How Ted Chiang’s Sci-Fi Story “Story of Your Life” Breaks Down Linear Human Conceptions of Time

  Chinese-American sci-fi writer Ted Chiang (1967— ) has not written many works, but he has won almost all international sci-fi literature awards such as the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. The reason why he is so favored by the sci-fi literature circle is because his works are sci-fi and beyond.
  Ted Jiang is not a hard science fiction writer like Liu Cixin and Vernor Vinge, but a soft science fiction writer. In his novels, the core propositions are rarely traditional sci-fi topics such as interstellar war, cyberpunk, and the end of mankind, but always focus on philosophy such as ontology, fatalism, free will, memory, imagination, time, and language. Propositions are explored, and he is very good at integrating his own philosophical thoughts into the wonderful plots of novels, and has achieved excellent science fiction philosophical novels. Ted Chiang once said in a conversation: “When incorporating philosophical themes into science fiction, in addition to paying attention to the depth of the theme and the degree of relaxation of the plot, it is also necessary to deal with the various ’emotions’ involved in the story, otherwise it will be lost if you are not careful. It would turn into a dry philosophical treatise.”
  ”The Story of Your Life” (1998) is a representative work of Ted Chiang, which fully embodies the characteristics of his works with wonderful plots and profound thoughts. The novel rarely takes linguistics as the core of the whole story. The protagonist, Louise Banks, is a linguist who was ordered by the government to communicate with the alien “heptapods” who descended on Earth. In the process of communication, Louise discovered that the language of the heptapods (hereafter referred to as “heptapod”) is completely different from human language, and thus realized the essential difference in thinking between the two races. As Louise gradually learned the seven languages, her thinking was gradually influenced by the heptapod thinking, until finally she completely changed her own thinking mode. Louise’s world view has become a mixture of human beings and heptapods. Her understanding of time is different from the conventional linear time view of human beings, but has a strange nonlinear time view. The change of time concept makes Louise have a new understanding of life and grasp the new possibility of life.
Conscious time with language changes

  According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: “Language forms determine language users’ views on language. How language describes the world, people observe the world; languages ​​in the world are different, so different nations have different views on the world The language of human civilization is a linear language. This linear language has had an important impact on the formation of human linear thinking, making the time concept of human civilization also linear. The past, present and future are clearly divided. Human civilization Run forward on the timeline.
  Qiyu is a language with linear and nonlinear chaos. The spoken language of the heptapods is similar to that of human beings, and there are coherent rules. The book calls it “heptapod language A” (hereinafter referred to as “heptapod language A”); their writing is a two-dimensional language such as Picturesque words, when the heptapods use their words to express a certain message, all the words written about this message form a harmonious whole like a landscape, and people can understand everything in an instant. the meaning of. Just like when you appreciate a painting or a scene, there is no relatively fixed sequence, but you grasp the content of the picture or scene as a whole. This type of writing is called “heptapod language B” (hereinafter referred to as “heptapod language B”) in the book. The heptapods, which consist of the linear heptapod A and the holistic heptapod B, also influence the formation of heptapod civilization thinking and time concept, but as human beings, it is impossible to fully understand their thinking and time concept possible. Fortunately, Heptapod A has a certain similarity with human language, which can become a breakthrough to get through the two languages, and provides the possibility for human beings to keep getting closer to the thinking mode of the heptapod through learning Heptapod.
  In the process of communicating with the heptapod, Louise first gradually mastered the seven language A, and was able to understand some basic meanings expressed by the heptapod. On this basis, she was able to learn and think about the seven language B step by step. In the process of gradually mastering the seven languages ​​B, a fundamental holistic thinking gradually formed in her mind. This kind of holistic thinking is not what we usually call a way of thinking that looks at problems comprehensively and holistically, but refers to life unfolding to her like a whole blank sheet of paper. This kind of wholeness transcends personal experience, or it can be understood that life has no cause and effect for the current Louise. She can see the past bit by bit like the goddess Minerva, and at the same time, she is also like A prophet can constantly predict the future.
  Through learning seven languages, the holistic thinking in Louise’s mind enables her to transcend her personal timeline. Although the real time she lives in is still flowing quietly, the conscious time in her brain has undergone earth-shaking changes. .
Duration of time centered on present feelings

  In Ted Chiang’s novels, time is compared to a cigarette, and consciousness is the flame on the cigarette. Before learning the Seven Languages, the concept of time for Louise, the “past” has been burned into soot, and the “present” is burning in the direction of the “future”; after learning the Seven Languages, time starts to burn from both ends, regardless of Both “past” and “future” are reduced to ashes. Ted Jiang also used a very interesting term here called “memory of the future” – generally speaking, memory belongs to the past, but Louise has a memory of the future.
  For Louise, the future that is no longer unknown and the past that is clearly reappearing means the coreization of conscious time. The future is no longer unknown, but it is not yet in reality; the past is no longer vague, but it is not yet in reality, but both are clearly in Louise’s place as part of the whole of Louise’s life. in consciousness. All this will not affect the flow of real time day and night, it is the breakthrough and transcendence of conscious time itself. Louise’s individual consciousness becomes the nucleus of her individual time.
  Time is composed of indivisible moments in a state of duration. But the problem is that people divide the continuous time into fractured time, and various time units dominate people’s concept of time, no matter how small the time unit is, it is a kind of fracture, not duration. Just like a movie, although the image appears to be continuous during projection, in fact the standard for movie projection is 24 frames per second, and each frame is a kind of break that is not noticed by the audience. The duration of the broken and the hidden artificial breaks also have a great impact on consciousness in turn. People’s division of past, present and future is a very significant break, and this three-dimensional time dimension has become the time basis of human civilization, at least the basis of daily time.
  How, then, should we find the “now” from the actual duration of time? “Now” is the transition between “future” and “past”, because “now” is constantly becoming “past” and constantly reaching “future”. Whenever people want to grasp the “present”, they find that the so-called “present” has either become the “past” or reached the “future”. The “present” in the strict sense does not seem to exist! But in fact, “now” exists in the continuation of time, and the real time we really feel is “now”. Time is based on personal feelings, the so-called “personal time”, which is the harmonious unity of conscious time and real time. In the novel, Louise’s personal time is in a special and clear state, and she will not affect her feelings about the present because of emotions such as anticipation, curiosity, and fear of the unknown.
  While we can believe that the present is all-important, Story of Your Life deals with a certain future that often evokes fatalism. Now that the future has been determined, do people have free will to change the known future? Do people have the right not to do what is written in the Book of Time? According to the view of fatalism, human beings have no right to change the future, just like Oedipus, although he wholeheartedly wanted to escape the fate of killing his father and marrying his mother, he eventually fell into it. But Louise is different from Oedipus. Oedipus only knows the result of his own destiny but does not understand the process. Louise’s memory of the future includes every detail, so her actions are only as close as the known future. The slightest difference is a change to the future. Oedipal fatalism doesn’t apply to Louise.

  Embodied in Louise is a limited free will. She hopes that she can think more in the way of heptapods, instead of letting life go lightly in the continuous passage of linear time, and it is too late to understand; she hopes to experience every moment of life carefully in the new time view , even though “I knew the end from the beginning, and I chose the path I wanted to go, which is the path that must be passed in the future. I followed the path, full of joy, maybe full of pain.” Louise does already know the future, but “knowing” is different from “feeling”. Louise chose to feel the inevitability of the world with all her heart, instead of fighting against the Book of Time, perhaps this is also the result of being influenced by the heptapod thinking. Obedience to the future as seen, understanding rather than deliberately violating the inevitability of events, this may be part of the heptapod’s way of thinking, and only based on this way of thinking can the future be accurately predicted.
  Human beings are more inclined to pursue the possibility hidden in the unknown time, to be amazed and fascinated by the endless existence; the heptapod is more inclined to pursue the inevitability revealed in the known time, to be amazed and fascinated by the clear existence. Engage and indulge. —There is no advantage or disadvantage between the two, it is just that we use different ways of thinking to feel existence. Louise assumed her responsibility for the future, chose her love for her daughter, put her heart into her life, and felt the present in the continuous time.
Zhang Li’s narrative time

  ”Story of Your Life” not only has peculiar fantasy and profound connotation, but also has an exquisite narrative structure, which fully demonstrates Ted Chiang’s superb narrative ability.
  The first word in the title is “you”, and the first word at the beginning of the novel is still “you”. This is a rare novel that uses the second person as a main narrative angle; and the “you” in the novel It has no name, but only one identity—”my” unborn daughter.

Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life”

  ”I” is Louise. Before the daughter was born, “I” already knew the experience of her daughter’s life. The whole novel is the story Louise told her daughter. When it’s just “I,” it’s basically about the past, but when it comes to “you,” it’s about the future. The narrative time of the novel is composed of the past and the future, but the present, which connects the two, is almost absent and only appears at the end. It is precisely because of the absence of “now” that the past with only “I” and the future involving “you” are constantly interspersed with each other, making the narrative structure of the novel in a state of tension, unlike the narrative structure of traditional novels. closely connected front and back.
  Ted Chiang divides the past and the future into two main parts, and the small parts of the past and the future that are constantly intertwined with each other constitute the whole novel, unfolding a kind of fragmented writing. But this kind of writing is different from the chaos and disorder of the stream of consciousness, but is contained under a more subtle narrative structure.
  At the beginning of the novel, Louise knew that “your father will ask me that question soon. This will be the most important moment in our married life. I hope to listen attentively and write down every detail”, “You The father said: ‘Do you want a child?'” At this time, Louise has looked to the future, knowing that she will give birth to a daughter, and even knows that her daughter will die in an accident at the age of 25 due to a mountaineering accident . It is precisely because her daughter died before herself that Louise was able to tell the story of her daughter’s life. However, at this time Louise did not make any description of the present she was in, but we can infer that Louise is now in a period of time between mastering the seven languages ​​and giving birth to her daughter. In the next section of the novel, Louise began to recall how she was recruited by the government to communicate with the heptapod, and how she met her current husband. Whether it is learning seven languages ​​or falling in love with her husband, it is a thing of the past for now. In the novel, although the present is not directly described, it does not disappear, but is a kind of implicit presence. It is not until the end of the novel that the present as an event is directly described.
  In the novel, the future and the past appear alternately: for a while, “you”‘s 25-year-old corpse is claimed by “I” (the future), for a while it is the place where “I” went to the heptapod barrel (the past), and then ” You” came to look for me to act like a baby when I came home from kindergarten (future), and then “I” tried to use photography equipment to record the written words of the heptapod barrel (past)… The whole story is composed of the overlapping structure of the past and the future, giving people a kind of Dazzling feeling. If the small parts belonging to the past are roughly in line with the sequence of Louise’s past experiences and can form a relatively complete linear plot, then the small parts belonging to the future are a non-linear layout, which seems to be more in line with the pulsation of stream-of-consciousness novels The plot structure of “you” is not unfolded in a linear order from birth to death, but a chaotic time segment in the future, which has not yet happened, and only exists in the conscious time of “I”. In fact, this superficial disorder of the narrative has the rationality of the inner plot. It is written in the book:
  After learning the heptapod language B, the memory about the future is like the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece, each piece is the past or future years. They didn’t come in sequence, spliced ​​in order, but soon combined into a memory that lasted 50 years. This is the memory after I learned language B and was able to think in it.
  The overall grasp of Louise’s consciousness for personal life is not achieved overnight, but is composed of random fragments. Therefore, with Louise as the narrator, the content of the narration must be the same as consciousness, with Fragmentation.
  The last part of the novel mentioned: “At this time your father finally asked me: ‘Do you want a child?’ I smiled and said: ‘Yes.'” The “will happen” mentioned at the beginning of the novel, in The ending becomes something that “happens now,” the future becomes the present, and the “now” is finally directly present. So where was the “now” before? In fact, in Louise’s narrative, the content of the narrative is the past and the future, but the narrative act itself becomes the present. While Louise narrates, time is passing, so at the end, what is about to happen at the beginning is realized. Although the narrative time in “The Story of Your Life” appears to be a gap between the past and the future, it is actually unified in the present that is implied until the end.
  Science fiction wizard Ted Chiang’s time writing is very unique. He not only regards time as a conventional fantasy element, but also explores possible changes in human thinking and the impact of such changes on life by reconstructing time. what a change. And the core of its time writing always points to the present of people’s life.