The following discussion is relatively spoiler free. To talk about the novella and the film without giving out the most crucial piece of information is like writing with both hands tied at my back, and trying to hold a pen with my mouth to scribble down words. A difficult task. But it’s all worth it, as that’s the main thrust of the story: to communicate takes effort and hard work.
After watching the movie, spellbound for two hours, I left the theatre knowing I must get hold of the story to read. I found it here. But, I most likely will seek out Ted Chiang’s other sci-fi fiction to explore more, despite not being a regular reader of the genre. His writing just grabs me with its insight and sensitivity.
Novella: “Story of Your Life”
The source material of the movie Arrival is Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”, winner of the Nebula Award in 2000. A host of aliens had touched down in numerous spots in different countries on Planet Earth; in the U.S. alone there are nine. Their intention does not appear to be conquest. With multiple tentacles that look somewhat like an octopus, they are hence called heptapods by their cautious human observers. In order to understand their purpose, the U.S. Government sends teams of physicists and linguists to establish communication with the foreign arrivals. They do this via the aliens’ transparent, face-to-face meeting devices, again, nicknamed by humans “the looking glass”. The large, two way glass separates the two living species, but joining them is the desire to communicate peacefully using each other’s language.
An ideal case Chiang has depicted. One, that the aliens come in peace; two, that humans respond with peaceful means all for the purpose of understanding and communication. A much needed case study for us Earthlings today. While they have set up military base surrounding the alien spacecraft in the open field to stand guard, the commander Colonel Weber leaves the task of communicating with the foreign arrivals to linguist Dr. Louise Banks and physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly.
Running parallel to this major plot line we see a more intimate story of human interactions, Louise and her daughter. Chiang’s writing is emotionally subtle and sensitive as he juxtaposes different episodes to depict the bond between Louise and her daughter through the stages of her life, as infant, child, teenager and later adult. Every stage we read some realistic situations. The human mother-child relationship is not without conflicts, but all interwoven with the bond of love. That’s the whole package of motherhood, the joys, the risks, the pains.
The language the aliens use to communicate with humans looks like a system of semagrams, each semantic symbol referring to a concept. It doesn’t appear to have a phonetic association, i.e., can’t be read out audibly, but is visually transmitted. Here’s Chiang’s eloquent description through Louise’s words:
“If I wasn’t trying to decipher it, the writing looked like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance.”
I just love this idea: “An Escheresque lattice”. Fascinating.
A movie will be the best means to depict such kind of a language system. But then again, the movie Arrival is much more than illustrations of the story. In this case, Arrival is one of the most apt transference of art forms, from literary to cinematic that I’ve seen.
Arrival the film has magically lifted the story out of the page. It has transferred the imaginary onto a visual plane in an aesthetic and inspiring way. We see the alien spacecraft suspended just slightly above ground in the open field like a vertical Hindenburg, or a stylistic installation of an objet d’art balancing in midair.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, 2015; Incendies, 2010) and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, 2014) had transported Chiang’s eloquence from page to screen affectively, emotionally enhanced. The juxtapositions of time is seamless and effective, spurring my curiosity to think. Villeneuve leads us through a passage of cerebral perplexity, prodding me to decipher, to try to understand, like linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) does through her experience.
Amy Adams’ nuanced performance is effective in emotional capture. That’s the key factor for the film to work. Kudos also to Jeremy Renner as physicist Dr. Ian Connelly. The leading man Renner, who usually plays the cool hero in other movies here steps aside to let Louise run the show, offering his support and tender loving care wherever needed, most moving in the climatic scene.
Of course there are alterations and elaborations for dramatic effects. In situations like this where different countries on Planet Earth need to operate in a united front to share information and knowledge, there’s bound to be conflicts and dissensions. So some countries decide on military action to assault and take down the arrivals soon after attempts at understanding fail.
Computer technology might have helped Louise to decipher each symbol and finally the whole train of alien thoughts, it is her inner passion that drives her to persist and continue with the peaceful means to communicate, against the order of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to withdraw the operation and leave the military to handle the situation.
Computer technology is crucial no doubt, but it is the human heart that has motivated Louise Banks to reach out, to achieve a Non-Zero-Sum Game: a win-win situation for both sides. The aliens’ gains does not necessarily mean human’s loss. Both sides can benefit from their exchanges.
In the grand scheme of things, however small the individual human may seem, the significant acts could be the everyday choices one makes. For Louise Banks, choosing to take up the role as a frontline translator to liaise with unknown aliens is a courageous act, but then again, so is choosing to embark on love and to take up the whole package of motherhood, with all that her choice will entail.
Short Story and Film:
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