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Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

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Ever wondered how difficult it would be to communicate with aliens? Probably a bit harder than Star Trek makes it appear – in fact a person might have to change her whole view of the space-time continuum to truly understand their point of view.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:
“Story of Your Life” follows Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who alternates between describing her efforts at learning to communicate with aliens and explaining to her daughter the trials of being a parent. The story begins as several alien ships take up orbit around Earth and place hundreds of looking glasses at various places around the world to help facilitate communications with humans. In the USA the military sets up two person teams, composed on one linguist and one physicist, at each of its nine looking glass locations in order to learn as much as possible about the aliens without giving away any critical information. The aliens, dubbed “heptapods” because of their radially symmetric form, have a spoken language and a completely different written language. As Dr. Banks struggles to learn Heptapod B (the written form) she discovers an amazing side effect of learning to think in non-causal terms.

At the moment the looking glass was inactive, resembling a semicircular mirror over ten feet high and twenty feet across. On the brown grass in front of the looking glass, an arc of white spray paint outlined the activation area. Currently the area contained only a table, two folding chairs, and a power strip with a cord leading to a generator outside. The buzz of fluorescent lamps, hung from poles along the edge of the room, commingled with the buzz of flies in the sweltering heat.

Gary and I looked at each other, and then began pushing the cart of equipment up to the table. As we crossed the paint line, the looking glass appeared to grow transparent; it was as if someone was slowly raising the illumination behind tinted glass. The illusion of depth was uncanny; I felt I could walk right into it. Once the looking glass was fully lit it resembled a life-size diorama of a semicircular room. The room contained a few large objects that might have been furniture, but no aliens. There was a door in the curved rear wall.

My Two Cents:
Being an amateur writer myself, I always thought it would be cool to write a story about the difficulties of communicating with aliens. Now I’ll never do that – how could I compete with this masterpiece? I couldn’t, nor would I try, because the intellect, grace and tone portrayed by this story is very nearly perfect. I thoroughly enjoyed both story lines, and was constantly amazed at how skillful the author was at integrating concepts of physics into the story. A very deep and thought provoking story that has taken its place as one of my all time favorite science fiction stories.

The good:
If you are a fan of the hard sciences, and like reading about scientists’ struggles to figure out new puzzles, then you’ll probably really like this story. The author explains scientific principles with such finesse and skill that it is easy to willingly suspend your disbelief. Even though it could be classified as hard science fiction, the grace with which it is written makes for easy reading and an involved storyline.

The bad:
It is a novella, which is longer than either a short story or novelette, so if you are a fan of short short stories then you may not like the length of this one. The payoff, however, is that it is a much more involved storyline. Definitely worth the extra work in reading it. Also, if you don’t like hard scifi stories then you may not enjoy this one as much.

Fact Sheet:
• Length: 35 pages

“Story of Your Life” garnered the following awards:

  • Winner of the 2000 Nebula for Best Novella
  • Winner of the 1999 Sturgeon award
  • Short listed for the 1999 Tiptree award
  • Ranked 10th on the 1999 Locus poll for best novella
  • Nominated for the 1999 Hugo Award for Best Novella
  • Nominated for the 1999 HOMer award for best novella

Where you can find “Story of Your Life”:

Related Yet Still Interesting Links:

  • If you want to increase your enjoyment of this story, and stretch your mind a bit, then learn more about Fermat’s principle and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.
  • For another review of “Story of Your Life” see Tinkoo’s post over at Variety-SF.
  • Did you know that Ted Chiang holds a degree in Computer Science? Yep. You can learn more about this fantastic author at Wikipedia.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you’ll probably like A Rose for Ecclesiastes, the classic story of Martian linguistics and love, by Roger Zelazny.

4 thoughts to “Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang”

  1. I can off hand recall at least 2 more stories that address similar themes (& are both classics):

    1. H Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual”: What’s a Rosetta stone for decoding the written works of people with an advanced level of civilization & now extinct? This story is available for free on Gutenberg.

    2. Arthur Clarke’s “Castaway”: Forget understanding an alien language. Forget even recognizing an alien as something alive when you see him. You might kill him just by looking at him! Clarke actually has a lot of unconventional stories dealing with aliens.

  2. Thanks Tinkoo,

    I love stories that deal with alien cultures and languages, and both of those look like they fit the bill. I will definitely have to check them out.

    I tell ya, that book of “The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke” is moving closer to the top of my must-buy-right-now list! I’ve gotta get it.

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