Story of Your Life

Story of Your Life Study Guide

"Story of Your Life" is an award-winning science fiction novella by acclaimed short story writer Ted Chiang. The approximately 50-page-long work was first published in 1998 in the second volume of the Starlight anthology. It was then reprinted in his short-story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, in 2002. The story was the basis for Denis Villeneuve's 2016 film Arrival, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won one, for Best Sound Editing.

The story is narrated by linguist Dr. Louise Banks the day her daughter is conceived. She addresses the story to her daughter and alternates between describing moments from the future and recounting what happened in the past. In the past, aliens (called "heptapods") enter Earth's orbit and place 112 devices across the globe. The humans nickname these devices "looking glasses," and they can communicate with heptapods through these devices. There are nine looking glasses in the United States, and Dr. Banks and physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly are assigned to one of the sites. Dr. Banks is tasked with learning the aliens' language, while Dr. Gary Donnelly is supposed to learn about their physics, mathematics, and technology. They make contact with two heptapods who they nickname Flapper and Raspberry. Dr. Banks decodes the heptapod languages and soon discovers that they do not write according to a linear passage of time. Instead, through their writing system, they have access to every event at once, which allows them to remember the future as well as the past.

Chiang has stated that his inspiration for writing the story came from contemplating the philosophical question of free will and determinism, wondering how to make such an abstract argument concrete. In the "Story Notes" section of the 1999 version, Chiang writes that the story came from his fascination with the variational principle in physics. The variational principle concerns finding functions that optimize the values of quantities that depend on those functions. Because much of the story is based upon theories of linguistic relativity, it took Chiang five years researching linguistics in order to be able to write the story. Through the eyes of linguist Louise Banks, the story follows her research into cracking the language of an alien species, enabling communication between races and resulting in her unexpected ability to know what the future holds.

In an interview with Betsy Huang, Chiang placed "Story of Your Life" within a subset of the Science Fiction genre, which he dubs the "conceptual breakthrough story." These kinds of stories are characterized by "characters [who] discover something about the nature of the universe which radically expands their understanding of the world." In this interview, he also notes that he enjoys science fiction because "it lets you dramatize the process of scientific discovery, that moment of suddenly understanding something about the universe."

"Story of Your Life" has become one of the genre's most acclaimed works, receiving the highly coveted Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2000 and the Theodore Sturgeon award in 1999, as well as being nominated for both the Hugo and the Locus Awards for Best Novella in 1999. It was also shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. "Story of Your Life" has been translated into Italian, Japanese, French, and German. The story received starred reviews by The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, and Entertainment Monthly. The Guardian hailed "Story of Your Life" as "tender" with an "astonishingly moving culmination." Similarly, Kirkus Reviews called "Story of Your Life" a "thought-provoking, beautiful story."