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.
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.