Notes on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” (2000), pt. 1

Here goes part 2/? of my preparations for presentation :p This one will be more technical and boring than watching Arrival (2016) then deconstructing the whole movie and adding commentary along with screenshots. Just wanna share some of my desperate measures and attempt to understand this story :p

Read my Arrival notes HERE if you haven’t…


Name: The Story of Your Life

Genre: Science Fiction, short story

Author: Ted Chiang

Suzjet of the story: Aliens visit Earth. A linguist learns their language and in the process has a glimpse of the future in which she and her co-worker would fall in love, get married, have a baby together then he would leave her when he found out that she knew of the child’s eventual death. She decides to follow through with everything to fulfil the future.

Back story of why I’m doing this: haha long story short I first knew of this story thanks to Zzz Review #7: Science Fiction in Jan 2020 and amongst all the male-dominated posts I stopped for a while at Ted Chiang, “Chuyện Đời Con” cuz he’s so handsome like 10/10 would bang mlem mlem daddy material ❤ (I’m a shameless thirsty poetess okay???) and also a reader remarked that the story was adapted into Arrival in 2016 so I made a mental note in mind. Also go check out the Vietnamese translation and the issue as a whole! *plug plug plug


Like seriously guys look at this T-T I don’t blame you if you just click onto the link to look at him :drool: :me gusta:

A little later on (think in late Jan / early Feb) in class we had to pick presentation topics in class and there was a week on Arrival / “The Story of Your Life” so the moment we could start picking topics my tutorial classmates already digged other topics and I had what I wanted haha *cười ra nước mắt. So I went to find the English PDF to read and I found one that has 39 pages and marks his story as 2000; this one does not have drawings of Fermat principles so I went back to the Vietnamese translation to read it (cuz your girl sucks at Physics). In preparing for the presentation I downloaded the PDF our teacher put up online and it’s the one with drawings from The Story of Your Life and Others, the 2002 collection of Chiang’s short stories published by Small Beer Press, Easthampton, MA (I’m not gonna MLA citation this teehee);

In total I read 3 versions and consulted a few sources I’d share below!

So anyways because of this opportunity I promised I’d write up a review / rant / critique / gossip / so on and so forth of the story as a reader’s response to Zzz #7 so yeah here I am tolling away like a tự kỷ girl I am social distancing got me like smh;

Just another note I’m really not a sci-fi fan like the closest I get to sci-fi is Disney’s Wall-E (who doesn’t love Wall-E tbh), Her, Ready Player One, cyberpunk Photoshop effects and Baby Yoda memes so really please appreciate the effort I put into re-reading and close-reading this story several times and study Linguistics and Physics to understand it. Oh the things we do for love (and grades!) ❤

(Okay long story not short at all)

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 6.08.30 PM

Things I think about after reading several times: 

  1. The background and context of sci-fi in the late 90s – early 2000s in which this story came about; and the similarities and differences between this story and other sci-fi stories and movies I’ve read and watched → what can you tell about this story? DONE 
  2. Linguistics and physics theories used to form ideas in the story → this is a bit technical but we’ll get through, I promise; DONE 
  3. How the story is told → identify the narratives used to construct it and the type of language the author use → we can understand how we experience time and events in this story;
  4. Pick a sequence to analyse whether there’s free will or not → how does this situation conforms or conflicts with my belief as a reader?
  5. How does it make you feel and why do you think is that?


I. Sci-Fi Elements: 

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 6.22.10 PM

Like I said I’m not a pro in sci-fi so I won’t attempt to tell you all about sci-fi history. If you want to have a general look into sci-fi history you can check out Long Nguyen’s article on Zzz Review #7 HERE (in Vietnamese). I did consult it when I started researching for the story but then I wanted to zoom in on late 90s and early 2000s trends just to be more focused:

First I’m gonna take a look at some notables sci-fi names that came out in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002 cuz that’s the period in which “The Story of Your Life” was written and published. I don’t read sci-fi stories so I can’t tell which one is representative of the genre in this period but I do recognise movie names (yay pop culture):

  • 1998: Godzilla; Star Trek; The X-Files;
  • 1999: Godzilla 2000;
  • 2000: The 6th Day (this one haunted me when I was a kid watching HBO); Mission to Mars; X-Men;
  • 2001: Donnie Darko; Jurassic Park II; Planet of the Apes;
  • 2002: Jason X; Men in Black II; Spider Men; Star Trek series; Star Wars series; Resident Evil;

The turn of the century brought with it a multitude of questions and concerns for the human condition, namely the anxiety about the future (who knows what the 21th century would bring and whether or not an asterisk would destroy Earth); the rise of science and technology and its implications – threats and consequences on humanity (genetic engineering, space travel, robot replacing people); existential angst and what it would mean to be human amidst growing technology;

  • All fiction genres speak to humankind’s deep inner fear, want, desire and concerns, take horror for example. The phenomenon of ghosts and haunting is mostly the projection of human concerns and anxiety in tumultuous time period(s) and space(s) onto the supernatural; in other words, human cannot articulate these fears and anxieties in plain, normal terms so we project and mask them under the guise of the ghost figures;
  • That’s why horror stories often come about in tragic and tumultuous times;
  • The same can be thought of science fiction: the anxiety of humankind in the age of internet and robots is not a simple fear that can be shrugged away or brushed off, it’s gigantic and is always relevant (robots taking our jobs! AI overhearing our conversations!) so we need to find a way or ways to articulate our fears – we do so by projecting them onto imagined scenarios where these worlds would crash and collide, reaching catharsis in the process.

→ Sci-Fi trends (or patterns? motifs?) in the new millennium:

    • Spatial: space travelling, space wars, intergalactic federations, alien princesses (Princess Leila!);
    • Life on another planet: travelling to other planets and live there cuz Earth’s no longer inhabitable;
    • Mutation: X-men, cyborgs, genetic engineering, tech-aided body modifications, superhuman saving Earth and defeating evil invaders from space;
    • Discovering lost worlds: Atlantis, Mt. Vesuvius, Jurassic Park, lol;
    • Aliens: aliens arriving on Earth; human-aliens relationships; learning aliens language; aliens learning human language (English lol);

So from here let’s take a look at how “The Story of Your Life” is alike and/or different from the conventional sci-fi tropes:

  • Aliens visit the Earth but they don’t want to attack, steal, destroy or make us their pets, instead they offer to teach us their language and helps us see the future (wow sao tốt quá v =))))
  • The protagonist is not a US military officer of superhuman with extraordinary talents like flying and throwing laser shots but she’s a linguist who can speak a lot of languages and can converse with aliens so that’s really, really refreshing and cool too!
  • But that also means that there’s not gonna be any fighting and explosions (at least not in the story, there’s a big BOOM in Arrival), just a lot of “nerdy” stuffs like linguistics and physics → I mean sci-fi is already “nerds’ backyard” so it’s easy for them, not for me :p 
  • The physics is very confusing, naturally;
  • So as we can see, without a “real” conflict like alien invasion and combat, we’ll have to focus a lot into the protagonist’s psyche and her treatise on life, language, human v/s heptapod linguistics and her child’s story → “The Story of Your Life” is not just about her daughter’s life but rather sets the daughter’s life as the pretext for Louise Banks to talk about her life and how it’s changed by the language;
  • Aside from big big questions like linguistics and physics and how we perceive time, one of the most important issues raised by the story is the concept of FREE WILL → tricky! This gonna raise a lot of debate I’m sure! (More to that later)

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 9.29.30 PM


II. Theories: I have seen many praises given for Ted Chiang’s exploration of linguistics in the story despite not having formal training in the subject. I have to give the same praise cuz all the theoretical frameworks check out and it’s soooo accurate but in a way that you can actually understand it. So I try to reverse-engineer the story by finding some foundation theories of what’s said in it:

  1. Ferdinand De Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (I use the excerpts from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, pp. 956-977)
  • Ferdinand De Saussure was a very important figure regarded as “the father of modern linguistics” and also gave birth to both structuralism and post-structuralism by his works on linguistics;
  • He made some very important discoveries into the nature of language, thus transforming the way we think, learn, and language like we know now;


  • In Course in General Linguistics, there’s some remarks about language’s linearity that can be used to understand what Louise says about human’s experience of sequential time. I quote but I’ll break it down into small pieces to comprehend:

“The sign is not only arbitrary but also linear (he uses “linear” which is a spatial term to describe a temporal phenomenon): signs succeed each other and show up each other as they unfold in time in a speech

Signs are combined like links in a chain to from the line of language according to 2 relations: 

1) All units of speech are presented in their presentation 

2) All units are present in the mind but absent from the actual sequence; 


Principle II of language: the linear nature of the signifier: 

The signifier, being auditory, is unfolded solely in time from which it gets the following characteristics:

(a) it represents a span, and

(b) the span is measurable in a single dimension; it is a line

… The whole mechanism of language depends upon it. In contrast to visual signifiers (nautical signals, etc.) which can offer simultaneous groupings in several dimensions, auditory signifiers have at their command only the dimension of time.

Their elements are presented in succession; they form a chain. This feature becomes readily apparent when they are represented in writing and the spatial line of graphic marks is substituted for succession in time;

Sometimes the linear nature of the signifier is not obvious… There is no duality within the act but only different oppositions to what precedes and what follows.


My example (cuz I tutor English so I have very simple examples):

Consider the sentence “I go to school”:

  • First you have to think of the sentence. To do so you have to think of the subject “I”, then you have to think of a verb, then choose one from the variety of verbs you know “go, dance, jump, run, etc.”, then you choose and plug the preposition into the sentence “with, to, from, in, etc.”, then you need an object that is the destination (end place) of your verb; so to come up with the sentence “I go to school” you have to think about what you want to say;


  • Then you have to say it out loud (or in your head), and they will come out one by one: I comes first, then go, then to, then school. You can’t say all 4 of them at once Igotoschool and no matter how fast you try to say it, I still comes out first, then go, then so on…


  • This is even more clear in writing: to write, you have to know what you’re gonna write, you can do so by formulating sẵn in your head what you’re gonna say, so back to step 1; or you can think as you go about, but you always have this “little voice” speaking out loud in your head telling you what to write;


  • Also in writing you’ll see that you have to write, print out letter, or type them in an order; even if you trine type as fast as you could you still have to type I first then go then …

All of these point to the sequential nature of the language (English or Vietnamese) that we use — you can think of it this way: we experience time by saying a sentence and that sentence will take a duration to be uttered out from start to finish – long sentence equals longer time to speak, write and read; and this sentence will always have a duration that is the duration of it being said and it being effective. In the example above, if I say “I go to school” the sentence will be effective until the action’s been done or until I deem it ineffective.

De Saussure was also accused of prioritising spoken language over written language, aka the speech that we speak out is more superior and the letters we write is only secondary to it; but I think the “little voice” think is very relevant. Louise also mentions this when she talks about Russian summer camp and total language immersion.

And hey, the whole story is about language’s linearity so go De Saussure!


2. Performative Language – Performativity: this one is from J.L. Austin’s How to do things with words, chapter Performative Utterances, I also get from The Norton Anthology pp 1430 – 1441:

  • Human language is informative: it serves to inform, describe, depict, give information or opinions on a given reality, person, objects, events, etc.
  • Human language is also performative: performative sentences takes on the role of the action when they are uttered;
  • For example: “the exam starts now“: the exam will not start until this sentence is said;
  • Another example: saying “I do” as a response to the proposal: if you say this then the proposal can come to an end and you 2 are happily engaged; if you say “I don’t” then the proposal fails and the sentence itself is the act of refusing or rejecting the proposal; the important thing is the sentence “I do / I don’t” have to be said for it to happen. “I do” equal to nodding head (action, verb) and “I don’t” equal to shaking head (action, verb);

Towards the end of the story Louise remarks on the performativity nature of language and how to heptapods, despite knowing the whole conversation, they still have to speak and write it out for it to happen, making their whole language performative;


3. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of Language Relativity

  • Edward Sapir was Benjamin Lee Whorf’s teacher but they never wrote any books on this subject matter together so this hypothesis is not real =)) the name is coined by their contemporaries and later disciples and so it persists in pop culture;
  • Language relativity states that the language one speaks dictates their perception of the world, and the way one sees the world is native to their language;
  • On the surface it’s cute but there are many implications such as racism and colonialism, like one language (and subsequently one race) is considered more superior than others and there have been real consequences like Native American languages being wiped out cuz English is considered more superior 😦
  • This theory was favoured by those in the German Romantic school when it came out cuz that was around the time nationalism went boom in Europe;
  • After World War 2 this theory gradually fell out of favour, was contested (by Noah Chomsky and friends), proved to be scientifically incorrect and then dropped from linguistics as a science; it also fell out of favour thanks to increasing social acceptance towards the other; 
  • Ted Chiang’s story and the film are often seen as a heavily exaggerated version of this hypothesis (the movie even went so far as to name check it) – it makes sense cuz there is always a distinction between us (humans) and them (heptapods), thus our language and their language, and how our perception of the world and time is different from theirs; all and all a lot of sense of distinction;
  • Go read this if you still have questions about this theory HERE


4. Fermat Principle of Least Time

Props to daddy Chiang for making it super super easy to understand for a hopeless non-science student like me:

Just read this and say no mo’ 😀

Actually I didn’t really understand it at first so I went back to read the Vietnamese version – oh god it was like reading SGK Vật lý lớp 11 again but it really helps!


5. Borgesian fabulation: the Book of Ages: this one is inspired by Borges’ “The Book of Sand” and “The Library of Babel” from his Ficciones:

  • Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentinian author and Nobel laureate known for his fantasy stories that depict very trippy scenarios, like his most famous Ficciones
  • I really like JLB and daddy Chiang also references him so yeah one reason to love this story more!
  • Borgesian fabulation, much like Borges’ OG stories, often depicts impossible or near-impossible scenarios creating paradoxes for human under the guise of the fantasy story;
  • In this case the fabulation is about a person who already knows the future by reading the Book of Ages but raises the question of whether they will act against the future outcome or follow through with it; Louise concludes that those who have read the Book of Ages will go so far to deny ever reading it → to prove that free will and free choice is not exactly free? (More to that later)



2 thoughts on “Notes on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” (2000), pt. 1

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