Our brains are wired to think chronologically. In Ted Chiang’s sci-fi novella, “The Story of Your Life,” however, some fictional extraterrestrial aliens that belong to a species categorized as “heptapods” are wired to only think holistically. In his story, Chiang demonstrates an unprecedented method of storytelling by incorporating these two distinct modes of thinking into a comprehensible story.
At first glance, the story may appear confusing and even incoherent as it alternates between two seemingly unrelated plots in a non-chronological order; the narrator begins by talking to her unborn child before suddenly detailing her encounter with aliens from outer space. As the story progresses, however, the two independent plots gradually converge into one whole story, illustrating the effect of the heptapods’ holistic approach to language.
From the beginning, the narrator seems omniscient of the past, present, and future. While recounting her past experience that led her to the present, the narrator constantly expects and fears the tragic fate of her unborn daughter. She refers to her daughter in the second person, detailing extremely specific events and dialogue that are expected to take place in the future; for instance, she reveals that her daughter will die in an accident while mountain climbing. The protagonist follows an illogical timeline of her future daughter’s life by constantly shifting between different time periods.
Concurrently, the narrator describes her intensive study of the heptapods and their language. Through her interactions with the heptapods, she discovers that the heptapods have an entirely different way of perceiving events; rather than thinking sequentially, they think comprehensively. In other words, they integrate events by not considering them independently but by contextualizing them as smaller parts belonging to a broader context.
“It’s a history of the idea that there could be a language which is perfectly unambiguous and can perfectly describe everything,” said Ted Chiang in an interview conducted by the New Yorker. “At one point, it was believed that this was the language spoken by angels in Heaven, or the language spoken by Adam in Eden. Later on, there were attempts by philosophers to create a perfect language.”
Chiang adds that no such language exists but that the abstract idea appealed to him nonetheless. Chiang’s story portrays the power of language in a unique manner. Once the reader realizes that the story itself is a manifestation of the heptapods’ mode of thinking, the reader may comprehend the parallel plots simultaneously, elucidating the heptapods’ mode of thinking.
When I first encountered this story, I was completely lost, not being able to recognize Chiang’s intricate method of storytelling. By the end of the story, however, I was surprised by the level of sophistication in the novella—everything made perfect sense from a holistic view.
“The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang can be found here. Enjoy!