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‘Story Of Your Life’ Is Not A Time-Travel Story

Famous Ted Chiang SF short story ‘Story Of Your Life’ is usually misinterpreted as, like the movie version Arrival, being about time-travel/precognition; I explain it is instead an exploration of xenopsychology and a psychology of timeless physics.

One of Ted Chiang’s most noted philosophical SF short stories, “Story of Your Life”, was made into a successful time-travel movie, Arrival, sparking interest in the original. However, movie viewers often misread the short story: “Story” is not a time-travel movie. At no point does the protagonist travel in time or enjoy precognitive powers, interpreting the story this way leads to many serious plot holes, it renders most of the exposition-heavy dialogue (which is a large fraction of the wordcount) completely irrelevant, and genuine precognition undercuts the themes of tragedy & acceptance.

Instead, what appears to be precognition in Chiang’s story is actually far more interesting, and a novel twist on psychology and physics: classical physics allows usefully interpreting the laws of physics in both a ‘forward’ way in which events happen step by step, but also a teleological way in which events are simply the unique optimal solution to a set of constraints including the outcome and allows reasoning ‘backwards’. The alien race exemplifies this other, equally valid, possible way of thinking and viewing the universe, and the protagonist learns their way of thinking by studying their language, which requires seeing written characters as a unified gestalt. This holistic view of the universe as an immutable ‘block-universe’, in which events unfold as they must, changes the protagonist’s attitude towards life and the tragic death of her daughter, teaching her in a somewhat Buddhist or Stoic fashion to embrace life in both its ups and downs.

Ted Chiang is an American SF author of short stories & a novella, noted for both the high quality and rarity of his writings. Most are collected in his 2002 anthology Stories of Your Life and Others (my review). Chiang’s stories can be described as rigorous world-building1, taking seriously premises such as the Kabbalah (“72 Letters”) or intelligence enhancement (“Understand”) or self-consistent time loops (“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”) or a mechanical clockwork universe (“Exhalation”) or the problem of evil in a universe where God exists (“Hell Is the Absence of God”) and extending them logically, written in a lucid streamlined prose that (like Gene Wolfe’s) seems simple & easy unless one has tried to write like that oneself, but (Greg Egan with a heart) use those worlds & concepts to examine and build up a powerful emotional point. Each story has a unique starting point, and feels like a world or novel unto itself despite their short page counts.

His most famous short story is the 17500-word 1998 “Story of Your Life” (full text) which won Nebula & Sturgeon Awards, which brought Chiang to global notice when it was made into the critically-acclaimed movie Arrival in 2016 (8 Oscar nominations, 1 Oscar for sound editing).

“Story Of Your Life” is not my favorite Chiang story (that would be “Exhalation”), and on my first read, I thought it was downright mediocre—it seemed like some formal experimentation (second-person narration rather than Chiang’s usual first-person or third-person omniscient, nonlinear flashback/forward-heavy plot) wrapped around an unnecessarily confusing plot & second-rate physics mumbo-jumbo in the service of a heavy-handed point. On my second read years later, having read some more about related topics in physics & philosophy since, I realized that I (along with almost everyone else who read it, judging from online discussions & reviews of the story and Arrival) might have been badly mistaken and that the plot was deliberately open to misreading and the physics mumbo-jumbo was in fact the whole point and the formal structure nicely reflected that; so I will explain the point of “Story Of Your Life”, before Arrival makes it impossible to read it correctly.2 “Story Of Your Life” is not a time-travel story, or to the limited extent that it is, as Chiang says3, it’s a single fixed timeline one, and certainly not one where you can ‘see’ or ‘change’ the future or have ‘alternate or parallel timelines’. (This discussion is heavy on spoilers and may ruin the experience of reading it, so if one hasn’t read it, this would be a good time to.)

Plot Summary

WP’s plot summary & interpretation:

The story is narrated by Dr. Louise Banks, writing in the past tense. After a race of aliens, known as heptapods (due to their 7-pointed radially symmetrical appearance), initiate first contact with humanity, the military hires Dr. Banks to discover their language and communicate with them. The story revolves around Dr. Banks and Gary Donnelly, a physicist also working for the military to gain knowledge of physics from the aliens.

The heptapods have two distinct forms of language. Heptapod A is their spoken language, which is described as having free word order and many levels of center-embedded clauses. Understanding Heptapod B, the written language of the aliens, is central to the plot. Unlike its spoken counterpart, Heptapod B has such complex structure that a single semantic symbol cannot be excluded without changing the entire meaning of a sentence.

When writing in Heptapod B, the writer knows how the sentence will end. The phenomenon of Heptapod B is explained by the aliens’ understanding of mathematics and Fermat’s principle of least time. Dr. Banks’ understanding of the heptapods’ writing system affects the way she perceives time and suggests a deterministic universe where free will is exercised by not affecting the outcome of events.

A frame for the story, written in the present tense, indicates that the story is being written at the time of the daughter’s conception. The sections describing the daughter’s life from birth to death and beyond, are written as Dr. Banks reminisces and yet she describes it while using the future tense, because learning Heptapod B enables Dr. Banks to know her daughter’s entire life even before she agrees to conceive her. As the story proceeds, we see Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly growing closer until it is clear that Dr. Donnelly will be the father of her child.

Author Notes

In the afterword (pg277–278) Chiang offers a few comments on “Story of Your Life”:

This story grew out of my interest in the variational principles of physics. I’ve found these principles fascinating ever since I first learned of them, but I didn’t know how to use them in a story until I saw a performance of Time Flies When You’re Alive, Paul Linke’s one-man show about his [deceased] wife’s battle with breast cancer. It occurred to me then that I might be able to use variational principles to tell a story about a person’s response to the inevitable. A few years later, that notion combined with a friend’s remark about her newborn baby to form the nucleus of this story.

For those interested in physics, I should note that the story’s discussion of Fermat’s Principle of Least Time omits all mention of its quantum-mechanical underpinnings. The QM formulation is interesting in its own way, but I preferred the metaphoric possibilities of the classical version.

As for this story’s theme, probably the most concise summation of it that I’ve seen appears in Kurt Vonnegut’s introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five: “Stephen Hawking. . .found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now. . .To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are.’”

In “The Absence of God: an interview with Ted Chiang by Jeremy Smith”, Chiang2002:

Q. In the author’s notes to “Story of Your Life”, you mention Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Was that novel a direct inspiration, or did you notice the similarity later, after using variational principles in physics to write the story? Both stories use this idea of being “unstuck in time” as a way of expressing a deep fatalism, a sadness about the inevitability of loss.

A. I actually hadn’t read Vonnegut’s novel at the time I wrote my story. To me there’s a big difference in the two works. I think of Slaughterhouse-Five as being really bleak in its outlook, while I don’t think of my story that way at all. My story ends on a note that, to me, is ultimately life affirming. The story is about choosing to go ahead with life, even though there will be pain in the future as well as joy. You can say that the narrator doesn’t actually have a choice, and that’s true, but that’s not the most important aspect of it. She’s not being forced into it against her will. She’s accepting the bad with the good.

Q. In stories like “Division by Zero” and “Story of Your Life”, you describe these very rational, materialist characters who transcend what they thought were unalterable physical laws, which disorders their perceptions of time and space. One character even attempts suicide. So they achieve this kind of transcendence, but then don’t know what to do with it. They are forced to confront themselves. I read these stories as being about science confronting the problems transcendence poses to an empirical, materialist worldview.

A. That’s an interesting perspective. I hadn’t really thought of either “Division by Zero” or “Story of Your Life” as dealing with transcendence. For me, those stories are primarily attempts to use mathematics and science as metaphors to illuminate certain aspects of human experience. The characters in those stories internalize their discoveries, in a sense, because they are deeply engaged in their work. What they learn becomes a part of them in a more profound way than with most people just learning something. But I hadn’t really thought about transcendence in those stories.


Heptapod Physics

“Good.” He picked up a nub of chalk and drew a diagram:

[Physics diagram: a ray of light changing direction as it passes from air to water, illustrating refraction.]

“Okay, here’s the path a ray of light takes when crossing from air to water. The light ray travels in a straight line until it hits the water; the water has a different index of refraction, so the light changes direction. You’ve heard of this before, right?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“Now here’s an interesting property about the path the light takes. The path is the fastest possible route between these two points.”

“Come again?”

“Imagine, just for grins, that the ray of light traveled along this path.” He added a dotted line to his diagram:

[Physics diagram: a ray of light refracting in air/water, comparing its actual time-efficient path to the hypothetical shortest-distance (but slower) alternative path.]

“This hypothetical path is shorter than the path the light actually takes. But light travels more slowly in water than it does in air, and a greater percentage of this path is underwater. So it would take longer for light to travel along this path than it does along the real path.”

“Okay, I get it.”

“Now imagine if light were to travel along this other path.” He drew a second dotted path:

[Physics diagram: a ray of light refracting in air/water, compared to a hypothetical alternative path which is both slower in time and longer in space/distance (but with less length in water).]

“This path reduces the percentage that’s underwater, but the total length is larger. It would also take longer for light to travel along this path than along the actual one.” Gary put down the chalk and gestured at the diagram on the chalkboard with white-tipped fingers. “Any hypothetical path would require more time to traverse than the one actually taken. In other words, the route that the light ray takes is always the fastest possible one. That’s Fermat’s Principle of Least Time.”

“Humm, interesting. And this is what the heptapods responded to?”

“Exactly. Moorehead gave an animated presentation of Fermat’s Principle at the Illinois looking glass, and the heptapods repeated it back. Now he’s trying to get a symbolic description.” He grinned. “Now is that highly neat, or what?” “It’s neat all right, but how come I haven’t heard of Fermat’s Principle before?” I picked up a binder and waved it at him; it was a primer on the physics topics suggested for use in communication with the heptapods. “This thing goes on forever about Planck masses and the spin-flip of atomic hydrogen, and not a word about the refraction of light.”

“We guessed wrong about what’d be most useful for you to know”, Gary said without embarrassment. “In fact, it’s curious that Fermat’s Principle was the first breakthrough; even though it’s easy to explain, you need calculus to describe it mathematically. And not ordinary calculus; you need the calculus of variations. We thought that some simple theorem of geometry or algebra would be the breakthrough.”

“Curious indeed. You think the heptapods’ idea of what’s simple doesn’t match ours?” “Exactly, which is why I’m dying to see what their mathematical description of Fermat’s Principle looks like.” He paced as he talked. “If their version of the calculus of variations is simpler to them than their equivalent of algebra, that might explain why we’ve had so much trouble talking about physics; their entire system of mathematics may be topsy-turvy compared to ours.” He pointed to the physics primer. “You can be sure that we’re going to revise that.”

“So can you build from Fermat’s Principle to other areas of physics?” “Probably. There are lots of physical principles just like Fermat’s.”

“What, like Louise’s principle of least closet space? When did physics become so minimalist?”

“Well, the word ‘least’ is misleading. You see, Fermat’s Principle of Least time is incomplete; in certain situations light follows a path that takes more time than any of the other possibilities. It’s more accurate to say that light always follows an extreme path, either one that minimizes the time taken or one that maximizes it. A minimum and a maximum share certain mathematical properties, so both situations can be described with one equation. So to be precise, Fermat’s Principle isn’t a minimal principle; instead it’s what’s known as a ‘variational’ principle.” “And there are more of these variational principles?” He nodded. “In all branches of physics. Almost every physical law can be restated as a variational principle. The only difference between these principles is in which attribute is minimized or maximized.” He gestured as if the different branches of physics were arrayed before him on a table. “In optics, where Fermat’s Principle applies, time is the attribute that has to be an extreme. In mechanics, it’s a different attribute. In electromagnetism, it’s something else again. But all these principles are similar mathematically.”

“So once you get their mathematical description of Fermat’s Principle, you should be able to decode the other ones.”…After the breakthrough with Fermat’s Principle, discussions of scientific concepts became more fruitful. It wasn’t as if all of heptapod physics was suddenly rendered transparent, but progress was suddenly steady. According to Gary, the heptapods’ formulation of physics was indeed topsy-turvy relative to ours. Physical attributes that humans defined using integral calculus were seen as fundamental by the heptapods. As an example, Gary described an attribute that, in physics jargon, bore the deceptively simple name “action”, which represented “the difference between kinetic and potential energy, integrated over time”, whatever that meant. Calculus for us; elementary to them. Conversely, to define attributes that humans thought of as fundamental, like velocity, the heptapods employed mathematics that were, Gary assured me, “highly weird.” The physicists were ultimately able to prove the equivalence of heptapod mathematics and human mathematics; even though their approaches were almost the reverse of one another, both were systems of describing the same physical universe. I tried following some of the equations that the physicists were coming up with, but it was no use. I couldn’t really grasp the significance of physical attributes like “action”; I couldn’t, with any confidence, ponder the significance of treating such an attribute as fundamental. Still, I tried to ponder questions formulated in terms more familiar to me: what kind of worldview did the heptapods have, that they would consider Fermat’s Principle the simplest explanation of light refraction? What kind of perception made a minimum or maximum readily apparent to them?

…“Though I did want to ask you about Fermat’s Principle. Something about it feels odd to me, but I can’t put my finger on it. It just doesn’t sound like a law of physics.” A twinkle appeared in Gary’s eyes. “I’ll bet I know what you’re talking about.” He snipped a potsticker in half with his chopsticks. “You’re used to thinking of refraction in terms of cause and effect: reaching the water’s surface is the cause, and the change in direction is the effect. But Fermat’s Principle sounds weird because it describes light’s behavior in goal-oriented terms. It sounds like a commandment to a light beam: ‘Thou shalt minimize or maximize the time taken to reach thy destination.’”

I considered it. “Go on.”

“It’s an old question in the philosophy of physics4. People have been talking about it since Fermat first formulated it in the 1600s; Planck wrote volumes about it. The thing is, while the common formulation of physical laws is causal, a variational principle like Fermat’s is purposive, almost teleological.” “Hmm, that’s an interesting way to put it. Let me think about that for a minute.” I pulled out a felt-tip pen and, on my paper napkin, drew a copy of the diagram that Gary had drawn on my blackboard. “Okay”, I said, thinking aloud, “so let’s say the goal of a ray of light is to take the fastest path. How does the light go about doing that?”

“Well, if I can speak anthropomorphic-projectionally, the light has to examine the possible paths and compute how long each one would take.” He plucked the last potsticker from the serving dish.

“And to do that”, I continued, “the ray of light has to know just where its destination is. If the destination were somewhere else, the fastest path would be different.” Gary nodded again. “That’s right; the notion of a ‘fastest path’ is meaningless unless there’s a destination specified. And computing how long a given path takes also requires information about what lies along that path, like where the water’s surface is.”

I kept staring at the diagram on the napkin. “And the light ray has to know all that ahead of time, before it starts moving, right?” “So to speak”, said Gary. “The light can’t start traveling in any old direction and make course corrections later on, because the path resulting from such behavior wouldn’t be the fastest possible one. The light has to do all its computations at the very beginning.”

I thought to myself, the ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in. I knew what that reminded me of. I looked up at Gary. “That’s what was bugging me.”…That day when Gary first explained Fermat’s Principle to me, he had mentioned that almost every physical law could be stated as a variational principle. Yet when humans thought about physical laws, they preferred to work with them in their causal formulation. I could understand that: the physical attributes that humans found intuitive, like kinetic energy or acceleration, were all properties of an object at a given moment in time. And these were conductive to a chronological, causal interpretation of events: one moment growing out of another, causes and effects created a chain reaction that grew from past to future. In contrast, the physical attributes that the heptapods found intuitive, like “action” or those other things defined by integrals, were meaningful only over a period of time. And these were conductive to a teleological interpretation of events: by viewing events over a period of time, one recognized that there was a requirement that had to be satisfied, a goal of minimizing or maximizing. And one had to know the initial and final states to meet that goal; one needed knowledge of the effects before the causes could be initiated.

Heptapod Bodies and Writing

I’d been shown videotapes, but I still gawked. Its limbs had no distinct joints; anatomists guessed they might be supported by vertebral columns. Whatever their underlying structure, the heptapod’s limbs conspired to move it in a disconcertingly fluid manner. Its “torso” rode atop the rippling limbs as smoothly as a hovercraft. Seven lidless eyes ringed the top of the heptapod’s body. It walked back to the doorway from which it entered, made a brief sputtering sound, and returned to the center of the room followed by another heptapod; at no point did it ever turn around. Eerie, but logical; with eyes on all sides, any direction might as well be “forward.”

…“What’s wrong?” asked Gary. “Their script isn’t word-divided; a sentence is written by joining the logograms for the constituent words. They join the logograms by rotating and modifying them. Take a look.” I showed him how the logograms were rotated. “So they can read a word with equal ease no matter how it’s rotated”, Gary said. He turned to look at the heptapods, impressed. “I wonder if it’s a consequence of their bodies’ radial symmetry: their bodies’ radial symmetry: their bodies have no ‘forward’ direction, so maybe their writing doesn’t either.” … He began pacing thoughtfully. “Is there anything like this in human writing systems?” “Mathematical equations”…When a Heptapod B sentence grew fairly sizable, its visual impact was remarkable. If I wasn’t trying to decipher it, the writing looked like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance. And the biggest sentences had an effect similar to that of psychedelic posters: sometimes eye-watering, sometimes hypnotic…Comparing that initial stroke with the completed sentence, I realized that the stroke participated in several different clauses of the message. It began in the semagram for ‘oxygen,’ as the determinant that distinguished it from certain other elements; then it slid down to become the morpheme of comparison in the description of the two moons’ sizes; and lastly it flared out as the arched backbone of the semagram for ‘ocean.’ Yet this stroke was a single continuous line, and it was the first one that Flapper wrote. That meant the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke. The other strokes in the sentence also traversed several clauses, making them so interconnected that none could be removed without redesigning the entire sentence. The heptapods didn’t write a sentence one semagram at a time; they built it out of strokes irrespective of individual semagrams. I had seen a similarly high degree of integration before in calligraphic designs, particularly those employing the Arabic alphabet. But those designs had required careful planning by expert calligraphers. No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no human could.

Thinking Like a Heptapod

…More interesting was the fact that Heptapod B was changing the way I thought. For me, thinking typically meant speaking in an internal voice’ as we say in the trade, my thoughts were phonologically coded. My internal voice normally spoke in English, but that wasn’t a requirement. The summer after my senior year in high school, I attended a total immersion program for learning Russian; by the end of the Summer, I was thinking and even dreaming in Russian. But it was always spoken Russian. Different language, same mode: a voice speaking silently aloud. The idea of thinking in a linguistic yet non-phonological mode always intrigued me. I had a friend born of deaf parents; he grew up using American Sign Language, and he told me that he often thought in ASL instead of English. I used to wonder what it was like to have one’s thoughts be manually coded, to reason using an inner pair of hands instead of an inner voice. With Heptapod B, I was experiencing something just as foreign: my thoughts were becoming graphically coded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams with my mind’s eye, sprouting like frost on a windowpane. As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully-formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once. My thought processes weren’t moving any faster as a result, though. Instead of racing forward, my mind hung balanced on the symmetry underlying the semagrams. The semagrams seemed to be something more than language; they were almost like mandalas. I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no “train of thought” moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence…Looking at a sentence like this one, I understood why the heptapods had evolved a semasiographic writing system like Heptapod B; it was better suited for a species with a simultaneous mode of consciousness. For them, speech was a bottleneck because it required that one word follow another sequentially. With writing, on the other hand, every mark on a page was visible simultaneously. Why constrain writing with a glottographic straitjacket, demanding that it be just as sequential as speech? It would never occur to them. Semasiographic writing naturally took advantage of the page’s two-dimensionality; instead of doling out morphemes one at a time, it offered an entire page full of them all at once.

…the heptapods never asked questions about anything. Whether scientists or tourists, they were an awfully incurious bunch…The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.

Freedom isn’t an illusion; it’s perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it’s simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It’s like that famous optical illusion, the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There’s no “correct” interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can’t see both at the same time. Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never admit to it.

…If I could have described this to someone who didn’t already know, she might ask, if the heptapods already knew everything that they would ever say or hear, what was the point of their using language at all? A reasonable question. But language wasn’t only for communication: it was also a form of action. According to speech act theory, statements like “You’re under arrest”, “I christen this vessel”, or “I promise” were all performative: a speaker could perform the action only by uttering the words. For such acts, knowing what would be said didn’t change anything. Everyone at a wedding anticipated the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife”, but until the minister actually said them, the ceremony didn’t count. With performative language, saying equaled doing.

For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.

…Was it actually possible to know the future? Not simply to guess at it; was it possible to know what was going to happen, with absolute certainty and in specific detail? Gary once told me that the fundamental laws of physics were time-symmetric, that there was no physical difference between past and future. Given that, some might say, “yes, theoretically.” But speaking more concretely, most would answer “no”, because of free will. I liked to imagine the objection as a Borgesian fabulation: consider a person standing before the Book of Ages, the chronicle that records every event, past and future. Even though the text has been photoreduced from the full-sized edition, the volume is enormous. With magnifier in hand, she flips through the tissue-thin leaves until she locates the story of her life. She finds the passage that describes her flipping through the Book of Ages, and she skips to the next column, where it details what she’ll be doing later in the day: acting on information she’s read in the Book, she’ll bet one hundred dollars on the racehorse Devil May Care and win twenty times that much. The thought of doing just that had crossed her mind, but being a contrary sort, she now resolves to refrain from betting on the ponies altogether.

There’s the rub. The Book of Ages cannot be wrong; this scenario is based on the premise that a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future. If this were Greek myth, circumstances would conspire to make her enact her fate despite her best efforts, but prophecies in myth are notoriously vague; the Book of Ages, is quite specific, and there’s no way she can be forced to bet on a racehorse in the manner specified. The result is a contradiction: the Book of Ages must be right, by definition; yet no matter what the Book says she’ll do, she can choose to do otherwise. How can these two facts be reconciled? They can’t be, was the common answer.

A volume like the Book of Ages is a logical impossibility, for the precise reason that its existence would result in the above contradiction. Or, to be generous, some might say that the Book of Ages could exist, as long as it wasn’t accessible to readers: that volume is housed in a special collection, and no one has viewing privileges. The existence of free will meant that we couldn’t know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness. Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?

…Consider the phenomenon of light hitting water at one angle, and traveling 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 could 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 world-views 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 all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.

…Even though I’m proficient with Heptapod B, I know I don’t experience reality the way a heptapod does. My mind was cast in the mold of human, sequential languages, and no amount of immersion in an alien language can completely reshape it. My world-view is an amalgam of human and heptapod. Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present. After I learned Heptapod B, new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn’t arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades. It is the period during which I know Heptapod B well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with Flapper and Raspberry and ending with my death.

Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive—during those glimpses—that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours.

…We never did learn why the heptapods left, any more than we learned what brought them here, or why they acted the way they did. My own new awareness didn’t provide that type of knowledge; the heptapods’ behavior was presumably explicable from a sequential point of view, but we never found that explanation. I would have liked to experience more of the heptapods’ world-view, to feel the way they feel. Then, perhaps I could immerse myself fully in the necessity of events, as they must, instead of merely wading in its surf for the rest of my life.


Causally Powerful Time Travel Interpretation

In the precognitive/time travel interpretation (as Chiang notes in an interview5, there is no difference between precognition and time-travel—they are “essentially equivalent” in terms of violating physics & their implications, so I use them interchangeably), the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is taken to the extent of learning Heptapodese granting powers like seeing into the distant future, years (or in the movie, millennia) in advance. Louise knew in advance her daughter would die in a climbing accident (or of a rare disease) but accepted this, married Gary anyway, had her daughter, loved & lost her, and now remembers & grieves, seeing her life as a whole with her powers. The message is one of acceptance and taking life as a whole, for both good and ill.

Time Travel Problems

There are many problems with the time-travel interpretation, which require assuming that much of the story is simply irrelevant technobabble, the symbolism is to be ignored, and that Chiang, a master of world building, failed to note the simplest implications which render his world internally incoherent:

  • why is it titled “Story Of Your Life”? What do stories have to do with time-travel? Why the second-person narrative framing of the daughter being told the story by Louise?

  • why is the story so opaque and coy about the nature of time travel, when “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” was so clear and straightforward?

    • for that matter, Chiang prefers not to revisit topics, setting each short story in a different world to explore a different idea; why did he revisit the topic?

  • why is it mostly written in the past tense after all the events have taken place, when presumably it could have been written from any time after she learned Heptapodese, and arguably would have been more emotionally gripping if the death of her daughter had not yet taken place but Louise knew about it the entire time? (a method the movie does use by setting scenes exclusively in the Heptapod-arrival present and presenting the post-Heptapod future exclusively as flashforwards)

  • if it is about time-travel:

    • why do all of the physics discussions omit all standard physics time-travel topics of wormholes, tachyons, cosmic strings / Tipler cylinders, the Alcubierre drive, FTL travel, positrons, relativistic dilation, the Grandfather paradox, retrocausal effects, and causal loops—and instead spends pages talking about different topics like light refraction in water or the Law of the Maximum? (To quote one Wired editor, “Dayrit: I didn’t really get the whole maximum-minimum concept. Can someone please explain?”)

      • this is especially striking considering the leanness and precision of Chiang’s writing: he does not waste words, much less pages. He is a perfectionist who publishes little because his standards are hard to meet, and famously turned down a Hugo nomination for his short story “Liking What You See: A Documentary” (generally considered one of his better stories) because he considered it rushed. This is hard to reconcile with an interpretation which requires essentially dismissing and not thinking about a large fraction of the story, claiming that the presence of one of the two main symbolic characters is superfluous, and has no explanation for why linguistics marries physics.

      • the superfluousness of the physics material, under this interpretation, is so striking that the movie Arrival simply drops the entire topic altogether to save time and make the plot clearer (although at the cost of rendering the physicist character also superfluous)

    • In what sense could the physicists “prove the equivalence of heptapod mathematics and human mathematics; even though their approaches were almost the reverse of one another, both were systems of describing the same physical universe”, when human physics currently doesn’t admit of any kind of time travel to the past without assuming things which don’t seem to exist (like tachyons or matter with negative mass)? Variational principles or time-symmetry don’t allow transmission of information to the past any more than spooky action allows sending information FTL. Why is the emphasis on Heptapod physics teaching the human physicists next to nothing, when transmitting information back in time would be a revolution?

    • Why does Chiang so specifically reject in his afterword the quantum explanation of Fermat’s Principle as a particle’s wave-function exploring all possible paths simultaneously & interfering with itself, saying the story draws on the classical physics interpretations, when it provides such a perfect mechanism (and one often exploited by other SF authors)?

    • Why the emphasis on perception? Does it really require time travel for a Heptapod to read a page as a single whole? (And it’s interesting that the writing is compared to psychedelic trips and mathematical equations (ie. the kind of writing physicists learn in order to think in variational ways…), given that perceptions of unity are one of the best known psychological experiences in psychedelic trips. There are also many reports of depersonalization and seeing one’s actions as caused by another & uncaused by oneself. But nevertheless, the universe continues as before, regardless of whether one perceives it as a unity or as many pieces, and the convincingness of the experience has little or no relationship to the truth of the perceptions.6)

    • why is no mechanism provided for how the time travel would work? Chiang knows that none of the discussed topics provide a realistic mechanism, yet he does not define his world with any FTL or novel physics. He also knows that Sapir-Whorf is merely a psychological claim; there has never been any serious prospect that Sapir-Whorf could justify something like precognition or time travel.

  • why make such a point of the heptapods and their writing being symmetrical, when time-travel affecting the past is asymmetrical? A linear sentence can be read forward and backwards, but still has an ordering.

  • if Louise can see the whole future of her life, why does she close the story asking “am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain? Will I achieve a minimum, or a maximum?” Shouldn’t she, by definition, already know exactly how her entire life works out and whether her decisions were best? And why does she not know why the Heptapods are leaving?

  • if learning Heptapodese enables time travel and Heptapodese becomes a standard topic of linguistic study across the world which Louise is but one expert of many and prized mostly for her anecdotes7 rather than superpowers, how is it that Chiang’s world building omits any discussion of the consequences of universal clairvoyance? (And why would the students ever be indifferent or bored?) Why doesn’t everyone learn Heptapodese, and, even if they discover they cannot explain the insights, make choices based on their knowledge of the future? And if Louise is the only person capable of it, why is she special? (Chiang remarks in an interview that one of the key differences between “magic” and “science” is that the latter is universal & available to everyone.89)

    • if it is possible to learn about the future and take action on it in the present and set up stable time loops, why does she not save her daughter from the climbing accident, which would require only trivial actions like scheduling a reminder? (Or for the movie version, getting earlier diagnosis or information from the distant future about a cure.) Perhaps she needs to make that choice to keep her vision of the future true… but surely her daughter’s life is worth some ignorance about the subsequent future?

No Retro-Causal Events

Aside from the many internal and external problems with interpreting the time travel as having any causal effects on the past, the interpretation also seems to lack any events in the story to explain—in Louise’s life, all events proceed sequentially and consistent with non-time-travel interpretations. A close read shows no examples of Louise acting in a way that requires knowledge of the future beyond ordinary cognition and creative license in recall:

  1. homework help: Louise helps her daughter with game theory terminology. But she learns the term “non-zero sum game” before having her daughter, while working with the Heptapods:

    “Mom, what do you call it when both sides can win?” I’ll look up from my computer and the paper I’ll be writing. “What, you mean a win-win situation?” … “I’m sorry, I don’t know it either. Why don’t you call your dad?”…A representative from the State Department named Hossner had the job of briefing the U.S scientists on our agenda with the heptapods. We sat in the video-conference room, listening to him lecture…“You mean it’s a non-zero-sum game?” Gary said in mock incredulity. “Oh my gosh.”…“A non-zero-sum game.” “What?” You’ll reverse course, heading back from your bedroom. “When both sides can win: I just remembered, it’s called a non-zero-sum game”

    While the lecture and interaction with her future husband Gary have great importance, this importance is because she is able to recall memories of it, not because of any time-travel.

  2. the Heptapods leaving: in the final exchanges, Louise describes her conversations in terms of already knowing what happens, yet, she doesn’t know what the final exchange will be or that it is the final exchange, or why the Heptapods leave:

    We never did learn why the heptapods left, any more than we learned what brought them here, or why they acted the way they did. My own new awareness didn’t provide that type of knowledge; the heptapods’ behavior was presumably explicable from a sequential point of view, but we never found that explanation.

    and also is doubtful of the idea that it is “actually possible to know the future”.

  3. the morgue/nursery: the repetition of the phrase “Yes, that’s her. She’s mine.” may seem like another retrocausal influence, but again the conclusion doesn’t follow, as it’s unclear she says it in the nursery and if she did, it is again explainable as memory:

    He and I will drive out together to perform the identification, a long silent car ride. I remember the morgue, all tile and stainless steel, the hum of refrigeration and smell of antiseptic. An orderly will pull the sheet back to reveal your face. Your face will look wrong somehow, but I’ll know it’s you. “Yes, that’s her”, I’ll say. “She’s mine.”You’ll be twenty-five then. …I remember what it’ll be like watching you when you are a day old. Your father will have gone for a quick visit to the hospital cafeteria, and you’ll be lying in your bassinet, and I’ll be leaning over you. Yes, that’s her. She’s mine.

    The phrase binds the beginning and end together… as a story, in retrospect, once the outcome is known.

  4. Louise has nightmares about bad things happening to her daughter and seeing her in the morgue, both before and after she dies.

    But—pace Chiang’s mention of a new mother in his afterword—all parents know what will happen to their children, or their spouses: they will die, either before or after the parents die. That is what happens to humans. As Vonnegut says, it is not hard to see the future of your babies, nor your closest friends, and Linke and his wife knew when they married each other that the other would one day die.

  5. probably the most convincing detail pointing to true time-travel is how the frame story’s ‘present’ appears to be set at the daughter’s conception with a Louise knowing about the climbing accident, but this is not clear when we join up the beginning and the end and we consider the story as a whole along with what Louise later tells us about thinking in Heptapod:

    Your father is about to ask me the question. This is the most important moment in our lives, and I want to pay attention, note every detail. Your dad and I have just come back from an evening out, dinner and a show; it’s after midnight. We came out onto the patio to look at the full moon; then I told your dad I wanted to dance, so he humors me and now we’re slow-dancing, a pair of thirty-somethings swaying back and forth in the moon-light like kids. I don’t feel the night chill at all. And then your dad says, “Do you want to make a baby?” Right now your dad and I have been married for about two years, living on Ellis Avenue; when we move out you’ll still be too young to remember the house, but we’ll show you pictures of it, tell you stories about it. 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. Telling it to you any earlier wouldn’t do any good; for most of your life you won’t sit still to hear such a romantic—you’d say sappy—story. I remember the scenario of your origin you’ll suggest when you’re twelve…I know how this story ends; I think about it a lot. I also think a lot about how it began, just a few years ago, when ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows…Eventually, many years from now, I’ll be without your father, and without you. All I will have left from this moment is the heptapod language. So I pay close attention, and note every detail. From the beginning I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain? Will I achieve a minimum, or a maximum? These questions are in my mind when your father asks me, “Do you want to make a baby?” And I smile and answer, “Yes”, and I unwrap his arms from around me, and we hold hands as we walk inside to make love, to make you.

    The narrator Louise is not narrating the present, but reliving and rehearsing a story about an event she knew was important at the time & paid close attention to, and is rehearsing the story she would’ve told her daughter if she had lived long enough. Having learned to think like a Heptapod, the elderly Louise can easily think of the past as present and attempts to pin down her true temporal location by looking at the tense ignore that she is a (temporally) unreliable narrator (the level of atemporal thinking increases through the story). As she tells us, during her post-Heptapod life, her thinking in Heptapod grows and over those decades, she becomes able to think of increasing stretches of her life as a single whole which she feels as present:

    After I learned Heptapod B, new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn’t arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades. It is the period during which I know Heptapod B well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with Flapper and Raspberry and ending with my death. Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive—during those glimpses—that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours.

    As events happen, suddenly the past reconfigures itself; events reveal themselves to have meaning that they didn’t have until years later—meeting one’s first husband, and the conception of a child. With one fall, a sequence of life events suddenly snaps into place as a story with a beginning, an arc, and an end. Meaning is understood retroactively. The owl flies at dusk.

Epiphenomenal Time Travel Interpretation

Ignoring the fatally flawed interpretation of regular time-travel/precognition which can change the past, one interpretation goes that Louise does perceive the entirety of her future, but in a version of fatalism, never exploits the future knowledge or take unexplainable retro-causal actions, because what the discussion about the Book or “performative language” implies is that she is like an actor following a script, engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy, taking precisely the actions necessary to bring about the future she sees, and this is all for the best (amor fati). A fictional example of this would be Paul Atreides in Dune Messiah, whose prescience allows him to see visions of the present and act despite being blind—but only as long as he executes the actions which bring about the vision, thereby keeping the visions reflective of reality; on the other hand, Paul always has the choice to break out of the vision, and eventually does so, so his situation is not fully analogous. Another example would be Doctor Manhattan in the famous “Chapter IV: Watchmaker” of Watchmen.10

This is an interesting compatibilist attempt at reconciling free will and determinism, reminiscent of Leibniz’s pre-established harmony, but it still doesn’t address many of the problems (how the physics would actually deliver future knowledge when the algorithmic formulation requires no retrocausal influence and is equivalent to the variational formulations, how does it work on a physical/neurological basis, how anyone could follow the script while simultaneously engaged in normal thought, why no one ever deviates from the script for any reason and the time-travel is purely epiphenomenal, why Louise doesn’t deviate just before the climbing accident, what this all thematically has to do with stories or perception, etc).

Chad Orzel asks, from this perspective, whether the use of variational principles really works to justify time-travel:

In the context of the story, this is presented as requiring knowledge of both the start and end points in advance. The aliens view this formulation of physics as fundamental because this is how they see the world—they know what’s going to happen in advance, and this has profound effects on their language, and the mind of the human linguist learning to write it.

The thing is, when I try to think about the variational approach, this explanation ends up seeming a little arbitrary, in a manner similar to the ever-popular anthropic principle. You can use variational principles to calculate the optimal path between two points, but the choice of points is essentially arbitrary. It’s true that if you know a given light ray will be at point A and then at point B, you can find the path from A to B using variational principles, but there’s nothing inevitable about point B. Fermat’s Principle doesn’t tell you that a light ray starting at point A will necessarily reach point B, it just tells you what path it will take from A to B if it happens to go through point B. There are an infinite number of light rays emanating from point A that never pass through point B at all.

If you know points A and B in advance, the variational calculus will give you all the points in between, which seems really impressive from point B. But people arriving at point C will be equally impressed…Knowing point A doesn’t inevitably determine point B, unless you provide enough extra information that you would’ve been able to determine point B using non-variational methods, as well. Which undercuts the whole premise of the story a little bit. It’s still a powerful piece of work, but the implicit inevitability of those events seems a little dubious.

Timeless Ways of Thinking

Not Controlled But Nor Uncontrolled

Hyakujo’s Fox:

Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after they had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: “Who are you?”

The old man replied: “I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: ‘The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation.’ For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox’s body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation?”

Hyakujo said: “The enlightened man is one with the law of causation.”

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. “I am emancipated”, he said, paying homage with a deep bow. “I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform my funeral as a monk.” Then he disappeared. The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk. “No one was sick in the infirmary”, wondered the monks. “What does our teacher mean?” After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation.

…Mumon’s comment: “The enlightened man is not subject.” How can this answer make the monk a fox?

“The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation.” How can this answer make the fox emancipated?

To understand clearly one has to have just one eye.

Controlled or not controlled?
The same dice shows two faces.
Not controlled or controlled,
Both are a grievous error.

“Bells and Robes”:11

Zen Master Unmon said: “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”

Kubose’s commentary: In a Zen temple the lives of the monks are well regulated. When the bell sounds, each puts on his robe and goes to the meditation hall. But Ummon asks: Why? There is an old saying that whatever comes in through the gates is foreign. The gates are the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. If we decide, move, and act by the senses, we obey foreign commands. In response to our environment, we feel pressures, are easily upset, become nervous. This is one of the characteristics of modern life. But if one settles down firmly in one’s inner life, all actions, feelings, and deeds come from deep within. The unenlightened one does things because he must do them; the enlightened one acts because he wants to. Unmon points to the center.

Cognitive Time Travel

“The enlightened one has read it.” How can this answer make the monk a fox?

“The enlightened is at one with the Book of Ages.” How can this answer make the fox emancipated?

What if we take seriously Louise’s ignorance, the logical impossibility of the Book of Ages, the descriptions of it changing her psychology and letting memories fall together in chunks, and all the other problems with the causal & epiphenomenal time travel interpretations, and treat the long discussions of variational interpretations & linguistics as more than window-dressing metaphors for a superpower story? What would it mean to think of everything in teleological terms?

Tom Gauld

What I take Chiang as suggesting is not that the aliens really are tapping into quantum physics woo to see the future (this is what inferior SF authors might do, and do in the movie), any more than light rays see into the future in order to take the shortest path, but that Chiang is exploring a kind of xenopsychology—something more like Watts’s Blindsight (drawing on Metzinger’s Being No One/The Ego Tunnel & Jaynes’s bicameralism) or Chiang’s “Understand”/“Exhalation” in trying to explore different kinds of minds (eg. why consciously experience pain?) with different views on compatibilism: that given the reversibility of the laws of physics and the arrow of time, there is no logical or privileged reason to have a conscious experience of the universe as time unfolding sequentially (as a A-series) and computationally according to a program computing 1 Planck-second at a time, rather than as an Einsteinian 4D block universe in which the block universe is the solution to an optimization problem/an optimal path between the boundary conditions of the beginning & end, and everything unfolds as it must and already has.

There are many in our time who possess the result of the whole of existence and do not know how to account for the slightest thing…It is quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forward. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with temporal life never being able to be properly understood, precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest to adopt the position: backward.13

“Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness”, Louise muses—and perhaps in humans it is, but it doesn’t have to be (any more than the majority of mental processes need to be conscious for entities to be intelligent). There are many strange states of consciousness, merely in humans, caused by rituals, drugs, diseases/injury, or meditation, many sounding no stranger than the heptapod mindset (aside from psychedelics, consider the description of meditators like Daniel Ingram about losing any sense of agency or ego & all actions happening of their own accord). From a pragmatic reinforcement learning perspective, heptapods resemble pure model-based planning using gradients & backpropagation to minimize loss: a heptapod doesn’t do model-free RL like trial-and-error, or ever “just do” things—they always have the entire trajectory in mind from the present moment to the goal, which is optimal, and is the only trajectory they could ever have taken (although in reality things will not go as planned and they will need to replan & re-execute on the fly, but this needn’t lead to any feelings of confusion or alarm, any more than your visual system refining its interpretations of 3D scenes leads to qualia of error).

If you ‘knew’ the future and felt a pressure to enact it by moving as something inside your mind predicts, you would be both free and bound, and you would ‘read’ the Book of Ages without paradox: Whatever you do is what you were always going to choose to do, and by choosing, you make it so. This is similar to points Drescher makes in Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics (2006): the laws of physics are generally time-symmetrical. Physical events can run backwards or forwards, there is no inherent arrow of time.

Since the temporal and atemporal perspectives are equivalent, and make all the same predictions (once the start and end points are fixed), we can conceive of psychologies different from our temporal perspective, as different from us as are octopuses or Portia spiders or animals or plants. The present tells us about both the past and the future—a brain could try to understand the universe by taking the present and extrapolating forward, but it also can take the present and extrapolate backward. When we do the second, we call it ‘memories’ and remembering: we extrapolate, based on the present state of the universe like some unreliable arrangement of neurons, what the world is like going one direction along the time dimension; often we are mistaken or ignorant, and the more so the further we go. And when we do the second and extrapolate along the other direction, we call it ‘predicting’ and ‘planning’, by extrapolating, based on the present state of the universe, what the world is like going another direction along the time dimension; often we are mistaken or ignorant, and the more so the further we go. But they are the same thing: you can ‘remember’ the future as easily as the past.

…since the fabric of the universe is most perfect, and is the work of a most wise Creator, nothing whatsoever takes place in the universe in which some relation of maximum and minimum does not appear. Wherefore there is absolutely no doubt that every effect in the universe can be explained as satisfactorily from final causes, by the aid of the method of maxima and minima, as it can from the effective causes themselves…one’s task should be this, namely, in any field of Natural Science whatsoever to study that quantity which takes on a maximum or a minimum value, an occupation that seems to belong to philosophy rather than to mathematics. Since, therefore, two methods of studying effects in Nature lie open to us, one by means of effective causes, which is commonly called the direct method, the other by means of final causes, the mathematician uses each with equal success…14

Likewise, in the same way that you control the parts of the future by taking actions, you also control parts of the past.15 You perceive the past as fixed and your belief about the past world certain, and the future mutable, as you predict, plan, and take actions to change the future; things often do not go as you expect or hope, but that evidence changes your beliefs about the past—but why couldn’t you perceive the past as uncertain, your predictions about the future as certain, and mistakes then change what you believed about the future? In both cases, planning happens, actions are taken, the system learns, but the subjective experience is radically different: in the second, learning has no qualia, merely a permanent sense of unity and déjà vu as one’s perception of the purpose changes as more events unfold & the system learns.

The aliens could be doing this, and it is as valid a way of cognition as anything else; their conscious introspection does not perceive a fixed past algormithically advancing to an uncertain future but an uncertain past and fixed future which are the only way the universe could have happened, with algorithmic planning & perception happening in the unconscious, no more felt consciously than a human feels their top-down Bayesian cognition constantly rewriting & reconciling perception with priors in the McGurk effect, or their memories altering every time they are recalled & experienced (pace Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”), or unconscious habits being strengthened & weakened, or can see their own visual blind spots or eye saccades (“competence without comprehension”).

Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

“Chapter Five—Wool and Water”:

“That’s the effect of living backward,” the queen said kindly. “It always makes one a little giddy at first—”

“Living backward!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”

“—but there’s one great advantage in it: that one’s memory works both ways.”

“I’m sure mine only works one way,” Alice remarked. “I can’t remember things before they happen.”

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward,” the queen remarked.

“What sort of things do you remember best?” Alice ventured to ask. “Oh, things that happened the week after next,” the queen replied in a careless tone.

…“Oh, oh, oh!” shouted the queen, shaking her hand about as if she wanted to shake it off. “My finger’s bleeding! Oh, oh, oh, oh!”

Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam engine that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears. “What is the matter?” she said, as soon as there was a chance of making herself heard. “Have you pricked your finger?”

“I haven’t pricked it yet”, the queen said, “but I soon shall—oh, oh, oh!”

“When do you expect to do it?” Alice asked, feeling very much inclined to laugh.

“When I fasten my shawl again,” the poor queen groaned out, “the brooch will come undone directly. Oh, oh!” As she said the words, the brooch flew open, and the queen clutched wildly at it and tried to clasp it again.

“Take care!” cried Alice. “You’re holding it all crooked!” And she caught at the brooch, but it was too late: the pin had slipped, and the queen had pricked her finger.

“That accounts for the bleeding, you see,” she said to Alice with a smile. “Now you understand the way things happen here.”

“But why don’t you scream now?” Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.

“Why, I’ve done all the screaming already,” said the queen. “What would be the good of having it all over again?”

Living in a Timeless Universe

The drama comes from the protagonist slowly adopting this way of thinking herself in order to come to terms with her grief over her daughter’s death by adopting a timeless Lagrangian way of thinking, while explaining all this to the reader who is still trapped in the algorithmic perspective.

To tell Diomedes’ story, Homer doesn’t think
He has to start with the death of the hero’s uncle,
Or start, in telling about the Trojan War,
By telling us how Helen came out of an egg.
He goes right to the point and carries the reader
Into the midst of things, as if known already;
And if there’s material that he despairs of presenting
So as to shine for us, he leaves it out;
And he makes his whole poem one. What’s true, what’s invented,
Beginning, middle, and end, all fit together.16

This is why it’s titled Story—of course a life is not actually a story, it’s a series of events proceeding logically one by one—but in a good story, key events (something knowable only in retrospect, knowing the ending) are selected, rearranged, edited for symbolism & foreshadowing, and given an overarching meaning from a timeless narrator’s perspective.

What is the story of your life?

This is the story of your life:

“You were born, you lived, and you died.”

We live, knowing we will die, but not how or when; we have children, knowing they too die, but not how or when; we read a story, knowing all stories end, but not how or when—all in the hope that in the end, it is worth it.

See Also

  1. “Ted Chiang on Writing”, Chiang2010:

    Q. Could you give a walk-through of your writing process?

    A. In general, if there’s an idea I’m interested in, I usually think about that for a long time and write down my speculations or just ideas about how it could become a story, but I don’t actually start writing the story itself until I know how the story ends. Typically the first part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end. Once I have the destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that. Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I write the rest of the story in almost random order. I just keep writing scenes until I’ve connected the beginning and the end. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just fill in backwards and forwards.

    Q. How do you classify your writing? I feel like it’s a kind of philosophical fiction, because it’s actually making people think, waking them up and making them wonder about things.

    A. That’s one of the things that science fiction is particularly good at, that’s one of the reasons I like science fiction. Science fiction is very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know. When philosophers propose thought experiments as a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often sound a lot like science fiction. I think that there’s a very good fit between the two.

  2. Sometimes the popular culture myth of a work is wildly wrong—the idea I had of the movie Rambo turned out to be scarcely anything like the real movie. But that misunderstanding was easily fixed by simply watching it.

    What’s more interesting is when watching the movie is the cause of the misunderstanding: books sometimes suffer from an ‘overshadowing’ where the movie version is so vivid (being moving images with sound condensing the book down into a single engrossing 2 hours), the differences with the book become impossible to notice or remember, because the reader’s priors for the movie version become so strong they wipe out the original.

    I. A. Richards’s 1929 Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment case-studies show that most readers are extremely sloppy and read into poems their preconceptions to an extent difficult to believe, in defiance of the plain text.

    Something similar happens with the letters of Saint Paul, where the reader’s assumption of a historical Gospel Jesus is so strong that it’s hard to notice that the (authentic) letters are totally silent about his historical life & Gospel events, lacuna which appear to have gone largely unnoticed until the past two centuries; forged scriptures or texts are routine but likewise circulate for centuries or millennia among believers until modern scholars note the blatant anachronisms or contradictions or mistakes or tell-tale textual history. In Doctor Frankenstein, “Frankenstein”, of course, was the name of the monster’s creator (a young college sophmore, not an old doctor) and not the monster (who could speak for himself adequately). In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is a relatively young man who only recently lost his legs to the whale, not a grizzled old man who has maniacally pursued the whale for decades. Bram Stoker’s Dracula surprises the reader when Dracula stalks about in sunlight unharmed, for Nosferatu has burned into the vampire mythos a fatal vulnerability to sunlight (and this inability to recall the original Dracula may be why it took 40 years to solve Gene Wolfe’s “Suzanne Delage”). Readers of Fahrenheit 451 largely gloss over the television & drugs & stated rationale for burning books, treating it as simply a sort of Americanized 1984 critique of totalitarianism. In Frank Herbert’s SF novel Dune, the Butlerian Jihad is clearly stated to be against men using machines and nothing in it supports any other interpretation (likewise, The Dune Encyclopedia which Herbert endorsed and can be considered semi-canonical), but so strong is the SF trope of “robots trying to exterminate mankind”, and the revisionism in Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson’s supposed sequels/prequels, that most Dune readers unconsciously ignore the plain text and simply assume the Butlerian Jihad was a stock robot uprising (which misinterpretation encourages misinterpretation of the Dune series as a whole by ignoring Herbert’s emphasis on human growth, independent thought, and mindful use of tools). The original Star Trek’s Captain Kirk character has largely become overshadowed by accusations of misogyny & William Shatner’s (enormously lengthy) subsequent career & parodies like Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan. Or in the development of Star Wars (see Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars), Darth Vader becoming Luke Skywalker’s father only happens surprisingly far into the filming of The Empire Strikes Back (Lucas’s many statements to the contrary being retcons), and the trilogy was heavily edited, in addition to further rewriting by the prequels, to essentially retcon everything into a new narrative arc about the rise & fall of Darth Vader; that even fans about George Lucas or the prequels generally do believe that Star Wars was about Darth Vader starting with A New Hope shows how easy it is for the retcon & edits to override the seams. (Incidentally, Darth Vader doesn’t say, “Luke, I am your father.” He says, “No. I am your father.” And in Casablanca, did Ingrid Bergman ever say “Play it again, Sam”?)

    To look at one example in more detail—the 1939 movie version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz versus the original book: are Dorothy’s iconic magical slippers ruby in the book—or silver? They are silver, and were changed to ruby for the movie to show up better in color film. (The musical Wicked amusingly splits the difference by having a spell turn the silver shoes into the ruby slippers.) Such is the power of the movie version that many people who have read the book are simply unable to recall this or confuse the memories, and remember the book slippers as being ruby too—despite this being a classic trivia question and the silver slippers featuring prominently in both the book’s plot and color illustrations. I ran a Google Survey USA probability-sample survey with n = 150 2018-06-3–2018-06-05 asking “In the original book version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, what color were Dorothy’s magical slippers? [Never read it or don’t recall/Ruby/Silver/Emerald]”; the results were 91/36/9/14 respectively (CSV raw results), or to put it another way, 88% of the people who thought they knew what color the slippers were in the book, didn’t know, and 91% of the mistaken people gave the movie answer. I also ran a Twitter poll with 166/60/80/26, respectively, for a 58% error rate and 75% movie mistake. (I suspect more than a few people were looking up before replying or saw replies mentioning “silver”). So the trivia question merits its reputation for difficulty—like with eyewitness testimony and memories, our memories are not so much true as they are “truthy”, we remember the last version we remembered or were told, and time gradually ensures that we remember what should have happened and not what did happen. (Perhaps the slippers were indeed silver in the book, but how much less interesting than the ruby slippers, which they should have been…) Appropriately, Ted Chiang has written a short story on this topic: “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”.↩︎

  3. Ted Chiang, 2019 podcast interview:

    …Well, I agree that 12 Monkeys is a movie that poses a single fixed timeline and I think 12 Monkeys does a pretty good job of it. Also as another example, the first Terminator film is an example of this; the second Terminator is not but the first Terminator film does posit a fixed timeline. And you know, this is something I’m interested in, and yeah, there’s a sense in which “What’s Expected Of Us” falls into this category, also the story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” falls into this category, and there’s even a sense in which for my first collection, “Story of Your Life”, falls in this category. As for a time travel story which posits alternate or parallel timelines, I think the closest I come to that is the final story in the new collection [Exhalation], “Anxiety Is The Dizziness Of Freedom”.

    Note that “What’s Expected” & “Merchant” involves information moving backwards in time in a single self-consistent timeline, while “Anxiety” invokes diverging timelines (which, by enumeration, excludes all the possible standard time travel interpretations of “Story”); what forces Chiang to qualify the connection with a phrase like “even a sense in which”?↩︎

  4. For some of this background, see Terekhovich2016.↩︎

  5. Chiang2010:

    Q. Many of your stories play with the implications of knowing the future. What fascinates you about the nature of Time?

    A. The question of free will. I think free will is what underlies most everything interesting about time travel. And when I say time travel, I’m including receiving information from the future, because that’s essentially equivalent to someone traveling from the future. The idea that you can create a paradox assumes that you have free will; even the idea of multiple timelines assumes it, because it assumes that you can make choices. There have always been philosophical arguments about whether we have free will or not, but they’re usually kind of abstract. Time travel, or knowing the future, makes the question very concrete. If you know what’s going to happen, can you keep it from happening? Even when a story says that you can’t, the emotional impact arises from the feeling that you should be able to.

  6. Chiang2010:

    Q. Fred Hoyle came up with the mechanics of how stars produce heavier elements that end up in us being here. There was an Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell; I listened to one of his interviews, and he was describing an ecstatic experience he had on the way back to the Earth from the Moon. He had a very intense bodily experience of that fact, that the matter in his body was made in an older generation of stars. It was a kind of revelatory experience, and it was based on a piece of scientific knowledge.

    A. Okay. I don’t think his experience was fundamentally different from the ecstatic experiences that religious people have had for millennia, whether they achieve it through prayer, or meditation or some other type of practice, they achieve an epiphany or some kind of revelation. It sounds like you’re talking about a similar type of experience that scientists might have.

    Q. Yes, he did say that when he got back to Earth, he researched the experience he had, and it matched something called savikalpa samadhi in a yogic Sanskrit text, but he didn’t know about that beforehand, and his experience was based on a fact of physics. So my question is, can scientific knowledge lead to new kinds of experience, or are they just religious experiences in a different form?

    A. I don’t think that there’s anything that requires that what the person was thinking about actually be true, for that person to have this experience. The fact that we’re made of elements that were born in the heart of stars, that happens to be true, and that contributed to this astronaut’s experience, but someone could have the exact same experience contemplating something which is not true; for instance, that we are all children of God or whatever, any religious claim you want to use. I don’t think the truth of the statement is actually necessary for that ecstatic experience.

    Q. So it [ecstatic religious experiences] doesn’t have any impact on the validity of the experience?

    A. I’m not convinced that it does. For example, I recently heard this ethnobotanist, Dennis McKenna, on the radio, talking about his experience taking a powerful hallucinogen. He could see photosynthesis actually happening; he could see water molecules actually being processed in the chloroplasts of plant cells. He also felt this incredible sense of oneness, a feeling that humanity was part of this planetary organism. I’m sure this was a very profound experience for him, but I don’t take it as evidence of the truth of photosynthesis. He himself admitted that he already knew how photosynthesis works, and I think the fact that he knew this contributed to his hallucinatory experience. Other people who don’t know about photosynthesis have different hallucinatory experiences, and most of these experiences do not reflect scientific truth. People will have incompatible experiences, and they can’t all be true. So I don’t think that this powerful ecstatic or hallucinatory experience is an indicator of truth. I think it can accompany an accurate insight about the world, but it doesn’t have to. It can accompany someone thinking about the nucleosynthesis of heavy elements in stars, but it could also accompany someone thinking about the need to excoriate one’s flesh to make the Lord happy.

  7. “I tell that story in my introductory course every year. It’s almost certainly untrue, and I explain that afterwards, but it’s a classic anecdote. Of course, the anecdotes my undergraduates will really want to hear are ones featuring the heptapods; for the rest of my teaching career, that’ll be the reason many of them sign up for my courses. So I’ll show them the old videotapes of my sessions at the looking glass, and the sessions that the other linguists conducted; the tapes are instructive, and they’ll be useful if we’re ever visited by aliens again, but they don’t generate many good anecdotes.”↩︎

  8. Chiang2010:

    Q. You have very specific views on the difference between magic and science. Can you talk about that?

    A. Sure. Science fiction and fantasy are very closely related genres, and a lot of people say that the genres are so close that there’s actually no meaningful distinction to be made between the two. But I think that there does exist an useful distinction to be made between magic and science. One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given phenomenon can be mass-produced. If you posit some impossibility in a story, like turning lead into gold, I think it makes sense to ask how many people in the world of the story are able to do this. Is it just a few people or is it something available to everybody? If it’s just a handful of special people who can turn lead into gold, that implies different things than a story in which there are giant factories churning out gold from lead, in which gold is so cheap it can be used for fishing weights or radiation shielding. In either case there’s the same basic phenomenon, but these two depictions point to different views of the universe. In a story where only a handful of characters are able to turn lead into gold, there’s the implication that there’s something special about those individuals. The laws of the universe take into account some special property that only certain individuals have. By contrast, if you have a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process, something that can be done on a mass scale and can be done cheaply, then you’re implying that the laws of the universe apply equally to everybody; they work the same even for machines in unmanned factories. In one case I’d say the phenomenon is magic, while in the other I’d say it’s science. Another way to think about these two depictions is to ask whether the universe of the story recognizes the existence of persons. I think magic is an indication that the universe recognizes certain people as individuals, as having special properties as an individual, whereas a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process is describing a completely impersonal universe. That type of impersonal universe is how science views the universe; it’s how we currently understand our universe to work. The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.

  9. Chiang2002:

    Q. In addition to using symbolic systems to achieve certain emotional effects, you also create alternative universes by altering underlying physical laws, which are fantastic to us but rational to the characters that must live in them, as in “Seventy-Two Letters”, “Tower of Babylon”, and “Hell is the Absence of God.”

    A. Well, I’d put “Tower of Babylon” and “Seventy-Two Letters” in one category, and “Hell is the Absence of God” in another. Those first two stories are more science fictional, while “Hell is the Absence of God” is straight fantasy. Those first two stories are based on certain out-of-date ideas about the natural world, but they’re science fictional because the characters in them follow a scientific worldview. Whereas the universe in “Hell is the Absence of God” is not based on a discarded scientific worldview. It was never scientific, and it hasn’t been discarded. It’s a view of the world that many people have now, except that things are explicit rather than hidden. A lot of people, right now, believe that good and bad fortune are the result of supernatural intervention, and it’s often based on what you deserve. In the story this intervention is very obvious, but I don’t think that by itself changes a religious universe into a scientific one. Does that make sense?

    Q. It makes sense, although the characters in “Hell is the Absence of God” still share a worldview shaped by scientific materialism, despite the presence of angels in their daily lives. They approach the appearance of angels like weather phenomena—it gets reported on the news, and they observe it, and compile statistics, and through observation try to predict the patterns of their appearances. It all seems very rational.

    A. Let me talk a bit about how I view the difference between science fiction and fantasy, and more specifically, the difference between science and magic. John Crowley gave a talk in which he talked about the Romanian scholar Ioan Couliano, a scholar of Renaissance history. Couliano said that real magic is inter-subjective, meaning that real magic is the influence of one consciousness on another. For example, when one person casts a spell on another person, to make that person do their bidding. This was at the heart of a lot of Renaissance magic. What this clarified for me was the role of consciousness in magic, as opposed to science and technology. Because in the scientific method, the experimenter’s consciousness has no place. It doesn’t depend on the scientist having the right intentions, or being pure of heart, or concentrating hard enough, which are very common aspects of magic. And one of the criteria of a scientific result is reproducibility, that it should work no matter who does it, whereas magic is almost exactly the opposite. Magic is highly dependent on the practitioner. Now, in “Seventy-Two Letters” and “Tower of Babylon”, the universe behaves in mechanistic manner, so the consciousness of the practitioner—of the scientist—is not involved. No one’s moral worth has any effect.

    A. In “Hell is the Absence of God”, one’s moral worth is definitely a factor. Specifically, there’s a relationship between the individual consciousness and some other consciousness—that being God. And that again is characteristic of fantasy, that there are forces which you treat as conscious entities, which you have to appease or make sacrifices to. You have to interact with them as though they were a person, and they respond to you as a person. Which is not how science in our world works at all. Which is why I classify that story as a fantasy rather than as science fiction.

    Q. You do something similar in “Seventy-Two Letters”, where you take the legend of the golem, and then cut it off from the divine and turn it into a technology that anyone can use.

    A. Yes, and that ties into what I was saying about the difference between science and magic. In the folklore version of the golem legend, bringing a clay statue to life is pretty easy, most anyone can do it. My initial thought was that, from a very practical standpoint, if this actually worked, the implications would be enormous. Contrast this with the original rabbinical stories, where it’s very difficult to create a golem. It requires a very holy rabbi, someone who has studied for years to focus his mind. That type of golem creation is definitely magical because it is very dependent on the creator, and there are a lot of requirements regarding that person’s consciousness. It’s a very esoteric procedure, and not something that will ever be widely performed. But the folklore version is much more egalitarian. It could conceivably be adapted to mass production, and that makes it less like magic and more like technology.

  10. Doctor Manhattan is not quite the same, though, as he has superpowers and does in fact see much of the future and the universe, requiring Adrian Veidt to obstruct his vision using a tachyon generator—although even there, it’s unclear in the story whether his future perception can alter the past/future, as he appears to never take actions to stop a possible future (saying of Kennedy’s assassination that he knew years before, but didn’t do something because “I can’t prevent the future. To me, it’s already happening” [emphasis in original]), and Veidt’s tachyon generator may simply be an action he was always going to take and always be obscuring Manhattan’s vision and so Manhattan would never have been able to change the past/future because the non-tachyon condition would never have occurred. Indeed, given that Doctor Manhattan winds up agreeing with Veidt, the point may have been moot all along.↩︎

  11. pg9, “Transcending Duality”, Zen Koans, Venerable Gyomay M. Kubose1973, LCCCN 72-11183↩︎

  12. New Scientist #3413 2022-11-19 (a highly-abbreviated paraphrase of Søren Kierkegaard).↩︎

  13. Søren Kierkegaard; entry 166–167, Journal JJ, 1843; pg179 of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, Volume 2: Journals EE–KK, ed. Cappelørn et al 2008, ISBN: 978-0-691-13344-7.↩︎

  14. Leonhard Euler, introduction to De Curvis Elasticis, appendix I to his Methodus Inveniendi Lineas Curvas Maximi Minimive Proprietate Gaudentes 1744; translated on pg10–11, “Leonhard Euler’s Elastic Curves”, Oldfather et al 1933.↩︎

  15. pg194, Chapter 5, Good and Real:

    Consider a simple example, presuming that our universe turns out to be deterministic (or consider a similar example set in a deterministic alternative universe). Define the predicate P to be true of the total state of the universe at a given moment if and only if the successor state one billion years thence-that is, the state defined by applying the (correct) laws of physics to the given state to predict the new state one billion years later-shows me with my right hand raised. Suppose, on a whim, I would like the state of the universe one billion years ago to have been such that the predicate P is true of that state. I need only raise my right hand now and voilà, it was so.

    Of course, I did not change what the distant-past state of the universe had been. The past is what it is and can never be changed. Furthermore, I have no causal influence over the past. Nonetheless, physical law (if deterministic) necessitates that if I do in fact raise my right hand, P is in fact true of the state of the universe a billion years ago; or if I do lower it, P is false of that past state. Suppose, despite my wanting P to have been true a billion years ago, I forgo raising my hand due to a belief that it would be futile to act for the sake of something past and unalterable. In that case, as always with fatalist resignation, I would be needlessly forfeiting an opportunity for my goal to be achieved.

    The set of universe-states in which I do raise my hand is necessarily coextensive with the set of universe-states for which, in the state a billion years prior, P was in fact true (in other words, those are two different descriptions of the same set of universe-states). I thus have exactly as much choice about that particular aspect of the past, despite its inalterability, as I have about whether to raise my hand now—despite the inalterability of that too in a deterministic universe. And, as argued in the previous section, that much choice is choice enough.

  16. Horace, Ars Poetica↩︎

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