By the time we realized what was happening, it was already too late. They were everywhere, in far greater numbers than even the most despairing could have imagined. Pessimistic predictions tinged with the apocalyptic. The enemy was among us. It was unsettling, not knowing what they wanted. More frightening still, not knowing who they were.
Alien invasion or our recent election? Circumstance and a rampant sense of defeat permit the one to sound strangely like the other. Or maybe it’s just me. The election happened about a month ago but I’ve been having trouble keeping track of time since then. For a while it seemed like the whole nation had similar problems. Our models were unreliable, the future unpredictable. Our story seemed to end somewhere very few of us were expecting. I wanted to go back and read it from the beginning, figure out what I’d gotten wrong.
America’s story of itself—as opposed to America itself—begins with Thanksgiving. Two cultures meet, teeter on the edge of mutual annihilation, resolve their differences, eat corn. The competing (and, to anyone who has took U.S. history in high school, more credible) version is that the holiday celebrates the massacre of 700 Pequots. That event took place in what is today Groton, Connecticut, not far from where I live now—though the geographical nearness does nothing in itself to bring it closer to my mind, or anyone else’s. Which is perhaps why it was conversely all I could think about this year.
Normally my family does a small, sad Thanksgiving on the east coast, where we have no family besides the four of us, where there’s no point in cooking a whole turkey because two of us are vegetarian. So we go out to a restaurant, normally. This year we had a large, sad Thanksgiving on the west coast, complete with extended family. My dad said that was all the family he would need for another decade or so.
That was at dinner the night after Thanksgiving, just the four of us again, at a Mexican place by the beach. It felt like those other dinners, it felt like Thanksgiving. That night, my dad also said that the only games Trump plays are zero-sum, that for him the world must be split in two. As if by a wall. Winners on one side, losers on the other.
This is notable only in retrospect. After dinner that night—it was raining—we saw Arrival. Extraterrestrials arrive in obsidian monoliths, shaped like an egg cut in half down the middle. The aliens themselves resemble giant floating squids, but up close they look more like many-fingered hands, leathery, jointed, frail. Amy Adams plays Louise, a linguist tasked with figuring out what exactly they want, whether they’re here to explore or wage war. Preferably before China, certain that the aliens will opt for the latter, takes preemptive measures.
At one point, one of the research teams delivers a troubling report from the aliens: “There is no time.” Governments, naturally paranoid institutions, scramble to prepare for the inevitable siege. All the while missing what the aliens were really driving at, or in their serene way, floating toward: there is no such thing as time. The future determines the past as much as the other way around. The end is somehow already visible in the beginning.
It’s not clear that the people behind the film actually believe this. Time may not exist, but all the same they timed the film right, releasing their 21st century restaging of Thanksgiving, or at least its myth, a couple weeks before the holiday. But maybe that was just a marketing scheme. Releasing a movie about colonization before Thanksgiving is good, but releasing a movie about (literal) xenophobia, the need for communication, and the fact that the end of one thing is always the beginning of another, a mere three days after the election—it’s almost prescient. The people behind the film, behind the curtain, didn’t predict what happened that day, but they proved uncannily aware of what would be needed in the days following, the cure to our post-election, postpartum depression.
What have we given birth to? We’re still deciding on a name. A tyrant, a monster, a martyr, a prophet. An outsider with business acumen, an outlier inaugurating the era of reality TV politics. A new beginning, a death rattle. An inhuman evil, an evil irreducibly human, all too human. Like the researchers’ various interpretations of the aliens’ speech, these interpretations of our President-elect not only conflict, but, moving in opposite directions, slide past one another entirely. There seems nothing in the conflict one can latch onto, no common ground on which to meet one’s opponents.
In class last week, someone said that some people are beyond hope. That’s probably true but I don’t want to admit it. This is probably wishful thinking but I still don’t want to. Because if I do then where am I left. Anyone beyond hope is beyond me. Still, that doesn’t get you, me, anywhere. Part of this problem is geographic. People want to communicate, debate, fight, whatever, but don’t know where, literally, to begin. But part of it is linguistic. We don’t speak the same language because our thoughts are incompatible. Or the other way around.
At one point, Louise’s daughter asks her for the name of a competition where both sides can win: a non-zero sum game. When I heard that in the film, I turned to look at my dad, but he was asleep. There’s such a thing as the frequency illusion—you encounter something notable, an uncommon phrase, say, and afterward start noticing it everywhere, as if the blessing of your attention has caused it to be fruitful and multiply. But the film doesn’t think so, doesn’t believe in coincidence. It’s not your attention reordering the universe. That’s vanity. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it. No thanks. It’s the universe redirecting your attention, pointing over your shoulder, telling you that you missed something. Asking you to look again.
You’d like to think of time as progress. You’d like to think that we’re moving in the right direction, or really any direction at all. That we’re not just flailing, running in circles. That’s what people meant, mean, when they say that this election was the end of something, that we started as a beautifully flawed people and ended up just flawed, barely people. But maybe we are just running in circles. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
The aliens, when they write, do so in ornate, circular spurts. They express entire constellations of thoughts with a simple wave of their tentacular wand. They write in logograms, characters that represent not sound but meaning. They do what I’m trying to do right now, but they’re much better at it. More efficient, more convincing.
We need something like that right now. And not only the communication, but the desire to communicate. I don’t know how to make those first steps, how to translate my language into yours. (The movie doesn’t either, unfortunately; its one misstep is a forced voiceover that says Louise manages to translate the alien script, but doesn’t say how.) I’ve been admitting failures throughout this piece, and if it’s self-defeating, I can’t help it. Certainties, and the certainty of success, got us here. I’d rather go to maybe, to the liminal space between two extremes. I want to sit down there and, I don’t know, stay a while, maybe. I didn’t want to write this, to place words down like a boundary stone between what I’m sure of and what I still don’t know, where they will remain. I didn’t want to commit myself to something.
The movie thinks the future is set in stone, which is both hopeful and not. If the future still exists, then we’ll get there eventually, in a sense it’s already happened. The problem is I just can’t say how. The problem is, if the future has already happened, then we don’t get a say in it. The movie’s optimism comes from its determinism, its conviction that we’ll all make it somehow. That feels false. Maybe we won’t make it, I don’t know. I don’t know what the future is going to look like better than anyone else. The movie’s optimism comes from its certainty, but its awe comes from something more ambiguous, vaporous, like the cloud of fog the aliens sheathe themselves within, the horror and wonder of the new thing. At one point, Louise and her teammates enter the alien ship. Gravity shifts, and they find themselves walking upside down, on the ceiling. Beautiful or terrifying, depending on your comfort with vertigo. It remains so until you’re willing to readjust, to reorient yourself around the new direction, the new normal.
This is the new normal. This is not the ceiling but the ground, fresh and untrod. This election may have been the end of something, but it’s the beginning of something else. This election birthed something, and now we must all raise it, together. If we don’t, we surrender custody to those who think they know how it will all turn out, how it should all turn out. If we drop out, America becomes a zero sum game. We accept our role as losers, or else lose by forfeit. I already hear people talking about how this moment will go down in the history books. This will all be myth someday, already has the feel of one, but we have the chance to write it. Somehow I think it’s possible that we can all still win the future, as Obama put it. Obama reportedly told his staff the day after the election, this is not the apocalypse. The film, in a gesture of optimism and community, says about the same thing in its final words: “Do you want to make a baby?”