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In the story, language is the key to understanding the heptapods, not only in what they are saying but in how they experience reality. Louise hypothesizes that the heptapods’ written language, Heptapod B, developed the way it did because of the heptapods’ unique biology. Rather than two eyes facing one direction, as humans have, the heptapods have seven eyes that ring all the way around their heads. Upon seeing this for the first time, Louise immediately begins to speculate as to how this might affect the heptapods’ worldview. However, it is only through grasping their language that Louise is able to confirm that heptapod biology has a profound effect on how they perceive the world. Louise makes the connection between the heptapods’ circumspect vision and the simultaneity of their language. This suggests that the way language develops is a function of any given intelligent being’s biology.
Moreover, Louise’s insights suggest language is the key to understanding how intelligent beings perceive reality. From a heptapod’s perspective, there is no “forward” and “backward,” because that is not how the heptapods physically move through the world. But the story suggests that this perception of physical reality also applies to how heptapods experience time. The way Heptapod B works reveals this perspective because concepts are presented as one complete picture. “Order” is a matter of perspective. What is most astonishing and unexpected to Louise is the way learning Heptapod B changes her own perspective. This suggests not only that perception is an outgrowth of any species’ biology but that the language a species develops in order to communicate that perspective has the power to provide that perspective to others. Language is thus a function of biology and also the key to new ways of thinking about and experiencing reality, as Louise experiences personally.
At the heart of “Story of Your Life” is the proposition that linguistics will be humanity’s most important tool in the event of contact with other forms of intelligent life. Many of the peripheral characters in the story focus on the “harder” sciences of physics and mathematics, but it turns out that the “softer” more interpretive science of linguistics is actually the key to progress. Louise uses linguistics to establish some basic ways of communicating with the heptapods, and this paves the way for the physicists to progress in their knowledge-sharing with the aliens. Once they can communicate, the scientists are able to determine that the heptapods understand and describe the same basic rules of physics that humans have observed about the universe. Louise’s linguistics has made the first steps in understanding the heptapods’ scientific ideas possible.
After this initial breakthrough, however, the physicists run into a roadblock. They observe that concepts which are extremely complex to humans are considered elementary to the heptapods. Confoundingly, the reverse is also true, as heptapods seem unable to grasp simple human algebra. This kind of inversion makes no sense to the physicists. Once again, Louise’s linguistics helps to shed light on the confusion. Through her work with Heptapod B, Louise gains insight into the heptapods’ perception of reality and discovers that heptapods think nonlinearly. This discovery helps explain why linear equations, as in algebra, don’t seem to register with the heptapods, whereas variational mathematics, which can describe nonlinear phenomena, makes perfect sense to them. In this way, Louise’s linguistics has led to the possibility of a much broader understanding of what the heptapods are doing and saying, for all parties involved. Louise’s contributions as a linguist suggest that should humans ever make contact with an extraterrestrial form of intelligent life, linguistics will be vitally important in making it a successful and mutually beneficial encounter.
“Story of Your Life” proposes the possibility that changing one’s perspective can change the way one perceives time, and that knowing the future is therefore possible. As Louise’s perspective changes, along with her perception of time, she begins to “remember” incidents in her daughter’s life, a daughter that has not been born yet. This is because Louise now perceives her life all at once, rather than linearly as a series of cause-and-effect events. Chiang presents this as a “realistic,” or at least believable way that a particularly intelligent being might know the future. But if a being can know the future, they might want to change it. The problem this raises is that if a person knows the future and acts to change that future, then that future wouldn’t exist. This fundamental contradiction often challenges writers of time-travel or time-altering science fiction. In Chiang’s work, he proposes an answer to this challenge through Louise’s experience with her daughter.
Importantly, Louise’s “memories” of the events of her future daughter’s life includes the tragic incident of her daughter’s untimely death at age 25. Surely if Louise knows her future daughter will die at 25, causing Louise untold amounts of pain and anguish, then Louise would make a decision in the present in order to alter that future. She might choose not to become pregnant in the first place, for example. But that would result in the aforementioned contradiction. As it turns out, Louise feels no need at all to alter the future, despite the sadness that lies there. This is because Louise’s version of seeing the future is like a semagram in Heptapod B. She sees all moments of her life as one complete picture, all at once. She cannot alter the future because the future, and the past, and the present, already exist simultaneously. Thus, Louise feels more that she is acting out her destiny and doing what feels right, rather than making choices that will cause her life to move in one direction or the other. Chiang’s suggestion here is a completely novel way to understand what “knowing the future” might look like. In this scenario, knowing the future must also mean not being able to change it, or not even wanting to.