The Short Story Behind Arrival

There have been few movies in recent months and years to get me jazzed about “Hollywood blockbusters” and what they can be. But, the upcoming Arrival has shifted that perspective, adding an element of intrigue and beauty to contemporary multiplex offerings.

The sci-fi film stars Amy Adams as a linguist seeking to communicate with aliens that started popping up all over our planet. The premise is very heady and, with Sicario‘s Denis Villeneuve at the helm and a tingling soundtrack from Jóhann Jóhannsson and Max Richter, the film feels poised to be a revelation, a simple political metaphor presented right before the election. There’s a high element of intellectual voyeurism—and beauty—that envelops, pointing out the power of alternative dramatic narratives like horror and science fiction.

The funny thing about Arrival (and part of its appeal) is that it’s based on a short story. Titled “Story Of Your Life,” it was written by Ted Chiang and published in 2000. The story is approximately forty pages long and won multiple awards, including the highly regarded Nebula Award for science fiction. Like the film, the story follows a linguist who is tasked to unlock the language of extraterrestrials. Chiang’s narrative is tight and words even tighter, a simple story that creates a giant universe in such small sweeps. It’s brilliant writing that, atop of all this, is made even more technically heavy as he balances first and second points of view to tell said story “of your life.” While the invasion is the center of the story, you can guess that this isn’t an alien story but a people story, a family story, a parent story, about understanding each other in times of stress.

It’s a wonderful read, something to cozy up to as the nights get cooler and days start to shorten. What’s most exciting—and of note—is that this book can be read online, here. Unlike last year’s The Martian, this is a rare opportunity to catch onto, ingest the media that inspired it before, to be able walk into it fully prepared. The trailer does allude to some differences—the communication forms, Adams’ relationship to the military, etc.—but the central conceit remains. You’ll love it—and you’ll likely love the movie too.

You can watch the trailer for Arrival below and can read an interview with Chiang here.

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