Book Review: Story Of Your Life

“I’d love to tell you the story of this evening, the night you’re conceived, but the right time to do that would be when you’re ready to have children of your own, and we’ll never get that chance.”

Story of Your Life is a science fiction short story written by author Ted Chiang, which is a part of his Stories of Your Life and Others collection, originally published in 2002.

Premised during an alien invasion after multiple mysterious spacecrafts touch down across the globe, linguist Dr Louise Banks is recruited alongside mathematician Ian Donnelly and US Army Colonel Weber by the military to assist in translating communications with an alien race known as Heptapods. As mankind scrambles for answers as to why these aliens are here, Banks tries to distinguish between their two distinct forms of language – the Heptapods’ spoken language, which has a free word order, and their written language, which has a complex structure that a single semantic symbol cannot be excluded without changing the entire meaning of a sentence – a vital study to maintain peace with this mysterious race.


The following post is a review of the book only. You can read my review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book here.

Story Of Your Life is a short story like no other. You may think that you know what to expect from a science fiction novella set during an alien invasion like this, but you would be wrong. Instead, this short story is a joyous treat to read, filled with thought-provoking ideas beyond its short length and minimal premise.

Although Story Of Your Life and its upcoming film adaptation Arrival will be known for being a story about aliens, its science fiction setting is merely a background to something much bigger. We don’t know much about how or why these aliens have invaded Earth, nor do we know anything about their subsequent departure but, instead, Chiang uses their ‘arrival’ as a means to look at how we evaluate our own lives and being.

Linking language, maths and physics, Story Of Your Life tells two stories. The first sees the narrator’s attempts to communicate with this mysterious alien race known as Heptapods, who have touched down across the globe for no apparent reason, whilst the second sees Banks linking her understanding of their language to her own experiences, as she goes on to tell the story of the life of her daughter, about how she was conceived, how she grew up, and how she dies at an early age (something we are told very early on).

“I’d love to tell you the story of this evening, the night you’re conceived, but the right time to do that would be when you’re ready to have children of your own, and we’ll never get that chance.”

The beautiful way that these two stories connect together is the reason why you will feel so overcome by this powerfully engaging story. This isn’t a story about aliens; this is a story about humanity and about how we perceive our own existence.

Whilst there’s a lot detail used about semiotics and linguistics alongside numerous scientific and mathematic formulas and theories, as Banks tries to understand the structure of the aliens language in quite a depth, which can be hard to comprehend at times, Story Of Your Life is also very easy to follow due to the personal links made between Banks’ learning of a new language and her wonderings of her own life.

Consequently, her understandings of this alien language produces a dramatic change in the way she sees the world, affecting the way she perceives time as the Heptapods’ language leads her to question, “What would it be like to go through life knowing what would happen in the future, but being unable to change it?”

You can buy the book here

Discovering two forms of languages, it is through the Heptapods’ second language, their written language, which brings into play her theories of human life, as Banks is forced to question what a language would be like if it came from a culture that experienced all events simultaneously.

With a complex structure that means a single semantic symbol cannot be excluded without changing the entire meaning of a sentence, this second language means that the writer knows how the sentence is going to end before they have even started it, which is explained by the aliens’ understanding of mathematics and Fermat’s principle of “least time”.

As you can see, there’s a lot to take in, but it’s through the way that Banks links her understanding of their language to her own experiences that we are able to make sense of these heavy explanations.

As Bank goes on to explain: “Everyone at a wedding anticipated the words ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’, but until the minister actually said them, the ceremony didn’t count. With performative language, saying equalled doing.”

“Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while Heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all.”

It is this understanding of language that is reflected by the different tenses used in the story’s writing. With the narrative of Banks’ time with the aliens written in past tense, the story begins in present tense as if she were telling it from the night of her daughter’s conception, as we focus on the links between her understanding of her past with the present narrative describing her daughter’s life and upbringing.

From learning the Heptapods’ second language, Banks tells this section of the story in a second person future tense as she is able to know her daughter’s entire life even before she agrees to conceive her, which is told through anecdotes at various different ages: from her early years developing as a toddler and a teenager, to her death in a climbing accident at the age of 25.

With Banks knowing that she will have a daughter and that her daughter will die young, it is this compelling narrative that is at the heart of this story, with the alien invasion premise cleverly interlinking these two stories to make something truly special.

Story Of Your Life is not a science fiction story about conflict, action and futuristic technologies, it is about everyday ideas and ways of thinking.

Story Of Your Life was adapted into a film in 2016, titled Arrival, which you can read my Book vs. Film Review for soon, and watch the trailer for below:

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