A Life in Time, My Story
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What about your divorce? The idea is not to delude yourself that bad things are actually good. It is, instead, to find meaning in the progression from one event to the next. It is to recognize that everything constantly changes. In your life, you will move from triumph to heartbreak to boredom and back again, sometimes in the space of a single day. What are you to make of so many emotions, so many events? Once upon a time, an year-old Frenchwoman named Sophie Serrano gave birth to a baby girl, who suffered from neonatal jaundice.
The baby spent her first days in an incubator under artificial light and was returned to her mother four days later. It was another 4-day-old with jaundice. The nurse had switched the babies by accident. Sophie named her daughter Manon. As she grew older, Manon looked nothing like her parents. She had darker skin and frizzy hair, and the neighbors started to gossip about her origins.
But Sophie never faltered. The nurse had explained that the artificial light used to treat jaundice could affect hair color. Even more, Sophie loved Manon. She knew the story of her life: I showed him how the logograms were rotated. He turned to look at the heptapods, impressed.
How to Tell Your Own Life Story
Is there anything like this in human writing systems? Mathematical equations …When a Heptapod B sentence grew fairly sizable, its visual impact was remarkable. And the biggest sentences had an effect similar to that of psychedelic posters: Yet this stroke was a single continuous line, and it was the first one that Flapper wrote.
That meant the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke. The other strokes in the sentence also traversed several clauses, making them so interconnected that none could be removed without redesigning the entire sentence. I had seen a similarly high degree of integration before in calligraphic designs, particularly those employing the Arabic alphabet. But those designs had required careful planning by expert calligraphers.
No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no human could.
Heptapod bodies and writing
The summer after my senior year in high school, I attended a total immersion program for learning Russian; by the end of the Summer, I was thinking and even dreaming in Russian. But it was always spoken Russian. Different language, same mode: The idea of thinking in a linguistic yet non-phonological mode always intrigued me.
I had a friend born of deaf parents; he grew up using American Sign Language, and he told me that he often thought in ASL instead of English. With Heptapod B, I was experiencing something just as foreign: As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully-formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once. Instead of racing forward, my mind hung balanced on the symmetry underlying the semagrams. The semagrams seemed to be something more than language; they were almost like mandalas.
I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no train of thought moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence…Looking at a sentence like this one, I understood why the heptapods had evolved a semasiographic writing system like Heptapod B; it was better suited for a species with a simultaneous mode of consciousness.
For them, speech was a bottleneck because it required that one word follow another sequentially. With writing, on the other hand, every mark on a page was visible simultaneously. Why constrain writing with a glottographic straitjacket, demanding that it be just as sequential as speech? It would never occur to them. They act to create the future, to enact chronology. Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future.
Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: With performative language, saying equaled doing. For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize.
Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place. Not simply to guess at it; was it possible to know what was going to happen, with absolute certainty and in specific detail? Gary once told me that the fundamental laws of physics were time-symmetric, that there was no physical difference between past and future. Given that, some might say, yes, theoretically. But speaking more concretely, most would answer no , because of free will.
I liked to imagine the objection as a Borgesian fabulation: Even though the text has been photoreduced from the full-sized edition, the volume is enormous. With magnifier in hand, she flips through the tissue-thin leaves until she locates the story of her life. The thought of doing just that had crossed her mind, but being a contrary sort, she now resolves to refrain from betting on the ponies altogether.
The Book of Ages cannot be wrong; this scenario is based on the premise that a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future. The result is a contradiction: How can these two facts be reconciled? A volume like the Book of Ages is a logical impossibility, for the precise reason that its existence would result in the above contradiction.
And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness. What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would? Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it.
Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the heptapods saw it. Two very different interpretations. The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available. When the ancestors of humans and heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness, they both perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the world-views that ultimately arose were the end result of that divergence.
Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all.
A minimizing, maximizing purpose. My mind was cast in the mold of human, sequential languages, and no amount of immersion in an alien language can completely reshape it. My world-view is an amalgam of human and heptapod. Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present.
It is the period during which I know Heptapod B well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with Flapper and Raspberry and ending with my death.
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Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive - during those glimpses - that entire epoch as a simultaneity.
Then, perhaps I could immerse myself fully in the necessity of events, as they must, instead of merely wading in its surf for the rest of my life. The message is one of acceptance and taking life as a whole, for both good and ill. There are many problems with the time-travel interpretation, which require assuming that much of the story is simply irrelevant technobabble, the symbolism is to be ignored, and that Chiang, a master of world building, failed to note the simplest implications which render his world internally incoherent:.
To quote one Wired editor , Dayrit: Can someone please explain? And why would the students ever be indifferent or bored? And if Louise is the only person capable of it, why is she special? A close read shows no examples of Louise acting in a way that requires knowledge of the future beyond ordinary cognition and creative license in recall:. Louise helps her daughter with game theory terminology. But she learns the term non-zero sum game before having her daughter, while working with the Heptapods:. Mom, what do you call it when both sides can win?
What, you mean a win-win situation? S scientists on our agenda with the heptapods. Gary said in mock incredulity. When both sides can win: We never did learn why the heptapods left, any more than we learned what brought them here, or why they acted the way they did. He and I will drive out together to perform the identification, a long silent car ride. I remember the morgue, all tile and stainless steel, the hum of refrigeration and smell of antiseptic.
An orderly will pull the sheet back to reveal your face. Louise has nightmares about bad things happening to her daughter and seeing her in the morgue, both before and after she dies. Your father is about to ask me the question. This is the most important moment in our lives, and I want to pay attention, note every detail. And then your dad says, Do you want to make a baby? I also think a lot about how it began, just a few years ago, when ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows…. All I will have left from this moment is the heptapod language.
So I pay close attention, and note every detail. From the beginning I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain? Will I achieve a minimum, or a maximum? These questions are in my mind when your father asks me, Do you want to make a baby?
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And I smile and answer, Yes , and I unwrap his arms from around me, and we hold hands as we walk inside to make love, to make you. Having learned to think like a Heptapod, the elderly Louise can easily think of the past as present and attempts to pin down her true temporal location by looking at the tense ignore that she is a temporally unreliable narrator the level of atemporal thinking increases through the story. As she tells us, during her post-Heptapod life, her thinking in Heptapod grows and over those decades, she becomes able to think of increasing stretches of her life as a single whole which she feels as present:.
With one fall, a sequence of life events suddenly snaps into place as a story with a beginning, an arc, and an end. Meaning is understood retroactively. The owl flies at dusk. A fictional example of this would be Paul Atreides in Dune Messiah , whose prescience allows him to see visions of the present and act despite being blind - but only as long as he executes the actions which bring about the vision, thereby keeping the visions reflective of reality; on the other hand, Paul always has the choice to break out of the vision, and eventually does so, so his situation is not fully analogous.
Chad Orzel asks, from this perspective, whether the use of variational principles really works to justify time-travel:. In the context of the story, this is presented as requiring knowledge of both the start and end points in advance. The thing is, when I try to think about the variational approach, this explanation ends up seeming a little arbitrary, in a manner similar to the ever-popular anthropic principle. You can use variational principles to calculate the optimal path between two points, but the choice of points is essentially arbitrary.
There are an infinite number of light rays emanating from point A that never pass through point B at all. If you know points A and B in advance, the variational calculus will give you all the points in between, which seems really impressive from point B. Which undercuts the whole premise of the story a little bit. Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks.
At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after they had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: The old man replied: I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain.
'Story Of Your Life' Is Not A Time-Travel Story
At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation. For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation? At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. I am emancipated , he said, paying homage with a deep bow.
I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform my funeral as a monk. The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk. No one was sick in the infirmary , wondered the monks. What does our teacher mean? After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation. The enlightened man is not subject. How can this answer make the monk a fox?
The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation. How can this answer make the fox emancipated? Controlled or not controlled?
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The same dice shows two faces. Not controlled or controlled, Both are a grievous error. Zen Master Unmon said: The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell? In a Zen temple the lives of the monks are well regulated. When the bell sounds, each puts on his robe and goes to the meditation hall.
There is an old saying that whatever comes in through the gates is foreign. The gates are the senses: If we decide, move, and act by the senses, we obey foreign commands. In response to our environment, we feel pressures, are easily upset, become nervous. This is one of the characteristics of modern life. The unenlightened one does things because he must do them; the enlightened one acts because he wants to.
Unmon points to the center. The enlightened is at one with the Book of Ages. What would it mean to think of everything in teleological terms? If you knew the future and felt a pressure to enact it by moving as something inside your mind predicts, you would be both free and bound, and you would read the Book of Ages without paradox: Whatever you do is what you were always going to choose to do, and by choosing, you make it so.
This is similar to points Drescher makes in Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics Physical events can run backwards or forwards, there is no inherent arrow of time. There are many in our time who possess the result of the whole of existence and do not know how to account for the slightest thing…It is quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backward.
But then one forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forward. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with temporal life never being able to be properly understood, precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest to adopt the position: Since the temporal and atemporal perspectives are equivalent, and make all the same predictions once the start and end points are fixed , we can conceive of psychologies different from our temporal perspective, as different from us as are octopuses or Portia spiders or animals or plants.
The present tells us about both the past and the future - a brain could try to understand the universe by taking the present and extrapolating forward, but it also can take the present and extrapolate backward. When we do the second, we call it memories and remembering: And when we do the second and extrapolate along the other direction, we call it predicting and planning , by extrapolating, based on the present state of the universe, what the world is like going another direction along the time dimension; often we are mistaken or ignorant, and the more so the further we go.
But they are the same thing: Since, therefore, two methods of studying effects in Nature lie open to us, one by means of effective causes, which is commonly called the direct method, the other by means of final causes, the mathematician uses each with equal success… Likewise, in the same way that you control the parts of the future by taking actions, you also control parts of the past.
In both cases, planning happens, actions are taken, the system learns, but the subjective experience is radically different: It always makes one a little giddy at first -. Alice repeated in great astonishment. I never heard of such a thing! What sort of things do you remember best? Alice ventured to ask. Oh, things that happened the week after next, the queen replied in a careless tone. Oh, oh, oh, oh! Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam engine that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears. What is the matter?
Have you pricked your finger? When I fasten my shawl again, the poor queen groaned out, the brooch will come undone directly. As she said the words, the brooch flew open, and the queen clutched wildly at it and tried to clasp it again. And she caught at the brooch, but it was too late: That accounts for the bleeding, you see, she said to Alice with a smile. Now you understand the way things happen here.
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Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again. What would be the good of having it all over again? We live, knowing we will die, but not how or when; we have children, knowing they too die, but not how or when; we read a story, knowing all stories end, but not how or when - all in the hope that in the end, it is worth it. Ted Chiang on Writing , Chiang Typically the first part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end.
Once I have the destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that. Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I write the rest of the story in almost random order. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just fill in backwards and forwards. How do you classify your writing? Science fiction is very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know.
When philosophers propose thought experiments as a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often sound a lot like science fiction.
A Study of Literary Judgment case-studies show that most readers are extremely sloppy and read into poems their preconceptions to an extent difficult to believe, in defiance of the plain text. I am your father. Another example is the movie version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz versus the original book: They are silver, and were changed to ruby for the movie to show up better in color film. The musical Wicked amusingly splits the difference by having a spell turn the silver shoes into the ruby slippers. I suspect more than a few people were looking up before replying or saw replies mentioning silver.
So the trivia question merits its reputation for difficulty - like with eyewitness testimony and memories, our memories are not so much true as they are truthy , we remember the last version we remembered or were told, and time gradually ensures that we remember what should have happened and not what did happen. Perhaps the slippers were indeed silver in the book, but how much less interesting than the ruby slippers, which they should have been… Appropriately, Ted Chiang has written a short story on this topic: The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.
For some of this background, see Terekhovich Many of your stories play with the implications of knowing the future. What fascinates you about the nature of Time? The question of free will.