Notes on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”, pt. 3

Wow I originally only intended to have one Notes post and now I’m at part 3. Chắc không ai đọc đâu nhưng mà lỡ cố gắng đầu tư đọc bài tìm hiểu với ghi chú suốt 3 tháng nay rồi nên thôi cứ viết hết ra đi. Read my Arrival notes HERE, my part 1 HERE, and part 2 HERE. In my film notes I break down the film sequence by sequence with screenshots and point out which part of the film corresponds to which part of the story; part 1 of story notes is about the theories I researched for this story, and part 2 is my deconstruction of the story to examine how it’s told and how the narrative and language used in the story serve to create a unique experience of time.

(Some sharing: I took a nap this afternoon and the whole dream I had was just me trying to explain the narrative development of this story – that’s how invested I am in this project :p)

On to part 3 where I attempt to look into the question of Free Will in this story and hopefully some take-away as a whole.

Some pretty shots from the movie ❤


I actually found a very profound article on Ted Chiang’s fiction HERE and there’s a section towards the end when Louise Banks and her free will is discuss. Go check it out!

Okay here goes~

So free will. What to make of it? Do we humans have free will or not? This is one of the most long-last, enduring, difficult, soul-searching, pain-staking question in philosophy since there were the first humans. I had a “philosophy phase” in middle school in which I was super crazy about this subject that I wanted to study it in-depth in college (I never do but CompLit is also built upon philosophy treatises!) and I read a lot of stuffs on philosophy, yet the topic of Free Will always confuses me because there’s so much reasoning and logical thinking so I tend to avoid it. But then I’m confronted with this question when I read “The Story of Your Life” so I guess theo tình tình chạy trốn tình tình theo :p

The film and the story poses the question:

“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”

Anyways here you won’t see me debating for >< against it cuz that’s not my job. In high school and my first year in college I was still very enthusiastic about debating til I recognise the futility in doing so and debate clubs (in my opinion, from the ones I’ve been to) are so pretentious… So I won’t be debating it – that’s the job of Philosophy majors and debate club members. My job – my task, my mission, my training in CompLit is to look at HOW the question of Free Will is problematised and depicted in this story.

  • The dramatic situation: Louise can speak alien language, which changes her perception of time, enabling her to experience past, present, and future at the same time.
  • Completely normal and healthy reactions from the readers: B I T C H don’t do it!!!
  • Louise’s action: she follows through with her action in the present to fulfil the future;
  • Louise’s rationale: knowing the future is incompatible with free will; alien language and alien’s conception of time is thus incompatible with free will, aka free will does not exist for them, every action taken is to comply with what’s to come. Now that she knows the future, she is compelled to act according to it.
  • If this was a non-scifi or non-alien story, there would be 7749 ways to argue to and for free will, but this is a sci-fi story, so Ted Chiang has (almost) pacified and normalised the argument against free will by introducing the intrinsic element of the alien language. So Louise can argue that this is not Louise-human language’s doing, but Louise-heptapod’s doing, and this is not part of the Job Description!

If you’re not convinced still let’s take a look at the salad bowl sequence:

“I accompanied Gary as he collected fresh basil, tomatoes, garlic, linguini. “There’s a fish market next door; we can get fresh clams there,” he said.

“Sounds good.” We walked past the section of kitchen utensils. My gaze wandered over the shelves—peppermills, garlic presses, salad tongs—and stopped on a wooden salad bowl.

When you are three, you’ll pull a dishtowel off the kitchen counter and bring that salad bowl down on top of you. I’ll make a grab for it, but I’ll miss. The edge of the bowl will leave you with a cut, on the upper edge of your forehead, that will require a single stitch. Your father and I will hold you, sobbing and stained with Caesar Salad dressing, as we wait in the emergency room for hours.

I reached out and took the bowl from the shelf. The motion didn’t feel like something I was forced to do. Instead it seemed just as urgent as my rushing to catch the bowl when it falls on you: an instinct that I felt right in following.

“I could use a salad bowl like this.”

Gary looked at the bowl and nodded approvingly. “See, wasn’t it a good thing that I had to stop at the market?”

“Yes it was.” We got in line to pay for our purchases.”

Something to think about… Actually I don’t want to delve too deep here despite knowing I have to (hey if free will is an illusion let me have my perfect illusion~)

I want to think more about why is it that despite knowing that her child will be dead at 25 yo and her husband will leave her once she reveals that she already knows all of this, Louise still goes ahead in the relationship with Gary.

The short version would be cuz girl be horny LOL

But I think free will aside, this can be approached with the most basic common sense: when I think about this, I think of the notion of falling in love. You were hurt in the past by a relationship, but now you meet someone new and both of you have feelings for each other. You also know (from experience) that the relationship might fail (cuz there’s absolutely no guarantee) but you decide to become a couple and be together. I recognise this cuz it’s happened to me a few times.

Actually when you’re in love you tend to not think about parting ways. You’d be immersing in the good, warm, fuzzy, happy feelings of being in love. You’d want to be together with that person because in your (ir)rational minds, that would make sense and that would be the right thing to do. And when you are both in love with each other and are free to get together, if you don’t do it, then it’s a wasted chance, a wasted opportunity, and maybe then you’d be left thinking “What if we’d been together…”

If you focus too much on parting ways and are scared to take a chance, then you’d risk or really give up on having the good times together. And those good times are what matter honestly.

I think to sum up this notion there’s a very good saying for this in Vietnamese: “Love is only beautiful when it’s undone”. Tình chỉ đẹp khi tình còn dang dở.

So my take is that Louise goes ahead because she loves Gary, and that’s what matters.

5. My concluding remarks for this story:

I must state then restate that the reason why I noticed this story then decided to do my presentation on it is because Ted Chiang is fcking handsome and hot OMG I know I know don’t judge me Sagittarians like me are known to have crushes on dead philosophers let alone alive young handsome sci-fi writers.

Seriously if a publication comes out of the blue with this story and say “Write a review and we’ll give you 1000 USD” I won’t do it but if you dangle Ted Chiang’s photo like a bait I WILL take it without asking for any payments and I WILL write notes after notes just because…

I typed up most of the notes on Saturday and it was a very hot day – in fact, it was one of the hottest days in the year so far and I felt completely fcked up, so fcked up as in I was lonely I was desperate I was depressed I was stuck inside the house I felt every negative feelings possible and I contemplated doing some stupid things but then I invested myself some more into the notes. Productivity gave me a sense of self-control.

The story is very confusing. Not much happens in the story action-wise and conflict-wise, it’s more like the type of philosophical story that uses sci-fi elements as a ruse to make you think about problems that you otherwise won’t be thinking about. In this sense Ted is closer to Borges than to Ursula K. LeGuin or the creators of Baby Yoda. So actually I can read it as either a scifi story or just a normal story and it will still be wonderful once you get to know it.

I think a lot about time and written text because of that essay question so this is the perfect story to apply my thinking onto. I enjoy the time – linguistic – physics aspect more than the free will one naturally.

My feelings: 

  • Bored: too much nerdy theories so the first time I read it I was super confused to the point of WTF and “Can I rechoose my presentation”. Like there’s physics OMG save me!
  • Wow: went back to read Vietnamese version for the physics and realised it’s not so bad at all. Read structuralism theory and realised WOW THIS SHIT IS SO GOOD
  • Yayyy: I get this story and I enjoy the film
  • Hmmm: thinking about what to make of this story
  • Yayyy again: super proud of myself cuz this is the first time I’m so invested in a project like this. Any chance of learning is all valuable ❤


My notes are pretty long but it’s just a lot of rants so if you still wanna read more I’d recommend these pieces that I personally consulted in researching for the story:

“Adapting Time and Agency in Arrival and “The Story of Your Life” – Medium

Ted Chiang’s Soulful Science Fiction – The New Yorker

Ted Chiang’s Impersonal Universe – ZYZZYVA


I’d like to thank my editor and the ekip at Zzz Review for putting up with my annoying ass and agreeing with my idea to write a review/respond for Issue 7 even tho no one asked. I don’t think anyone would read my notes but yeah it’s just me being me… 

2 thoughts on “Notes on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”, pt. 3

  1. hey, I did read all of your four parts. Great meticulosity and zeal. And glad that the Vietnamese version helped you in some way 🙂
    Your posts actually (re)inspired me to write something in response to the story, narratologically – hope I haven’t forgotten all I have thought about it.
    And by the way re: “alive young handsome sci-fi writers”: he’s over 50 in that picture, being born in 1967. Crazy youthful-looking Asians, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear chị, thank you for this very surprising and uplifting comment! To use a millennial way of speaking, I’m sh00keth haha 😀 I actually can’t follow through with a “conventional” or “traditional” way of writing reviews because I am too tăng động for that, so the zeal and gusto is actually my expression of what a fan gơ is, and that’s also what I love about the team at Zzz: everyone is in their own sense a “promoted fan gơ” with their loves and hates and names they’re passionate about.

      (Also gotta save the seriousness for that MA programme teehee!)

      In my case, still now, I stand corrected that I only clicked onto Chuyen Doi Con because of Ted’s handsome-ness. I am aware that he’s the same age as my dad but my dad is so nhăn (he reads this blog, I’m sorry dad) and Ted’s New Yorker (can I say that given he’s from New Jersey?) accent is really really sexy when I listen to him on Tin House’s podcast episode in which he talks about compatibilism and his anthology Exhalation. So go Asians and our genes! Go Asian representations in America too!

      My presentation partner has a very excellent discussion by using Mieke Bal’s Narratology to compare and contrast the way the nebula is told differently in the film and in the story. If only I would stop being lazy and typed it up – I had it on record. We made an accidentally good team cuz we only vaguely agreed on what we would do but then showed up with a very fitting joint-presentation on narratives and such – whereas the other groups talked about the content more: “Do we have free will?”

      And you, do you think we have free will, especially after reading the story?

      About the Vietnamese version: I didn’t really like it at first but when I reread it several times I came to like it. In the issue my favourites are this one and the translation of Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day, which I also wrote for a final paper. Much as I want to (selfishly) keep Ted and TSOYL to myself I do believe that the reading public in the ‘Nam would be blessed with his handsomeness and his wonderful prose: that is to say, I look forward to seeing Ted Chiang by Nha Nam.

      And all the honour and pleasure is mine to be talking to my ai-đồ ❤


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.