Time and Memory in “Arrival”
We’re coming up on two years since the North American release of “Arrival,” director Denis Villeneuve’s and screenplay writer Eric Heisserer’s haunting cinematic elaboration of Ted Chiang’s thoughtful “Story of Your Life.” The film (and the story) definitely keep their beauty, wonder, and sadness over time and multiple viewings (readings). Watching the film again, I’m revisiting some thoughts I’d struggled to put together when I first encountered Chiang’s tale, and then Villeneuve’s interpretation. The film is still extraordinary.
I suppose these reflections amount to spoilers, so if you haven’t yet read the story or seen the film, fair warning.
There are several deep questions at the heart of “Arrival,” and there are points where I wanted to suspend disbelief, and did so happily, because I was committed to the story. That’s a feature of the best science fiction, in my judgement. The coherence of this story depends on a version of the linguistic relativity conjecture pushed beyond any plausible scientific basis. By the time this became apparent, I was totally on-board, although I suspect linguists might have a harder time suspending disbelief. On the other hand, they’d surely be delighted with a film that takes the study of language as seriously as “Arrival” does.
While questions of language and translation are at the core of the film, for me what stands out is a curious and, I think, important way of grappling with the philosophical weirdness of time.
Time-asymmetry is a core feature of thermodynamics, and of our intuitive experience of ‘the arrow of time’: Time marches on. Time waits for no one. Still, several properties described in fundamental physics are invariant under time reversal, and Kurt Gödel spent his later years finding a solution to the field equations of general relativity in which an observer could, in principle, move around in time (although to be fair, it isn’t clear that a universe described by the Gödel metric could actually have observers).
Palle Yourgrau has argued passionately that Gödel took the mathematical structure of the field equations to be a deeper truth than the worlds described by either his or Einstein’s solutions, and thus time must be a merely contingent feature of one possible world, not a deeper truth about reality.
Time and tense are also critical to language, of course, and the standard philosophical debates about time — the so-called A-series and B-series accounts — are often characterized in linguistic terms, as either tensed or tenseless theories.
We tend to think of these debates in terms of the stuff of the physics these models describe — matter and energy — but a question invited by “Arrival” is whether consciousness could be truer to (roughly speaking) Gödel’s view of things than our common-sense notions of entropy and the inevitable arrow of time. What if the arrow of time pulled matter and energy inexorably forward, but consciousness could span time? What if you could remember the future in the same way we remember the past?
If consciousness could be that kind of thing, then it seems, on the face of it, consistent with either presentist or eternalist views of time. We might be able to remember a future that will inevitably unfold, in spite of our vain attempts to second-guess our memories. Or clarity and credence might be distributed across possible futures, with some outcomes more likely than others: thick branches within masses of tangles.
In either case, what would a language look like that evolved alongside this sort of consciousness? how would we translate a language that isn’t so much tenseless as completely tenseful?
And the heart-wrenching question at the heart of the film relies on exactly this way of understanding the philosophical question of time and memory. Suppose you could remember the future — either with a kind of Gallifreyan sweep, or a more Proust-like fumbling and grasping for hints and impressions and fleeting moments of clarity?
All of us inevitably confront the profound, sometimes utterly debilitating pain of loss. Suppose you didn’t just know that pain was coming at some indeterminate point, as a generic fact of the human condition? Suppose, instead, that you knew the sensation of loss as a deep, visceral, profoundly true fact about your life: a memory of your future. If you couldn’t change that path, how would you confront the inevitable pain of that loss? And if you could change paths, would you? or would the good things we’d also recall outweigh the pain of loss?
I’ve framed that in what seems a selfish way, and that’s not the only question the film confronts. It’s also about love and our duties to those we love: how responsible we are for their pain and their happiness, and how sometimes our choices commit (condemn?) them to both joy and loss in ways that we cannot, even in principle, let them choose for themselves.
The best science fiction invites these kinds of reflections without pretending to provide answers. This film succeeds beautifully in just this way. It also introduces an important way of framing a longstanding puzzle about the nature of time, as a problem of consciousness and memory.