“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” ~ Louise Banks in the movie Arrival
“Science fiction is very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know.” ~ Ted Chiang
“Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment.” ~ Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life”.
I’m a big fan of science fiction television and movies. Books and short stories not as much. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it has to do with the science jargon. In a movie, I can read body language and facial expressions to see the underlying meaning of the scientific dialogue, and tune out the stuff I don’t understand. By reading the the physicality of the characters, I can tell if the proposed theory has the possibility to get the characters out of their dire situation, or not. That’s all that matters to me.
That’s not to say I hate science. Some of my favorite documentary series are on NATGO, the Science Channel and PBS. There is something so appealing about the abstract nature of science that I love. On the other hand, I’m terrible at math, so a career in science was not an option for me.
However, the true reason I love science fiction movies is because of what Ted Chiang says in the above quote. Science fiction, and even fantasy, allows us to explore philosophical questions at a safe distance. Asking those questions within the context of an exciting story helps the pill go down easier.
In American society, we’re mostly about getting things done and not so much about exploring why we’re doing them. Questions like “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” aren’t usually addressed on the evening news. Oh, there may be the occasional article, or magazine asking those kinds of questions. But in our Puritan/cowboy culture, doing is prized above following some inner guide and searching for meaning. Philosophical and spiritual pursuits are often considered sissy. At least they were for much of our country’s existence. I think that’s starting to change now.
In the last thirty or forty years lots of teachers and institutes have sprung up around the country and the world that encourage us to dig deep, heal our wounds and discover the above questions for ourselves. These new ideas are trickling down to every day society. I use as evidence the highest rated movies of the last few years that have hidden in their battle scenes that destroy New York, or London, those deeper philosophical questions that can’t be answered by a quarterly report or rating on the New York Stock Exchange. The characters of those movies are dealing with existential questions of who they are and how they fit into the world around them.
The movie Arrival, while not ranked in the top ten movies in terms of income, has a meta score of 81 on Internet Movie Database. The audience grew once the movie was on pay-per-view, or the pay channels, which indicates to me that people are connecting with entertainment that asks, “What does it mean to be human? Are there other ways to view existence? Is time linear? Is it possible to change the past or influence the future?”
“Story of Your Life,” (and Arrival) chooses one of these big questions to explore. If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you make different choices?
The basic story is this: The question of whether there is other intelligent life in the universe is answered when several ships appear around the planet. They don’t appear to be hostile, but just why they showed up is a mystery. Linguists and physicists from all over the world are deployed to each sight, along with a huge military presence as well. The big questions the world governments want answered are these: Why did they come? and What do they want from us? The story version doesn’t answer those questions, which I find appealing. The reader gets to decide what the prolonged encounter means and just what effect it will have on the course of humanity when linguists, like Louise begin to see reality in new ways.
But in the world of movie making there needs to be a clear progression of complications, even threat, and the film makers assume the audience wants to know why the aliens showed up. I like the way the screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, took the main questions asked in the short story and ramped up the urgency for Louise and Gary to find out the purpose for this highly unusual visit. Fear is a huge factor in human existence right now, and that juxtaposed with the way Louise begins to understand the aliens and their mission is a great plot device.
I also like the way Heisserer translated the changes in thinking that happen to Louise as she learns the alien language. In the movie, Louise and Gary have a conversation about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The theory that the language you speak determines how you think, and how you see the world. It’s in Louise’s altered way of seeing all of time happening at once, which is the way the aliens view reality, that helps answer, at least for her the main question. She begins to see all that will happen in her life, and she decides to embrace it. She doesn’t try to change it in any way even though some of it is heart breaking. To show Louise’s experience, the movie is structured in a non-linear way. Another thing I love in books and movies.
I could relate to Louise, because for a very long time, I’ve wanted to learn another language. And just recently, I’ve felt confined by my old patterns of thought. Maybe finally taking the plunge and learning that second language will help me see everything in new ways.
One more thing I love about this movie is that it adds something most alien invasion movies don’t have. The aliens are making contact because thousands of years in what we would call our future, we will help them in some extremely important way. To do that we humans will need to learn to work together. Movies that show a hopeful vision of humanity’s future are always high on my list of favorite stories.
If you haven’t read the story, or seen the movie, I highly recommend both. In my opinion, it’s always good to ask ourselves questions about who we are and what our purpose might be. Sometimes watching movies and reading stories that ask those questions can help us get insights about our lives and the world in which we live.
Thanks so much for reading, liking and commenting. I appreciate it very much.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2018
Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel, and is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. If you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.