Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang: Summary and Review

a collage of the book cover of story of your life and poster of the movie arrival

Story of Your Life is a science fiction short story written by Ted Chiang. It was first published 1998. The story revolves around a renowned linguist and how she makes a breakthrough in communicating with the aliens that have landed all over the world in massive spaceships. This story received many accolades and shot to immense popularity following the success of a Hollywood movie ‘Arrival’, which is based on this story.

“Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment.”

What would you do if you somehow chance upon the ability to be able to see your future?

Will that scare you, or will you be hopeful? Or both?

Ted Chiang, in his short story “The Story of Your Life”, brings you some answers in a very humane sci-fi manner, traversing through the themes of language and determinism.

First published in Starlight 2 way back in 1998, this story has received multiple accolades. Its most recent adaptation into a Hollywood movie – Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner – is a testimony to its ever-growing popularity.

Story of Your Life: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story revolves around Louise Banks, a respected linguist, who is also the narrator of the story. Louise is recounting the events of her life to her daughter and story alternates between glimpses into the past and future.

The story opens with a couple enjoying a romantic dance just before a momentous occasion in their life – conception of their daughter.

The pivotal point in the story is the arrival of aliens in spaceships that land in different parts of the world, including the US, Russia, China etc. And not just one or two, a total of 112 gigantic semi-circular spaceships land all over the planet. These ‘devices’ serve as an audio visual link to the aliens.

semicircular alien spaceship from the movie 'arrival'
This is the alien spaceship which land in different parts of the world. This image is a screenshot of the movie Arrival, which is based on this short story. (Photo Credit: Arrival Movie)

Aliens initiate communication with humans and Dr. Banks and Gary Donnelly (who is a physicist) have been brought in to assist with the process.

Aliens, whom people call ‘Heptapods’, because of their seven limbs and radially symmetrical appearance, communicate in a language that is nothing like any form of language (both written or verbal) that humans have ever known.

Louise and Gary are assigned to 9 “looking glass” sites (that’s what humans call the sites where these spaceships have landed) and start to work with them to understand their language in order to be able to communicate with them, They work with two aliens, whom they nickname Flapper and Raspberry.

Through a series of conversations with them, Louise realizes that their written and spoken words are not related to each other at all! She and her group refer to speech as “Heptapod A” and the written form of the language as “Heptapod B”.

Through a series of experiments that Louise and her team run to understand the aliens’ language, both in linguistics and physics, they infer that the alien language has a ‘free word order’. In addition to that, their language does not seem to have any linear sequence making it even more complicated to understand.

Not much progress is made until one day Gary explains Fermat’s ‘principle of least time’ to Louise. From this fresh understanding, it dawns upon Louise that similar to the light in Fermat principle (where light knows exactly where it will end up before it chooses its path of travel), aliens know their full sentences beforehand.

Instead of experiencing events sequentially, they experience all of them at once, hence confirming why the Fermat principle resonated with them so much.

Armed with this knowledge, Louise becomes proficient in Heptapod B quickly, but it also alters her understanding of reality. She observes that her train of thought is now absurdly directionless.

She experiences complete immersion in Heptapod B and starts to think in it and perceives time the same way as Heptapods do. She now sees glimpses of a future, a daughter she does not yet have, her daughter’s death and a life she doesn’t have yet.

One day, the aliens announce that they are leaving. They shut down the looking glasses and disappear. It is never established why they came and why they left, although there were rumors flying around that implied that they found human race to be too primitive to be of interest to them.

This knowledge of the heptapod language changes Louise’s life. She knows the future now, but does nothing to alter it.

She knows that she is going to end up together with a man, have a daughter and will lose her when she is still young. Despite this knowledge of her future, she goes on ahead with her life, changing nothing.

Flash back to the present, when Gary asks her if she wants to make a baby, she says yes.

Story of Your Life: Review and Analysis

Story of Your Life has won numerous awards for Ted Chiang, including the prestigious Hugo award. Mr Chiang has this innate ability to convert extremely dense topics to something that you can not only comprehend, but think and marvel at the new perspectives that it brings.

a scene from the movie 'arrival'
A still from the movie ‘Arrival’ – it is based on A Story of Your Life

This story brings the debate of free will and determinism to the fore. The portrayal could not have been any more gripping and profound than it is.The story shines in its intellect and humaneness alike.

It has got rich material that will keep both the dreamer and scientist hooked.

Consider for example, how Chiang has broken down the concept of Fermat’s principle:

“Any hypothetical path would require more time to traverse than the one actually taken. In other words, the route that the light ray takes is always the fastest possible one.”

The way that he has married science with philosophy in his story is remarkable. He is known to have remarked once: “Science fiction is very well-suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know.”

The clarity with which he has presented the linguistic challenges, realizations and the character epiphanies are spellbinding. It speaks to the amount of research that must have gone towards this immaculate description of a linguists approach towards a new language.

And the biggest sentences had an effect similar to psychedelic posters : sometimes eye-watering, sometimes hypnotic.

Quotes from A Story of Your Life

Here are some quotes from A Story of Your Life that I absolutely loved:

1 – Whether scientists or tourists they were an awfully incurious bunch

(Referring to the aliens who had landed in different parts of the world but didn’t seem to do anything after they had landed)

It might be the woman in me talking but I found the depiction of mother-daughter relationship extremely heart-warming. At those specific instances in the story I forgot that I was reading science fiction.

Here are some quotes through which the author depicts the beautiful mother-daughter relationship:

2 – Even if I had never laid eyes on you before, I would be able to pick you out from a sea of babies: Not that one. No, not her either. Wait, that one over there. Yes, that’s her. She is mine.

3 – It will be like growing an errant limb, an extension of myself whose sensory nerves report pain just fine, but whose motor nerves do not convey my commands at all. It’s so unfair. I am going to give birth to an animated voodoo doll of myself. I didn’t see it in the contract when I signed up. Was this part of the deal?

arrival movie cast amy adams jeremy renner
A still from the movie ‘Arrival’ – it is based on A Story of Your Life

4 – My own mother could never understand why I couldn’t just be a high school English teacher. You’ll do what makes you happy and that’s all I ask for.

4 – Living with you will be like aiming for a moving target, you will always be further along than I expect. All those vows that I will give reasonable answers when I became a parent, that I would treat my own child as an intelligent, thinking individual,all for naught, I am going to turn into my mother.

5 – I can fight it as much as I want, but there will be no stopping my slide down that long dreadful slope. Not to forget a little lesson in mindfulness that Ted threw in there as a bonus read-

6 – And the lesson in mindfulness – NOW is the only moment you will perceive; you will live in the present sense. In many ways, it’s an enviable state.

And there is always this overarching message in this book, which he very nicely intrigues us with using the Book of Ages ages and the fallacy of the argument that it exists, leaving us with this gem on his favorite topic of free will vs determinism.

7 – From the beginning I knew my destination and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain. Will I achieve a minimum, or a maximum?

James Gleick, an American author, speaking about The Story of Your Life once said, “For us ordinary mortals, the day-to-day experience of a preordained future is almost unimaginable. But Chiang does just that in this story, and with this brings the hope and faith that our present is all the more enriched with authors like him around.”

Mr Gleick couldn’t have been more right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s