Before Arrival: appreciating Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang is probably better known as its movie adaptation, Arrival. I haven’t yet seen the movie – but before I do, I want to post about the prose story because it pulls off a trick that seems impossible in the literal and external medium of film.

Spoilers follow; if that’s a problem, toodle-pip and see you next time.

Still here? Fasten seatbelt. Off we go.

Story of Your Life opens as alien artefacts appear on Earth. They seem to be windows into a spacecraft. The narrator is a language expert who is called in to help establish contact. This narrative is intercut with another story – a letter to her daughter, who, we soon learn, has died.

Two narrative threads

One of the narrative threads is linear – the process of decoding the language. The other, the story of the daughter, has a more haphazard order. One moment we see her as an infant; the next, her mother is travelling to identify her dead body.

The focus isn’t on revelations or startling events. We’re not directed to wonder what the aliens want and there aren’t any secrets to learn about the daughter and her fate. The story’s interest is smaller scale, an unravelling process of study. While the aliens and humans evaluate each other, the narrator is retracing the times with her daughter. Indeed, for some readers it might veer perilously close to the navel-gazing kind of literary story where nothing appears to happen.

But there is a story

Still, something kept me reading – a sense of exploration, in themes of time, development and change. There’s a searching emotion, a sense of puzzlement. One puzzle is literal – the intellectual task of figuring out the aliens’ language. The other puzzle is less easy to solve – the phenomenon of the narrator’s loss. Her mind grasps at memories and questions: how her daughter could grow up so fast; how parenting could cause such anxiety and wonder; how the narrator’s own life could extend beyond the beginning and the end of her child’s. This interior working is the true quest of the story, the narrative momentum.

As the narrator studies the aliens’ language, she begins to grasp their way of thinking. While humans’ world view is mostly linear, like our sentences that place one word after another, the aliens think in complex constructs of time. Their written language is more like a work of art, an image that contains many ideas all at once. With this comes the main reveal. The action with the aliens is not in the present, but in the past. It’s how the parents met. The family life – and ultimate tragedy – is yet to come.

Described like this, the revelation seems rather negligible, but within the atmosphere of the story I found it to be a powerful perceptional pivot. It suddenly transforms everything we’ve seen.

Perception

The process of learning the aliens’ language has altered the narrator’s perception and allowed her to reach a resolution. Because of the way the aliens communicate about time as complete pictures, the narrator is able to see her years with her daughter as a complete, rich life, instead of just its endpoint, a numbing loss. We finish with the narrator and her husband coming together on the night that will be the daughter’s conception – and an uplifting feeling that, if you look at it as a whole, the best is yet to come.

Kurt Vonnegut has said it rather elegantly:

Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now. To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are.

And here’s the thing. I don’t know of any medium that could do this better than prose. I’ll be interested to see the film adaptation, but I’m guessing its story will have to be more literal, perhaps including a device like time travel or precognitive vision. It may work well in its own terms, but I can’t see how it could achieve this subtle, deep-level trick of switch and release, which allows the narrator to let go of the tragedy. The interior shifts are as important as the objective facts. And they’re only possible because prose has such a close contact with the reader’s mind.

Tell me your interpretation

As with all good stories, you could argue several interpretations (and do add yours below in the comments if you wish to). But whatever your takeaway, Ted Chiang’s prose has achieved something rather fascinating – the learning process about the alien language has gradually adjusted the reader’s brain.

I think that’s awesome.

I’ll no doubt have more to say when I’ve seen the movie. Meanwhile, if you want to read more about Arrival, plus a little bit about the story, here’s a discussion about how it portrays translators. And if you want to know more about storytelling techniques, you might like the Nail Your Novel books.

What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter

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  1. #1 by mrdisvan on April 9, 2017 - 3:11 pm

    Much as I love movies, the visual narrative form simply cannot achieve anything like the stream-of-consciousness effect of literature, which is why the latter will always be truer to our inner experience. Chiang’s story delights because it reminds us that time doesn’t have to be experienced linearly, and that by evoking the holistic sense of an entire life we don’t need precognition, time travel or belief in an afterlife to see that death is no defeat, simply one boundary on the whole story of an individual’s existence.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 10, 2017 - 5:46 am

      Hello Disvan! Like you, I enjoy that stream-of-consciousness effect – and I rather like your interpretation here too.

  2. #3 by Giovannoni Claudine on April 9, 2017 - 3:16 pm

    I really loved the movie… it shows us that we aren’t alone. We are not the only one superior race in the Universe, we better consider to open up our Mind and try to be less stubborn towards the preconceptions that we are fed through ages.
    Thank you Roz, for sharing your good review of the book, I will buy it.
    Have a lovely day :-)claudine

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 9, 2017 - 3:30 pm

      Thank you, Claudine – I’m looking forward to the movie and I’ll come back and reread your comment!

  3. #5 by J Rose on April 9, 2017 - 6:08 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. Particularly: ‘And here’s the thing. I don’t know of any medium that could do this better than prose.’ I agree. It’s the reason The Girl on the Train was a rollicking read and a dismal film; so much about reading is internal and between the lines. This said, film makers can sometimes make a different kind of magic – I wonder how involved the novelist was with the screenplay for ‘Arrival’…

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 9, 2017 - 6:53 pm

      Thanks! And very occasionally, a filmmaker manages that magic sense of interiority – Krzysztof Kieslowski, for example. But it’s unusual.

  4. #7 by acflory on April 9, 2017 - 10:03 pm

    I must be living under a rock because I hadn’t even heard of this one, but your review of the book has me intrigued. This is definitely one I’ll have to read. Thank you. 🙂

  5. #10 by tomburkhalter on April 9, 2017 - 10:47 pm

    Saw the movie and found it captivating, but now your post has me intrigued about the original story!

    • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 10, 2017 - 5:43 am

      And I’m hearing a lot of good things about the movie since I wrote this post – hope to be blown away!

  6. #12 by tracikenworth on April 9, 2017 - 11:24 pm

    This sounds like a good technique.

  7. #15 by Grace Bridges on April 10, 2017 - 2:34 am

    I think the movie did it pretty well. Certainly for me there was that pivot point, preceded by suspicions in that direction. Sounds like the same effect – and I didn’t see a specific device used to accomplish it. Absolutely beautiful.

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 10, 2017 - 5:44 am

      Hi Grace! So they use a similar pivot point? Interesting!
      I shall have to watch very carefully.

    • #17 by mrdisvan on April 10, 2017 - 9:48 am

      The difference is that there’s no mystical aspect to the short story. Learning the alien language doesn’t give the character the power to see the future, it just allows her to take a different perspective when she looks back over her daughter’s life. The movie uses a sci-fi plot asspull, the prose version makes a subtle and moving point about the nature of our inner experience.

    • #18 by Grace Bridges on April 12, 2017 - 9:08 am

      I’m a big fan of circularity. And the movie definitely has that. I’d say more but it sounds like I’m risking spoilers! Would love to discuss this more when you have seen it, Roz 🙂

      • #19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 12, 2017 - 8:21 pm

        I’ll have to remember to post about it when I’ve seen it, Grace. It’s on our LoveFilm list.

  8. #20 by danholloway on April 10, 2017 - 8:17 am

    Ted Chiang is one of our very finest writers – it’s criminal that he’s not better known, though hopefully the success of Arrival is helping to change that, and is part of a wave of work (Station Eleven, Long Journey to a Small Angry Planet) helping to introduce people to the extraordinary possibilities of extremely sophisticated speculative fiction.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 10, 2017 - 7:31 pm

      Hurrah for speculative fiction (which I know we’ve discussed at length on another channel, Dan)!

  9. #22 by Veronica Knox on April 10, 2017 - 3:24 pm

    That old prompt ‘read the book see the movie’ works in reverse. Your post has alerted me to a good story in either medium, so, I’m glad I looked in this morning. I will be watching and reading. Thank you for the heads-up.

  10. #24 by K. A. Pope on April 12, 2017 - 7:09 am

    I had just given birth to my son when I read that story. It may have been postpartum depression but my emotions lay very close to the surface. I loved Tower of Babylon by the same author so when I saw an anthology that had a new Ted Chiang story I snatched it up, not knowing what I was in for. The idea that because of her alien language training she could see into the future and know that she would have — and one day lose — that daughter but danced with the father, choosing that future anyway just tore me up. That’s one of the few times that a story made me cry that way and it’s the only time I ever wept over a short story. I love Ted Chiang’s writing. My son is 16 now and even sweeter and more awesome than I imagined he’d be.

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 12, 2017 - 8:22 pm

      Heavens, what a story to read when you’re so tenderised. Actually I didn’t realise the story was at least 16 years old. How lovely that it’s getting some time in the sun. And thanks for such a lovely comment.

  11. #26 by Veronica Knox on April 12, 2017 - 9:04 pm

    I went straight online to order a book of Ted Chiang’s short stories. Amazing. Thank you again for the introduction to an author who inspires the best by example.

  12. #28 by ccyager on April 15, 2017 - 2:18 pm

    The movie’s on my list to see, but I had no idea that it was based on a book! Thanks, Roz!

  1. Writing Links 4/17/17 – Where Genres Collide

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