Changing Our Minds: “Story of Your Life” in Print and on Screen.

Spoilers. Duh.

We share a secret prayer, we writers of short SF. We utter it whenever one of our stories is about to appear in public, and it goes like this:

Please, Lord. Please, if it be Thy will,
don’t let Ted Chiang publish a story this year.

We supplicate thus because whenever Ted Chiang does put out a story— not all that often, thankfully— it’s pretty much guaranteed to walk away with every award that’s lying around, leaving nothing for the rest of us. More often than not, it deserves to. So it will come as no surprise to learn that the first movie to be based on a Ted Chiang story is very smart, and very compelling.

What might come as a shock— and I hesitate to write this down, because it smacks of heresy— is that in terms of storytelling, Arrival actually surpasses its source material.

It’s not that it has a more epic scale, or more in the way of conventional dramatic conflict. Not just that, anyway. It’s true that Hollywood— inevitably— took what was almost a cozy fireside chat and ‘roided it up to fate-of-the-world epicness. In “Story of Your Life”, aliens of modest size set up a bunch of sitting rooms, play Charades with us for a while, and then leave. Their motives remain mysterious; the military, though omnipresent, remains in the background. The narrative serves mainly as a framework for Chiang to explore some nifty ideas about the way language and perception interact, about how the time-symmetric nature of fundamental physics might lead to a world-view— every bit as consistent as ours— that describes a teleological universe, with all the Billy Pilgrim time-tripping that implies. It’s fascinating and brow furrowing, but it doesn’t leave you on the edge of your seat. Going back and rereading it for this post, I had to hand it to screenwriter Eric Heisserer for seeing the cinematic potential buried there; if I was going to base a movie on a Ted Chiang story, this might be the last one I’d choose.

Now that's a proper Starfish Alien.

Now that’s a proper Starfish Alien.

In contrast, Arrival‘s heptapods are behemoths. What we see of them hints at a cross between the proto-Alien from Prometheus and the larger members of that extradimensional menagerie glimpsed in The Mist. While the novella’s spaceships remained invisibly in orbit, the movie’s hang just overhead like asteroids pausing for one last look around before smashing the world to rubble. The novella’s geopolitics consist largely of frowning uniforms, grumbling ineffectually in the background; in the movie, half the world’s ready to start lobbing nukes. Armageddon hinges on whether the aliens really mean “tool” when we read “weapon”.

Yeah, I know Wolfram came up with some Mathemticoid physics rationale for the shape. They still look like big dirty contact lenses to me.

Yeah, I know Wolfram came up with some Mathematicoid gravity-wave rationale for the shape. They still look like big dirty contact lenses to me.

All standard Hollywood Bigger-Is-Better, and— for once— done in a way that doesn’t betray the sensibility of the source material. For the most part I preferred the more epic scale— although I was irked by the inevitable portrayal of Murricka as the calmer, cooler, peaceful players while Russia and China geared up to start Interstellar War I. (The portrayal of the US as the world’s most pacifist nation is probably the single least-plausible element in this whole space-alien saga.) But I’m not just talking about the amped-up levels of jeopardy when I say I prefer movie to novella: I’m talking about the way different story elements tie together. I’m talking about actual narrative structure.

“Story of Your Life” presents a number of elements almost in isolation. We know that Louise will marry, have a daughter, get divorced. We know that the daughter will die. We know that the heptapods leave, but we never know why— or why they showed up in the first place, for that matter. (When quizzed on the subject they say they’re here to acquire information, which would have a lock on “Most Maddeningly Vague Answer of the Year” if such an award actually existed.) (If it did, of course Ted Chiang would win it.)

Arrival ties all these loose ends together, elegantly, satisfyingly. The aliens are here to give us a “weapon/tool”— or more accurately a gift: to teach us their teleological mindset, uplift us to a new worldview. They are here to literally change our minds. Louise makes that conceptual breakthrough, uses the new paradigm to head off nuclear war in the nick of time. Her divorce— years after the closing credits— is not just something that happens to happen; it occurs when her husband learns that she’d known in advance (thanks to her new precognitive mindset) that their daughter would be doomed to a slow, painful death at a young age— and yet went ahead and birthed her anyway (not that choice had anything to do with it, of course). It’s not belabored in the screenplay— a couple of oblique references to Daddy looks at me differently now and I made a decision he thought was wrong. But the implicit conflict in the moral algebra between two people who love each other— We can at least give her a few glorious years vs. You’ve sentenced her to agony and death— is heartbreaking in a way that Chiang’s Kubrickian analysis never managed.

More to the point, though, all these events tie together. They all arise from the central premise, from the cursed gift the Heptapods bestow upon us. Everything’s connected, organically, logically, causally. Teleogically.

The movie has an unfair advantage, insofar as it can present straightforward memories of future events and be confident that the audience will assume that they’re flashbacks; the moment we realize our mistake is one of the best aha! twists of the movie. Chiang, stuck with the written word, had to give the game away pretty much at the start by writing his future memories in future tense; a beautiful device, but with little room for surprise.

Which is no reason to not read the story.  Offhand, I can’t think of any good reason to not read a story by Ted Chiang.

But in this case, I think there’s more reason to see the movie.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday November 30 2016at 01:11 pm , filed under fellow liars, ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

42 Responses to “Changing Our Minds: “Story of Your Life” in Print and on Screen.”

  1. Thanks. Without knowing it, I was waiting for a review of the movie from someone who knew the story well. None of my close friends who have seen the movie have also read the story, and I haven’t found any other reviews that brought out the connections you have. Thanks again. My vague fear about seeing the movie is now a teleological anticipation.

  2. harumphalump!

    Arrival the movie is a beautiful movie, and definitely worth watching.
    However while the short story is a quiet little meditation on time and determinism, the movie goes a little dumb in trying to tie the emotional story and the exciting stories together. The movie ends up suffering from being just a little too big and just a little too soulful and a little to exciting and thus just a little dumb.
    Spoilers:
    In the story the whole point of the aliens showing up is that they show up because they do show up. They could no more avoid showing up, than the scientist can avoid being kind of a shit mom, or getting divorced.

    In the movie the aliens show up to try to change the events in their own future, by teaching humanity their language and thus enlisting human help. The humans (Amy Adams) uses the knowledge that she will come to understand things in the future to steal the phone and call the chinese general which leads to unification. It is the knowledge of the future which compels her to act in the present. Which steals the viability of her emotional journey with her daughter. There’s no reason she can’t see her local chemist and avoid the suffering caused by having a daughter with a rare incurable disorder, or the nonsense that goes along with marrying a self important mathematician twat who’s going to leave her for a TA.

  3. Watch the movie again, it’s portrayal of the US is as an impotent and reactionary former superpower which is unable to control anything. The Chinese are the global superpower which dictates the terms of engagement.

    The american protagonist is successful only when she accepts inevitability. That’s the whole point of the movie. Her military superiors bluff and bluster around her, but end up bending over backwards because they have no choice.

  4. I loved how the characters (and camera, and audience) spend the entire movie making eye contact with a vaguely face-shaped part of the alien’s waists. It’s never commented on, it’s just there.

  5. Funny, what made the story really work for me is the notion, embedded in Louise’s acquisition of Heptapod, that knowing the future doesn’t enable one to change it. Understanding Heptapod, and understanding human languages, are like the two views of the old lady/young lady picture in psychology texts. We can see one. We can see the other. But not both at the same time. You can know the future if you understand Heptapod, but then simply live it as a performance. Seeking a reason for the Heptapod’s appearance on Earth, seen through the lens of a physics and language that is gestalt rather than linear, would beg the question of why they were here.

    To me it seems that using knowledge of the future to change the present would disrupt the universe in ways that not balancing the equation would in Think Like a Dinosaur. (I can see beer keg sized Heptapod’s chasing after Louise to stop further disruptions of the space time conti… uh… gestalt…)

    I personally would have preferred a much smaller budget movie that focused more deeply on the language based arguments of the story, but then it would have only been seen by three people, I suppose.

    I’d love to know what Chiang thinks of it, although if he hopes to see any more of his work made into films I guess “loved it” would be the smart answer…

  6. I’ll point out that the director is Canadian and it was filmed primarily in Quebec. Just so you know where mayhaps the rosy picture of American foreign policy and the pacing might be coming from.

  7. I have complex feelings about the movie. By complex, I mean it left me infuriated as I was walking out at the end. I watched it without knowing anything about it other than it was a new SF movie and apparently quite good.

    The musical score tries too hard to impart alienness. Creepy silence and ambient sounds would have worked a lot better to raise tension. I guess you could argue it portends inevitability but it feels misplaced to me.

    There was too much emotional hollywood fluff. I get that she has a daughter and she loves her. I don’t need to watch someone’s face being sad for 5 minutes or have ‘flashbacks’ that show her spending time with her playing.

    Motivations of aliens needing something from humans feels dumb and utterly unjustifiable. Just say we’re here for a chat, we don’t run into sentients so often, it’s on our ‘to do’ list and so on….

    What makes Louise special? Why is she the only one that ‘sees’ everything? Why isn’t there a bunch of linguistically obsessed people freaking out over the future?

    Film writer or director (can’t remember who) said they changed the nature of the story from determinism being a locked, sure fire thing to her actually having a choice and choosing to have her daughter, totally distorting the point of the story. Granted I haven’t actually read it, but people who have told me that is more or less what it was aiming for.

    Finally the repercussions. You have unlocked the future for humanity. Everything is known, there are no surprises. People have a choice in the movie version of the story. Why aren’t people being universally driven mad by the boredom and predictability or turning into Zen Buddhists and becoming utterly passive. What would the world look like? The aliens came in, dropped a shit ton of knowledge and just left. The world trying to come to grips with it would have been much more interesting of a story.

  8. Phil,

    Yup. All of this.

    I can definitely understand a reader who doesn’t enjoy what “Story of Your Life” accomplishes, but you’ve got to understand and acknowledge what it is and does, to be able to make any meaningful comparisons.

    Chiang’s story is about being exposed to an absolutely alien viewpoint, and then immersed in it, irretrievably distanced from everything that makes one human. It’s about a dual view of reality, how the same sequence can mean two entirely different things, but never both at once.
    The movie is about first contact with space aliens who have come to give us superpowers.

    It’s a *really good* first contact movie. But it is *entirely different*, in purpose and in theme, from what made the original story so unique.

  9. While I think the main (beautiful) idea of the short story was properly illustrated, I do have problems with the artificial “end of the world” gimmicks of the end.

    The “aliens create a crisis to save humanity from itself” , the way the Chinese president intervenes at the reception in a ” egg and chicken time paradox” felt like really old tropes.
    You can see them overused countless times in bad episodes of Stargate and doctor who.

    Still, for an Hollywood adaptation, we have been used to far worse.

  10. seruko: In the story the whole point of the aliens showing up is that they show up because they do show up. They could no more avoid showing up, than the scientist can avoid being kind of a shit mom, or getting divorced.

    In the movie the aliens show up to try to change the events in their own future, by teaching humanity their language and thus enlisting human help.

    I don’t see this as an inconsistency. The fact that the aliens are trying to change far-future events doesn’t make their behavior any less deterministic or their will any less illusory, whether or not they succeed. It’s like the novella puts it: they may see it coming, but they have to go through the motions in order to see them. (His short-short “What’s Expected of Us” nails this more eloquently, IMO.)

    Nat AS: Watch the movie again, it’s portrayal of the US is as an impotent and reactionary former superpower which is unable to control anything. The Chinese are the global superpower which dictates the terms of engagement.

    Huh. I admit I missed that element. I’ll look for it on the rewatch.

    Phil: To me it seems that using knowledge of the future to change the present would disrupt the universe in ways that not balancing the equation would in Think Like a Dinosaur.

    Not if everything balances out. Time-symmetry leads to that whole “block universe” model is which everything is pretty much stuck in amber; you can’t change the present because whether you succeed or fail, the result is already carved in stone. (Of course, Lee Smolin offers us a way out of that model, but his ideas remain controversial.)

    John Rodriguez: There was too much emotional hollywood fluff. I get that she has a daughter and she loves her. I don’t need to watch someone’s face being sad for 5 minutes or have ‘flashbacks’ that show her spending time with her playing.

    To be fair, the novella has its own share of slow, mother-daughter interludes that do nothing for the plot but add pathos. I usually hate that shit myself, but in this case it didn’t bother me because of the moral quandary it highlit (although of course, the resolution of that quandary is already made. It’s always been made).

    John Rodriguez: What makes Louise special? Why is she the only one that ‘sees’ everything? Why isn’t there a bunch of linguistically obsessed people freaking out over the future?

    I’m guessing you’d have to be one of the very small number of linguists who was actually brought into prolonged contact with the ‘pods to even have a chance at getting your brain rewired. And Louise is established up front as being at the top of her field, in the US at least. So maybe she just got there first. Alternatively, maybe she was unique in getting insights from ghost-daughter. Or hell, maybe a couple of other linguists did make the same breakthrough, but the various sites went to black-out and Louise was the only one who was both destined to meet General Shang and had a cell phone handy.

    John Rodriguez: Film writer or director (can’t remember who) said they changed the nature of the story from determinism being a locked, sure fire thing to her actually having a choice and choosing to have her daughter, totally distorting the point of the story.

    Ew. I wouldn’t have read it that way. In light of the source material, I just gathered it was a tragedy carved in stone, waiting to happen— and certainly everything else in the movie seemed to hinge on a deterministic universe. If the director did deliberately introduce the premise of free will being a real thing, then he broke Chiang’s story thematically. But if that’s the case, I don’t think he broke it consistently.

    John Rodriguez: Why aren’t people being universally driven mad by the boredom and predictability or turning into Zen Buddhists and becoming utterly passive.

    We don’t actually know that they’re not; all we see is a few glimpses into Louise’s future, and she’s pretty well-equipped to internalize the new worldview. Maybe everyone else is drooling and suicidal, although I doubt it. Again, as Chiang put it in “What’s Expected of Us”, even though we know it makes no difference, we take these actions because we have no choice in the matter.

    Standback: The movie is about first contact with space aliens who have come to give us superpowers.

    I disagree with this, even though the tropes are there, for reasons I’ve already wittered on about in this post. The question isn’t the events of the plot; the question is whether— plot notwithstanding— events could have unfolded differently. Chiang’s story is not the aliens come and change everything, but the aliens come and make us realize that everything was always different than we thought. Things go on as they always did; all that’s really changed in our interpretation of what they signify.

    jmt: You can see them overused countless times in bad episodes of Stargate and doctor who.

    Wait, that implies that there are good episodes of those shows…

  11. Thanks, PW for that endorsement. I was considering “Arrival” as another throwaway CGI meets redheaded-waif- with-no- makeup-skills future Redbox rental. I’ll try to catch it before it’s mandatory hiatus from the public.
    I’llalso look up some Ted Chiang to tide me over until your next tome comes out from the printer.

  12. Saw the movie and really liked it, but hadn’t read the Ted Chiang story. Yeah, what I thought were flashbacks were actually flash-forwards was a clever twist. Louise’s dreams (flash-forwards) had me think about “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula Le Guin, where a man’s dreams have the ability to alter reality and change fate of humanity … his psychiatrist takes advantage of his ability for his own ends. In ARRIVAL it is the alien’s using Louise’s dreams to alter reality. If that makes any sense.

    I definitely have to read all the Ted Chiang stories.

  13. John Rodriguez: Why aren’t people being universally driven mad by the boredom and predictability or turning into Zen Buddhists and becoming utterly passive.

    Maybe because it’s not all that predetermined:

    John Rodriguez: they changed the nature of the story from determinism being a locked, sure fire thing to her actually having a choice

    Peter Watts: And Louise is established up front as being at the top of her field, in the US at least.

    Clearly. She’s the first person the army turns to. Then they go to some other guy after she refuses, because ethics. But the other guy isn’t as good because , so they have no other choice.

    It’s a clever, philosophical movie with interesting characters and good pace. I have not read the story.

    Generally I have no problems with movies “breaking” the stories they were based on, as in most cases it greatly improves the movie IMO.

  14. Peter Watts,

    Louise also has security clearance. I don’t know how many linguists have security clearance. I’d think they’d have brought in as many as possible, but maybe it’s plausible that the other linguists had less security clearance and only she was cleared for physical interaction. or something.

    I thought the rest of the world went on as normal and only people who could learn heptapod would have the different view of time.

    I also think that even though it looks like they want to change things they are just traveling down a path that exists.

  15. Yes, the idea behind the movie is that the aliens came because they were always going to come, had always come, and they changed our POV, not the timeline. It’s one of the things that make this film really interesting; like 2001, it’s not specifically about the plot, it’s a sense of place and a comment on reality. You get transported along with the main character into a new head space.

    And the occasional absence of incidental music is glorious. I loved how a few scenes had music it took a minute to distinguish from the background noise. Cool. The foley was good overall; you can (realistically) only hear the noise of the helicopter until she puts on her headphones, then the blade and engine din becomes muted and you can hear the voices, exactly as if you were her. Very nice.

    I might have to see this one again.

  16. Good commentary, Peter. I likewise dug the film, after reading Chiang’s story a few months ago.

    The fact that deep, scary tragedy was fundamental to the film’s narrative is what stood out to me. Science fiction doesn’t often tackle such uncomfortable emotional perspective, but hey, it worked for the Greeks, no? In our Disney-fied world of happy endings, it was refreshing and pulse-pounding to be offered something else. Something profound.

    Something akin to the ending of “Blindsight,” in my opinion.

    (Yep, I just wrote that.)

  17. I though it was really quite dumb. Well made on a technical level though, so it was still enjoyable.

  18. I’m avoiding your post so far until I can see the movie, but I’m curious to eventually hear your take (hopefully in detail!) on Westworld, especially since (incoming slight spoiler fairly obvious from ep 4 or so on) the robots seem to be slowly building towards sentience by laying down traces of memory and understanding through repetition as they repeat their theme park narrative loop every few days/weeks. “[Bootstrapping] upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments,” to take your turn of phrase, except not so much “joyful” given where they live. The hosts are slowly gaining first awareness in the middle of a horrific world of repeated trauma.

  19. A number of points –

    I don’t think the movie invalidates any of the points that Chiang raises in his story. The aliens say they will need humanity’s help in 3000 years, so here they are to start the ball rolling. The humanity that they need is the humanity that results from their delivery of their world-view. They’re not trying to change anything, they’re setting the stage because the stage has always been set that way. They’re not looking for humanity’s help in an effort to alter events; they’re here because it is a necessary element of the way everything will/does occur.

    Louise is not unique – Louise is just the first to fully interpret the alien’s language, and through that, gain their mindset. As the movie says, language acquisition can re-write neural pathways. Anyone with sufficient knowledge of the alien language will presumably undergo the same transition. And what does Louise do? Write a book explaining the language to everyone. While not all will immediately grasp the mindset that allows nonlinear temporal cognition, enough will, and the numbers will grow over time. After all, language is best acquired while young. It has long-term implications for the nature of human interactions: if you start with the premise that most violent/dramatic human interactions arise out of an element of surprise, then a nonlinear temporal orientation will eliminate that potential. Is that good?

    Note that the movie switched Hannah’s death from a sudden fall while rock climbing to an incurable illness. One is preventable by action, the other is not. The change meant that the viewer did not have to ponder the possibility that Louise could have saved her child but chose not to do so. The movie chose to remove that possibility, but iIf my understanding of the nature of Louise’s new mindset is correct, it would not have been an issue anyway. Once Louise had fully understood the alien’s language, and taken on their understanding of the nature of time, she could not have decided not to give birth to Hannah – it was never an option. Of course, the movie implies that the aliens’ worldview is the correct one, and so no decision could ever be anything but what it was – our non-alien worldview was the illusion of free choice, and all that the alien worldview did was remove that illusion.

    My wife and I discussed the aliens’ view of time after the movie. The best explanation we came up with is a transition in the manner in which time is viewed as a dimension. In our current worldview, the three main dimensions of length, width and height are all omnipresent and without directionality and origin, while time as a dimension is strictly limited directionally. The aliens’ language allowed a switch in mindset to perceive time as omnidirectional. Viewing a flat piece of paper, you wouldn’t say that one specific part of it had to be present before the rest of the paper could be ‘there’ – for the aliens, time works the same way.

    I may be incorrect on a number of these points; a re-watch may clarify discrepancies between my interpretation and the actual events of the movie….

  20. David – I disagree regarding free will in the movie. Louise specifically tells the daughter “I made a decision your daddy disagreed with”. Close to the end, Ian asks her, “Do you want to have a baby?”–to which she says yes.

    I mean logically, it doesn’t make sense that free will exists when you can see the future (and there is no indication of seeing “possible futures” or what have you), but it’s fiction, and it clearly sets up having-the-daughter as something Louise chooses. It steps away from the short story’s metaphysical questions on time and so on, and goes with a moral one instead: is the worst day of your life as much as the best?

  21. Gordon M,

    Haven’t seen Arrival yet, so I’ll skip the review for the moment, but I too would like our Esteemed Host’s opinion on Westworld, I came into it with low expectations (Haha they’re remaking the old Yul Brinner as a terminator movie, as a series. Why?) But DAMN is it good, I keep expecting it to disappoint me but I’m up to ep. 9 and so far so good.

  22. I thought it was terrific – an actual, intelligent SF movie for a change. It was also incredibly refreshing to see a film in which “scientist” isn’t just a catch-all term and the norm is for everyone to be an archaeologist/neuroscientist/underwear model: Banks is a linguist, and Donnelly is a physicist, and they have very different skillsets, strengths, and weaknesses.

  23. @DavidK44
    Yes, in the movie the aliens say they will need humanities help in 3000 thousand years. Obviously, the aliens are able to foresee or forecast some catastrophic event happening in their part of the universe and need to find a way to survive beyond it. Since they are able to use time travel (wormholes) they seek out their alternatives and discover that humans on the planet Earth are in a safe zone in another part of the universe, and the most viable option to their survival.

    @Peter Watts
    Is the gift of the alien language a program language that the aliens use to reprogram humanity? The alien language also contains all their knowledge/system and they are using humanity as a time capsule or an archived backup of that knowledge/system … an anchor in time.

    @Kaz
    The aliens are steering Louise through her dreams with her daughter as a focal point. Louise would choose to have Hannah (a gift) time and time again regardless and the aliens know this. Because in the end we humans are mortal.

  24. @Kaz
    Not sure either of your examples directly addresses the free will issue. The second can easily be explained – ‘want’ is orthogonal to ‘know’. I may want to eat a whole double chocolate mousse pie with caramel sauce, even though I know I’ll regret it immediately and gain ten pounds in the long run. The first could be due to a language/communication use on Louise’s part in her conversations with either her daughter, her husband, or both. Clearly Louise did not reveal her knowledge of Hannah’s timeline to Hannah, nor did she teach Hannah the aliens’ language. So, Louise uses a word that would approximate the actual conversation with Ian without exposing Hannah to the underlying truth. To Louise at least there was never a choice, either about giving birth to Hannah or what words to use when conversing with her.

    The more I consider the issue of free will in the context of the movie, the more I feel that the actions presented in Arrival argue against the existence of free will (at least within the movie’s reality). Consider: Louise had to obtain a very specific series of words from the future to use in the past. It happened, so it always has to happen exactly that way. Anything that might change either the past or future parts of that equation cannot occur. So, all actions that feed into it are determined, with no possible alteration, no possible free will. Okay, you say, but maybe it’s just a few major things that must occur in a certain way – all the rest can be indeterminate and thereby allow free will. Unfortunately, that doesn’t scan. Anything so minor as to not affect a major, predetermined incident is so minor as to be no longer meaningful. A difference that makes no difference is no difference. If free will can only make a difference that makes no difference, is there any meaning to the concept? No free will, at least in the manner that most people interpret it to mean, exists in any meaningful way if events are predetermined.

  25. Re: Dave Allen

    “Arrival” definitely provokes many thoughts about time and inevitability, so I understand there are many perspectives on what transpires in the story.

    However, I think your points — what you believe happened — are somewhat untrue. First off, there is no mention of wormholes, in both the short story and the movie. The aliens are not seeking any kind of “alternatives” either. They are simply doing what inevitably happens. Has nothing to do with wormholes.

    The aliens are also not re-programming humanity. This is simply the path of reality, an inevitable consequence of Louise learning their language. Their language — both kinds — reflect this. The Heptapods know everything that will happen, fundamentally, so it’s not as if they have a choice. They, and eventually Louise, accept this.

    Thirdly, the aliens are not “steering” anything. They are simply doing what they’ve always known would happen. This inevitability is what’s so dramatically different from humanity’s worldview. It’s deeper than “choosing” to have her daughter. It’s deeper acceptance, through altered neurobiology, of how the aliens think. There is no free will. There is only the path of reality.

    Louise learning their language is this inevitable path.

    Hard to accept, sure. Hard to encapsulate in easy, bite-size morsels, yeah it is. I have a hard time regarding it too. But, holy shit, is it thought-provoking.

  26. Off topic – open note to Herr Dr.

    So Lenie Clarke encounters a dad and daughter. Immediately, her brain starts offering up plausible interpretations of the relationship between the pair, based in part on the real or imagined childhood memories common to rifters.

    I can’t immediately find the bit. I think you deliberately left the answer vague, even at the end. As I recall the reader had no reason to suspect an abusive father, and the daughter always defended the father, but Lenie had a spooky strong intuition that the dad was wrong. I think Lenie’s rational impulses finally overcome her flashback driven identification with the daughter, so she flees into the night without hurting the dad.

    I, and presumably most of your readers though perhaps not most everyone, can immediately and strongly identify with Lenie’s predicament of having to second-guess her paranoid intuitions on seeing a male authority figure with a teenaged charge.

    I rent out a guest bed in a spare room. Dad and 14 yo daughter flew into town for 2 weekend nights e.g., surprise for her, see the xmas displays. Daughter is silent as furniture. I never saw her look at the dad. She sat on the bed like a prisoner on a bench.

    I should point out that my childhood wasn’t up to elite rifter standards of trauma, but dads travelling with teens creep me out in a unique way. Like Lenie, I’m faced with the question of who the perv is, my suspicious mind or the dad?

  27. @Jeff B
    Sure, I am merely speculating as to the possible motives of the aliens. This is what the movie left me pondering. There is a reason why the aliens come to Earth, because they will need humanity’s help in 3000 years. Why?

    In the movie the alien ships suddenly appear and then after they’ve completed their mission they vanish, poof, gone without a trace. They need humanity’s help in 3000 years eludes to time travel. I mention wormholes as a possible mode of transportation. The aliens certainly have the capability to move back and forth through time.

    “It’s deeper acceptance, through altered neurobiology, of how the aliens think.” This is another way to describe re-programming. What is language?

    Yes, Louise learning the alien language is the inevitable path. It is the only viable alternative the aliens have to solve their dilemma, whatever that may be.

  28. I think they meant 3000 years for the humans at a rate of one year per year.

  29. I reread the story last night. There is no message about need in the story. The aliens just show up and observe. I am not even sure they would have instigated a language exchange.

  30. The aliens don’t have the ability to move back and forth through time, they just remember the future — the only reason they came to Earth now is because they remembered doing so.

  31. Peter Watts,

    If we’re fixed in amber, I can see that using knowledge of the future to alter the present wouldn’t necessarily create problems, although putting this into the film feels like a bit of an unnecessary complication if the focus is on the zen rock-garden like attributes of the story. If we want to start playing go with the rocks, then I feel the movie (and it’s a beautiful looking film, and I appreciate the effort to bring serious sf to the screen) should have focused on those implications. That would also have been cool, albeit no longer a rendering of Chiang’s story. But to layer one on the other, to continue the zen garden/go analogy, would require us to be able to observe/play a game of go while in the same contemplative head space one attempts to enter by meditating on a static mandala. Basically, I’m saying my brain’s too small…

    On a different, but related note, the spinning dancer gif (created after Chiang wrote the story) is a better illusion than the old/young drawing. It’s impossible to see her spin in both directions at once, and I’m incapable of seeing the image simply as shifting lines.

    Random observation: Smolin’s idea that the universe (if I read your Physics of Hope blog post correctly) has been gradually collapsing from many dimensions down to the three we have now indirectly plays a big role in Cixin Liu’s newly translated Death’s End.

  32. A thread on facebook just reminded me of this research that shows differences in emotional and rational thinking styles depending on whether someone is thinking in a second language. Wired article::

    Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?” asked psychologists led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago in an April 18 Psychological Science study.
    </blockquote

    Which makes me wonder if multilingual people who have language skills in linear and non-linear languages in Ted Chiang's universe would be able to switch back and forth between being stuck in amber or not.

  33. When I saw the trailers I thought “finally, another movie based on a Frank Herbert story other than Dune!”.
    So after watching the movie I said to myself, “who is Ted Chiang? “, because I thought it was based on Herberts short “Try to remember”. So I downloaded Mr Chiangs story and I must say it is amazing and is the main source of the movie….but, the more doomsday elements come from Herberts story which is also about linguists trying desperately to communicate with aliens. Sadly there is no credit for Herberts work in the movie nor in any of the interviews with the screenwriter or director despite some elements of the movie, coming straight out of Herberts work.

  34. A great review and your view of the movie and the mapping to the source material is more what I felt than this, equally smart, but very different take from Nussbaum:

    http://wrongquestions.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/arrival.html

    Personally, I think ‘Arrival’ is the equal of ‘2001’ – maybe even slightly better, as it has emotional resonance the latter, while absolutely magnificent, doesn’t.

  35. PS, no review has picked up what I thought was a really interesting linguistic aspect of the original story that was dropped for the film: the fact that Heptapod’s have radically different spoken and written forms of communication, which are not at all linked (IIRC). That’s a very cool idea, and I wish it had been played with a little bit; she records their speech and tries to parse it, but we switch immediately to the written stuff. Maybe there’ll be a cool ‘Aha!’ scene in the Blu-Ray of her realising that trying to work on the verbal level alone a poor search path?

  36. Gary Flood,

    My comment to my wife after we saw the film the first time (we went to see it again yesterday, and were both even more impressed by it than originally) was “It was 2001 without the cop-out ending”.

    Also, you’re mistaken about the Heptapod spoken/written language dichotomy being dropped from the movie, although it’s an almost throw-away moment in the one voice-over by Ian Donnelly that occurs about half-way through the film: he cites as one of Banks’ first major breakthroughs the realization that there is no correlation between what the Heptapods say and what they write – they are two completely separate communications channels, and the humans focus all their attention on understanding the latter.

  37. Oh, thank you! Yet another reason to re-watch, I’ll look out for that!

  38. […] (5) SURPASSING THE MASTER. No spoilers for the movie Arrival in the following excerpt, only for the story it’s based on. But it’s only natural that the movie spoilers quickly follow in Peter Watts analysis of the adaptation: “Changing Our Minds: ‘Story of Your Life’ in Print and on Screen”. […]

  39. Mark Major: As I recall the reader had no reason to suspect an abusive father, and the daughter always defended the father, but Lenie had a spooky strong intuition that the dad was wrong. I think Lenie’s rational impulses finally overcome her flashback driven identification with the daughter, so she flees into the night without hurting the dad.

    Not quite. Lenie goes ape-shit on the dad, but thew dad gets the upper hand and punches her out. She flees to the bottom of the nearest glacial lake.

    But you’re right that the dad never molested his daughter. Lenie was just fucked up by her own programming.

    I rent out a guest bed in a spare room. Dad and 14 yo daughter flew into town for 2 weekend nights e.g., surprise for her, see the xmas displays. Daughter is silent as furniture. I never saw her look at the dad. She sat on the bed like a prisoner on a bench.
    … Like Lenie, I’m faced with the question of who the perv is, my suspicious mind or the dad?

    Wow. That does sound ominous.

    All that said, though— and as official stepsquid to a couple of step-pones— I can attest that sometimes, adolescents sit like prisoners on benches just because they’re adolescents, and you’re making them clean up the ponearium, and you’ve told them that “Gilmore Girls” will rot their developing brains.

  40. DavidK44 and maybe others: the motivation for the aliens seems to resonate with the cosmic back story to Book of the New Sun: aliens* are recreating a human species who will create the ancestors of the aliens in this iteration of a cyclic universe. Except there, they kept making and breaking Severians until they got one that fit their plan perfectly.

    *I have never followed all of the theories on exactly what the aliens are or when/where they come from. I suspect Wolfe would answer 1) they are aliens; so who knows? and 2) they function in the way that best suits the book.

  41. I finally got to see this…it arrived late in the hinterlands. I enjoyed it a great deal.

    I agree with DavidK44. Louise isn’t unique. She was the best qualified to do the initial contact work, but she won’t be (have been) the only one to learn the Heptapod language/acquire their worldview. Her book is (will be) how their gift reaches humanity, but uptake will take time.

    I was a bit confused about the time-line of the book, though. We see Louise with the book, dedicated to Hannah (posthumously?) and we see her teaching Heptapod in class at the University. When does she do that? During Hannah’s life? Before or after she tells Ian about Hannah’s condition? We see her working at home during Hannah’s life, but we also often see her alone with Hannah in the daytime, during flashbacks from throughout Hannah’s life. Did she put off most of the work in order to spend as much time with Hannah as possible? If Ian had learned the language, would he have had the same reaction to Hannah’s illness/Louise’s knowledge of it/her decision (if that is what it is) to allow the pregnancy and to have Hannah? If Louise decides that having a doomed child is worthwhile because she has the good memories of that future as well as the bad ones, I think that would have pushed her to teach Ian Heptapod, so he could have the same perspective. Maybe she tried to teach Heptapod and failed, but I think the whole set-up suggests that Louise is not actually deciding anything because she can’t. The future/past are set and Louise has to live with knowing how it will all happen and also has to live with the actual events.

    I agree with Nat AS…the US is not in charge on the world stage. The shock jock, whose rantings about “warning shots” seem to inspire the bomb-setting soldiers says that the (US) government has bankrupted the army and the health system…this suggests some kind of finance and infrastructure collapse.

    I disagree with Peter that the movie suggests that America is coolest and calmest in the face of alien arrival. Sure, the Chinese deliver an ultimatum, but that is because they chose the wrong approach to communication, not because they are quicker on the trigger finger. Louise prevents the Americans from reaching the exactly same stage. And, Americans actually attack the ship and kill a Heptapod!

    I have two nit-picks.

    Motherly love is a huge element in this movie and early on, we see Louise trying to calm her mother after the initial arrival of the Heptapods. Later, at the Montana contact base, we see phones specifically set up for personnel to reassure their families. LOUISE CALL YOUR MOTHER.

    That damn bird…I assume it’s there as a quick check for changes in atmosphere within the contact chamber, but in the first couple of contact sessions, when Louise has no idea how the Heptapods communicate, and is trying to establish basic understanding of language between them and humans, why wouldn’t she freak out about a non-human creature in the space making continual calls that the Heptapods might think have significance? I think they put it in just so we could see Hannah’s picture of “mommy and daddy talking to animals”, but not get it’s importance until we see the play-doh Heptapod.

  42. Love the story, haven’t seen the movie. Chiang, whose stories I first read this year (and then wondered why I’d taken so long to get around to them – much like my reaction to first reading Borges) is, I think, some sort of international treasure.

    My take on the Heptapods motivation in the story is that, from their perception of time, they always knew that they speak to the humans and say the things they say at the particular time they do so; they were essentially acting out their roles in some sort of ontological paradox.

    My partner, who also adores Chiang’s work after I introduced it to her, saw the film and hated it with a passion. She believes they extracted plot without understanding meaning; she said she felt almost physically ill at the betrayal of the source material after watching it. Which is the main reason I haven’t seen it, as I trust her judgement absolutely on these things.