Story of Your life by Ted Chiang
Published by Tor Books in 2002
Collection: Stories of Your life and Others
Genres: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction
My first review is of a novella I read recently, you’ve probably heard of it by now: “Story of Your life” by Ted Chiang. This story comes as one of a collection, published under the title “Stories of Your life and Others” in 2002.
The fact that it took so long (and a movie adaptation: Arrival) for me to discover this author makes me sad, but it is not surprising. Ted Chiang is not prolific, publishing only a few stories a year. Having been a technical writer by day, fiction by night, this author writes science fiction that is deeply introspective/philosophical. His tone is measured and thoughtful, and the endings highlight what a journey the story is.
A good case in point is “Story of Your life”, an incredibly inventive tale based on an interesting application of Fermat’s principle. (Fermat’s principle states that “light travels between two points along the path that requires the least time, as compared to other nearby paths”. I’ll leave it to you to read the story to see how it fits, it’s quite intriguing.) It’s written in the form of two concurrent threads from the perspective of the main character, Louise Banks. One thread regards her involvement in unraveling the mystery of alien lifeforms (dubbed heptapods) that arrive on Earth for no discernible reason, and her attempts to communicate with them. The other showcases alternately joyful and heartbreaking memories of her daughter. The two seem disconnected until Louise understands the way the heptapods perceive time. Pay attention to the subtle yet important changes in tense throughout the story.
The result is a look into the idea of free will. Rather than the expected plot twist we are given a slow realization: that foreseeing the outcome of a choice and then making it is a powerful exercise in free will rather than fate at the helm. It is this unfurling, rather than a surprise twist at the end, that makes this story (and author) compelling.
I have deeply enjoyed reading this story and others by Ted Chiang. If you read only one of his stories (although you really should read more), make it this one. Go watch the movie too. Denis Villeneuve does the themes in this story justice, and the acting is incredible.
South African friends, you can buy Stories of Your life and Others for Kindle here.