“Have you read ‘The Story of Your Life’?” Lisa asked me a few days ago. “I want to read it before we see the movie.”
The work she’s talking about is a Seiun, Sturgeon, and Nebula Award-winning novella by Ted Chiang. It’s been made into a movie titled Arrival, which is due to be released in the US later this month. Since I know my blog readership is a cross-stitched group of folks from several backgrounds, let me just say that if you have not heard of Ted Chiang you should immediately begin reading him. The man is brilliant. His work is stunning.
“Yeah,” I replied
Then I thought about it, and realized that despite still having a very visceral reaction to the core of the story—meaning that I remembered fully how it made me feel—I could not remember many details about it. “I read it,” I said. “But I don’t really remember what happens. All I can remember is that it blew me away.”
Which was true. I remembered the feeling deep in my heart as I finished it. This is how I am with a lot of stories, actually. I often struggle to remember plot points and specific dialog. I am not one of those people who goes around and rapidly shoots off all the best catch-phrases from a story or a film. When someone quotes directly from a movie, I am likely to remember that I’ve heard the line, but I’m just as likely to be unable to place it in context of a character or a specific moment in a story. Don’t get me wrong; my brain is not a total sieve in this area. But it is true that, after a time, I often do not retain some specifics of a story’s plotline. I absorb story for how it makes me feel, though. And those that strike me, I remember deeply. The best praise that I can give “The Story of Your Life” is that now, more than fifteen years after I put it down the first time, I can still recall with great strength the way it filled me up inside when I finished it.
“Do we have it?” Lisa asked.
It turned out that, yes, we did have it. The anthology it appeared in, Starlight 2, which was edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, survived our move purge and sat on the shelf in my office. I retrieved it. Lisa read it, closing the book with a flourish and making the pronouncement that it was very good but that “I can’t see how they are going to make a movie out of it.
I immediately read it again.
Totally brilliant. Two days after reading it again, I’m still thinking about what it means to me. Again.
And, while I admit that I can squint and guess how they are going to make that movie, I worry.
I worry that this story is too big for the movies. Too intricate. Too delicate. Too … perfect.
If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend that you go read this novella. You can get it in Chiang’s collection at Amazon or Kobo. There is a reason this story won those awards. “The Story of Your Life” is what science fiction is supposed to be about. Astute use of a science (in this case, linguistics) to explore an alien culture. Brilliant pacing. Intense focus on problems we face in understanding both ourselves and the world. And, then, of course, what it means to be a part of this world. What it means to be human.
With some luck, the movie will turn out to be fine. With luck, the movie will be worthy of the story itself.
But, just in case, please…
Read the story. Read it before you go to the movie. Trust me on this. Whether the movie is great or not, you owe it to yourself to experience the novella as a clean sheet of paper (so to speak).