Study Questions for Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" [1998]

Chiang's story extends the address of earlier SF time travel stories to the butterfly effect by rendering irrelevant the idea that it is possible to change the future by effecting changes in the past. Instead, as Masri notes in her introduction to the story, Chiang raises questions about "foreknowledge, predestination, and free will" (390). While the story involves multiple issues seemingly separate from a philosophical conversation about time, including mother/daughter relationships, marriage and divorce, the relation of language to constructions of reality, each issue also seems to be inextricably linked to notions of time and free will. As you read the story, consider some of the following issues:

  1. After you complete the story, is it possible to rearrange the details into a linear plot. That is, can you reconstruct the story to produce a narrative that moves from the earliest moment in time mentioned step by step through all of the events in chronological order? Is it desirable to do so, or is Chiang's non-linear plot necessary to his philosophical point, to his thesis?
  2. Emphasize the physical description of the Heptapods. Are their written and spoken languages somehow a function of their bodies' radial symmetry? If so, what does this suggest about the relation of our anatomy to the development of human languages?
  3. Ultimately, how does the Heptapod language function in the story to explain how Louise Banks can live simultaneously in the past, present, and future? Through that language, is Chiang suggesting that language conditions the reality that we experience?
  4. Why is Louise Banks's false story of Captain Cook's encounter with aboriginal people and his naming of kangaroos [396] included in the story? What are we supposed to learn from her presentation? How is it connected to the sentence, "The rabbit is ready to eat" (418)?
  5. How does Fermat's Principle of Least Resistance [explained on 408, and further discussed on 412 and 413] imply a philosophical position central to the story?
  6. While stories like "Vintage Season" suggest that changing your own present by creating minor alterations in the past is possible, Chiang's "Story of Your Life" suggests that you cannot change the future even if you knew the future and--according to Masri--asks the question, "If you knew the future but could not change it, would you do anything differently?" (390). Do the final two paragraphs of the story answer this question? Do those paragraphs comment on the predestination and the existence of free will?