Story of Your Life  

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Ted Chiang's short story Story of Your Life (1998) developed the concept of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as applied to an alien species which visits Earth. The aliens' biology contributes to their spoken and written languages, which are distinct. The 2016 American film Arrival, based on Chiang's short story, explores how the Heptapods' language altered the speakers' perception of time.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"Story of Your Life" (1998) is a science fiction short story by Ted Chiang. It was the winner of the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella as well as the 1999 Sturgeon award. The major themes explored by this tale are determinism, language, and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. The story was adapted into the 2016 film Arrival.

Plot summary

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 Dr. Banks to discover their language and communicate with them. The story revolves around Dr. Banks and 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. Dr. 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 the daughter's conception. The sections describing the daughter's life—from birth to death and beyond—are written as Dr. Banks' remembrances that she nonetheless describes using the future tense, because learning Heptapod B enables Dr. Banks to know her daughter's entire life even before she agrees to conceive her. As the story proceeds, we see Dr Banks and Dr Donnelly growing closer, until it is revealed that Dr Donnelly will be the father of her child.

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Story of Your Life" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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