Open main menu

Story of Your Life

"Story of Your Life" is a science fiction novella by American writer 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. Its major themes are language and determinism.

"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
AuthorTed Chiang
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inStarlight 2
Publication typeAnthology
PublisherTor Books
Publication dateNovember 1998

"Story of Your Life" won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella, as well as the 1999 Theodore Sturgeon Award. It was nominated for the 1999 Hugo Award for Best Novella. The novella has been translated into Italian, French and German.[1]

A film adaptation of the story by Eric Heisserer, titled Arrival and directed by Denis Villeneuve, was released in 2016. It stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture; it won the award for Best Sound Editing.[2][3][4] The film also won the 2017 Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.[5][6]


"Story of Your Life" is narrated by linguist Dr. Louise Banks the day her daughter is conceived. Addressed to her daughter, the story alternates between recounting the past: the coming of the aliens and the deciphering of their language; and remembering the future: what will happen to her unborn daughter as she grows up, and the daughter's untimely death.

The aliens arrived in spaceships and entered Earth's orbit. 112 devices resembling large semi-circular mirrors appeared at sites across the globe. Dubbed "looking glasses", they were audiovisual links to the aliens in orbit, who were called heptapods for their seven-limbed radially symmetrical appearance. Louise and physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly were recruited by the U.S. Army to communicate with the aliens, and were assigned to one of nine looking glass sites in the US. They made contact with two heptapods they nicknamed Flapper and Raspberry. In an attempt to learn their language, Louise began by associating objects and gestures with sounds the aliens made, which revealed a language with free word order and many levels of center-embedded clauses. She found their writing to be chains of semagrams on a two-dimensional surface in no linear sequence, and semasiographic, having no reference to speech. Louise concluded that, because their speech and writing are unrelated, the heptapods have two languages, which she called Heptapod A (speech) and Heptapod B (writing).

Attempts were also made to establish heptapod terminology in physics. Little progress was made, until a presentation of Fermat's Principle of Least Time was given. Gary explained the principle to Louise, giving the example of the refraction of light, and that light will always take the fastest possible route. Louise reasoned, "[a] ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in."[7] She knew the heptapods did not write a sentence one semagram at a time, but drew all the ideograms simultaneously, suggesting they knew what the entire sentence would be beforehand. Louise realized that instead of experiencing events sequentially (causality), heptapods experience all events at once (teleology). This reflected in their language, and explained why Fermat's principle came naturally to them.

Soon, Louise became quite proficient at Heptapod B, and found that when writing in it, trains of thought were directionless, and premises and conclusions interchangeable. She found herself starting to think in Heptapod B and began to see time as heptapods do. Louise saw glimpses of her future and of a daughter she did not yet have. This raised questions about the nature of free will: knowledge of the future would imply no free will, because knowing the future means it cannot be changed. But Louise asked herself, "What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?"[8]

One day, after an information exchange with the heptapods, the aliens announced they were leaving. They shut down the looking glasses and their ships disappeared. It was never established why they left, or why they had come in the first place. The heptapod languages changed Louise's life, and once she knew the future, she never acted contrary to that future. Gary and Louise start spending time together and eventually marry. When Gary asks Louise if she wants a baby, she agrees, knowing that they will divorce, and their daughter will die young.


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.[9] 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:

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."[10]

Chiang spent five years researching and familiarizing himself in the field of linguistics before attempting to write "Story of Your Life."[11]


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".[12] In a review of Chiang's 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.[13]

Writing in Kirkus Reviews Ana Grilo called it a "thought-provoking, beautiful story".[14] 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."[14] 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".[15] 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."[15]


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. ^ a b "Story of Your Life". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  2. ^ "Jeremy Renner Joins Amy Adams in Sci-Fi 'Story of Your Life'". The Hollywood Reporter. March 6, 2015. Retrieved January 31, 2018.
  3. ^ Zutter, Natalie (August 8, 2016). "Your First Look at Arrival, the Adaptation of Ted Chiang's Novella Story of Your Life". TOR. Retrieved January 31, 2018.
  4. ^ "Oscar Nominations: Complete List". Variety. January 24, 2017. Retrieved February 27, 2017.
  5. ^ "Nebula Awards 2017". Science Fiction Awards Database. Locus. Archived from the original on May 23, 2017. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  6. ^ "2017 Hugo Awards". World Science Fiction Society. Archived from the original on August 11, 2017. Retrieved August 12, 2017.
  7. ^ Chiang 2015a, p. 101.
  8. ^ Chiang 2015a, p. 106.
  9. ^ a b Chiang 2015b, p. 223.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ "'Arrival' Author's Approach To Science Fiction? Slow, Steady And Successful". Retrieved December 5, 2017.
  12. ^ Gleick, James (January 19, 2017). "When They Came from Another World". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved March 10, 2017.
  13. ^ Miéville, China (April 24, 2004). "Stories of Your Life". The Guardian. Retrieved March 10, 2017.
  14. ^ a b Grilo, Ana (November 25, 2016). "Contrast and Compare: Arrival and 'Story of Your Life'". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved March 10, 2017.
  15. ^ a b Schraub, Samantha (December 13, 2016). "Review: "Story of Your Life"". Emertainment Monthly. Retrieved March 10, 2017.
  16. ^ ""Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, Winner, Best Novella in 1999". Retrieved January 31, 2018.
  17. ^ "Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award 1999". Science Fiction Awards Database. Locus. Archived from the original on April 23, 2015. Retrieved April 4, 2017.
  18. ^ "1999 Hugo Awards". World Science Fiction Society. Archived from the original on July 5, 2011. Retrieved April 4, 2017.
  19. ^ "Locus Awards 1999". Science Fiction Awards Database. Retrieved April 4, 2017.
  20. ^ "1998 Award Winners & Nomineess". Worlds Without End. Retrieved April 4, 2017.

Works citedEdit

External linksEdit