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Stuff We Love: Ted Chiang’s Arrival-inspiring Story of Your Life

Contributed by
Feb 23, 2018

For my money (which, mind you, doesn’t amount to much), Arrival was by far the best movie of 2016, and definitely deserved the Best Picture Oscar, for which it was nominated (Moonlight was great and important and all, but where were the aliens?). Like many people who loved the movie, I came to its source material, Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award-winning novella “Story of Your Life” afterwards. And, perhaps also like many, I was initially somewhat surprised to find out how different Arrival is from Chiang's short story. But as I thought more and more about it, those differences are what make both the story and the film all the more lovable.

The major difference I noticed was that the book didn’t put forth nearly the amount of effort into establishing the aesthetics of the alien visitors or their ships. Because of that, I was actually really happy to have seen the film first, because the film does such an immersive job of selling those heptapods, in what feels like, to me at least, some of the most realistically imagined aliens to ever grace a screen. So it’s nice to reimagine them when you’re reading the book, particularly since many of those details aren't spelled out.

But while such imagining is additive to the film, Chiang’s story doesn’t really need to fully realize the aliens from an aesthetic point of view, merely from one of language, as the main character, Dr. Louise Banks, comes to know the aliens through the study of linguistics. And it's the alien's language that helps you understand the concept of time being non-linear.

That’s where "Story of Your Life" really breaks boundaries, by establishing a fully formed idea of what a non-linear language (and existence) might look like, where future and past are all expressed in the present. It’s an unbelievably complicated idea, but Chiang does such an expansive job of filling out the language’s details, that by the end, I came to a far better understanding of that concept than what I grasped from the film.

Indeed, it’s the uncovering of the heptapod’s two languages -- one spoken, one written -- that, to a great degree, moves the story. But it’s not just the alien’s use of language that helps clarify their concepts of time; it's also their physics, which Louise’s counterpart, Dr. Gary Donnelly spends a good deal of the novella trying to figure out. Like language, Chiang dives more deeply into these concepts than the film, ultimately using Fermat’s Principle of Least Time to show how heptapods experience all events at once, teleologically.

Of course, to be a big Hollywood hit, there had to be more action, and so screenwriter Eric Heisserer took many liberties, seemingly all of which made for a stronger film, and certainly a more entertaining one. Which isn’t just my opinion, mind you, as his work merited a Best Adapted Screenplay nom from the Academy, among other honors.

In the end, the source material and the adaptation go together symbiotically, and help clarify the other’s intentions. With such lofty goals, that’s particularly helpful. And bonus, when you buy Chiang's 2002 short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others, you also get a bunch of his other works, most of which are as beautifully poetic as "Story of Your Life," with just enough science sneaked into the fiction to convey that same sense of awe and wonder, and all that other good stuff that’s so worth loving.