Story of Your Life

science fiction novella by Ted Chiang
This article is about the Ted Chiang short story. For the film adaptation, see Arrival (film). For the Ted Chiang anthology, see Stories of Your Life and Others. For the Matthew West album, see The Story of Your Life.
"Story of Your Life"
Ted Chiangs "Story of your life" illo.jpg
Illustration for "Story of Your Life" by Hidenori Watanave for S-F Magazine
Author Ted Chiang
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction short story
Published in Starlight 2
Publication date November 1998

"Story of Your Life" is a science fiction short story by Ted Chiang, first published in Starlight 2 in 1998, and in 2002 in Chiang's collection of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others. The major themes explored by this tale are language and determinism.

"Story of Your Life" won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella, as well as the 1999 Theodore Sturgeon Award,[1] A film adaptation by Eric Heisserer, titled Arrival and directed by Denis Villeneuve, was released in 2016. It stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture; it won the award for Best Sound Editing.[2][3][4]


Plot summaryEdit

The story is narrated by Dr. Louise Banks, writing in the past tense. After a race of aliens, known as heptapods (due to their 7-pointed radially symmetrical appearance), initiate first contact with humanity, the military hires Banks to discover their language and communicate with them. The story revolves around Banks and Dr. Gary Donnelly, a physicist also working for the military to gain knowledge of physics from the aliens.

The heptapods have two distinct forms of language. Heptapod A is their spoken language, which is described as having free word order and many levels of center-embedded clauses. Understanding Heptapod B, the written language of the aliens, is central to the plot. Unlike its spoken counterpart, Heptapod B has such complex structure that a single semantic symbol cannot be excluded without changing the entire meaning of a sentence.

When writing in Heptapod B, the writer knows how the sentence will end. The phenomenon of Heptapod B is explained by the aliens' understanding of mathematics and Fermat's principle of least time. Banks' understanding of the heptapods' writing system affects the way she perceives time and suggests a deterministic universe where free will is exercised by not affecting the outcome of events.

A frame for the story, written in the present tense, indicates that the story is being written at the time of Banks' daughter's conception. The sections describing the daughter's life, from birth to death and beyond, are written as Banks reminisces and yet she describes it while using the future tense, because learning Heptapod B has inspired Banks to view her daughter's entire life as a whole. As the story proceeds, we see Banks and Donnelly growing closer until it is clear that Donnelly will be the father of her child.


In the "Story Notes" section of Stories of Your Life and Others, Chiang wrote that inspiration for "Story of Your Life" came from his fascination in the variational principle in physics. When he saw American actor Paul Linke's performance in his play Time Flies When You’re Alive, about his wife's struggle with breast cancer, Chiang realized he could use this principle to show how someone deals with the inevitable.[5] Regarding the theme of the story, Chiang said that Kurt Vonnegut summed it up in his introduction in the 25th anniversary edition of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five:

Stephen Hawking ... found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child's play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now ... To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, "Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are."[5]

In a 2010 interview Chiang said that "Story of Your Life" addresses the subject of free will. The philosophical debates about whether or not we have free will are all abstract, but knowing the future makes the question very real. Chiang added, "If you know what's going to happen, can you keep it from happening? Even when a story says that you can't, the emotional impact arises from the feeling that you should be able to."[6]


In The New York Review of Books American author James Gleick said that "Story of Your Life" poses the questions: would knowing your future be a gift or a curse, and is free will simply an illusion? Gleick wrote "For us ordinary mortals, the day-to-day experience of a preordained future is almost unimaginable", but Chiang does just that in this story, he "imagine[s] it".[7] In a review of Stories of Your Life and Others in The Guardian, English fantasy author China Miéville described "Story of Your Life" as "tender" with an "astonishingly moving culmination", which he said is "surprising" considering it is achieved using science.[8]

Writing in Kirkus Reviews Ana Grilo called it a "thought-provoking, beautiful story".[9] He said that in contrast to the familiar fare of lavish stories involving aliens, "Story of Your Life" is "a breath of fresh air" whose objective "is to not only to learn how to communicate but how to communicate effectively."[9] In a review in Emertainment Monthly Samantha Schraub said that the story's two narratives, Louise recalling the unraveling of the heptapods' language, and telling her yet-to-be-born daughter what will happen to her, creates "an ambiguity and air of mystery, which make the reader question everything that unfolds".[10] Schraub called it "an award-worthy science fiction novella that will resonate with readers, and leave them thinking how they would live—or even change—their present, if they knew their future."[10]


Publication historyEdit

Date Title Author/Editor Language Type
November 1998 Starlight 2 Patrick Nielsen Hayden English Anthology
June 1999 The Year's Best Science Fiction: Sixteenth Annual Collection Gardner Dozois English Anthology
June 1999 Year's Best SF 4 David G. Hartwell English Anthology
August 1999 The Mammoth Book of the Best New Science Fiction 12 Gardner Dozois English Anthology
September 1999 Strani universi 2 Piergiorgio Nicolazzini Italian Anthology
May 2000 Al suono di una musica aliena David G. Hartwell Italian Anthology
April 2001 Nebula Awards Showcase 2001 Robert Silverberg English Anthology
July 2002 Stories of Your Life and Others Ted Chiang English Collection
February 2005 The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction Gardner Dozois English Anthology
November 2007 A Science Fiction Omnibus Brian Aldiss English Anthology
March 2008 The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New SF Gardner Dozois English Anthology
November 2009 Il meglio della SF / II. L'Olimpo dei classici moderni Gardner Dozois Italian Anthology
December 2012 Lightspeed John Joseph Adams English Magazine
July 2016 The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer English Anthology


  1. ^ ""Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, Winner, Best Novella in 1999". Retrieved 17 August 2016. 
  2. ^ "Jeremy Renner Joins Amy Adams in Sci-Fi 'Story of Your Life'". The Hollywood Reporter. 6 March 2015. 
  3. ^ Zutter, Natalie (August 8, 2016). "Your First Look at Arrival, the Adaptation of Ted Chiang's Novella Story of Your Life". TOR. Retrieved 17 August 2016. 
  4. ^ "Oscar Nominations: Complete List". Variety. January 24, 2017. Retrieved February 27, 2017. 
  5. ^ a b Chiang, Ted (2015) [2002]. "Story Notes". Stories of Your Life and Others (e-book ed.). Picador. p. 223. ISBN 978-1-4472-8198-6. 
  6. ^ Solomon, Avi (January 29, 2014). "Stories of Ted Chiang's Life and Others: An interview with the wisest, smartest scifi writer there is". Retrieved March 8, 2017. 
  7. ^ Gleick, James (January 19, 2017). "When They Came from Another World". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved March 10, 2017. 
  8. ^ Miéville, China (April 24, 2004). "Stories of Your Life". The Guardian. Retrieved March 10, 2017. 
  9. ^ a b Grilo, Ana (November 25, 2016). "Contrast and Compare: Arrival and 'Story of Your Life'". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved March 10, 2017. 
  10. ^ a b Schraub, Samantha (December 13, 2016). "Review: "Story of Your Life"". Emertainment Monthly. Retrieved March 10, 2017. 
  11. ^ "Story of Your Life". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved February 27, 2017. 

External linksEdit