‘Story Of Your Life’ Is Not A Time-Travel Story

Famous Ted Chiang SF short story ‘Story Of Your Life’ is usually misinterpreted as, like the movie version, being about time-travel/precognition; I explain it is instead an exploration of xenopsychology and a psychology of timeless physics.
philosophy, criticism, survey, SF, causality, insight-porn
2012-12-122018-06-11 finished certainty: likely importance: 1


One of Ted Chi­ang’s most noted philo­soph­i­cal SF short sto­ries, “Story of Your Life”, was made into a suc­cess­ful time-travel movie, Ar­rival, spark­ing in­ter­est in the orig­i­nal. How­ev­er, movie view­ers often mis­read the short sto­ry: “Story” is not a time-travel movie. At no point does the pro­tag­o­nist travel in time or en­joy pre­cog­ni­tive pow­ers, in­ter­pret­ing the story this way leads to many se­ri­ous plot holes, it ren­ders most of the ex­po­si­tion-heavy di­a­logue (which is a large frac­tion of the word­count) com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant, and gen­uine pre­cog­ni­tion un­der­cuts the themes of tragedy & ac­cep­tance.

In­stead, what ap­pears to be pre­cog­ni­tion in Chi­ang’s story is ac­tu­ally far more in­ter­est­ing, and a novel twist on psy­chol­ogy and physics: clas­si­cal physics al­lows use­fully in­ter­pret­ing the laws of physics in both a ‘for­ward’ way in which events hap­pen step by step, but also a tele­o­log­i­cal way in which events are sim­ply the unique op­ti­mal so­lu­tion to a set of con­straints in­clud­ing the fi­nal out­come and al­lows rea­son­ing ‘back­wards’. The alien race ex­em­pli­fies this oth­er, equally valid, pos­si­ble way of think­ing and view­ing the uni­verse, and the pro­tag­o­nist learns their way of think­ing by study­ing their lan­guage, which re­quires see­ing writ­ten char­ac­ters as a uni­fied gestalt. This holis­tic view of the uni­verse as an im­mutable ‘block­-u­ni­verse’, in which events un­fold as they must, changes the pro­tag­o­nist’s at­ti­tude to­wards life and the tragic death of her daugh­ter, teach­ing her in a some­what Bud­dhist or Stoic fash­ion to em­brace life in both its ups and downs.

is an Amer­i­can SF au­thor of short sto­ries & a novel­la, noted for both the high qual­ity and rar­ity of his writ­ings. Most are col­lected in his 2002 an­thol­ogy (my re­view). Chi­ang’s sto­ries can be de­scribed as rig­or­ous world-build­ing1, tak­ing se­ri­ously premises such as the Kab­balah (“72 Let­ters”) or in­tel­li­gence en­hance­ment (“Un­der­stand”) or self­-con­sis­tent time loops () or a me­chan­i­cal clock­work uni­verse (“Ex­ha­la­tion”) or the prob­lem of evil in a uni­verse where God ex­ists (“Hell Is the Ab­sence of God”) and ex­tend­ing them log­i­cal­ly, writ­ten in a lu­cid stream­lined prose that (like Gene Wolfe’s) seems sim­ple & easy un­less one has tried to write like that one­self, but ( with a heart) use those worlds & con­cepts to ex­am­ine and build up a pow­er­ful emo­tional point. Each story has a unique start­ing point, and feels like a world or novel unto it­self de­spite their short page counts.

His most fa­mous short story is the 17500-word 1998 “” (full text) which won Neb­ula & Stur­geon Awards, which brought Chi­ang to global no­tice when it was made into the crit­i­cal­ly-ac­claimed movie in 2016 (8 Os­car nom­i­na­tions, 1 Os­car for sound edit­ing).

“Story Of Your Life” is not my fa­vorite Chi­ang story (that would be “Ex­ha­la­tion”), and on my first read, I thought it was down­right medioc­re­—it seemed like some for­mal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion (sec­ond-per­son nar­ra­tion rather than Chi­ang’s usual first-per­son or third-per­son om­ni­scient, non­lin­ear flash­back­/­for­ward-heavy plot) wrapped around an un­nec­es­sar­ily con­fus­ing plot & sec­ond-rate physics mum­bo-jumbo in the ser­vice of a heavy-handed point. On my sec­ond read years lat­er, hav­ing read some more about re­lated top­ics in physics & phi­los­o­phy since, I re­al­ized that I (a­long with al­most every­one else who read it, judg­ing from on­line dis­cus­sions & re­views of the story and Ar­rival) might have been badly mis­taken and that the plot was de­lib­er­ately open to mis­read­ing and the physics mum­bo-jumbo was in fact the whole point and the for­mal struc­ture nicely re­flected that; so I will ex­plain the point of “Story Of Your Life”, be­fore Ar­rival makes it im­pos­si­ble to read it cor­rect­ly.2 “Story Of Your Life” is not a time-travel sto­ry, or to the lim­ited ex­tent that it is, as Chi­ang says3, it’s a sin­gle fixed time­line one, and cer­tainly not one where you can ‘see’ or ‘change’ the fu­ture or have ‘al­ter­nate or par­al­lel time­lines’. (This dis­cus­sion is heavy on spoil­ers and may ruin the ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing it, so if one has­n’t read it, this would be a good time to.)

Plot summary

WP’s plot sum­mary & in­ter­pre­ta­tion:

The story is nar­rated by Dr. Louise Banks, writ­ing in the past tense. After a race of aliens, known as hep­tapods (due to their 7-pointed ra­di­ally sym­met­ri­cal ap­pear­ance), ini­ti­ate first con­tact with hu­man­i­ty, the mil­i­tary hires Dr. Banks to dis­cover their lan­guage and com­mu­ni­cate with them. The story re­volves around Dr. Banks and Gary Don­nel­ly, a physi­cist also work­ing for the mil­i­tary to gain knowl­edge of physics from the aliens.

The hep­tapods have two dis­tinct forms of lan­guage. Hep­ta­pod A is their spo­ken lan­guage, which is de­scribed as hav­ing free word or­der and many lev­els of cen­ter-em­bed­ded claus­es. Un­der­stand­ing Hep­ta­pod B, the writ­ten lan­guage of the aliens, is cen­tral to the plot. Un­like its spo­ken coun­ter­part, Hep­ta­pod B has such com­plex struc­ture that a sin­gle se­man­tic sym­bol can­not be ex­cluded with­out chang­ing the en­tire mean­ing of a sen­tence.

When writ­ing in Hep­ta­pod B, the writer knows how the sen­tence will end. The phe­nom­e­non of Hep­ta­pod B is ex­plained by the aliens’ un­der­stand­ing of math­e­mat­ics and Fer­mat’s prin­ci­ple of least time. Dr. Banks’ un­der­stand­ing of the hep­tapods’ writ­ing sys­tem affects the way she per­ceives time and sug­gests a de­ter­min­is­tic uni­verse where is ex­er­cised by not affect­ing the out­come of events.

A frame for the sto­ry, writ­ten in the present tense, in­di­cates that the story is be­ing writ­ten at the time of the daugh­ter’s con­cep­tion. The sec­tions de­scrib­ing the daugh­ter’s life from birth to death and be­yond, are writ­ten as Dr. Banks rem­i­nisces and yet she de­scribes it while us­ing the fu­ture tense, be­cause learn­ing Hep­ta­pod B en­ables Dr. Banks to know her daugh­ter’s en­tire life even be­fore she agrees to con­ceive her. As the story pro­ceeds, we see Dr. Banks and Dr. Don­nelly grow­ing closer un­til it is clear that Dr. Don­nelly will be the fa­ther of her child.

Author notes

In the after­word (pg277–278) Chi­ang offers a few com­ments on “Story of Your Life”:

This story grew out of my in­ter­est in the of physics. I’ve found these prin­ci­ples fas­ci­nat­ing ever since I first learned of them, but I did­n’t know how to use them in a story un­til I saw a per­for­mance of Time Flies When You’re Alive, one-man show about his [de­ceased] wife’s bat­tle with breast can­cer. It oc­curred to me then that I might be able to use vari­a­tional prin­ci­ples to tell a story about a per­son’s re­sponse to the in­evitable. A few years lat­er, that no­tion com­bined with a friend’s re­mark about her new­born baby to form the nu­cleus of this sto­ry.

For those in­ter­ested in physics, I should note that the sto­ry’s dis­cus­sion of omits all men­tion of its . The QM for­mu­la­tion is in­ter­est­ing in its own way, but I pre­ferred the metaphoric pos­si­bil­i­ties of the clas­si­cal ver­sion.

As for this sto­ry’s the­me, prob­a­bly the most con­cise sum­ma­tion of it that I’ve seen ap­pears in in­tro­duc­tion to the 25th an­niver­sary edi­tion of : “Stephen Hawk­ing. . .found it tan­ta­liz­ing that we could not re­mem­ber the fu­ture. But re­mem­ber­ing the fu­ture is child’s play for me now. I know what will be­come of my help­less, trust­ing ba­bies be­cause they are grown-ups now. I know how my clos­est friends will end up be­cause so many of them are re­tired or dead now. . .To Stephen Hawk­ing and all oth­ers younger than my­self I say, ‘Be pa­tient. Your fu­ture will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no mat­ter what you are.’”

In “The Ab­sence of God: an in­ter­view with Ted Chi­ang by Je­remy Smith”, Chi­ang 2002:

Q. In the au­thor’s notes to “Story of Your Life”, you men­tion Kurt Von­negut’s Slaugh­ter­house­-Five. Was that novel a di­rect in­spi­ra­tion, or did you no­tice the sim­i­lar­ity lat­er, after us­ing vari­a­tional prin­ci­ples in physics to write the sto­ry? Both sto­ries use this idea of be­ing “un­stuck in time” as a way of ex­press­ing a deep fa­tal­ism, a sad­ness about the in­evitabil­ity of loss.

A. I ac­tu­ally had­n’t read Von­negut’s novel at the time I wrote my sto­ry. To me there’s a big differ­ence in the two works. I think of Slaugh­ter­house­-Five as be­ing re­ally bleak in its out­look, while I don’t think of my story that way at all. My story ends on a note that, to me, is ul­ti­mately life affirm­ing. The story is about choos­ing to go ahead with life, even though there will be pain in the fu­ture as well as joy. You can say that the nar­ra­tor does­n’t ac­tu­ally have a choice, and that’s true, but that’s not the most im­por­tant as­pect of it. She’s not be­ing forced into it against her will. She’s ac­cept­ing the bad with the good.

Q. In sto­ries like “Di­vi­sion by Zero” and “Story of Your Life”, you de­scribe these very ra­tio­nal, ma­te­ri­al­ist char­ac­ters who tran­scend what they thought were un­al­ter­able phys­i­cal laws, which dis­or­ders their per­cep­tions of time and space. One char­ac­ter even at­tempts sui­cide. So they achieve this kind of tran­scen­dence, but then don’t know what to do with it. They are forced to con­front them­selves. I read these sto­ries as be­ing about sci­ence con­fronting the prob­lems tran­scen­dence poses to an em­pir­i­cal, ma­te­ri­al­ist world­view.

A. That’s an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive. I had­n’t re­ally thought of ei­ther “Di­vi­sion by Zero” or “Story of Your Life” as deal­ing with tran­scen­dence. For me, those sto­ries are pri­mar­ily at­tempts to use math­e­mat­ics and sci­ence as metaphors to il­lu­mi­nate cer­tain as­pects of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. The char­ac­ters in those sto­ries in­ter­nal­ize their dis­cov­er­ies, in a sense, be­cause they are deeply en­gaged in their work. What they learn be­comes a part of them in a more pro­found way than with most peo­ple just learn­ing some­thing. But I had­n’t re­ally thought about tran­scen­dence in those sto­ries.

Excerpts

Heptapod Physics

“Good.” He picked up a nub of chalk and drew a di­a­gram:

[Physics di­a­gram: a ray of light chang­ing di­rec­tion as it passes from air to wa­ter, il­lus­trat­ing re­frac­tion.]

“Okay, here’s the path a ray of light takes when cross­ing from air to wa­ter. The light ray trav­els in a straight line un­til it hits the wa­ter; the wa­ter has a differ­ent in­dex of , so the light changes di­rec­tion. You’ve heard of this be­fore, right?”

I nod­ded. “Sure.”

“Now here’s an in­ter­est­ing prop­erty about the path the light takes. The path is the fastest pos­si­ble route be­tween these two points.”

“Come again?”

“Imag­ine, just for grins, that the ray of light trav­eled along this path.” He added a dot­ted line to his di­a­gram:

[[­Physics di­a­gram: a ray of light re­fract­ing in air/wa­ter, com­par­ing its ac­tual time-effi­cient path to the hy­po­thet­i­cal short­est-dis­tance (but slow­er) al­ter­na­tive path.]](/im­ages/s­to­ry­ofy­ourlife/1998-chi­ang-fig­ure-2.p­ng)

“This hy­po­thet­i­cal path is shorter than the path the light ac­tu­ally takes. But light trav­els more slowly in wa­ter than it does in air, and a greater per­cent­age of this path is un­der­wa­ter. So it would take longer for light to travel along this path than it does along the real path.”

“Okay, I get it.”

“Now imag­ine if light were to travel along this other path.” He drew a sec­ond dot­ted path:

[Physics di­a­gram: a ray of light re­fract­ing in air/wa­ter, com­pared to a hy­po­thet­i­cal al­ter­na­tive path which is both slower in time and longer in space/dis­tance (but with less length in wa­ter).]

“This path re­duces the per­cent­age that’s un­der­wa­ter, but the to­tal length is larg­er. It would also take longer for light to travel along this path than along the ac­tual one.” Gary put down the chalk and ges­tured at the di­a­gram on the chalk­board with white-tipped fin­gers. “Any hy­po­thet­i­cal path would re­quire more time to tra­verse than the one ac­tu­ally tak­en. In other words, the route that the light ray takes is al­ways the fastest pos­si­ble one. That’s .”

“Humm, in­ter­est­ing. And this is what the hep­tapods re­sponded to?”

“Ex­act­ly. Moore­head gave an an­i­mated pre­sen­ta­tion of Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple at the Illi­nois look­ing glass, and the hep­tapods re­peated it back. Now he’s try­ing to get a sym­bolic de­scrip­tion.” He grinned. “Now is that highly neat, or what?” “It’s neat all right, but how come I haven’t heard of Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple be­fore?” I picked up a binder and waved it at him; it was a primer on the physics top­ics sug­gested for use in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the hep­tapods. “This thing goes on for­ever about Planck masses and the spin-flip of atomic hy­dro­gen, and not a word about the re­frac­tion of light.”

“We guessed wrong about what’d be most use­ful for you to know”, Gary said with­out em­bar­rass­ment. “In fact, it’s cu­ri­ous that Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple was the first break­through; even though it’s easy to ex­plain, you need cal­cu­lus to de­scribe it math­e­mat­i­cal­ly. And not or­di­nary cal­cu­lus; you need the . We thought that some sim­ple the­o­rem of geom­e­try or al­ge­bra would be the break­through.”

“Cu­ri­ous in­deed. You think the hep­tapods’ idea of what’s sim­ple does­n’t match ours?” “Ex­act­ly, which is why I’m dy­ing to see what their math­e­mat­i­cal de­scrip­tion of Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple looks like.” He paced as he talked. “If their ver­sion of the cal­cu­lus of vari­a­tions is sim­pler to them than their equiv­a­lent of al­ge­bra, that might ex­plain why we’ve had so much trou­ble talk­ing about physics; their en­tire sys­tem of math­e­mat­ics may be top­sy-turvy com­pared to ours.” He pointed to the physics primer. “You can be sure that we’re go­ing to re­vise that.”

“So can you build from Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple to other ar­eas of physics?” “Prob­a­bly. There just like Fer­mat’s.”

“What, like Louise’s prin­ci­ple of least closet space? When did physics be­come so min­i­mal­ist?”

“Well, the word ‘least’ is mis­lead­ing. You see, Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple of Least time is in­com­plete; in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions light fol­lows a path that takes more time than any of the other pos­si­bil­i­ties. It’s more ac­cu­rate to say that light al­ways fol­lows an ex­treme path, ei­ther one that min­i­mizes the time taken or one that max­i­mizes it. A min­i­mum and a max­i­mum share cer­tain math­e­mat­i­cal prop­er­ties, so both sit­u­a­tions can be de­scribed with one equa­tion. So to be pre­cise, Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple is­n’t a min­i­mal prin­ci­ple; in­stead it’s what’s known as a ‘vari­a­tional’ prin­ci­ple.” “And there are more of these vari­a­tional prin­ci­ples?” He nod­ded. “In all branches of physics. Al­most every phys­i­cal law can be re­stated as a vari­a­tional prin­ci­ple. The only differ­ence be­tween these prin­ci­ples is in which at­tribute is min­i­mized or max­i­mized.” He ges­tured as if the differ­ent branches of physics were ar­rayed be­fore him on a table. “In op­tics, where Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple ap­plies, time is the at­tribute that has to be an ex­treme. In me­chan­ics, it’s a differ­ent at­tribute. In elec­tro­mag­net­ism, it’s some­thing else again. But all these prin­ci­ples are sim­i­lar math­e­mat­i­cal­ly.”

“So once you get their math­e­mat­i­cal de­scrip­tion of Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple, you should be able to de­code the other ones.”…After the break­through with Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple, dis­cus­sions of sci­en­tific con­cepts be­came more fruit­ful. It was­n’t as if all of hep­ta­pod physics was sud­denly ren­dered trans­par­ent, but progress was sud­denly steady. Ac­cord­ing to Gary, the hep­tapods’ for­mu­la­tion of physics was in­deed top­sy-turvy rel­a­tive to ours. Phys­i­cal at­trib­utes that hu­mans de­fined us­ing in­te­gral cal­cu­lus were seen as fun­da­men­tal by the hep­tapods. As an ex­am­ple, Gary de­scribed an at­tribute that, in physics jar­gon, bore the de­cep­tively sim­ple name “ac­tion”, which rep­re­sented “the differ­ence be­tween ki­netic and po­ten­tial en­er­gy, in­te­grated over time”, what­ever that meant. Cal­cu­lus for us; el­e­men­tary to them. Con­verse­ly, to de­fine at­trib­utes that hu­mans thought of as fun­da­men­tal, like ve­loc­i­ty, the hep­tapods em­ployed math­e­mat­ics that were, Gary as­sured me, “highly weird.” The physi­cists were ul­ti­mately able to prove the equiv­a­lence of hep­ta­pod math­e­mat­ics and hu­man math­e­mat­ics; even though their ap­proaches were al­most the re­verse of one an­oth­er, both were sys­tems of de­scrib­ing the same phys­i­cal uni­verse. I tried fol­low­ing some of the equa­tions that the physi­cists were com­ing up with, but it was no use. I could­n’t re­ally grasp the sig­nifi­cance of phys­i­cal at­trib­utes like “ac­tion”; I could­n’t, with any con­fi­dence, pon­der the sig­nifi­cance of treat­ing such an at­tribute as fun­da­men­tal. Still, I tried to pon­der ques­tions for­mu­lated in terms more fa­mil­iar to me: what kind of world­view did the hep­tapods have, that they would con­sider Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple the sim­plest ex­pla­na­tion of light re­frac­tion? What kind of per­cep­tion made a min­i­mum or max­i­mum read­ily ap­par­ent to them?

…“Though I did want to ask you about Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple. Some­thing about it feels odd to me, but I can’t put my fin­ger on it. It just does­n’t sound like a law of physics.” A twin­kle ap­peared in Gary’s eyes. “I’ll bet I know what you’re talk­ing about.” He snipped a pot­sticker in half with his chop­sticks. “You’re used to think­ing of re­frac­tion in terms of cause and effect: reach­ing the wa­ter’s sur­face is the cause, and the change in di­rec­tion is the effect. But Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple sounds weird be­cause it de­scribes light’s be­hav­ior in goal-ori­ented terms. It sounds like a com­mand­ment to a light beam: ‘Thou shalt min­i­mize or max­i­mize the time taken to reach thy des­ti­na­tion.’”

I con­sid­ered it. “Go on.”

“It’s in the phi­los­o­phy of physics4. Peo­ple have been talk­ing about it since Fer­mat first for­mu­lated it in the 1600s; Planck wrote vol­umes about it. The thing is, while the com­mon for­mu­la­tion of phys­i­cal laws is causal, a vari­a­tional prin­ci­ple like Fer­mat’s is pur­po­sive, al­most tele­o­log­i­cal.” “Hmm, that’s an in­ter­est­ing way to put it. Let me think about that for a minute.” I pulled out a felt-tip pen and, on my pa­per nap­kin, drew a copy of the di­a­gram that Gary had drawn on my black­board. “Okay”, I said, think­ing aloud, “so let’s say the goal of a ray of light is to take the fastest path. How does the light go about do­ing that?”

“Well, if I can speak an­thro­po­mor­phic-pro­jec­tion­al­ly, the light has to ex­am­ine the pos­si­ble paths and com­pute how long each one would take.” He plucked the last pot­sticker from the serv­ing dish.

“And to do that”, I con­tin­ued, “the ray of light has to know just where its des­ti­na­tion is. If the des­ti­na­tion were some­where else, the fastest path would be differ­ent.” Gary nod­ded again. “That’s right; the no­tion of a ‘fastest path’ is mean­ing­less un­less there’s a des­ti­na­tion spec­i­fied. And com­put­ing how long a given path takes also re­quires in­for­ma­tion about what lies along that path, like where the wa­ter’s sur­face is.”

I kept star­ing at the di­a­gram on the nap­kin. “And the light ray has to know all that ahead of time, be­fore it starts mov­ing, right?” “So to speak”, said Gary. “The light can’t start trav­el­ing in any old di­rec­tion and make course cor­rec­tions later on, be­cause the path re­sult­ing from such be­hav­ior would­n’t be the fastest pos­si­ble one. The light has to do all its com­pu­ta­tions at the very be­gin­ning.”

I thought to my­self, the ray of light has to know where it will ul­ti­mately end up be­fore it can choose the di­rec­tion to be­gin mov­ing in. I knew what that re­minded me of. I looked up at Gary. “That’s what was bug­ging me.”…That day when Gary first ex­plained Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple to me, he had men­tioned that al­most every phys­i­cal law could be stated as a vari­a­tional prin­ci­ple. Yet when hu­mans thought about phys­i­cal laws, they pre­ferred to work with them in their causal for­mu­la­tion. I could un­der­stand that: the phys­i­cal at­trib­utes that hu­mans found in­tu­itive, like ki­netic en­ergy or ac­cel­er­a­tion, were all prop­er­ties of an ob­ject at a given mo­ment in time. And these were con­duc­tive to a chrono­log­i­cal, causal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of events: one mo­ment grow­ing out of an­oth­er, causes and effects cre­ated a chain re­ac­tion that grew from past to fu­ture. In con­trast, the phys­i­cal at­trib­utes that the hep­tapods found in­tu­itive, like “ac­tion” or those other things de­fined by in­te­grals, were mean­ing­ful only over a pe­riod of time. And these were con­duc­tive to a tele­o­log­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of events: by view­ing events over a pe­riod of time, one rec­og­nized that there was a re­quire­ment that had to be sat­is­fied, a goal of min­i­miz­ing or max­i­miz­ing. And one had to know the ini­tial and fi­nal states to meet that goal; one needed knowl­edge of the effects be­fore the causes could be ini­ti­at­ed.

Heptapod bodies and writing

I’d been shown video­tapes, but I still gawked. Its limbs had no dis­tinct joints; anatomists guessed they might be sup­ported by ver­te­bral columns. What­ever their un­der­ly­ing struc­ture, the hep­tapod’s limbs con­spired to move it in a dis­con­cert­ingly fluid man­ner. Its “torso” rode atop the rip­pling limbs as smoothly as a hov­er­craft. Seven lid­less eyes ringed the top of the hep­tapod’s body. It walked back to the door­way from which it en­tered, made a brief sput­ter­ing sound, and re­turned to the cen­ter of the room fol­lowed by an­other hep­tapod; at no point did it ever turn around. Eerie, but log­i­cal; with eyes on all sides, any di­rec­tion might as well be “for­ward.”

…“What’s wrong?” asked Gary. “Their script is­n’t word-di­vid­ed; a sen­tence is writ­ten by join­ing the lo­gograms for the con­stituent words. They join the lo­gograms by ro­tat­ing and mod­i­fy­ing them. Take a look.” I showed him how the lo­gograms were ro­tat­ed. “So they can read a word with equal ease no mat­ter how it’s ro­tated”, Gary said. He turned to look at the hep­tapods, im­pressed. “I won­der if it’s a con­se­quence of their bod­ies’ ra­dial sym­me­try: their bod­ies’ ra­dial sym­me­try: their bod­ies have no ‘for­ward’ di­rec­tion, so maybe their writ­ing does­n’t ei­ther.” … He be­gan pac­ing thought­ful­ly. “Is there any­thing like this in hu­man writ­ing sys­tems?” “Math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions”…When a Hep­ta­pod B sen­tence grew fairly siz­able, its vi­sual im­pact was re­mark­able. If I was­n’t try­ing to de­ci­pher it, the writ­ing looked like fan­ci­ful pray­ing man­tids drawn in a cur­sive style, all cling­ing to each other to form an Es­cheresque lat­tice, each slightly differ­ent in its stance. And the biggest sen­tences had an effect sim­i­lar to that of psy­che­delic posters: some­times eye­-wa­ter­ing, some­times hyp­notic…­Com­par­ing that ini­tial stroke with the com­pleted sen­tence, I re­al­ized that the stroke par­tic­i­pated in sev­eral differ­ent clauses of the mes­sage. It be­gan in the sema­gram for ‘oxy­gen,’ as the de­ter­mi­nant that dis­tin­guished it from cer­tain other el­e­ments; then it slid down to be­come the mor­pheme of com­par­i­son in the de­scrip­tion of the two moons’ sizes; and lastly it flared out as the arched back­bone of the sema­gram for ‘ocean.’ Yet this stroke was a sin­gle con­tin­u­ous line, and it was the first one that Flap­per wrote. That meant the hep­ta­pod had to know how the en­tire sen­tence would be laid out be­fore it could write the very first stroke. The other strokes in the sen­tence also tra­versed sev­eral claus­es, mak­ing them so in­ter­con­nected that none could be re­moved with­out re­design­ing the en­tire sen­tence. The hep­tapods did­n’t write a sen­tence one sema­gram at a time; they built it out of strokes ir­re­spec­tive of in­di­vid­ual sema­grams. I had seen a sim­i­larly high de­gree of in­te­gra­tion be­fore in cal­li­graphic de­signs, par­tic­u­larly those em­ploy­ing the Ara­bic al­pha­bet. But those de­signs had re­quired care­ful plan­ning by ex­pert cal­lig­ra­phers. No one could lay out such an in­tri­cate de­sign at the speed needed for hold­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. At least, no hu­man could.

Thinking Like a Heptapod

…More in­ter­est­ing was the fact that Hep­ta­pod B was chang­ing the way I thought. For me, think­ing typ­i­cally meant speak­ing in an in­ter­nal voice’ as we say in the trade, my thoughts were phono­log­i­cally cod­ed. My in­ter­nal voice nor­mally spoke in Eng­lish, but that was­n’t a re­quire­ment. The sum­mer after my se­nior year in high school, I at­tended a to­tal im­mer­sion pro­gram for learn­ing Rus­sian; by the end of the Sum­mer, I was think­ing and even dream­ing in Russ­ian. But it was al­ways spo­ken Russ­ian. Differ­ent lan­guage, same mode: a voice speak­ing silently aloud. The idea of think­ing in a lin­guis­tic yet non-phono­log­i­cal mode al­ways in­trigued me. I had a friend born of deaf par­ents; he grew up us­ing Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage, and he told me that he often thought in ASL in­stead of Eng­lish. I used to won­der what it was like to have one’s thoughts be man­u­ally cod­ed, to rea­son us­ing an in­ner pair of hands in­stead of an in­ner voice. With Hep­ta­pod B, I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some­thing just as for­eign: my thoughts were be­com­ing graph­i­cally cod­ed. There were trance-like mo­ments dur­ing the day when my thoughts weren’t ex­pressed with my in­ter­nal voice; in­stead, I saw sema­grams with my mind’s eye, sprout­ing like frost on a win­dow­pane. As I grew more flu­ent, sema­graphic de­signs would ap­pear ful­ly-formed, ar­tic­u­lat­ing even com­plex ideas all at once. My thought processes weren’t mov­ing any faster as a re­sult, though. In­stead of rac­ing for­ward, my mind hung bal­anced on the sym­me­try un­der­ly­ing the sema­grams. The sema­grams seemed to be some­thing more than lan­guage; they were al­most like man­dalas. I found my­self in a med­i­ta­tive state, con­tem­plat­ing the way in which premises and con­clu­sions were in­ter­change­able. There was no di­rec­tion in­her­ent in the way propo­si­tions were con­nect­ed, no “train of thought” mov­ing along a par­tic­u­lar route; all the com­po­nents in an act of rea­son­ing were equally pow­er­ful, all hav­ing iden­ti­cal prece­dence…Look­ing at a sen­tence like this one, I un­der­stood why the hep­tapods had evolved a se­ma­sio­graphic writ­ing sys­tem like Hep­ta­pod B; it was bet­ter suited for a species with a si­mul­ta­ne­ous mode of con­scious­ness. For them, speech was a bot­tle­neck be­cause it re­quired that one word fol­low an­other se­quen­tial­ly. With writ­ing, on the other hand, every mark on a page was vis­i­ble si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Why con­strain writ­ing with a glot­to­graphic strait­jack­et, de­mand­ing that it be just as se­quen­tial as speech? It would never oc­cur to them. Se­ma­sio­graphic writ­ing nat­u­rally took ad­van­tage of the page’s two-di­men­sion­al­i­ty; in­stead of dol­ing out mor­phemes one at a time, it offered an en­tire page full of them all at once.

…the hep­tapods never asked ques­tions about any­thing. Whether sci­en­tists or tourists, they were an aw­fully in­cu­ri­ous bunch…The hep­tapods are nei­ther free nor bound as we un­der­stand those con­cepts; they don’t act ac­cord­ing to their will, nor are they help­less au­toma­tons. What dis­tin­guishes the hep­tapods’ mode of aware­ness is not just that their ac­tions co­in­cide with his­to­ry’s events; it is also that their mo­tives co­in­cide with his­to­ry’s pur­pos­es. They act to cre­ate the fu­ture, to en­act chronol­o­gy.

Free­dom is­n’t an il­lu­sion; it’s per­fectly real in the con­text of se­quen­tial con­scious­ness. Within the con­text of si­mul­ta­ne­ous con­scious­ness, free­dom is not mean­ing­ful, but nei­ther is co­er­cion; it’s sim­ply a differ­ent con­text, no more or less valid than the oth­er. It’s like that fa­mous op­ti­cal il­lu­sion, the draw­ing of ei­ther an el­e­gant young wom­an, face turned away from the view­er, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There’s no “cor­rect” in­ter­pre­ta­tion; both are equally valid. But you can’t see both at the same time. Sim­i­lar­ly, knowl­edge of the fu­ture was in­com­pat­i­ble with free will. What made it pos­si­ble for me to ex­er­cise free­dom of choice also made it im­pos­si­ble for me to know the fu­ture. Con­verse­ly, now that I know the fu­ture, I would never act con­trary to that fu­ture, in­clud­ing telling oth­ers what I know: those who know the fu­ture don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never ad­mit to it.

…If I could have de­scribed this to some­one who did­n’t al­ready know, she might ask, if the hep­tapods al­ready knew every­thing that they would ever say or hear, what was the point of their us­ing lan­guage at all? A rea­son­able ques­tion. But lan­guage was­n’t only for com­mu­ni­ca­tion: it was also a form of ac­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the­o­ry, state­ments like “You’re un­der ar­rest”, “I chris­ten this ves­sel”, or “I promise” were all per­for­ma­tive: a speaker could per­form the ac­tion only by ut­ter­ing the words. For such acts, know­ing what would be said did­n’t change any­thing. Every­one at a wed­ding an­tic­i­pated the words “I now pro­nounce you hus­band and wife”, but un­til the min­is­ter ac­tu­ally said them, the cer­e­mony did­n’t count. With per­for­ma­tive lan­guage, say­ing equaled do­ing.

For the hep­tapods, all lan­guage was per­for­ma­tive. In­stead of us­ing lan­guage to in­form, they used lan­guage to ac­tu­al­ize. Sure, hep­tapods al­ready knew what would be said in any con­ver­sa­tion; but in or­der for their knowl­edge to be true, the con­ver­sa­tion would have to take place.

…Was it ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble to know the fu­ture? Not sim­ply to guess at it; was it pos­si­ble to know what was go­ing to hap­pen, with ab­solute cer­tainty and in spe­cific de­tail? Gary once told me that the fun­da­men­tal laws of physics were time-sym­met­ric, that there was no phys­i­cal differ­ence be­tween past and fu­ture. Given that, some might say, “yes, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly.” But speak­ing more con­crete­ly, most would an­swer “no”, be­cause of free will. I liked to imag­ine the ob­jec­tion as a Bor­ge­sian fab­u­la­tion: con­sider a per­son stand­ing be­fore the Book of Ages, the chron­i­cle that records every event, past and fu­ture. Even though the text has been pho­tore­duced from the ful­l-sized edi­tion, the vol­ume is enor­mous. With mag­ni­fier in hand, she flips through the tis­sue-thin leaves un­til she lo­cates the story of her life. She finds the pas­sage that de­scribes her flip­ping through the Book of Ages, and she skips to the next column, where it de­tails what she’ll be do­ing later in the day: act­ing on in­for­ma­tion she’s read in the Book, she’ll bet one hun­dred dol­lars on the race­horse Devil May Care and win twenty times that much. The thought of do­ing just that had crossed her mind, but be­ing a con­trary sort, she now re­solves to re­frain from bet­ting on the ponies al­to­geth­er.

There’s the rub. The Book of Ages can­not be wrong; this sce­nario is based on the premise that a per­son is given knowl­edge of the ac­tual fu­ture, not of some pos­si­ble fu­ture. If this were Greek myth, cir­cum­stances would con­spire to make her en­act her fate de­spite her best efforts, but prophe­cies in myth are no­to­ri­ously vague; the Book of Ages, is quite speci­fic, and there’s no way she can be forced to bet on a race­horse in the man­ner spec­i­fied. The re­sult is a con­tra­dic­tion: the Book of Ages must be right, by de­fi­n­i­tion; yet no mat­ter what the Book says she’ll do, she can choose to do oth­er­wise. How can these two facts be rec­on­ciled? They can’t be, was the com­mon an­swer.

A vol­ume like the Book of Ages is a log­i­cal im­pos­si­bil­i­ty, for the pre­cise rea­son that its ex­is­tence would re­sult in the above con­tra­dic­tion. Or, to be gen­er­ous, some might say that the Book of Ages could ex­ist, as long as it was­n’t ac­ces­si­ble to read­ers: that vol­ume is housed in a spe­cial col­lec­tion, and no one has view­ing priv­i­leges. The ex­is­tence of free will meant that we could­n’t know the fu­ture. And we knew free will ex­isted be­cause we had di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence of it. Vo­li­tion was an in­trin­sic part of con­scious­ness. Or was it? What if the ex­pe­ri­ence of know­ing the fu­ture changed a per­son? What if it evoked a sense of ur­gen­cy, a sense of oblig­a­tion to act pre­cisely as she knew she would?

…Con­sider the phe­nom­e­non of light hit­ting wa­ter at one an­gle, and trav­el­ing through it at a differ­ent an­gle. Ex­plain it by say­ing that a differ­ence in the in­dex of re­frac­tion caused the light to change di­rec­tion, and one saw the world as hu­mans saw it. Ex­plain it by say­ing that light min­i­mized the time needed to travel to its des­ti­na­tion, and one saw the world as the hep­tapods saw it. Two very differ­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions. The phys­i­cal uni­verse was a lan­guage with a per­fectly am­bigu­ous gram­mar. Every phys­i­cal event was an ut­ter­ance that could be parsed in two en­tirely differ­ent ways, one causal and the other tele­o­log­i­cal, both valid, nei­ther one dis­qual­i­fi­able no mat­ter how much con­text was avail­able.

When the an­ces­tors of hu­mans and hep­tapods first ac­quired the spark of con­scious­ness, they both per­ceived the same phys­i­cal world, but they parsed their per­cep­tions differ­ent­ly; the world-views that ul­ti­mately arose were the end re­sult of that di­ver­gence. Hu­mans had de­vel­oped a se­quen­tial mode of aware­ness, while hep­tapods had de­vel­oped a si­mul­ta­ne­ous mode of aware­ness. We ex­pe­ri­enced events in an or­der, and per­ceived their re­la­tion­ship as cause and effect. They ex­pe­ri­enced all events at on­ce, and per­ceived a pur­pose un­der­ly­ing them all. A min­i­miz­ing, max­i­miz­ing pur­pose.

…Even though I’m pro­fi­cient with Hep­ta­pod B, I know I don’t ex­pe­ri­ence re­al­ity the way a hep­ta­pod does. My mind was cast in the mold of hu­man, se­quen­tial lan­guages, and no amount of im­mer­sion in an alien lan­guage can com­pletely re­shape it. My world-view is an amal­gam of hu­man and hep­ta­pod. Be­fore I learned how to think in Hep­ta­pod B, my mem­o­ries grew like a col­umn of cig­a­rette ash, laid down by the in­fin­i­tes­i­mal sliver of com­bus­tion that was my con­scious­ness, mark­ing the se­quen­tial pre­sent. After I learned Hep­ta­pod B, new mem­o­ries fell into place like gi­gan­tic blocks, each one mea­sur­ing years in du­ra­tion, and though they did­n’t ar­rive in or­der or land con­tigu­ous­ly, they soon com­posed a pe­riod of five decades. It is the pe­riod dur­ing which I know Hep­ta­pod B well enough to think in it, start­ing dur­ing my in­ter­views with Flap­per and Rasp­berry and end­ing with my death.

Usu­al­ly, Hep­ta­pod B affects just my mem­o­ry: my con­scious­ness crawls along as it did be­fore, a glow­ing sliver crawl­ing for­ward in time, the differ­ence be­ing that the ash of mem­ory lies ahead as well as be­hind: there is no real com­bus­tion. But oc­ca­sion­ally I have glimpses when Hep­ta­pod B truly reigns, and I ex­pe­ri­ence past and fu­ture all at on­ce; my con­scious­ness be­comes a half cen­tu­ry-long em­ber burn­ing out­side time. I per­ceive—­dur­ing those glimpses—that en­tire epoch as a si­mul­tane­ity. It’s a pe­riod en­com­pass­ing the rest of my life, and the en­tirety of yours.

…We never did learn why the hep­tapods left, any more than we learned what brought them here, or why they acted the way they did. My own new aware­ness did­n’t pro­vide that type of knowl­edge; the hep­tapods’ be­hav­ior was pre­sum­ably ex­plic­a­ble from a se­quen­tial point of view, but we never found that ex­pla­na­tion. I would have liked to ex­pe­ri­ence more of the hep­tapods’ world-view, to feel the way they feel. Then, per­haps I could im­merse my­self fully in the ne­ces­sity of events, as they must, in­stead of merely wad­ing in its surf for the rest of my life.

Interpretation

Causally Powerful Time Travel interpretation

In the pre­cog­ni­tive/­time travel in­ter­pre­ta­tion (as Chi­ang notes in an in­ter­view5, there is no differ­ence be­tween pre­cog­ni­tion and time-trav­el—they are “es­sen­tially equiv­a­lent” in terms of vi­o­lat­ing physics & their im­pli­ca­tions, so I use them in­ter­change­ably), the Sapir-Whorf hy­poth­e­sis is taken to the ex­tent of learn­ing Hep­tapodese grant­ing pow­ers like see­ing into the dis­tant fu­ture, years (or in the movie, mil­len­nia) in ad­vance. Louise knew in ad­vance her daugh­ter would die in a climb­ing ac­ci­dent (or of a rare dis­ease) but ac­cepted this, mar­ried Gary any­way, had her daugh­ter, loved & lost her, and now re­mem­bers & grieves, see­ing her life as a whole with her pow­ers. The mes­sage is one of ac­cep­tance and tak­ing life as a whole, for both good and ill.

Time Travel problems

There are many prob­lems with the time-travel in­ter­pre­ta­tion, which re­quire as­sum­ing that much of the story is sim­ply ir­rel­e­vant tech­nob­a­b­ble, the sym­bol­ism is to be ig­nored, and that Chi­ang, a mas­ter of world build­ing, failed to note the sim­plest im­pli­ca­tions which ren­der his world in­ter­nally in­co­her­ent:

  • why is it ti­tled “Story Of Your Life”? What do sto­ries have to do with time-trav­el? Why the sec­ond-per­son nar­ra­tive fram­ing of the daugh­ter be­ing told the story by Louise?

  • why is the story so opaque and coy about the na­ture of time trav­el, when “The Mer­chant and the Al­chemist’s Gate” was so clear and straight­for­ward?

    • for that mat­ter, Chi­ang prefers not to re­visit top­ics, set­ting each short story in a differ­ent world to ex­plore a differ­ent idea; why did he re­visit the top­ic?
  • why is it mostly writ­ten in the past tense after all the events have taken place, when pre­sum­ably it could have been writ­ten from any time after she learned Hep­tapode­se, and ar­guably would have been more emo­tion­ally grip­ping if the death of her daugh­ter had not yet taken place but Louise knew about it the en­tire time? (a method the movie does use by set­ting scenes ex­clu­sively in the Hep­tapod-ar­rival present and pre­sent­ing the post-Hep­ta­pod fu­ture ex­clu­sively as flash­for­wards)

  • if it is about time-trav­el:

    • why do all of the physics dis­cus­sions omit all stan­dard physics time-travel top­ics of worm­holes, tachyons, cos­mic strings / Tipler cylin­ders, the Al­cu­bierre dri­ve, FTL trav­el, positrons, rel­a­tivis­tic di­la­tion, the Grand­fa­ther para­dox, retro­causal effects, and causal loop­s—and in­stead spends pages talk­ing about differ­ent top­ics like light re­frac­tion in wa­ter or the Law of the Max­i­mum? (To quote one Wired ed­i­tor, “Dayrit: I did­n’t re­ally get the whole max­i­mum-min­i­mum con­cept. Can some­one please ex­plain?”)

      • this is es­pe­cially strik­ing con­sid­er­ing the lean­ness and pre­ci­sion of Chi­ang’s writ­ing: he does not waste words, much less pages. He is a per­fec­tion­ist who pub­lishes lit­tle be­cause his stan­dards are hard to meet, and fa­mously turned down a Hugo nom­i­na­tion for his short story “Lik­ing What You See: A Doc­u­men­tary” (gen­er­ally con­sid­ered one of his bet­ter sto­ries) be­cause he con­sid­ered it rushed. This is hard to rec­on­cile with an in­ter­pre­ta­tion which re­quires es­sen­tially dis­miss­ing and not think­ing about a large frac­tion of the sto­ry, claim­ing that the pres­ence of one of the two main sym­bolic char­ac­ters is su­per­flu­ous, and has no ex­pla­na­tion for why lin­guis­tics mar­ries physics.
      • the su­per­flu­ous­ness of the physics ma­te­ri­al, un­der this in­ter­pre­ta­tion, is so strik­ing that the movie Ar­rival sim­ply drops the en­tire topic al­to­gether to save time and make the plot clearer (although at the cost of ren­der­ing the physi­cist char­ac­ter also su­per­flu­ous)
    • In what sense could the physi­cists “prove the equiv­a­lence of hep­ta­pod math­e­mat­ics and hu­man math­e­mat­ics; even though their ap­proaches were al­most the re­verse of one an­oth­er, both were sys­tems of de­scrib­ing the same phys­i­cal uni­verse”, when hu­man physics cur­rently does­n’t ad­mit of any kind of time travel to the past with­out as­sum­ing things which don’t seem to ex­ist (like tachyons or mat­ter with )? Vari­a­tional prin­ci­ples or time-sym­me­try don’t al­low trans­mis­sion of in­for­ma­tion to the past any more than spooky ac­tion al­lows send­ing in­for­ma­tion FTL. Why is the em­pha­sis on Hep­ta­pod physics teach­ing the hu­man physi­cists next to noth­ing, when trans­mit­ting in­for­ma­tion back in time would be a rev­o­lu­tion?

    • Why does Chi­ang so specifi­cally re­ject in his after­word the quan­tum ex­pla­na­tion of Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple as a par­ti­cle’s wave-func­tion ex­plor­ing all pos­si­ble paths si­mul­ta­ne­ously & in­ter­fer­ing with it­self, say­ing the story draws on the clas­si­cal physics in­ter­pre­ta­tions, when it pro­vides such a per­fect mech­a­nism (and one often ex­ploited by other SF au­thors)?

    • Why the em­pha­sis on ? Does it re­ally re­quire time travel for a Hep­ta­pod to read a page as a sin­gle whole? (And it’s in­ter­est­ing that the writ­ing is com­pared to psy­che­delic trips and math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions (ie the kind of writ­ing physi­cists learn in or­der to think in vari­a­tional ways…), given that per­cep­tions of unity are one of the best known psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences in psy­che­delic trips. There are also many re­ports of de­per­son­al­iza­tion and see­ing one’s ac­tions as caused by an­other & un­caused by one­self. But nev­er­the­less, the uni­verse con­tin­ues as be­fore, re­gard­less of whether one per­ceives it as a unity or as many pieces, and the con­vinc­ing­ness of the ex­pe­ri­ence has lit­tle or no re­la­tion­ship to the truth of the per­cep­tions.6)

    • why is no mech­a­nism pro­vided for how the time travel would work? Chi­ang knows that none of the dis­cussed top­ics pro­vide a re­al­is­tic mech­a­nism, yet he does not de­fine his world with any FTL or novel physics. He also knows that Sapir-Whorf is merely a psy­cho­log­i­cal claim; there has never been any se­ri­ous prospect that Sapir-Whorf could jus­tify some­thing like pre­cog­ni­tion or time trav­el.

  • why make such a point of the hep­tapods and their writ­ing be­ing sym­met­ri­cal, when time-travel affect­ing the past is asym­met­ri­cal? A lin­ear sen­tence can be read for­ward and back­wards, but still has an or­der­ing.

  • if Louise can see the whole fu­ture of her life, why does she close the story ask­ing “am I work­ing to­ward an ex­treme of joy, or of pain? Will I achieve a min­i­mum, or a max­i­mum?” Should­n’t she, by de­fi­n­i­tion, al­ready know ex­actly how her en­tire life works out and whether her de­ci­sions were best? And why does she not know why the Hep­tapods are leav­ing?

  • if learn­ing Hep­tapodese en­ables time travel and Hep­tapodese be­comes a stan­dard topic of lin­guis­tic study across the world which Louise is but one ex­pert of many and prized mostly for her anec­dotes7 rather than su­per­pow­ers, how is it that Chi­ang’s world build­ing omits any dis­cus­sion of the con­se­quences of uni­ver­sal clair­voy­ance? (And why would the stu­dents ever be in­differ­ent or bored?) Why does­n’t every­one learn Hep­tapode­se, and, even if they dis­cover they can­not ex­plain the in­sights, make choices based on their knowl­edge of the fu­ture? And if Louise is the only per­son ca­pa­ble of it, why is she spe­cial? (Chi­ang re­marks in an in­ter­view that one of the key differ­ences be­tween “magic” and “sci­ence” is that the lat­ter is uni­ver­sal & avail­able to every­one.89)

    • if it is pos­si­ble to learn about the fu­ture and take ac­tion on it in the present and set up sta­ble time loops, why does she not save her daugh­ter from the climb­ing ac­ci­dent, which would re­quire only triv­ial ac­tions like sched­ul­ing a re­minder? (Or for the movie ver­sion, get­ting ear­lier di­ag­no­sis or in­for­ma­tion from the dis­tant fu­ture about a cure.) Per­haps she needs to make that choice to keep her vi­sion of the fu­ture true… but surely her daugh­ter’s life is worth some ig­no­rance about the sub­se­quent fu­ture?

No Retro-Causal Events

Aside from the many in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal prob­lems with in­ter­pret­ing the time travel as hav­ing any causal effects on the past, the in­ter­pre­ta­tion also seems to lack any events in the story to ex­plain—in Louise’s life, all events pro­ceed se­quen­tially and con­sis­tent with non-time-travel in­ter­pre­ta­tions. A close read shows no ex­am­ples of Louise act­ing in a way that re­quires knowl­edge of the fu­ture be­yond or­di­nary cog­ni­tion and cre­ative li­cense in re­call:

  1. home­work help: Louise helps her daugh­ter with game the­ory ter­mi­nol­o­gy. But she learns the term “non-zero sum game” be­fore hav­ing her daugh­ter, while work­ing with the Hep­tapods:

    “Mom, what do you call it when both sides can win?” I’ll look up from my com­puter and the pa­per I’ll be writ­ing. “What, you mean a win-win sit­u­a­tion?” … “I’m sor­ry, I don’t know it ei­ther. Why don’t you call your dad?”…A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the State De­part­ment named Hoss­ner had the job of briefing the U.S sci­en­tists on our agenda with the hep­tapods. We sat in the video-con­fer­ence room, lis­ten­ing to him lec­ture…“You mean it’s a non-ze­ro-sum game?” Gary said in mock in­creduli­ty. “Oh my gosh.”…“A non-ze­ro-sum game.” “What?” You’ll re­verse course, head­ing back from your bed­room. “When both sides can win: I just re­mem­bered, it’s called a non-ze­ro-sum game”

    While the lec­ture and in­ter­ac­tion with her fu­ture hus­band Gary have great sig­nifi­cance, this sig­nifi­cance is be­cause she is able to re­call mem­o­ries of it, not be­cause of any time-trav­el.

  2. the Hep­tapods leav­ing: in the fi­nal ex­changes, Louise de­scribes her con­ver­sa­tions in terms of al­ready know­ing what hap­pens, yet, she does­n’t know what the fi­nal ex­change will be or that it is the fi­nal ex­change, or why the Hep­tapods leave:

    We never did learn why the hep­tapods left, any more than we learned what brought them here, or why they acted the way they did. My own new aware­ness did­n’t pro­vide that type of knowl­edge; the hep­tapods’ be­hav­ior was pre­sum­ably ex­plic­a­ble from a se­quen­tial point of view, but we never found that ex­pla­na­tion.

    and also is doubt­ful of the idea that it is “ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble to know the fu­ture”.

  3. the morgue/nurs­ery: the rep­e­ti­tion of the phrase “Yes, that’s her. She’s mine.” may seem like an­other retro­causal in­flu­ence, but again the con­clu­sion does­n’t fol­low, as it’s un­clear she says it in the nurs­ery and if she did, it is again ex­plain­able as mem­o­ry:

    He and I will drive out to­gether to per­form the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, a long silent car ride. I re­mem­ber the morgue, all tile and stain­less steel, the hum of re­frig­er­a­tion and smell of an­ti­sep­tic. An or­derly will pull the sheet back to re­veal your face. Your face will look wrong some­how, but I’ll know it’s you. “Yes, that’s her”, I’ll say. “She’s mine.”You’ll be twen­ty-five then. …I re­mem­ber what it’ll be like watch­ing you when you are a day old. Your fa­ther will have gone for a quick visit to the hos­pi­tal cafe­te­ria, and you’ll be ly­ing in your bassinet, and I’ll be lean­ing over you. Yes, that’s her. She’s mine.

    The phrase binds the be­gin­ning and end to­geth­er… as a sto­ry, in ret­ro­spect, once the out­come is known.

  4. Louise has night­mares about bad things hap­pen­ing to her daugh­ter and see­ing her in the morgue, both be­fore and after she dies.

    But—­pace Chi­ang’s men­tion of a new mother in his after­word—all par­ents know what will hap­pen to their chil­dren, or their spous­es: they will die, ei­ther be­fore or after the par­ents die. That is what hap­pens to hu­mans. As Von­negut says, it is not hard to see the fu­ture of your ba­bies, nor your clos­est friends, and Linke and his wife knew when they mar­ried each other that the other would one day die.

  5. prob­a­bly the most con­vinc­ing de­tail point­ing to true time-travel is how the frame sto­ry’s ‘present’ ap­pears to be set at the daugh­ter’s con­cep­tion with a Louise know­ing about the climb­ing ac­ci­dent, but this is not clear when we join up the be­gin­ning and the end and we con­sider the story as a whole along with what Louise later tells us about think­ing in Hep­tapod:

    Your fa­ther is about to ask me the ques­tion. This is the most im­por­tant mo­ment in our lives, and I want to pay at­ten­tion, note every de­tail. Your dad and I have just come back from an evening out, din­ner and a show; it’s after mid­night. We came out onto the pa­tio to look at the full moon; then I told your dad I wanted to dance, so he hu­mors me and now we’re slow-danc­ing, a pair of thir­ty-some­things sway­ing back and forth in the moon-light like kids. I don’t feel the night chill at all. And then your dad says, “Do you want to make a baby?” Right now your dad and I have been mar­ried for about two years, liv­ing on El­lis Av­enue; when we move out you’ll still be too young to re­mem­ber the house, but we’ll show you pic­tures of it, tell you sto­ries about it. I’d love to tell you the story of this evening, the night you’re con­ceived, but the right time to do that would be when you’re ready to have chil­dren of your own, and we’ll never get that chance. Telling it to you any ear­lier would­n’t do any good; for most of your life you won’t sit still to hear such a ro­man­tic—y­ou’d say sap­py—s­to­ry. I re­mem­ber the sce­nario of your ori­gin you’ll sug­gest when you’re twelve…I know how this story ends; I think about it a lot. I also think a lot about how it be­gan, just a few years ago, when ships ap­peared in or­bit and ar­ti­facts ap­peared in mead­ows…Even­tu­al­ly, many years from now, I’ll be with­out your fa­ther, and with­out you. All I will have left from this mo­ment is the hep­ta­pod lan­guage. So I pay close at­ten­tion, and note every de­tail. From the be­gin­ning I knew my des­ti­na­tion, and I chose my route ac­cord­ing­ly. But am I work­ing to­ward an ex­treme of joy, or of pain? Will I achieve a min­i­mum, or a max­i­mum? These ques­tions are in my mind when your fa­ther asks me, “Do you want to make a baby?” And I smile and an­swer, “Yes”, and I un­wrap his arms from around me, and we hold hands as we walk in­side to make love, to make you.

    The nar­ra­tor Louise is not nar­rat­ing the pre­sent, but re­liv­ing and re­hears­ing a story about an event she knew was im­por­tant at the time & paid close at­ten­tion to, and is re­hears­ing the story she would’ve told her daugh­ter if she had lived long enough. Hav­ing learned to think like a Hep­tapod, the el­derly Louise can eas­ily think of the past as present and at­tempts to pin down her true tem­po­ral lo­ca­tion by look­ing at the tense ig­nore that she is a (tem­po­ral­ly) un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor (the level of atem­po­ral think­ing in­creases through the sto­ry). As she tells us, dur­ing her post-Hep­ta­pod life, her think­ing in Hep­ta­pod grows and over those decades, she be­comes able to think of in­creas­ing stretches of her life as a sin­gle whole which she feels as pre­sent:

    After I learned Hep­ta­pod B, new mem­o­ries fell into place like gi­gan­tic blocks, each one mea­sur­ing years in du­ra­tion, and though they did­n’t ar­rive in or­der or land con­tigu­ous­ly, they soon com­posed a pe­riod of five decades. It is the pe­riod dur­ing which I know Hep­ta­pod B well enough to think in it, start­ing dur­ing my in­ter­views with Flap­per and Rasp­berry and end­ing with my death. Usu­al­ly, Hep­ta­pod B affects just my mem­o­ry: my con­scious­ness crawls along as it did be­fore, a glow­ing sliver crawl­ing for­ward in time, the differ­ence be­ing that the ash of mem­ory lies ahead as well as be­hind: there is no real com­bus­tion. But oc­ca­sion­ally I have glimpses when Hep­ta­pod B truly reigns, and I ex­pe­ri­ence past and fu­ture all at on­ce; my con­scious­ness be­comes a half cen­tu­ry-long em­ber burn­ing out­side time. I per­ceive—­dur­ing those glimpses—that en­tire epoch as a si­mul­tane­ity. It’s a pe­riod en­com­pass­ing the rest of my life, and the en­tirety of yours.

    As events hap­pen, sud­denly the past re­con­fig­ures it­self; events re­veal them­selves to have mean­ing that they did­n’t have un­til years lat­er—meet­ing one’s first hus­band, and the con­cep­tion of a child. With one fall, a se­quence of life events sud­denly snaps into place as a story with a be­gin­ning, an arc, and an end. Mean­ing is un­der­stood retroac­tive­ly. The owl flies at dusk.

Epiphenomenal Time Travel interpretation

Ig­nor­ing the fa­tally flawed in­ter­pre­ta­tion of reg­u­lar time-trav­el/pre­cog­ni­tion which can change the past, one in­ter­pre­ta­tion goes that Louise does per­ceive the en­tirety of her fu­ture, but in a ver­sion of , never ex­ploits the fu­ture knowl­edge or take un­ex­plain­able retro-causal ac­tions, be­cause what the dis­cus­sion about the Book or “per­for­ma­tive lan­guage” im­plies is that she is like an ac­tor fol­low­ing a script, en­gaged in a self­-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy, tak­ing pre­cisely the ac­tions nec­es­sary to bring about the fu­ture she sees, and this is all for the best (). A fic­tional ex­am­ple of this would be in , whose pre­science al­lows him to see vi­sions of the present and act de­spite be­ing blind­—but only as long as he ex­e­cutes the ac­tions which bring about the vi­sion, thereby keep­ing the vi­sions re­flec­tive of re­al­i­ty; on the other hand, Paul al­ways has the choice to break out of the vi­sion, and even­tu­ally does so, so his sit­u­a­tion is not fully anal­o­gous. An­other ex­am­ple would be Doc­tor Man­hat­tan in the fa­mous “Chap­ter IV: Watch­maker” of .10

This is an in­ter­est­ing at­tempt at rec­on­cil­ing free will and de­ter­min­ism, rem­i­nis­cent of Leib­niz’s , but it still does­n’t ad­dress many of the prob­lems (how the physics would ac­tu­ally de­liver fu­ture knowl­edge when the al­go­rith­mic for­mu­la­tion re­quires no retro­causal in­flu­ence and is equiv­a­lent to the vari­a­tional for­mu­la­tions, how does it work on a phys­i­cal/neu­ro­log­i­cal ba­sis, how any­one could fol­low the script while si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­gaged in nor­mal thought, why no one ever de­vi­ates from the script for any rea­son and the time-travel is purely epiphe­nom­e­nal, why Louise does­n’t de­vi­ate just be­fore the climb­ing ac­ci­dent, what this all the­mat­i­cally has to do with sto­ries or per­cep­tion, etc).

Chad Orzel asks, from this per­spec­tive, whether the use of vari­a­tional prin­ci­ples re­ally works to jus­tify time-trav­el:

In the con­text of the sto­ry, this is pre­sented as re­quir­ing knowl­edge of both the start and end points in ad­vance. The aliens view this for­mu­la­tion of physics as fun­da­men­tal be­cause this is how they see the world—they know what’s go­ing to hap­pen in ad­vance, and this has pro­found effects on their lan­guage, and the mind of the hu­man lin­guist learn­ing to write it.

The thing is, when I try to think about the vari­a­tional ap­proach, this ex­pla­na­tion ends up seem­ing a lit­tle ar­bi­trary, in a man­ner sim­i­lar to the ever-pop­u­lar . You can use vari­a­tional prin­ci­ples to cal­cu­late the op­ti­mal path be­tween two points, but the choice of points is es­sen­tially ar­bi­trary. It’s true that if you know a given light ray will be at point A and then at point B, you can find the path from A to B us­ing vari­a­tional prin­ci­ples, but there’s noth­ing in­evitable about point B. Fer­mat’s Prin­ci­ple does­n’t tell you that a light ray start­ing at point A will nec­es­sar­ily reach point B, it just tells you what path it will take from A to B if it hap­pens to go through point B. There are an in­fi­nite num­ber of light rays em­a­nat­ing from point A that never pass through point B at all.

If you know points A and B in ad­vance, the vari­a­tional cal­cu­lus will give you all the points in be­tween, which seems re­ally im­pres­sive from point B. But peo­ple ar­riv­ing at point C will be equally im­pressed…­Know­ing point A does­n’t in­evitably de­ter­mine point B, un­less you pro­vide enough ex­tra in­for­ma­tion that you would’ve been able to de­ter­mine point B us­ing non-vari­a­tional meth­ods, as well. Which un­der­cuts the whole premise of the story a lit­tle bit. It’s still a pow­er­ful piece of work, but the im­plicit in­evitabil­ity of those events seems a lit­tle du­bi­ous.

Timeless Ways of Thinking

Not Controlled But Nor Uncontrolled

:

Once when Hyakujo de­liv­ered some Zen lec­tures an old man at­tended them, un­seen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he re­mained after they had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: “Who are you?”

The old man replied: “I am not a hu­man be­ing, but I was a hu­man be­ing when the Kashapa Bud­dha preached in this world. I was a Zen mas­ter and lived on this moun­tain. At that time one of my stu­dents asked me whether the en­light­ened man is sub­ject to the law of cau­sa­tion. I an­swered him: ‘The en­light­ened man is not sub­ject to the law of cau­sa­tion.’ For this an­swer ev­i­denc­ing a cling­ing to ab­solute­ness I be­came a fox for five hun­dred re­births, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this con­di­tion with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox’s body? Now may I ask you: Is the en­light­ened man sub­ject to the law of cau­sa­tion?”

Hyakujo said: “The en­light­ened man is one with the law of cau­sa­tion.”

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was en­light­ened. “I am eman­ci­pated”, he said, pay­ing homage with a deep bow. “I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place be­hind this moun­tain. Please per­form my fu­neral as a monk.” Then he dis­ap­peared. The next day Hyakujo gave an or­der through the chief monk to pre­pare to at­tend the fu­neral of a monk. “No one was sick in the in­fir­mary”, won­dered the monks. “What does our teacher mean?” After din­ner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the moun­tain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then per­formed the cer­e­mony of cre­ma­tion.

…Mu­mon’s com­ment: “The en­light­ened man is not sub­ject.” How can this an­swer make the monk a fox?

“The en­light­ened man is at one with the law of cau­sa­tion.” How can this an­swer make the fox eman­ci­pat­ed?

To un­der­stand clearly one has to have just one eye.

Con­trolled or not con­trolled?
The same dice shows two faces.
Not con­trolled or con­trolled,
Both are a griev­ous er­ror.

“Bells and Robes”11

Zen Mas­ter said: “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”

Ku­bose’s com­men­tary: In a Zen tem­ple the lives of the monks are well reg­u­lat­ed. When the bell sounds, each puts on his robe and goes to the med­i­ta­tion hall. But Um­mon asks: Why? There is an old say­ing that what­ever comes in through the gates is for­eign. The gates are the sens­es: sight, smell, hear­ing, taste, and touch. If we de­cide, move, and act by the sens­es, we obey for­eign com­mands. In re­sponse to our en­vi­ron­ment, we feel pres­sures, are eas­ily up­set, be­come ner­vous. This is one of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of mod­ern life. But if one set­tles down firmly in one’s in­ner life, all ac­tions, feel­ings, and deeds come from deep with­in. The un­en­light­ened one does things be­cause he must do them; the en­light­ened one acts be­cause he wants to. Un­mon points to the cen­ter.

Cognitive Time Travel

“The en­light­ened one has read it.” How can this an­swer make the monk a fox?

“The en­light­ened is at one with the Book of Ages.” How can this an­swer make the fox eman­ci­pat­ed?

What if we take se­ri­ously Louise’s ig­no­rance, the log­i­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity of the Book of Ages, the de­scrip­tions of it chang­ing her psy­chol­ogy and let­ting mem­o­ries fall to­gether in chunks, and all the other prob­lems with the causal & epiphe­nom­e­nal time travel in­ter­pre­ta­tions, and treat the long dis­cus­sions of vari­a­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tions & lin­guis­tics as more than win­dow-dress­ing metaphors for a su­per­power sto­ry? What would it mean to think of every­thing in tele­o­log­i­cal terms?

What I take Chi­ang as sug­gest­ing is not that the aliens re­ally are tap­ping into quan­tum physics woo to see the fu­ture (this is what in­fe­rior SF au­thors might do, and do in the movie), any more than light rays see into the fu­ture in or­der to take the short­est path, but that Chi­ang is ex­plor­ing a kind of xenopsy­chol­o­gy—­some­thing more like Watts’s (draw­ing on Be­ing No One/The Ego Tun­nel & ) or Chi­ang’s “Un­der­stand”/“Ex­ha­la­tion” in try­ing to ex­plore differ­ent kinds of minds (eg why con­sciously ) with differ­ent views on com­pat­i­bil­ism: that given the re­versibil­ity of the laws of physics and the ar­row of time, there is no log­i­cal or priv­i­leged rea­son to have a con­scious ex­pe­ri­ence of the uni­verse as time un­fold­ing se­quen­tially (as a ) and com­pu­ta­tion­ally ac­cord­ing to a pro­gram com­put­ing 1 Planck­-sec­ond at a time, rather than as an Ein­stein­ian in which the block uni­verse is the so­lu­tion to an op­ti­miza­tion prob­lem/an op­ti­mal path be­tween the of the be­gin­ning & end, and every­thing un­folds as it must and al­ready has.

“Vo­li­tion was an in­trin­sic part of con­scious­ness”, Louise mus­es—and per­haps in hu­mans it is, but it does­n’t have to be (any more than the ma­jor­ity of men­tal processes need to be con­scious for en­ti­ties to be in­tel­li­gen­t). If you ‘knew’ the fu­ture and felt a pres­sure to en­act it by mov­ing as some­thing in­side your mind pre­dicts, you would be both free and bound, and you would ‘read’ the Book of Ages with­out para­dox: What­ever you do is what you were al­ways go­ing to choose to do, and by choos­ing, you make it so. This is sim­i­lar to points Drescher makes in : the laws of physics are gen­er­ally . Phys­i­cal events can run back­wards or for­wards, there is no in­her­ent .

There are many in our time who pos­sess the re­sult of the whole of ex­is­tence and do not know how to ac­count for the slight­est thing…It is quite true what phi­los­o­phy says, that life must be un­der­stood back­ward. But then one for­gets the other prin­ci­ple, that it must be lived for­ward. Which prin­ci­ple, the more one thinks it through, ends ex­actly with tem­po­ral life never be­ing able to be prop­erly un­der­stood, pre­cisely be­cause I can at no in­stant find com­plete rest to adopt the po­si­tion: back­ward.12

Since the tem­po­ral and atem­po­ral per­spec­tives are equiv­a­lent, and make all the same pre­dic­tions (once the start and end points are fixed), we can con­ceive of psy­cholo­gies differ­ent from our tem­po­ral per­spec­tive, as differ­ent from us as oc­to­puses or or or plants. The present tells us about both the past and the fu­ture—a brain could try to un­der­stand the uni­verse by tak­ing the present and ex­trap­o­lat­ing for­ward, but it also can take the present and ex­trap­o­late back­ward. When we do the sec­ond, we call it ‘mem­o­ries’ and re­mem­ber­ing: we ex­trap­o­late, based on the present state of the uni­verse like some un­re­li­able arrange­ment of neu­rons, what the world is like go­ing one di­rec­tion along the time di­men­sion; often we are mis­taken or ig­no­rant, and the more so the fur­ther we go. And when we do the sec­ond and ex­trap­o­late along the other di­rec­tion, we call it ‘pre­dict­ing’ and ‘plan­ning’, by ex­trap­o­lat­ing, based on the present state of the uni­verse, what the world is like go­ing an­other di­rec­tion along the time di­men­sion; often we are mis­taken or ig­no­rant, and the more so the fur­ther we go. But they are the same thing: you can ‘re­mem­ber’ the fu­ture as eas­ily as the past.

…s­ince the fab­ric of the uni­verse is most per­fect, and is the work of a most wise Cre­ator, noth­ing what­so­ever takes place in the uni­verse in which some re­la­tion of max­i­mum and min­i­mum does not ap­pear. Where­fore there is ab­solutely no doubt that every effect in the uni­verse can be ex­plained as sat­is­fac­to­rily from fi­nal caus­es, by the aid of the method of max­ima and min­i­ma, as it can from the effec­tive causes them­selves…one’s task should be this, name­ly, in any field of Nat­ural Sci­ence what­so­ever to study that quan­tity which takes on a max­i­mum or a min­i­mum val­ue, an oc­cu­pa­tion that seems to be­long to phi­los­o­phy rather than to math­e­mat­ics. Since, there­fore, two meth­ods of study­ing effects in Na­ture lie open to us, one by means of effec­tive caus­es, which is com­monly called the di­rect method, the other by means of fi­nal caus­es, the math­e­mati­cian uses each with equal suc­cess…13

Like­wise, in the same way that you con­trol the parts of the fu­ture by tak­ing ac­tions, you also con­trol parts of the past.14 You per­ceive the past as fixed and your be­lief about the past world cer­tain, and the fu­ture mu­ta­ble, as you pre­dict, plan, and take ac­tions to change the fu­ture; things often do not go as you ex­pect or hope, but that ev­i­dence changes your be­liefs about the past—but why could­n’t you per­ceive the past as un­cer­tain, your pre­dic­tions about the fu­ture as cer­tain, and mis­takes then change what you be­lieved about the fu­ture? In both cas­es, plan­ning hap­pens, ac­tions are tak­en, the sys­tem learns, but the sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence is rad­i­cally differ­ent: in the sec­ond, learn­ing has no qualia, merely a per­ma­nent sense of unity and as one’s per­cep­tion of the pur­pose changes as more events un­fold & the sys­tem learns.

The aliens could be do­ing this, and it is as valid a way of cog­ni­tion as any­thing else; their con­scious in­tro­spec­tion does not per­ceive a fixed past al­go­rmith­i­cally ad­vanc­ing to an un­cer­tain fu­ture but an un­cer­tain past and fixed fu­ture which are the only way the uni­verse could have hap­pened, with al­go­rith­mic plan­ning & per­cep­tion hap­pen­ing in the un­con­scious, no more felt con­sciously than a hu­man feels their top-down Bayesian cog­ni­tion con­stantly rewrit­ing & rec­on­cil­ing per­cep­tion with pri­ors in the , or their mem­o­ries al­ter­ing every time they are re­called & ex­pe­ri­enced (pace Chi­ang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feel­ing”), or un­con­scious habits be­ing strength­ened & weak­ened, or can see their own vi­sual blind spots or eye sac­cades (“com­pe­tence with­out com­pre­hen­sion”).

Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

“Chap­ter Five—­Wool and Wa­ter”:

“That’s the effect of liv­ing back­ward,” the queen said kind­ly. “It al­ways makes one a lit­tle giddy at first—”

“Liv­ing back­ward!” Al­ice re­peated in great as­ton­ish­ment. “I never heard of such a thing!”

“—but there’s one great ad­van­tage in it: that one’s mem­ory works both ways.”

“I’m sure mine only works one way,” Al­ice re­marked. “I can’t re­mem­ber things be­fore they hap­pen.”

“It’s a poor sort of mem­ory that only works back­ward,” the queen re­marked.

“What sort of things do you re­mem­ber best?” Al­ice ven­tured to ask. “Oh, things that hap­pened the week after next,” the queen replied in a care­less tone.

…“Oh, oh, oh!” shouted the queen, shak­ing her hand about as if she wanted to shake it off. “My fin­ger’s bleed­ing! Oh, oh, oh, oh!”

Her screams were so ex­actly like the whis­tle of a steam en­gine that Al­ice had to hold both her hands over her ears. “What is the mat­ter?” she said, as soon as there was a chance of mak­ing her­self heard. “Have you pricked your fin­ger?”

“I haven’t pricked it yet”, the queen said, “but I soon shal­l—oh, oh, oh!”

“When do you ex­pect to do it?” Al­ice asked, feel­ing very much in­clined to laugh.

“When I fas­ten my shawl again,” the poor queen groaned out, “the brooch will come un­done di­rect­ly. Oh, oh!” As she said the words, the brooch flew open, and the queen clutched wildly at it and tried to clasp it again.

“Take care!” cried Al­ice. “You’re hold­ing it all crooked!” And she caught at the brooch, but it was too late: the pin had slipped, and the queen had pricked her fin­ger.

“That ac­counts for the bleed­ing, you see,” she said to Al­ice with a smile. “Now you un­der­stand the way things hap­pen here.”

“But why don’t you scream now?” Al­ice asked, hold­ing her hands ready to put over her ears again.

“Why, I’ve done all the scream­ing al­ready,” said the queen. “What would be the good of hav­ing it all over again?”

Living in a Timeless Universe

The drama comes from the pro­tag­o­nist slowly adopt­ing this way of think­ing her­self in or­der to come to terms with her grief over her daugh­ter’s death by adopt­ing a time­less La­grangian way of think­ing, while ex­plain­ing all this to the reader who is still trapped in the al­go­rith­mic per­spec­tive.

To tell Diomedes’ sto­ry, Homer does­n’t think
He has to start with the death of the hero’s un­cle,
Or start, in telling about the Tro­jan War,
By telling us how He­len came out of an egg.
He goes right to the point and car­ries the reader
Into the midst of things, as if known al­ready;
And if there’s ma­te­r­ial that he de­spairs of pre­sent­ing
So as to shine for us, he leaves it out;
And he makes his whole poem one. What’s true, what’s in­vent­ed,
Be­gin­ning, mid­dle, and end, all fit to­geth­er.15

This is why it’s ti­tled Story—of course a life is not ac­tu­ally a sto­ry, it’s a se­ries of events pro­ceed­ing log­i­cally one by one—but in a good sto­ry, key events (some­thing know­able only in ret­ro­spect, know­ing the end­ing) are se­lect­ed, re­arranged, edited for sym­bol­ism & fore­shad­ow­ing, and given an over­ar­ch­ing mean­ing from a time­less nar­ra­tor’s per­spec­tive.

What is the story of your life?

This is the story of your life:

“You were born, you lived, and you died.”

We live, know­ing we will die, but not how or when; we have chil­dren, know­ing they too die, but not how or when; we read a sto­ry, know­ing all sto­ries end, but not how or when—all in the hope that in the end, it is worth it.

See Also


  1. “Ted Chi­ang on Writ­ing”, Chi­ang 2010:

    Q. Could you give a walk-through of your writ­ing process?

    A. In gen­er­al, if there’s an idea I’m in­ter­ested in, I usu­ally think about that for a long time and write down my spec­u­la­tions or just ideas about how it could be­come a sto­ry, but I don’t ac­tu­ally start writ­ing the story it­self un­til I know how the story ends. Typ­i­cally the first part of the story that I write is the very end­ing, ei­ther the last para­graph of the story or a para­graph near the end. Once I have the des­ti­na­tion in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that. Usu­ally the sec­ond thing I write is the open­ing of the story and then I write the rest of the story in al­most ran­dom or­der. I just keep writ­ing scenes un­til I’ve con­nected the be­gin­ning and the end. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the land­mark scenes first, and then I just fill in back­wards and for­wards.

    Q. How do you clas­sify your writ­ing? I feel like it’s a kind of philo­soph­i­cal fic­tion, be­cause it’s ac­tu­ally mak­ing peo­ple think, wak­ing them up and mak­ing them won­der about things.

    A. That’s one of the things that sci­ence fic­tion is par­tic­u­larly good at, that’s one of the rea­sons I like sci­ence fic­tion. Sci­ence fic­tion is very well suited to ask­ing philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions; ques­tions about the na­ture of re­al­i­ty, what it means to be hu­man, how do we know the things that we think we know. When philoso­phers pro­pose thought ex­per­i­ments as a way of an­a­lyz­ing cer­tain ques­tions, their thought ex­per­i­ments often sound a lot like sci­ence fic­tion. I think that there’s a very good fit be­tween the two.

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  2. Books some­times suffer from an ‘over­shad­ow­ing’ where the movie ver­sion is so vivid (be­ing mov­ing im­ages with sound con­dens­ing the book down into a sin­gle en­gross­ing 2 hours), the differ­ences with the book be­come im­pos­si­ble to no­tice or re­mem­ber, be­cause the read­er’s pri­ors for the movie ver­sion be­come so strong they wipe out the orig­i­nal.

    1929 Prac­ti­cal Crit­i­cism: A Study of Lit­er­ary Judg­ment case-s­tud­ies show that most read­ers are ex­tremely sloppy and read into po­ems their pre­con­cep­tions to an ex­tent diffi­cult to be­lieve, in de­fi­ance of the plain text. Some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pens with the let­ters of Saint Paul, where the read­er’s as­sump­tion of a his­tor­i­cal Gospel Je­sus is so strong that it’s hard to no­tice that the (au­then­tic) let­ters are to­tally silent about his life, la­cuna which ap­pear to have gone largely un­no­ticed un­til the past two cen­turies; forged scrip­tures or texts are rou­tine but like­wise cir­cu­late for cen­turies or mil­len­nia among be­liev­ers un­til mod­ern schol­ars note the bla­tant anachro­nisms or con­tra­dic­tions or mis­takes or tel­l-tale tex­tual his­to­ry. In Frank Her­bert’s SF novel Dune, the is clearly stated to be against men us­ing ma­chines and noth­ing in it sup­ports any other in­ter­pre­ta­tion (like­wise, which Her­bert en­dorsed and can be con­sid­ered semi­-canon­i­cal), but so strong is the SF trope of “ro­bots try­ing to ex­ter­mi­nate mankind”, and the re­vi­sion­ism in Brian Her­bert/Kevin J. An­der­son’s sup­posed se­quel­s/pre­quels, that most Dune read­ers un­con­sciously ig­nore the plain text and sim­ply as­sume the But­ler­ian Ji­had was a stock ro­bot up­ris­ing (which mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion en­cour­ages mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Dune se­ries as a whole by ig­nor­ing Her­bert’s em­pha­sis on hu­man growth, in­de­pen­dent thought, and mind­ful use of tool­s). Or in the de­vel­op­ment of Star Wars (see Kamin­ski’s ), Darth Vader be­com­ing Luke Sky­walk­er’s fa­ther only hap­pens sur­pris­ingly far into the film­ing of The Em­pire Strikes Back (Lu­cas’s many state­ments to the con­trary be­ing ret­con­s), and the tril­ogy was heav­ily edit­ed, in ad­di­tion to fur­ther rewrit­ing by the pre­quels, to es­sen­tially ret­con every­thing into a new nar­ra­tive arc about the rise & fall of Darth Vader; that even fans about George Lu­cas or the pre­quels gen­er­ally do be­lieve that Star Wars was about Darth Vader start­ing with A New Hope shows how easy it is for the ret­con & ed­its to over­ride the seams. (In­ci­den­tal­ly, Darth Vader does­n’t say, “Luke, I am your fa­ther.” He says, “No. I am your fa­ther.” And in Casablanca, did In­grid Bergman ever say “Play it again, Sam”?)

    An­other ex­am­ple is of The Won­der­ful Wiz­ard of Oz ver­sus : are iconic mag­i­cal slip­pers in the book—or ? They are sil­ver, and were changed to ruby for the movie to show up bet­ter in color film. (The mu­si­cal amus­ingly splits the differ­ence by hav­ing a spell turn the sil­ver shoes into the ruby slip­per­s.) Such is the power of the movie ver­sion that many peo­ple who have read the book are sim­ply un­able to re­call this or con­fuse the mem­o­ries, and re­mem­ber the book slip­pers as be­ing ruby too—de­spite this be­ing a clas­sic trivia ques­tion and the sil­ver slip­pers fea­tur­ing promi­nently in both the book’s plot and color il­lus­tra­tions. I ran a USA prob­a­bil­i­ty-sam­ple sur­vey with n = 150 2018-06-3–2018-06-05 ask­ing “In the orig­i­nal book ver­sion of The Won­der­ful Wiz­ard of Oz, what color were Dorothy’s mag­i­cal slip­pers? [N­ever read it or don’t re­cal­l/Ruby/Sil­ver/E­mer­ald]”; the re­sults were 91/36/9/14 re­spec­tively (CSV raw re­sults), or to put it an­other way, 88% of the peo­ple who thought they knew what color the slip­pers were in the book, did­n’t know, and 91% of the mis­taken peo­ple gave the movie an­swer. I also ran a Twit­ter poll with 166/60/80/26, re­spec­tive­ly, for a 58% er­ror rate and 75% movie mis­take. (I sus­pect more than a few peo­ple were look­ing up be­fore re­ply­ing or saw replies men­tion­ing “sil­ver”). So the trivia ques­tion mer­its its rep­u­ta­tion for diffi­cul­ty—­like with eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mony and mem­o­ries, our mem­o­ries are not so much true as they are “truthy”, we re­mem­ber the last ver­sion we re­mem­bered or were told, and time grad­u­ally en­sures that we re­mem­ber what should have hap­pened and not what did hap­pen. (Per­haps the slip­pers were in­deed sil­ver in the book, but how much less in­ter­est­ing than the ruby slip­pers, which they should have been…) Ap­pro­pri­ate­ly, Ted Chi­ang has writ­ten a short story on this top­ic: “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feel­ing”.↩︎

  3. Ted Chi­ang, 2019 pod­cast in­ter­view:

    …Well, I agree that is a movie that poses a sin­gle fixed time­line and I think 12 Mon­keys does a pretty good job of it. Also as an­other ex­am­ple, the first Ter­mi­na­tor film is an ex­am­ple of this; the sec­ond Ter­mi­na­tor is not but the first Ter­mi­na­tor film does posit a fixed time­line. And you know, this is some­thing I’m in­ter­ested in, and yeah, there’s a sense in which “What’s Ex­pected Of Us” falls into this cat­e­go­ry, also the story “The Mer­chant and the Al­chemist’s Gate” falls into this cat­e­go­ry, and there’s even a sense in which for my first col­lec­tion, “Story of Your Life”, falls in this cat­e­go­ry. As for a time travel story which posits al­ter­nate or par­al­lel time­li­nes, I think the clos­est I come to that is the fi­nal story in the new col­lec­tion [Ex­ha­la­tion], “Anx­i­ety Is The Dizzi­ness Of Free­dom”.

    Note that “What’s Ex­pected” & “Mer­chant” in­volves in­for­ma­tion mov­ing back­wards in time in a sin­gle self­-con­sis­tent time­line, while “Anx­i­ety” in­vokes di­verg­ing time­lines (which, by enu­mer­a­tion, ex­cludes all the pos­si­ble stan­dard time travel in­ter­pre­ta­tions of “Story”); what forces Chi­ang to qual­ify the con­nec­tion with a phrase like “even a sense in which”?↩︎

  4. For some of this back­ground, see .↩︎

  5. Chi­ang 2010:

    Q. Many of your sto­ries play with the im­pli­ca­tions of know­ing the fu­ture. What fas­ci­nates you about the na­ture of Time?

    A. The ques­tion of free will. I think free will is what un­der­lies most every­thing in­ter­est­ing about time trav­el. And when I say time trav­el, I’m in­clud­ing re­ceiv­ing in­for­ma­tion from the fu­ture, be­cause that’s es­sen­tially equiv­a­lent to some­one trav­el­ing from the fu­ture. The idea that you can cre­ate a para­dox as­sumes that you have free will; even the idea of mul­ti­ple time­lines as­sumes it, be­cause it as­sumes that you can make choic­es. There have al­ways been philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ments about whether we have free will or not, but they’re usu­ally kind of ab­stract. Time trav­el, or know­ing the fu­ture, makes the ques­tion very con­crete. If you know what’s go­ing to hap­pen, can you keep it from hap­pen­ing? Even when a story says that you can’t, the emo­tional im­pact arises from the feel­ing that you should be able to.

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  6. Chi­ang 2010:

    Q. came up with that end up in us be­ing here. There was an as­tro­naut, ; I lis­tened to one of his in­ter­views, and he was de­scrib­ing an ec­sta­tic ex­pe­ri­ence he had on the way back to the Earth from the Moon. He had a very in­tense bod­ily ex­pe­ri­ence of that fact, that the mat­ter in his body was made in an older gen­er­a­tion of stars. It was a kind of rev­e­la­tory ex­pe­ri­ence, and it was based on a piece of sci­en­tific knowl­edge.

    A. Okay. I don’t think his ex­pe­ri­ence was fun­da­men­tally differ­ent from the ec­sta­tic ex­pe­ri­ences that re­li­gious peo­ple have had for mil­len­nia, whether they achieve it through prayer, or med­i­ta­tion or some other type of prac­tice, they achieve an epiphany or some kind of rev­e­la­tion. It sounds like you’re talk­ing about a sim­i­lar type of ex­pe­ri­ence that sci­en­tists might have.

    Q. Yes, he did say that when he got back to Earth, he re­searched the ex­pe­ri­ence he had, and it matched some­thing called in a yo­gic San­skrit text, but he did­n’t know about that be­fore­hand, and his ex­pe­ri­ence was based on a fact of physics. So my ques­tion is, can sci­en­tific knowl­edge lead to new kinds of ex­pe­ri­ence, or are they just re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ences in a differ­ent form?

    A. I don’t think that there’s any­thing that re­quires that what the per­son was think­ing about ac­tu­ally be true, for that per­son to have this ex­pe­ri­ence. The fact that we’re made of el­e­ments that were born in the heart of stars, that hap­pens to be true, and that con­tributed to this as­tro­naut’s ex­pe­ri­ence, but some­one could have the ex­act same ex­pe­ri­ence con­tem­plat­ing some­thing which is not true; for in­stance, that we are all chil­dren of God or what­ev­er, any re­li­gious claim you want to use. I don’t think the truth of the state­ment is ac­tu­ally nec­es­sary for that ec­sta­tic ex­pe­ri­ence.

    Q. So it [ec­sta­tic re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ences] does­n’t have any im­pact on the va­lid­ity of the ex­pe­ri­ence?

    A. I’m not con­vinced that it does. For ex­am­ple, I re­cently heard this eth­nob­otanist, , on the ra­dio, talk­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ence tak­ing a pow­er­ful hal­lu­cino­gen. He could see pho­to­syn­the­sis ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing; he could see wa­ter mol­e­cules ac­tu­ally be­ing processed in the chloro­plasts of plant cells. He also felt this in­cred­i­ble sense of one­ness, a feel­ing that hu­man­ity was part of this plan­e­tary or­gan­ism. I’m sure this was a very pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence for him, but I don’t take it as ev­i­dence of the truth of pho­to­syn­the­sis. He him­self ad­mit­ted that he al­ready knew how pho­to­syn­the­sis works, and I think the fact that he knew this con­tributed to his hal­lu­ci­na­tory ex­pe­ri­ence. Other peo­ple who don’t know about pho­to­syn­the­sis have differ­ent hal­lu­ci­na­tory ex­pe­ri­ences, and most of these ex­pe­ri­ences do not re­flect sci­en­tific truth. Peo­ple will have in­com­pat­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ences, and they can’t all be true. So I don’t think that this pow­er­ful ec­sta­tic or hal­lu­ci­na­tory ex­pe­ri­ence is an in­di­ca­tor of truth. I think it can ac­com­pany an ac­cu­rate in­sight about the world, but it does­n’t have to. It can ac­com­pany some­one think­ing about the nu­cle­osyn­the­sis of heavy el­e­ments in stars, but it could also ac­com­pany some­one think­ing about the need to ex­co­ri­ate one’s flesh to make the Lord hap­py.

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  7. “I tell that story in my in­tro­duc­tory course every year. It’s al­most cer­tainly un­true, and I ex­plain that after­wards, but it’s a clas­sic anec­dote. Of course, the anec­dotes my un­der­grad­u­ates will re­ally want to hear are ones fea­tur­ing the hep­tapods; for the rest of my teach­ing ca­reer, that’ll be the rea­son many of them sign up for my cours­es. So I’ll show them the old video­tapes of my ses­sions at the look­ing glass, and the ses­sions that the other lin­guists con­duct­ed; the tapes are in­struc­tive, and they’ll be use­ful if we’re ever vis­ited by aliens again, but they don’t gen­er­ate many good anec­dotes.”↩︎

  8. Chi­ang 2010:

    Q. You have very spe­cific views on the differ­ence be­tween magic and sci­ence. Can you talk about that?

    A. Sure. Sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy are very closely re­lated gen­res, and a lot of peo­ple say that the gen­res are so close that there’s ac­tu­ally no mean­ing­ful dis­tinc­tion to be made be­tween the two. But I think that there does ex­ist an use­ful dis­tinc­tion to be made be­tween magic and sci­ence. One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given phe­nom­e­non can be mass-pro­duced. If you posit some im­pos­si­bil­ity in a sto­ry, like turn­ing lead into gold, I think it makes sense to ask how many peo­ple in the world of the story are able to do this. Is it just a few peo­ple or is it some­thing avail­able to every­body? If it’s just a hand­ful of spe­cial peo­ple who can turn lead into gold, that im­plies differ­ent things than a story in which there are gi­ant fac­to­ries churn­ing out gold from lead, in which gold is so cheap it can be used for fish­ing weights or ra­di­a­tion shield­ing. In ei­ther case there’s the same ba­sic phe­nom­e­non, but these two de­pic­tions point to differ­ent views of the uni­verse. In a story where only a hand­ful of char­ac­ters are able to turn lead into gold, there’s the im­pli­ca­tion that there’s some­thing spe­cial about those in­di­vid­u­als. The laws of the uni­verse take into ac­count some spe­cial prop­erty that only cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als have. By con­trast, if you have a story in which turn­ing lead into gold is an in­dus­trial process, some­thing that can be done on a mass scale and can be done cheap­ly, then you’re im­ply­ing that the laws of the uni­verse ap­ply equally to every­body; they work the same even for ma­chines in un­manned fac­to­ries. In one case I’d say the phe­nom­e­non is mag­ic, while in the other I’d say it’s sci­ence. An­other way to think about these two de­pic­tions is to ask whether the uni­verse of the story rec­og­nizes the ex­is­tence of per­sons. I think magic is an in­di­ca­tion that the uni­verse rec­og­nizes cer­tain peo­ple as in­di­vid­u­als, as hav­ing spe­cial prop­er­ties as an in­di­vid­u­al, whereas a story in which turn­ing lead into gold is an in­dus­trial process is de­scrib­ing a com­pletely im­per­sonal uni­verse. That type of im­per­sonal uni­verse is how sci­ence views the uni­verse; it’s how we cur­rently un­der­stand our uni­verse to work. The differ­ence be­tween magic and sci­ence is at some level a differ­ence be­tween the uni­verse re­spond­ing to you in a per­sonal way, and the uni­verse be­ing en­tirely im­per­son­al.

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  9. Chi­ang 2002:

    Q. In ad­di­tion to us­ing sym­bolic sys­tems to achieve cer­tain emo­tional effects, you also cre­ate al­ter­na­tive uni­verses by al­ter­ing un­der­ly­ing phys­i­cal laws, which are fan­tas­tic to us but ra­tio­nal to the char­ac­ters that must live in them, as in “Sev­en­ty-Two Let­ters”, “Tower of Baby­lon”, and “Hell is the Ab­sence of God.”

    A. Well, I’d put “Tower of Baby­lon” and “Sev­en­ty-Two Let­ters” in one cat­e­go­ry, and “Hell is the Ab­sence of God” in an­oth­er. Those first two sto­ries are more sci­ence fic­tion­al, while “Hell is the Ab­sence of God” is straight fan­ta­sy. Those first two sto­ries are based on cer­tain out­-of-date ideas about the nat­ural world, but they’re sci­ence fic­tional be­cause the char­ac­ters in them fol­low a sci­en­tific world­view. Whereas the uni­verse in “Hell is the Ab­sence of God” is not based on a dis­carded sci­en­tific world­view. It was never sci­en­tific, and it has­n’t been dis­card­ed. It’s a view of the world that many peo­ple have now, ex­cept that things are ex­plicit rather than hid­den. A lot of peo­ple, right now, be­lieve that good and bad for­tune are the re­sult of su­per­nat­ural in­ter­ven­tion, and it’s often based on what you de­serve. In the story this in­ter­ven­tion is very ob­vi­ous, but I don’t think that by it­self changes a re­li­gious uni­verse into a sci­en­tific one. Does that make sense?

    Q. It makes sense, al­though the char­ac­ters in “Hell is the Ab­sence of God” still share a world­view shaped by sci­en­tific ma­te­ri­al­ism, de­spite the pres­ence of an­gels in their daily lives. They ap­proach the ap­pear­ance of an­gels like weather phe­nom­e­na—it gets re­ported on the news, and they ob­serve it, and com­pile sta­tis­tics, and through ob­ser­va­tion try to pre­dict the pat­terns of their ap­pear­ances. It all seems very ra­tio­nal.

    A. Let me talk a bit about how I view the differ­ence be­tween sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy, and more specifi­cal­ly, the differ­ence be­tween sci­ence and mag­ic. John Crow­ley gave a talk in which he talked about the Ro­man­ian scholar Ioan Cou­liano, a scholar of Re­nais­sance his­to­ry. Cou­liano said that real magic is in­ter-sub­jec­tive, mean­ing that real magic is the in­flu­ence of one con­scious­ness on an­oth­er. For ex­am­ple, when one per­son casts a spell on an­other per­son, to make that per­son do their bid­ding. This was at the heart of a lot of Re­nais­sance mag­ic. What this clar­i­fied for me was the role of con­scious­ness in mag­ic, as op­posed to sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. Be­cause in the sci­en­tific method, the ex­per­i­menter’s con­scious­ness has no place. It does­n’t de­pend on the sci­en­tist hav­ing the right in­ten­tions, or be­ing pure of heart, or con­cen­trat­ing hard enough, which are very com­mon as­pects of mag­ic. And one of the cri­te­ria of a sci­en­tific re­sult is re­pro­ducibil­i­ty, that it should work no mat­ter who does it, whereas magic is al­most ex­actly the op­po­site. Magic is highly de­pen­dent on the prac­ti­tion­er. Now, in “Sev­en­ty-Two Let­ters” and “Tower of Baby­lon”, the uni­verse be­haves in mech­a­nis­tic man­ner, so the con­scious­ness of the prac­ti­tion­er—of the sci­en­tist—is not in­volved. No one’s moral worth has any effect.

    A. In “Hell is the Ab­sence of God”, one’s moral worth is defi­nitely a fac­tor. Specifi­cal­ly, there’s a re­la­tion­ship be­tween the in­di­vid­ual con­scious­ness and some other con­scious­ness—that be­ing God. And that again is char­ac­ter­is­tic of fan­ta­sy, that there are forces which you treat as con­scious en­ti­ties, which you have to ap­pease or make sac­ri­fices to. You have to in­ter­act with them as though they were a per­son, and they re­spond to you as a per­son. Which is not how sci­ence in our world works at all. Which is why I clas­sify that story as a fan­tasy rather than as sci­ence fic­tion.

    Q. You do some­thing sim­i­lar in “Sev­en­ty-Two Let­ters”, where you take the leg­end of the golem, and then cut it off from the di­vine and turn it into a tech­nol­ogy that any­one can use.

    A. Yes, and that ties into what I was say­ing about the differ­ence be­tween sci­ence and mag­ic. In the folk­lore ver­sion of the golem leg­end, bring­ing a clay statue to life is pretty easy, most any­one can do it. My ini­tial thought was that, from a very prac­ti­cal stand­point, if this ac­tu­ally worked, the im­pli­ca­tions would be enor­mous. Con­trast this with the orig­i­nal rab­bini­cal sto­ries, where it’s very diffi­cult to cre­ate a golem. It re­quires a very holy rab­bi, some­one who has stud­ied for years to fo­cus his mind. That type of golem cre­ation is defi­nitely mag­i­cal be­cause it is very de­pen­dent on the cre­ator, and there are a lot of re­quire­ments re­gard­ing that per­son’s con­scious­ness. It’s a very es­o­teric pro­ce­dure, and not some­thing that will ever be widely per­formed. But the folk­lore ver­sion is much more egal­i­tar­i­an. It could con­ceiv­ably be adapted to mass pro­duc­tion, and that makes it less like magic and more like tech­nol­o­gy.

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  10. Doc­tor Man­hat­tan is not quite the same, though, as he has su­per­pow­ers and does in fact see much of the fu­ture and the uni­verse, re­quir­ing Adrian Veidt to ob­struct his vi­sion us­ing a tachyon gen­er­a­tor—although even there, it’s un­clear in the story whether his fu­ture per­cep­tion can al­ter the past/­fu­ture, as he ap­pears to never take ac­tions to stop a pos­si­ble fu­ture (say­ing of Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion that he knew years be­fore, but did­n’t do some­thing be­cause “I can’t pre­vent the fu­ture. To me, it’s al­ready hap­pen­ing” [em­pha­sis in orig­i­nal]), and Vei­dt’s tachyon gen­er­a­tor may sim­ply be an ac­tion he was al­ways go­ing to take and al­ways be ob­scur­ing Man­hat­tan’s vi­sion and so Man­hat­tan would never have been able to change the past/­fu­ture be­cause the non-tachyon con­di­tion would never have oc­curred. In­deed, given that Doc­tor Man­hat­tan winds up agree­ing with Vei­dt, the point may have been moot all along.↩︎

  11. pg9, “Tran­scend­ing Du­al­ity”, Zen Koans, Ven­er­a­ble Gy­omay M. Ku­bose 1973, LCCCN 72-11183↩︎

  12. ; en­try 166–167, Jour­nal JJ, 1843; pg179 of Kierkegaard’s Jour­nals and Note­books, Vol­ume 2: Jour­nals EE-KK, ed. Cap­pelørn et al 2008, ISBN: 978-0-691-13344-7.↩︎

  13. , in­tro­duc­tion to De Curvis Elas­ti­cis, ap­pen­dix I to his Metho­dus In­ve­niendi Lin­eas Cur­vas Max­imi Min­imive Pro­pri­etate Gau­dentes 1744; trans­lated on pg10–11, “Leon­hard Euler’s Elas­tic Curves”, Old­fa­ther et al 1933.↩︎

  14. pg194, Chap­ter 5, Good and Real:

    Con­sider a sim­ple ex­am­ple, pre­sum­ing that our uni­verse turns out to be de­ter­min­is­tic (or con­sider a sim­i­lar ex­am­ple set in a de­ter­min­is­tic al­ter­na­tive uni­verse). De­fine the pred­i­cate P to be true of the to­tal state of the uni­verse at a given mo­ment if and only if the suc­ces­sor state one bil­lion years thence-that is, the state de­fined by ap­ply­ing the (cor­rect) laws of physics to the given state to pre­dict the new state one bil­lion years lat­er-shows me with my right hand raised. Sup­pose, on a whim, I would like the state of the uni­verse one bil­lion years ago to have been such that the pred­i­cate P is true of that state. I need only raise my right hand now and voilà, it was so.

    Of course, I did not change what the dis­tan­t-past state of the uni­verse had been. The past is what it is and can never be changed. Fur­ther­more, I have no causal in­flu­ence over the past. Nonethe­less, phys­i­cal law (if de­ter­min­is­tic) ne­ces­si­tates that if I do in fact raise my right hand, P is in fact true of the state of the uni­verse a bil­lion years ago; or if I do lower it, P is false of that past state. Sup­pose, de­spite my want­ing P to have been true a bil­lion years ago, I forgo rais­ing my hand due to a be­lief that it would be fu­tile to act for the sake of some­thing past and un­al­ter­able. In that case, as al­ways with fa­tal­ist res­ig­na­tion, I would be need­lessly for­feit­ing an op­por­tu­nity for my goal to be achieved.

    The set of uni­verse-s­tates in which I do raise my hand is nec­es­sar­ily co­ex­ten­sive with the set of uni­verse-s­tates for which, in the state a bil­lion years pri­or, P was in fact true (in other words, those are two differ­ent de­scrip­tions of the same set of uni­verse-s­tates). I thus have ex­actly as much choice about that par­tic­u­lar as­pect of the past, de­spite its in­al­ter­abil­i­ty, as I have about whether to raise my hand now—de­spite the in­al­ter­abil­ity of that too in a de­ter­min­is­tic uni­verse. And, as ar­gued in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion, that much choice is choice enough.

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