'Arrival' Author Thinks The Film's Written Alien Language 'Ought To Be Possible'

Ted Chiang, the writer behind “Story of Your Life,” talks about aliens and the power of language.
A still from "Arrival" featuring Amy Adams.
A still from "Arrival" featuring Amy Adams.

When science fiction author Ted Chiang first got the idea for “Story of Your Life,” the fictional work that would eventually be adapted into the Oscar-nominated movie “Arrival,” he knew he wasn’t ready to write it yet.

“I figured I would put it on the back burner, work on my writing skills, and at the same time I figured I would learn about linguistics,” he told The Huffington Post.

Five years of self-education later, Chiang wrote the story, a deliberate, longish plot detailing a linguist’s relationship with a physicist, their interactions with alien visitors, and her decision to have a child in spite of knowing that child would die as a young adult. More personal and at times philosophical than its onscreen counterpart, Chiang’s story grapples with free will and predestination ― and whether the two concepts can coexist.

The film frames the story in the context of a burgeoning global crisis, where the emergence of alien visitors causes nations to cut off contact with each other. In the end, linguist Louisa’s ability to educate herself in a foreign language that can be read nonlinearly enables her to see the future and save the world from the possibility of war.

I think that a really good explanation is able to make people understand something which they couldn’t understand before. Ted Chiang

“I think it made total sense to add a geopolitical drama to make the story work as a movie, because the story is so internal,” Chiang said. Overall, he said the film, which he had little involvement in adapting, came out better than he “had dared to hope.”

In the movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted by Eric Heisserer, the aliens write in a language that’s brought stunningly to life in Pollock-like swaths of deliberate splatter. Louise winds up writing a book on acquiring their language so that readers can unlatch themselves from linear time, too.

It’s an attractive concept, but Chiang dismisses the possibility of it ever happening in real life.

Writer Ted Chiang.
Writer Ted Chiang.

“I certainly don’t think there’s a language that would enable us to see the future,” he said. “But the written language that I describe in my story ― which is a full-fledged language, but it is not a representation of speech ― that, I think is possible. We have never seen anything like that historically. But something like that ought to be possible.”

Although he may not believe in literal linguistic magic, Chiang says that he’s “consistently interested in language.” He’s drawn to science fiction for the same reason he was drawn to technical writing, his day job. Both allow readers to see things anew, thanks to the power of clear explanation.

“I think that a really good explanation is able to make people understand something which they couldn’t understand before,” Chiang said. “That is something that I do as a technical writer, and I think that is something I try to do in my fiction as well.”

“Arrival” is out on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand on Feb. 14, 2017.



10 Sci-Fi And Fantasy Books To Explore