After the grandiose theories on heptapod evolution that I formulated in my last blog post, the latter half of “Story of Your Life” was a bit of a letdown. It turns out that their grasp of Fermat’s principle doesn’t hint at aquatic beginnings (though I still hold that the heptapods must have an aquatic ancestor), but rather an alternative, nonlinear perception of time that allows heptapods to think of maximizing and minimizing trajectories rather than cause and effect as humans do. This different perception means that heptapods know or experience their entire timeline—past, present, and future—simultaneously. It explains why the heptapods never bothered to ask the narrator questions about their own language, doesn’t it?
As the narrator learns Heptapod B, she begins to perceive her entire timeline simultaneously as well, as shown in her blocky memory acquisition and the wonky tenses she uses while relating the story of her daughter’s life. As happens whenever we learn anything, especially new languages, the structure of the narrator’s brain changed. It must have changed in such a way that opened up her inner eye, though, because by the end of her experience with the heptapods, she knows the future and passively accepts that her fate is now predetermined in her perception.
I think this concept is cool—it’s simply linguistic determinism taken to the extreme—but I really don’t think it could actually happen. How might a perception of time like that of the heptapods naturally evolve in a population? I can’t even speculate. It would certainly be adaptive, if knowledge of the future could be acted upon. The narrator’s experience does not definitively prove that it cannot be acted upon—she simply didn’t want to change her story because she wanted to live it. A species that knew the future would know the locations of food, water, shelter, mates, and competitors, as well as the entire evolution of their species. If it didn’t become extinct due to widespread existential crisis, such a species would do very well.
This knowledge also calls into question the heptapods’ motivation for contacting and teaching the humans their language. Why would they impart knowledge of the future to an alien species? Was their goal to make humans an enlightened race? To warn us of our future mistakes? To place our thinking processes on their own level so that they could befriend us? If knowledge of the future cannot be acted upon, then what would the point be? Maybe it was simply a move to maximize good will among humans or minimize the time it takes for us to advance as a species.