Communication between different ideological worlds has never been more necessary and never seemed more impossible.
This is the premise of the most philosophical blockbuster of 2016, Arrival, a movie that belongs on any best-of-the-year list. But it's also a sentiment I've seen again and again in the media since this November: the idea that America is a nation divided between citizens with mutually unintelligible cultures and concerns.
In the New York Times, Ross Douthat offers a reading list of books for our turbulent era, starting with J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and venturing afield to more speculative dystopian fare, such as Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. On social media, I have seen many take a different tack, seeking out reputable journals with varied perspectives to help broaden their understanding of our times. People have taken to Facebook and Twitter to solicit suggestions, and I’ve been happy to see many readers of First Things, liberal and conservative, of any faith or none, laud this journal as a crucial religious venue for deep thought on our culture and public life.
First Things strives to look at not only the political horserace and the cultural skirmishes, but also the underlying philosophical questions: What good do we seek? What do we hold sacred? And for what end were we made? And we hope that those who read our pages will not just receive our words but be changed by them.
So it isn't purely for the sake of a shameless plug that I connect Arrival and First Things. In the film, as in the short story it is based on, the aliens' perspective differs from humans' in being more teleological—and thus more theological.
Arrival stars Amy Adams as a linguist named Louise Banks who is tasked with learning how to speak to the aliens who have arrived in monolithic ships all over the earth. Her military handlers, suspicious of the extraterrestrials’ intentions, want her to do this without teaching them English. Adams convincingly plays a gifted scholar who is in over her head, until she starts seeing the world from the aliens’ viewpoint and gets glimpses beyond the limits of human consciousness.
Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” serves as the inspiration for the film. Chiang describes the aliens as oddly shaped but relatively unimpressive, “heptapods” that each look like “a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs.” It is only when Louise immerses herself in the written language of the heptapods (Heptapod B) that she gets the sense of contact, not simply with something foreign but with something transcendent.
The film, by contrast, offers us immediately numinous aliens. These heptapods, while still seven-limbed, are towering shapes that emerge out of enshrouding mist. They exude ink from their limbs to write on the air. Louise encounters them first through a glass, darkly, and then, in a climactic scene, face-to-face.
Story and film both have Louise become a kind of prophet as she learns more and more Heptapod B. (Those afraid of spoilers, beware.) The aliens have a wholly different understanding of time than we humans—to them, cause-and-effect are ephemeral. It is the end or purpose of an event that ripples back in time to explain it. They write the complex symbols (“almost like mandalas”) of their language without caring where they start. The aspects of physics that are strangest for human scientists (because they describe light’s behavior as goal-oriented) are most intuitive for the aliens. In short, the aliens are teleological beings, and they do not experience time linearly—instead, they have “a simultaneous mode of awareness.” Louise, in learning their language, also gains glimpses outside of time, as the life of a daughter she doesn’t yet have floods into her mind like memories of the future.
Here arises the question of free will. Does the aliens’ seemingly perfect knowledge of future events mean that they do not make decisions? Chiang’s Louise, with her taste of future knowledge, speculates, “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?” So perhaps a teleological being is an unfree one, bound not by chains but by a sense of the rightness of the future.
Christians believe the world is teleological, as the heptapods do. But we encounter the world, as all humans do, as a chronological series of events that cause future events. How can we read these heptapods within our cosmology? They might be God’s messengers—certainly the Bible depicts some bizarre and terrifying angels, like these radially-symmetric seven-limbed creatures (see Ezekiel). Or they might be unfallen mortal beings from another world, like the Malancandrians in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. But there’s something disturbing about the serenity of the heptapods. How can they be at peace with their view of time when time, in our fallen universe, is out of joint?
Louise, as the narrator of Chiang’s story, analyzes the heptapods thus: “What distinguishes the heptapods mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.” Part of this sounds like the Christian experience: We ought to affirm God’s will in our lives, and He is Lord of history. But we also rebel, rightly, against the injustice in the world. The history of any individual age does not “bend towards justice” in any inexorable way, because human souls and human societies have been bent out of shape. To enact chronology as the heptapods do seems wrong when so much of chronology is a record of crimes and cruelties.
All of these weighty philosophical questions become intimately real for Louise. As she grows fluent in Heptapod B, she learns of the daughter she will bear, raise, love, and mourn. The girl is destined for an early death. In the story, she will die as a young adult in a rock-climbing accident. In the film, it’s a rare genetic disorder that takes her—a change that makes untimely death more clearly encoded in Louise’s daughter from her conception onwards.
How can Louise “act to create the future” now? How can she choose to conceive a child with this foreknowledge?
The movie pulls a fast one by first presenting Louise’s visions of her child as if they were flashbacks, not flashforwards. Her daughter’s growth, her pestering questions, her burgeoning personality seem at first given facts of the world, not a possible future. But of course, Louise perceives these glimpses not as speculation but as true knowledge of the future, vivid as the present. After knowing her daughter through this out-of-time experience, how could she not cooperate with her existence?
Perhaps Louise’s life here mirrors that of any parent. All who bring children into the world know they have acceded not only to joy but to eventual pain and loss of one sort or another. That much is certain, even if we have fewer specifics than Louise. But each child’s arrival is like another world bursting into ours. Louise’s struggles to communicate with her daughter are no less momentous to her than her work bridging an alien language gap. A baby, like an alien, views the world with new and curious eyes—and, in trying to help it live in this world, we see again what is beautiful in it.
Or perhaps this is not simply an amplified image of what every parent goes through. Maybe Louise, like the heptapods, comes to a kind of divine serenity. She can know, like great saints and mystics, that all manner of things will be well, even in the face of loss and desolation. She can see all creation as groaning in the process of giving birth to a future long and eagerly awaited.
Finally, allow me one final plug for First Things. The publication's conviction that politics and culture are downstream of faith (a conviction that goes back to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and is carried forward to this day) makes it an ideal venue for eccentric essays that excavate spiritual meaning in cultural artifacts like science fiction blockbusters. This is a valuable service, to writers and to readers. Won't you help us keep offering it?
Alexi Sargeant is assistant editor of First Things.