The Teleological Thought
A Review and Analysis of Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
This review and analysis contains plot spoilers, but the Introduction and Conclusion contain a minimum of plot details.
Some very old philosophical questions: How much of "who we are" is bound up with our perceptions and thought processes? Does language shape thought, or does thought shape language?
Language isn't explored enough in science fiction. Until recently, I knew of only one prominent instance of an SF narrative built around a linguistic concept–China Miéville's Embassytown. I have now discovered a second–Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. And it should be noted that publication of Chiang's story preceded Miéville's novel by almost a decade.
The Sequential and the Holistic
At the core of Story of Your Life lies a subtle kick in the reader's complacent acceptance of the human perspective as The Way Things Are. Aliens have arrived in orbit around Earth and have dispatched over a hundred devices across the planet, which we call "looking-glasses."
The looking-glasses allow us to see and hear the aliens, although the aliens remain physically in orbit. Desiring to know what the aliens' intentions are, the US military brings the story's protagonist, a professional linguist, out to one of the looking-glass sites in order to learn the aliens' language and thereby their intent.
The alien language defies the given parameters of human language at every turn. Their writing system at first appears ideographic, like Chinese, where a single character represents a concept, and pronunciation is divorced from form. It turns out that pronunciation is indeed divorced from form for the aliens, but their writing is inflected in highly complex way. For example, noun declensions are indicated by rotating a noun character a certain number of degrees with relationship to a verb character and then blending the two into one, while an adverb like "clearly" is indicated by altering the curvature of a verb's stroke in a particular way.
Furthermore, once the protagonist gets the alien visitors to start writing their language out, another important discovery is made. Rather than drawing each character of a sentence in the order of pronunciation, the aliens draw strokes through the entire sentence, coordinating elements of each and every glyph from beginning through the end, until the sentence is finally complete.
This discovery occurs simultaneously with a similar discovery made by the physicists working with the aliens, and the scholarly community concludes that the aliens' entire worldview is teleological rather than sequential. Events are interpreted in terms of their purposes and goals rather than their causes and effects.
The narrative's structure further reinforces this theme. The story of the protagonist being hired by the military and studying the aliens' language is told in sequential order in the third person past tense. These segments are interrupted by scenes told in the second person present tense, in which the protagonist addresses her daughter and relates the titular "story of her life." These sections are wildly out of temporal order, and can alternate from adolescence, to childhood, to graduation, then to infancy, with seemingly no cohesion, until the reader glosses that this seeming lack of cohesion is the point, and that the reader is to view these sequences more like the aliens and less like a human. And in keeping with the central theme, the story of mother and daughter that arises from these disparate puzzle pieces succeeds at adding up to more than the sum of its parts.
The story's ending adds an extra layer of structural resonance to the theme. The narrative subtly leads the reader to believe that the protagonist's messages to her daughter describe events that happened prior to the aliens' arrival. One subtle detail at the end of the story makes it clear that those events take place after the aliens departure. By further undermining the temporal cohesion of story events, Chiang directs the reader to question given assumptions about how we perceive of and order our experiences.
I first heard of Ted Chiang during a panel at ICFA 2016, which included a discussion of his novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects. I was intrigued and added his works to my reading list, but as my backlog is very long, I wasn't scheduled to read any of his work for a year or so. The upcoming release of Arrival forced me to move Story of Your Life forward to the present, and I'm very fortunate for that circumstance. I'll be prioritizing the rest of Chiang's works higher in my backlog as well.
I am impressed by how much Chiang accomplished in such a short space. Story of Your Life manages to cogently utilize linguistics and physics to the literary end of exploring human perception and cognition in just over fifty pages. At times humorous, and at others heartbreaking, Story of Your Life is as human as it is scientific. An expertly crafted narrative and a highly recommended read.