Ted Chiang, Story of your life (or, Arrival) (Review)

Image for Story of your life

Illustration for “Story of your Life”, by Hidenori Watanave for Hayakawa’s S-F Magazine. [Permission from the artist: CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Whenever I see a film, I go to Arti’s Ripple Effects blog to see whether she’s reviewed it. Sometimes she has, sometimes she hasn’t. As with books, I don’t read reviews before I see films, so I can never remember whether I’ve seen a review post pass through my inbox. Consequently, when we saw the intriguing, mind-bending sci-fi film Arrival, recently, I had to see whether she’d reviewed it, and she had. She had also provided a link to the long short story from which the film was adapted. The story, Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life”, won the Nebula Award in 2000. Having enjoyed the film, but having questions about its meaning, of course I had to read it. What a fascinating story it is …

But here’s the thing … I usually prefer to read a book or story before I see its adaptation. I don’t hold fast to this rule, particularly if it’s something I probably wouldn’t have read anyhow, like, say, Girl on a train, but if I have an interest in it, reading-before-seeing is my preference. This didn’t happen – obviously – with Arrival, mainly because I hadn’t realised it was an adaptation. So, when I set off reading “Story of your life”, I had the movie freshly in my head. Not ideal and a little distracting at first, but in fact, as I kept reading, I realised that the movie was a “true” adaptation, and I relaxed into the story.

The set up is simple enough. A bunch of aliens – dubbed “heptapods” by the humans because of their octopus-like tentacles – have landed in various spots around the world, including nine locations in the US. They do not appear to be aggressive, but why are they here. The world’s governments naturally wish to discover their purpose, and so they send physicists and linguists to try to find out.

Now, here’s the challenge, as Arti also says in her post: how do we talk about this story without giving some critical things away, because this is one of those stories where much of the meaning is in the telling, even if you don’t know it at the beginning. Arti handles this challenge by talking more about the adaptation, which was indeed well done. I, however, will take a different tack and talk more generally about why I liked the story.

I said at the beginning that I’m not really into sci-fi. I’m not keen on quest films or invasion battle scenarios, but there are sci-fi stories I’ve enjoyed, and they tend to be ones which focus closely on human concerns and issues rather than on fantasy or adventure. I’m talking John Wyndham whom I enjoyed in my teens, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat cradle which I read in my twenties. “Story of your life” fits loosely into this sort of sci-fi (in my mind anyhow).

The story is narrated by linguist Dr. Louise Banks, but in two threads. One is the chronological (sequential) story of her work with the heptapods, told in a traditional first person voice, while the other, which jumps around in time, comprises her memories of her daughter who we learn early on dies in her 20s. It’s also told first person, but addresses “you” as if telling this daughter about her life. There are, as you’d expect, connections between the threads, so that the transitions reflect or expand on ideas developed in the other thread.

It’s an intelligent story that demands intelligence of its readers. Chiang uses words and concepts from physics and linguistics and expects us to keep up. The discussions of Fermat’s Principle, for example, and of causal and teleological ways of understanding the world, not to mention of various linguistic forms, demand concentration of the reader, concentration that I might not, in another situation, have been bothered with – but the writing is so clear, and the story so intriguing, that I stuck with it. Here, for example, is Louise’s description of heptapod writing (which was beautifully depicted in the film):

When a Heptapod B sentence grew fairly sizable, its visual impact was remarkable. If I wasn’t trying to decipher it, the writing looked like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance. And the biggest sentences had an effect similar to that of psychedelic posters: sometimes eye-watering, sometimes hypnotic.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed was the exploration of the idea that the language we use correlates closely with how we think. (Not a new idea I know but the implications are interesting here.) So, as Louise starts to learn the aliens’ language, dubbed Heptapod B, she finds herself starting to think differently. Instead of thinking in the traditional human “sequential” (cause-and-effect or linear) mode of awareness, she starts to appreciate the heptapods’ “simultaneous” mode of awareness in which they “experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them”.

I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no “train of thought” moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence.

It’s the idea that you have to know the effects before you can know the causes, that all the components of an action or event, in other words, are simultaneously there. I did say mind-bending didn’t I?

Anyhow, I expect the non-linear/non-chronological second thread of her narrative is meant, in part anyhow, to reflect or illustrate this more holistic or teleological way of thinking.

Ultimately, “Story of your life” is a philosophical story that gets to the nub of how we understand time, of what we know, of what we can (or would change) if we could. And that’s about as close as I’m going to get to giving it away. I do recommend you read the story and see the film.