Genre junkies love it when a writer or filmmaker finds a new twist on a well-worn plotline or narrative set-up. Whether it’s a horror director who ingeniously flips a standard convention or a science-fiction author who tweaks a thematic thread to address a new idea, we delight at being surprised.
Alien-contact films are legion, but the new sci-fi drama “Arrival,” opening in theaters Friday, November 11, takes a novel approach to a scenario audiences will find very familiar. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”) and written by Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out”), the film stars Oscar nominee Amy Adams as a grief-stricken linguistics professor called in by the military to figure out how to communicate with a phalanx of alien visitors called Heptapods. While the movie has some traditional elements, what’s unique is its focus on the practical issue of deciphering a foreign language and how that curiosity can change one’s worldview, or even perception of time and reality.
The creative blueprint for the film comes from the imagination of writer Ted Chiang, whose award-winning 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” inspired it. Now in his late forties, Chiang has published more than a dozen stories, eight of them collected in the 2002 book Stories of Your Life and Others. (The collection includes Chiang’s 1991 sci-fi novella “Understand,” which is also in development with Heisserer and the producers that backed “Arrival.”) Signature caught up with Chiang just before the film’s release to dig in to the story’s origins and ideas.
SIGNATURE: How did you arrive at the central concept of how language can change thought patterns? And did that come before or after the alien element?
TED CHIANG: The initial impulse was to tell a story about a character who had knowledge of the future but couldn’t change it, and who knew that both great joy and great pain lay ahead. And that person would go forward and meet that future deliberately. So then I had to figure out how to give my protagonist this knowledge of the future. I considered a few possibilities. One was some form of meditation, another was some mind-altering drug, but neither of those seemed particularly interesting to me. Then I thought the protagonist could learn a new language, and learning that language would give them this possibility. I was thinking of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. That’s the idea that the language you speak not only shapes the way you think but can actually even affect the way you perceive the universe. And even though the strong version of that hypothesis has been pretty much discredited by linguists, I still thought it was a really interesting idea. It has been used in a number of science fiction works in the past. I thought that was something I could really work with. Then, I figured it couldn’t be just a previously undiscovered human language, it needed to be an alien language. So the language aspect and the alien-contact aspect came kind of at the same time because of the need for a truly foreign perspective.
SIG: Your story, like the movie, has great loss at its center. Was that a strategic storytelling decision, or did it come from a more organic place in your own personal history?
TC: It was not based on personal experience. I wanted to tell a story about someone who was seeing both the good and the bad that would come, so that was a storytelling decision.
SIG: When you were writing it, were you conscious of other sci-fi stories, particularly those that feature alien contact, and how you wanted to stand out from them?
TC: I wasn’t consciously trying to do something different from what had gone before. I have read a lot of science fiction, but mostly what I was interested in was trying to depict the actual problem that would be faced in a first-contact scenario: trying to learn an alien language. A lot of times when you have a story where there’s first contact with aliens, the story is actually about something else, so you skip over the language part. My story is about the effect of learning an alien language on the person’s mind, and so it has to go into more detail on that aspect of the first-contact scenario.
SIG: You’ve done a lot of technical writing, and that’s almost like learning a different language. In what ways has that fed or influenced your creative writing?
TC: I wouldn’t say that it has influenced my creative writing in any substantive fashion. I would say that there is a similar underlying impulse in that what drew me to technical writing as a way of making a living is the desire to explain ideas clearly. I think a good explanation is not just useful, it can also be beautiful — a clear explanation of a new or unfamiliar concept that creates a wonderful experience of comprehension, when you finally get what the person is talking about. That is a theme running through a lot of my fiction.
SIG: You’re not super prolific, at least in terms of what you publish. How do you know when a story is ready to be written?
TC: I don’t write very much, and it’s because I don’t get a lot of ideas that really grab hold of my imagination. So when I write a story it’s because there’s an idea that I keep coming back to in my mind over a period of months or years, usually. When an idea keeps recurring in that fashion, to me that’s an indicator that there’s something about this idea which interests me enough that I should explore it some more and then probably write a story about it.
SIG: Are you much of a film fan? Do you have favorite adaptations of sci-fi stories or novels?
TC: I’m definitely a fan of movies. The history of film adaptations of written science fiction is not great. Really, the best movie that came out of a science fiction novel is “Blade Runner.” It’s a landmark science fiction film, but it’s not a very close adaptation of the original work. As for something that is a faithful adaptation of the original work, actually a very close one is Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly.” That one follows the novel quite closely. Also one that’s quite faithful is “Predestination” starring Ethan Hawke. It’s an adaptation of a Robert Heinlein story called “All You Zombies.” It’s pretty good.