Changing Our Minds: “Story of Your Life” in Print and on Screen.

Spoilers. Duh.</p>

We share a secret prayer, we writers of short SF. We utter it whenever one of our stories is about to appear in public, and it goes like this:

Please, Lord. Please, if it be Thy will, don’t

let Ted Chiang publish a story this year.

We supplicate thus because whenever Ted Chiang does put out a story— not all that often, thankfully— it’s pretty much guaranteed to walk away with every award that’s lying around, leaving nothing for the rest of us. More often than not, it deserves to. So it will come as no surprise to learn that the first movie to be based on a Ted Chiang story is very smart, and very compelling.

What might come as a shock— and I hesitate to write this down, because it smacks of heresy— is that in terms of storytelling, Arrival actually surpasses its source material.

It’s not that it has a more epic scale, or more in the way of conventional dramatic conflict. Not just that, anyway. It’s true that Hollywood— inevitably— took what was almost a cozy fireside chat and ‘roided it up to fate-of-the-world epicness. In “Story of Your Life”, aliens of modest size set up a bunch of sitting rooms, play Charades with us for a while, and then leave. Their motives remain mysterious; the military, though omnipresent, remains in the background. The narrative serves mainly as a framework for Chiang to explore some nifty ideas about the way language and perception interact, about how the time-symmetric nature of fundamental physics might lead to a world-view— every bit as consistent as ours— that describes a teleological universe, with all the Billy Pilgrim time-tripping that implies. It’s fascinating and brow furrowing, but it doesn’t leave you on the edge of your seat. Going back and rereading it for this post, I had to hand it to screenwriter Eric Heisserer for seeing the cinematic potential buried there; if I was going to base a movie on a Ted Chiang story, this might be the last one I’d choose.

Now that&quot;s a proper Starfish Alien.

Now that’s a proper Starfish Alien.

In contrast, Arrival‘s heptapods are behemoths. What we see of them hints at a cross between the proto-Alien from Prometheus and the larger members of that extradimensional menagerie glimpsed in The Mist. While the novella’s spaceships remained invisibly in orbit, the movie’s hang just overhead like asteroids pausing for one last look around before smashing the world to rubble. The novella’s geopolitics consist largely of frowning uniforms, grumbling ineffectually in the background; in the movie, half the world’s ready to start lobbing nukes. Armageddon hinges on whether the aliens really mean “tool” when we read “weapon”.

Yeah, I know Wolfram came up with some Mathemticoid physics rationale for the shape. They still look like big dirty contact lenses to me.

Yeah, I know Wolfram came up with some Mathematicoid gravity-wave rationale for the shape. They still look like big dirty contact lenses to me.

All standard Hollywood Bigger-Is-Better, and— for once— done in a way that doesn’t betray the sensibility of the source material. For the most part I preferred the more epic scale— although I was irked by the inevitable portrayal of Murricka as the calmer, cooler, peaceful players while Russia and China geared up to start Interstellar War I. (The portrayal of the US as the world’s most pacifist nation is probably the single least-plausible element in this whole space-alien saga.) But I’m not just talking about the amped-up levels of jeopardy when I say I prefer movie to novella: I’m talking about the way different story elements tie together. I’m talking about actual narrative structure.

“Story of Your Life” presents a number of elements almost in isolation. We know that Louise will marry, have a daughter, get divorced. We know that the daughter will die. We know that the heptapods leave, but we never know why— or why they showed up in the first place, for that matter. (When quizzed on the subject they say they’re here to acquire information, which would have a lock on “Most Maddeningly Vague Answer of the Year” if such an award actually existed.) (If it did, of course Ted Chiang would win it.)

Arrival ties all these loose ends together, elegantly, satisfyingly. The aliens are here to give us a “weapon/tool”— or more accurately a gift: to teach us their teleological mindset, uplift us to a new worldview. They are here to literally change our minds. Louise makes that conceptual breakthrough, uses the new paradigm to head off nuclear war in the nick of time. Her divorce— years after the closing credits— is not just something that happens to happen; it occurs when her husband learns that she’d known in advance (thanks to her new precognitive mindset) that their daughter would be doomed to a slow, painful death at a young age— and yet went ahead and birthed her anyway. It’s not belabored in the screenplay— a couple of oblique references to Daddy looks at me differently now and I made a decision he thought was wrong. But the implicit conflict in the moral algebra between two people who love each other— We can at least give her a few glorious years vs. You’ve sentenced her to agony and death— is heartbreaking in a way that Chiang’s Kubrickian analysis never managed.

More to the point, though, all these events tie together. They all arise from the central premise, from the cursed gift the Heptapods bestow upon us. Everything’s connected, organically, logically, causally. Teleogically.

The movie has an unfair advantage, insofar as it can present straightforward memories of future events and be confident that the audience will assume that they’re flashbacks; the moment we realize our mistake is one of the best aha! twists of the movie. Chiang, stuck with the written word, had to give the game away pretty much at the start by writing his future memories in future tense; a beautiful device, but with little room for surprise.

Which is no reason to not read the story.  Offhand, I can’t think of any good reason to not read a story by Ted Chiang.

But in this case, there’s more reason to see the movie.

Welcome to the Zombie Corps

Diallo goes out screaming. Hell is an echo chamber, full of shouts and seawater and clanking metal. Monstrous shadows move along the bulkheads; meshes of green light writhe across every surface. The Sāḥil rise from the moon pool like creatures from some bright lagoon, firing as they emerge; Rashida’s middle explodes in dark mist and her top half topples onto the deck. Kito’s still dragging himself toward the drying rack, to the speargun there— as though some antique fish-sticker is going to fend off these monsters with their pneumatics and their darts and their tiny cartridges that bury themselves deep in your flesh before showing you what five hundred unleashed atmospheres can do to your insides.

It’s more than Diallo’s got. All he’s got is his fists.

He launches himself at the nearest Sāḥil as she lines up Kito in her sights, swings wildly as somewhere nearby, a great metal creature groans and gives way. The floor drops and cants sideways; the moon pool crests the walls of its prison, sends a cascade of seawater down the slanted deck. Diallo flails, knocks the rebreather from the intruder’s mouth on the way down. Her shot goes wide. A spiderweb blooms across the viewport; a thin gout of water erupts from its center even as the glass tries desperately to heal itself from the edges in.

The last thing Diallo sees is the desert hammer icon on the Sāḥil’s diveskin before she blows him away.



Sound of running water, metal against metal. Clanks and gurgles, lowered voices, the close claustrophobic echo of machines in the middle distance.

Diallo opens his eyes.

He’s still in the wet room; its ceiling blurs and clicks into focus, plates and struts and Kito’s stupid grafitti scratched into the paint. A web of green light still wriggles dimly across the biosteel, but all the murderous energy has been bled out of it.

He tries to turn his head, and fails. He can barely feel his own body— as though it were made of ectoplasm, some merest echo of solid flesh. It fades into complete nonexistence somewhere around his waist.

A dark shape looms over him, an insect’s head on a human body. It speaks with two voices: English, and an overlapping echo in Ashanti: “Easy, soldier. Relax.”

A woman’s voice, and a chip one.

Not Sāḥil. But armed. Dangerous.

Not a soldier, he wants to say, wants to shout. It’s rarely a good thing to be mistaken for any sort of combatant along the west coast. But he can’t speak. He can’t even whisper. He can’t feel his tongue.

Diallo realizes that he isn’t breathing.

The Insect woman (a diveskin, he realizes distantly: her mandibles an electrolysis rig, her compound eyes a pair of defraction goggles) reaches past his field of view, retrieves a tactical scroll and unrolls it a half-meter from his face. She mutters an incantation; it flares softly to life, renders a stacked pair of keyboards: English on top, Akan beneath.

“Don’t try to talk,” she says in two tongues. “Don’t try to move. We haven’t even booted your larynx, much less your lungs. Just look at the letters.”

He looks at the N: it brightens. O. T. The membrane offers up predictive spelling, speeds the transition from sacc’ to script:

Not soldier fish farmer

“Of course. Sorry.” She’s retired the translator; the Akan keys flicker and disappear. “Figure of speech. What’s your name?”

Teka Diallo

She pushes the defractors up onto her forehead, unlatches the mandibles. They fall away and dangle to one side. She’s white underneath.

Is Kito

“I’m sorry, no. We didn’t get here in time. Everyone’s dead.”

Everyone else, he thinks, and imagines Kito mocking him one last time for insufferable pedantry.

“Got him.” Man’s voice, from across the compartment. “Teka Diallo, Takoradi. Twenty-eight, bog-standard aqua— oh, wait; combat experience. Two years with GAF.”

Rising panic. Diallo’s eyes dart frantically across the keyboard:

No only farmer not

“No worries, mate.” The woman lays down a reassuring hand; he can only assume it comes to rest somewhere on his body. “Everyone’s seen combat hereabouts, am I right? You’re sitting on the only reliable protein stock in three hundred klicks. Even twenty meters down, you’re gonna have to defend it now and again.

“Still.” She turns in the direction of the other voice (a shoulder patch comes into view: WestHem Alliance). “We could put him on the list.”

“If you’re gonna do it, do it fast. Got a surface contact about two thousand meters out, closing.”

She turns back to Diallo. “Here’s the thing. We didn’t get here in time. Truth be told we’re not supposed to be here at all, but our CO got wind of Sally’s plans and took a little humanitarian initiative, I guess you could say. We showed up in time to scare ’em off and light ’em up, but you were all dead by then.”

I wasn’t

“Yeah, Teka, you too. All dead.”

You brought me back

“No, we didn’t.”

But I

“We gave your brain a jump start, that’s all. You know how you can make a body part twitch when you pass a current through it? You know what galvanic means, Teka?”

“He’s got a Ph.D. in molecular marine ecology,” says her unseen colleague. “I’m guessing yes.”

“You can barely feel anything, am I right? Body feels like a ghost shell. That’s because we didn’t reboot the rest of you. You’re just getting residual sensations from nerves that haven’t quite figured out they’re dead yet. You’re a brain in a box, Teka. You’re running on empty.

“But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be.”

“Hurry it up, Cat. We got ten minutes, tops.”

She glances briefly over her shoulder, returns her gaze to Diallo. “We’ve got a rig back on the Levi Morgan, patch you right up and keep you on ice until we get back home. And we got a rig back there that’ll work goddamn miracles, make you better’n new. But it ain’t cheap, Teka. Pretty much breaks the bank every time we do it.”

 Don’t have money

“Don’t want money, Teka. We want you to work for us. Four year tour; then you go on your way, nice fat bank balance, whole second chance. Easy gig, believe me. You’re just a passenger in your own body for the hard stuff. Even boot camp’s mostly autonomic.”

Not WestHem, Diallo saccades.

“You’re not Hegemon either, not any more. You’re not much of anything but rotting meat hooked up to a set of jumper cables. I’m offering you salvation, mate. You can be Born Again.”

“Wrap it the fuck up, Cat. They’re almost on top of us.”

“Course if you’re not interested, I can just pull the plug. Leave you the way we found you.”

No Please Yes

“Yes what, Teka? Yes pull the plug? Yes leave you behind? You need to be specific about this. We’re negotiating a contract here.”

Yes born again Yes four year tour

He wonders why he feels so hesitant— why any dead man offered life would give even an instant’s thought to something as abstract as political affiliation. Maybe it’s because he is dead; maybe all those suffocating endocrine glands just aren’t up to the task of flooding his brain with the usual elixir of fear and desperation. Maybe being dead means never having to give a shit.

He does, though. His glands aren’t quite dead yet, not yet. He said yes.

He wonders if anyone, ever, hasn’t.

“Glory Hallelujah.” Cat proclaims, reaching offstage for some unseen control. And just before everything goes black:

“Welcome to the Zombie Corps.”