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November 27, 2016

The Arrival of SPOILERS
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 11:34 AM * 46 comments

A spoiler thread for “Arrival”, which is not about how aliens make first contact to tell us who shot JR, the nature of Rosebud, or what question is answered by ‘42’.

Or if they do, you’ll read about it here.

Comments on The Arrival of SPOILERS:
#1 ::: Thena sees an open italics tag ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 11:46 AM:

Haven't read/seen the work in question, just posting alert to an open italics tag somewhere in this post that's affecting the front page.

#3 ::: Q. Pheevr ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 12:26 PM:

For me, the main attraction of Arrival was the linguistics—it’s cool to see my field (reasonably well) represented on the big screen! The Ling Space has a really nice video compiled from interviews with Jessica Coon, Morgan Sonderegger, and Lisa Travis, the McGill University linguists the filmmakers consulted, which I heartily recommend.

One of the things I wondered about going in was how the film would dramatize the process of doing linguistic fieldwork on an utterly unfamiliar language, which is intellectually fascinating but not necessarily all that inherently exciting to watch. I was a little disappointed to see that most of it was accomplished in a hand-wavy voiceover, although that’s perhaps retroactively justified by the self-causing time loop. (Debbie Cameron writes that Louise Banks’s “strategy is definitely from Venus,” but to me it seems to be more from Gallifrey.)

In interviews, Coon has (I think very wisely) made the point that although the stronger forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have been largely discredited with respect to human languages, anything goes when it comes to an alien language. Still, I have trouble accepting the premise that a human being could start remembering the future as a result of learning the language of an alien species. It seems more plausible to me that if the Heptapods’ perception of time is so fundamentally different from ours, it might simply be impossible for us to learn their language at all. But that wouldn’t make for much of a movie.

#4 ::: Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 12:36 PM:

Jessica Coon, from the above-linked interview: "I'd actually read the short story long ago, in high school..."

Anyone else feel Really Old now?

#5 ::: alisea ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 01:01 PM:

Moving my post from the wrong spoiler thread over:

I'm still sorting out my thoughts, but one of the most immediately satisfying things was to see the story through the scientists' eyes. The camera and sound was often following Louise so closely, you could imagine being in her shoes.

#6 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 01:37 PM:

For anyone who doesn't already know this, Arrival is based on the short story "Story of Your Life" which first appeared in the anthology of short stories "Starlight 2" which was edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

As an unabashed fan of Patrick's, I can heartily recommend the Starlight series. I wish we had a Starlight 4 on the horizon, but the last time I asked him about it he said nothing was in the works.

As for, Arrival, I loved the movie. The friends I saw it with were disappointed by the time travel paradox. I usually don't like time travel, but the film was about so much more than that, so I wasn't bothered.

#7 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 02:21 PM:

I read "Story of Your Life" years ago and enjoyed it, and saw the film several days ago and enjoyed it too -- although I did not love the "oh no, Chinese military is about to start a war" addition.

The MetaFilter thread about Arrival includes some thoughts comparing and constrasting the short story and the film.

The trivia for Arrival on IMDb says test audiences didn't like the title "Story of Your Life" -- I wonder what about that turned them off...

Stephen Wolfram's blog post about advising the filmmakers on science includes an interesting list of potential purposes aliens might have when making first contact with humans.

#8 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 03:11 PM:

I was pretty blown away when the 42 Ronin gathered on the grassy knoll to shoot JR, to protect the CIA's rosebud importation racket.

#9 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 04:47 PM:

Shamelessly self-promoting link to a post about the physics in the original story, which mostly got left out of the movie: Here's The Physics That Got Left Out Of 'Arrival'.

(Yes, I know, the ads, and the anti-ad-blocker thing. Those are decisions made way above my pay grade.)

Liked the movie, though not as much as the original story. One detail of the adaptation that I didn't quite care for: in the movie, they give the aliens a concrete purpose for visiting Earth, which the story pointedly does not. I liked it better when their motives remained completely obscure.

#10 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 07:00 PM:

Still, I have trouble accepting the premise that a human being could start remembering the future as a result of learning the language of an alien species.

My problem in a nutshell.

The aliens can have all the Powerz you want; when merely learning their language is enough to give a human the same Powerz, that's out of linguistics/science and into magic.

Nor does it help that the spoken mode doesn't have this Power, even for the aliens themselves. My suspension of disbelief snapped at that point.

#11 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 08:38 PM:

I saw and liked the movie without re-reading the story. I didn't remember any details of the story aside from the central conceit. I re-read the story afterwards, and I really have to say that I thought the story was better done. It structured itself around the daughter's life, and kept that focus. In the movie you could see vestiges of that structure, but I felt that the geopolitical plot really shoved it aside.

Admittedly, it's probably amazing enough that a cerebral movie about linguistics got made at all; it may be petty to complain that an explosion and some tanks were shoehorned in.

#12 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 08:52 PM:

Q. Pheevr @3: Still, I have trouble accepting the premise that a human being could start remembering the future as a result of learning the language of an alien species.

My headcannon retcon for that is that the aliens' language structures thought in such a way that it it boosts you into a variant of that viewpoint reported by some meditators (and acid-trippers) where you can see everything everywhere through all time. (Perhaps influenced by my having seen Dr. Strange the week before.) And/or that linear time is a function of human perception and not nature itself.

It seems more plausible to me that if the Heptapods’ perception of time is so fundamentally different from ours, it might simply be impossible for us to learn their language at all.

Cf. the Navajo language.

Carrie S. @10: the spoken mode doesn't have this Power

Where was that established? What I vaguely recall was that they were moving forward so much more quickly with the written variant that they mostly just didn't bother with the spoken. I could easily see that "pidgin hepta" would lack the nuance necessary to shift thought patterns in the right way.

(In case it's not obvious, when I like movie, I tend to shuffle irritants like that around to make it work in my own brain.)

What did bug me was: why didn't the heptas dump the bombs as soon as they knew what they were? (I don't remember; were the scientists coming in as the bombers were leaving? This would have complicated things.)

#13 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 09:23 PM:

Just got back from the movie. I liked it a lot. It was not the original story; the story explicitly disclaimed time-loop powers. But it was a good movie that was a reimagining of the story. It kept what was important.

It was also *beautifully* shot, and the soundtrack was amazing too. In fact (as my smart girlfriend noted) the film's audio and visual languages were different and complementary, mirroring Heptapod itself.

#14 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 10:14 PM:

Loved the film even though it lost a lot of the great stuff in the story -- I feel much the same as the first LOTR film, that is, it wasn't ideal but it was way better than any adaptation I could have hoped for.

The two things I really missed were (1) on the science side, the loss of the least-action principle (which wouldn't have been too hard to explain), and substituting it for magic future perception, (2) on the narrative side, the shift from it being the story of her daughter to being the story of first contact to which her daughter is tangentially related. In the movie we never really got to know the daughter much where she was a fully rounded character in print. I can see why they did this -- the film pretends to be telling one story only to pull in the second theme at the end -- but I still thought it worked better in Chiang's original where the two stories are woven together but you only see the linking pattern at the end.

#15 ::: Bonnie McDaniel ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2016, 10:17 PM:

Re: Chad Orzel, Forbes adblocker

Just turn your adblocker off long enough to get past the whitelist page, and turn it on again.

Really interesting article. I wish some of this could have been in the movie, but the suits probably thought the flashforwards would be as much as the audience could tolerate.

#16 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2016, 08:20 AM:

Jacque: It was established in the story that the spoken mode doesn't do the prediction thing; I may have been reading into the movie in an unwarranted way.

#17 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2016, 10:37 AM:

Jacque @ #16:

It was not made explicit in the movie. The only thing we (who have not come to the "read the story", in human linear time thought) knew was that not much progress was made before writing happened.

But writing also happened fairly early on, from memory our Intrepid Linguist arrives at a Shell on day 2 or possibly day 3 and writing happened either during the first or second visit (so "within an hour or so" up to "about a day after" of arrival).

They also spoke of the curious nature of the circular script in pretty much the first analysis of the glyph, saying that the heptapods much have fast linguistic processing in order to form such a complex sentence structure in a very short amount of time (or, maybe not, if the act of composing the text decomposes linear time).

#18 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2016, 10:49 AM:

Carrie S. @ #10 & #16, & Q. Pheevr @ #3

I read the story shortly before seeing the movie. In the story, it was years and years of reading the mandala spirals and getting hypnotized by them that allowed/made Dr. Banks move from linear to non-linear time. So the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis could work, in printed story, in the same way that stroke victims re-wire their brains (and route around the damaged parts) through physical therapies.

I agree the movie version of the switch from linear to non-linear time was very magic-centric. Dr. Banks didn't manage/master the non-linear time function until she "touched" extremities with the heptapod. (I took the opening montage of "Dr. Banks and Child" to be the Movie Version of TV's "Begin In Media Res and then cut to X hours/days before to continue the story.") The touch/trade learning is a movie/skiffy trope that I find annoying. (not quite as bad as the "X TimeRef before", but my opinion of time-jump prologs is very negative.) However, if the short story were translated from written to visual media literally, the audience would be left thinking Dr. Banks is having a psychotic break throughout the whole movie. Actually, they'd think the movie was one long acid trip.

After seeing the movie, I went home and told a friend, who is very familiar with my hatred of "X TimeRef Before" story telling that it was the one time that hook worked and was allowable in visual media story telling.

#19 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2016, 10:56 AM:

I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, and read the story last night.

I'm curious about the thought process to make some of the changes between them. The whole Chinese warmongering subplot was completely missing from the story, as was the bombing sequence, etc. In the movie there were 12 sites, while in the book there were over 100. In the movie the ships "landed", while in the book they only landed viewports.

We only really saw the one ship up close, so why only 12? (The "divide the information up into 12 pieces" bit wasn't even hinted at in the story). It would have been just as easy to show 120 spots on the map as it would to show 12.

I would be interested to know if the linguists working on the movie created a conlang using the script shown in the movie. Were the circles shown in the movie linguistically accurate? If so, where can I find out more?

The text had a much different script, one I would have liked to have seen.

In the text, she never uses her knowledge of the future to change or shape the future. She discusses the paradoxical nature of free-will under the influence of knowledge of the future, and even talks about how it feels to "make choices" knowing the outcome. None of this comes out (in my opinion) in the movie. The time-loop aspect overshadowed that aspect.

#20 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2016, 03:45 PM:

I loved the movie, and I'm glad I saw it before reading the story. The story is great literature, meaning a lot of what it offers is unfilmable. (Or it's filmable, but it wouldn't sell tickets). In the story, Louise knows her daughter's whole life through future memories, but explains that there isn't exactly an issue of free will or choice -- it's just a fact that she will fulfill this future through her choices. There is no plot, really -- it's a philosophical theme about the nature of our lives, that in some sense our lifespans are eternal, if we could take this alien perspective on time. We know very early on that she has future memories; there is no twist, just a deep meditative atmosphere.

The movie has a similar theme, except it introduces choice and plot. Her future memories help her resolve the military standoff, so evidently she can act on future knowledge. Just before she and Science Hawkeye get together, she asks him if it would make a difference to your choices to see your whole future laid out. She is deciding whether it is worth it to bring her daughter into the world with an incurable disease. The daughter's fate is changed from an accident in the story, which is a necessary change for her to have choice. It makes Louise's decision the climax of a plot. Now she understands her power, she can (maybe) decide not to have a daughter who will suffer and die young. If she were in linear time, she might well decide not to head down that path. But she already knows and loves her daughter. She would no more erase her existence than she would murder her.

I think the movie puts greater emphasis on love and connection -- we think of the loss of a child as the most painful grief, but the film's story reframes the grief as just part of an eternal stretch of time in which that daughter existed and was loved. To Louise, she will always exist and be loved. In the print story, I think it's more about all of our lives abstractly. We are all going to die, but the story reframes our view of mortality. I disagree that the daughter was more of a character in the story -- she was sketched in in both film and story, but the main focus was always on Louise's consciousness.

Stuff I also thought worked in the film:


  • The twist. We're used to flashbacks providing a tragic backstory, which is what the bits of memory look like in the film. We only gradually realize these memories have not happened yet. There's a memory where the daughter draws a picture titled "Mommy and Daddy Talk to Animals" that depicts Louise and Science Hawkeye with a heptapod. When we see it we think either (1) Magic Child Trope or (2) Dream Message. Lots of stuff like this gets reframed in retrospect. At the end, I had a sense of everything turning around, the whole world reframed into a new perspective, which is exactly what I should have felt.

  • The military subplot as distraction. We think the climax is her phone call to General Zhang, but the climax is her decision to begin the life she sees laid out before her. We realize then the story was always about her, not the aliens. "Arrival" is a good title -- the daughter's arrival, not the aliens'. (There's a sentence in the story about "your arrival" and "your departure" that I reckon they drew the title from). (Incidentally, General Zhang's wife's dying words were "In war, there are no winners, only widows," according to an interview I read somewhere). (Also incidentally, I thought the military subplot was an apt comment on our wretched times).

  • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Strong Version. Of course, in real life we know that the weak versions of the SWH are true, strong versions not. But in this world they are true, and also our perception of linear time is just an artifact of our brains. SO -- how would it feel to have your mind rewired? She begins by dreaming about future memories, then having flashforwards during the day, which makes her wonder if she's going insane. The audience thinks she's reliving traumatic memory. When she tells Science Hawkeye she can't explain what's bothering her, we think she is Our Stoic Hero who won't talk about her past. Later we find out that it's her brain gradually acquiring Heptapod consciousness -- maybe at the point where she exclaims "who is this child?" Her process of acquiring the new language and consciousness proceeds realistically through dreaming, to isolated moments that confuse her, to full realization and fluency. It happens unrealistically fast, though, because movie.

#21 ::: Tangurena ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2016, 10:38 PM:

I liked the movie. It was Wolfram's blogpost that made me find where it was playing (I'm currently recovering from a severe illness in a rural area, so the nearest place showing the film was an hour drive).

Too many movies have been making script changes to appease Chinese censors and the Chinese market. Enough so that it bothered me that China was made to be so important in the film. Or maybe what bothered me was that he was a strongman/warlord and we have more than enough of those in the real world?

Wasn't there a passage where Louise said that the aliens were going to need our (Earthlings that is) help in some 3000 years? Sort of like the Mondochiwans in Fifth Element?

And spoilery enough: Wolfram's credit is the last one in the credits.

#22 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2016, 11:04 AM:

Buddha Buck @19 -- yeah, the writing described in the story actually helped demonstrate the idea of a non-linear perception of time. The writing in the movie was awsome-looking, but did not actually help us see that different perception in action.

I often notice when a film/tv script says one thing is happening, but the special effects department shows us something else. It's jarring when it's bad. Commander Riker says he's serving made-to-order omelettes, but it's just ugly scrambled eggs. (Seriously, how budget-strapped were they that week?) The planet-sized Not Death Star is supposed to shoot destructive beams through hyperspace at distant solar systems, but they look like slow-moving smoke bombs heading for different cities that all share the same sky.

The script thing in "Arrival" is a tiny, subtle example that didn't hurt the movie for me, but when I read the story I understood how it could have been done better.

#23 ::: canisfelicis ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2016, 02:25 PM:

I really enjoyed the adaptation, but I wish that we could have maternal narratives in Hollywood, presented as something other than "chick flick," without shoehorning in explosions and masculine posturing.

I didn't like that she was running around *telling* people that she was experiencing time differently; I didn't like that the heptapods talked about how in 3000 years they were going to need help, because perceiving time in a linear fashion is not something they do.

But I thought the cinematography was lovely (her picture window/the heptapod viewing glass was inspired), I thought she was perfect for the role, I really, really liked the fact that she looked like hell through most of the movie...thre were a lot of things about it I greatly appreciated.

#24 ::: Jeff Youngstrom ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2016, 04:46 PM:

The "we'll need your help in 3000 years" thing was the biggest blow to my immersion in the film for the reason canisfelicis said in #23: They don't think like that. Though the climactic time loop thing was a close second and had me squirming in my seat.

The whole "weapon" confusion was also annoying, but I see how they had to do something to justify the panic and fear they seemed to have already decided they needed for excitement's sake.

But I enjoyed the movie and really am impressed with how peripheral all those scifi action tropes were to the main thrust of the adaptation. It could have been much worse.

This stands as my favorite adaptation of a Chiang story so far (Seattle theater group Book-It! did a stage adaptation of his "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" that while well-meaning was nearly incomprehensible (despite (or maybe because of) primarily using the exact text of the story).

I wonder if the adaptation of "Story of Your Life" is the reason the price of Starlight 2 has been so all over the place (currently over $50).

#25 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2016, 08:11 PM:

An excellent article by a prominent film historian about how Arrival handles non-linear time depiction compared to other films, and to the original story.

canisfelicis @ 23, Jeff Youngstrom @ 24:

we'll need your help in 3000 years

I don't necessarily agree that this was a problem. Just because one sees time all at once doesn't mean one doesn't answer direct questions. How would one avoid it if one has seen it happening, anyway?

In general, it's not clear that the aliens' understanding of time makes one do anything differently, which I take to be the point of the story (and, less clearly, the film).

Also Jeff Youngstrom @ 24:

the price of Starlight 2 has been so all over the place (currently over $50).

Check out the AbeBooks action on the first edition of Stories of Your Life and Others. I don't usually buy reading copies, but I guess I'd better keep that baby mint.

My verdict: the movie is very good beer, the story is excellent cask-strength whiskey. I'm glad to have both, and it's time to go re-read the latter.

#26 ::: Ian D Osmond ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2016, 10:46 PM:

It's been my opinion, both in "The Story of Your Life" and "Arrival", is that the reason that learning heptapod language allows you to know the future is that the ability to see all of your life simultaneously is natural, and that it's human perception, as mediated by human language, that forces ourselves into perceiving time linearly.

That is -- it's not that learning heptapod lets you see the future. Rather, learning a language other-than-human allows you to UN-learn NOT seeing the future. As I understand it, linear perception of time may be a localized phenomenon anyway. So, only perceiving the small slice of time that is "the present" may be the aberration, caused by the thought processes encouraged by human languages.

In any case, that's how I choose to read it, because I find that most satisfying. In my reading of the story, and viewing of the movie, the ideas of linear time, free will, and, indeed, causality itself, are illusions created by the thought processes that humans have built into our languages.

#27 ::: Jerry Newmark ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 07:19 AM:

I wanted to like the movie more than I did (I have not read "The Story of Your Life"). It was one of those cases where something early on blows your suspension of disbelief and then you start analyzing the movie rather than watching it. For me, it was the notion that in the 2 or 3 days of contact before our hero comes on the scene, neither the heptapods nor any of our best and brightest thought to try written communication. That just got into my head and I started to nitpick in real time. The "need our help in 3000 years" bit completely tore it - here's a technologically advanced civilization that came to Earth with the express intent to communicate with us and they hadn't really done much planning on handling the initial contact? That was a bridge too far for me.


#28 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 09:02 AM:

Jerry @27:

I'd suggest reading the story. It handles these issues differently.

It's explicit in the story that The Powers That Be want to minimize information we give to the heptapods. our hero is explicitly told to not teach them English, or any human language, and is very limited in what she is allowed to show them or interact with them with.

Also, the heptapods rarely do anything first, mirroring the human activities. We start with two people and a table, they bring in two heptapods and a table. We say "Human", they say "Heptapod". We eat an apple, they eat an alien fruit of some sort. When our hero finally got permission to bring in a display to try written communication, the heptapods brought in their own display to try written communication.

No explanation is ever given in the story for why they came, or why they left. So no "3000 years from now we will need you".

Instead, there are long discussions/inner monologues on the nature of language and communication -- informational, performative, performance, and what these mean when you perceive time as the heptapods do. If you know you will have said "I am walking" to an alien, are you saying that to inform the alien of your actions, to make the future unfold as you know it will, or because that's what the script of the future says it will be? And how does free will fit into this? Does it exist?

Did the aliens come to give us information, to make the future where they know they gave us information, or because the future, as writ, says they gave us information? Did they have any choice in the matter?

One of the major things they added to the movie was Louise and her husband breaking up over her *choice* to have her daughter, knowing her daughter was going to die young, and his feeling, that given the *choice*, he would have said no. I very much got the impression that she said "yes" in part because she knew that she will have had said "yes", and she was by that time conscious of the illusion of free choice. His feelings on the matter were never mentioned.

#29 ::: Jerry Newmark ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 09:13 AM:

Buddha Buck @28:

Will do. I have a feeling that I'll like the story a whole lot more than the film. It's tough to hang in on a movie or book when your suspension of disbelief gets a gaping hole run through it early on.

#30 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 09:52 AM:

Jerry Newmark @ 29

This was one of the few times I'm glad I read the story before seeing the movie. While the movie was good, it was not the book, even though most of the action matched. The director loved the story and was faithful to his reading of the story (He mentioned this in an interview I read.)

Which only goes to show that Bujold's observation that writing a book takes two people and the reader brings their own spin on things is very correct.

#31 ::: Terry Hunt ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 11:17 AM:

I just saw the film last night (if you'll excuse a linear chronological viewpoint), so I'm still processing it: I haven't yet read Ted Chiang's story.

I'll say immediately that it's the most intelligent Science Fiction film I've seen in a long time (and it's definitely not "sci-fi" in the fannish meaning of that term). Being also a linguistics fan (though a hopelessly bad linguist) I'd already seen favourable posts and comments about it on Language Log, which encouraged me to go. (I'm not a frequent cinema-attendee.)

Like some others above, I raised an eyebrow at the linear ". . . in 3000 years . . ." line (heh!), but quickly accepted that these aliens are certainly more advanced and possibly more intelligent than us (leaving aside their radically different perceptions which may also be advantageous), so despite their own non-linear time sense are likely capable of tailoring an answer suited to our mode of thinking, which they presumably have learned at least to the extent that Louise has grasped theirs.

Also, being evidently capable travellers/perceivers in space and (/or?) time, they may already be familiar with other alien sapients who think more like us than themselves, and (as I later realised) on the gripping hand they are presumably "already" familiar with our "future" selves. I was reminded at this point of Kieta Mori in Natasha Pulley's The Watchmaker of Filligree Street (read a few weeks ago) and momentarily wondered if it was an influence on the screenplay, but realised the novel is likely too recent.

It's only from reading earlier comments here that I've fully assimilated that Louise's scenes/memories/visions of her daughter (and husband) come entirely from the future of the film's central events, not from the past. I wasn't sure while watching if the closing scenes of Louise with her husband were actually portraying her colleague Ian, or if she had merely married someone who looked somewhat like him (I'm not great with faces).

The portrayals of general public mayhem, and the developing oppositional and militaristic stances of several involved governments, seemed to me to be entirely realistic, and if anything over-optimistic – I suspect that in (our) reality civil breakdown and subsequent nuclear armaggedon would ensue in fairly short order. These details and other departures from the original story, which others have discussed, appear to me to be largely necessitated by the inherent differences of the two media, at least if the film was going to be anything like a commercial success.

#32 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 12:05 PM:

Buddha Buck @ 28:

It's explicit in the story that The Powers That Be want to minimize information we give to the heptapods.

This is equally clear in the film, although I can't remember if it was stated in so many words.

Jerry Newmark @ 27:

The "need our help in 3000 years" bit completely tore it - here's a technologically advanced civilization that came to Earth with the express intent to communicate with us and they hadn't really done much planning on handling the initial contact? That was a bridge too far for me.

The Heptapods see the future, and therefore cannot plan, nor do they need to. They know what is going to happen—specifically, that Louise will learn their language (under the pressure of urgent necessity) and teach it to others (as she is shown doing), who will then be able to see the future themselves, and do what the Heptapods need.

(Humans can't plan either. They just think they can.)

#33 ::: Terry Hunt ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 01:44 PM:

I forgot to mention in #31 that I also noticed apparent parallels with Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End. I'd be surprised if this was not a minor influence on the film (and the story?)

#34 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 02:19 PM:

Buddha Buck @28: "I very much got the impression that she said "yes" in part because she knew that she will have had said "yes", and she was by that time conscious of the illusion of free choice. His feelings on the matter were never mentioned."

The story is entirely about the contradictions between heptapod worldview, which has no concept of choice, and the human worldview. But I don't think the movie was.

(Perhaps this contradicts my earlier claim that the movie keeps what is important about the story!)

In the movie, Louise was portrayed as making a choice. The heptapod worldview allowed her to see that it was a positive choice, that the value of Hannah's life was not negated by its early and painful end.

Ian's feelings on the matter were clearly implied, but it was also clearly implied that they were *wrong*. Ian failed to learn heptapod well enough to understand what Louise understood, and thereby he failed his wife and daughter.

#35 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 03:05 PM:

Andrew @34:

I agree completely.

The quote you have of mine was intended to refer to her in the book, not the movie. Rereading that sentence in context, I can see that that intent was clear as mud.

In the book, she understood enough about the heptapod's (and her) sense of time to doubt if she had a choice. The scene with the salad bowl (where she knew her daughter would get injured by it, yet she bought it anyway because it was natural to do so) shows that she knows that even "choices" are questionable. Ian's (not his literary name) reaction to finding out about the future inevitability of his daughter's climbing accident is never shown or mentioned.

In the movie, it is clearly presented as her choosing to have a daughter knowing the death by cancer is coming. Ian doesn't like that choice, and (from Louise's viewpoint) is *wrong*.

#36 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2016, 04:15 PM:

@All,

Have you read Ted Chiang' one-pager "What's expected of us"? (Alternate link.) It's another exploration of time & free-will.


#37 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2016, 02:49 AM:

Andrew & BB @34-35 -- I think the film puts us so firmly in Louise's point of view that we know she does what is right for her -- and could not have done anything else, not because she lacks free will but because Hannah is already real to her.

But when I watched, the lack of consideration for Ian's and Hannah's feelings on the matter seemed like a gaping hole in the story.

So I felt that there was no correct answer -- just as both linear and eternal perspectives on time are correct, both Ian and Louise have views that are right for them. I think this was the film's way of getting at the theme which was created in the story by the physics of how light travels. The story uses that to show there are two mathematically sound ways to model reality, just as there is more than one right way to grieve a dead child. The story did not get this theme from their marriage, because we learn they divorce and marry other people in a much less dramatic way.

Then I thought about how Hannah might have taken the knowledge that her mother must have known about her disease. The story has no disease, so this tension isn't there. The film shows us a montage of her life which includes one moment of teenage tantrum, shouting "I hate you!" Could be random normal teenage anger, or it could be the moment she confronts her mother after getting the diagnosis.

Imagine having a mom who knew your future. It would give a whole new meaning to the phrase "spoiler alert." In the story Louise says people who know the future do not talk about it. In the film that won't do, because she's teaching the whole world this language. She won't be able to keep it a secret.

Thank y'all for remembering the characters' names.

#38 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2016, 03:24 PM:

Ian D Osmond @26: it's not that learning heptapod lets you see the future. Rather, learning a language other-than-human allows you to UN-learn NOT seeing the future.

Yeah, that was what I was trying to get at. Nicely put.

#39 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2016, 06:35 PM:

Question for those who might have been paying closer attention than I was: in the early scenes on the college campus, how diverse was the student crowd? By the time I thought to look, that sequence was nearly over. Prompted by memories of college scenes on NUMB3RS (heavily white) and Warehouse 13 (much more realistic).

#40 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2016, 10:14 AM:

Jacque @ #12: I don't think it was explicitly established that the aliens' spoken language doesn't have the Power, but I do recall a bit just after Louise has figured out that their written language is non-linear where she says that that's something you can only do in written language, that spoken language is inherently linear because you have the speak the words one at a time. (At least, I think I remember a bit like that. My memory for the details is already a bit fuzzy.)

#41 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2016, 11:07 AM:

Paul @40:

In the story they went into more detail as to the differences between the written and spoken languages.

It's unclear in the story as to whether the spoken language has the Power, but Louise can't hear, pronounce, or think in it anyway so it doesn't convey the Power to her.

The spoken language is unordered, however, which hints at the Power. Even when Louise and the other linguists ask the heptapods to repeat things, they won't use the same word order.

The written language is unrelated to the spoken language, and is written as symbols which are combined and modified. A single sentence/word/utterance could be small or large, and (for lack of better terminology on my part) represents a single "idea" -- be it "John walks" or a precise, detailed history of the Napoleonic wars starting from the French Revolution to his death on Helena (the latter "sentence" would be quite large). It wasn't the circular script shown in the movie.

The breakthrough came when Louise asked to watch a "sentence" being written, on the hunch that while there was no obvious order to the subcomponents once written, there may be an order to the subcomponents when written. The first stroke the heptapod wrote was ultimately used by several disparate subcomponents, and this clued her into the idea that the heptapods must know before they started writing what the end result would look like. We never saw the writing-in-progress in the movie.

#42 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2016, 04:57 PM:

Buddha Buck @ 41:

The first stroke the heptapod wrote was ultimately used by several disparate subcomponents, and this clued her into the idea that the heptapods must know before they started writing what the end result would look like.

I would say that the way that the Heptapods drew their "sentences" with two digits simultaneously, each completing part of the glyph, carried the same implication, as did the fractal detail revealed when the glyph was magnified.

#43 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2016, 10:44 AM:

canisfelicis @23 (et al.):
I didn't like that the heptapods talked about how in 3000 years they were going to need help, because perceiving time in a linear fashion is not something they do.

One could say that we don't perceive spatial extent in a "linear" fashion the way we do time (all of this is misusing the term "linear" a bit), but we're perfectly capable of saying and understanding things like "That house is 10 kilometers north of that intersection".

From a (special- or general-) relativistic perspective, time is more or less just another dimension, so describing distances or separations in the time direction is no more strange than describing distances or separations in a spatial direction.


(There are serious problems with the general idea of perceiving all of time at once, since it implies faster-than-light transmission of information and makes a hash of causality, but I'm happy to overlook that for the sake of interesting philosophical speculation.)

#44 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2016, 04:00 AM:

Chris and I just saw this on Sunday. I enjoyed it a lot, even if the first scene where they try to talk to the heptapods immediately made me think of Peanuts cartoons.

I noticed that the confusion between weapon and language was foreshadowed by the conversation early in the film where Ian is reading one of Louise’s papers, which has a line about language being the first weapon drawn in a conflict.

Also that the communication that panics the Russians — “There is no time” — can be interpreted as Time is running out or There is no such thing as time.

I was surprised to see the Chinese inserted into the plot as villains, given how eager Hollywood is to put Chinese-hero subplots into blockbuster movies to appeal to the Chinese market. Then I saw General Shang show up in the flash-forward, and I immediately knew what was coming.

#45 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2016, 01:27 AM:

So I finally got around to seeing Arrival with the family, and we all liked it.

A couple questions we all had which I haven't yet seen mentioned up-thread:

1) We all wanted to know exactly what General Shang's wife's dying words were, which Louise quoted to him. Is there a translated transcript of them anywhere? (I did get his repetition of "xie xie", "Thank you".)

2) None of us got the point of the bit near the beginning of the movie about asking the other linguist to translate "war" in Sanskrit. Is this some particularly famous point in linguistics, or was there something obvious I didn't get as to why her translation immediately won over the Colonel?

#46 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2016, 09:59 AM:

Clifton #45:

According to an interview with the screenwriter, the dying words were "In war there are no winners, only widows".

There's a whole reddit thread on your second question, which generally comes up with three conclusions:

1. "A desire for more cows", or "Gavisti", is not the only sanskrit word for war, and tends to refer to smaller conflicts. The Gita tends to use words related to another word for war, "yuddha", which means fighting. So the question wasn't necessarily a good one.

2. The other linguists answer was vague. Her answer was nuanced, specific, and pithy.

3. Unlike the other answer, hers expressed a willingness/nature to understand that the literal meanings didn't reflect the actual meanings, and that things can have multiple meanings; she keeps her mind open. The folks expressing this opinion also tied it to her desire to not accept the "weapon" translation later in the movie, and to look for a more general, open-ended translation.

The latter two support the idea that her answer showed him that she had the kind of thinking he wanted in this first contact scenario: able to keep an open mind, able to argue from root causes, not from conclusions, able to communicate the point quickly.

No one was saying it was some famous linguistics thing, like "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo"[1] or "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", so I don't think it is.

[1] Bison from western New York, that bison from western New York deceive, in turn deceive other from western New York. Invented by a former professor of mine (he taught me how to prove computer programs correct, not linguistics) at the University at Buffalo.

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