Story of Your Life Summary
“Story of Your Life” is a 1998 novella by Ted Chiang about Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist studying a pair of aliens known as heptapods who have come to earth.
- Louise tells her daughter the story of her study of the heptapods’ oral and written languages.
- Louise begins to perceive reality teleologically and nonlinearly, as the heptapods do, granting her knowledge of the future.
- It is revealed that the daughter Louise is addressing is not yet born. Louise knows that her daughter will die young but, glimpsing the joy of her brief life, decides to have her anyway.
Last Updated on December 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1330
The narrator and protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, seems to be recounting to her daughter the story of the latter’s conception. As she recalls, Louise and her husband have been married for two years when he asks her if she wants to have a child with him. However, Louise tells her daughter that the story of her conception began not with this question but with the sudden arrival of alien ships in Earth’s orbit.
From here on, Louise’s narrative intercuts between the events following the alien visit and vignettes of her daughter’s life. As intergalactic artifacts from the alien ships begin to appear on the ground, Louise gets a call from Colonel Weber, a military official, requesting a meeting. When she meets Colonel Weber and physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly, she learns they want her to decode a sound recorded from the aliens. However, Louise tells Gary and Weber that in order to decipher the sounds of an unknown language, she needs to meet the creatures who produced them.
According to Louise, the call from Weber would be the second most important phone call in her life. The first will be the emergency phone-in from Mountain Rescue. Soon after that call, Louise and her daughter’s father, from whom she is now divorced, will drive up in silence to a morgue to identify a body. The body will belong to her daughter, only twenty-five at the time of her death. The narrative now seems to suggest Louise is writing a bittersweet ode to the daughter she lost.
Soon after her meeting with Weber, Louise and Gary are assigned to an army encampment, one of 112 such sites in the world. The technologically equipped encampments surround the alien artifacts, which are nicknamed “looking glasses” and surveilled by the military. Louise and Gary’s job is to use spectrographs and other sound-recording equipment to communicate with the aliens and learn the reasons behind their visit to Earth.
As Louise and Gary approach the looking glass, the activated screen begins to resemble a three-dimensional diorama of an empty room. Soon, a pair of seven-eyed aliens appear in the room, their bodies like barrels suspended at the intersection of seven limbs. The creatures are radially symmetrical, which means any of their limbs can serve as an arm or a leg. Gary terms them “heptapods.”
Louise begins to communicate with the heptapods with a combination of sound and gesture, saying “human” when pointing to herself. She is delighted when a heptapod points to itself in response and makes a fluttering sound, which Louise records on the spectrograph. The heptapods clearly have distinct speech, which Louise names “Heptapod A.”
Colonel Weber is unimpressed with what he considers the slow progress of the academics. Yet he allows Louise to set up a digital video camera and a large screen in the tent so she can also elicit the written language of the heptapods, which she assumes they likely possess, given their technological sophistication.
Louise displays a printed word on a computer screen while saying it aloud to the heptapods in order to draw a written response from them. The experiment works, with the heptapods setting up a small circular screen on a pedestal in their room, inserting a limb into a large socket on the pedestal, and creating a doodle. Initially, Louise infers that the heptapod written language, which she calls “Heptapod B,” is logographic, or based on a system where a sign depicts an entire word, rather than alphabetic or letter-based, like English. Louise dubs the heptapods “Flapper” and “Raspberry.”
As Louise and Gary delve further into Heptapod B, Louise discovers that unlike what she had earlier assumed, the doodles are not logograms but a cluster of words. Further, much like the bodies of the heptapods, their writing is radially symmetrical and can be rotated and read from any angle. Even changing one symbol of a word cluster in Heptapod B can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Louise now begins to think of Heptapod B as a form of intricate graphic design.
Meanwhile, Louise remembers that her daughter will be willful and, unlike Louise, physically adventurous. Just like Louise’s own mother could not fathom Louise’s career choices, Louise will struggle to understand why her daughter wants to be a financial analyst. Yet, Louise is content that “you’ll do what makes you happy, and that’ll be all I ask for.”
In the first of two important breakthroughs, Louise realizes that Heptapod B is a “semasiographic writing system.” In other words, it is a system of writing not based on speech at all. Most human writing, on the other hand, is “glottographic,” or based on speech sounds. Louise tells Gary that the closest human analog to a semasiographic system would be mathematical equations and music notations. Gary surprises Louise by asking her out on a date.
Louise achieves her second breakthrough after applying Gary’s explanation of Fermat’s principle of least time to the acquisition of Heptapod B. According to Fermat’s principle, the route that a light ray takes is always the fastest one. Louise observes that the fastest possible path can theoretically only be computed if light somehow “knows” its end destination beforehand. She begins to observe a similar computational intelligence in how the heptapods write. The heptapods write their enormous, complex, mandala-like sentences in one movement, almost as if they knew everything they wanted to write before the first stroke. The speech of the heptapods is simpler than their written language, simply because speech is more sequential than writing and cannot convey at once all that the heptapods want to communicate.
Louise’s relationship with Gary turns romantic. As she studies and practices the semasiographic writing of the heptapods, she begins to develop a facility for semasiographic thought. Instead of hearing language and thoughts, as humans do, Louise can now sometimes see semagrams with her mind’s eye. Further, many thoughts and memories appear in her mind at the same time. Louise has the epiphany that for the heptapods to write the way they do, they need to know the effects of an action before initiating its cause. She herself is beginning to see the effects of her own actions before she undertakes them. Like the heptapods, Louise can now glimpse her future.
Meanwhile, the army initiates a gift-exchange program with the heptapods, hoping to gain unknown, advanced technology from them. The heptapods cooperate, but Louise senses that the cooperation is a performative gesture, since the heptapods already know the outcome of their visit. After the last in a series of gift exchanges, the heptapods depart abruptly, leaving behind only their screens, which turn out to be mere sheets of silica. No one will ever learn why they visited Earth. Even the technology they provide in the exchange will turn out to be redundant. Louise will not learn any more about heptapod existence than she did during their time on earth.
All she knows is that the heptapods’ visit changed her life. It is because of them she met her daughter’s father, who is revealed to be Gary. At this point, it becomes clear that Louise’s memories of her daughter are all actually future memories. In the present, Louise is still at the moment when Gary asks her if she wants to have a child with him. Experiencing reality as a heptapod, Louise is viewing time as spatial, rather than linear. Louise decides that language and existence can be read in two ways, both equally valid: causal and teleological. For human language and existence, reality is a chain of cause and effect. For heptapods, who can see ends and beginnings together, the goal determines its preceding action. Because both modes are ways of experiencing the same reality, Louise makes the bittersweet choice of becoming the mother of a daughter she will lose and says yes to Gary’s question in the present moment.
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