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SciFi Short Story: Human Woman Negotiates with Cylindrical Aliens

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Jul 20, 2014, 11:58am Top

This was in some compendium of "Best SciFi of the Year" in the last 20 years.
A woman is a mid-level Earth official (maybe US or British, don't remember if she's officially part of some worldwide polity). It's set in the near future. Aliens arrive peacefully and want to communicate, and it's her job to communicate with them. She finds it's not possible not because of a true language barrier but because being cylindrical beings they have a totally different sense of time.
During the course of the story, told out of order as if time has been organized as it would be by the aliens, you learn that the woman is mourning her daughter's death in an auto crash recently, and that the idea of time being not uni-directional or even cyclical but rather different in a way humans can't really understand appeals to the main character. If time isn't directional, then her daughter hasn't necessarily already and permanently died.
Ultimately, the aliens and humans agree that while they're interested in each other's species, there's just too little common ground for a relationship and the aliens leave.

I'd just like to know the title and author because I think I'd like to read more by whoever wrote it. Thanks

Jul 21, 2014, 6:45am Top

Ooh, I think I remember this story. If I'm right then it originally ran in Asimov's, probably between 1999 and 2004. Could have been F&SF, but it sort of feels more like an Asimov's story. Maybe that will help you narrow your search.

Edited: Jul 21, 2014, 7:52am Top

That sounds like the title story of Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, although the daughter dies in a sky-diving accident. Most of the story is set before the accident (I don't think the daughter has even been born when the mother is working with the aliens), but since her mother has developed the alien's sense of time through learning their language, she already knows it will happen/has happened, and whatever she does to try and change the course of her daughter's life can't prevent it.

Jul 21, 2014, 9:47pm Top

I agree, isabelx

Jul 22, 2014, 7:27pm Top

I'm not sure. The story isn't about the mother trying to avoid the daughter's death, but rather about her trying to cope with the death after it has happened. But thanks for the leads, I'm going to check them out!

Edited: Aug 3, 2014, 2:22pm Top

See below-I was wrong to assume from reviews and summaries that this was the wrong story.

Jul 23, 2014, 9:17am Top

Even if it's not the story you remember, I very much recommend reading "Story of Your Life". (And I still suspect that it is the correct story, and that misleading synopses and slight misremembrances are conspiring to suggest otherwise.) It's an astonishing story. The relevant Best of the Year would be Year's Best SF 16, or as others have noted it's collected in Stories of Your Life and Others. Or pick up Starlight 2 where it was originally published, it's a really solid anthology.

Jul 23, 2014, 10:24am Top

#7 Agreed. It's hard to see it being anything else but Ted Chang's story. His collection is worth reading anyway. Hell is the Absence of God is one of the most heartbreaking stories I have ever read.

Jul 23, 2014, 10:30am Top

>7 lorax:, >8 justifiedsinner: You two are having a terrible effect on my already towering TBR list.

Jul 23, 2014, 10:36am Top

>9 MyriadBooks:

I'll pile on here; "Story of Your Life" is one of the best SF novellas of any decade. The other stories in the Chiang collection range from quite fine to almost as great as "Story..."

Jul 31, 2014, 8:53am Top

Mine was definitely just a short story, maybe 15 pages at most. But now I do have to read this!

Aug 3, 2014, 2:21pm Top

"Story of Your Life" turned out to be exactly the right one. Thank you! The reviews were not quite on target but you all were. Thank you. I enjoyed all the other stories in that book as well, which is what I was hoping to find when I set out to identify the author of the one story I had read. They were really excellent, and exactly the kind of post-modern, non-violent, thoughtful writing I was looking for.

Aug 7, 2014, 1:55pm Top

My library copies of Chiang's stories haven't quite reached me yet, but one of the sites I follow has singled out a Chiang novellas for particular mention:


Happily, one that's available for reading online:


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