Colleen Powers is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis.

Arrival (2016)

Like many people, I saw Arrival right after the election and appreciated its thoughtful beauty and its message of understanding and cooperation. I didn't find it hopeful, though. At the risk of being cynical or too literal, I couldn't exactly see a way forward in the movie's fantastical, circular resolution.

But I did love the central idea of the movie, which is that the structure of a language shapes the mindset of those who speak it. Amy Adams' linguist character is able to become disconnected from humans' linear view of time when she learns a language that is not time-based. That idea, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is name-checked in the movie and is a fascinating concept to build an alien invasion story around, and I think the movie succeeds without getting too heady or hard to follow.

I was reminded of Arrival when I read Donella Meadows' Thinking in Systems: A Primer, an introduction to systems thinking that blew my damn mind. Meadows explains how the factors we choose to measure in systems often determine how those systems are structured and play out, for better or worse. For example, GDP is a limited measure of economic success that doesn't reward efficiency, sustainability, or well-being, but it's what we use.

Near the end of the book, Meadows argues that it's essential to recognize and value qualities that can't be quantified. "Don't be stopped by the 'if you can't define it and measure it, I don't have to pay attention to it' ploy," she writes. "No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren't designed to produce them, if we don't speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist."

The most striking scene in Arrival comes when Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner meet the alien creatures for the first time. The scene is ominously slow and uses a pounding score to create an overwhelming sense of dread. As the characters are hoisted into the mysterious spacecraft, they reach a point where Earth's laws of gravity no longer apply, and they must leap forward to stand flat on what they've been experiencing as a vertical wall. They're freaked out and disoriented; their perspective is shifted, and it makes their approach toward the aliens that much more unsettling. 

Arrival and Thinking in Systems both suggest that even our most foundational beliefs and ways of thinking can be challenged and reconstructed. I'm not sure what that means, though, for the current state of the country and the planet. In Arrival, Amy Adams saves the world with, essentially, a shortcut. Thinking in Systems emphasizes that there are no shortcuts, that understanding why a system works a certain way doesn't mean you can change it. But change is possible, even if it's slow and hard and complex.

Life-Changing Books I Read in 2016

Atonement (2007)