Promising trailer for Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning novella,
“Story of Your Life.”
Alien invasion might be a lot weirder than you think. That’s the premise of Arrival, a first contact story told from the point of view of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is the first to translate the language of the mysterious “heptapods” whose ships arrive on Earth seemingly just to make conversation.
If this movie is even a quarter as good as the novella it’s based on, we’re in for a damn fine story. (For those who have not had the pleasure of reading it, Chiang’s collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, has just been reissued as a handsome paperback.) Though the film is dramatizing the alien visitation with international politics and war threats, the original story explores a more personal crisis. Without giving away spoilers, the central idea is that the heptapods’ written language allows the reader to know the ending of a sentence at the moment they start reading it. Based in part on the aliens’ mathematics—and informed by the Earthly mathematics of Fermat’s Principle—the heptapods’ language changes the consciousness of humans who decipher it, essentially allowing them to remember the future.
So what happens when a conversation with an alien changes your perception of linear time? In Chiang’s story, it raises questions about whether you will make the same life decisions despite knowing when people will die—indeed, knowing when you will die. The result is a moving, intense exploration of temporality, linguistics, and the human psyche. It’s clear that some of these themes are going to come up in the movie, too, though with the added dramatics of some kind of standoff with Russia.
Regardless of whether you see the movie, now is the time to read (or re-read) Chiang’s incredible story and enjoy the writing of one of science fiction’s living legends—a man who has won pretty much every award possible for sci-fi stories.