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With magnifier in hand, she flips through the tissue-thin leaves until she locates the story of her life. The thought of doing just that had crossed her mind, but being a contrary sort, she now resolves to refrain from betting on the ponies altogether. The Book of Ages cannot be wrong; this scenario is based on the premise that a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future. How can these two facts be reconciled? A volume like the Book of Ages is a logical impossibility, for the precise reason that its existence would result in the above contradiction.
And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness. Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person?
What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would? Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it. Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the heptapods saw it.
Two very different interpretations. The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available. When the ancestors of humans and heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness, they both perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the world-views that ultimately arose were the end result of that divergence.
Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose. My mind was cast in the mold of human, sequential languages, and no amount of immersion in an alien language can completely reshape it.
My world-view is an amalgam of human and heptapod. Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present. It is the period during which I know Heptapod B well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with Flapper and Raspberry and ending with my death.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive—during those glimpses—that entire epoch as a simultaneity. 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.
The message is one of acceptance and taking life as a whole, for both good and ill. There are many problems with the time-travel interpretation, which require assuming that much of the story is simply irrelevant technobabble, the symbolism is to be ignored, and that Chiang, a master of world building, failed to note the simplest implications which render his world internally incoherent:. What do stories have to do with time-travel? Why the second-person narrative framing of the daughter being told the story by Louise? Can someone please explain? Why is the emphasis on Heptapod physics teaching the human physicists next to nothing, when transmitting information back in time would be a revolution?
Why the emphasis on perception? Does it really require time travel for a Heptapod to read a page as a single whole? But nevertheless, the universe continues as before, regardless of whether one perceives it as a unity or as many pieces, and the convincingness of the experience has little or no relationship to the truth of the perceptions. Chiang knows that none of the discussed topics provide a realistic mechanism, yet he does not define his world with any FTL or novel physics.
He also knows that Sapir-Whorf is merely a psychological claim; there has never been any serious prospect that Sapir-Whorf could justify something like precognition or time travel. A linear sentence can be read forward and backwards, but still has an ordering. Will I achieve a minimum, or a maximum?
And why does she not know why the Heptapods are leaving? And why would the students ever be indifferent or bored? And if Louise is the only person capable of it, why is she special? A close read shows no examples of Louise acting in a way that requires knowledge of the future beyond ordinary cognition and creative license in recall:. S scientists on our agenda with the heptapods. While the lecture and interaction with her future husband Gary have great significance, this significance is because she is able to recall memories of it, not because of any time-travel.
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. 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. The phrase binds the beginning and end together… as a story, in retrospect, once the outcome is known. Louise has nightmares about bad things happening to her daughter and seeing her in the morgue, both before and after she dies.
That is what happens to humans. As Vonnegut says, it is not hard to see the future of your babies, nor your closest friends, and Linke and his wife knew when they married each other that the other would one day die. 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.
I also think a lot about how it began, just a few years ago, when ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows…. 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? Having learned to think like a Heptapod, the elderly Louise can easily think of the past as present and attempts to pin down her true temporal location by looking at the tense ignore that she is a temporally unreliable narrator the level of atemporal thinking increases through the story.
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As she tells us, during her post-Heptapod life, her thinking in Heptapod grows and over those decades, she becomes able to think of increasing stretches of her life as a single whole which she feels as present:. With one fall, a sequence of life events suddenly snaps into place as a story with a beginning, an arc, and an end. Meaning is understood retroactively. The owl flies at dusk. A fictional example of this would be Paul Atreides in Dune Messiah , whose prescience allows him to see visions of the present and act despite being blind—but only as long as he executes the actions which bring about the vision, thereby keeping the visions reflective of reality; on the other hand, Paul always has the choice to break out of the vision, and eventually does so, so his situation is not fully analogous.
Chad Orzel asks, from this perspective, whether the use of variational principles really works to justify time-travel:. In the context of the story, this is presented as requiring knowledge of both the start and end points in advance. The thing is, when I try to think about the variational approach, this explanation ends up seeming a little arbitrary, in a manner similar to the ever-popular anthropic principle.
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You can use variational principles to calculate the optimal path between two points, but the choice of points is essentially arbitrary. There are an infinite number of light rays emanating from point A that never pass through point B at all. If you know points A and B in advance, the variational calculus will give you all the points in between, which seems really impressive from point B.
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Which undercuts the whole premise of the story a little bit. Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation.
Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation? At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. Please perform my funeral as a monk. The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk.
In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation. Controlled or not controlled? The same dice shows two faces. Not controlled or controlled, Both are a grievous error. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?
When the bell sounds, each puts on his robe and goes to the meditation hall.
But Ummon asks: Why? There is an old saying that whatever comes in through the gates is foreign.
The gates are the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. If we decide, move, and act by the senses, we obey foreign commands. In response to our environment, we feel pressures, are easily upset, become nervous. This is one of the characteristics of modern life. The unenlightened one does things because he must do them; the enlightened one acts because he wants to. Unmon points to the center. What would it mean to think of everything in teleological terms? This is similar to points Drescher makes in Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics : the laws of physics are generally time-symmetrical.
Physical events can run backwards or forwards, there is no inherent arrow of time. There are many in our time who possess the result of the whole of existence and do not know how to account for the slightest thing…It is quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backward.
But then one forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forward. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with temporal life never being able to be properly understood, precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest to adopt the position: backward. Since the temporal and atemporal perspectives are equivalent, and make all the same predictions once the start and end points are fixed , we can conceive of psychologies different from our temporal perspective, as different from us as are octopuses or Portia spiders or animals or plants.
The present tells us about both the past and the future—a brain could try to understand the universe by taking the present and extrapolating forward, but it also can take the present and extrapolate backward. Since, therefore, two methods of studying effects in Nature lie open to us, one by means of effective causes, which is commonly called the direct method, the other by means of final causes, the mathematician uses each with equal success… Likewise, in the same way that you control the parts of the future by taking actions, you also control parts of the past.
Oh, oh, oh, oh! Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam engine that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears. Oh, oh! We live, knowing we will die, but not how or when; we have children, knowing they too die, but not how or when; we read a story, knowing all stories end, but not how or when—all in the hope that in the end, it is worth it. The Feynman Lectures on Physics : Typically the first part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end. Once I have the destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that.
Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I write the rest of the story in almost random order. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just fill in backwards and forwards. How do you classify your writing? Science fiction is very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know. When philosophers propose thought experiments as a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often sound a lot like science fiction.
I am your father. They are silver, and were changed to ruby for the movie to show up better in color film. The musical Wicked amusingly splits the difference by having a spell turn the silver shoes into the ruby slippers. Ted Chiang, podcast interview :. Also as another example, the first Terminator film is an example of this; the second Terminator is not but the first Terminator film does posit a fixed timeline. For some of this background, see Terekhovich Many of your stories play with the implications of knowing the future. What fascinates you about the nature of Time? The question of free will.
I think free will is what underlies most everything interesting about time travel. The idea that you can create a paradox assumes that you have free will; even the idea of multiple timelines assumes it, because it assumes that you can make choices. Time travel, or knowing the future, makes the question very concrete. Fred Hoyle came up with the mechanics of how stars produce heavier elements that end up in us being here. There was an Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell ; I listened to one of his interviews, and he was describing an ecstatic experience he had on the way back to the Earth from the Moon.
He had a very intense bodily experience of that fact, that the matter in his body was made in an older generation of stars. It was a kind of revelatory experience, and it was based on a piece of scientific knowledge. So my question is, can scientific knowledge lead to new kinds of experience, or are they just religious experiences in a different form?
For example, I recently heard this ethnobotanist, Dennis McKenna , on the radio, talking about his experience taking a powerful hallucinogen. He could see photosynthesis actually happening; he could see water molecules actually being processed in the chloroplasts of plant cells. He also felt this incredible sense of oneness, a feeling that humanity was part of this planetary organism. He himself admitted that he already knew how photosynthesis works, and I think the fact that he knew this contributed to his hallucinatory experience.
You have very specific views on the difference between magic and science.
Can you talk about that? But I think that there does exist an useful distinction to be made between magic and science.
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