29 November 2016

The Aliens are Coming

I went to see the film Arrival yesterday. This review/essay will contain spoilers, so don't keep reading if you want to see the film without foreknowledge (which would be ironic). I don't recommend paying to see it however. The film is dumb and boring.

As with the film Contact, I was very disappointed. These are sciency fantasy films, not science fiction. I say this because the laws of physics are simply abandoned, the stories employ multiple deus ex machina devices, and magic is the dominant paradigm, followed by the Romantic myth.

I find the lack of distinction between science and magic irritating and more recently  have become bored with the standard tropes of it: time travel or knowledge of the future, aliens with improbable body plans, faster than light travel, substances impervious to analysis, telepathy, etc. Such fantasies may make for useful plot devices for Hollywood writers, but they are fantasies that have no basis in reality. And they are used so often that they become clichéd and passé. The key aspect of good science fiction is that is has a basis in reality. The best science fiction mostly obeys the laws of physics or breaks them knowingly and makes it clear that it is unusual.

Here's the thing about aliens. If they ever come, which is massively unlikely, it will have taken them centuries or millennia to get here. The necessity of solving all the same engineering problems to get off-planet places strict limitations on what they will be like. They'll be roughly the same size as us. Too big and getting out of their gravity well in the first place wouldn't be feasible. Too small and the ability to develop metallurgy (mining, smelting, forging etc) wouldn't be feasible. They'll be physically strong but capable of fine dexterous manipulation of objects. They have to get around and make stuff, so some kind of analogue of legs, arms, and hands can be expected. They will be intelligent and will use language and writing. They will be social, and thus prosocial, because getting into space requires collaboration on a massive scale. Being social, they will understand reciprocity, fairness, and justice. They will empathise, at least with their own kind and have social mechanism for limiting and managing intra-group conflicts. Still, they may well be hostile to outsiders, just like every other social species.

Their metabolism will be carbon based, because nothing else is feasible. Indeed their chemistry is likely to be very similar to ours because there are only a certain number of elements and only certain conditions where both complexity and continuity over time are possible. If their planet was too cold, too hot, too acid, too alkaline etc, then either complexity or continuity would be impossible. Silicon simply does not allow for the required flexibility and at the kinds of temperatures and chemical environments where complexity and continuity occur, silicon tends to rapidly oxidise and form extremely inert compounds like silicon-dioxide.

Getting out of a gravity well uses up enormous quantities of resources and is a very complex engineering problem. Suitable fuel/oxidiser combinations and cryogenic storage of same; pumps and reaction chambers for freezing cold, but incredibly volatile compounds; materials capable of withstanding extremes of cold and heat. These tasks would only be possible for a narrow range of life forms. No solitary apex predator would ever make it into space on their own, for example.

Space is a vast desert, far more extreme and inimical to life than any terrestrial environment. Getting up there is one thing, surviving for centuries with no pit-stops or comfort breaks in inter-stellar space is another thing all together! Having continuity of purpose over centuries is something we have yet to achieve.

Of course the Arthur C Clark dictum will hold. Any technology sufficiently advanced will seem like magic. But so will the McLuhan dictum that the medium is the message. Technology extends the human senses and sensibilities. I've commented to several people recently that my current mobile phone would seem like magic to my younger self. But when it comes down to it, the device enables me to do things like talk to people, educate myself, make music and art, record and access memories, keep track of time, and so on. The how seems like magic, the what is utterly mundane and predictable. Aliens will also use technology to extend their senses and fulfil their desires for connection and continuity in predictable ways.

In short, the universe places limitations on what aliens will be like. And in all likelihood they will have evolved in parallel with us and not be so very different. Indeed a fish living on the deep ocean floor might be more alien, but precisely because it has solved a completely different set of problems to those of us who live on land.

The other main theme of the film is linguistics. In this, the film follows in the footsteps of books like Babel-17, Children of God, or Embassytown. All of which I recommend reading. The film centres on written communication, which is fine. It's quite a likely scenario. In fact, I have thought of this myself. In my imaginary scifi novel it is the Chinese who make the breakthrough with the aliens precisely because of the way their written language works and how that affects the way they think about language. The Heptapod writing is also logographic, like Chinese, but they seem to have no trouble understanding the English alphabet. In a real encounter a lot of time would have to be spent introducing the signs themselves and the idea that they represent sounds, but this gap in the plot is understandable for Hollywood's attention span. Logographic writing would simplify this process enormously since sound is not inherent in it, the way it is with an alphabet. The actual Heptapod writing is less credible - again it requires magic to shape the ink. Why resort to magic at this point? What does it achieve that a more mundane approach would not have?

The idea that the language we speak shapes our worldview is referenced by name in the film as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Unfortunately this hypothesis is largely discredited amongst linguists, though it does get an outing from time to time by amateurs and journalists. And perhaps this is nice, becaused technically Whorf was an amateur linguist, in the sense that it wasn't his main job. The WSH was one of the main themes in the novel Babel-17, where a language is used almost as a trojan horse virus to take control of people's minds. The viewpoint angle might have been an interesting one to explore (one day I may even do so in my scifi novel), but again the film introduces a magical element, because learning the Heptapod language somehow allows the speaker to perceive time differently and thus know the future. Again, why does magic trump science in this way? What are the film-makers thinking at this point where they act like genies granting impossible wishes? Who is served by this form of entertainment in which magic dominates reality? (Hint, it's not the workers).

Part of the reason I'm annoyed is that this was a lost opportunity. The ability to see the world through another's eyes, to appreciate their worldview, by learning their language, is full of potential as a story line. And if there was a time when Americans needed to expand their horizons and see the world through other eyes, then it was certainly now. But the simple wonder and value of this perspective is lost in the magic bullshit about knowing the future. As a plot device, knowing the future is about seeking certainty and security in the known, it is the opposite of expanding one's horizons by embracing the unknown. So the opportunity is wasted.

So, Arrival is a bad film because it does not pay enough attention to physics and misses valuable opportunities. It uses magical tropes in order to pursue a Romantic agenda (fundamentally the film is about a couple getting together and having a doomed child). This is no more evident than in the last five minutes, which are overlain by the most intense, extended violin-wanking I think I've ever heard on a film. The film blatantly attempts to wring emotions from the audience by the device of a dying child, had with the foreknowledge that she would die young from a rare form of cancer. Could it be any less subtle? Hardly. It's sledgehammer stuff and at the end of a long film in which science and linguistics are buggered many times, I felt less than charitable about it.

There were a few moments when if I'd had a compass or a sharp object I might well have stabbed myself in the leg to try to block out how awful the film was. The worst moment, perhaps in the whole film, was when, asked if he could have his life over would he do anything different (and this is with the knowledge that they can now know the future) he says that he might express his feelings a bit more. That's his life's biggest regret? Kill me now. Of course he's only saying that because he wants to fuck the main character. Feminism has achieved a lot for women, but it's made many men into contemptible fucking idiots.

I said there were spoilers in this review. But the real spoilers, i.e. the things that spoil the movie, are in the movie itself. The bad plot, the magic, the lost opportunities, the Romantic bullshit.

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