Updated: Jan 26
One of the most acclaimed science-fiction movies of the last decade, Arrival is a thought-provoking first-contact story. Its aliens are a seven-limbed species nicknamed Heptapods, and they have a very particular way of thinking. It is this point of view we will explore today.
This is the Science of Fiction.
Naturally, it is impossible to talk about this topic without exposing the main plot of the story. So here is the warning:
Did you know Arrival is an adaptation? The story was originally published as a sci-fi novella titled Story of Your Life, written by Ted Chiang. Both the movie and the novella tell the story of a linguist, Louise Banks, who is hired to communicate with the alien visitors. It is a beautiful, mind-bending tale that will wake your introspective side. So if you haven’t watched it yet, please do. Or, read the novella.
I love the debate over adaptations. Which is better: the book or the movie? For me, most often, the book is much better. The written story is always more detailed and, thus, more complete. The time-length constraint of the movie format can be easily blamed for this issue. I think it is incredible what moviemakers can do to bring stories to life. But, most of the time, they have to cut a lot of important information.
Arrival is an exception. I honestly believe this adaptation matches the original novella. The moviemakers altered Story of Your Life perfectly to fit the big screen. The changes are subtle, but they completely reframed the story. I honestly cannot choose which one is better.
Still, the movie omits one critical piece of information from the novella. Story of Your Life gives us an explanation for the Heptapods’ perspective not explored in the film. So let us dive into it.
This is your last chance: Spoilers ahead for both Arrival and Story of Your Life.
Have you ever heard about the theory that learning a new language rewires your brain? According to it, the way one communicates is intrinsically connected to how this person perceives the world. One classical example is that, in English, we are used to representing the past to the left and the future to the right. Hebrew and Arabic do it the opposite way. This has known consequences for our cognitive and behavioral choices.
The plot of Arrival is based on this idea. Louise Banks is a linguist assigned to interpret the language of our extraterrestrial visitors. As she learns it, her brain forms new connections. She gradually understands the world through a new perspective—the alien perspective.
The catch is that the Heptapods can see the future. So Louise starts to see it too.
In the movie, there is no explanation for why the Heptapods can do this. But the novella lays down the fundamentals of the alien worldview, which reflects in their language system. And, of course, when I say worldview, I mean physics.
The way we humans perceive the world is perfectly described by Newtonian mechanics. We throw a bowling ball, we expect it to roll. A cat pushes a cup over the tabletop, we expect it to fall. We see an action, we expect a reaction. The classical world of Newtonian physics respects most of our basic instincts. Or is it the opposite? What if our instincts led us to describe the world this way?
There is another formulation to classical physics, which is equivalent to Newton’s views but very different in its form. The Lagrangian mechanics, named after the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, takes into consideration the path between a present and a future point to derive the laws of nature. It is also known as analytical mechanics, and it seems more abstract than the classical one, but it is not.
To understand the motion using Lagrangian mechanics, we should consider all possible paths that connect the initial position to the end-point and find whichever takes the least amount of energy to complete.
It is not as alien as it seems. For example, suppose you are in the fields and want to visit your grandmother. There are two possible routes. Path one goes through a minefield, dense woods, and a maze. Also, a big bad wolf waits for you somewhere down the road. Path 2 follows a lovely flower meadow, it smells like lilies, and it is shorter. Which one would you take?
Just as you did, nature will always “choose” the path with fewer obstacles. In physics, this is called the principle of least action.
Instead of Newtonian’s, the Heptapods’ instincts follow Lagrangian mechanics. They know where they are coming from, they know where they want to arrive, and they take the route with fewer obstacles. In other words, they can see the future and the possible paths ahead, so they follow one of them.
When Louise learns their language, she stops perceiving the world as Newton did and starts to perceive it as Lagrange theorized.
The implications of it? Well, you could see, for example, the premature death of your unborn daughter. Would you still choose to conceive her? Tough decision. And it is one Louise has to make in the movie. However, in the novella, she does not have a choice. She just knows it will happen, and thus every moment with her daughter becomes precious in the face of her future.
Did you like this post? Unfortunately, my brain is hardwired in Newtonian mechanics, so I cannot know before you tell me. Let me know in the comments.
See you next post,
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.