STORY OF YOUR LIFE
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 moonlight 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 crewcut, 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 Donelly 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 Donelly.
“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 two-way 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-size 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 intro 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?”
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,” 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.”
Copyright © 2016 by Ted Chiang. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.