I just finished reading the short story “Story of your Life” written by Ted Chiang. All I can say is Wow!!! This is an incredible piece of writing, and it’s definitely one of the best things I’ve ever read.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I hate reading! However I have read a handful of books that delivered an experience like no other, and this book is one of them.
Both “Story of Your Life” and the film Arrival upon which it’s based are masterpieces.
Experiencing both of them, coupled with their thought provoking ideas provides an absolutely unique experience.
The film Arrival by Denis Villeneuve is outstanding.
The two main themes are that language dictates our perception of reality and the nature of free will. These are topics that are quite prominent in the current scientific discussion of late. Interesting to note that the book introduced these ideas back in 1998.
The medium of film excels at expressing emotion. It can use music and amazing actors to heighten mood so that we feel emotions deeply.
Arrival takes the idea of free will and in the context of tragic foresight creates a deeply moving story that heightens what we feel for the characters. This is one area where film is significantly better than books, and it’s cool to experience the ideas of the short story expressed through this mode.
Futhermore the visuals provided in the film do stunning job of elucidating the complex ideas. I wouldn’t have appreciated the book as much if I hadn’t watched the film first – this is precisely because the visuals of the film helped me understand the book better. This is interconnected experience was a weird one expressed through different mediums.
After seeing a film this spectacular it was obvious that I would read the book. It was fated.
Story of your Life
This reason I love science fiction is because it plays with your mind. It introduces you to subtle ideas you never would have considered.
This short story does this brilliantly by delving heavily into the discipline of science and language. All the science presented here is crafted to highlight the exceptionally nuanced topics of perception and free will. It does it so well, that it crosses over into philosophical implications of it.
Language shapes how we see the world. The limits of our mind and therefore our futures are dictated by a language. Hence our choice of language allows us to understand certain ideas and not others. This story beautiful articulates this in magnificent nuance – futhermore it also highlights that language, culture and in particular learning can open the doors of our perception.
There are artistic elements in here that dazzled me too. The books talks of the mechanisms to write such as ideograms, logograms, semagrams, etc. Some are highly compatible with spoken languages, others are not. Some are highly compatible deep levels on intention and other are not. This idea that a logogram can reflect not only complex ideas but also reflect a nature of reality was 🤯
Usually I race through a book to get the main idea and be done with it. With this story, I found my self slowing down, really taking my time to understand what was on the page. I found myself going back a page and rereading it. For a story that deals with the nature of time, this amused me that I too was slowing down, going backwards and jumping around the sections.
Upon further reflection I realized was reading this book because I liked the movie. I watched the movie because I like science fiction. The idea that I was always going to read the book because of a set of initial states was teasing to say the least.
There’s a predefined outcome where I was always going to read the book and free will adjusts to ensure that I always will using simplest or hardest route possible to achieve that outcome.
This is effectively my understanding of the ideas Fermat’s Theorem of Least Time which is presented in the story.
When you read something like this and the author speaks of the Book of Ages, Fermat’s theorem of Least Time and Semagrams – it is undeniable that the author spent enormous amounts of effort learning incredibly hard things.
Thought, time and dedication went into creating this. I can only imagine the sheer amount of work that was required to distill all the complex information into such a small story. Even in this short story form, it has more more science, language and emotion in it than most complete novels. I’m an in awe of the herculean effort that must have gone into this.
The final pages of the book has a bit of a somber tone. It has a tone of melancholy – and it has to be to fully express these broad all encompassing ideas. But rather experiencing sadness you’re fill with awe and grandeur. This tiny little 40 page story hold ideas and emotions and feelings that cross decades, time and space.
This is why I read! To find that one in a thousand book that shows you that you’re part of something bigger. That all experience is true and that we should all kinder to everything and everyone.
I really hope I find more works like this. It’s a beautiful story and beautiful experience.