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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The plot of “Story of Your Life” revolves around communication and suggests the many ways that communication is a powerful tool. At its core, communication is about transferring ideas from one mind to another. One of the tools for accomplishing this is language. Thus, when the military and other scientists want to learn what the heptapods know, they call upon linguists like Louise to try and develop a common language between the two species. This effort to understand and communicate with the heptapods forms the central conflict in the story and highlights the tremendous power of communication. With communication, humans might learn where the heptapods came from, why they left, and how they got to earth. This knowledge could potentially fuel an explosion in technological advancement for the human species. Without communication, however, none of this could happen. More ominously, without communication, the two species might misunderstand one another’s actions, which could result in conflict or war. Humanity’s encounter with the heptapods shows that communication holds the key to either prosperity and advancement, or stagnation and misery.
“Story of Your Life” also hints at the subtler and deeper powers of communication. When Louise becomes proficient at communicating in Heptapod B, she learns something new about the very nature of communication. She learns that communicating ideas in a linear fashion, as humans do by putting characters, words, and phrases in a particular order, is not the only way to communicate. In Heptapod B, the order does not matter, and this revelation completely changes Louise’s way of thinking. It opens Louise’s mind to novel ways of conceptualizing the world and even allows her to experience time differently. Louise’s astonishing development implies that the act of communicating and learning new ways to communicate can unlock new worlds of perception.
Relativity, or the comparison of one thing to another, is the mechanism by which humans in the story learn about the heptapods and themselves. At the outset of Louise’s looking glass sessions, Louise uses comparative analysis to try and establish some common ground with the heptapods. Louise compares human sounds with heptapod sounds, heptapod sounds with their written counterparts, and other human language and writing systems with that of the heptapods. This comparative analysis is the only way to ultimately understand what the heptapods are saying, but understanding their worldview is more difficult. When Gary explains Fermat’s Law of Least Time, he does not understand why the heptapods find the concept so elementary. But Louise is able to understand what may be happening by comparing heptapod to human. By comparing human biology and the mode of perception that stems from it with heptapod biology and their resulting mode of perception, Louise concludes that heptapods think nonlinearly. The heptapods thus understand variational principles like Fermat’s Law better than linear ones like algebra.
The same mechanism of relativity is at play in the heptapods’ reason for visiting earth and the profound effect they have on people like Louise. The heptapods maintain that they are here “to observe,” and nothing more. No matter what the humans try they cannot get any clearer an answer than that. The heptapods evidently believe that their mere presence and interaction with humans is important somehow. Louise’s perception-altering experience with the heptapods provides a clue as to why the heptapods feel their presence on earth is important. By simply presenting themselves before the humans and showing humanity what a completely different kind of intelligent creature looks, acts, and thinks like, the heptapods spur an evolution in human perception. This evolution would not be possible if the heptapods had not provided a basis of comparison with their presence. It is through learning about another intelligent species that human beings are able to compare and thus learn more about themselves, and, like Louise, evolve.
The scientists’ work with the heptapods reveals both the power and limitations of the human mind. On the one hand, humans have developed a tremendous level of scientific awareness and technological advancement. The concepts humans have developed regarding the way the universe works don’t appear to be very different from the heptapods’, who are much more technologically advanced. This suggests an awesome power: the ability of the human mind, infinitesimally tiny compared to the cosmos, to understand the rules that govern the universe. Despite not having tools as advanced as the heptapods have at their disposal, humans are able to successfully communicate with the heptapods using nothing but their own powers of reasoning and problem-solving.
However, the presence of the heptapods also reveals the human mind’s limitations. Unlike the heptapods, human thinking is necessarily linear, based on their biology and indicated by their language. This linear perception of their place in the universe causes humans to be trapped in the present. Being stuck in the present moment in turn renders humans results-oriented, and narrow in their thinking, as represented by Colonel Weber. He can’t conceive of the heptapods actually meaning it when they say they aren’t here to “get” anything. His narrow-minded thinking causes him to take a defensive position towards the aliens, which initially impedes progress. Louise is able to break with this linear way of thinking, but only to a certain extent. She gets glimpses, in the form of her “memories” of the future, but her human mind is simply too limited to get the full picture. The truly circumspect perspective of the heptapod remains a mystery because of the human mind’s inherent limitations.