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.
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 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.