Absurd Being

A place to take a moment to reflect on what it all means

Arrival - The Short Story and the Movie

The recent movie, Arrival, is another interesting and thoughtful science fiction story for those who like to think a little outside the box. Hollywood can’t take all the credit for this one however, because it was based on a short story written in 1998 by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”. This article will be divided into two sections. In the first, I will discuss the four main points of the movie (what I think are the ‘take home’ ideas), and the second will outline some of the bigger differences between it and the short story.

Note: this article is full of spoilers.

Main Points

Time is an Illusion

This was the core concept in the movie. The aliens’ conception of time, unlike ours, was non-linear; i.e. they could perceive the future. Unfortunately, the movie (and the short story) didn’t discuss exactly what time is or how the future could be knowable. What they did reveal was that it was possible to restructure our thoughts to come to perceive the future (by learning the aliens’ written language but more on this later).

So, obviously the aliens could see the future but as the movie progressed Louise also came to perceive more and more of the future. All of the ‘flashbacks’ she experienced, which appeared to be memories of a daughter who died before the aliens landed, actually turned out to be ‘memories’ she has of the daughter she will have in the future (but who will die of a “really rare disease” (a death we already saw at the beginning of the movie) with this plus the fact that the physicist is the father being the big reveals at the end.

“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”

This was the take home message of the movie. At the end of the movie, Louise knows exactly what will happen in the future. She knows that she will have a daughter with Ian and that their daughter will die of a “rare disease”. She also knows that Ian will leave her and her daughter because she will eventually tell him what she knows. However, even knowing that all of this will come to pass, she still decides to have the baby.

The first point to note is that this has nothing to do with freewill and determinism. The movie doesn’t discuss whether it’s possible to change the future if you know it; it only asks, through Louise, whether you would change it if you did.

This means then that there are at least three reasons for Louise’s decision to embark on what will obviously be a tremendously painful and difficult journey. The first and most obvious is that the experience of having and being with her daughter, even if it is only for a short period of time (she will die sometime around her late teens by the look of it; we aren’t told the exact age at which she dies), will be so meaningful, joyful, and precious to her that the heartache and pain she is setting herself up for will be worth it. (I suspect this is the intended meaning)

Alternatively, Louise might feel that the future she ‘remembers’ is as much a part of her as her past memories are. On this interpretation, her future would appear as somehow ‘right’ even though she knows it will be painful. If she were to change things, she might end up feeling as if she had lived a life somehow ‘wrong’ or even as if she had lived someone else’s life.

Another possible way to think about this is that all life is precious. Even though her daughter will die young, just the fact that she was able to live at all, makes it worthwhile.

The Relationship Between Language and Thought

This was another important concept. Early in the movie, Ian reads out a passage from a book written by Louise in which she says that language is the foundation of civilisation. He, of course, disagrees (science is the foundation of civilisation). A central feature of the movie is the aliens’ written language and its relationship to the way they think, specifically to their perception of time.

When we write a sentence in an earth-based language, we start at the beginning and work our way to the end, in a linear fashion. We have to do this because we don’t know what the end of our sentence will be until we get there. On the other hand, when the aliens ‘write’, their ‘sentences’ (those evanescent, black, circular shapes) form in such a way that all the ‘words’ appear at the same time, meaning they know exactly what the beginning and the ending of any sentence is going to look like before they write it (this idea is portrayed even better in the short story, I think).

There are two ways to view this. One is that language is the foundation of thought but the other is that thought is the foundation of language. Do we think because of the way we write or write because of the way we think?

The movie doesn’t answer this question but it does flirt with it. The aliens tell Louise that she has the “weapon” (an alien mistranslation of “tool” or “gift”) and that she must “use” it. They also tell her that the “weapon” opens time, that is, it allows one to see the future. So, the question then is what “weapon” or “tool” have they given Louise? Fortunately, she tells us; “The weapon is their language… If you learn it, when you really learn it, you begin to perceive time the way that they do, so you can see what’s to come. Time, it isn’t the same for them, it’s non-linear.”

So, their language is capable of restructuring our thoughts, specifically in this case, by freeing our thinking processes from the linear temporal constraints we live, think, and write within. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, we aren’t told whether the alien language reflects their thoughts (which already perceived the future) or whether their thoughts reflect their language (which then opened them up to the future) but, at the very least, it is clear that the learning of their language allows us to see the future, confirming at least a weaker version of the thesis; language can structure thought even if the opposite is true when language is first developed naturally.


One final minor message in the movie was that of teamwork. The appearance of the aliens initially sees all twelve sites where the ships have landed working together to try to understand the visitor’s intentions. Unfortunately, a rogue faction of U.S. soldiers plant a bomb in the alien ship in an effort to destroy it. This prompts a partial withdrawal of all the alien ships which in turn causes the different teams to shut down their connections with each other and the Chinese to declare war against the aliens.

Ian discovers something in the final message the aliens gave them that emphasises the fact that they are only one out of twelve; the point being that they must collaborate with the other teams to make sense of the information they have been given. Someone asks why the aliens would dole out information piecemeal like that and Louise responds by saying; “What better way to force us to work together for once.”

Eventually, (through an ingenious plot device) Louise convinces the Chinese General (General Shang) to stand down and the teams return to a harmonious working relationship.

Differences between the story and the movie

First of all, it’s worth mentioning that although the movie was based on the story, the former was, by in large, better, in my opinion. The movie was more cohesive, had more elements to it, worked in more tension, had a nice build up to a climax, and explained more. In short, reading the story gives you a taste of a brilliant idea but watching the movie suffuses that brilliant idea in an engaging and thought-provoking experience.

Of course, I ought to emphasise that it is much easier to add elements to a plot someone else has already dreamt up than it is to come up with that plot in the first place, so I shouldn’t be read here as being too hard on Chiang. The story was his idea and it was a genuinely fascinating one. The touches Hollywood put on it just really belted it out of the ballpark.

The biggest problem with the short story was there was no attempt to build in anticipation or a climax of any kind. There was a reveal at the end (that Ian (actually Gary in the book) was the father of the daughter Louise had been talking about all through the story and therefore that she hadn’t actually been born yet) but it didn’t come at the end of any build up and there were significant hints leading up to it. It was still a bit of a surprise and did come with an; “Ah ha, I see” feeling but it lacked any real punch. A few aspects of the short story contributed to this, and these, I will outline first:

1. The “memories” of the future Louise experiences as dream-like interruptions to her life in the movie weren’t revealed that way in the book. The book was broken into two separate stories that didn’t intertwine (although they were given simultaneously – sections detailing events with the aliens alternating with sections that described Louise’s future ‘memories’ of her daughter’s life). The feeling was that there were two narrations going on from a point somewhere outside of both of them. The narration with the aliens was given in the past tense while the narration with the daughter was given in the future tense, but there was absolutely no indication that Louise was actually experiencing them as the story was being told. This gave the whole story a somewhat ‘detached’ feel. I didn’t feel that either narration was happening ‘now’. Given the theme of the book, this was quite probably the intention of Chiang, but it made for a somewhat unengaging read.

2. As already mentioned, none of the revelations in the book came at the end of any dramatic encounter. The idea that the aliens could see the future (because of their written language) was ‘gently’ introduced and Louise’s ability to perceive the future was gradually worked into the story rather than coming at the end of a climactic build-up. Even the big reveal that Ian was the father of the daughter we had had heard so much about was, despite being carefully concealed all throughout most of the book, almost casually dropped in at the end.

3. There was no attack on the aliens and no subsequent withdrawal on their part so no immediate threat of an alien invasion.

4. There was no conflict between the teams in different countries and no danger of a Chinese first strike. This means that my teamwork ‘take home’ point from the movie wasn’t in the book at all.


The following were some nice features in the movie that weren’t in the book:

1. The phone call Louise made to the General Shang. Actually, this was outstanding. Louise gets a glimpse eighteen months into the future when she is attending a banquet celebrating a, “unification”, presumably between the sites where the aliens landed (or maybe even all the countries of the world). General Shang approaches her and thanks her for calling him eighteen months ago on his private cell phone number and convincing him to call off his attack. Confused, she says she couldn’t have done that because she doesn’t know (and has never known) his private number. Shang then shows it to her, also showing it to the Louise (back in the ‘present’) who is having this ‘flash forward’. ‘Future Louise’ suddenly realises that she did call Shang eighteen months ago (where ‘present Louise’ is) and, breaking out of her reverie ‘present Louise’ grabs a satellite phone and places the call she now realises she has already made. (This same time travelling paradox was used in Interstellar as well, but that’s a different story…)

2. It was nice that the aliens revealed something about themselves before leaving. In the book, they never provide any information, besides teaching the humans their written language of course, about who they are or what they are doing. They also simply disappear without explanation, almost mid-meeting, if memory serves. I remember being quite disappointed with this. The movie tied this loose end up quite nicely for me.

3. The daughter is given a name in the movie; Hannah. This is significant because it reads the same forwards as it does backwards; a nice touch. (I don’t remember this from the book, but I could be wrong)


The following differences were big enough for me to note but not so great that their exclusion from the book was a problem:

1. In the book, the alien artefacts weren’t enormous spaceships. The spaceships remained in orbit around Earth and the artefacts that landed on Earth were “looking glasses”; essentially screens that functioned like two way video cameras. When we looked into them, we could see the aliens on their ship and they could see us the same way.

2. The whole (very cool) altered gravity method of entering the ship was therefore also absent from the book.

3. The aliens were far less ominous in the book. For a start, they were simply being viewed through a screen, not separated from us by a partition. Nor were they the enormous creatures portrayed in the movie. There was no swirling smoke, no need to wear protective suits, and it wasn’t dark and foreboding when Louise and Ian held their sessions.


Finally, there were some really good things in the book that probably should have been included in the movie:

1. The flash forwards to moments in the daughter’s life are not so biased towards the positive in the book. In all of the ‘future memories’ in the movie, the daughter is depicted as a perfect little angel. Of course, they aren’t all joyful, they are actually tinged with sadness, but Louise doesn’t ‘remember’ any of the fights she will have with her daughter or the times her daughter is unreasonable or crying (as a baby), etc. In short, the book’s portrayal of the daughter’s life was a little more realistic.

2. In the book, one of the scientists has some success in communicating with the aliens about Fermat’s principle of least time, which says that a straw in a glass of water looks bent because light takes the quickest path between the two points and since light travels faster in air than in water, the time it takes to the straw can be minimised if it travels through the air more and cuts into the water at an angle, reducing the time spent travelling through the water. But apparently light doesn’t always take the quickest path, sometimes it opts for the path that takes the longest time. So, light doesn’t always take the quickest path, rather, it always follows an extreme path; either a minimum or a maximum. In physics this is what is known as a variational principle.

This is a nice analogy with one of the main themes of the story; becoming aware of the future. Once Louise has tapped into some of the future, while she knows her destination (like the light in Fermat’s principle of least time), she doesn’t know whether the path her life is on is an extreme of joy (maximum) or one of pain (minimum).

3. The alien writing is also better portrayed in the book. Chiang describes them as “intricate graphic designs” and “psychedelic posters: sometimes eye-watering, sometimes hypnotic”. Their sentences weren’t arranged in rows or a spiral or linear in any way; instead they were individual symbols stuck together in a complicated fashion. This is important because it makes clearer the idea that the aliens must have had the entire sentence in mind before they ‘drew’ it.

In the book, since the aliens’ sentences were formed by joining symbols (‘words’) together in highly complex and intricate patterns, in order to know how much space to leave or how much curve to put on one particular line, etc., they had to have a complete idea of what the final picture was going to look like before it was complete; that is to say, they had to know the future.

It would be analogous to us trying to write a sentence backwards and having to know exactly where to start writing (from the end of the sentence) so that when we finished (at the beginning of the sentence) we would arrive perfectly at the beginning of the left margin.





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