'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.


Heptapod Physics

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


“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:


“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:


“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 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.


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.

  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 The Secret His­tory of Star Wars), 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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  15. , ↩︎