Story of your life (Project 2: Research point)

Story of your life by Ted Chiang 

(Project 2 – Research point; Aristotle’s Elements) 

Story of your life is one of a selection of short stories, all by Ted Chiang, collected under the title, Stories of your life and others. This particular short story was the basis for the science fiction film, Arrival.

In summary, the story is in the form of a note to the narrator’s daughter. It is an explanation of the events that led to the narrator meeting the man with whom she would become pregnant, and the life her daughter was going to lead.

The story centres around a meeting with aliens who visit the earth. Their language is complex and the writer, a linguist, is employed to assist in developing the means to translate their spoken and written language. The man she will meet is a member of the military, who are coordinating the contact with the aliens.

In the course of her work she discovers that their language is not only extremely complex but suggests a different understanding and perception of time. As she comes to terms with the complexities of their language she develops their perception of time. In short, she can foretell the future.

I will now take the first four of Aristotle’s elements in turn:

  • The Plot is very interesting. On one level it is the story of how the narrator explores and learns to understand the aliens’ communication. On another level it is the also the story of how her daughter’s life will unfold. Thirdly, it is the story of how she met her daughter’s father. The third of these would more accurately be described as a sub-plot. The other two are slightly more difficult to separate in terms of importance. They are both so interlinked that it is arguable that one produces the storyline whilst the second provides an emotional arc for the story. 
  • The narrator and the father are quite thinly sketched. We get to know and understand more about the daughter. We do, however, get to know a lot about the narrator’s approach to resolving the problems presented by the aliens’ communication. From this we make a lot of inferences about her intellect, insight, determination and, of course, her linguistic skills.
  • The theme of the story is the dominant element. The main theme is that of time, especially how it presents itself to us in quite an abstract form in quantum mechanics and then how it appears linear to us as we lead our lives. In that respect the story also poses a couple of interesting questions. Had we evolved differently is it possible that we would not see time as linear, and is it even possible for us to perceive time in a non-linear form in the here and now?
  • The diction is interesting. As stated at the beginning, the narrator is a linguist. She tells the story in her words. Key to the resolution of the alien language is understanding the refraction of light (for reasons I won’t go into, right now!). In this section she quotes the father of her daughter talking about the refraction of light and then researches it. This allows for a “scientific” voice to enter the book which in turn introduces time to the story. It is appropriate to mention here, that as the story unfolds we realise she is writing about her child’s life before the child is born.
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