Remembering the future

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched Arrival or read the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and are planning to, I must warn you I’m about to give a big part of the story away.

I did something I don’t normally do – I read the story a movie was based on after watching the movie.

Normally, I make a point of reading the book first. That way I get to create my own versions of the characters and settings before the Hollywood creative guru’s present me with their compelling imagery. My own versions of Rivendell or a habitat on Mars, or even what Elrond or Mark Watney looked like (…well in my imagination Mark Watney did look like Matt Damon) are always different.

Once I started watching Game of Thrones, I felt no desire to read the books – and generally this is true for me. But Arrival was an exception because it got me thinking.

It’s a first contact story where alien’s arrive on Earth, but the purpose of the visit isn’t clear. The protagonist, a linguist, is brought in to attempt to communicate with the aliens. Their written language is non-linear, and as the protagonist deciphers more and more she realizes the non-linearity extends to how the aliens experience time. As she become more proficient in the alien language, she begins to experience time in the same non-linear way.

When I walked out of the theatre I wasn’t sure I liked the movie or not (It was really well done) because it left me feeling unsettled. When I think about the protagonist, a scientist like me, I can’t help but wonder what if she was me? (or what if I was her?) Would I make the same choices? Was the gift of knowing the future actually a curse? And does knowing the future negate our notion of free will?

How we (humans) experience time is routed in our perception. Physics doesn’t require the temporal linearity we experience. Free will, that is our actions are not predetermined, may be an illusion. But the movie didn’t go into the ramifications of knowing the future on free will, so I read the short story the movie was based on: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

The story isn’t as slick as the movie and it has less action – but, I felt it was infinitely better. It’s still a story about first contact and communicating with aliens, but more so it’s an intimate story about time that isn’t linear. Best of all, my concerns about free will was addressed nicely though an optics example which took away my concern that the protagonist was cursed (my perception that knowing the future is a curse is entirely rooted into my human view that time is linear).