Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Anticipating Arrival (and a plug for Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life")

I learnt only yesterday that the new sci-fi film Arrival is based on one of my very favourite novellas, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”. Judging by the Wikipedia entry for the film, the adaptation makes significant departures from the original, with a more action-driven narrative – which is fine; I look forward to seeing the film, sulking about some of the changes while also (hopefully) appreciating some of the others. But I thought I’d use this opportunity to point you to Chiang’s haunting story. I first read it in Brian Aldiss’s anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus (the revised and updated 2007 edition), and being unprepared as I was for what the story was about, the first few pages made for very strange reading.

To start with, the tenses seem all mixed up. You figure out soon enough that the narrator is a woman addressing her daughter, but it takes a while to understand at what point in their personal histories this narration occurs. The “present” seems to be the moment where the woman and her husband decide to have a baby (the story’s opening line is “Your father is about to ask me the question”), but does this mean she is telling the story to a child who does not yet exist? And is she speaking of future events as if they have already occurred? What’s with the many disorienting sentences like this one: “I remember what it will be like watching you when you’re a day old.” Or “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.”

Those of us who can read comfortably and fluidly in a language sometimes take the reading process for granted, but with this story I felt at times that (despite the conversational directness of the prose) knowing English wasn’t enough; the author had taken away some of the reader’s safety nets, our assumptions about how a story should be told. (During the first few minutes of my first read, I even wondered if there had been some copy-editing errors.)

But this is deliberate, and very much part of the point. “Story of Your Life” is about many things – parental love and grief, seven-limbed extraterrestrials, the illusion of free will, the nature of time – but it is also in an immediate sense about language and how it affects our experience of the world. (No spoiler alerts needed here – the story’s value lies in the way it is told, not on the plot points.) The narrator is a linguist whose attempt to understand the complex language (Heptapod B) used by visiting aliens eventually leads to her perceiving the events of her own life in simultaneous rather than sequential terms. This is the central premise of a story of tremendous emotional power, which is on one level about a specific person grappling with too much knowledge – and the joy and pain it brings – but also on another level about the difficulties of true communication and understanding. Highly recommended: read it before or after watching the film, or even if you don’t plan to watch the film at all.

(A sample passage: “Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind; there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive – during those glimpses – that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours.”)


  1. Hi Jai
    I also learnt recently that the movie Arrival is based on the story.Having read it in one of my science fiction phases,I was intrigued with the level of depth,intrigue,empathy and grief,all in a short story!

  2. Saw the movie last week and while it was really good, I think it suffers from being a movie. When things fall together and you realize the real timeline and the real issues that the movie is concerned with (not the arrival of alien beings!), it is so close to the movie's end that the emotional impact doesn't have time to register as much as it probably would in a book. The movie's aftertaste is great though. I'm guessing a second viewing will feel very different, with everything having different impact in this new light.

  3. it is so close to the movie's end that the emotional impact doesn't have time to register as much as it probably would in a book

    I think I agree with this. Even though I was already aware of the "real issues", having read the story and also knowing something about this adaptation process, I felt a bit restless at times about the film's deliberately slow pace and the time it took to get to the meat of the matter. (Plus, of course, once you have the whole spaceships-plus-creepy-looking-aliens motif, you do expect something a little more dramatic to happen.)