3. Language and physics


Ted Chiang spends a lot of time in the story developing an analogy between two complementary ways in which the laws of physics can be described - local variables vs global conservation principles. He then connects this to how humans and heptapods approach history. Did this work for you? Did it make the aliens more than humans in funny dress?


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    The aliens were definitely not humans in funny dress. They were very alien. It helped that we never really meet them, and that they remain enigmatic right to the end of the story. That worked better for me than in the film, where the aliens had come to earth with, apparently, some heavy handed message about unity.

    I there was something about the laws of physics and locals vs global variables, I'm afraid it went over my head LOL.

    One aspect I quite liked from the story was the 'exchange' proposed by aliens being a more or less random exchange, rather than a barter. The term 'zero-sum-game' was used in both the film and the story, but in different contexts. In the film, this described how all nations could benefit from contact with the aliens and there would be no losers. In the story, however, this was more about how both the aliens and the humans could both benefit.

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    edited January 4

    I had no problem following the math arguments or the linguistics elements. Then again, I worked as a technical writer for decades with physicists, explaining what they meant to newbies in a form they could understand - and my game writing partner is a plasma physicist - so it was pretty much in my wheelbox. There was never a ghost of a chance those aliens would be taken as humans in funny dress!

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    I also liked the alien-ness of the visitors. The physics concepts were already familiar to me, so there was nothing new there. I spent some time thinking about how that approach would work in terms of biology of the heptapod's brains. But essentially, it's a story about some arcane discussion of the teleology of a mathematical trick. Interesting extrapolation, but not much meaning.

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