Looking back on the year that played on a meta level like a horror movie. Personally, though, I had a great year and hope you did too.
Old friends Wyatt and Christian bump into each other in New York City. Christian is lonely after his girlfriend left him, so he invites Wyatt to stay at his apartment. He overcompensates for his insecurities (born from being a bullied skinny kid in high school) by working out and being aggressive on the job. Wyatt just left his fiancee. Their friendship looks promising to get them both through a rough patch.
The only problem is Wyatt keeps getting late night phone calls. A voice tells him monsters live among us, and they are waiting for a signal to destroy the world. Wyatt must stay strong and prepare his defenses so he can fight back.
Are Wyatt’s experiences real, or is he losing his mind? It’s pretty clear it’s the latter. I found it interesting the way the voice changes when Wyatt meets new people and his life changes. Christian becomes aware of Wyatt’s illness and stays friends with him. He agrees to take part in Wyatt’s fantasies to show him that once they’re proven wrong, Wyatt will snap out of it and agree to treatment.
It’s a good movie, though it frays at the seams throughout until it feels like it’s falling apart. Christian’s character development is odd at best and often doesn’t seem to make sense. The moments when you’re in Wyatt’s point of view and experiencing the apocalypse are genuinely scary. In the end, the movie wasn’t great, but it didn’t suck, and it certainly had more potential than it realized. It’s a worthwhile film that could have been made stronger with a tighter script and by making it more ambiguous whether Wyatt is ill or what’s happening to him is real. FRAILTY did that brilliantly. Toward that end, they might have told the whole film from Wyatt’s point of view and left you guessing. Or they could have gone the other way–tell the story completely from Christian’s point of view and make it about a man who wants to do right by his friend such that he plunges into the fantasy himself.
One thing about the film really disturbed me, which is the amount of trust Christian puts in Wyatt (regardless of his motivations), who is heavily delusional and potentially homicidal. You can’t reason somebody with mental illness out of a delusion. When I was in college, I temped at an outpatient clinic for a summer, and I asked the resident psychiatrist, “If somebody thinks he’s Jesus, why can’t you quiz him on the Bible, and when he gets it wrong, you can show him in fact he is not Jesus?” She said, “He’d say you have the wrong Bible.” What Wyatt needs is care and probably medication.
Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE is a terrific collection of science fiction stories. The story, “Story of Your Life,” gained Chiang widespread recognition after it was adapted for the big screen with ARRIVAL.
Short stories aren’t usually my thing, but I was thoroughly engaged by this collection. Chiang can take a single scientific fact or simple premise and make a deep and thoughtful story about it. My perception was somewhat colored by something I’d heard about him, which is he apparently takes a year to write a single short story. I went into each story thinking, well, this had better be the best short story ever, because wow, a whole year. As a result, the things I didn’t like stood out as much starker, so I wish I hadn’t heard that about him. The dialogue is average in quality, and many of the stories read like science articles presented as dramatic fiction. No matter, I still greatly enjoyed each story. In many ways, Chiang’s stories read like BLACK MIRROR in print–here’s a single technology or premise, now let’s explore its implications completely. But what I like about BLACK MIRROR more is it fully explores how technology interacts with human nature.
Three of Chiang’s stories come to mind as real standout stories for me. In “Tower of Babylon,” the Biblical tower is imagined as a giant tower soaring into the clouds and touching the vault of Heaven. A miner must travel for days to reach the top so he can help hack into the vault of Heaven. What will he find? It is true that “as above, so below”?
In “Hell is the Absence of God,” Heaven and Hell are very real things and angelic visitations common, which strike like natural disasters. After a man loses his wife during one of these disasters and is taken to Heaven, he has to figure out a way to get to Heaven to join her even though he doesn’t love God. This was by far my favorite story.
And in “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” a collection of people at a college campus express their views about “calli,” a technology that denies people the ability to distinguish beauty in faces, allowing people to interact in a different way. The students must vote on whether to make calli compulsory for all students going to the college. The way the two sides of the issue were presented was compelling, and I found myself agreeing with both sides. More than the rest, this story strikes me as the most feasible and a possible future debate humans will actually have.
Chiang’s a talent to watch, and I’ll be buying his collections in the future, though at the rate of a story a year, it’ll be the year 2026. Check out STORIES OF YOUR LIFE for a collection of thought-provoking science fiction stories.
About 800 years ago, Polynesians settled Easter Island, a heavily forested 63-square-mild island in the Pacific. They slashed and burned to make room for farming and multiplied. Within a few generations, the trees were gone, and by the times Europeans arrived, the Easter Islanders were reduced to warring, cannibalistic clans using few dilapidated canoes. This theory was heavily promoted in Jared Diamond’s book COLLAPSE. Diamond’s lesson: Take care of the environment or perish.
In THE STATUES THAT WALKED, anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo pose a different theory. They pose that the Polynesians brought rats that fed on tree roots. The rats multiplied exponentially and destroyed the trees along with other species sustained by the ecosystem. To survive, the islanders scattered small stones on the poor soil, over which sea breezes that activated minerals in the soil, and grew vegetables. They also ate the rats.
In the end, rather than a failure, Hunt and Lipo call Easter Island a success for humanity. Resilient humans adapted and survived despite a declining ecosystem.
The conflicting theories have naturally entered the climate change debate. Some believe climate change will alter the environment that humans may not survive. Others believe humans will adapt. Which is true would depend on the extent of climate change. Either way, a die-off would occur and while it may not result in the end of the world for humans, it appears likely to end the world as we know it.
NPR has the story here.
I knew I’d probably like ARRIVAL before I even saw it. A movie about a linguist trying to communicate with visiting aliens sounded right up my alley. The film is based on the short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which is also very good and provides some additional theory but far fewer dramatic elements.
Louise is a linguist saddened by memories of the loss of her daughter due to a rare incurable disease. When 12 giant spaceships descend to hover over different spots on the earth, an Army colonel assembles a team to make contact and find out what they want. Louise heads the linguist team and Ian, a physicist, heads the science team. The central challenge of the film is how do you communicate with an alien species to determine their intent, particularly when one possible intent is conquest? Even among humans, the wrong word could have huge diplomatic consequences.
The story rolls out in a fairly realistic manner. While the scientists are filled with wonder, the Army guys are always stony faced, as they keep wondering if they’re at war or not. The human population responds with panic buying and a large degree of hysteria, which results in a wave of violence, including possibly violence against the aliens. The events in the movie appear to capture the gamut of what it’d be really be like to encounter an alien civilization. The aliens themselves are terrific. Overall, the lessons of the film are 1) communication is hard, 2) communication is essential to understanding somebody different, 4) misunderstanding can lead to violence, 5) a rational approach to diplomacy gets better results than one based on fear.
The big reveal in the film is also highly interesting. I’ll spoil it starting in the next paragraph, so look away if you haven’t seen the film.
Apparently, the aliens have come to provide the gift of their language (and with it how they think and perceive reality), which allows humans to experience time in a different way. This is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Linguistic Relativity), which poses that once you start thinking in another language, the language changes your brain and results in a different perception of the world. Louise’s memories of her daughter dying aren’t the past, they’re a possible future after she marries Ian. In the film, the Chinese are about to attack the aliens, but Louise experiences a future conversation with a key Chinese general, who tells her his wife’s dying words so she can give them to him in the past and prevent him from attacking. This is pure deus ex machina, which in the arts is defined as an expected event that saves the hero from what would otherwise be a hopeless situation.
This type of flash forward story doesn’t make sense to me. Basically it says:
1. You’re about to drown in a river
2. Afterwards, you tell somebody to be at the river with a life preserver to throw you
3. You don’t drown in the river
In reality, causation would mean:
1. You’re about to drown in a river
2. You drown
3. The end
If I have it right, the theory in the story is based on the idea that time runs in both directions, so reverse causation is possible. It doesn’t make sense to me, but okay. This article voices my objections better than I can. Still, the film gets an A for ideas.
In my view, Robert J. Sawyer does a better job with the theory in FLASHFORWARD. In this novel, a CERN experiment results in everybody in the world experiencing a short period of their lives twenty years in the future. They then have to determine whether what they experience is predestined, and if they can change it, how can they change it. It’s a great story.
Similarly, after the events in ARRIVAL, Louise publishes a guide to how to speak the alien language (which helps her in the present determine how to speak the alien language, argh). Knowing the alien language presumably allows everybody to know their potential futures and change them. I’m not sure how that would be a gift. The result would be chaos. We are all interconnected, and constant decisions by everybody to optimize their futures would result in knowing your future timeline becoming meaningless, as it would be constantly changing. In the film, Louise knows her daughter will die but must decide whether to have her anyway, which she does. But if Ian had the same ability, he might decide not to marry Louise and have the baby. In the short story, another problem surfaces. Her daughter dies rock climbing and not from an incurable disease, meaning Louise could have prevented it from happening but doesn’t.
In the end, ARRIVAL is a great film on par with thinking films like CONTACT. The communication side was fascinating, but the mental time travel turned out to be deus ex machina for me.