Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 67: Arrival

Science Fiction Round 67: Arrival


Arrival is a gorgeous film.  The music and ambiance are flawlessly done, and, because of how the movie is put together, I expect it will have some extra meaning on a second viewing.

You should probably go see it before I spoil it below.

I kind of want one of those spaceships. I like the aesthetics.

I kind of want one of those spaceships. I like the aesthetics and the gravity manipulation.  And, also, well… spaceship.

Please Ignore The Man Behind The Curtain

Expect the movie to be beautiful and well-thought-out, and fit together well in-universe.

But you should also expect it to take the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis way, way too far — to the point that it breaks not only linguistics but physics.  Knowing a non-linear language gives you perception of the future?  Um… no.

The whole thing is beautiful overall, and the limited time-travel bits are well-done and self-consistent.  Just… don’t think too hard about how it works.

Meanwhile, 3000 years in the future…

Why do the heptapods (the name eventually given to the aliens) need us?

Using their own ability to perceive time in a non-linear fashion, the heptapods come to Earth to teach us their language (and thus, something of their way of thinking) because they know that in 3000 years, they will need humanity’s help.  Exactly what kind of help they will need, or why, they do not say.  But apparently, we need a nudge in the right direction, which gets us into a non-zero-sum game.  And I still wonder exactly what goes so wrong for them that they need our help.

Nonetheless, this implies one of two things: Either the heptapods live for at least 3000 years (allowing them to see the future events when they will need help), or they send messages back in time, younger to older, in a fashion not entirely unlike that used in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.  Given the technology we see, both approaches are believable, but I find the latter more interesting.

What would it be like, to live in a society where you know your own past and future, and the younger generations tell you about what will happen in the millennia to come?  What system of communication would you construct, which could be relayed back exactly?  How would you teach people to communicate with each other?  In some ways, the language seen in the film must be the answer to that question.

But that brings up another question entirely: When did the heptapods start using this non-linear language?  Their spoken language is distinct from the written: the written language that Louise Banks, the main protagonist, learns, is not phonetic or tied to the spoken language at all.  And if the written language is so different… did they once learn it from someone else, too?

Faith in Humanity

It turns out that the heptapods are entirely friendly in their intentions, despite the world’s various fears, and just want to share the bits of their special time-travel-powers language in pieces with different people to encourage us to work together.

And that’s great.  I love it when the aliens are generally nice, reasonable people.

What bothers me is that the humans generally aren’t.  The reaction of the general public to the big floating UFOs that almost make a point of taking no hostile action is… riots, fear, chaos in the stock market, threats against the aliens in fear that they might be invading, and at least one terrorist attack against them.  The main actors working with the aliens are operating from government military controlled camps.

I’m… horrified, in part, because that’s not my basic reaction.  I’m not going to panic and buy out all the canned food at the grocery store just because there’s an alien spaceship hovering over Montana.

I think that would be awesome.  We should talk to them, and learn how their ship works, and what they can do, and… in essence, I sympathize more with Ian Donnelly, the excited physicist character, than I do with the rest of the anxious world.  Perhaps I’ve watched too much Star Trek, I have trouble understanding why the world would react with such fear when there’s no sign of any kind of threat.

Is that kind of fear, panic, and lashing out, reasonable to expect from typical people around the globe?  I find it hard to believe.

We’re better than that.

Aren’t we?

The movie answers that question with a firm yes — showing that, with some effort, we can work with each other, and with the aliens.  But we nearly failed to get past that instinctive, xenophobic inclination to protect ourselves from the unknown and the other.

And, reflecting on recent events, I wonder if we would behave so well in reality.

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