A few nights ago I saw Arrival, because I’d heard good things about it. Watching it and then reading discussions about it online did to me what such things usually do: set off a long internal monologue. This time I happened to jot most of this monologue down, meaning I could patch it up, develop and massage it into a blog post.
It’s built off a spontaneous rant, which means what I say might be unreasonable, unfair, inconsistent, partly imaginary and not at all well explained or thought out. You’ve been warned.
Oh, and spoilers, obviously.
Arrival starts with some mysterious spacecraft arriving on Earth. The aliens do nothing, content to have their ships silently hover above some seemingly random spots throughout the world.
Linguist Louise Banks is recruited by the US Army to decipher the strange noises heard from the aliens. She teams up with Ian Donnelly, a physicist, and they climb aboard one of the ships. The aliens communicate by drawing strange pictures in the air using something like airborne squid ink and Louise gets to work on trying to understand what they mean, under tension created by the military personnel acting very military-y and being-in-the-way-y and cause-unnecessary-conflict-y.
During all this Louise has visions of her daughter’s death and her marriage falling apart. We don’t know anything about this and her life shows no sign of a husband or daughter, in the present or in the past.
As translation efforts progress around the world and it becomes clear that the aliens are talking about a ”weapon” of some sort, geopolitical tensions rise. A coalition led by a Chinese general prepares to attack the aliens, which causes Louise to approach them on her own.
It turns out that the aliens’ language being ”non-sequential” is more than a surface feature and mastering it means you start to experience events out of sequence. That is, your mind starts “perceiving time nonlinearly”, an idea the result of treating the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis the way Deepak Chopra treats quantum mechanics. This is why Louise’s been having those visions since she started learning the language — she’s seeing the death of a daughter who’s not yet born.
She uses this new power to communicate with the Chinese general in the future to get him to call off the attack in the present, and all is well. The reason for the aliens’ visit turns out to be making humans learn their language so we can get time-superpowers and help them in the distant future.
The political tension was the result of us mistranslating “language” as “weapon” because it was phrased as ”tool”, echoing a quote from the beginning I really liked:
Language is the foundation of civilization, it is the glue that holds the people together, it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.
I liked the movie. There were many good things about it. The first half was nothing short of fantastic; the alien script was really cool and I would’ve loved to see more of it, how it worked and how they figured it out. I wouldn’t have objected if this process (with a good payoff) had been the whole movie. The parts where Louise discusses how difficult translation is when you have no idea about who or what you’re talking to and how they think was also great.
But because it has so much more interesting content than your average movie its shortcomings are even more frustrating. After a great start it steps off the edge of the pier with the whole “learning to see through time by learning a new language” thing. It’s a neat idea — aesthetically — but nonsense on a literal level, which was jarring since the first half was so down to Earth.
The ”beings existing outside of time” thing has been done before (like in Star Trek: Deep Space 9) and like there it here falls apart the moment you start thinking about it. A living being is a process, it changes, it thinks and does stuff. Things happening after each other is what we mean by time. No time, no processes, no life. Living beings ”outside of time” couldn’t be anything at all but a static structure, not alive in any way close to what’s ordinarily meant by the word. And these aliens do stuff and can be communicated with. It isn’t just false or impossible but nonsensical.
They could exist in a different, orthogonal time dimension I suppose, being able to move around in our time but not their own. If that is what they had in mind (sadly I think it’s just poorly thought out) it raises a lot of interesting questions and should be worked out in more detail, not just dunked in handwavium and thrown in.
“But you can’t just explain every little thing!”
No, but this isn’t a “little” thing! You do need to make sure your main storytelling idea stands up to at least some scrutiny. And even when you don’t explain something to the audience you should know for yourself so everything you do say makes sense. Otherwise you might turn into Lost. And I think the movie made the same mistake Lost did and subverted it’s own implied logic. Twists and turns are good, but a story can’t suddenly defy gravity and lift off the rails. It needs to fulfill your expectations, but in a way you didn’t expect.
Power is not depth
Reading some online discussion lit some old fires. Someone opined Louise’s personal story was the ”meat” of the movie and if it’d been just about contact with aliens and interpreting their language it would’ve been terrible. What the what?! Can we have a movie that isn’t about personal drama, please? You people get almost every movie, including all the highly prestigious ones. Can we have this one, please? Can we have a movie about how humanity meets aliens and not have it be about the personal lives of the particular people who meet them?
“Well, interpersonal drama is the foundation for all stories. Plots and events are meaningless by themselves, it’s all about the characters and how they react.”
No! I don’t want to use such a douchey expression but since you’re an imaginary straw-person you won’t mind: check your goddamn privilege. You think personal drama is an essential part of stories (and therefore that stories without it are deficient) because it is to you, it is to most people, and the majority of stories try to appeal to those sensibilities — Serious Literature especially. You’re used to getting your way all the time; personal drama has to be frickin’ everywhere.
This made me think back on someone commenting that The Martian felt flat and the astronaut Mark Watney should’ve had some family back home to “make it emotional”. No, no, a thousand times no! That part of The Martian felt so freeing: no unnecessary paint-by-numbers emoting for once. No more motivation is needed than the fundamental human drive to survive (this goes for Gravity too, yet another movie with an obligatory backstory of personal loss).
I get the feeling sci-fi stories, no matter how grounded, have to add some emotional pain to be taken seriously. Portraying negative emotions makes art serious and deep, because positivity is childish and superficial.
I dislike this implied artistic hierarchy because I don’t think that’s true at all. Instead I suspect we find negative feelings ”deeper” precisely because they are not — they push some very obvious and powerful buttons. It’s easier to tell ”deep” (emotionally resonant) stories about sad and terrible things because its easier to evoke strong negative feelings than strong positive ones. What makes you miserable is more obvious, more powerful and more universal, while what makes you happy is elusive and personal.
Let’s make something clear: strong emotions work. They certainly do on me. I have two little daughters and the mere suggestion of children getting hurt now makes me physically ill in a way it never did before. With having children, the protective shield of mental distance that kept me from being moved by such things have simply disappeared and I’ve learned first hand that parental love is the most powerful force in the [mental] universe. But it’s because of that reliable resonance those strings are so easy to pluck. It’s become a shortcut for adding “depth” to a story, but emotions aren’t deep just because they’re strong. Physical pain is also strong but similarly straightforward and uninteresting. Powerful but uncomplicated feelings are cheap tools, overused because they’re easy and reliable, the storytelling equivalent of sugar and butter. Use them to bring out flavors, sure, but they can’t be the main ingredient and drowning food in them to make it taste better is rightly considered vulgar.
Discovering the unknown and coming face to face with an alien intelligence is emotionally subtle, like a flute melody above slow-moving string harmonies. Arrival’s first half made us feel awe in the face of something vast and alien. It showed us the thrill of discovery, of finding out there is intention behind something inexplicable. The Martian had not only the power of human ingenuity to accomplish great things, but also that glimmer of hope that comes with realizing that something seemingly hopeless just might not be. Those are less overused feelings.
The blunt force of a dying child story in Arrival was like adding a thumping bass drum over the flute or pouring a pound of sugar and cream onto a dessert with rare exotic fruits. Power and subtlety are hard to mix right.
Some commenter said Louise Banks was underdeveloped and wanted to learn more about her. I don’t. She’s an audience insert (so is Mark Watney in The Martian) and we should not look at her as someone we get to know but someone we get to be. Louise is a subject, a point of view, an empty place for us to stand as we see what she sees.
This kind of “placeholder” character if often pooh-poohed as superficial but shouldn’t be. I’m perfectly fine identifying with an empty vessel, a template, a dummy representing humankind or a particular aspect of it. There are many ways to craft fiction, and realistic multidimensional characters is not an essential feature. Nor has it always been fashionable the way it is now.
I had that thought before when reading a complaint about Tintin being one-dimensional. He is. He has almost no character traits and isn’t a real person but a mere manifestation of ”adventure”, like James Bond is of ”suave awesomeness”. But as I’ve said this kind of character is unfashionable; they’re making Bond more psychologically complex and realistic in the recent movies and I don’t like it. It’s not what he’s about. He doesn’t have a past, a family or a life outside of work. He’s larger than life, an archetype. Trying to turn him into a real person takes away from what makes him what he is.
Science fiction stories often have this kind of flat, ”functionalist” characters (which makes people look down on it as a genre) because it’s not about them — it’s about the things they experience and discover. This is not a flaw any more than the lack of exciting plot in most literary novels or the lack of a bass drop in most (possibly all) of Mozart’s piano sonatas is. It’s by design and it’s fine. Not everything is for every taste, and this is a matter of taste: something essential for you might be an unwelcome distraction for someone else, and vice versa.
Wide and narrow stories
I hear Louise’s personal story is better centered (and not pasted on) in the original novella. Sure, it might be, but it still feels like a bad fit to me. Maybe I just don’t think that it’s a good idea to combine the personal and the ”cosmic” scales in a single story. It requires us to shift frames which makes the story feel disjointed. Grand scale narratives engage other parts of the mind than intimate, personal ones and tying them together is like mixing ketchup and lettuce.
This quote by Donnelly near the end shows how silly it can get:
You know, I’ve had my head tilted up to the stars for as long as I can remember. You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.
Oh puh-lease… You discovered we’re not alone in the universe, personally met the aliens, helped save humanity and learned it’s possible to travel through time — but getting to know your future wife is a bigger deal?
Well, yes. On a personal level it certainly can be. But the other things are vastly more important from a no-one-in-particular perspective, and that’s why it’s hard to successfully mix stories about humanity, society and the universe with stories about the lives of particular people. These two perspectives (call them ”wide” and ”narrow”) don’t assign meaning to things in the same way and that means it’ll create internal dissonance in the meaning-manufacturing process. And that’s what stories are about, really.
The classic quote ”One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” (wrongly attributed to Stalin) illustrates it well: we can’t appreciate or even fathom a million deaths through the narrow-focus lens we use to deal with just one, and we also can’t appreciate a single death through the mental schemas we use to consider the meaning and consequences of a million. I’ve argued before that a strong narrative is (artificially) coherent and cohesive, all its parts humming in harmony. Mixing incompatible frames ruins that feeling (it’s different if such dissonance is the actual point, but that’s not the case in Arrival).
A common way to deal with this is to have events be meaningful both ways, leading to oh-so-overdone contrivances like ”Oh dear, [lost family member] is behind everything! The stakes are high and it’s personal!”. *Groan*
The (wonderful) bookstore-sitcom Black Books mocks this kind of thing:
Female customer: Hi, we’re looking for…
[Bernard hands her a copy of Tempapocalypse]
Bernard: Here’s one for you.
Female customer: How do you know what we both want?
Male customer: We don’t like the same stuff.
Bernard: You’re going on holiday. You want trash. But different kinds of trash. You, you want social themes, believable characters. You, you want suspense, thriller. This does you both. It’s this temp. She’s 29 and she can’t get a boyfriend. Oh my god.
Female customer: Sounds great.
Male customer: No way.
Bernard: And she’s got 12 hours to stop a nuclear war with China.
Male customer: Well, one copy each!
In most cases (I can’t think of any counterexamples right now) “mixing” requires that either the narrow (local, personal, concrete) or wide (universal, impersonal, abstract) perspective takes precedence and the other plays a supporting role. Unless you’re really good that tends to mean either “flat characters” or “nothing happens”.
“Thought provoking” is a low bar
By the end the movie reveals its central theme: predestination and making decisions you know will have tragic consequences. Sure, predestination becomes an issue when you’re suddenly able to see the future, and it’s been a staple of popular sci-fi for a long time (most notably in the Terminator series). Ok, what do you have to say about it? Nothing in particular? Just “bringing it up”?
“Well it makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“Makes me think”? Bitch please, everything I see and hear makes me think. Saying something “makes me think” is like saying food ”takes up space in my stomach”. Hey storyteller! How about doing some thinking yourself and showing it to me? I don’t want you to “make me think”, I want you to show me thoughts I couldn’t have thought on my own.
”You’re supposed to figure things out for yourself! Just like with that thing about aliens existing outside of time you complained about before, don’t expect to be spoon-fed!”
I would do that if I had a good reason to think there was anything there to figure out. I’m more than willing to solve a clever riddle or find subtle themes or references but I’m not willing to do a creator’s job for them and patch up or develop their story. I’ve been disappointed too many times to automatically trust that there’s hidden thought behind everything that doesn’t seem to make sense.
I want what many would decry as exposition or spoon-feeding because I want someone to prove they’ve thought something through more than I have. I want to be able to explore a work of art without bumping into the bottom of the pool because the creator hadn’t worked stuff out ahead of me.
I guess that’s why I so dislike art whose purpose is to just “raise an issue” or illustrate a theme in a single way. Give me more, you lazy tease. Don’t just do step 1 and act all satisfied. Where is step 2-100? An interesting question, dilemma, idea or motive is a starting point, nothing more. Anything complex enough to be interesting has many parts and steps and just giving people the first piece or two and expecting them to reconstruct the whole edifice means you’re either expecting to much of your audience or what you’re trying to say is simplistic. I mean, if it’s possible to communicate something by being vague and unclear, that something is too simple to be worth engaging with (unless you have a truly novel idea, but those are rare). And thinking you’ve accomplished something when just asking a question or making an unoriginal point is laaaame. Asking questions is easy, answering them is hard.
Now at the end I get the same feeling I did when discussing (at length) why I didn’t like Infinite Jest that much: a sneaking suspicion that my complaints and elaborate theories about storytelling mechanics etc. are just my brain making epicycles trying to rationalize reactions it doesn’t really understand. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Maybe I’d forgive or even appreciate the things I disliked if only their implementation, my background knowledge or my expectations had been slightly different. I possibly wouldn’t have been all that annoyed by the ”nonlinear time” conceit if I’d encountered it in an ”artistic” mindset rather than the ”realistic” one the first half of the movie put me in. Approaching a work of art is like reentering the atmosphere, you have to come at it at just the right angle.
• • •
This last bit sets up a causal loop, and I’m no fan of those. The idea doesn’t make sense; loops where the future is predetermined and we have knowledge of our own future actions is in direct conflict with the kind of free will humans undeniably have (often confused with the kind of free will we don’t have — determinism isn’t the same thing as predestination). It was done well for once in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which I appreciated.
Donnelly disagrees and says science is the foundation of civilization. Nah. No matter how much of a science-fetishist I may be, Louise is right about this one.
But I’m easy to please as I’m a sucker for these things. I made up my own scripts as a kid and have always been fascinated by artful ways of of representing information. Cuneiform. Hieroglyphs. Musical notation. Streetmaps. Networks. Calendars. Yeeeaaaaahh gimme gimme.
I’d like more movies about how people solve interesting problems without personal drama — like classic detective shows but without grisly murders and no restrictive crime framing. Think All the President’s Men or Spotlight but without needing the animating force of a juicy scandal.
I suspect most people don’t find this idea nonsensical because they don’t think of the mind as a part of the physcial world and therefore a process in time like everything else. I suppose it does make way more sense that consciousness could exist “outside of time” if you think of it as separate from the world and without any moving parts that can change. But that’s incoherent, and I’ll be talking a lot more about it in my upcoming posts.
A good example here is The Butterfly Effect. Its time-travel mechanism is 100% handwaving, but that’s fine since it’s clear from the start. No false promises.
I also remember someone saying Mark Watney was too calm and not upset enough. Well, thank god! I’m so tired of excessive emoting. It puts me off and doesn’t make me empathize for the same reason screaming doesn’t make me listen. Someone else said the journalists in Spotlight didn’t emote enough either. To me that was a good thing too. It was nice to see serious people dedicated to their task with their own feelings secondary — instead of making it all about them and their reactions.
The famous quote (from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina): “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” expresses this idea succintly: happiness is simple, misery is complex. Apparently people think this, since the quote is considered wise. I don’t and it bothers me when the complexities of happiness are glossed over or even denied.
Which politics-themed tv show is more superficial: The West Wing or House of Cards? I know what I think.
This is why politics faces a much harder challenge today than it did a century ago. The conditions that make people miserable are easy to understand (starvation, toil, disease, violence, oppression) and while eliminating them might be hard the goal is relatively clear. The conditions that bring people from ”not miserable” to ”truly happy” are way more slippery and divergent.
This is something I liked about Black Mirror’s San Junipero, especially the closing shot.
Crime fiction is also evolving in this direction. Modern detectives are developed characters with personal drama-type b-plots instead of just filling a function in the story the way old-style crime fighters like Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes did.
I just finished Unsong, and yes, that’s what I’m talking about.
See: too much of contemporary art.
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18 thoughts on “Rant on Arrival”
I like many of your points, including the apparent “obligation” that writers feel to inject personal drama (which usually involves one of only several possible plot events, e.g. losing a child) into any story whose premise is much grander. The way this is slightly overdone in Gravity is my one criticism of an otherwise exquisite movie.
The following is not a direct response to your review, but a cut-and-paste (with typos corrected) of something I wrote on Tumblr about Arrival just after seeing it. It seems that we had some initial reactions in common.
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Yes, looks like we had similar reactions, mine perhaps a bit less humble, more in the “this is bullshit” direction.
Expecting Louise to interpret a few seconds of noise like it was a known language was indeed silly, and I think symptomatic of how needlessly antagonistic the army characters were written.
The Sapir-Whorf thing isn’t pulled out of thin air as much as it’s exaggerated to ridiculous proportions. The same with free word order, which is as you say not that uncommon (I think Latin and Russian has it too), and it’s not like English is perfectly sequential either. It reminded me of the Star Trek TNG episode “Darmok” where a normal feature of language is put on display as alien, in that case metaphorical speech rather than free word order.
Disclosure: have not seen Arrival, have read The Story of Your Life.
okay so on the one hand: it is so nice to see someone put to words these complaints that I have about so much literary fiction. Yes! You understand! [See end]
But on the other hand, well,
There is and there isn’t something to “figure out,” so to speak. In the novella it’s easy, because you’re inside the main character’s head and can see all her thoughts. And you can read the author’s notes about what the story is about. Fundamentally, it’s about this:
How sure are you of that? Chiang wrote that he was inspired to write TSoYL by the exact thought experiment you seem to be alluding to, the “Book of Days” (sometimes a computer-of-days) where all your actions, past and future, are written. But, the thought experiment goes, you could look at your next action – scratching your nose, say – and then obviously you’d be able to just choose not to do it, to do the opposite of whatever’s written in the Book. But the Book is defined to always be accurate, so clearly the Book can’t exist. QED.
(In the computer version, I think it’s possible to prove an analogy to the halting problem and thereby be even more correct forever)
Chiang explores through the story some reasoning for why this is a poor argument. Essentially, you can’t make a binding commitment to “do the opposite of whatever is written in the Book” (recall, for comparison, MoR!Harry’s experiment with factorising large numbers via time travel). You can’t reasonably expect that your state of mind after seeing something as eldritch as that will be anything close to human, let alone human-and-willing-to-defy-fate-for-kicks. In fact, this links back to another criticism:
In the novella, Louise is indeed a weirdly non-living character, not really having any inner state of reaction to anything, existing in a sort of bizarre state of taking normal actions but having none of the inner states you’d expect. Not even grim resignation or anything. It’s an interesting sort of look at what the mind of something “outside time” might be like, even though the notion doesn’t make any sense.
[End] But yeah to briefly list the things you said that had me going “yes! thank heaven someone gets it!”
-“You do need to make sure your main storytelling idea stands up to at least some scrutiny.” – Exactly. There’s a big gap between suspending your disbelief and mutely accepting arbitrary amounts of handwavium.
-“it bothers me when the complexities of happiness are glossed over or even denied.” – Yes. The Tolstoy quote is distilled sour grapes, in my uncharitable opinion.
-“You think personal drama is an essential part of stories (and therefore that stories without it are deficient) because it is to you, it is to most people, and the majority of stories try to appeal to those sensibilities — Serious Literature especially. You’re used to getting your way all the time; personal drama has to be frickin’ everywhere.” This.
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Isn’t that a lovely feeling? Quite underexplored in fiction if you ask me…
About the rest: what you’ve said convinced me that the novella is way more substantial than the movie, and that many of my complaints probably wouldn’t apply to it. Maybe I should read it.
Since I haven’t read Chiang’s full argument I wont go into details, but based on your short summary I don’t find it convincing. I don’t think you’d need to be able to precommit to defying the book, it’s enough that someone in some situation would do so, and I find it weak that some as-of-yet unknown mechanism would compel you. A whole book exploring the psychological aspects of this would be interesting even if not philosophically bulletproof. Is his point something like we’d have an entirely different psychology and subjective experience if we knew our future actions? It’s an interesting thought, unfortunately not really developed in the movie.
The main reason such a book/computer couldn’t exist, IMO, is that in order to compute the future you’d need (unless the book-puter is completely disconnected from the rest of the universe) to include the result of your computation as an input to that same computation. You need to simulate the universe, basically, and since your output is part of it and will influence things, you’ll need to simulate your own simulation as well. You’ll end up with an endless simulation-in-simulation recursion. This more or less gives us the HPMOR solution, where the timeline keeps changing until it settles into a stable loop (base case). That assumes a stable loop is always possible, and I highly doubt that. Someone more knowledgeable than me about computability and the halting problem would be able to phrase this better.
It’s not a criticism that Chiang doesn’t agree with me on this, it’s just that in the movie it’s barely adressed at all, and it really needs to be. This ties into the whole “can show that they’ve thought about things as least as far as I have”-thing.
I meant “static structure” quite literally, no thoughts, no perceptions, no actions, nothing. If her psychology is “empty” in the novella that’s interesting but different, it’s another thing that really doesn’t come through in the movie. I guess (thinking back to my last paragraph) that I don’t necessarily mind things not making sense if at least some effort is made to make sense of them, at the very least it’s acknowledged that sense must me made.
About determinism and predestination: that’s a discussion too big to fit into a footnote and I just mentioned it briefly. What I mean by them are two ideas that are in a sense equivalent, but their meanings are with respect to two entirely different views on what the human self is, fundamentally. I’ll be starting a series on this next week, stay tuned.
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Exactly this, yes. It could certainly have been explored better even in the printed version – more comprehensively or explicitly – and many of your criticisms do stand for that reason. Like, it’s still weirdly focused on the personal/relationship drama of it, like “oh wow wouldn’t it be horrible to know your daughter’s going to die but not be able to do anything, huh?” That time and energy could have been spent on making it a bit clearer what the author was trying to say about the philosophy of free will.
Then again, several of the other stories in the collection do touch upon the topic in different ways or from different angles. Maybe the idea was a “blind men describing an elephant” approach.
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Oh, there’s a whole set of stories on related themes? That’s an interesting approach.
I think you should read the short stories. I predict that some of your criticisms and complaints will survive. But then I think that the stories are good in part because they invite and inspire such reactions.
I found the stories, and the story on which this movie was based, mostly *evocative* – not ‘mind blowing’ or ‘awesome’ like a lot of other sci-fi I like. In fact, I’d classify the stories as more philoso-fi.
But the premise or conceit of the short story was more that the alien language somehow offered one’s consciousness a timeless perspective and that, instead of giving one the ability to ‘see the future’ it made one ‘the kind of person’ that both (a) *knew* one’s future (and thus could ‘remember’ it); and (b) would do all of the things that one had ‘already’ done in the future. It was portrayed as being a perspective over or above or outside of time, i.e. an ‘extra dimension’ to consciousness.
And in the case of that particular short story, the ‘personal’ elements I think are key. I’d rather not spoil any details about that, but if you don’t care or want to know anyways, I’ll gladly do so.
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I like the idea of “philoso-fi”, if that was a popular label I’d have an easier time finding stuff to read.
As Dirdle said above, it seems clear that the original story is more well developed than the movie, so I’d probably feel different about it. Still no fan of primarily “evocative” stuff that inspires reactions like this though – as I said I don’t like stories that wants me to do the thinking.
Do spoil, to be honest I doubt I’ll get to reading the story – my reading queue is so long that I’m not really looking at new candidates any more.
I didn’t find the “Story of Your Life” short story, or any of the others, to be ones that ‘want the reader to do the thinking’. I found them more like a tantalizing slice of an intricate high-dimensional structure. Obviously a short story isn’t able to provide enough details to fully flesh out the premise(s) or their implications, but Chiang is a good enough author (a great author really) that the stories’ worlds all seem like real worlds.
The closest comparison to these stories that comes to mind is Borges.
The central feature of “Story of Your Life” that explains all of the rest is that there is a fundamental discrepancy in how humans and aliens prefer to understand reality. Humans prefer causality; the aliens prefer invariance. An example the story uses repeatedly is the refraction of light in different media, e.g. air and water.
Consider light passing thru air and then water. The difference in the refraction index of the two causes the light to ‘bend’ at a specific angle. But it’s also true that the full path of the light, thru both the air and water, is the fastest possible route thru both the air and water. And this is pretty weird if you think about it! It’s almost as if the light ‘knows’ its future, e.g. that it’s going to pass thru water and thus needs to bend a specific angle to minimize the duration of its trajectory.
So, by analogy to the above, the aliens in the story perceive themselves as entities on a ‘timeless’ trajectory, i.e. one that stretches both into the past and future. And the main character learning their language – in particular their written language – provides them with that same (or at least similar) perception. She ‘remembers’ the future and, crucially to the ‘personal’ elements, chooses to live exactly as she remembers herself doing. The story is ambiguous about whether the character is ‘really’ free to choose, but it’s much clearer that the character accepts the future they remember, in the sense that someone wouldn’t give up something of incredible value even tho it necessitates extreme heartache or deprivation or suffering.
Gwern’s review of the story is really great – I read it before reading the short story – and it definitely colors my thinking about the story:
‘Story Of Your Life’ Is Not A Time-Travel Story – Gwern.net
(Just fished this out of the spam filter for some reason)
I feel out of my depth discussing a story I haven’t read, but the way you describe it sort of tickles my irritation buttons the same way the movie did. I guess it just doesn’t mix at all with how I view the nature of the self, which makes me ask “and how’s that supposed to work?” to everything you say. Nothing make sense, in a way.
It ties in nicely to what I write in Erisology of Self and Will (part 2 and part 3 in particular): If you intuitively consider consciousness separable from the physical universe, phrases like “understand the universe in terms of causality” or “perceive time” makes sense (I suppose). But they don’t to me. I’ve considered the mind to be a strcuture/process running on a physical substrate for so long it’s become intuitive, and I can’t really think of “time” and “causality” as not being more fundamental than our minds (so not “optional” the way this seems to suggest).
I agree it doesn’t really make sense and, for me, it’s largely because of the reason you mention, i.e. believing the mind to be a part of the physical universe.
But I also have a very robust ability to suspend disbelief – or something like that anyways.
The story definitely just *assumes* that the main character is perceiving/remembering their future. I think it would be a ‘radical’ reading to question that, i.e. consider it to not be true. [That’s actually kinda interesting to think about.]
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Hey John, I’ve been excitedly reading around your blog ever since I stumbled here through Patri Friedman’s retweet of your Harris-Klein-controversy dive. It’s been a very pleasant surprise to find your writing!
This “rant” of yours might be my favorite so far. Of the remarkable amount of coincidences in outlook between us, your take in fiction has resonated with me most.
Have you read Robert Charles Wilson? He is very aware of what you call wide & narrow perspectives and has written 2 pieces of (science) fiction that are some of the best true perspective “mixes” I know of: his novel Spin & the short story Utriusque Cosmi (available at http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/wilson_01_14_reprint/ ).
Here’s a quote from Spin:
“When people come to understand how big the universe is and how short a human life is, their hearts cry out. Sometimes it’s a shout of joy: I think that’s what it was for Jason; I think that’s what I didn’t understand about him. He had the gift of awe. But for most of us it’s a cry of terror. The terror of extinction, the terror of meaninglessness. Our hearts cry out. Maybe to God, or maybe just to break the silence.”
Now that I think of it, I guess the mix works so well on these 2 stories because they are precisely about “scale”, about the harrrowing “dissonance” between both frames of meaning-making.
Will be reading you! 🙂
 Do you know of Schank’s law? It seems to me foundational to erisology: https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11825
 RCW’s explanation/apology/interpretation of science fiction is brilliant: https://web.archive.org/web/20120128061501/http://www.robertcharleswilson.com/articles.php?id=1
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Welcome and thanks for the kind words! I haven’t heard of RCW but I’ll check him out now. I like Schank’s Law too, it’s something worth developing more than just a brief description.
Ah! Not that I’m very fond of the movie, but the start very much did tip me off to the fact that the personal story was the main story. It started purely with the personal story, so at some point I figured that’s what the movie was really “about”. Then it jumped straight to aliens. So I interpreted the arrival of the aliens as a symbolic/metaphorical arrival of her life/grief after the death of her daughter, and the movie as a whole as coming to terms with that.
Though, yes, it seems to get lost in the message of “mutual understanding and cooperation is good and awesome and powerful, military bad” for a while there.
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And to leave on a note of gratitude: I really liked so much of what you had to say about story writing, I’ve bookmarked this article in my folder for narrative “theory” stuff ^^
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Thank you. I’d really like to write more on fiction. It’s such a great mirror for our own psychology and its diversity.
Interesting. As you’ve probably noticed I didn’t see it that way at all. I’d really want to know how this difference works as people interpret stories in real time.
I guess it might be on me. I’ve found myself kind of surprised at some storylines growing “big” later in a story, even though I should have known they would be important. They obviously set something up but I subconsciously filed them away as mere digressions because I didn’t personally find them interesting.
Someone needs to read more Cixin Liu!
(Seriously. Your complaints are precisely what makes Cixin Liu such a refreshingly different author – all idea with none of this backstory nonsense!)
More generally, I think the bottom line is that most people are intensely parochial. Whether it’s a movie, a documentary, a novel, or a math lesson, we are told that it has to be “relevant”. This parochialism poisons everything except the rare creator both strong enough enough to omit it from the art, and strong enough to still force through the project to completion.
The purpose of education should be to grow people beyond parochialism, to appreciate just how large are both the human and physical worlds (this was essentially the background to my education); the explicit purpose of current education appears to be to encourage this parochialism, to assure people that if anything they encounter in the human world feels unfamiliar, anything in the physical world seems too difficult, well, the correct response is turn your back to it and reject it.
I’m not sure how much difference education makes at the margins in this respect, but regardless of that, one of these attempts is noble and one of them is not.
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