Monday 21 February 2022

Book Review: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Story of Your Life Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have dipped into Ted Chiang's science fiction stories before and today I read the title story ( more a novella really) from his collection Stories of Your Life and Others. I loved it. It is the story from which the move Arrival is made, directed by Denis Villeneuve who has just done the new Dune movie. Both movies impressed me and made me think about reading the originating works. The novella was a Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella ( and a Nebula Award for Best Novella Winner ( in 1999, and the collections won Locus Award for Best Collection in 2003 ( .

Story of Your Life is about a linguist working to understand alien visitors, the Heptapods. Her coworker is a physicist and they eventually will have a child. The unravelling of the way the visitors think, their maths, their language is quite abstract in the movie from what I recall from seeing it when it came out, but in the story it is described in great detail, in great linguistic detail.

In the story Chiang creates a fantastic world view where, although remaining earthbound, the differences are explored by way of how language and writing is used to communicate. Whereas we see the world in sequential terms of cause and effect and our spoken and written languages are structured accordingly with variants on Subject Verb Object structure to reflect our sequential method of percieving the world and events. In contrast, the Heptapods parse their perceptions of things differently, working with a simultaneous mode of consciounessness, and their, to us highly complex, semasiographic writing system reflects this. They know the outcome before starting their sentence and language itself is a form of action where "saying equaled doing"

Interspersed with this linear recollection of the unravelling of their langauge, is the personal 'Story of Your Life' , namely the life of their child to which we are given insights. That story is told from, and finishes with, when he proposes that they make a baby, "the most important moment of our lives". Here time is distorted, with some of the child's life being told in the past, some in the future. That is a very clever way to illustrate what working with the Heptapods gives the linguist "ocassionally 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 of time" At that moment of his proposal, she knows the destination, and she and we know that there will be ups and downs along the route, but she still says yes. Leaving us heart warmed and heart broken, wondering what we would do if we knew for certain the future?

In places it is not an easy story to read with all the linguists, but if the movie didn't make sense to you, try and persevere with the story, I think it really makes its case well.

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