Has the main character of the Story of Your Life (adapted as a movie called Arrival in 2016), Dr. Louise Banks always known the story of her life?

Is there anywhere in the story explained how is it possible to perceive the time as continuous from a certain point in time? The novel seems to be very specific about other details.

  • 1
    I'm struggling to see (from the question) whether you're aware that learning the Heptapod B language is what triggered Louise's time-perception?
    – Valorum
    Jan 30, 2017 at 23:50
  • @Valorum The thing is, it is problematic to start percieving time continuously from a certain point in time.
    – foggy
    Jan 31, 2017 at 6:43
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    I'll have to re-read the story to separate it from the movie in my head, but as I remember the story it implied that yes, she always knew the truth – ie. learning the language was retroactive, but before the reveal it was unclear to us as readers whether or not the flashbacks were flashbacks or not.
    – tobiasvl
    Jan 31, 2017 at 10:59
  • @tobiasvl Yes, that's what I thought. Although, I can't agree with you that the answer depends on wheter the truth was clear or not for us readers - it's just very hard to make a story with no time in a language of people with linear time-perception
    – foggy
    Jan 31, 2017 at 12:59

1 Answer 1


That question is really the point. Viewed in the Heptapod fashion, there isn't really any meaning to the question of what it means to "always know" as distinct from "learning at some point".

The comparison to Lagrangian mechanics is helpful. Does the photon "know" that it's taking the shortest path to some point under the water? Or does it make a "decision", instant by instant, "learning" that it should turn when it enters the water surface?

The two are equivalent formulations, just viewed from different points of view. One point of view has all of history built in from the beginning; the other studies moment by moment.

It's not really an apt way to view humanity. The thing that makes a human brain can't avoid its progressive approach to history. Being bound to a "now" is fundamental to how your brain works. To be free of it, you'd have to stop being "you". Everything would change. It wouldn't give you the ability to predict the future; "predicting the future" would be something that wouldn't make any sense to you because you'd have redefined your self as something for which future and past are one.

It's probably not realistic to posit heptapods with brains that really work so much differently. (And if they were they'd be even less explicable.) But that's not really what the book is about. It's about grief and loss. How would you feel if you really could take the long term view: that every joyful birth was tempered with the grief of death, and vice versa? Can you get over loss by taking a different world-view?

I wasn't entirely happy with the way that was lost in the film, treating the time sense as a magic power that could predict the future. It was perhaps necessary to add an element like that in transferring it to the medium of film, but the story is much more meditative. As with all good sci-fi, it's not really about aliens; it's about ourselves.

  • I like that you mention that the Heptapod's brain isn't realistic, I haven't thought about that and I like that as an interpretation of their time perception. Thanks
    – foggy
    Jan 31, 2017 at 22:37
  • But I have to say, I understand the concept of time in the novel and even though the scary part is that this concept isn't unreal at all, the way the book uses the photon in media allegory is, in my opinion, wrong. The misinterpretation comes from the rule-like formulation: "Light always chooses the shortest way possible" - but that's not really how it is - light goes wherever it reflects and if we one to analyze the trajectory of light from point A to point B, it is just most likely that the light went in the shortest way possible. Nevermind, I'll have to look up for Lagrangian mechanics
    – foggy
    Jan 31, 2017 at 22:43
  • because I can't really work it out for now - but from Wikipedia it seems like a very nice version of the book's physics metaphor.
    – foggy
    Jan 31, 2017 at 22:43
  • I found the Wiki article for Lagrangian mechanics really hard to learn from, but it's a concept very worth learning. It makes a lot of things easy, and coincidentally also underlies both quantum mechanics and general relativity. I've actually suggested that we should ditch teaching the Newtonian formulation entirely, but all of the real physicists disagree. Feb 1, 2017 at 15:40
  • From what I've read, Langranian mechanics doesn't really underlie quantum mechanics and relativity (axioms of both quantum mechanics and relativity consist of things you have to measure - uncertainty and the speed of light) but the math behind it can be more elegant. But thanks anyway.
    – foggy
    Feb 1, 2017 at 16:02

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