This was part of my “script” for class recently. We were discussing Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and the question of fate vs. free will.
I kind of just felt the need to share this.
(The numbers refer to page numbers in the handout I made for class. The handout contained a transcribed version of the story since photocopying the story for everyone would use more pages than I was allowed.)
Ted Chiang’s sci-fi novella “Story of Your Life” tackles an oft-discussed theme in literature and life: if fate/destiny exists, what does that mean for our free will?
Instead of a fantastical setting or an everyday character mulling over his choices in light of his destiny, we have our protagonist elevated in status and meeting aliens that prompt her to mull over this fate vs. free will conundrum. Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist, is tasked to communicate with a pair of aliens—heptapods, they’re called, for their 7 legs—and determine why they have arrived on earth.
The story, through Louise, asks us a few questions when it comes to these two. “Was it actually possible to know the future?” (57) and “What would you do if you could know the future?” (movie) Fate implies the future, what happens to us.
Louise, upon the arrival of the heptapods, immediately is set to work trying to communicate with them. She determines that the fastest way to be able to communicate is through writing.
As she and other linguists studied the written language, or Heptapod B as she called it, she realized that the principle for their writing follows one of the variational principles of physics: Fermat’s principle, which explains light refraction. Her discussion with Gary leads her to realize that in order for light to be able to travel the fastest through any surface (as in through water, for example), the light ray would have to know exactly WHERE it is going to “land” BEFORE it can even start moving. It was the same way with Heptapod writing. The heptapods had to know the entire sentence before they even write it down. (53-54; 57)
On one hand we can do that also. We think of the sentence first in our heads and then we write it down, but the difference is that heptapods seem to be able to write as they think and know immediately where the sentence starts or ends and how the different strokes should be formed (because the strokes aren’t exclusive to one character; one stroke can be used for a number of semagrams in a sentence).
This opens up her mind to the heptapod way of thinking because language also affects the way we think. But it’s not just that she’s thinking in heptapod LANGUAGE. The heptapod way of thinking means that she’s also thinking teleologically, as in thinking about the purpose of her actions, which means she has to know the end goal of her action with certainty so that she could begin her action. Louise explains that heptapods “experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.” (59)
It becomes clear at this point that heptapods are able to know the future, and their present actions (in the way we humans understand time) are done in order to reach that certain future.
The problem with this worldview is that we linear-thinking humans have problems accepting the fact that our future will not be all fun. Our future will also include difficult moments. Heptapods know and accept this. It is part and parcel of their lives already. We humans, though, want to make sure that all our “results” are positive.
This brings us to the question of fate and free will. If you could know the future, what would you do? Would you actively make it happen as the heptapods and Louise did in the story, or would you try to change it? What is the implication on free will? If you know already the future, why choose a differently? Louise says in page 65 that she and Burghart (another linguist who has also mastered Heptapod B and can also already see the future) seem to just be acting out a scene that they knew about ahead of everybody else. And as limited humans, we ask, “Why?” We don’t understand why they’re just playing something out that supposedly already Is. “Why do they act it out still? Why not change it?” And Louise throws the question back to us subtly, “But why change it?” Who’s to say that this path shown to us by the future isn’t the best path (Fermat’s principle)? Think of the Avengers: Endgame movie. Doctor Strange indicated that there was one timeline that would be good, but as the only one who saw that timeline, he knew he had to take steps to ensure that it would come true even though the steps would be painful. It’s kind of similar to Louise. Who are we to say that the death of her daughter, while definitely painful isn’t just part of a larger and better picture?
“Story of Your Life” asks us to examine the possibility of a reality where we know our purpose, our goal, our end—so to speak. As limited humans, we can only guess at our purpose in life, and a lot of us stumble through life not knowing what we were put here on earth for. When we make our decisions, we don’t know what the outcome will be, and it scares the living daylights out of us.
When we know our goal, does that not make our present more meaningful because we know where we will end up? And doesn’t that allow us to enjoy our present more? Louise says that there is an “urgency” to fulfill that future once you know it, and this urgency is what compels her to choose actions that would fulfill that future. As a result, she worries less about the future and spends more time in the present. She is made more aware of the present and is able to live each moment with a greater appreciation. Perhaps that is why she chooses to “make a baby” after Gary asks her.
Ultimately, knowing the future is currently an impossibility. There is no way for us to know the future with certainty, so we live as we do: we live one moment at a time, but with this text, we are reminded to not worry about the future too much lest it takes away from the present.