Author: Ted Chiang
Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine, December 2012 (originally published in the Starlight 2 anthology edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden)
I am yet to read a Ted Chiang story I haven’t loved. I often long for him to be more prolific than the one novelette that finds its way into an anthology every two years, but perhaps it is his sparse writing that makes each story so special.
I have read the various stories mostly from anthologies, not from his collection Stories of Your Life and Others, published by Tor in 2002. I don’t believe Ted Chiang is best read one story after the next, but rather one at a time to let the deep themes sink in deep.
The December 2012 issue of Lightspeed magazine featured one of Chiang’s greatest novellas, Story of Your Life, and I decided to give it another read. The premise of the story is that a young linguist by the name of Dr. Louise Banks is enlisted by the government to try and make sense of the language of an alien species, who have just made contact with Earth. The aliens are nothing like humans, being radially symmetrical with seven legs, a breathing hole on top of its body, and a mouth below.
The aliens communicate both orally and hieroglyphically, using a form of icons that cannot be read sequentially — only absorbed as an entire hole. The very first stroke of the first symbol interacts with everything else that the alien language is trying to communicate. The format of their language is crucial to the story because it aligns with how the heptapods view time as a whole.
From the beginning words of the novella, we learn that Louise has adapted to their language and as a consequence is able to foresee her future, experiencing marriage, divorce, the birth of a daughter, and her tragic and untimely death. Two parallel threads interweave throughout the narrative. The first being chronological as she tries to communicate with the heptapods; the second being somewhat, but not exclusively, told reverse-chronologically, speaking to her daughter in the future tense from death until life.
For anyone looking to introduce themselves to Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life is the perfect place to start. Time and fate versus free-will are concepts that are difficult to grasp and Ted Chiang explores them in such a fascinating way. He draws on Fermat’s principle of least time to explain how light itself defies the chronology of time and shows how we make the same decisions even if we know that our future will be filled with pain. This is a theme that is explored later by Chiang in another fantastic novella, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.
Even though Ted Chiang is yet to pen a novel and has but a dozen short stories to his name, he will go down as one of the great speculative fiction writers. Like Gene Wolfe, his writing is insightful and filled with puzzles. His grasp and application of metaphysical themes make each story a delight to read. If you haven’t read Story of Your Life, please go read it now.