I recently saw the new sci-fi movie Arrival and really liked it. As it turns out, the movie is based on a novella called “Story of Your Life,” written by Ted Chiang. The novella won a Nebula Award in 2000. (Disclaimer: There are spoilers in this post).
Arrival was very well done, with great cinematography and excellent acting by Amy Adams. But that’s all film stuff that I don’t quite grasp or want to discuss.
What was most interesting to me was the crux of the movie: That learning the aliens’ language enables the main character to see into the future.
The main character is Louise Banks, a linguist who’s called in from the government to try to communicate with the aliens that have touched down in the U.S. (and throughout the world in 11 other locations).
Banks attempts communication with the aliens by using a whiteboard and writing English words. The aliens respond by shooting out inky characters that Banks and the government team study extensively.
The whole movie (and the novella, I suppose) comes down to what’s known as “linguistic relativity,” which basically means that the structure of a language shapes and affects a person’s worldview.
Throughout Arrival, we see flashbacks of Banks with her young daughter. Through the flashbacks, we learn her daughter passes away, presumably from cancer.
But that’s the twist: They weren’t flashbacks.
And that’s where linguistic relativity comes in.
As Banks learns the alien language, she realizes it’s allowed her to basically see into the future. As she describes it, the aliens’ perception of time is non-linear.
Shades of Slaughterhouse-Five?
Seeing Arrival definitely makes me want to read the novella it was based on. It’s a fascinating concept for a sci-fi story.
It does, however, remind me of part of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
In Vonnegut’s book, the aliens that abduct the main character (Billy Pilgrim) also reveal their non-linear perception of time, which allows Pilgrim to travel back and forth throughout his life during the book.
The other part I liked about Arrival was the political angle.
When the aliens touch down on Earth, the world’s nations initially work together to share information about their contact. However, as the public freaks out and world leaders become more and more afraid, the unity fractures.
I thought that was a realistic depiction of what would likely happen if some major event like alien contact were to happen.