the movie “Arrival” based on the short story – “The Story of Your Life”

51zipo22i7l-_sx322_bo1204203200_  Not until I found the short story by Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life,” in his collection of short stories – Stories of Your Life and Others – did I understand the movie Arrival with Amy Adams.  Now I get its message on the importance of language and cooperation, buried in a science fiction drama reminiscent of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  

Someone told me to watch carefully as the story unfolds, and it is good advice – but I may have to watch it again anyway.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks’ encounter with aliens, and her attempt to learn their language is mixed up with her own life and the trauma of her marriage and daughter’s death.  The differences between the written story and the movie had me admiring the screenwriter’s adaptation of the complex linguistic and mathematical theories Chiang uses in his short story; however, Chiang’s explanation of Fermat’s physics Principal of Least Time would have be helpful in understanding Dr. Banks’ flashes of memory. Unfortunately, it was not included in the movie – maybe to keep the viewer guessing until the explanation of events at the end.

In another Chiang short story – Babylon – in the same collection, Chiang theorizes about the notion of time.  As he describes the building of the tower of Babel to reach heaven,  the main character, Hillalum, discovers the same truth as Dr. Louise Banks – “Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.”  Chiang envisions time in a circular continuum.

In his short story about the aliens landing on several sites across the Earth, including China, Russia, Pakistan, the United States and Europe, Chiang focuses on the importance of immersion in someone else’s culture to fully understand it, with the scientists and linguists working together to solve the puzzle of the aliens’ visit.  Their purpose for coming is difficult to understand without language.

In the movie, someone at one of the sites gets nervous and shoots first. The aliens are forgiving, and thankfully, the movie stays true to the communication theme and avoids becoming Star Wars.  Instead, nations come together to do something that seems more like science fiction today than ever – they work together.

arrival_movie_poster   If you have not yet seen the movie, you might want to read the short story first, and try not to get lost in some of the technical jargon.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks is at the core of both; just remember to look forward, not back.  And consider what you would do if you could see your whole life, from beginning to end – would you make the same decisions?

Although I’m not a big fan of science fiction in books, I am enjoying Chiang’s collection of thought-provoking short stories.  At the end of the book, Chiang offers “Story Notes,” explaining his inspiration for each -for “Story of Your Life,” Chiang notes his interest in telling a story “about a person’s response to the inevitable.”   Chiang quotes Kurt Vonnegut in his introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future…. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now…To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient.  Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dot who knows and loves you no matter what you are.'”

The future will get here, no matter what we do.

The Martian by Andy Weir

9781101905005_p0_v2_s192x300Andy Weir may be the modern Jules Verne, going beyond “From the Earth to the Mooon” in his science fiction blockbuster The Martian, self-published in 2011.  When the book appeared in pocketbook size, with Matt Damon on the cover, I decided to finally read it. After the first chapter, I almost stopped;  the misery of scientific and mathematical speak was painful. The lack of editing had me wishing for a red pencil.  

But I turned the page, and the story suddenly was exciting.

Although I knew Mark Watney survived, I did not know how.  So many setbacks, so many innovative solutions, rivaling creative problem-solving sets from an Olympics of the Mind competition – how did Andy Weir do it? Despite the geeky forays into computer code and chemical balances, the story has humor and wonderfully cynical asides. Weir, the programmer and space enthusiast, clearly had fun detailing the complicated repairs for each new crisis, but after a while I skipped over them to return to the humanizing and gripping trial of this lone man on a distant planet.

Now I want to see the movie.

Related ReviewPacking for Mars



Only You Can Save Mankind

9780060541873_p0_v1_s260x420What if a character in the computer game you were playing suddenly became real? In The first of Terry Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Johnny faces down aliens in “Only You Can Save Mankind.” Targeted for a middle school audience, Pratchett’s science fiction thriller has some elements appealing to adults, with Pratchett’s clever references to human foibles, including unhealthy food, politics, and parenting, but overall, Johnny’s struggles with making friends, being a nerd, and generally trying to understand the adult world, fit the formula for a coming of age adventure.

I found this slim paperback, surrounded by shelves of Terry Pratchett books in the upstairs maze in The Last Bookstore. The title attracted me and had me wondering – can mankind be saved? Pratchett offers a few funny alternatives in his war against the aliens, and the action gets exciting as the story heads to its climax.

A fun quick read and Pratchett is now on my list of children’s authors to follow.  My favorite quote from the book:

You might never win, but at least you could try.  If not you, who else?

The Boy At the End of the World

After the world finally destroyed itself, a lone boy woke up from a survival pod to find the remnants. With the company of a broken-down robot he names Click and a genetically modified mammoth he names Protein, Fisher begins his journey to find another human being and start the world over in Greg van Eekhout’s young adult science fiction story – The Boy at the End of World.

Similar to Elizabeth Speare’s coming of age tale of a Native American boy in Sign of the Beaver, van Eekhout has his hero, Fisher, facing the wilderness, living off the land, and overcoming adversity. In this futuristic setting, however, some of the animals have morphed into mechanical monsters and the land is renewing itself from the devastation of wars, abuse, and possibly nuclear after effects.

Unlike Cormac McCarthy’s depressing The Road, van Eekhoot offers hope for the future and the tools to survive. Fisher, programmed with instincts for survival and the knowledge of an experienced fisherman, with the help of his companions, overcomes obstacles and fights off potential threats of marauding computerized insects and machines. In the end, the world has a chance for a new start with its hopeful, talented, and moral new Adam.

Both boys and girls will enjoy the adventures, and adults will recognize the warnings of what the world could become if they don’t change their ways. The Boy at the End of the Word is well a written and thoughtful yet thrilling story.

Die for Me – Parisian Zombie Trilogy by Amy Plum

Inspired by a love of Paris and possibly the teen vampire Twilight series, Amy Plum has written a trilogy of romantic zombie stories. My friendly librarian introduced me to the world of the revenants, zombies who act like guardian angels and look like matinée idols.

The first book in the series – Die for Me – introduces Vincent Delacroix, the handsome 19-year-old who is really 84 and has been among the walking dead since World War II, saving lives and fighting (with a sword) for justice. His teen love interest is seventeen year old Katie Mercier, recently orphaned and now living in Paris with her sister and grandparents. The story is predictably romantic and adventurous, with that hypnotizing draw that fans of Twilight will recognize. The same chasteness prevails – only kisses.

As a bonus, the stories are all in Paris – with descriptions of museums, famous streets, and sites that any francophile will appreciate – hot chocolate at Les Deux Maggots; the tour boats on the Seine; the shops on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Plum also offers a few suggestions in her appendix to help tourists blend in (no white sneakers; hands on the table). She also carefully lists the classics that Kate reads to pass the time in a French cafe – nice reference for teens.

The first book ends with Vincent’s promise to quell his desire to repeatedly die to save the world.  His good intentions backfire in the next book in the series – Until I Die.  The romance continues along with battles of good vs evil, and ends with a terrifying cliffhanger tease for the third and last book, scheduled for Spring – If I Should Die.

A fun fast diversion for anyone who just can’t get enough of zombies – or Paris.