Dear Ted Chiang,
Over the weekend, I saw Arrival, the film adaptation of your short story, “Story of Your Life”.
I enjoyed your story, but this post is about the movie.
I liked how personal it was, with its touch at deep scientific questions (or theories) about time and consciousness. Loss, and companionship.
Some people had trouble with the perceived deus ex machina in act 3, where Louise gets helped from a future instance to resolve the boiling conflict in the present. This was preceded by a seemingly missing explanation as to how the heptapods knew there was not mutual allegiance between the nations of Earth (their decision to send 12 monoliths).
I didn’t have trouble here, as it is easy to imagine how, understanding the tapestry of time (however hidden to us), the heptapods would have seen the existing conflicts between humans (although this could lead into rabbit holes about how much access they had to human affairs.)
The scene where Louise meets the heptapods helped–she walks on what I perceived to be a white landscape of valleys and peaks. This later made me consider Paul Atreides’ discussions with the Guild Masters in Dune, where he shows them possibilities of a universe without spice.
I felt Louise’s future-seeing was similar to Paul’s prescience. This view meddles with determinism and free will, but still allows for multiple paths across a tapestry (landscape).
I think David Deutsche’s The Beginning of Infinity and (for fiction) Neal Stephenson’s Anathem are good studies of quantum narratives, a currently valid theory.
I looked around online and found the words in the Chinese Louise shares with the Chinese leader in the present. The line translates to: “In war there are no winners, only widows.”
After the movie, I brought up that we didn’t know in the future-present (that is, 18 months in a possible Louise’s future), whether the Chinese general’s wife was still alive. This line confirms for the movie that in a possible future the Chinese leader would die before his wife (presumably because he started a worldwide conflict).
In my interpretation of the movie, Louise navigates this potential thread and decides to take it (and then knows the right thing to say in her somewhat human-rigid present).
(^^^This is similar to Paul in Dune following vast threads or clouds of future-time but still arriving at key moments in his present.)
There is still free will (in the soft sense), in that Louise can choose what paths to take–she decides to have a baby, preferring the joy of a life with relationships, even if it is shortlived (her daughter dies and her husband leaves her) to one without.
Overall, I love the palindromic daughter’s name, Hannah (this was the moment where I understood the conceptualization of flat time for the heptapods and its structural impact on the film…the film opens and closes like Cloud Atlas’s nested Russian dolls.)
It also has philosophical questions, delivered cleanly:
“If you could see the rest of your life, would you live it the same way?”
“I think I’d say the things I mean, more.”
“I’ve looked up at the stars, but meeting them wasn’t the greatest thing…the greatest thing was meeting you.”
Thanks for a great short story and whatever influence you had on making the film.
from a comment online (if you are really into science, and who isn’t?):
“Fragmented time in Arrival is very different, as Louise actually experiences simultaneously living in different times. The concept is deep, and if you know any physics and read Ted Chiang’s story you will know that this an open problem in Physics (variational principles and causality/teleology).”
If you 💚ed this, I hope you’ll give this letter a 💚