Weeding Womb

Story of Your Life

Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Strange. A good start that charges towards an inevitable end. Basically, a woman is telling her as-yet unborn child the child's entire life, right up to its accidental death at 25. How she's privy to such truths is revealed in the story. Then we get to the major plot, which is mixed with the woman's recollections. Seems she's one of a group of linguists who will be deciphering the language of some aliens parked in Earth orbit who want to communicate.

Now comes the big problem. If I tell you the rest it ruins the story. Oh well, I've done it before, and I'll do it again.

Seems that many of the problems with communicating with the aliens stems from differing points of view - the aliens see everything as a whole, over time; we see things as they happen. As the main character learns the language, she starts seeing things like the aliens do and remembering things that didn't happen yet - all of reality suddenly opens up to her.

Now comes the whole thing about fate vs. free will. The story makes the semi-convincing argument that there's both. We see events as individual events or as cause-and-effect, and free will is basically a mix of context-free or cause-and-effect events. The aliens see the big picture, and ergo everything is predetermined. Fate is knowing everyone's free will in advance; free will is not knowing about fate. It sort of makes sense, and this is the big revelation of the story.

But now it falls flat. The main character, instead of reveling in her knowledge of the future, goes through it like an automaton. All the world's a stage, and she knows the script. Yawn. This is why people believe in free will - because fate is dull. Not even one side joke that next week someone will invent something new and amazing and she knew about it but let them invent it - rather, it's like everyone's a sentient cog in a mindless machine. People improvise, but they follow the unseen script. Yawn. Makes me wonder about the 15 pages after this revelation, since, by rights, they're now irrelevant. Nothing of interest is going to happen, since it's already known. It's like playing poker with all the cards in the open - where's the challenge? Where's the mystery? Where's the humor when the punchlines are all known?

Now the plot holes: Presumably - unless this is the main character's cosmic joke that's devoid of humor - the unborn child will see this text some time in the future. At which point she'll know she's going to die if she goes mountain climbing on a certain day. Since the main character implies that people who've seen the 'Book of Ages' don't speak of their discovery, then it's obvious that the child either never sees this narrative (making it irrelevant and a rather transparent plot device) or does see it and develops a suicidal streak.

Actually, suicide is a viable alternative to living in a world that suddenly goes from being new and random to being a world where your mother wrote your life story while you were a sperm and an ovum.

To digress, that's what gets me. The main character is with her husband, who she remembers when he signed up as her coworker. But she also 'remembers' that he did it just to get into her pants. She also 'remembers' that they'll divorce in the future. So what's the point of marriage, of intimacy, of 'making love' as she calls it? It's not love if she's just doing it to birth a kid who'll definitely die in 25 years. Oh, wow. He's doing it at least in part because he can't see the future and he wants a kid. At least he thinks he'll be there for the long term, and that the child will outlive him. He has free will. She's a cog. It's all the same. What's the point?

But I'm ranting. Back to plot holes. Then there is the final paragraph where the main character wonders, as she's about to perform the sex act which will result in the child's creation, if she's working towards a future of pain or pleasure.

Ummmm.... She knows. She's spoken of the good times and the bad, making it obvious to me that she's there for both, if she'd just let it happen and not think it over too much. Yet she can't get out of this vast alien world view that everything is there to attain some kind of maximum or minimum. For all she says she wishes she was more like the aliens, she's clearly not thinking like a human - to me, life is random or it's worthless. I'd love to know the future, but not what my own future actions are. She knows both, and it bites. So, she's headed for a maximum of tedium, of you ask me.

Final assessment: The first 45 pages tell a good story about interaction between different cultures that collapse in last fifteen utterly fatalist pages.

The Archon

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