Arrival to The Story of Your Life

Arrival to The Story of Your Life


Thumbing through the DVD collection at the local library I stumbled on Arrival, described on the back cover as a scifi thriller.

Arrival DVD

I didn’t understand the rest of the description as it was in Dutch, but “sci-fi” was enough to get it from the library shelf and into my DVD player.

It’s a slow moving movie, but it wasn’t long until the story line started to seem a bit familiar. It turns out that Arrival was based on a short story I’d read previously.

Dutch description of Arrival

The Story of Your Life (Ted Chiang)

“Here, read this, it’s not quite time travel but I think you’ll like it.”

I was passed The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

It’s a long short story, or a short novella, about a linguist who has contact with aliens who have arrived on Earth. Who they are and what they want is unknown, and it’s Louise Banks’ task to find out.

But first she needs a line of communication with them. I was pleased that the Hollywood arrogance of teaching everyone (including extra-terrestrial Aliens) the English language was cast aside, and the focus moved more onto learning the language(s) of the visitors.

Actually I mentioned this in my recent review of Patterns on Pages (CR Downing) – that linguistics can effect culture – as well as the way of thinking. And this is the key to the plot – and where the “…not quite time travel” element comes into play.

Compare and Contrast

Of course there are always some differences between plot lines when printed on 2D paper or projected onto the silver screen, but generally speaking I think the movie remained pretty faithful to the original written word. (Perhaps this is obvious because I recognised the book from the movie!) It makes it all the more impressive then, that Arrival plays more with the idea of time travel without screwing up the original plot!

That said, there’s more specific detail given in The Story of Your Life regarding the complexities of time. For example, there’s a description of a “Book of Ages” which contains every detail of the future. If it’s read then our future is known and pre-determined. This opens the question of free will – are we actually able to choose to live out a different path than what’s already been written?

It’s an interesting point. In a Greek tragedy, so Ted Chiang continues to write, there’s no freedom of will – and events will conspire to force us to live out what has already been written. I think this makes sense because it’s similar to the “past is fixed” argument. Recall that the Book of Ages will have been written in the (or “a”?) future, so today’s events are effectively those in the (unchangeable) past.

Arrival Alien Language - a circle
Image credit (and header):

Arrival was released towards the end of last year which means that in all likelihood I was reading The Story of Your Life around the same time. And oddly enough, after watching Arrival I was motivated to reread the novel. It seemed familiar. Deja ‘Read’. It seems circular. It’s almost as if…no. Or could it?

Perhaps next time I’ll have an easier time making sense of the DVD back cover. I already seem to have advance knowledge of what it will be about…!


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