Gardner Dozoi's Year's Best anthologies.) I'll be reading the rest of Chiang's collection (there are seven more stories, I think) and then, probably, I'll try writing a review on Amazon or something. Writing Amazon reviews might be a New Year's resolution. Maybe. I don't know yet.