Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review of Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

It is one thing to understand an idea and internalize it; but it is another to be able to relate that idea through the most practical examples to another person.  This is the mark of an intelligent person, this is the mark of a good teacher, and for the majority of purposes, this is the mark of a good writer.  Ted Chiang’s 1998 Story of Your Life does all of this, and goes one step further.  Utilizing a fundamental theory of physics, the novella is an alternate perspective on the universe through very human eyes.

Story of Your Life is the story of Dr. Louise Banks, one of the world’s leading philologists.  Aliens having arrived in orbit above Earth and sent communicator devices cascading to various regions, at the outset of the story she is asked by the military to study and learn the heptapods’ language so that humanity might be able to communicate with the seven-eyed, seven-legged creatures.  Interwoven into the story of alien contact are flashbacks to Banks’ past, particularly the daughter she raised to adulthood but who died mountain climbing at age twenty-five.  Chiang paralleling Banks’ present and past in sublime fashion, the resolution of the doctor’s story is touching.

Story of Your Life is able to do something the extreme majority of the genre cannot: wholly synthesize hard and soft science fiction.  Though the science part of Banks’ contact with the heptapods is predominantly linguistic theory, in order to understand the spluttering creatures, knowledge of their understanding of physics is likewise required.  Utilizing Fermat’s principle of least time, the novella is both in the tradition of physics-driven sci-fi (Larry Niven, Gregory Benford, etc.), as well as such novels as Samuel Delany’s Babel-17, China Mieville's Embassytown, or Ian Watson’s The Embedding which use linguistic theory as their main concepts.  That Chiang is able integrate the physics and language details into not only the behavior and language of the heptapods, but also Banks’ perspective on life likewise places the novel firmly in the territory of writers like Ursula Le Guin and C.J. Cherryh. 

Hiding beneath all of this, however, is the ultimate message of the novella.  Vaguely hinted at in the title, there is a certain sense of fatalism, of accepting the idiosyncrasies life deals to individuals, and in response, to appreciate what you have and to live life to its fullest for you never know what will come.  Shades of Daoism evident to this idea (unsurprising considering the style of ideographic writing the heptapods use and Chiang’s own cultural background), there is a strong philosophical undercurrent to the story, making for interesting reading.

In the end, Story of Your Life is high quality fiction, no matter whether viewed as hard or soft science fiction, or just fiction in general.  Physics and linguistic theory are used to drive an attitude regarding determinism, but the story remains human to the core.  The story of Banks, her colleague Gary, and her daughter Maxine engage the emotional as well as rational aspects of literature and the reader.  I suppose their may be no greater compliment to a piece of writing than that. 

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