“So It Goes”: Non-linear time in Slaughterhouse Five and Arrival


Last night, I finally got around to watching Arrival, a movie that, in all respects, I probably should have seen in the theaters.  It meets all my standards of approval: a female protagonist, science fiction, and aliens; actors I love, such as Amy Adams and Forest Whitaker.  Still, it took me a while to get around to it, and once I stopped crying long enough to form a coherent thought, I couldn’t stop thinking of Slaughterhouse Five and its connections to Arrival.

This post contains EVERY SINGLE SPOILER, so please, if you’ve not seen the film or read the book, stop reading now.

Arrival, as its title suggests, focuses on the arrival of unidentified space craft in several cities across the globe.  All occupied countries make contact, but no one can crack the alien language.  Enter Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, charged to work for the American team attempting to understand the newcomers.  Banks is an accomplished scholar and university professor, and is clearly well-respected.  On the contrary, Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in Slaughterhouse Five, is a clumsy, awkward, average guy.  He does not hold any special abilities, but just happens to be abducted by aliens one night, and the aliens reveal to him the true nature of time.

The main “twist” of Arrival (I warned you there would be spoilers) is that the alien visitors (called heptopods) do not view time in a linear fashion.  Instead, they can see the future and the past, or any point on their lifeline.  In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut describes how the Tralfamadorians see time:

“Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

In Arrival, Dr. Banks discovers that by learning the language of the heptopods, she can view time as they do.  Billy Pilgrim also gains this skill.  Like Pilgrim, Banks can not control what moments she sees and when she sees them.  Pilgrim is described as being “unstuck in time;” he does not know where or when he will be at any given moment.  Banks, on the other hand, appears to experience this “unstuckness” as flashes instead of being physically present in those moments.  This is all part of the big reveal – the audience is led to believe that all the moments we are seeing are flashbacks of Banks’ life before the arrival of the UFOs, but with one small phrase – “who is the child,” – it is revealed that these are all moments yet to come.

Yet, this knowledge of what is to come does not affect Banks’ ultimate choices.  She knows she will have a child with the mathematician, he will leave her, and her child will die at an early age.  Yet she makes these choices any way.  Or does she?  In Slaughterhouse Five, the Tralfamadorians tell Billy Pilgrim that in all of their travels through the universe, Earthlings are the only creatures who believe in free will.  The concept does not exist anywhere else – all other beings accept that there is an order to the universe that they are bound to follow no matter what.  It is entirely possible that with the knowledge of the nature of time that Banks is given, she is also given the understanding that there is no choice in life, and that nothing she can do will change what is to come.

When Billy Pilgrim seems distressed by this idea of fate, the Tralfamdorians tell him that they choose to focus on the pleasant moments instead.  For Billy, this moment is a sunny day at the end of World War II, where he takes a nap in an old wheelbarrow.  The novel ends with Billy in this scene, hearing the bird sing “po-tee-weet.”  Likewise, Banks chooses a pleasant moment in the end, the moment where she and Ian, the mathematician, discuss having their child.  Despite knowing what will come, the joy that this child gives her in life allows this moment to be one of her most pleasant.

The physical appearance of the Tralfamadorians and the heptopods is also worth comparing.  Talfamdorians are described as looking like plungers with hands for heads, and a single eye in the center.  When the heptopods first appear in Arrival, they resemble giant spiders.  Later, when Dr. Banks is brought beyond the barrier and can see the entirety of Costello, one of the heptopods, we see that they are much larger than originally seen.  The heptopods look almost like inverted Tralfamdorians, although much larger than  the two-foot Tralfamadorian.

Both species seem to communicate telepathically.  All heptopod ships seem to be in communication, but no one can detect any waves or signals coming from any of the ships.  On her final trip into the ship, Banks pleads with the heptopods to send a message to the other ships, confirming that the creatures have a way of communicating that is beyond our own.  When Billy Pilgrim is captured by the Tralfamadorians and kept in a zoo, he learned that they also communicate telepathically, as he watches groups of the aliens come visit him at the zoo and stare in seemingly absolute silence.

The written language of both aliens consists of complicated sentences constructed in minimal texts: the heptopods use a complicated system that, for lack of a better description, resemble the rings left behind from coffee mugs.  Tralfamadorian written language is described as resembling telegrams, as “brief, urgent messages.”  as Arrival progresses, these written communications indeed become brief, urgent messages as phrases such as “use weapon” become matters of national security.

When I teach Slaughterhouse Five, I teach the value of reader response.  Does Billy Pilgrim actually travel through time and space?  The most popular reading of Slaughterhouse Five is that Pilgrim is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, causing him to experience delusions and flashbacks that take the form of “time travel.”  When I teach the novel, I invite my students to develop their own reading of Pilgrim’s travels, and be prepared to defend their interpretation.  Personally, the optimist in me chooses to believe that Pilgrim truly is “unstuck” in time.

However, the reading of Pilgrim as a victim of PTSD is a powerful, albeit darker one.  As I thought about Arrival in the context of Slaughterhouse Five, I found this aspect impossible to ignore.  Could Banks also be suffering from PTSD after the death of her daughter, experiencing hallucinations of Pilgrim proportions?  On Tralfamadore, Pilgrim is considered to be a paragon of manliness and human perfection, whereas on Earth he is anything but.  At the beginning of Arrival, Banks lectures to a nearly empty classroom of disinterested students.  With the arrival of the aliens, she is suddenly thrust into a position of power and importance.  Is this, like Pilgrim, simply wish fulfillment?

Part of the design of Arrival is the lack of identifying features in Banks’ memories.  This is, of course, to lead the audience to believe they are flashbacks, that all this happened in the past.  Therefore, there is no reveal as to who Hannah’s father is, there is no visible aging of Banks.  Perhaps, though, that is because they are indeed flashbacks.

The similarities between Arrival and Slaughterhouse Five make them not only ripe for analysis, but also prime teaching tools.  While Vonnegut uses satire and sometimes crude humor to expand the reader’s mind, Arrival relies on our empathy for Banks as a human being.  Teaching these two together, along with the short story that inspired Arrival, “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is a way to teach students how different authors can approach the same concept in different ways.  It is a great way to address standard 7 of the Common Core Standards and Florida Standards – viewing multiple interpretations of a concept in various media rather than a specific text.  Watching this film made me more excited than ever to begin teaching Slaughterhouse Five, and I can’t wait to bring these new texts into the classroom.


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