Monday, October 8, 2007

Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life": An alternate design of cognition & language

Quote from Story of Your Life by Ted ChiangThis very readable novella examines an alternative to human cognition & languages. Plot is organized as an attempt to understand very cooperative alien visitors.

Title of the story comes from a parallel thread describing the tender relationship of a woman to her daughter, with a twist near end.

I collected some quotes from this story too.

Full text of this story is available as a free download.

Story summary.
Alien ships have suddenly appeared in earth orbit. Aliens have also planted 112 artifacts around the world, 9 of them in the US. Americans dub these artifacts "looking glasses", & the aliens "heptapods".

The one artifact we will be seeing through the story is in the US, & is essentially a remote holographic communication device. You step within a certain marked surface area near the artifact; aliens presumably appear near their artifact; & the two of you could be virtually sitting in the same room. There are hints that rest of alien artifacts are also similar devices.

As we will learn through the story, aliens will stay around for a few years. The only response to reason for their visit is "to see" or "to observe". And at least during this trip, there is no hint of any malevolent intent.

A military installation has been built around the artifact where much of the story will happen. US government, as also others around the world, will spend much time trying to understand a language for communication with aliens; that is the bulk of the story. Aliens will cooperate, but don't appear to have initiative in the matter. So, it's essentially about trying to understand their language & cognition processes.

Dr Louise Banks is the narrator - a language expert & a teacher somewhere. Dr Gary Donnelly is a physicist. The two of them will be this site's team attempting to figure out aliens language & to try learning their science. They will have much success with the former, but aliens are not giving away any of their science or technology. Colonel Weber is the military man both will report to.

We will learn that aliens' spoken language has no relationship whatever with their written language. Written language is 2 dimensional rather than linear familiar to humans. Spoken language appears to have grammar utterly unfamiliar to humans - any number of clauses expressed in an arbitrary, changeable, sequence.

We will also learn that rather than thinking through things one at a time, as humans do, they simultaneously look at everything! To me, the whole process appeared a lot like the idea of "grokking" in Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land".

We will also be told that this facility of looking at everything simultaneously means you can tell the future as easily as past! This is where we see some discussion on free will & its relationship to predicting future events; this part appears to have been lifted from Chiang's earlier & much shorter story, "What's Expected Of Us".

Through the course of her interactions with aliens, Louise will get a facility with this simultaneous mode of thinking. That is the basis of the parallel thread running through the story - of her future marriage to Gary & later separation, & of her very tender feelings about her yet to be born daughter who will eventually die of an accident at age 25. Title comes from this thread about the life story of the daughter.

See also.

  1. Lewis Padgett's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves": Apparently friendly alien encounter that makes humans learn their ways of thinking, leading to thoughts & actions impossible to ordinary mortals.
  2. H Beam Piper's "Omnilingual": Perhaps a better known, but far more simplistic, story on how to figure out an alien language.
  3. Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land": The idea of simultaneously looking at the big picture rather than as linear components, & that a certain language, is very similar to the idea of "grokking" in Stranger.
  4. Ted Chiang's "What's Expected Of Us?": A part of the narrative discusses the incompatibility of a deterministic future with free will. That is the argument of What's Expected.
  5. Arthur Clarke's "2001 A Space Odyssey": Alien artifacts suddenly appearing on earth that allow visual communications with humans, & then vanishes via some kind of remote action of aliens, are also seen in the first story of 2001.
  6. Peter Watts' "Blindsight": A very different & violent technique to understand the language of aliens.
  7. Issac Asimov's "The Naked Sun": Very realistic holographic communication devices where remote parties appear within an effective area around the device, & are virtually in the same room, appears in Asimov's novel too.

Collected in.

  1. Ted Chiang's "Stories of Your Life and Others".
Fact sheet.
"Story of Your Life", short story, review
First published: Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Ed)'s "Starlight 2", October 1998.
Rating: A
Related: All stories of Ted Chiang.
Winner of Nebula Award 1999 in novella category


Rusty said...

This has to be one of my favorite science fiction stories I have ever read! I absolutely loved the author's style, tone and knowledge of linguistic field methods. (As an ESL teacher I have had courses in linguistics - so I may be a little biased here!) With unique aliens and a great spin on linear thinking I just couldn't get enough of it. You can read my own review of this story on my blog. I love these types of stories, so I'll definitely be checking out your other recommendations too - thanks for the ideas!

kakarot said...

Your review is pretty insightful.Although i digress on one issue.the idea of grokking, i feel, is derived from the Hindu 'Advaita' philosophy of being one with god whereas the concept in 'story of your life' is similar to the belief of everything being predestined(God Brahma having written everything about the universe/s beforehand).

Though the concept is integrated into the story beautifully.This makes for a highly satisfying read.