30 Days of Reviews: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In the spirit of the month, instead of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, I’m going to write a short review every day, up to a maximum of 300 words. Think of it is NaNoReMo (National Novel Review Month). This month I’ll do short reviews of books, varieties of tea, and even individual short stories as the mood strikes. So read on!
I’m going to cheat here today because Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” is not a new read for me. However, I want to talk about it because the movie adaptation, Arrival, will be released this coming weekend.
A few years ago, Lightspeed included “Story of Your Life” in an electronic issue for monthly subscribers. It was my introduction to Ted Chiang’s work. And oh man, I honestly think this story has ruined me for all his others, as almost none of them I’ve read have affected me as deeply.
“Story of Your Life” uses a combination of perspectives, including sections told in the second person, to tell the story of a woman whose knowledge of linguistics proves key to establishing and maintaining first contact with an alien species. She works in conjunction with a physicist, whose attempts to cross the linguistic divide are centred on math. However, not only are the aliens different from us in a linguistic sense, but also in their perception of the universe.
The key insight is that because these aliens have bodies with radial symmetry, their concept of time is not linear. They do not have a “front” or “back”, so they don’t have a “before” or “after”. This perception of the world also shapes their syntax and communication.
Chiang’s slow reveal is masterful. And when you realize who the narrator is talking to and how, and why, it’s heartbreaking.
When I first heard that “Story of Your Life” was being adapted into a movie, I was perplexed. I had no idea how something so intensely cerebral could be translated successfully onto the screen. Early reviews indicate that while Arrival is not exactly the same as its source material, it’s just as thoughtful, intelligent, and emotionally resonant. I’m overjoyed to hear this.