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‘Story Of Your Life’ Is Not A Time-Travel Story (gwern.net)
136 points by barry-cotter on Feb 21, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 90 comments



"Story of Your Life" is horror, about a memetic virus that turns humans into p-zombies. The aliens are infected, and following the meme they infect the main character, who goes on to infect others. Consciousness is impossible unless remembering the future is more difficult than remembering the past, because remembering the future depends on calculations on the state of the entire universe instead of just your own brain, which implies that the psychedelic experience of "everything is one" is literally true. Louise is not human and she is an existential threat to humanity.

The story of the remaining humans fighting back would be much more interesting. How can you defeat an enemy where learning too much about it makes you automatically lose? I read a story with a similar concept: https://archiveofourown.org/works/6178036


"The story of the remaining humans fighting back would be much more interesting. How can you defeat an enemy where learning too much about it makes you automatically lose?"

See the stories under the heading "There Is No Antimemetics Division (2015)": http://www.scp-wiki.net/qntm-s-author-page

It's part of a larger universe, but I think it suffices to point out that in the larger fictional universe in question, the organization that the website is told from the point of has ready and established access to drugs called "amnestics", which can wipe memories in much the same style as the Men in Black. The rest you can probably work out.


For what it's worth, 'amnestic' is a real class of drugs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug-induced_amnesia), although, as far as I know, they only prevent the formation of future memories, rather than erasing past ones. I've always found it deeply creepy that I once had a painful surgical procedure in which I experienced the pain, but I can't remember it.


Interesting (playful) theory. But how do you define consciousness? It might be hard to know whether a living being that's not you is truly conscious or a p-zombie, but in this case we have privileged information: we are not merely observing Louise's external behavior but we are inside her head and we know she is conscious by any meaningful definition of the word, so she cannot be a p-zombie.


> we are inside her head and we know she is conscious by any meaningful definition of the word, so she cannot be a p-zombie.

Is she? She doesn't act to change her fate; she's a passive observer in her own life, which seems to make whatever consciousness she has epiphenomenal at best (and therefore something we'd feel justified in assuming away under Occam's razor, since it has no effect on the world outside her head).

And at the risk of going all postmodern, it's worth pointing out that she is in reality a character in a story and therefore not conscious. One could argue that the point of the story is that characters in a story are not conscious (and go from there to a paradox: since we all tell stories of our lives, can any of us be conscious? But I think that doesn't offer anything that's not already present in the argument that we can't have had free will in the past since our past decisions are now fixed).


I don't conflate consciousness with the ability to change your fate. We all die, after all. The problem is that it's very hard to define consciousness at all. Ultimately the only person you can be sure is conscious is you -- or in this extraordinary case, Louise, since we are privy to her inner monologue (something which cannot happen in real life, of course).

Yes, Louise is a character so she cannot be truly conscious, but that's too meta. You could go post-post-modern and argue that since Louise's real name is Ted Chiang, and he is conscious (surely?), then she must also be :)


She does act to change her fate. In one case, she tells Hannah that she doesn't know the word she's looking for, but then she picks the up the phrase "non-zero-sum" specifically because she remembered that future scene, and is then able to tell Hannah the phrase that Hannah was asking sbout.

I suspect that making a decision to seek out a phone that works and placing a call to a phone number you never had access to counts as a conscious effort, rather than being the behaviour of a mindless automaton.

If knowledge of the consequences of an action means taking that action is no longer the act of a conscious being, then what you are suggesting is that people who plan ahead are not conscious.


If she is willing to make a phone call to find out the word but not to put the same kind of effort into averting her daughter's death, she may be conscious, but monstrous.


In the movie, her daughter's death cannot be averted (incurable disease). In the short story it can (climbing accident), but it is implied Louise's efforts to steer her daughter away from climbing actually encourage her to take it up -- or at least, Louise wonders if it was so...


I haven't seen the movie.

Vague "efforts to steer her daughter away from climbing" are the Greek-myth workaround. Surely Louise could have told her that she knew specifically that she would die on this trip, this date...


Greek-myth is what literature is all about :) Have you seen Predestination (or rather, read the Heinlein story "All You Zombies")? Stylistically, I rather like the "unable to change fate" trope, which -- like you note -- is a classic from ancient times.

In the story, it is implied the ability to see the timeline all at once, non-sequentially, comes with the loss of free will. It's a different mindset where people think they are play-acting rather than choosing the future. Of course we find this puzzling -- after all, we think sequentially :P Louise didn't warn her daughter because it wasn't in the "script" of the future.


> Louise didn't warn her daughter because it wasn't in the "script" of the future.

Indeed.

My point is that if she made a meaningful choice to make the phone call and find out the term "non-zero-sum", as manicdee was claiming, then surely by the same token she also made a meaningful choice not to warn her daughter.


In the theater I was really hoping Arrival ended with a mindfuck of an ending involving the death of most of the main characters following the big reveal; sadly my hopes were dashed.


Very interesting summary.

I think you might like Charlie Stross' "Antibodies" (short story in the anthology Toast). Without giving too much away, it deals with runaway AI as an infohazard, and provides exactly the "humans fighting back" thread you're interested in.


I believe this is what Bartweiss is referring to: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/fiction/toast/to...

I attempted a while back to download and read some of that but quit after being frustrated by the awful user experience of every epub software that I tried. I couldn't find one that supported whatever form of linking the book uses. If I wanted to go directly to a story I just had to flip until I got there.


Yep, that's it exactly. I ran into the book at a library, but it's cool to see it available online.

I've always like Calibre for epub reading, but I'd have to try it with that version specifically. The other option might be to use a MOBI converter and hope it cleans things up, but that's a pain for long odds.


The impression I got was that in Story of Your Life's universe, nobody actually has free will, and Louise is just one of the few people who realizes it.


Of course, in a universe without free will, you don't get to choose whether you realize that or not, either.


Even if the psychedelic experience that everything is one (or more accurately, part of a connected whole) is true, that doens't imply that the universe can know its entire state simultaneously. That would imply that the universe has unitary consciousness (which implies incredibly massive information processing capability) or infinitely fast propagation of information. Given that light has a finite rate of propagation and time slows down in the presence of a lot of information in a small space, neither of those appear to be true.


Ah, but the difference between a causal and a teleological view of the universe is just that -- they're different points of view. There is no actual difference in outcome. Variational physics is the same physics expressed differently.

This is true for the heptapods (at least in the story), who do not require causal explanation for their actions, but not for Louise, at least in the movie, as her perception of time does have actual (and very significant) consequences, which kind of defeat the entire idea and turn it into a time-travel story. Actually, in the movie this is also not true for the heptapods, who do have a time-traveling causal explanation for their actions (they do what they do because they will need humanity in the future).

You don't need to actually remember the future for you to view life as teleological. In fact, the teleological point of view is central to some human philosophies (of fate and predestination) without turning its believers into p-zombies (at least, not as far as we know). Fatalism doesn't require that you know the future for you to act. In fact, you may believe that the past offers cause, but you believe that it is just a perception, while the "true" (and possibly unknown) reason is teleological.

That "memetic virus" is no science fiction, and has been a part of human philosophy since forever. What is Oedipus Rex (429 BC) or even the bible (esp. in Genesis) if not a teleological view of life? And, of course, the story of Cassandra, who is cursed with the power of prophecy. There's also Macbeth, which is a little different as knowledge of the future is what sets things in motion. I personally found Chiang's story to be a rather poor treatment of the subject compared to other, older and better known ones, and the movie, while better executed, destroyed the story's philosophical point, however simplistic in its treatment.

In any event, teleology provides a narrative for millions of believers to this day, and you don't need to know the future in order to be a fatalist.


Describing it like that instantly reminds me of Monty Python's "World's funniest joke" sketch. Classic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ienp4J3pW7U


...and now you've just reminded me to re-read Infinite Jest.


Just binge read this. It was great--any other recommendations?


I picked up the recommendation at Reddit's /rational/:

https://www.reddit.com/r/rational/

The sub-reddit was made in response to Eliezer Yudkowsky's "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", which I also enjoyed. Not everybody likes it, but even if you don't you'll probably find other works you'll like recommended there.


Blah, blah, Babel-17 blah.


For those who might be curious (I was):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babel-17


The plot summary there is...horrible. Unfortunately, it's been so long since I read the book that I can't improve it.


Such a story, I fear, would devolve humanity right back into the Dark Ages.


I think one of the important points the story tries to make is the way we perceive/react to the idea of free-will vs destiny is very anthropomorphic because we have sequential consciousness. The heptapods have simultaneous consciousness and do not even understand the idea of free-will. They are not troubled by it because it is a purely different way of perceiving the world.

The subtle difference Ted Chaing tried to get at is that humans think knowing the future means we are doomed to enact a choreography; but the hetpapods perceive knowing the future as creating the future.

So maybe in a human's mind, we think of the future as a geographic feature that we are heading towards. And the inability to change where we go to is troubling. But in the heptapod's mind, the future is just an abstract concept they know in their minds, but do not exist yet; and they seek to create it by acting it out.


To me predicting the future is about the implications of abstract ideas carried out in the world.

I take the idea that we are capable of doing a lot of damage with our technology. I reason that once we discover the damage we are doing, we usually do something about it. However, that process of fixing our mistakes is much slower. So I reason that over time we will do more and more damage, because our technology is progressing at faster and faster rates. And the fixes will be implemented slowly. Damage will eventually accumulate and be catastrophic. After some major catastrophe, say a few hundred million people dead, we will then slow down introducing technology into the system and be much more precautious about it. However, even then there will be economists which will argue their way out of it, saying the damage caused by not growing the economy is much worse than any sort of damage caused to the environment.


> The heptapods have simultaneous consciousness and do not even understand the idea of free-will

I'm not at all sure that humans even understand the idea of free will either; I've certainly never heard a definition of it that made any sense. Locke famously observed that

> the question itself is altogether improper; and it is as insignificant to ask whether man's will be free, as to ask whether his sleep be swift, or his virtue square

There's a separate question about whether or not volition is purely deterministic, but people don't value randomness, they value having (many of) the causes of their mental states be internal rather than external, and I don't think they're in much danger of disappointment there.


I'd invite everyone to actually read the story instead of the linked interpretation. It does not need it, what happens is pretty straight-forward and the text gives its interpretation freely away by itself. But knowing those interpretations destroys the stunt the story is pulling on the reader, it will destroy your experience of reading it.

Not that I particularly liked it. It is one not particularly exciting history wrapped around an unrealistic pseudo-physics idea. But I never like those type of stories – you might.


(Spoilers)

Unlike the movie, the story is vague on whether there are violations of causality. (The movie clearly features them, while the story is consistent with or without them). So I disagree that the interpretation is straight forward.


> I'd invite everyone to actually read the story instead of the linked interpretation.... it will destroy your experience of reading it.

Agreed.


I preferred the movie over the short story as well. But Ted Chiang has written excellent other fiction. I loved "Tower of Babylon".


Too absurd to my liking. I think Murakami is where it ends for me. But admittedly memorable (which also goes for story of your life) and original. Tower of Babylon left a lot better impression than Story of your Life, for me. Maybe they will make a film about that next.


The simultaneity of awareness is not novel, but the acceptance of it, the refusal to change the future, is, and people are ignoring this authorial premise and tying themselves into knots to explain it as something else because it unsettles them.

How could someone know the future and not change it? How could someone let bad things happen?

In fact, it's actually quite zen. Well, I'm not sure if it is really, but let's pretend being aware, accepting, and recognising the beauty/rightness in every moment is zen.

And this ties back to the light path and minimisation. When you have that awareness of simultaneity maybe all your possible paths/options must naturally collapse into that beautiful sequence that you have no need or desire to alter.

Now how this simultaneity of awareness coexists with mortality, well that is a head scratcher.


What does "refusal" mean in this context? If there is no such thing as free will, then you would have no ability to choose whether to change the future or not, which would make your personal feelings about it irrelevant. Nor would you be able to choose how you felt about it.

If you believe that you have the ability to influence how to feel/react about something, then you must also believe you have the ability to influence the thing itself. Which would make a "zen" attitude negligent.

If you believe that you have no ability to influence either an event or the way you feel about it, then the idea of trying to respond in a zen way is as meaningless as trying to influence the event itself.

Now, you might, in fact, respond in a way an outside observer would categorise as "zen". But, within any personal, self-consistent philosophical system, wherein there is no free will, then you cannot categorise your reaction as such or as an "attempt" to do anything.


> If you believe that you have no ability to influence either an event or the way you feel about it, then the idea of trying to respond in a zen way is as meaningless as trying to influence the event itself.

The part about performative language counters this objection. Yes, attempting to respond with equamnity - and succeeding, or failing - is all part of the script. But the performance of it is the thing itself.


I think the commenter's point is that it isn't enough for one to simply choose not to alter the future once they are aware of it. If they have the ability but do not exercise the ability, you've still introduced a logical contradiction.

From that perspective, framing action as "performative" is at best hand-wavy. You can reduce the claim to, "An individual can know the future without creating a paradox by choosing not to alter it." But you either have the ability to make decisions or you don't; you can't solve the paradox by introducing a phenomenon that in effect surrenders choice while holding on to the ability to make a choice.

That, like every argument of compatibilism I've seen, attempts to "have one's cake and eat it too" in an incoherent manner. When you reduce the dressings down to the base premises and conclusion, it's a matter of redefining terminology for a semantical victory. That's exactly like the sort of thing Wittgenstein used to criticize, because the conclusions aren't meaningful.

What would it actually mean for someone to somehow have the ability to know the future with certainty, while also retaining the ability to change the future? The ability to express that idea grammatically and to create a compelling narrative revolving around it doesn't make it logically coherent. Simply having the ability in principle means that there is a logical paradox.

That said, I deeply enjoyed the story. I just interpreted it as a story about humans being exposed to the reality of determinism and the process of coming to peace with it over generations, starting with Louise.


> That, like every argument of compatibilism I've seen, attempts to "have one's cake and eat it too" in an incoherent manner. When you reduce the dressings down to the base premises and conclusion, it's a matter of redefining terminology for a semantical victory. That's exactly like the sort of thing Wittgenstein used to criticize, because the conclusions aren't meaningful.

> What would it actually mean for someone to somehow have the ability to know the future with certainty, while also retaining the ability to change the future? The ability to express that idea grammatically and to create a compelling narrative revolving around it doesn't make it logically coherent. Simply having the ability in principle means that there is a logical paradox.

I've never understood the non-compatibilist view. The laws of physics are mechanistic almost by definition; the only question is whether they are deterministic or randomized, but the idea that one's decisions could be partly random doesn't seem to make them any more consciously controlled than if they're deterministic.

The thing that I've always found incoherent is the very idea of "free will". What would it actually mean to have free will? How could we distinguish between someone who has it and someone who doesn't?

The closest I can get to it while remaining coherent is the idea that there's some pattern that's "me", and that to the extent to which this pattern is causally entangled with events, I'm exerting my will on those events. Knowing the future wouldn't change that.


> Now how this simultaneity of awareness coexists with mortality, well that is a head scratcher.

It would make a good pairing with many-worlds immortality, another ramification of physics known for it's unsettling qualities.

Like Fermat's principle of least time, it's really just an interpretation that falls naturally out of the best mathematics we have for predicting experiments.


you know how Randall Munroe highlights when he's reading? https://xkcd.com/1271/ it's basically vinyl vs a ram stick. Guess which one seeks faster.


I'm puzzled by this article. Do people usually misinterpret this short story as being about time travel? I can see people thinking the movie might be about time travel of a sort, since everything is less explained and more "emotional" in it, but the short story is pretty clear about what it's about. We never see any sort of time travel in it. Instead, the protagonist painstakingly explains the different theories of perception of time.


To me the story as written pretty clearly implied that she had acquired time-related superpowers by learning this language. Even as a believer in block time this was deeply unsatisfactory. (I don't think this needs any complex explanation as Gwern looks for; I think the simpler explanation is that the story means what it seems to mean, and is simply a bad story).


But in the short story it's important that everything anyone does is still understandable with based on a linear understanding of time. The movie messes this up with some retro-causality that isn't in the short story.


I'd rather say it's a story with some magical handwaving, not necessarily a bad one. (Yes, magical handwaving is a blemish, but not necessarily a catastrophic one.)


Characters in the story don't physically travel through time like in The Terminator, but they have some sort of precognition via information being passed from the future via some unexplained mechanism.

So yes, it is a time travel story, information being relayed to you from the future is information traveling through time.


It's all word play and there's no meaning in debating about a concept which itself has multiple interpretations.

You're saying it's "travel" because information travels through time.

But a lot of other people relate "Travel" with humans, meaning it's the human that travels through time.

In fact, most people when they hear about "travel" think of human as its subject, not non-human objects like information.

If you stretch it that far, basically any story with flashbacks is time travel, because information travels to present from the past.


But it's a time travel story if you can't act in the information and the information have been always there?

I suppose that we could say that the point of the story is to show that time is not what we though.


The language Gwern uses here is slightly confusing. They're never actually talking about time-travel, but about precognition. They briefly state that precognition is equivalent to time-travel in terms of philosophical consequences, and then use the term time-travel almost exclusively.


Gwern often writes in the style of lesswrong's perspective on rationalism - this comes with a tendency to assume the reader is also reading from this perspective and thus will automatically accept propositions like "precognition is the same as time travel".


I think it's unfair to attribute my assumption to LessWrong or rationalism... The reason I assume it is because it is true in physics and because Chiang explicitly says so in https://boingboing.net/2010/07/22/ted-chiang-interview.html and I quoted him in the footnote:

"I think free will is what underlies most everything interesting about time travel. And when I say time travel, I'm including receiving information from the future, because that's essentially equivalent to someone traveling from the future."


Hm, I stand corrected. I did find that your review jumped somewhat headfirst into accepting their equivalence though. The first line of your interpretation establishes their equivalence, and the linked quote just states that the author has the same opinion. It's a little disorienting to build from this as an established fact, if the reader does not agree. Also, your suggestion that they are equivalent in physics may be true from an information-theoretic perspective but it certainly isn't intuitive.

My assumption that the statement was linked to LessWrong was due to other similar radical statements I've seen posited by members, especially Yudkowsky's ideas around the equivalence of a consciousness and its simulation.


Yeah, it is confusing. At first I thought he was arguing against an interpretation involving (actual, non-precognitive) time travel, which seemed so obviously right that I found it hard to believe that anyone could ever have claimed that interpretation. Then when I realised he was actually talking about precognition as time travel, he seemed obviously wrong.


I would recommend to watch Arrival _before_ reading Story of Your Life and this post: I think that Story of Your Life contains spoilers for Arrival which aren't nearly as spoilery the other way around. I found Arrival more emotionally touching, and Story of Your Life more scientifically interesting, so both are worth while.


[Book & movie spoilers galore]

As this article points out, referring to Louise being able to see the future in the book:

    > "she is like an actor following a script, engaged in a
    > self-fulfilling prophecy, taking precisely the actions
    > necessary to bring about the future she sees. 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."
However, in the book her daughter dies in a climbing accident, not from disease. The underlying point of the book as I read it is that free will doesn't exist and we're all just helpless pawns doomed to play out the inevitable.

Reportedly Hollywood didn't like that interpretation, so instead her daughter dies from disease, so the movie doesn't have to explain why Louise can't just tell her daughter "JUST DON'T EVER GO CLIMBING YOU'LL DIE I CAN SEE THE GODDAMN FUTURE!".

I think as a result the movie really makes no sense. Seeing the future can really only make sense if events are either determinate or you can't or are unwilling to change them. Otherwise you wouldn't know what future you're seeing or how your actions would impact the future.

In a universe where you can alter the future her vision of General Shang at the end of the movie doesn't make any sense. How can she see what General Shang told her in the future, if the only reason he told her is because of information Shang sent to her from the future as a result of her current actions, which are only possible due to information Shang sent her from the future?

In the book it's not as if Louise sees a way to save all humanity and has to make the hard choice to follow that path like Paul Atreides in Dune. She just sees things pertaining to her family life, in particular that her daughter eventually dies in an entirely preventable climbing accident.

So there you go, a movie that really makes no sense, although they had the good sense to plaster over the more obvious plot hole with her daughter now that free will is a thing by making her die from an incurable disease instead.


> The underlying point of the book as I read it is that free will doesn't exist

I thought this was only in the Heptapod non-sequential point of view. Doesn't Louise say something to the effect of "if you think like a Heptapod, you see everything at once but don't have free will; if you think sequentially, like a human, you have free will but can't know everything at once. They are complementary points of view"? (or something like that, not an exact quote).


The money quote from the book is:

    > [...] 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.
I.e. her situation is completely analogous to Paul Atreides in Dune. She can see the future, she can change events, but if she ever did she couldn't see the future anymore. So she throws her daughter under the metaphorical bus to retain her powers.

I think it's a rather bleak story, "woman can see future events, prefers to live out the spoiler version of her life rather than changing anything and being surprised", but whatever, at least it's internally consistent.

What I'm pointing out is that the storyline of the movie makes absolutely no sense, because there she can see the future and is able to change events based on that information, not lose her seeing powers, and seemingly create time loops where people in the future only did certain things because she did them in the present, based on information they gave her in the future because she did that!

The movie tries to evade this problem with a slight of hand. They change the circumstances of her daughter's death to be inevetable, otherwise the audience would be up in arms at the obvious contradiction that she can change the future based on seeing what General Shang is going to do, but somehow can't tell her daughter not to take up climbing as a hobby.


I don't think precognition in Story Of Your Life/Arrival should be seen as a "power" - and certainly not one that Louise can choose to discard. The Heptapod perspective, which Louise gains, is "timeless": there is perfect symmetry between past and present, and therefore no free will (or if there is free will, then it must be a very strange kind of free will from our perspective, since one's choices affect the past just as they affect the future). Louise can no more change the future than you and I can change the past: it simply is.

    > now that I know
    > the future, I would never act contrary to that
    > future, including telling others what I know.
I think this should be read as "I could never act contrary to that future". She knows the future, unlike Paul Atreides who lives in a very different universe and knows only one of many possible futures. That her daughter will die in a climbing accident is as immutable as the fact that I was born where I was born. I struggle to even contemplate what it would mean for me make choices now that affect my past; it is the same for Louise with respect to the future.

The difference between the universe of Story Of Your Life and a generic deterministic universe is that in Story Of Your Life free will is not an illusion; it exists, but it can only be experienced from a certain perspective, which is complementary to the timeless perspective.

Very possibly there is a third perspective in this universe which is also equally valid. We could have a sequel (Departure?) where we meet the aliens do exactly what I struggle to imagine: they can observe only the future, and their choices affect only the past.


What I took away from the book, particularly when she talks with the other linguist who also acquired these abilities is that they simply can't choose to act against what they know the future to be. It's not so much they want to or don't want to, it's that they simply can no longer make that choice to do it or not.


You may be right. My reading of the quote I referenced "I would never act contrary..." is that she's choosing not to act contrary to the visions she sees.

But it could indeed be that the Heptapod language is some sort of brain virus and any information she gets from the future she's helpless carrying out like some automaton. See the sibling thread about a "memetic virus".

In any case, what I'm pointing out in this thread is that I think at there's no way to make sense of the storyline of the movie, since it's internally self-contradictory in how it treats time travel.

I don't have time to dig this up now, but there were some interviews after it came out where it was made clear that this change was purely made to make the movie more appealing to viewers, at the cost of internal consistency.


I think the key is that in the short story everything has to be explicable from both a linear and non-linear perspective, just like you can describe physics both ways. If Louise had called up her daughter and told her not to go rock climbing that would not be explicable from a linear perspective and is thus impossible.


I took a very different interpretation from that quote. I don't think the point of the story is that once she understood Heptapod B she started actually seeing the future, but that her perception of her memories and experiences changed. She is telling the story from the future, after her daughter has died, but she experiences all the events at once as if she is acting them out again.

The statement "I would never act contrary to that future" is, in my reading, equivalent to you or I saying "I couldn't change the past". Her memories aren't grouped into an ordered list of A causing B causing C, but a jumbled collection of events all happening at the same time, and all happening NOW, as she is looking down at her daughter in the morgue.


There's so many parts in that book that make it abundantly clear that it's not being written after the fact from the view of someone who knows Heptopod B, she can actually see the yet-to-happen future.


I think it's a rather bleak story, "woman can see future events, prefers to live out the spoiler version of her life rather than changing anything and being surprised", but whatever, at least it's internally consistent.

In theory Louise could have told her daughter not go climbing because she can see the future and knows her daughter would die but that would probably result in:

1. Mom getting written off as bat shit crazy and ignored.

2. Teens and young adults being teens and young adults tend to shrug off warnings and advice of their parents and she would have died anyway.


    > Mom getting written off as bat shit crazy and ignored.
Yeah let's write off mom, the premier expert in xenolinguistics on the planet when she tells you the aliens taught her to see the future. She doesn't even try.

    > Teens and young adults being teens and young adults
Her daughter dies at 25. She's old enough that Louise could have not only explained this to her, but fully taught her Heptopod B so she could see it for herself.


Not quite. If she prevented her daughter from dying, the result would be a paradox.

In the story, she knows the future, not a hypothetical, if-nothing-changes prediction of the future.


I seem to remember it's slightly implied Louise's desire to protect her daughter from heights (isn't there a scene with a staircase in the story, or did I dream it?) actually pushes her daughter into climbing. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy.


When does she ever change future events? Sure she needed knowledge from the future to make that future happen but that's just a time loop, not altering the foreseen future.


To be honest, when reading stories in this genre, you have to understand that if you push it to the limit, it won't make sense. There's a number of other similar stories where, for instance, quantum phenomena are taken up to the classical, human-observable level or something. The idea is to have fun and expand your brain, not push them to the limit of plausibility, because we only know of one system that is both complicated enough to host stories and completely self-consistent, which is precisely and exactly the real world. And even that is A: assuming it really is completely self-consistent and B: a system that at the moment we are very clear on the fact that we do not completely understand it.

It's OK to notice the issues, but if you want to read in this genre you kind of have to get used to just noting them and moving on. Asking an author to write something that can hold up completely has three problems. Nobody could write a non-trivial completely self-consistent story that deviates from reality that much, nobody would be willing to read the resulting story that proves it out because it would require a lot of words to prove that, and in many cases it may not even be possible to be self-consistent in the first place. (Witness the problem we have just coming up with one physics that is consistent with itself and the real world, let alone creating non-trivial new ones from scratch.) It would not be a net benefit to not write those stories.


I certainly don't think every discussion about any fictional work needs to be turned into some Simpsons comic book guy analysis of the most minute of flaws.

Most sci-fi or fantasy works have some "gimme" that you just have to accept, because it furthers the story. Fine, anti-gravity, time travel or whatever exists. Nobody's expected to explain how it works.

What makes for lazy writing is introducing some world changing concept that you base your entire story on, and then just conveniently leaving it out in the very next scene for dramatic effect. That goes beyond having a gimme, you're just assuming your audience is dumb at that point.

I think the book "Story of Your Life" is just fine. It's consistent with its premise. As my comment indicates it's the lazy movie adoption I have a problem with.

They depart from the book by making the character capable of changing the future based on her prescience, she's no longer just a puppet playing out future events. She's got a choice. Okey, fine, let's run with that.

But then she can see a future where here young daughter dies from some incurable disease at a young age, but decides to have her anyway. Her partner then leaves her because she went through with that without telling him.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the universe of the movie when they had that conversation. He was probably yelling at her that they could have just spent a couple of thousand dollars on sperm sorting & IVF and say had a boy instead of instead of having their young daughter die at an early age from some statistically improbable disease.


"I think the book "Story of Your Life" is just fine. It's consistent with its premise. As my comment indicates it's the lazy movie adoption I have a problem with."

My apologies then; while I stand by the general content of my message I would not have replied to your post with that had I caught that detail.


I think you misread both the movie and the novella. In both, Louise chooses her actions, despite knowing the consequences. In both, and especially in the novella, the overriding theme is that the journey is more important than the destination. It's not about where you go, it's how you get there. That is why Louise chooses to have her daughter, despite knowing she will die--because it is about the life her daughter will get to have.

The movie does a better job of showing the progression of Louise's perception of time. At the beginning of the move, she can see her daughter (i.e., the destination resulting from the first contact mission) but not the journey (i.e., her husband or intervening events.) By the time she calls General Chang, she can see the destination and part, but not all, of the journey leading to that moment (i.e., what he told her during the call). By the end of the movie and the novella, her perception of time has improved to the point that she can see her daughter's entire life (the journey) in the instant she chooses to make love to her husband and thereby conceive her daughter.

(Note that the movie goes with the illness rather than the climbing accident because it's easier to convey to mass audiences. The movie is about Louise's choices and perception of time, not her daughter. However, the novella devotes a significant amount of text to emphasizing the daughter's free-spirited ways, suggesting that the daughter would have gone climbing even if her mother had told her how and when she would die. People like that actually exist, see e.g. BASE jumpers as a direct analogy.)


Today I learned I am a heptopod apparently. I have ideas quite often that I find hard to write out in sentences, so I end up doing a pen sketch/drawing thing with many colors and stick figure drawings with one or two words beside it.

It is usually when I am trying to think through, or explain to someone else, a concept that has many many variables and the ways that they interact. The current "thought" on my desk has 8 panels, with individual sketch things and 4 colors.

Surely I am not the only one who does this? How else can you explain complicated things without writing a whole book?

"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. Semasiographic writing naturally took advantage of the page’s two-dimensionality; instead of doling out morphemes one at a time, it offered an entire page full of them all at once."


One could say that a heptapod, having 7-fold radial symmetry, is one-better than a snowflake, which only has 6-fold symmetry. So congratulations!


Can you upload a photo of one of your drawings? Sounds super interesting


It's just a black circle with splotches on it.


My take on the story was that learning this language changed how she perceived reality, not that there was anything to do with time travel. I imagined she would only be able to think "forward" in time up to the point that she already existed...


To me, it was a story about purpose. In America, there's a strong throughline embedded in the culture that purpose arises from decisions. The entire foundational myth of the American Dream is that anyone, by making the right decisions, can achieve any station in life (and consequently, if you don't achieve the right station, the cause must come from decisions you made).

Chiang's story was an exploration of a more Eastern mode of thought in which purpose is derived more from participation. That we are all part of one large tapestry of life and that it is the privilege of participating, not the end outcome of the participation that gives purpose to life.

Louise is placed in a circumstance where these two values come into conflict and, crucially, is given a choice. The crux is that she is given the choice to not have her child and prevent all of the painful memories but also the understanding that the painful memories are a part of the beauty of living life.

The variational physics stuff is all a frame to wrap around these concepts, finding resonance between the idea that there are always two ways of encoding a problem in physics and the reframing of philosophy that comes from encountering an alien culture.


I like to see Ted Chiang's writing ("Story of Your Life", "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" and "What's Expected Of Us") as "free will as a perspective", rather than anything objectively existing (or not existing). And secondarily - "free will vs knowing future as a trade-off", not unlike Lagrangian vs Netwonian mechanics, or as rotating space and time in Special Relativity.


I honestly don't know of anyone that has read the story and ended up interpreting it as a time-travel story.


I know I should have seen Arrival already, and I am sure I once read or heard that "Story of Your Life" was the basis for the film, but damned if I didn't get halfway through the very spoilery discussion here in the comments without realizing just what I was being spoiled on.

In case there's anyone else out there that, like me: Reads hn comments first to determine if the article is worthwhile, and doesn't really mind being spoiled on the plot of books, but hates being spoiled on the plot of films, beware!


I saw the movie yesterday and I would say the total sensory experience of the film is worth a lot more than just the plot! Still see it, it's really great even knowing what will happen. You might even get a more authentic experience, per the discussion here...


This article may scratch the point that this article b talking of predestination is basically talking about religion and free will.

And that maybe predestination is pretty acausal, thus posing a strong problem with science.

So I see it as an article trying to say that the story is under the cover of very scientific words trying like zelazny, hubbard and van vogt to open a new era of mystical science.


Time is what prevents everything from happening at once in the same way space prevents everything from happening in Cambridge.


This book has a lot of really good stories.


Don't overanalyze it. It just happens to be excellent science fiction.


(haven't read yet) What do you mean don't over-analyze it, that's the good part!


This is what good scholary work looks like. Take note.




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