As Dr. Louise Banks narrates the events of "Story of Your Life," she addresses her daughter, who has not been born yet. Dr. Banks knows that her daughter will exist and what will happen in her daughter's life—including her daughter's death at the age of 25. She is able to "remember" the future because she is fluent in Heptapod B, which requires a simultaneous consciousness (seeing events as all-at-once) rather than a sequential consciousness (seeing events as one-at-a-time or cause-and-effect). Dr. Banks wants to tell her daughter about the night she is conceived as well as all of the events that have led to that night—namely, that a race of aliens (called "heptapods") visit earth, and Dr. Banks is one of a group of linguists tasked with learning the heptapod language. However, she knows she will never get the chance to do so in person: "the right time to do that would be when you're ready to have children of your own, and we'll never get that chance" (91).
As Dr. Banks tells her daughter the story of her life, she reflects on the meaning of motherhood. She understands motherhood as a life-changing experience that completely shifts her understanding of herself. In this way, being a mother is similar to the experience of conducting linguistic fieldwork on the heptapods' language. She compares the experiences early in the story, when she tells her daughter that being called in to analyze heptapod language was one of the most momentous calls of her life, following the call in which she is notified that her daughter has passed away.
Dr. Banks also thinks about the differences between mothers and daughters. She reflects on how much power she will have on the events of her daughter's life: "What I'll think is that you are clearly, maddeningly not me. It will remind me, again, that you won't be a clone of me; you can be wonderful, a daily delight, but you won't be someone I could have created myself" (108). In fact, as her daughter grows, Dr. Banks seems more incredulous that the person her daughter is is the same person that she raised: "I'll be mute with amazement. I can't believe that you, a grown woman taller than me and beautiful enough to make my heart ache, will be the same girl I used to lift off the ground so you could reach the drinking fountain, the same girl who used to trundle out of my bedroom draped in a dress and hat and four scarves from my closet" (112).
Dr. Banks will not always have the tools at her disposal to be a perfect mother. In fact, she knows that the experience of raising her daughter—despite the fact that she knows the future—will make her feel like she is always a step behind: "Living with you will be like aiming for a moving target; you'll always be further along than I expect" (115). Dr. Banks will move forward and give birth to her daughter despite the fact that she knows her daughter will eventually die. She also knows that her daughter's death will cause her pain, as every pain her daughter experiences feels like her own: "It'll be when you first learn to walk that I get daily demonstrations of the asymmetry in our relationship. You'll be incessantly running off somewhere, and each time you walk into a door frame or scrape your knee, the pain feels like it's my own" (120). Dr. Banks describes motherhood as an experience of incredibly intimacy, in which her daughter feels like "an errant limb, an extension of myself whose sensory nerves report pain just fine, but whose motor nerves don't convey my commands at all" (120).
In the end, "Story of Your Life" is an evocative portrait of motherhood that shows motherhood to be a life-changing, at times frustrating, and incredibly intimate event.
In a 2010 interview, author Ted Chiang explicitly states that free will is a major theme in "Story of Your Life." He began writing the story by asking himself the question: "If you know what's going to happen, can you keep it from happening?" He continues by saying, "Even when a story says that you can't, the emotional impact arises from the feeling that you should be able to." In "Story of Your Life," Dr. Banks learns how to see the future; as a result, she knows that she will give birth to a daughter who will die from a rock-climbing accident when she is 25 years old. Thus, the "emotional impact" for both the reader and Dr. Banks is that she knows what will happen to her daughter but she does not change what will happen in the future.
The process by which Dr. Banks begins to see the future coincides with her fieldwork on heptapod language. As she becomes fluent in Heptapod B—the language that heptapods use to write—she also begins to see the world as heptapods do. As heptapods write, they "know how the entire sentence would be laid out before [they write] the very first stroke" (122). Their written language is unlike any human language: they employ "semagrams" ("Glossary") that have no spoken counterpart. Additionally, they do not separate individual words in a sentence; semagrams join together when writing sentences into one even-larger semagram. Fluent writers do not separate the sentence into words and instead, because they know how everything will be laid out, use a single line that is part of several different words at once. Dr. Banks marvels as she discovers this: "Comparing the initial stroke with the completed sentence, I realized that the stroke participated in several different clauses of the message. . . yet this stroke was a single continuous line" (122).
Understanding how heptapods write causes Dr. Banks to think about their "world-view," in other words, how they think and see the world. She begins to understand that heptapods see time as all-at-once (in the story, this point-of-view is described as both "simultaneous" and "teleological"; our human mode of processing things one at a time is referred to as "sequential" and "purposive"). She realizes that heptapods know the future. This, however, clashes with her understanding of "free will": "The existence of free will meant that we couldn't know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness" (132). In other words, it would be impossible to see the future as long as humans have free will. Changing one's actions as a result of knowing the future would change the future—a paradox.
Dr. Banks thinks of a potential solution to this problem: "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?" (132). In other words, there is the potential that knowing what happens in the future compiles you to make the choices that bring that future into fruition. She understands that this is true when she goes to the store and buys a bowl because she knows that one day it will fall on her daughter's head: "I reached out and took the bowl from the shelf. The motion didn't feel like something I was forced to do. Instead it seemed just as urgent as my rushing to catch the bowl when it falls on you: an instinct that I felt right in doing" (133).
As Dr. Banks makes the choices she is destined to make, her understanding of "free will" shifts. Her widened worldview causes her to understand that "free will" means different things in different contexts. In the human context, "free will" is salient because we have the power to choose the causes, without knowing the effects. However, in the heptapod context, "free will" is no longer meaningful: "The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don't act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods' mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history's events; it is also that their motives coincide with history's purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology" (137).
In the end, Dr. Bank's definition of "free" will has become meaningless, too, as she adopts the heptapod point-of-view. She knows what will come; nevertheless, she acts according to history's purposes. She also resolves to never share what she knows with anyone who does not share that worldview, because she does not intend to change 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" (137).
"The Story of Your Life" gives us a fictionalized version of a real-life scientific process: that of linguistic fieldwork. Even though Dr. Banks is studying a (literally) alien language, which contains no human equivalent and has never been spoken before on Earth, Dr. Banks employs the same methods she would use when studying a human language. In fact, she draws from her experience with human linguistic fieldwork to inform her study of the heptapods: "I'd done plenty of fieldwork before, in the Amazon, but it had always been a bilingual procedure: either my informants used some Portuguese, which I could use, or I'd previously gotten an intro into their language from local missionaries. This would be my first attempt at conducting a true monolingual discovery procedure. It was straightforward enough in theory, though" (97).
Dr. Banks knows from experience that the only way to conduct fieldwork on (i.e. learn and study) a new language is to "interact with a native speaker" (94). She is able to communicate with two heptapods, who she nicknames Raspberry and Flapper, through a heptapod "looking-glass." Eventually, she starts to learn the heptapods' language, taking note of the properties that define the spoken language, Heptapod A, and the written language, Heptapod B. As she learns, she realizes that she must employ terminology that never had been used before, including "semagram," the word that she uses to describe the Heptapod B unit of writing (i.e. our 'word'). She informs the rest of the scientific community of her findings: "In the next report I submitted, I suggested that the term 'logogram' was a misnomer because it implied that each graph represented a spoken word, when in fact that graphs don't correspond to our notion of spoken words at all...I suggested the term 'semagram' instead" (112).
As Dr. Banks learns the rules that govern each language, she records the rules that she finds and shares her findings with the rest of the linguistic community. She is part of a large team of linguists who are pooling their findings—having such a large amount of data allows them to find patterns more easily and determine the language's rules. The linguists work together to learn about Heptapod A and Heptapod B: "[T]he linguists were having much more success. We made steady progress decoding the grammar of the spoken language, Heptapod A. It didn't follow the pattern of human languages, as expected, but it was comprehensible so far . . . Peculiar, but not impenetrable" (112-3).
The rules that govern the written language, Heptapod B, are much more foreign. Despite this, however, Dr. Banks is able to become fluent in Heptapod B. This process is painstaking at first. Her first semagrams "looked misshapen, like a heptapod-written sentence that had been smashed with a hamper and then inexpertly taped back together" (115). However, her writing comes more smoothly the more that she practices. What it takes for Dr. Banks to learn Heptapod B mirrors linguistic work in human languages. Fieldwork requires many hours of observation and practice. Dr. Banks describes her hard work: "I practiced Heptapod B at every opportunity, both with the other linguists and by myself" (129). Eventually, her hard work pays off and she begins to make progress: "over time, the sentences I wrote became shapelier, more cohesive...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" (126).
Eventually, Dr. Banks becomes fluent in Heptapod B. As a result, she realizes that her fluency in Heptapod B has changed the way that she thinks—she can now see the future. Because she intimately knows how Heptapod B works, she is able to think critically and make inferences about why it formed the way it did. She begins to understand that Heptapod B is written all at once because heptapods see time all at once: "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" (135). Additionally, she is able to understand more about Heptapod A (the spoken language) grammar: "And now that Heptapod B had introduced me to a simultaneous mode of consciousness, I understood the rationale behind Heptapod A's grammar: what my sequential mind had perceived as unnecessarily convoluted, I now recognized as an attempt to provide flexibility within the confines of sequential speech" (135).
"The Story of Your Life" demonstrates the importance of teamwork to achieving incredible feats. By the end of the story, the teams of scientists and linguists understand heptapod language and physics as a result of a tremendous collective effort. Dr. Banks's partner throughout the text is physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly. Dr. Donnelly helps Dr. Banks come to many of her discoveries throughout the text. They work together to understand the way that heptapods think—Dr. Banks through the linguistic side of things, Dr. Donnelly through the scientific and physical world. Dr. Donnelly also helps Dr. Banks with some of her linguistic work, particularly when he acts out verbs so that Dr. Banks can record the heptapod translation of the word (page 104).
At the looking glasses, everything is a collective effort. Working alongside the scientists and linguists are government agents, who supervise their progress: "Everything Gary and I did would be reviewed by countless others, including military intelligence. In addition, we would each send daily reports of which mine had to include estimates on how much English I thought the aliens could understand" (96). Additionally, Dr. Banks meets frequently with the other linguists so that they can stay on the same page: "I and the linguists at the other looking glasses met via videoconferencing to share what we had learned about the heptapod language" (106). At the same time, the scientists began trying to understand heptapod physics and mathematics: "As time went on, the teams at each looking glass began working in earnest on learning heptapod terminology for elementary mathematics and physics. We worked together on presentations, with the linguists focusing on procedure and the physicists focusing on subject matter" (113).
Additionally, teamwork is inherent to linguistic discovery. Dr. Banks emphasizes to Colonel Weber the importance of collaboration when making linguistic discovery: "I tried to break it to him gently. 'That's your call, of course. But the only way to learn an unknown language is to interact with a native speaker, and by that I mean asking questions, holding a conversation, that sort of thing. Without that, it's simply not possible" (94). Luckily, the heptapods were willing to collaborate with humans: "To be fair, the heptapods were completely cooperative. In the days that followed, they readily taught us their language without requiring us to teach them any more English" (106).
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.