[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

[2015] The Martian

October_2_24_92_99_18.epsThere is a long history of awards’ ceremonies ignoring science fiction as fun but not worthy of enshrinement. Almost, if not all, of the films recorded as Best Picture have been dramas or musicals. The voters, mysterious creatures, but all too predictable, seek to reinforce the gravitas of the human condition, or the light-heartedness of the times between the terrible. Heavy be the high watermark that keeps film from being fun; Drama is Art, but not Fun, because verboten be that particular Venn diagram.

If comedy is the populist mandate for the film industry – and it is – then science fiction is the socialist third-rail. Audiences who scoff at a serious science fiction work – book or movie – often cannot decide whether they enjoy the science or fiction part less. The concepts are too high-minded and far-flung, and the situations just not humanistic. We have not yet been to Mars in any capacity, so instead of letting computer aided graphics show us a branch of the possible, the Academy scoffs. Millions of people saw The Martian and presumably enjoyed it because while the human condition needs history to preserve for future generations, the human condition is not simply a puzzle of the past, it is also very much the struggle for the uncertainty of the future.

Science fiction offers an escape to its readers. The scariest science fiction toes the line between the possible, the macabre, and the near future. The world is broken and we need technology to save it. Eventually, we find out that what we thought we knew was completely wrong, and we unite to crush the dystopia to bring order. The tamest sorts the world out; we are a fixed species in the future and our problems are common and external. We are running out of room and resources for humans, say, so it is time to start exploring our Solar System. Here, science fiction branches off again. There is the fear of being alone in our Universe – and then not – and our neighbors are not benevolent. Then we fight for survival, and we win, because to watch a film about the actual end of the world shows a bleakness reserved for the innermost depths of our minds. There is also the joy of rooting for a singular human who faces dire consequences and must channel the best of us. This character is heroic and faces internal conflict as a matter of narrative. But this human is relatable because his situation is unbelievable, but he is a projection of what we would like ourselves to be.

Continue reading