Friday, 16 December 2016

Chiang’s circles of life shine in Arrival

Circles are key in Arrival, a thought-provoking movie based on Ted Chiang’s short piece, The Story of Your Life.

Chiang has been described as a literary science fiction writer; and Arrival as intelligent sci-fi. So what I expected to see was something that values science over fiction. But this is intelligent in a different way: ideas are the strength, but it has a strong backbone of beautifully realised story.

And while science is there, it is mainly the “science” of linguistics.

In an early scene the protagonist, eminent linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), squares off with number obsessed mathematician Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner). To me, this suggested a conflict reminiscent of an Ian McEwan novel (Atonement, Saturday spring to mind) where two characters take up the mantle of either Science or the Arts, and fight a battle of left hand versus right ensues.

But with Arrival the conflict of ideas is a little fuzzier, and is more about the power of language, reminding me in some ways of two books about words creating their own realities, one by Iain Pears and the other by Marcel Theroux.

For me, the most engaging aspect of the movie and the script is its circularity, both a key theme and a beautiful story-telling device. The aliens (called heptapods due to their seven limbs) write in a non-linear, circular manner that resembles a tablecloth after a Sambuca party. The written language has no beginning or end, but must be read as a whole; and as Louise begins to understand this, her perception of time changes too.

This is based on a concept called linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in which it is proposed that language actually determines thought, instead of how your average Joe would accept it, which is the other way around.

The execution of translating Chiang’s ideas to screen was superbly handled by Canadian Denis Villeneuve. He is due to direct the upcoming Blade Runner reboot, and based on this it will definitely be worth a look.

But first off, I’m going to dig out some more Chiang, started perhaps with his take on AI in The Life Cycle of Software Objects, or his exploration of fundamentalist religious beliefs in Hell Is the Absence of God.

If you’ve seen the movie or read Chiang’s stories let me know what you think on my Facebook page.

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