Friday, September 2, 2016

Ted Chiang is profiled in the New Yorker magazine by Joshua Rothman and here is the short story ''STORY OF YOUR LIFE'' (excerpted here, scroll down) now a Hollywood movie titled ARRIVAL


 1. Is Ted Chiang married? NO, according to Joshua Rothman's recent profile in the New Yorker magazine, but his longtime partner is Marcia Glover who he met at Microsoft in Seattle.....and they do not have children. They have a home in Seattle.

His Father a SUNY professor still lives on long island. Mother and sister live in Denver.  His parents were both born in Communist China and emigrated to Taiwan and then to the USA.

3. Ted also said to dr huang at Clark Univ in a sKype interview  that he has no emotional attachment to the town where he grew up. [Port Jefferson NY. Suburban long island.] And has rarely gone back.

Finally, a Hollywood SF alien movie with a linguist as the hero

 2012 press release:

As Seattle resident Ted Chiang's short story STORY OF YOUR LIFE now arrives in movie theaters as Hollywood movie titled ARRIVAL, some background on the short story and characters. See QUARTZ article above first.

Arrival is neither sequel nor reboot nor remake, though it is based on the beloved short story by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life.” The film originally had the same name, but it was changed in June to the more marketable and ominous-sounding Arrival. Paramount Pictures gave the movie a mid-November release date, indicating that the studio sees it as an awards contender.

Congratulations, linguists: You’re finally getting your big moment.

On Tuesday (Aug. 16), Paramount Pictures released the first full trailer for Arrival, a science-fiction film about a linguist (played by Amy Adams) trying to communicate with aliens who have mysteriously arrived (😉 ) on Earth. The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who helmed Prisoners and Sicario (both excellent) and is currently working on the Blade Runner sequel. Watch Amy Adams try to decipher an alien language below:

Films like Moon, Ex Machina, and Looper show it’s possible to make great, high-concept sci-fi movies with relatively small budgets (their budgets were $5 million, $15 million, and $30 million, respectively, compared with a bloated $165 million for Resurgence).

Arrival seems most similar to 2009’s Oscar-nominated District 9, which followed a race of aliens who arrive in Johannesburg and are immediately relegated to a slum, an obvious metaphor for apartheid. There are a few explosions and action sequences, but District 9 is an alien film that’s not actually about aliens at all (and its budget was a reasonable $30 million).

With a $50 million budget, Arrival lands somewhere between District 9 and Resurgence. To be sure, it’s still very much a Hollywood production, with an emerging director and famous actors (Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker star alongside Adams), but those expecting an action-packed battle between humans and aliens are likely to be surprised by what they get instead.


Heptapod B: Language of Gestalts

"Story of Your Life" proceeds contrapuntally, alternating between two storylines from the life of Louise Banks, a linguistics professor. Its characters are all racially unmarked. The first storyline recounts, in no particular chronological order, episodes from Louise's sometimes rocky relationship with her daughter, who we soon learn has died at age twenty-five in a rock-climbing accident. The second focuses on Louise and her partner Gary, a physicist and eventually the father of her daughter, both of whom are commissioned by the US military to learn the language of a race of aliens, which Gary calls "heptapods" on account of their seven limbs.

The two cultures suffuse both storylines. In regard to Louise's daughter's choice of profession, it becomes an intergenerational agon:

...after graduation, you'll be heading for a job as a financial analyst. I won't understand what you do there, I won't even understand your fascination with money ... I would prefer it if you'd pursue something without regard for its monetary rewards, but I'll have no complaints. My own mother could never understand why I couldn't just be a high school English teacher. You'll do what makes you happy, and that'll be all I ask for. (112-3)
Even as Louise offers the opposite of the pragmatic emphasis that leads to Asian American occupational segregation, the juxtaposition of "financial analyst" to "English teacher" creates a contrast drawn in no small part from a post-1965 modality of the two cultures conflict.
The second storyline engages the rigorous scientific description and extrapolation of "hard" SF, focusing occasionally on principles from physics, but mainly on techniques in linguistics for "monolingual discovery," or the learning of a language between subjects who do not share a mediating language. The story thus thematizes the two cultures as an opposition between the "soft" and "hard" sciences. Along these lines, despite Louise's practice of scientific linguistics, she is coded as being on the other side of a cultural divide from the "hard" science of physics. At one point, Gary confesses to her that he had given up trying to learn Heptapod: "I'm just no good at languages." To which she replies, "I suppose that's fair; I have to admit, I've given up on trying to learn the mathematics" (124). In regard to genre, Chiang's choice of linguistics as the focus of a "hard" SF story is an unusual one, since the field is, both within and outside of SF circles, stereotyped as a "soft" science. "Hard" SF is concerned with "the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone."44 What makes Chiang's treatment of linguistics align with "hard" SF is the rigor and intricacy with which he develops Heptapod B, as well as the laws of physics he uses to analogize certain aspects of it.45 Chiang's generic revision of the "soft" SF of linguistics as a "hard" SF extrapolation is one indication of his overarching concern with achieving a formal resolution to the two cultures conflict.46 Indeed, the very title of the story"Story of Your Life"casts everything that follows in this light by gesturing at the essence of the liberal arts.

The heptapod storyline becomes a vehicle for two thought experiments. The first posits a time-symmetrical language whose users possess a "simultaneous," as opposed to "sequential," consciousness that perceives all points in time at once, past, present, and future: a mode of consciousness appropriate to what philosophers of science call "block time" or the "block universe theory." A version of this theory is presented by the Time Traveller in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine: "Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time. There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it."47 As we will see, this theory is crucial to the story's postracial aesthetics.

The second thought experiment considers how this language might affect a sequential human consciousness vis-à-vis the theory of linguistic relativity. Also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this theory speculates that "The structure and lexicon of one's language influences how one perceives and conceptualizes the world, and they do so in a systematic way."48 "Story of Your Life" thus develops one of the prevailing interests in Chiang's work, the linguistic mediation of scientific reason and reality. In "The Evolution of Human Science," human scientists must decide how to interpret the impenetrable scientific research produced by super-intelligent "metahumans," so they begin developing techniques of "textual hermeneutics." "Seventy-Two Letters" poses the theory that "there [is] a lexical universe as well as a physical one, and bringing an object together with a compatible name [causes] the latent potentialities of both to be realized."49 The narrator of "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" observes, "We don't normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound."50 As we will see below, "Understand" centers on the novum of a language of gestalts and is in many ways an apprentice work to "Story of Your Life." For Chiang, the technologization of language is often a conduit for considerations of difference: intergenerational, racial, professional, etc.51

Upon arrival, the heptapods themselves remain in orbit, but they deploy one hundred and twelve wall-sized "looking glasses" to various sites on Earth to serve as two-way videoconferencing screens. Louise and Gary begin holding virtual meetings with the heptapods, who are patient and cooperative in teaching them their spoken and written languages, which Louise designates Heptapod A and B, respectively. These languages, Louise soon comes to realize, are completely separate: B is not "glottographic" like human writing, because it "conveys meaning without reference to speech" (108). Faced with the problem of how to categorize Heptapod B, Louise rejects the categories of logograms and ideograms, which appear to be obvious analogues. She disqualifies "logogram" because it implies a corresponding spoken word, and "ideogram" for the somewhat cryptic reason of "how it had been used in the past" (111). She settles on "semagrams," since the sentences of Heptapod B operate according to their own grammar and syntax. They look "almost like mandalas," she explains: the large, intricate, circular images representing the totality of the universe in Buddhist cosmology:

When a Heptapod B sentence grew fairly sizable, its visual impact was remarkable. If I wasn't trying to decipher it, the writing looked like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance. And the biggest sentences had an effect similar to that of psychedelic posters: sometimes eye-watering, sometimes hypnotic. (112)
Louise describes this use of space as a "two dimensional grammar," and then stumbles upon a crucial realization after asking a heptapod to demonstrate the stroke-order of a sentence. Its design is so intricate that "the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke" (123). She finds an analogy in Arabic calligraphy, which in some forms features strokes "so interconnected that none could be removed without redesigning the entire sentence ... But those designs had required careful planning by expert calligraphers. No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no human could" (123).

Only a simultaneous consciousnessa consciousness that perceives "block time"could construct a sentence in Heptapod B. This realization leads Louise to existential questions about determinism and agency, freedom, and coercion. "Within the context of simultaneous consciousness," she observes, "freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it's simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other" (137). This nihilistic approach to the freedom-coercion antinomy might symbolically resolve the tension between aesthetic freedom and the ethnographic imperative, but it does not appear that Chiang finds this to be a particularly satisfying solution. Given the relativity of agency within simultaneous consciousness, Louise wonders why the heptapods bother with communication at all. Her solution is that "For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place" (138, my emphasis). For a simultaneous mode of consciousness, the only difference between Louise's daughter being dead and alive is the linguistic performance of one state of being or the other. An event is "true" when its linguistic representation rises above the merely constative and achieves a union of content (the facticity of an event) and form (the linguistic performance of an event).

As Louise builds fluency in Heptapod B, she discovers that it is transforming her own consciousness. Her thoughts become "graphically coded," and she begins experiencing "trance-like moments" in which she experiences "past and future all at once." Via the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, she undergoes a racial transformation from human to human-heptapod hybrid that proceeds by language learning, not biology: in other words, a postracial racialization. We now understand that what we have thus far been reading as Louise's prosopopoeic address to her daughter has in fact been taking place in the tenseless, performative address of Heptapod B. The story's narration becomes, from the standpoint of this realization, a representation of Heptapod B, and thus of Louise's racial difference. This racialized mode of narration correlates to postrace aesthetics in its movement away from a mimetic economy of racial representation to a narrative one.

Interdependent Narration

"Story of Your Life" not only aestheticizes but performs Asian American postracial form. Louise's narration of her daughter's life, which proceeds through a fraught economy of the evident and inevident, can be read as a metaphor for the postracial. Because her daughter is never named, and because we meet her at so many disparate ages, she never completely resolves as a character; everything we know about her is mediated by her mother. Along the same lines as Chiang's and Alexander's concepts of race, she is an effect of language, and is no less real because of it. Shortly after she is born, Louise tells her:

I feel elated at this evidence of a unique mother-child bond, this certitude that you're the one I carried. Even if I had never laid eyes on you before, I'd be able to pick you out from a sea of babies: Not that one. No, not her either. Wait, that one over there.
Yes, that's her. She's mine. (144)
Louise's "certitude" is independent from visual evidence. By this time, Louise's consciousness has already been transformed by Heptapod B, and we know that her utterance here"She's mine"is a performative that initiates the parent-child relationship in language rather than through biology and birth. It is precisely this utterance, however, that makes her daughter truly dead:

An orderly will pull the sheet back to reveal your face. Your face will look wrong somehow, but I'll know it's you.
"Yes, that's her," I'll say. "She's mine." (95)
Even though her daughter's face looks "wrong," the inevidenther "certitude"prevails again. In simultaneous consciousness, Louise's daughter is always-already alive and dead, being born and dying. Heptapod B is thus not only a language adequate to a simultaneous consciousness, it is also adequate to the complicated ontology of Louise's daughter. Just as Louise's daughter is never named, Heptapod B is never shown; Chiang offers no illustrations. The progressive displacement of Heptapod B's representation from the visual to ekphrases and narrative is thus homologous with the postracial.

The contrapuntal narratives in "Story of Your Life" are, moreover, structured in the same way as the semagrams of Heptapod B sentences. For instance, it is never made explicit that Gary is the father of Louise's daughter until quite late in the story, yet clues are offered in what we might call interdependent narrations. Gary's impatience will reappear in his daughter in a subsequent section. At one point early on in their process of learning Heptapod B, Gary asks Louise, "So are we ready to start asking about their mathematics?" To which she responds, "We need a better grasp on this writing system before we begin anything else ... Patience, good sir" (110). In the next section, their daughter cannot wait to go to Hawaii. "I wanna be in Hawaii now," she whines, and Louise tells her, "Sometimes it's good to wait ... the anticipation makes it more fun when you get there" (111). At another moment in the story, after Louise realizes that Heptapod language is performative, we are given a scene from her daughter's childhood that illustrates her realization. Tired of reciting the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" for the umpteenth time, Louise decides to make a few changes. These her daughter rejects, insisting, "That's not how the story goes." Flabbergasted, Louise asks her why she wants to hear the story if she already knows it goes. She replies: "Cause [sic] I wanna hear it!" (138).

Scenes in one narrative illustrate aspects of the other in a manner clearly meant to mimic simultaneous consciousness rather than, say, the interconnectedness of leitmotif's progressive accrual of meaning and cohesive effect across a narrative space. Just as a story's quantum of pleasure is, for a child, undiminished by endless repetition, so for the heptapodsand possibly Chiang's readersdoes the performance of an already scripted future actually infuse that future with value: it makes that future "true."

Chiang stages the interdependency of the story's two narratives visually as well. In one scene, Louise's fourteen-year-old daughter is pestering her for an answer to a homework question: "Mom, what do you call it when both sides can win?" In a subsequent scene, set chronologically before her daughter has been conceived, Gary groans sarcastically in response to something a US diplomat says:

"If we handle ourselves correctly, both we and the heptapods can come out winners."
"You mean it's a non-zero-sum game?" Gary said in mock incredulity. "Oh my gosh."
"A non-zero-sum game."
"What?" You'll reverse course, heading back from your bedroom.
"When both sides can win: I just remembered, it's called a non-zero-sum game." (128)
Louise's daughter's statement: "A non-zero sum game" returns us to the homework scene from before, so it is as if Gary had answered her question more than fourteen years before she had asked itor, as if the time elapsed makes no meaningful difference.

These interdependent narrations, which become more apparent as the story proceeds, approximate the simultaneity of Heptapod B in narrative form, as well as Louise's hybrid racial consciousness. Indeed, Heptapod B's time-symmetry makes possible an infinite range of interdependent possibilities, over against the linear causality of sequential temporality.52


BONUS ITEM, the first part of the story and the last page:

by Ted Chiang
(c) 2099

Your father is about to ask me the question. This is the most important moment in our lives, and I want to pay attention, note every detail. Your dad and I have just come back from an evening out, dinner and a show; it's after midnight. We came out onto the patio to look at the full moon; then I told your dad I wanted to dance, so he humors me and now we're slow-dancing, a pair of thirtysomethings swaying back and forth in the moon-light like kids. I don't feel the night chill at all. And then your dad says, “Do you want to make a baby?” Right now your dad and I have been married for about two years, living on Ellis Avenue; when we move out you'll still be too young to remember the house, but we'll show you pictures of it, tell you stories about it. I'd love to tell you the story of this evening, the night you're conceived, but 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. Telling it to you any earlier wouldn't do any good; for most of your life you won't sit still to hear such a romantic—you'd say sappy—story. I remember the scenario of your origin you'll suggest when you're twelve. “The only reason you had me was so you could get a maid you wouldn't have to pay,” you'll say bitterly, dragging the vacuum cleaner out of the closet. “That's right,” I'll say. “Thirteen years ago I knew the carpets would need vacuuming around now, and having a baby seemed to be the cheapest and easiest way to get the job done. Now kindly get on with it.” “If you weren't my mother, this would be illegal,” you'll say, seething as you unwind the power cord and plug it into the wall outlet. That will be in the house on Belmont Street. I'll live to see strangers occupy both houses: the one you're conceived in and the one you grow up in. Your dad and I will sell the first a couple years after your arrival. I'll sell the second shortly after your departure. By then Nelson and I will have moved into our farmhouse, and your dad will be living with what's-her-name. I know how this story ends; I think about it a lot. I also think a lot about how it began, just a few years ago, when ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows. The government said next to nothing about them, while the tabloids said every possible thing. And then I got a phone call, a request for a meeting.

I spotted them waiting in the hallway, outside my office. They made an odd couple; one wore a military uniform and a crew cut, and carried an aluminum briefcase. He seemed to be assessing his surroundings with a critical eye. The other one was easily identifiable as an academic: full beard and mustache, wearing corduroy. He was browsing through the overlapping sheets stapled to a bulletin board nearby. “Colonel Weber, I presume?” I shook hands with the soldier. “Louise Banks.” “Dr. Banks. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us,” he said. “Not at all; any excuse to avoid the faculty meeting.” Colonel Weber indicated his companion. “This is Dr. Gary Donnelly, the physicist I mentioned when we spoke on the phone.” “Call me Gary,” he said as we shook hands. “I'm anxious to hear what you have to say.” We entered my office. I moved a couple of stacks of books off the second guest chair, and we all sat down. “You said you wanted me to listen to a recording. I presume this has something to do with the aliens?” “All I can offer is the recording,” said Colonel Weber. “Okay, let's hear it.” Colonel Weber took a tape machine out of his briefcase and pressed PLAY. The recording sounded vaguely like that of a wet dog shaking the water out of its fur. “What do you make of that?” he asked. I withheld my comparison to a wet dog. “What was the context in which this recording was made?” “I'm not at liberty to say.” “It would help me interpret those sounds. Could you see the alien while it was speaking? Was it doing anything at the time?” “The recording is all I can offer.” “You won't be giving anything away if you tell me that you've seen the aliens; the public's assumed you have.” Colonel Weber wasn't budging. “Do you have any opinion about its linguistic properties?” he asked. “Well, it's clear that their vocal tract is substantially different from a human vocal tract. I assume that these aliens don't look like humans?” The colonel was about to say something noncommittal when Gary Donnelly asked, “Can you make any guesses based on the tape?” “Not really. It doesn't sound like they're using a larynx to make those sounds, but that doesn't tell me what they look like.” “Anything—is there anything else you can tell us?” asked Colonel Weber. I could see he wasn't accustomed to consulting a civilian. “Only that establishing communications is going to be really difficult because of the difference in anatomy. They're almost certainly using sounds that the

human vocal tract can't reproduce, and maybe sounds that the human ear can't distinguish.” “You mean infra- or ultrasonic frequencies?” asked Gary Donnelly. “Not specifically. I just mean that the human auditory system isn't an absolute acoustic instrument; It's optimized to recognize the sounds that a human larynx makes. With an alien vocal system, all bets are off.” I shrugged. “Maybe we'll be able to hear the difference between alien phonemes, given enough practice, but it's possible our ears simply can't recognize the distinctions they consider meaningful. In that case we'd need a sound spectrograph to know what an alien is saying.” Colonel Weber asked, “Suppose I gave you an hour's worth of recordings; how long would it take you to determine if we need this sound spectrograph or not?” “I couldn't determine that with just a recording no matter how much time I had. I'd need to talk with the aliens directly.” The colonel shook his head. “Not possible.” 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. So if you want to learn the aliens' language, someone with training in field linguistics—whether it's me or someone else—will have to talk with an alien. Recordings alone aren't sufficient.” Colonel Weber frowned. “You seem to be implying that no alien could have learned human languages by monitoring our broadcasts.” “I doubt it. They'd need instructional material specifically designed to teach human languages to nonhumans. Either that, or interaction with a human. If they had either of those, they could learn a lot from TV, but otherwise, they wouldn't have a starting point.” The colonel clearly found this interesting; evidently his philosophy was, the less the aliens knew, the better. Gary Donnelly read the colonel's expression too and rolled his eyes. I suppressed a smile. Then Colonel Weber asked, “Suppose you were learning a new language by talking to its speakers; could you do it without teaching them English?” “That would depend on how cooperative the native speakers were. They'd almost certainly pick up bits and pieces while I'm learning their language, but it wouldn't have to be much if they're willing to teach. On the other hand, if they'd rather learn English than teach us their language, that would make things far more difficult.” The colonel nodded. “I'll get back to you on this matter.” The request for that meeting was perhaps the second most momentous phone call in my life. The first, of course, will be the one from Mountain Rescue. At that point your dad and I will be speaking to each other maybe once a year, tops. After I get that phone call, though, the first thing I'll do will be to call your father. He and I will drive out together to perform the identification, a long silent car ride. I remember the morgue, all tile and stainless steel, the hum of refrigeration and smell of antiseptic. An orderly will pull the sheet back to reveal your face. Your face will look wrong somehow, but I'll know it's you. “Yes, that's her,” I'll say. “She's mine.”

You'll be twenty-five then. The MP checked my badge, made a notation on his clipboard, and opened the gate; I drove the off-road vehicle into the encampment, a small village of tents pitched by the Army in a farmer's sun-scorched pasture. At the center of the encampment was one of the alien devices, nicknamed “looking glasses.” According to the briefings I'd attended, there were nine of these in the United States, one hundred and twelve in the world. The looking glasses acted as twoway communication devices, presumably with the ships in orbit. No one knew why the aliens wouldn't talk to us in person; fear of cooties, maybe. A team of scientists, including a physicist and a linguist, was assigned to each looking glass; Gary Donnelly and I were on this one. Gary was waiting for me in the parking area. We navigated a circular maze of concrete barricades until we reached the large tent that covered the looking glass itself. In front of the tent was an equipment cart loaded with goodies borrowed from the school's phonology lab; I had sent it ahead for inspection by the Army. Also outside the tent were three tripod-mounted video cameras whose lenses peered, through windows in the fabric wall, into the main room. 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. Gary held open the tent flap and gestured for me to enter. “Step right up,” he said, circus-barker-style. “Marvel at creatures the likes of which have never been seen on God's green earth.” “And all for one slim dime,” I murmured, walking through the door. At the moment the looking glass was inactive, resembling a semicircular mirror over ten feet high and twenty feet across. On the brown grass in front of the looking glass, an arc of white spray paint outlined the activation area. Currently the area contained only a table, two folding chairs, and a power strip with a cord leading to a generator outside. The buzz of fluorescent lamps, hung from poles along the edge of the room, commingled with the buzz of flies in the sweltering heat. Gary and I looked at each other, and then began pushing the cart of equipment up to the table. As we crossed the paint line, the looking glass appeared to grow transparent; it was as if someone was slowly raising the illumination behind tinted glass. The illusion of depth was uncanny; I felt I could walk right into it. Once the looking glass was fully lit it resembled a life-sized diorama of a semicircular room. The room contained a few large objects that might have been furniture, but no aliens. There was a door in the curved rear wall. We busied ourselves connecting everything together: microphone, sound spectrograph, portable computer, and speaker. As we worked, I frequently glanced at the looking glass, anticipating the aliens' arrival. Even so I jumped when one of them entered. It looked like a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs. It was radially symmetric, and any of its limbs could serve as an arm or a leg. The one in front of me was walking around on four legs, three non-adjacent arms curled up at its sides. Gary called them “heptapods.” I'd been shown videotapes, but I still gawked. Its limbs had no distinct joints; anatomists guessed they might be supported by vertebral columns. Whatever their underlying structure, the heptapod's limbs conspired to move it in a disconcertingly fluid manner. Its “torso” rode atop the rippling limbs as smoothly as a hovercraft. Seven lidless eyes ringed the top of the heptapod's body. It walked back to the doorway from which it entered, made a brief sputtering sound, and returned to the center of the room followed by another

heptapod; at no point did it ever turn around. Eerie, but logical; with eyes on all sides, any direction might as well be “forward.” Gary had been watching my reaction. “Ready?” he asked. I took a deep breath. “Ready enough.” I'd done plenty of fieldwork before, in the Amazon, but it had always been a bilingual procedure: either my informants knew some Portuguese, which I could use, or I'd previously gotten an introduction to their language from the local missionaries. This would be my first attempt at conducting a true monolingual discovery procedure. It was straightforward enough in theory, though. I walked up to the looking glass and a heptapod on the other side did the same. The image was so real that my skin crawled. I could see the texture of its gray skin, like corduroy ridges arranged in whorls and loops. There was no smell at all from the looking glass, which somehow made the situation stranger. I pointed to myself and said slowly, “Human.” Then I pointed to Gary. “Human.” Then I pointed at each heptapod and said, “What are you?” No reaction. I tried again, and then again. One of the heptapods pointed to itself with one limb, the four terminal digits pressed together. That was lucky. In some cultures a person pointed with his chin; if the heptapod hadn't used one of its limbs, I wouldn't have known what gesture to look for. I heard a brief fluttering sound, and saw a puckered orifice at the top of its body vibrate; it was talking. Then it pointed to its companion and fluttered again. I went back to my computer; on its screen were two virtually identical spectrographs representing the fluttering sounds. I marked a sample for playback. I pointed to myself and said “Human” again, and did the same with Gary. Then I pointed to the heptapod, and played back the flutter on the speaker. The heptapod fluttered some more. The second half of the spectrograph for this utterance looked like a repetition: call the previous utterances [flutter1], then this one was [flutter2flutter1]. I pointed at something that might have been a heptapod chair. “What is that?” The heptapod paused, and then pointed at the “chair” and talked some more. The spectrograph for this differed distinctly from that of the earlier sounds: [flutter3]. Once again, I pointed to the “chair” while playing back [flutter3]. The heptapod replied; judging by the spectrograph, it looked like [flutter3flutter2]. Optimistic interpretation: the heptapod was confirming my utterances as correct, which implied compatibility between heptapod and human patterns of discourse. Pessimistic interpretation: it had a nagging cough. At my computer I delimited certain sections of the spectrograph and typed in a tentative gloss for each: “heptapod” for [flutter1], “yes” for [flutter2], and “chair” for [flutter3]. Then I typed “Language: Heptapod A” as a heading for all the utterances. Gary watched what I was typing. “What's the ‘A’ for?” “It just distinguishes this language from any other ones the heptapods might use,” I said. He nodded. “Now let's try something, just for laughs.” I pointed at each heptapod and tried to mimic the sound of [flutter1], “heptapod.” After a long pause, the first heptapod said something and then the second one said something else, neither of whose spectrographs resembled anything said before. I couldn't tell if they were speaking to each other or to me since they had no faces to turn. I tried pronouncing [flutter1] again, but there was no reaction. “Not even close,”

“Not even close,” I grumbled. “I'm impressed you can make sounds like that at all,” said Gary. “You should hear my moose call. Sends them running.” I tried again a few more times, but neither heptapod responded with anything I could recognize. Only when I replayed the recording of the heptapod's pronunciation did I get a confirmation; the heptapod replied with [flutter2], “yes.” “So we're stuck with using recordings?” asked Gary. I nodded. “At least temporarily.” “So now what?” “Now we make sure it hasn't actually been saying ‘aren't they cute’ or ‘look what they're doing now.’ Then we see if we can identify any of these words when that other heptapod pronounces them.” I gestured for him to have a seat. “Get comfortable; this'll take a while.” In 1770, Captain Cook's ship Endeavour ran aground on the coast of Queensland, Australia. While some of his men made repairs, Cook led an exploration party and met the aboriginal people. One of the sailors pointed to the animals that hopped around with their young riding in pouches, and asked an aborigine what they were called. The aborigine replied, “Kanguru.” From then on Cook and his sailors referred to the animals by this word. It wasn't until later that they learned it meant “What did you say?” I tell that story in my introductory course every year. It's almost certainly untrue, and I explain that afterwards, but it's a classic anecdote. Of course, the anecdotes my undergraduates will really want to hear are ones featuring the heptapods; for the rest of my teaching career, that'll be the reason many of them sign up for my courses. So I'll show them the old videotapes of my sessions at the looking glass, and the sessions that the other linguists conducted; the tapes are instructive, and they'll be useful if we're ever visited by aliens again, but they don't generate many good anecdotes. When it comes to language-learning anecdotes, my favorite source is child language acquisition. I remember one afternoon when you are five years old, after you have come home from kindergarten. You'll be coloring with your crayons while I grade papers. “Mom,” you'll say, using the carefully casual tone reserved for requesting a favor, “can I ask you something?” “Sure, sweetie. Go ahead.” “Can I be, um, honored?” I'll look up from the paper I'm grading. “What do you mean?” “At school Sharon said she got to be honored.” “Really? Did she tell you what for?” “It was when her big sister got married. She said only one person could be, um, honored, and she was it.” “Ah, I see. You mean Sharon was maid of honor?”


I'll feel elated at this evidence of a unique motherchild bond, this certitude that you're the one I carried. Even if I had never laid eyes on you before, I'd be able to pick you out from a sea of babies: Not that one. No, not her either. Wait, that one over there. Yes, that's her. She's mine. That final “gift exchange” was the last we ever saw of the heptapods. All at once, all over the world, their looking glasses became transparent and their ships left orbit. Subsequent analysis of the looking glasses revealed them to be nothing more than sheets of fused silica, completely inert. The information from the final exchange session described a new class of superconducting materials, but it later proved to duplicate the results of research just completed in Japan: nothing that humans didn't already know. We never did learn why the heptapods left, any more than we learned what brought them here, or why they acted the way they did. My own new awareness didn't provide that type of knowledge; the heptapods' behavior was presumably explicable from a sequential point of view, but we never found that explanation. I would have liked to experience more of the heptapods' world-view, to feel the way they feel. Then, perhaps I could immerse myself fully in the necessity of events, as they must, instead of merely wading in its surf for the rest of my life. But that will never come to pass. I will continue to practice the heptapod languages, as will the other linguists on the looking glass teams, but none of us will ever progress any further than we did when the heptapods were here. Working with the heptapods changed my life. I met your father and learned Heptapod B, both of which make it possible for me to know you now, here on the patio in the moonlight. Eventually, many years from now, I'll be without your father, and without you. All I will have left from this moment is the heptapod language. So I pay close attention, and note every detail. From the beginning I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain? Will I achieve a minimum, or a maximum? These questions are in my mind when your father asks me, “Do you want to make a baby?” And I smile and answer, “Yes,” and I unwrap his arms from around me, and we hold hands as we walk inside to make love, to make you.


from 2012 press release

I love a good sci-fi concept and here’s a new one for us, from Ted Chiang‘s novella, Story of Your Life: A linguist is hired by the US government to decipher the language and therefore figure out the intentions of an alien race that have recently landed on earth.

That is a pretty suspenseful setup and if it goes the way I very much think it might, it could well offer a meaningful statement on our society and need to communicate, to overcome language and cultural barriers.

Deadline are reporting that Filmnation Entertainment and Lava Bear Films are to finance the film adaptation of Story of Your Life. The movie will be directed by comercial director Nic Mathieu and has been scripted by Eric Heisserer.

Heisserer has been tweeting and he is clearly excited about the project.
Filmnation’s Aaron Ryder added:
If you look at Ted Chiang’s powerful source material, how deftly Eric and the team at 21 Laps handled the adaptation, and what Nic’s vision brings to the film, it’s no surprise that there’s been so much competitive interest.
And now, I expect, film geek interest too.



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Sciousness said...

Chiang's determinism and Einstein's block universe could have been left in play. Louise's affirmation would have been simply amor fati. Nietzsche's "joy of the circle." See, most recently, The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time (SUNY Press)


1. Is Ted Chiang married, NO, but longtime partner Marcia Glover who he met at Microsoft .....they have children?....NO

Father still lives on long island. Mother and sister live in Denver.

3. He also said to dr huang at Clark Univ sKype interview that he had no emotional attachment to the town where he grew up. [Port Jefferson NY. Suburban long island.] And has rarely gone back.


Chiang forty nine yrs old. glover sixty two yrs old.