Arrival, the Movie

Why “Arrival” is Bad Science Fiction

Based on the novella “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (available in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others) last year’s Arrival is a glossy and nearly-perfect film version of the story.

And therein lies the problem. It’s a near-future look at First Contact, with a linguist hero using her skills to communicate with aliens. The aura of applied science would lead anyone not a linguist or scientist to believe in the story’s central premise: that learning the alien language enables one to see the future. Chiang invokes the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that the language you use determines what you can think. In its weakest form the hypothesis is inarguable (“inability to express a concept easily in a language makes that concept harder to think about”) but in its stronger form is largely discredited. Chiang leaps from “sees many things easily as blue because there is a word for blue” to “can see the future because the language treats all events as happening at once.” This is nonsense supported by fake science, and suggests determinism and lack of free will make all efforts to change the future futile. Just lay back and let disaster strike! There’s really no point in trying to escape your fate. This clanging lie is mixed in with exposition of valid and interesting linguistic ideas, so the story is an object lesson in how even a well-meaning literary figure who researches a field can commit Junk Science in trying to create Art.

Charlie Stross is one of the best science fiction writers still active today (and another post would discuss why so many science fiction writers have taken to fantasy or why young academic scientists no longer write much science fiction.) He wrote a grumpy post (“Why I barely read SF these days”) about what’s wrong with science fiction today which got to the root of the issues:

The implicit construction of an artificial but plausible world is what distinguishes a work of science fiction from any other form of literature. It’s an alternative type of underpinning to actually-existing reality, which is generally more substantial (and less plausible—reality is under no compulsion to make sense). Note the emphasis on implicit, though. Worldbuilding is like underwear: it needs to be there, but it shouldn’t be on display, unless you’re performing burlesque. Worldbuilding is the scaffolding that supports the costume to which our attention is directed. Without worldbuilding, the galactic emperor has no underpants to wear with his new suit, and runs the risk of leaving skidmarks on his story.

Storytelling is about humanity and its endless introspective quest to understand its own existence and meaning. But humans are social animals. We exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we’re going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists’ social context—otherwise, we’re looking at perspective-free cardboard cut-outs. And technology and environment inextricably dictate large parts of that context….

Simply put, plausible world-building in the twenty-first century is incredibly hard work. (One synonym for “plausible” in this sense is “internally consistent”.) A lot of authors seem to have responded to this by jettisoning consistency and abandoning any pretense at plausibility: it’s just too hard, and they want to focus on the characters or the exciting plot elements and get to the explosions without bothering to nerdishly wonder if the explosives are survivable by their protagonists at this particular range. To a generation raised on movie and TV special effects, plausible internal consistency is generally less of a priority than spectacle….

Next time you read a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

Some of these things may feel like constants, but they’re really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn’t exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygiene: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and horrible social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren’t.

Much science fiction has always been pulpy — adventure stories with science and technology as plot devices and tarted-up futures with rayguns and powered armor but little attempt to describe new societies that would predictably result from such changes. In fact, most SF&F is now retro in that familiar feudal stereotypes of royalty, Chosen Ones, and quasi-military hierarchies are lazy backgrounds for stories that could just as well be told in medieval European or Chinese dynastic backgrounds. But the most challenging science fiction excelled in worldbuilding: in envisioning how societies, governments, and customs would change in response to new science and technology. And it was in making dramatically accessible and entertaining stories out of the effects of new knowledge and new worlds to explore that science fiction raised two generations of creative scientists and engineers that have changed the world for the better, lifting most of humanity out of extreme poverty.

Science is the practice of building a set of models of Nature and testing them continually. Natural laws are always seen as provisional, useful and valid until demonstrated to fail experimental test. The value of science to humanity: prediction via scientific knowledge leading to control via technology to modify Nature to enable human progress.

The value of science fiction: narratives predicting science and technology and effects on future society. Stories enabled by the new, that help readers grasp what is to come and where they might place themselves to affect the outcome of their own stories. These can be more or less inherently entertaining, but the fascination of young people (especially young men) for them is in dreaming of mastery: to understand and control Nature, to vanquish enemies and nurture their families through something other than brute force and violence (though a blend of both is often very popular!)

“Junk science” is those beliefs promoted to persuade or entertain that have either been shown to be false or are simply unsupported by empirical tests. The media world is flooded with it, with sober studies making one small data point on some topic oversimplified and promoted as a breakthrough, to get clicks or publicity for research funding. “Junk science fiction” is therefore a story that borrows the authority of science to make unsupported or frankly false claims as part of a narrative, which nonscientists will accept as plausible or possible. And Arrival is junk science fiction.

In Chiang’s collection, the story “Tower of Babylon” is more of a model of how to tell a literary story that is clearly fantasy but can make the same emotionally-resonant points without teaching the reader falsehoods. It’s set in an alternative universe where the ancient cosmology of a geocentric world surrounded by crystal spheres is true, and the tower builders reach the roof of the sky and punch through. It was his first published story and is very successful; if Arrival had been told as an alternative universe story, it would not have set off alarms.

Science fiction, like all fiction, is lies; junk science fiction is lies that are cloaked in pseudoscience. There is a huge difference between plausible and possible developments in future science like FTL (Faster Than Light) travel or wormhole gateways and “science” that violates laws of causality, which is really magic.

The value of a fictional world — whether fantasy or science fiction — depends on how entertaining and useful it is to the reader. Fantasy builds a world based on magic or clearly supernatural creatures and phenomena, and is not misleading because it’s clearly a fairy tale. Does this fantasy world work, on its own terms?

Is it a valid homomorphism, following rules of logic which allow story lessons from the fantasy world to apply to real life? Does the narrative map to the real world with some utility? Or does it mislead, leaving a pernicious idea with the reader that will cause failure if followed? Does it reinforce the will to live and build a better life for the reader and those around them?

Postscript: This post wasn’t intended to be widely circulated, but it got picked up as an item on File770 and sparked a lot of interesting discussion. As I rule I don’t comment there because of the hostility of some of the frequent commenters, but I did have further thoughts based on the better comments.

First, despite literally hating the anti-human aspect of the plot (“everything is predestined, you can’t save your child or avoid the pain of her death”), I would recommend both story and movie as beautiful and worth the effort. And I agree there was lots of interesting linguistics to be picked up along the way. My definition of “good fiction” is that it is not only entertaining, but enlightening — leaving the reader with greater understanding of the world and how it and societies within it work. Good science fiction imparts some extra scientific or technological knowledge, which if it includes novel science that might plausibly be discovered, at least is coherent with foundational principles and can be assigned some nonzero probability of actually being true. Young people thirsting for knowledge can almost painlessly pick a lot up by reading quality SF, and a child in the formative years who reads a lot of classic SF will gain a good background in the sciences, and more specifically why the sciences are important.

The “speculative” aspects writers introduce to allow, for example, star-spanning civilizations represent goals for science arising from goals for humanity. There is no purely rational basis to prefer a year 2500 where humanity is robustly diversifying to new worlds and spawning ever-more-interesting cultures — and the sentimental desire to restore voyages of exploration to a world where all corners have been explored and there are virtually no undiscovered wonders is a big reason why SF imagines those kinds of futures. The purely rational being, akin to the all-seeing aliens of “Arrival,” sees no reason to prefer that future over one of extinction, or its own death.

We invent plausible FTL, stargates, ansibles, witty AIs, and transhumans because we want them to be real to enable an expanded future and we love stories that let our imagination live there. And young readers who dream of them end up being the people who actually build them — we all have magic supercomputer slates now that connect us to all of the world’s knowledge, one of the many devices routinely seen in SF from decades before they became real. Similarly, we can expect direct neural interfaces not too far down the road, and the nightmare or dream of never being alone is already halfway here. Much of the attraction of SF lies in project planning for the future, to either instantiate or avoid futures brought about by new technology.

The aliens of “Arrival” could, through their language, see the future, so all of their knowledge was available to them early in their history. The complex system that is evolution provides the basic motivation for expansion and new life, and there would have been no reason to build complicated spaceships and visit other planets to impart wisdom other than it had already been written in the history they could see at a glance. Supposing the aliens developed normally until the point their language evolved to enable complete knowledge of the future — they might still retain the emotions and drives provided by evolution, but their actions from then on would be foreknown and inescapable.

I react against this because it is implausible in the extreme. Such a species would not have any motivation to continue, and even in a set deterministic world actions have to follow logically from a previous time. I object to the idea because it is demoralizing and weakens anyone who accepts it. It’s not like stories always have to cheerlead and can never be attractively nihilist, but this borrowing of many accepted elements of linguistics to justify a radically false extension of it, for the sake of an emotional response, can be harmful to people who would know not to take lessons from an openly alternative universe story.


  1. I think the notion of foreseeing the future in general (never mind experiencing your whole existence all at once) is a special case of the problem with time-travel stories: you can’t enjoy a story with that theme if you think about it very hard. There are lots of other themes that also fall apart on close examination, though. Any story where the aliens are plentiful and are somehow all at about the same level of development as humanity (give or take 1,000 years) doesn’t stand up to close examination either.

    Nor are all stories futures we’d like to see (although I agree there’s a lot of that). Dystopias and post-apocalypse stories are pretty common. (I suppose one could argue that many of these are written by misanthropic authors who want to see humanity destroyed, but I can’t believe that most are like that.)


    1. Visions either dark or utopian have to follow some internal logic and map to reality so that story lessons are applicable in some way outside the story. You’re right that many such stories are *highly improbable* (for example an aliens-invade story where they are after *our pure water*, or for that matter the ridiculous “humans held in dream state as batteries to power The Matrix”, as if animal bodies were a prime source of energy) but we accept the one or two ridiculous bits to enjoy the story that follows. *But* some contrivances are pernicious and need to be called out; say I write a story based on the truth of a blood libel, “Jews kidnap Christian babies and sacrifice them to drink their blood!” I’m going to have a very hard time reading that for enjoyment. I know it’s a harmful lie but people who have never heard of it do not. “Arrival” cheats by pretending there’s a scientific basis for its conceit that learning a language would allow you to know the future. And as a mass entertainment it leaves perhaps millions of people with the idea that it might be so. Some of the File770 people compare that to Protestants or others who believe entry to Heaven is predestined. But those doctrines did not say that no *other* part of you or others’ lives could be affected by your actions — you were still expected to work for betterment of yourself and others.

      Now you can say this kind of story is valuable because for those of us equipped to dismiss the fraudulent part, it stimulates thinking about philosophy and religious matters. True, but it’s clear it was less successful as an entertainment for *most* people because its moral is so grim and hopeless. If all we had were Socialist Realism entertainments promoting Tractor Factory Week (see “Everything is Awesome” from the Lego Movie) this would look daring. But it feeds into a pessimism about the future and technology that is a false sophistication, a ubiquitous nihilism justifying acceptance of stagnation and a childless future of dwindling possibilities.


      1. The story doesn’t really have a pessimistic tone, but, definitely, if you examine the logic closely, it does leave the impression that “it’s hopeless to ever try to change anything.”

        Thinking about it a bit, I realize that I’m far less tolerant of scientific errors if I get the impression that the author actually believes some particular bit of nonsense. I’m more forgiving of honest errors (e.g. a recent story I read where an author got the luminosity of a star wrong due to what I suspect was using the reciprocal of the number he/she really wanted).

        If a conter-factual is part of the what-if of the story, I think the author ought to “lampshade” it (i.e. have someone call attention to the fact that it’s not widely believed to be true). In the case of arrival, the author failed to do that, which does leave the uneasy impression that it was something he actually believes.

        By the way, it’s worth pointing out that although Sapir-Whorf isn’t true for human beings, it pretty much is true for animals. I could imagine it being true of aliens as well, although I’d hesitate to agree that those aliens were actually intelligent.


  2. I”m a scifi author and I’m gonna have to pick a bone with you here. There is absolutely no indication that anything in the physical universe can travel faster than light. Yet, the vast majority of space-based scifi has a premise that the vast expanses of distance needed to be traveled can be achieved with an FTL drive. Are we gonna throw out all scifi that uses that travel method, too?

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    1. There are “extensions” to physics that semi-plausibly might be discovered which allow FTL travel. Backwards time travel is only consistent if it creates a new universe for the newly-arrived time traveler, but simultaneous travel doesn’t create causality paradoxes. While “hyperspace,” wormholes, etc. can’t be completely ruled out either. So less hard SF, Space Opera, etc. can assume gateways or hyperdrives without being provably impossible. As of yet!

      In my Substrate Wars series, a way to access the underlying quantum fabric that simulates our universe is discovered. Just about every “law” of physics therefore turns out to be flexible if you tweak the bits right. But that still doesn’t let you know the future.


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