Some believe that different languages change the way you perceive the world. In “Stories of Your Life”, by Ted Chiang, an alien language can change your perceptions even more profoundly. You can tell something is up from the beginning:
Your father is about to ask me the question…. “Do you want to make a baby?”
It’s present tense, but speaking of a moment in the past of the child being addressed. As Dr. Louise Banks tells the stories of her daughter’s life, it’s always in future tense. When she recalls how she learned the languages, spoken and written, of the alien heptapods, that is told in past tense. Present tense is reserved for just one moment, always the same moment.
As Dr. Banks works with the heptapods, we join in solving the puzzle of communication. What seems simple to us is complex to the heptapods, and vice versa. What she learns changes her views on the laws of physics, the nature of time, and the question of free will. The sections about her daughter often seem to comment on the encounters with the aliens, going back and forth in time. But in the end, we come back to just one moment, always the same moment.
While we experience time sequentially, and read the story sequentially, in that moment when you’ve just finished and you can hold all the stories in one pattern, the patterns of what comes before and what comes after form an unbroken whole, in just one moment, always the same moment.