The request for that meeting was perhaps the second most momentous phone call in my life. The first, of course, will be the one from Mountain Rescue.
In "Story of Your Life," the narrator, Dr. Louise Banks, describes two defining moments of her life: the first, being asked by the US government to study an alien race, "heptapods," that is visiting Earth, and the second, the birth of her daughter, to whom the letter is addressed. As Dr. Banks becomes fluent in the heptapod writing system, Heptapod B, she begins seeing the world as heptapods do. This gives her an ability to see time all-at-once, which means she can remember the future as well as the past. For this reason, she can write about her daughter's life before it happens.
Interestingly, even though Dr. Banks can now see time all-at-once, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the two most important moments in Dr. Bank's life. If Dr. Banks hadn't gone to study the heptapods, she would never have met Dr. Gary Donnelly, who she ends up marrying and having her daughter with. If she never had given birth, her daughter would have never died in a rock climbing accident and received the call from Mountain Rescue.
It looked like a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs. It was radially symmetric, and any of its limbs could serve as an arm or a leg. The one in front of me was walking around on four legs, three non-adjacent arms curled up at its sides. Gary called them 'heptaopds.'
In this passage, Dr. Banks is describing the physical appearance of a heptapod. They are built in a radially symmetric manner, meaning that all of their parts are symmetric around a central point. They have seven limbs, which leads to the scientist's naming them "heptapods." Even though these beings are unlike anything that has evolved on earth, they are not completely unrecognizable: they have limbs, which they use for mobility and to use tools, they have eyes, from which they see, and they have mouths for eating and speaking.
I went to the chalkboard and drew a circle with a diagonal line bisecting it. "What does this mean?'"
"Right." Next I pointed to the words NOT ALLOWED on the chalkboard. 'And so does this. But only one is a representation of speech.
In this passage, Dr. Banks is describing how Heptapod B works and why it is a different language from Heptapod A. In every language on earth, the writing system is based on the spoken language. Some written languages use the phonetic sounds of words and an alphabetic language for their writing system, such as English, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, etc. Some languages use characters or "logograms" that stand for full words, such as Chinese characters. However, the heptapod writing language has no spoken counterpart. It relates to the spoken language, Heptapod A, as much as a circle with a line through it relates to our language, as Dr. Banks describes above.
Conversely, to define attributes that humans thought of as fundamental, like velocity, the heptapods employed mathematics that were, Gary assured me, "highly weird." The physicists were ultimately able to prove the equivalence of heptapod mathematics and human mathematics: even though their approaches were almost the reverse of one another, both were systems of describing the same physical universe.
The passage above compares heptapod laws of physics and mathematics to human ones. As Dr. Banks describes, concepts that come intuitively to humans are quite difficult for heptapods. In contrast, the concepts that come intuitively to heptapods (such as Fermat's Principle of Least Time—see the "Summary and Analysis" section) are hard to grasp for humans. This is because of the different ways that heptapods and humans see the world. Heptapods see time all at once; they have a simultaneous or teleological mode of consciousness. For them, it is easier to understand variational principles and calculus. Humans have a sequential and causal mode of consciousness. For us, it is easier to understand principles that describe the physical world as organized by cause and effect (i.e. velocity is mass times speed). Despite this, in the end, heptapods and humans are using their mathematics to describe the laws of the same universe and every human-invented scientific concept has a heptapod equivalent.
Over time, the sentences I wrote grew shapelier, more cohesive. I had reached the point where it worked better when I didn't think about it too much. Instead of carefully trying to design a sentence before writing, I could simply begin putting down strokes immediately; my initial strokes almost always turned out to be compatible with an elegant rendition of what I was trying to say. I was developing a faculty like that of the heptapods. More interesting was the fact that Heptapod B was changing the way I thought.
In the passage above, Dr. Banks describes becoming fluent in Heptapod B. At first, she struggles with writing in Heptapod B, especially because it is completely unlike any human language and requires a conceptual shift (namely: being able to see things teleologically or all at once). However, after many hours of practice and hard work, she begins to get the hang of Heptapod B and she starts to write the same way that heptapods wrote—by knowing what is going to be written before it is put on the page. This passage also sets us up for the coming revelation that Dr. Banks can see the future as a result of her fluency in Heptapod B.
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: those who know the future don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never admit to it.
This passage is the first line in "Story of Your Life" that explicitly reveals Louise's ability to see the future. Once she attains this elusive knowledge, her understanding of "freedom" and "free will" change forever. Whereas in the human mindset "free will" has meaning because we use volition every day, in the heptapod mindset "free will" is almost meaningless. Instead, Dr. Banks prioritizes the determined future; knowing what will happen makes her feel a compulsion to act out her future in exactly the way she knows it will. Because it is important to her to preserve the future, she will tell no one what she knows—even if it means that her daughter will eventually die.
The curtain was about to fall on this act of our performance.
In this scene, Dr. Banks and the other scientists are communicating with the heptapods when the aliens simply leave, never to return. Throughout the scene, Dr. Banks feels like she's an actress giving a performance with scripted lines (since, through her knowledge of the future, she already knows what she's going to say). This perception pervades the prose, and it is especially evident in this line, where Dr. Banks compares the alien's departure to a curtain dropping at the end of a performance. Dr. Banks does not question why she must say these things, nor does she fight back against what has been predestined for her. Instead, she helps them run smoothly, helping along the larger purpose of history, as she knows is meant to happen.
Story of Your Life Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Story of Your Life is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.