Blending Concepts In The Story of Your Life: A Book Review

Nearly everyone knows about or has seen the movie Arrival (2016) in which linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when alien spaceships land around the world, to try and decipher their language. A lesser known fact is that the movie is based on the novella by Ted Chiang, called Story of Your Life. It blends the knowledge of linguistics and physics to pose a few philosophical questions: How do we perceive life and its meaning when we can predict the future? What happens when we know that none of our actions can alter it? Does it mean that our happiness in life relies only on the process? Does it mean that we cannot enjoy our achievements because we already know the results?   

Linguistics and Physics 

Linguistics professor Louise Bank is invited by the government to decode the alien’s language in order to comprehend the aims of their invasion on earth. Although there is a high engagement with the aliens (called heptapods) in the text, the author does not mention the motif of their landing on earth. In other words, instead of exploring their impact on the earth or the significance of their landing to the human race, the story switches the lens of focus to the identification of their language. Thus, the scope of the story is narrowed to signify the theme that the author intends to demonstrate. 

The core idea of the story is formed by the theories in the fields of linguistic and physics. In this sense, the integration of theories would be seen as a substantial element to develop the plot, which highlights the theme and becomes the essential codes for the readers to interpret the story.  

Emotional or Logical? 

There may be some stereotypical perceptions about science fiction. One of these is that its language is often emotionless. However, reading Story of Your Life would break such a stereotype. If you are a reader who would enjoy having emotional rides and at the same time expect scientific knowledge from the text, this might be the story you are looking for. The story is divided into two parallels. On one hand we have the predictions of Louise to her daughter, and on the other- how Louise deciphers the alien’s language. The former creates a heart-warming tone while the latter is mainly filled with scientific facts. These two segments do not directly interact with each other. They are exchanged chapter by chapter, providing different angles to approach the story. Both sensible and melancholic ambiances  are, therefore, constructed in the story. 

Process or Outcome?  

The story is underlined by the famous linguistic theory by Sapir-Whorf: linguistic relativity, meaning that language can determine thoughts. The system of the heptapod language is non linear and asymmetrical. As such, after Louise acquires the usage of their language, she is able to predict the future as her perception of time becomes nonlinear like the structure of the language, prompting her to live in different timelines. Let’s think about how this would change her.  As a reader, this made me wonder about the meaning of life.  When we can see the paths created by every choice in our life, as though everything is deemed in a certain way, this could restrict our desires to fulfill the goals and limit our capabilities to live in the moment. This brings us to the question: the process and the outcome, which one should be regarded as underpinning the fundamental values of living?  

We often evaluate the value of our life based on our achievements. But it seems that meaning is suspended in the route of the journey and that it lies within the process. Thus reaffirming that our life is shaped by our experiences and memories.

Free Will or Determinism? 

Story of Your Life presents the concepts of free will and determinism. Free will can be defined as the ability to make choices in life, denying the existence of destiny. On the contrary, determinism means that our fates have been established, even our choices are determined by it. In the story, Louise follows the routine she sees in her predictions, leading to the foreshadowed ending. It brings out the author’s belief in determinism, thinking of fate as a fixed and unbreakable circle that is linked by different events. However, as readers, we could develop a deeper thinking regarding this belief. Is it her ways of following those events that lead to the final outcome? Or are those actions of pursuing the events also determined? Does free will exist or is it just an illusion? 

Humanity and Science 

Whilst it certainly is a well written story according to me, some flaws can be perceived. It merely presents an idea,  many parts of the plot are not elaborated. There are a lot of unanswered questions left behind. For example, at the end of the story, the heptapods leave the earth without further explanation. Perhaps it is Chiang’s intention to divert the readers’ attention to his ideas rather than the details of the story. But in my opinion, the story would be more complete if such gaps were filled. 

Despite that, it is an enjoyable story that incorporates and blends the concepts of humanity and science. The story fascinated me, and as a science fiction lover, it was great to see a depiction of the genre which did not limit itself to science only. It stretches toward the exploration of emotion and philosophy.

The story of Louise’s life, the story of her daughter’s life, the story of their life. They are intertwined like a circle, there is neither a start nor an end. Its as though everything has already been deemed. To me, reading  Story of Your Life was just like looking at such a circle. It was like circulating sentiment and science around my head again and again. 

By Koo Hui Ru  

a perpetually sleepy, poetically inclined peanut

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