[2016] Arrival

Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life is a disastrous work of hard science fiction. It doesn’t concern itself with important topics like faster-than-speed-of-light travel and the rigors and failures of data science and analysis. It mocks hard-coded human genetic behavior, like the ability to necessarily and programmatically, ipso facto, comprehend language. It’s instead entirely preoccupied with the squishy science of human failures and the unknowable uncertainty of entropy. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov might call Chiang’s work “cute,” for instance.

Simply because a work of fiction has scientific elements can classify it, by definition, as science-fiction. But self-serious critics have split the genre, seemingly for the sake of criticism, into hard and soft. The subclasses are meant to mimic hard and soft sciences—think chemistry and physics versus anthropology and media studies. Science’s concern is to attempt to explain the human condition and how we fit into the larger scheme of the Universe.  For its part, “science” has been around for less than half a breath on the time scale it—hard—science attempts to explain. Making sense of chaos is a messy enough business; entropy indeed. 

Arrival, the rebranding of Story of Your Life in movie form, is a masterwork of soft science fiction, then. Part of what makes soft(er) science fiction so appealing is as an analog or as an alternative is the freedom it gives an author or filmmaker to simply tell a story free of self-imposed real-world constraints that don’t apply in made-up worlds borne from the author’s mind alone. This particular story focuses on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity (eat your heart out, Einstein!), tying one’s ability to experience the world directly to their understanding of language. This anthropological treatise is complicated but not unknowable, which makes it a perfect subject for science fiction. Chiang is a masterful writer, Villeneuve, a meditative director, and Amy Adams, a deft actor. It took a relative combination of these elements to pull off the meditative needlework that Arrival eventually became. 

It’s another marginal but effective difference between hard and soft science fiction: the “give” in the storytelling. Because hard science fiction, think Interstellar (which hired actual astrophysicists to accurately represent an on-screen black hole) is so married to its accuracy, insofar as the laws of nature are concerned, its rigidity assumes the form and function of the story. Insofar as the laws of nurture? They’re squishy for softer pieces. If it’s inconvenient that a black hole be scientifically accurate, then filmmakers can just build a tesseract at the event horizon and make the whole story a metaphor for love (…wait). Continue reading

[2009] The Hurt Locker

Recently, for no reason in particular, I’ve been obsessed with war.

I don’t know why I have a desire to see violence or connect with a soldier’s turbulent and uncertain lifestyle; I neither condone nor seek to kill or injure my enemy, and while my life is in transition, the uncertainty is more about approximate life choices. Certainly not about life or death.

Nevertheless, I find myself more and more identifying with a soldier and what it means to be one-track, one-day-at-a-time. 2009’s Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, bridges the gap between a warman and a civilian to a remarkably relatable T. Director Kathryn Bigelow inserts us, the readers, into the middle of the Iraqi conflict, but not as a demure bystander. We’re not confronted with the disaster story of a personal tragedy or a shaky upbringing that led to a damaged soldier with a death wish. Instead, our conflict exists extant the horrors and violence of war. The camera work and the haziness of what’s “right,” inserts each of us into the uncertainty of a bomb squad, whose task it is to defuse IEDs and uncover some of the layers of war not related to conflict or even guerrilla warfare. We’re concerned with this teams’ move on a minute to minute basis. Compelling tells half the story.

The phrase, “the hurt locker,” is an interesting one, as it’s relatively obtuse as a straightforward metaphor, but shockingly obvious if we peel back the layers. For me, a hurt locker is a place to store despair, hate, anger, annoyance – negativity; it’s an organizational tool through the lens of war. For our bizarrely autonomous team, the hurt locker is more literal (still figurative) – in a place where death is relevant and imminent the hurt locker is a function of a solider’s mind to quickly switch on and off the feelings to achieve a task. For our soldiers, who seem to operate without direct command, it is essential that the hurt locker exists to keep a clear head when lives are at stake. But what happens when lives aren’t at stake?  Continue reading