Notes on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”, pt. 2

Read part 1 in which I attempt to understand the story through the use of linguistic and physic theories HERE

So in part 1 I have tackled 2 issues: 1) How the story is similar to and different from other sci-fi products at the turn of 21st century, and 2) Identify the theories used to form ideas in the story.

To understand how the story is told, once again I employ the tool of deconstruction bequeathed upon me by old man Jacques Derrida and film classes :p This is slightly less painstaking than deconstructing all sequences in the movie but nevertheless was time-consuming and math-related :p

I use the excerpt from The Story of Your Life and Others (Small Beer Press, Easthampton, MA : 2002) for this exercise. Feel free to use other version or the Vietnamese version if you want!

Deconstructing the story: 

  • First, I identify the story lines that are presented in this short story –> there are 2: the child story and the heptapods story;
  • Then, I write down the starting and ending line of each segment. Summarise what happens in this segment. I also write down the number of lines (for the child story) and pages (for heptapod story). For example:
    • P91 – 92 (first 41 lines): Your father is about the ask me the question (present tense) – then I got the phone call: Child sequence 1, the kid is 12 and is vacuuming the house;
    • 92-95 (4 pages): I spotted them waiting in the hallway – The colonel nodded: I’ll get back to you on the matter → heptapod story 1: the heptapods arrive and asks her to cooperate by giving her the recording; she asks to see them in person;

This is done and completed in my note-sheet until I’ve reached the end of the story. Then I count the number of lines in a page and did some calculations. This is what I get:

  • There’s a total of 55 pages in this story;
  • Each page averages 33 lines; 
  • There’s around 368 lines for child story = 11.15 pages = 11 page 5 lines; 
  • The rest is heptapods story: 43 page 28 lines;
  • There’s 20 child sequences + 19 heptapod sequences + 1 final conclusion –> equal weight enough, we’ll see;

Breaking down the plotline: 

  • Child story: starting with the night the child is conceived → 12 yo → death at 25 yo → 5 yo → 16 yo → 17 yo → 6 → college graduation → 13 yo → learns to walk → 15 yo → 14 yo → child 14 does report non zero-sum game → 3 yo bedtime → 3 yo salad bowl present buys salad bowlchild’s dead present in bed with Gary → 3 yo → breastfeeding → reads a story → a day old (newly born)the child is conceived; 

  • Heptapods story: the heptapods arrive on Earth, Louise Banks is asked to cooperate to talk to the aliens → Gary and Louise go to meet the heptapods and attempt to learn Heptapod A (the spoken language) → Louise wants to use more equipment to see if they have writing too → G & L name them; Louise sees the writing and go WTF → Louise explains linguistics to Gary and how it’s gonna be difficult to learn Heptapod language → describe Heptapod B (writing) → scientists had little progress in showing the aliens maths & physics but the linguists made a lot of discoveries with the language; when asked the heptapods always reply with “to see” or “to observe” → a breakout: the heptapods respond to Fermat’s principle (complete with drawing yay!); Gary takes Louise to dinner to celebrate → Louise gives up on physics (like me!) and wonder what it has to do with the heptapods → someone raises questions about the linguistic nature of heptapod language; Louise attempts to describe what the writing looks like in the exchange session – the “orbit orbit” → Gary tries to explain the Fermat principle to Louise again → Louise explains how even in different languages there’s still a voice inside her head and how the heptapod language is different from it, thus how it’s affecting her thinking and her writing of it; in the meeting with the officials they talk so seriously and Gary makes a joke saying “Oh you mean a zero-sum game” → this is followed immediately by the child report – zero sum game segment → still at the meeting with the officials; later on Louise explains how human minds conceive physics law and time → Gary takes Louise to buy stuffs to make dinner, the salad bowl segment, child and heptapod timelines comes together → Louise continues to explain how humans and heptapods are different in experience language, physics and time → recurring dream about the child’s death while in bed with Gary → Louise has now improved tremendously in heptapod language and is able to perceive time differently; Gary comes and kisses her before the Colonel gets there (so I guess they’re dating now) →  Louise admits and explains how knowledge of the future is incompatible with free will; she describes an exchange session in which the person tries to explain humanist concepts; she talks about how heptapod language is performative → They have a meeting to discuss exchanging gifts with the heptapods; Louise talks about how heptapod has almost completely changed the way she perceives time, how she’s able to experience past and future all at one, memories of 5 decades, an epoch, “the period of my life and yours”She acts as a translator for the second gift exchange, they present cave paintings to the heptapod; as they tryna arrange a next session the heptapods started leaving all of a sudden; They left after she’s fluent in heptapod B and can see the future! Interesting! 


  • Final conclusion: That final gift exchange → do you wanna make a baby → Conclusion: she agrees to fulfill the future (G I R L . . .)

Observations on how these plot lines progress: 

  • Child story:
    • We can see that as a whole, and in this child story in particular, the narrative direction is circular: it starts with the night the child being conceived and ends back at the same night, so it’s kinda like you can read the end then read back at the beginning and it’ll be a continuum;
    • However, within its actual recounting, the events happen not by order but randomly at first, then starts to be associated with the events happening in the present: phone call from Colonel // phone call from mountain rescue; kangaroo story // child language acquisition, made of honour. These look like free association in psychoanalysis and may make us think that her “memories” of the child is triggered by instances, keywords, events, happening in the present heptapod timeline
    • In the last 1/3 of the story, it starts to intertwine with the heptapod story line:
      • Starting with the zero-sum game: child 14yo doing report – heptapod story in which Gary makes a joke – Louise repeats the phrase “zero-sum game” in the child story line;
      • Then the salad bowl sequence which the child story is embedded right in the middle of the shopping sequence;
      • The dream of the dead child presented while Louise stays at Gary’s place;
    • All these clashes between two timelines happen when she’s already fluent in heptapod language;
    • After that the story of the child regresses chronologically back to when she’s born then to the night she’s conceived; 


  • The heptapod story: this one happens in a chronological order with a beginning: the heptapods arrive on Earth, Louise goes to talk to them; build up: Gary and Louise and others try to talk to them and learn their language; conflict: the language is WTF; breakthrough: Fermat principle; expansion: as time go by Louise improves at this language, Gary and Louise fall in love; resolution: Louise becomes fluent in heptapod language, can see the future; the heptapods leave and she fulfils the future;
  • If I have to identify the climax of the story I’d identify the part where the child/heptapod stories collide: zero-sum game, salad bowl, and the dream with the peak being the dream;

What to make of these arrangements? 

  • The heptapods story is told in a chronological order is normal enough: it’s both a convention in storytelling and it also exemplify how human experience time and order;
  • It utilises the form (from the top) as the content (chronicle);
  • This story is told in the past tense so we take it as it already happened and Louise is recounting it. This helps us identify 3 tenses of narrative time: past tense (heptapod) – present (the night the child is conceived) – future (the story of the child);
  • So we place ourselves in Louise’ present tense (that night) to look back into the past: the request for a meeting;
  • This heptapod story can happen on its own and it can still make sense;

So what about the child story? 

  • Alternatively you can rearrange the story of the child’s life in a chronological order, starting with her being conceived and ending with her death at the age of 25. This will give the form of the child story a much more “flashback”-esque sense but the effect will not be the same;
  • First of all, the circular narrative will not work anymore;
  • Secondly, the zero-sum game sequence will happen much earlier in this timeline and there will be no clash between two timelines, hence no problem – climax – realisation – aha! moment for the readers;
  • While the heptapod story is used to illustrate how human perceive time, the child story is used to demonstrate how Louise perceive time in a different way as she acquires heptapod language. Let’s revise that the heptapod does not perceive time as before-after, past-future, cause-effect like humans but all at the same time so what Louise experiences must also conform to this rule. Any attempt to present the story as linear will defy the whole purpose of the story.

How does this story make me think of time? 

  • Actual time: I have always taken granted “time”, “past”, “present”, and “future”. Like I don’t really put much thought into what conceptualises them. By reading this story and researching on the relationship between language and time, I’m both amazed and fascinated by the idea that you experience time by experiencing language. It’s such a simple yet understated fact. The sci-fi element in this story definitely points to the idea that there exists a language that allows its users to experience time in a different way and so their lives will be very different.


  • Narrative time: is even more intriguing to me, at least. The story has 3 tenses: past (heptapod story) – present (the night the child is conceived) – and future (the child’s life). However when I first read the story I couldn’t have made this distinction. Like most readers (and audience) I come to think of the child’s life as flashback, and it’s much later into the story that I realised oh no it’s actually a flashforward!
    • Do pay attention to the tenses used in the writing. Because these are words, there are no montages or colours or cinematic techniques to pick our brains. Look at how in the child story everything is written in the future tense “you’ll be 3 years old”, “you’ll be coming home from school”, etc. This is simple enough – future tense = talking about the future.
    • The paradox is that she always say “I remember”. Normally you say “I remember when you were 3 years old” because it makes sense grammatically and logically: human minds can only remember something if it had happened in the past, if it did not happen (or hasn’t) then you have no memories and recollection of it, so how can you remember something that hasn’t existed or happened. So the way Ted Chiang pairs up an act of recalling the past (remember) with the future (you’ll be 3 years old) is fcking genius! I kinda overlooked it but now that I’ve broken it down even more I can see how this creates tension and paradox and OMG it’s so good!
    • So Louise remembers the future – this tension showcases how she perceives time differently. As she can perceive a whole epoch at a time so past – present – future is experienced at the same time so there’s no before and after, no cause and result, so she can remember because to her, these “memories” have already existed!

So my conclusion is Ted Chiang is a fcking genius! :me gusta:


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