"Story of Your Life" (Re: Arrival)

Last December I posted a review of Arrival, the sci-fi movie with a linguist as the main character. TLDR? Its reach exceeding its grasp, and I was disappointed. I’m in the minority with this opinion—most people who saw it said it was solid sci-fi and much better than they expected—but I stand by it.

Like Cloud Atlas, I was intrigued enough to go read the original short story. Also like Cloud Atlas, everyone else in San Francisco had the same idea, so it was months before I actually got my hands on Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, the published anthology containing “Story of Your Life”.

As I suspected I would, I liked “Story of Your Life” much more than Arrival. While the twist in Arrival felt like deus ex machina, “Story of Your Life” built up to it more carefully, and drew on the fact that short stories are generally permitted more loose ends. Something that felt like a bridge too far in the movie was just the clever twist near the end of a short story. It was okay that it wasn’t all explained.

On the fun side of things, “Story of Your Life” also spent more time on the decoding of the Heptapod written language. For the movie, I wasn’t surprised they compressed this, since it doesn’t advance the plot or give you insight into the characters. In retrospect, though, it isn’t just fun; it’s also what’s needed to build up to the twist.

Banks in the book also has more of a personality, which made her less unusual but also much more sympathetic. I don’t think I realized how little I cared about her in the movie until I read a story where she wasn’t just a blank slate.

So, yeah. “Story of Your Life”. Good sci-fi short story. They made an okay movie out of it.

(One thing the movie did very well was the whole geopolitical plot. The original story doesn’t have any of this—the various organizations just share information freely—but it made the whole thing seem more realistic and grounded, added an additional sense of urgency, and functioned as a critique of human nature.1 The short story wasn’t lacking without this, but I wanted to give credit to the movie where due.)

“Story of Your Life” isn’t the only story in the anthology, though, and I don’t even think it was my favorite. I’m not sure which was my favorite, but there were several good ones. I’ll admit almost all of them are basically of the form “clever premise, and then an ‘I see what you did there’ twist at the end”, but I like that kind of story, so it was okay reading several of them in a row.

(I usually read before going to sleep, so it wasn’t like I ingested five short stories in one sitting.)

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang. Check it out…from your local library.

  1. The ad-hoc xenophobic terrorists didn’t strike me quite as much, but that’s still plenty realistic. ↩︎