There are two main threads to the plot, both featuring linguist Dr. Louise Banks. One covers a first contact story where she is engaged by military to learn and translate the strange language of aliens called “heptapods”. The other one jumps around in the episodic description of her daughter’s life at different ages.
The heptapods are completely different from humans, and such are their spoken and written languages. Central to the understanding of the aliens is that they don’t think linearly in cause-effect pairs, which is explained by Fermat’s light bending principle.
As Banks achieves a growing understanding of this complex language, her way of perceiving time is radically changed and she adapts to it. She is even able to predict the future, exemplified by the her daughter’s life.
Linguistics, yay! Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, yay!
Chiang elaborates the topic of free will with this invented language and suggests a universe where predictions don’t exclude free will (because it is exercised without affecting the outcome). He explains this quite difficult idea with a very practical explanation of Fermat’s principle in our cause-effect way of thinking versus the alien symmetric, “integral” way of thinking.
The story’s structure is absolutely awesome and not just to show off or play around in an experimental way: It has an interesting and satisfying connection to the story of Banks’ daughter and to the first contact – it is an essential result of Banks’ changed perception.
The daughter-story is told in second person future tense, as if Banks would tell the story at the night of her daughter’s conception. Chiang doesn’t add more than is absolutely needed to transport the lifetime and relationship stories to the reader.
I also liked how the aliens weren’t antrophomorphized but remained completely alien in appearance, behaviour, and language.
Chiang might not have a formal linguistic background, but from my experience I can assert that he’s done a very good job at some complex theories like language structures, acquisition of language, and the consequences of the weak Sapir-Worf hypothesis.
The story is not only about linguistics but also about physical effects which he explained and connected in such a fine way to the plot and its theories that I am full of admiration.
And lastly it is a great characterization of a person in an extreme situation: Banks knows that her daughter will die – right at the story’s start she says: “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.” Chiang hints at Banks’ pains with dream sequences and the way she holds her daughter’s hand when they climb a stair.
Believable character, interesting plot, two sciences, and philisophical questions? Go read that story!