Gemma Webster and Jon Horwitz-White share their respective experiences of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" and its film adaption, Arrival. If you purchased The Big Book of Science Fiction you already have a copy of the story, and the film Arrival is now available to purchase on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
I'll take it both ways, please - Gemma Webster
I loved both the movie and the story but for different reasons. I came out of the movie feeling elated at having experienced a more real feeling of how we actually experience time. With the short story, I fell in love with the idea of where the notion of free will exists in a much larger concept of the universe. Spoilers ahead.
For me watching the movie didn’t spoil the story (but the reading the story first will ruin one of the good sleights of hand for the movie). The adaptation by Eric Heisserer is faithful to certain intents of Chiang's story but there are plot elements that move the film that are not present in the story. The film does not clarify, and I would suggest it actively muddies, the precise location in time of the movie’s opening. We are left to assume that the child of Arrival’s protagonist, Louise Banks, has died and then the forward action of the movie starts. The movie uses our own preconceived notions about how time, particularly story-time, works. Humans are hardwired, through our languages, to linear chronological thinking and the movie lets us stay there until it doesn’t. We don’t even suspect that the order of events is a mystery until we start learning about a new way to experience time. The Heptapods are alien creatures who don’t experience time linearly but rather simultaneously. Their written language exists multidimensionally and the dimension modifies the meaning (this is made more clear in the short story than the film).
I left the movie feeling like I had just seen a story that gave a fairly accurate depiction of how humans actually experience time. Time wears on our individual bodies in a linear way--we age, but our emotional and mental experience of time is not chronological. We have memories that inform the moment. We cast our minds into the future to try to guess what might happen next. There’s more simultaneity than we believe. The movie, of course, goes even further because it makes it a physical (as in physics) reality. It unifies the experience of body and mind and cosmos inside the form and language of the Heptapods.
The short story is more straightforward about the order of Louise's experiences. We know before the first section break/memory that the first alien contact happened before the child was born. The short story proceeds along a traditional structural route of a protagonist remembering two things from the past, the first alien contact and what we come to learn is the memory of the pre-knowledge gained by the protagonist. You get the alien story told in first person past tense and then memories start with “I remember” and continue in present tense and conditional tense (instead of pluperfect tense which is the usual marker of going backward in time from the forward action in storytelling). It is through this subversion of our own language that I became unshackled from time. It primed me for the revelation that through learning the alien language Louise’s mind is similarly freed to experience some of the simultaneousness of time and thus she receives knowledge of her future.
This leads us into a discussion of free will. If the future is already written then perhaps we don’t have free will. However, Louise comes to realize that there is another answer to the question that allows for free will and that is choosing to live one’s life as it is written. To cooperate because the outcome is known and is desired.
One question I have been asking myself is, does freedom even exist? This story has an answer…
Some Things Can Only Be Done With Text - Jon Horwitz-White
My favorite way of entering a story is to be clueless about its subject matter. Guided by the author, I enter a world where I have absolutely no preconceptions about its landscape, its characters, and what I’ll experience there. This sense of discovery and surprise, however, is greatly limited when reading a story after you’ve seen the film adaption. Therefore, I sat down to read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” feeling quite grumpy that I hadn’t read it before seeing Arrival.
The film and the text are different stories though; they follow different trajectories. The military-industrial complex at the foreground of Arrival is in the background of “Story of Your Life.” While Arrival presents a clear purpose for the encounter between humans and heptapods, there’s considerably more ambiguity in “Story of Your Life.” The protagonist, Louise Banks, exhibits an increasing sense of disorientation in the film, but this response is muted, if at all present, in Chiang’s short story. The differences between both works preserve opportunities for discovery and surprises, none more exciting than realizing “Story of Your Life” is uniquely suited for text.
Structure, grammar, and metaphor coalesce into an elegant symmetry. The plot revolves around an encounter between humans and heptapods. There’s a civilian response to the encounter and a military response. The story is bifurcated into a telling of past events and a telling of future events; its grammar shifts between past and future tenses. On a more philosophical level, Chiang explores language: written language and spoken language, language that belongs to thought and language that exists socially. He plays with modes of thought that are sequential and those that are simultaneous.
In reading “Story of Your Life,” one oscillates between dualities carefully constructed by Chiang, the most beautiful of which is the story’s anchoring metaphor, Fermat’s Principle. Wikipedia tells us “Fermat's principle or the principle of least time … is the principle that the path taken between two points by a ray of light is the path that can be traversed in the least time.” Gary, the physicist in the Chiang's story, goes on to say:
Yet another duality.
Chiang weaves this principle throughout the story. He presents it first as a principle of physics, then employs it as a metaphor for heptapod language. As the story progresses, he deploys it again, but as a metaphor for differing world views and modes of thought. Fermat’s principle reappears over and over again in different guises; Chiang’s use of repetition is masterful. The metaphor reaches its fullest expression in the second to last paragraph of the story, and I wept, crybaby that I am, because the story is so goddamn beautiful. I wish I could experience it again, for the very first time.
I enjoyed Arrival; I loved “Story of Your Life.” Both tell stories of collapsing the boundaries between the familiar and the strange. They show characters immersed in learning, communication, and collaboration. These are the stories that the world needs right now. But where Hollywood leads us to be empowered and change the future, Ted Chiang invites us to the ever-present now, to “pay close attention, and note every detail.”