Reviews of “Story of Your Life” (1998) and related work

“Story of Your Life” (1998Text)

Ted Chiang (writer).

Read in 2018.

Linguistics was almost entirely absent in Childhood’s End (1953), where massive ships with inscrutable yet peaceful aliens turn up all of a sudden. Clarke’s novel does have the motif of getting unstuck in time. Learning to embrace fatalism as a result of getting thusly unstuck with aliens is a motif handled better in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), apparently one of Chiang’s inspirations for this story.

“Story of Your Life” doesn’t have the literary beauty of some of Chiang’s other writing. There is very little incidental detail except in the actual story of the daughter’s life, and even that is very general as far as fearless children go. The emphasis is on tutoring the reader in some basic abstract concepts from linguistics and physics, and then positing that speech-act theory and the variational-principle approach to problem solving connect in the mentality of the heptapods. This is a pure, utterly delightful thought experiment.

Thankfully, Chiang dares to use more technical terminology than Vonnegut. He stops just short of mentioning determinism. Wisely, he also stops short of the implication that perceived teleology implies animism or the guiding authority of “Tower of Babylon” (1990). While discussing such pitfalls, he avoids them mainly by not committing to them. The ultimate result is ambiguous without being self-contradictory. For instance, there is nothing to contradict the hypothesis that the heptapods foresee some practical benefit to their visit in the long term, or view it as Platonically meaningful in itself, or had to leave to catch whatever form of transportation they’re using. There is nothing to imply that the protagonist’s own speculation about her life being “an extreme of joy, or of pain” is meaningful in anything like a literal sense. The only real problems are that mature human brains can adopt the heptapod mindset so easily, and that this makes them—in a sense obvious to themselves—perfectly convincing actors, which is an entirely separate skill set. Chiang doesn’t walk right up to the ontological abyss of “The Electric Ant” (1969). You can just barely sense that abyss up ahead before he takes a step back.

text fiction

Arrival (2016Moving picture, 116 minutes)

Seen in 2016.

12 alien ships—not the short story’s simple screens—appear at various sites on Earth. Inside each one, two EBEs show up at 18-hour intervals. The protagonist is a linguist tasked by the US military to communicate. A theoretical physicist who’s in there with her eventually draws the conclusion that meeting her was a bigger event than first contact.

Epic science fiction about something that used to happen to about 70% of all women, raising a child that dies. The script bears the scars of the workshop. Someone must have fought to preserve a little bit of Chiang’s science but plot holes are evident. Here the aliens have an added foreknowledge of later human contact, yet have no apparent equivalent to Banks’s revelation with Shang, a character I assume is named after the Shang dynasty by someone unfamiliar with China. The aliens apparently have foreknowledge of the attempt to kill them—absent in the short story—as well, or they just have some basic surveillance and reasoning skills. Either way their treatment of the attack makes no sense, but it’s an amusing bit of kitsch to see them resort to simple gestures only when it’s far too late.

What the film calls Heptapod (not Heptapod B) is effectively a sign language. There is no indication as to why the aliens don’t just physically write it with their inky toes, or why they would not want a written language. What they have is ambiguously 2- or 3-dimensional, and combines ambiguously into the larger construct of the puzzle/lesson. The short story is much more clear. In this version, even the focus of the first contact narrative from the protagonist’s perspective is unexplored, clearly because the writers did not know and did not care, not even enough to use time as an element of the language to the extent of human sign language. This inadequate effort is especially frustrating because there are cuts where Banks’s whole team is clearly working on the problem in a realistic manner, analyzing the smallest details as she does with a dispersed international team in the short story, implying that somebody in the production tried to do a good job. I can’t determine whether the effort stopped there because of sheer incompetence or because of the intentional, excessive mining of ignorance and mysticism as substitutes for wonder.

I appreciate the explicit mention of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is not name-dropped in the short story, but it isn’t treated seriously. Each human nation’s linguistic team—including the protagonist—seem to mistranslate the same word, meaning “language”, as “weapon”, which does not happen in the original and has no explanation here. The level of panic in society at large is weirdly high, presumably because Hollywood is steeped in abnormally fearful US culture. The writers certainly portray the CIA in the usual paranoid light, and have the army managing the project for no apparent reason.

In an unintended illustration of a sad development, Arrival was heralded as a good example of its ailing breed. In The Ringer (“Playing Dead”, 2016-11-04), Sean Fennessey praises it mainly for being “a big-budget original story led by movie stars, with no designs on a franchise. There’s a filmmaker with a vision at the helm. It is both expansive and contained, artful and perceptible. It’s about family and the power of loss. It’s for adults.” Apart from the story being original, that’s true and was indeed rare in 2016, and it being rare is sad. That’s why I went to the cinema, but Fennessey illustrates the loss of historical perspective that goes along with filmmaking’s submission as a branch of the consumer products industry. The EBEs are much more alien than is typical of Hollywood SF, and I appreciate that, but they’re par for the course of literary SF. In film, aliens failing to communicate with people is handled better even in the comedy of Magic User’s Club! (1996). That and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) have some of the romantic sentimentality of Arrival, which offers much less than Chiang’s original.

References here: Story of Science Fiction (2018).

moving picture adaptation fiction