The 2016 movie Arrival — in which aliens come to Earth and a linguist works with a team of scientists in order to communicate with them — is one of my all-time favorite science fiction flicks of all time. The skillful way in which writer and director were able to weave together events from multiple times in the Louise’s life in order to build a beautiful emotional arch is stunning to watch.
Since seeing the movie, I’ve listened to a couple of podcast interviews with screenwriter Eric Heisserer, in which is describes falling in love with Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” and his long journey of adapting the complex story into a screenplay and then spending years seeking someone to make it into a film. Hearing his passion for this story and his descriptions of what had to change and what did not in order to make the film possible, I knew I needed to read the original novella.
Just as with the movie, “Story of Your Life” involves first contact with aliens and humanities attempts to work together in order to be able to communicate with and understand them. It’s also centered around Louise, who is relating the story of her daughter’s life. It’s also about linguistics and science and love and the functioning of time. It’s a beautiful story — one that is both intimately similar and vastly different from the movie adaptation of it, both story and movie being beautiful in their own right, allowing me to love them independently of each other.
Reading the rest of Stories of Your Life and Others, I continued to be impressed by Chiang’s skill as a writer. Science is at the core of his work — not in the flash bang of laser guns or space ships or explosions, but in the contemplation and study of our world through linguistics, mathematics, architecture, and beauty.
Many of these stories are driven by humanities pursuit of knowledge. In “Tower of Babylon,” a builder is brought to work on an enormous tower, which is being constructed in an attempt to reach heaven. It’s massive undertaking of generations. To reach the top takes months, some people are born, live, and die on the tower without knowing any other life. As it grows ever taller, the tower reveals the secret of the world in a beautifully surprising way.
While in “Understand” this pursuit of knowledge is driven in a different direction. Rather than building an external tower, a man who wakes from coma begins to developed dramatically increased intelligence, reaching a point of even understanding his own mind and being able to manipulate its function to improve his mental operations. It’s fascinating to see him reach a point beyond human understanding and then to see how our perspective of him shifts toward the end.
“Seventy-Two Letters” dives deep into exploring the power of language by imagining a world in which many of the scientific principles of the world are determined by nomenclature. This is not only the writing of names upon machinery in order to create automatons, but also the biological principles of life. I was surprised to realize that this was a story I had read before (in an anthology, I think). I was fascinated by it was the time because it was such an odd concept and it has stuck with me over the years. Rereading it, I was struck all over again by the strength of this story.
The power of personal perception and how it influences prejudice is explored in “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” a story in which a university group presents that idea of requiring all students to implement Calli, a non-invasive brain modification that prevents the user from “seeing” or understanding beauty (or lack thereof) in another person. By presenting a series of personal accounts of people from variety of backgrounds, the story is able to provide a nuanced examination of the power of beauty and associated issues surrounding media manipulation.
This collection of stories is beautiful — one I would highly recommend for anyone interested in science fiction of a more contemplative nature.