Arrival, the shape of aliens, and bridging the communication barrier

arrival_movie_posterThis weekend, I watched the movie ‘Arrival‘.  It starts off with the now common scenario of several floating ships appearing in the skies around the world.  But unlike most movies in this mold, it focuses on humanity’s efforts to communicate with the aliens and understand why they’ve come.  The protagonist is an expert in linguistics.

I found this movie to be uncommonly intelligent and high quality science fiction, of a type that we rarely see in cinema.  I’ve heard it’s won and been nominated for various awards.  In my opinion, it’s well deserved.  I highly recommend it.

That said, I’m going to quibble with a couple of its aspects.  I won’t spoil anything that you wouldn’t see in the first act, but if having even bits of that spoiled bothers you, you may want to skip this post until you’ve seen it.

I’m not going to quibble with the existence of the aliens, or why they arrived when they did.  A common criticism I have of alien invasion movies is that the aliens usually choose to show up when we can resist them, rather than any of the previous 4.54 billion years when the planet was a sitting duck.  But I actually think the movie has a good answer for that, which I won’t spoil.

Okay, first quibble.  The movie goes out of its way to portray the aliens as utterly, well, alien.  On the one hand, I very much appreciate this.  Too often, media sci-fi portray aliens as humans with maybe an extra bump on their forehead or in overall humanoid form but maybe with reptilian skin or something, together with all too human emotions and attitudes.  Historically, some of this came from technological constraints on what could be shown.  But with CG technology being what it is today, this excuse, still somewhat plausible for television, doesn’t really cut it for high production movies.

That said, in its attempt to make the aliens profoundly different, I think the movie ignores some simple realities.  Extraterrestrial life would undoubtedly be very different from Earth life, but the laws of physics put limits on just how strange it could be.

For example,we never see eyes on the aliens.  (Or at least I couldn’t ever make out any.)  Now, it’s possible that an alien that evolved in a consistently dark or opaque environment, such as an underground sea or in a thick opaque atmosphere, might never evolve vision.

But we see the aliens communicating visually, which implies some kind of ability to take in information from electromagnetic radiation (light).  And eyes weren’t a one time mutation in Earth history.  From what I’ve read, they evolved several times in independent evolutionary lines.  In other words, eyes are one of the features that evolution tends to converge on.  The aliens didn’t have to be portrayed with two stereoscopic eyes.  They could have had many, like on spiders.

The other is the overall body plan of the aliens.  They don’t come across as having much dexterity.  But as I’ve noted before, the only civilization producing species on this planet needed more than intelligence, but also the ability to physically manipulate the environment.  It’s why a primate species currently rules the planet instead of a cetacean, elephantine, corvine, or other type of intelligent species.

I’m not saying that the aliens needed to have humanoid body plans.  Ant-like bodies with prehensile limbs might have done the trick.  But the movie aliens needed to have better physical abilities than what was portrayed.  Their portrayed bodies might have been dexterous in a liquid environment, similar to cephalopods, but that didn’t appear to be the environment they were in.

My second quibble is with the effort to communicate with the aliens.  If you’ve seen the movie,  you understand this issue’s place in the plot, but the initial decision to translate written language doesn’t make that much sense.  As Seth Shostak of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has pointed out, it makes a lot more sense to attempt initial communication with pictures.

This makes sense when you consider that the earliest human writing evolved from using pictures to convey concepts.  Over time, the pictures got streamlined into symbols for each word or concept.  It was thousands of years before the idea of letters standing in for individual speech sounds developed.  Attempting to jump over all that with an utterly alien mind seems like the hard way to do it.

Of course, conveying complex information with pictures wouldn’t itself be easy.  For example, how do you get across the main question the humans had for the aliens, “Why have you come?”  But a series of pictures showing the alien ships approaching humans, followed by alternating pictures of humans dead or alive might have given the aliens a quick chance to make their intentions clearer.  And once you had a basic form of communication going, a common symbolic vocabulary could be worked out, eventually allowing more sophisticated exchanges.

A much tougher challenge might be if the aliens didn’t have visual senses.  Imagine trying to build a common vocabulary with a bat like alien that sensed the world through echolocation, or one that thought and moved on vastly different time scales, such as conscious trees.  But even then, we’d still live in the same universe, and there would have to be some common overlapping ways of perceiving the world.  It might come down to small model statues arranged in sequences to convey scenarios.

Of course, it’s always possible to engage in rationalizations to explain away these quibbles with the movie.  And as I indicated above, this is a movie that is far more intelligent than your typical sci-fi film.  Not the least because it gave me an excuse to talk about alien body plans and communication strategies 🙂

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40 Responses to Arrival, the shape of aliens, and bridging the communication barrier

  1. Tom W. says:

    Though it’s a bit kid-oriented, I recommend getting your hands on a copy of “The Future is Wild” for an intetesting and evolutionary-biology-inspired view of what life on Earth might evolve into, 5 million, 100 million and 200 million years from now.
    Also can’t recommend highly enough to read “Figments of Reality” (Cambridge University Press) by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. That’s a wonderful erudite and amusing perspective on how we’re bizarre creatures ourselves (their quest is to explain the evolution of consciousness but that’s right up your alley anyway – again: GET YOURSELF A COPY!) Enjoyed your critique and will possibly watch sometime soon 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Tom! Appreciate the recommendations. Just ordered a used copy of ‘The Future is Wild’.

      I’m looking at the preview for ‘Figments of Reality’. I like their title for Chapter 9: “We Wanted to Have a Chapter on Free Will, but We Decided not to, so Here It Is”. They definitely get points for humor. Although not sure if I’m willing to shell out the price the publisher wants for a 20 year old book.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ratamacue0 says:

    Good points you raised, which I hadn’t thought of.

    I also appreciated the movie’s unique and intelligent approach, but (spoiler-ish alert) could not suspend my disbelief to accept the big reveal.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hariod Brawn says:

    My seemingly pathological aversion to sci-fi militates against me watching this film, Mike, though I’ll pass your recommendation on to a very close friend who, perversely to my mind, reads and watches little but. As for communication with aliens, then surely we can send Sean Spicer off in a little rocket to do that on our behalf?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pathological aversion to sci-fi? Just out of curiosity, what typically turns you off about it?

      Sean Spicer sent out to communicate for humanity? Can’t imagine what could possibly go wrong with that scenario.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        “. . . what typically turns you off about it?” Well, it’s pathological, so it’s going to happen anyway, but implausibility doesn’t help. I can’t abide fantasy of any kind either. I did just read Cloud Atlas which is futuristic in some degree, and it’s very beautiful, but the sections on Futurism felt soporific, and I just couldn’t relate at all to these imagined, fantastical worlds. It’s irrational on my part, like those people who insist they can’t abide broccoli — it’s just an idea they’ve got stuck in their head, like me.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks. No judgment from me. Fiction, or any art, is a very subjective thing and I don’t think anyone should force themselves to consume any they don’t enjoy. But as an aspiring science fiction author, I’m always interested in what people find objectionable about the genre.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hariod Brawn says:

            Have you read Cloud Atlas, Mike? The problem I had with that, for example, was that characters in Futurist chapters were all in contexts devoid of relatability, and what interests me in fiction is (loosely speaking) how characters’ inner experience maps to a given context. In other words, I understand the character through their eyes viewing, and then them responding to, a context I can relate to — like a world I more or less know, or can conceive vividly of. If I can’t do that, then the story feels distanced, and I’m never quite inhabiting the characters. We’re all partial reflections of the context in which we live, and without which, there’s not much but a blank slate, is there? Maybe that’s one reason why sci-fi writers anthropomorphise, as you say in your piece, so we can at least have some relatable context?

            Liked by 2 people

          • Jumping off of Hariod’s thoughts here, I can see his point about Sci-Fi being hard to relate to, and for me it often is, precisely because I can’t get my head around the characters. It’s not a matter of not sympathizing with them, but just not sensing them as unique individuals. I’ve often wondered why there’s a great deal of what I’ll call voicelessness in this genre. Or, if there is a voice, it feels sort of cliche, like any stock character from a plot-driven action film. In other words, contrived. I can almost hear an editor saying, “You need voice.” So the author tacks it on, which for me is worse than having a purely logical, nearly emotionless character.

            I used to think it was just bad writing. Now, I’m wondering if it has something to do with that lack of a familiar context. What do you think?

            Liked by 1 person

          • Tina, I suspect a substantial part of it is the writing. Science fiction is a genre where writers who aren’t great at characterization can still find a market if their ideas are sufficiently novel or exciting. And this is against a backdrop where classic science fiction was often written from a male perspective for other males, consequently a lot of women struggle with older books.

            But sometimes the issue could be from an attempt to portray “the other”, a character so different that we might struggle to relate to them, by design. Hariod, it seems possible that might be what you encountered with Sonmi-451. I found her relatable in the movie, but that might have been because there was an actress playing her. (In science fiction media, anytime you want an AI or alien to be relatable, have them portrayed by a human, in voice if no other way, or be cute.) Of course, in the book, simply having her be the POV was probably calculated to make her more relatable, but it sounds like it failed with you.

            But Hariod’s discussion of the character in relation to their environment makes me wonder if the setting matters too. An experienced sci-fi reader is used to starting a book with little or no context and having it slowly painted throughout the story. I don’t think the answer is to bring back the infamous upfront infodumps (although that still happens in a lot of writing), but the often extremely tight stream of consciousness POV feels like it might be withholding too much of the context.

            Admittedly, this is all speculation on my part.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Speculation is totally fine with me, especially when talking about fiction writing. 🙂

            It might be a matter of audience, as you imply, when it comes to Sci-Fi readers being less focused on characterization, and primarily interested in the ideas behind the story. Of course I’d rather have my cake and eat it too, but I understand that some people might not find these matters as important as I do.

            I just did a short exercise for my writing group in which we tried to write something plot-driven, and as close to voiceless as possible. I ended up writing something Sci-Fi-ish (I can’t really say what genre it belongs to since it was only an exercise and didn’t go very far. It might be more in the Fantasy realm.) I saw this as the only way to get away with voicelessness—to have the story’s interest come alive in the setting and premise of the story. In the end, I sort of liked what I’d written, but I thought it would’ve been a lot better if I’d given my character a unique personality as a lens through which to see this world. But what I noticed about that exercise was the tension came from the world-building and the release of information about that world through the immediate action. It was a sort of puzzle: Why is this happening? What is this character? Human? A hybrid? Enhanced? Why is he tracking someone who’s tracking him? How does he know what’s going on several blocks away? Is he good or bad? Etc. I can see how this could get tedious, and we’d need to have these questions answered and that world opened up sooner rather than later. And then we’re back to character and motivation, which I sense should have (and could have) been building alongside these questions, or rather, integrated the whole time.

            Maybe the problem is that character and context ARE integrated? Maybe the exotic world building that often comes with Sci-Fi doesn’t necessarily have to cost anything in terms of character development, but writers of that genre who don’t create the sort of characters Hariod and I would like to read aren’t quite connecting with the world they’ve built in a lived way? It’s a lot easier to write about our world, to find those details that really make the story come alive, than it is to make up similarly interesting details that reveal character and cohere in a made-up world. Also, when we reference details in our world, the audience is likely to know what these signify without needing an explanation. In Sci-Fi, it’s harder to get close to those obviously foreign details, treating them the as if they were familiar, and there’s an urge to explain things that might not need to be explained.

            For my part, I’d love to write something in Fantasy, but I think I need to work on myself as a writer before I tackle something like that. Sci-Fi would be really hard for me, and I’m sure I’d fail at it, but it would be a great educational experience. I see these as offering a great deal of freedom to writers, but as they say, with freedom comes responsibility. 🙂


          • Hariod Brawn says:

            Interesting what you say there Tina, and harking back to Cloud Atlas, then something really puzzled me about it. Never mind that you’ve possibly not read it, but it’s constructed as six loosely intertwining stories (through characters being reborn, fwiw), and spans some four centuries in total. Mitchell, in my view, is dazzlingly good at bringing the diverse characters alive, at voicing them so convincingly you’re comfortably inhabiting them within a few pages.

            The one character he gets wrong, and catastrophically so, it seemed to me, is Sonmi-451, who’s a former replicant now ‘ascended’ to full human sentience and self-awareness. She’s living in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Korea of c.2200. I couldn’t relate to her at all! She seemed somehow lifeless, or one-dimensional, and yet that would surely have been quite the opposite of Mitchell’s intent given he needs to demonstrate her revealed humanity. And I wonder if all this (if correct) is to do with Mitchell himself not being able to emotionally inhabit the futuristic context he’d created. Because frankly, it was inexplicable given his brilliance throughout the rest of the novel in vivifying characters. Such a disappointment in what for me would otherwise have been an exceptional novel.

            We both seem to be thinking this ‘voicelessness’, as you call it, is related to this business of the author not being able to project their emotional sense (something like that?) into the fictionalised narrative context. That would mean they don’t really believe it. So why should I? Then again, given my aversion to this genre I can hardly be qualified to talk on it.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ugh, I meant the response above to land below your reply Hariod. I responded a bit to you in my reply to Tina.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        P.S. My friend’s already seen the film and thought it was great.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jeff says:

          Like Hariod, I generally avoid most sci-fi films. Some of the FX are fun to watch, but most of the story lines are not that interesting. Plus, most of the sci-fi these days are just action films using FX and futuristic scenarios. Few put forth a plausible storyline and that’s probably because of the writer. What made Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone so watchable was its plausibility and sense of mystery, playing upon many cultural ‘fears’.

          I read Cloud Atlas and was taken in by the beauty of the writing. When I saw the film, it was nothing like the book and really annoyed me.

          The best sci-fi film I’ve seen in recent memory is Ex-Machina. I thought it was very well done.

          BTW, I’ve just returned from the opening reception and talk of Sebastiao Salgado’s photographic exhibition here in Bangkok. Salgado is a force of nature and delivered a very moving talk about his life and work. At his opening talk, he gave two slide presentations featuring very moving music, one being Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, along with huge projections of many of his best photographs. The effect of his view of humanity, especially the indigenous peoples, the great migration of refugees fleeing war and natural calamities, and the destruction of the earth’s treasures like rain forests, glaciers, and eradication of some animal species is more like a mesmerizing sci-fi movie than anything I’ve ever seen in film. He is a very good speaker as well as a photographer.

          Sorry for the slight detour.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Jeff says:

            My head was so filled with Salgado’s images, I forgot to mention that I did see Arrival. Forest Whitaker’s role was so annoying and unnecessary, that it almost ruined the film for me. What I liked most about the film, were the time changes in Amy Adams brain, not the figuring out how to communicate with the aliens or the anti-climactic ending. The psychology of her story was fascinating. The rest, utter fantasy. No linguist would do what they did.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Jeff, I know what you mean about modern films, although I find that to be true for just about any action movie these days. Many producers don’t even try for plausibility anymore, which is annoying. I can often still enjoy them, but only as popcorn entertainment, the same way I might enjoy a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

            On the other hand, I’m also annoyed by a lot of pretentious films that tout themselves as serious works to be taken seriously by serious people. I find too many of them preachy and unpleasant to watch, with usually far less insight than they put on airs about.

            It seems like we should be able to find some middle ground. A lot of sci-fi literature manages to be both intelligent and entertaining. But Hollywood seems to struggle to get there.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Can’t say I’ve read Cloud Atlas. I had never heard of it before the movie came out. While I did enjoy the movie, the reincarnation premise would probably have turned me off for the book. I like the science in my sci-fi to be more rigorous than that.

      Do you think the future chapters might have worked better if they had done a better job describing the setting? I ask because it’s currently fashionable in science fiction to avoid infodumps at all cost, but leave clues throughout the narrative so that readers can piece the world together. It’s fun for some readers, but frustrating for others, and I often wonder if the genre leaves readers behind because of it. It seems telling that most movies have never bought into that, being careful to have establishing material upfront.

      Or would it have helped if the characters had been more relatable, maybe acted more like 21st century characters even though they were in a future century?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        CA is exquisitely written, and Mitchell’s capacity to voice diverse characters with wit and acuity was dazzling, I thought. I’ve not seen the film, but have heard it’s not bad.

        As regards your question about describing the future settings in CA, then that was done comprehensively, and done well in a literary sense too; but again, it wasn’t relatable to me; it wasn’t inhabitable in the sense I couldn’t place myself in the characters’ shoes — I couldn’t map myself into or onto the over-wrought, futuristic context, so everything felt at arms length emotionally. Maybe this is unavoidable when the context is some 200 years’ hence? That said, the story also went back in time almost as great a period, and yet that was relatable. If accurate, then maybe what I’m saying is a reflection of Mitchell’s own flawed capacity to inhabit an entirely imaginarily-projected future?

        The ‘mistake’ I think Mitchell made was not to do as you suggest is in vogue now, and that is in letting the reader do a little more of the contextual imagining by means of suggestion and greater subtlety. If it’s painted too vividly by the writer, and not by the reader, then it seems there’s the risk of this emotionally detached feeling I, and perhaps others, experienced? It’s tricky I suppose, because the context has to be vividly alive so as to be relatable, but it doesn’t become subjectively vivid in reams of descriptive text alone. I suppose the best writers have a capacity to say just enough, without over-egging. ‘Just enough’, I think translates as ‘understated’ — it’s impressionistic, but the impressionism is felt emotionally more deeply than the a sort of painterly realism, if you get my awkwardly analogous drift?

        I think your final point is possibly a compromise worth making on the writer’s half. It’s a cliché, but a novel is something of a conversation between writer and reader, and if they’re talking different languages . . . Besides, I’m not sure we as a species change much at all over a millennia or five. The basic traits are more or less unaltered. So, I don’t know what you mean by ‘acted’, but I think the psychological responses are not going to be much different from one century or millennia to the next. They’ll shift, but it’ll be like the volume changing by a decibel from 86 to 85; it’s not subjectively detectable.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hariod, you make a good point about a novel being a collaboration between the author and reader. The author’s job is to invoke and provide scaffolding for the reader’s imagination. It’s why scripts, with their terse precise descriptions, generally aren’t sold as entertainment in an of themselves.

          With that in mind, I’m very much a descriptive minimalist, both as a writer and in what I prefer to read. Long elaborate descriptions tend to make my mind wander and for the story to feel slow. Of course, many readers love long detailed descriptions, Different people have different tastes. But, although I’m a minimalist, I recognize that you can go too far, to the point that the characters seem to be talking to each other in white rooms. A little description can add a lot of color and vividness to a scene.

          But I think what many non-sci-fi readers find challenging about a lot of sci-fi literature, is the slow reveal of the overall world the characters are in, particularly when written in an overly limited stream of consciousness POV, where nothing can be explained except what the character is currently thinking about. It doesn’t come up for historical settings, because an educated reader already has an idea of that world, and can usually quickly orient where the characters are in it, even if they’re learning new details about that period. But a fictional future or fantasy world typically isn’t known yet, and will only be known through the story.

          Cultural norms do make a big difference in how people behave. Yes, human nature doesn’t change that fast (although who knows what the future might bring). But all you have to do is read fiction from the 1930s, not to mention previous centuries, to see how different our expectations of characters are today. The role of women in particular is very different. Most fiction, regardless of what time period it’s set in, has characters behave in the manner contemporary to when it’s written. Although some books (Dune comes to mind) go out of their way to break that mold.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Tina,
    That sounds like it was an interesting exercise.

    “But what I noticed about that exercise was the tension came from the world-building and the release of information about that world through the immediate action.”

    I suspect that’s a key point. In a lot of speculative fiction, there is something wrong with the world, and the events are world changing ones. It probably allows the author to get by with less character development. Indeed, Lord of the Rings would have limited bandwidth to arc through Frodo’s abandonment issues.

    That said, having read some old early pulp science fiction (late 1920s), character development in many of those stories truly was non-existent, with the characters really just placeholders. Only the grand settings and events kept them borderline readable. (You would likely find them hopelessly unreadable.)

    It’s also worth noting that, in reality, few fantasy and science fiction stories start out with truly unknown worlds. Most adhere to one degree or another with what I call the consensus mythology. Most fantasies are some variation of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyborian Age, which are themselves caricatures of the medieval world. Most space opera settings are some variation of Star Trek or Star Wars. (Those franchises didn’t create the consensus space opera settings, they just tapped into ones built over decades of prior stories.) For that matter, even westerns and mysteries tap into common archetypes and settings. Think of the prototypical small western town.

    Stories that rely heavily on these common mythologies might have more space to explore alternate characters, within reason. Someone picking up a book with a spaceship on the cover might have limited patience reading through a character’s existential dilemmas, unless those dilemmas are central to the external tensions.

    I think it takes a certain kind of hubris to want to be a science fiction author. You’ll almost certainly get at least some of the science wrong. (A lot of hard science fiction authors who wouldn’t dream of screwing up spaceship mechanics often show serious ignorance of economics, neuroscience, or other topics.) And even if you do get it perfect, new discoveries will eventually make your speculations obsolete. But you don’t have to get it perfect, only better than most casual readers would.

    That said, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone who didn’t enjoy reading a lot of science fiction and science. In some ways, fantasy, which itself requires research to do well, is a lot easier.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The exercise was part of my writing group’s systematic rule-breaking theme which was meant to help us get some insight into new territories, and take risks we ordinarily wouldn’t take (since this was just an exercise). That one happened to my rule break (“Strong voice”), which explains why I found it so illuminating.

      “Stories that rely heavily on these common mythologies might have more space to explore alternate characters, within reason.”

      That’s a good point. If you’re working within a certain framework with certain expectations, you can leave some of that world-building to the imagination, and expand on other ideas. Lord of the Rings is classic in that way. I imagine that hard Sci-Fi would be more focused on getting the science right in that world, which would make the stuff of literary fiction seem somewhat secondary. Not that it has to be, but getting the science right—that in itself—would be a lot to ask of a writer. But sometimes all it takes is a light brush stroke, a little detail here and there that makes the whole story come alive.

      “Someone picking up a book with a spaceship on the cover might have limited patience reading through a character’s existential dilemmas, unless those dilemmas are central to the external tensions.”

      Solaris came pretty close to having lengthy existential dilemmas, but of course in that, they were integrated in the story—your basic “How Do We Communicate with Aliens?” plot with a psychological twist. And maybe that explains why I really liked that novel. I agree that the internal dilemmas should converge with the external, otherwise it might be kind of like reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea in outer space. Wow. That sounds like a really bad combo.

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      • Now that you mention it, I tried to read a book several years ago about a man whose wife had disappeared in space. The story explored at length his sense of loss and how it was wrecking his personal and professional life. And when I say “at length”, that’s all that had happened by the 50% mark. It seemed more a story about someone working through their grief than about space. I don’t know if it ever got around to anything actually happening in space, because I gave up on it around that 50% point. (I’d probably abandon it much earlier today.)

        Which is to say, as a science fiction reader, I do need characterization. I felt its absence keenly in those early pulp stories. But I also need the story to be about some external thing, about conflicts other than psychological ones. In other words, I need a happy medium. No characterization makes me not care about what’s happening. Nothing but characterization makes me wonder why the author bothered with a sci-fi setting or concept.

        I’m currently reading Babylon’s Ashes, the sixth Expanse book. There is a lot of character introspection in it. So much that the story feels bogged down to me, although the action is picking up in the last third of the book. I’m not sure they could have gotten away with that much inner monologue in the first book of the series. (The one that the TV show is currently drawing from, mostly.) But I have to admit I know the characters much better because of it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m the same way for the most part, with any sort of novel. There are a few exceptions, but I generally need some external conflict, otherwise I get bored. That conflict doesn’t have to anything crazy or complicated, but it should be tangible. A lot of it depends on how good the writing is, at least for me. The introspection had better be interesting.

          If that show’s on Netflix, I might have to check it out. (I’m getting incredibly impatient with real TV lately. I want to be able to binge watch a show, otherwise I don’t really want to get into it.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • Finished Babylon’s Ashes last night. On balance I enjoyed it, but boy they really went overboard with the inner monologues in this one, to the extent that many of the action scenes were only relayed by characters reminiscing after the fact about what happened. I mean, connecting with the characters is all good and well, but too much starts to make the book feel like it’s just characters mulling things over, with the external world occasionally interceding.

            Overall it felt like they took 500 pages to tell a 200 page story. (That’s a beef I’m having with more and more books these days.) I wonder if the authors are getting too busy with being producers on the show.

            It doesn’t look like The Expanse is on Netflix yet, which I find surprising. Season 1 is on Amazon Prime if you have that, but Season 2 requires a separate purchase. If you have cable with the Syfy channel, you can watch Season 2 on their site, although probably with commercials.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I know what you mean about reminiscing after the fact. Sometimes that can work, but that flashback had better be interesting in itself, at least for me, and it had better have something to do with the present.

            I also know what you mean about overly-lengthy books. The worst is when you expect it all to add up, and you get to the end and say, “That’s it? All this for what?” I finished Infinite Jest a while back and that was what I felt about it. There were all these interesting setups, but they were deliberately left hanging, which got on my nerves. Really strong setups too.

            I guess I’ll have to wait for it to come out on Netflix then. We don’t have many regular TV channels (I think we watch HBO and PBS, and a few others for news, but that’s it.) No Amazon Prime. We’ve been going over to a friend’s house to watch a few episodes of a show on Amazon Prime that I can’t remember the title of right now, but it’s about AI (some enhanced or hybrid humans, some robots used as housekeepers, etc.) Very similar to Westworld, without the west, and without all the twists. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve seen it, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve just described dozens of shows. I hate how I forget these things!

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          • On the flashbacks, they used them competently. I just thought they overused them. When I’m reading a flashback, the context of the frame stays in my mind, where it seems like nothing much is happening. And the flashbacks were more summaries of what happened, sacrificing, I thought, a lot of dramatic tension. The overall effect was what felt like a slow moving story.

            On stories adding up, yeah. That’s one reason why I’ve been reading a lot about story structure. I personally get really annoyed with authors who do setups and don’t provide payoffs, particularly when they claim to have done it on purpose. Most of the time, to me, it comes across as rationalized laziness. It feels like a violation of the author-reader compact. I rarely read anything else by someone who’s done it.

            No clue on the Amazon AI show. I actually don’t enjoy most fiction where an AI is the principal subject. Too much of it buys into common misconceptions. That said, I did enjoy Westworld, but more for the overall story (including the twists) than the AI philosophizing.

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          • A summarizing flashback seems really crazy to me, if it’s a sustained thing. Unless that summarizing is very cleverly written, I can’t see that working. I tend to write flashbacks as a thematic advancement, bookended by real time. I honestly have no idea why I like this format so much—almost a Rashomon thing—but it keeps coming back to me, at least with the novel I’m working on.

            I’m also really interested in story structure, mainly because it’s such a complicated and elusive thing for me. Setups and payoffs are so tricky. Pacing them and choosing the elements of the story that need to be given and hidden, etc., and who needs to be doing the telling, it’s all so complicated.

            I’m with you on dangling threads, and yeah, saying that they’re intentional doesn’t help at all. If they were intentional, then we should feel that in the writing, we shouldn’t be left feeling that something’s missing. I usually end up thinking, “So…what’s the meaning then? Why is it hiding from me?”

            I just read John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction, and he speaks to novice writers who might be tempted to engage in what you’ve aptly called rationalized laziness. There’s a time when the rules don’t apply, he grants that, but he also says you’d better be making a point. Some parts of his book are a bit pedantic, but by and large I got a good deal of insight from it, mostly in hearing what I already vaguely knew articulated differently and with loads of examples. I especially liked the part on structure, which tends to elude me as I make my way through the forest. Any recommendations on the subject?

            Also, I enjoyed Westworld too, but I worried that it might have been more complicated than it needed to be. That said, I couldn’t make sense of it, so maybe I’m the problem. The philosophical stuff wasn’t terribly interesting for me either. I mostly liked the puzzle of it all, and thought it would make for a nice discussion with friends, especially if you get to watch it several times and pause it and discuss directly afterwards, because the details are so important and fun to analyze.

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      • Tina,
        Is that Amazon AI show ‘Humans’? Just read an io9 write-up on it which compared it to Westworld in a way that seemed very similar to your comparison.


        • That’s it! I’d be binge watching it right now if I had Amazon streaming. Although I’m not sure there are that many episodes. I’ve only seen three.

          Liked by 1 person

          • On the Expanse book, one thing that occurred to me. Science fiction is something of a meta-genre similar to historical fiction, where each SF story also has a sub-genre (romance, thriller, mystery, heist, etc); i.e. a romance in space, a heist in space, etc. The authors admitted in an interview that each book was their attempt at a different sub-genre. This latest book may have been their try at more of a literary tale about character inner conflicts. Maybe.

            On story structure, the most comprehensive book I found on it was K. M. Weiland’s ‘Structuring Your Novel’. She identified more elements than anyone else I’ve read so far. I also got good information from ‘Plot and Structure’ by James Scott Bell. (Bell wrote some other structure books I was less impressed with.) ‘Save the Cat’ by Blake Snyder is about script writing, and I don’t buy his overly formulaic approach, but he has some good story pointers.

            He doesn’t really have any unique insights, but I found the attitude of Jim Driver’s various short books on writing a good cure for the intimidation I developed reading the other books. ‘How to Write a Novel the Easy Way! Using the Pulp Fiction Method’ in particular pierced a block I was developing. It seems somewhat a riff on Randy Ingersoll’s ‘How to Write Using the Snowflake Method’, but with a much looser, less top-down attitude.

            But if you only read one, I’d check out Weiland’s book. I plan to circle back to it sometime soon. Also, Weiland, Driver, and Ingersoll all have websites worth googling.

            You’re the third person I know who’s praised Humans. Sounds like I need to give it a chance. It looks like there are eight episodes. Maybe I’ll watch ep 1 tomorrow.

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          • Interesting, a literary Sci-Fi. Now I’m beginning to wonder what ‘literary’ even means. In my mind, it signifies something that could be a classic, or something of quality (not intended to be for pure entertainment) and not genre. But that seems overly broad, doesn’t it? I’m wondering if, practically speaking, it simply means ‘not genre’? And if so, then a literary Sci-Fi would be a sort of contradiction. But possibly an interesting one.

            Thanks for the suggestions. I have come across Ingersoll’s website a few times, but I was probably looking for an answer to a specific question. I’ll definitely check out Weiland’s book. I like to read these books with my novel in mind, to help me spot holes and dangling threads.

            On Humans, I think it’s worth a watch. If you found Westworld entertaining, you might like this one too. It’s actually a lot less convoluted, with a more realistic feel (there are Apple-ish elements to it.)

            That said, I have a low bar when it comes to TV. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been watching Prison Break non-stop for way too long, and I know it’s a terrible show but the cliff hangers get me every time. 🙂

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          • I was using “literature” in the sense of the story conflict being dominated by internal character tensions. Maybe it wasn’t the best term. I know literature is also used to refer to political or social commentary fiction, which is there but not dominant.

            I think my primary interest in structure is to ensure that my stories have the right emotional kick in the right places. I’ve been unhappy with the stories I came up with, but wasn’t sure what was missing. Structure seems like one of the things I wasn’t getting right.

            Just watched the first episode of Humans. The similarities with Westworld are striking in that they both appear to be about AIs with emerging consciousness. (In both cases, consciousness seems to equate with human-like emotions.) Their development is too close together chronologically for one to be a riff on the other, but it appears they might both have been inspired by a Swedish show named Real Humans. Humans wasn’t bad. I’ll probably watch some more of it. Thanks for recommending it.

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  5. Now a comment on your post, which I didn’t mean to neglect! Your point about communication with aliens and reminds me of a book I bought a while ago called “Teach Your Dog to Read.” I thought it would be interesting to hear what was meant by that. Turns out, you teach your dog a few basic training commands (sit, down, etc.) and then hold up cards with that word on it—in a very very specific and controlled way that I won’t get into—until your dog learns to associate those two, eventually not needing to hear the command.

    Well, long story short, the author claims that she used stick figures to see if the dogs could spontaneously learn those actions. She claims they can. I’m not sure, but it’s interesting stuff. The stick figures looked pretty difficult to decipher, at least to me.

    But in any case, your point about using pictures instead of far-removed symbols for complex concepts seems pretty obvious to me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting. Two things come to mind.

      First, I’d have to wonder if this is classical or operant conditioning. The first requires no intelligence. Even some single celled organism have been shown to do it. It’s just repeatedly pairing a stimulus that causes an unconditioned reaction with one that initially doesn’t cause a reaction, until the second stimulus does start to invoke that reaction.

      The more sophisticated one, operant conditioning, requires some degree of understanding, some incipient level of reasoning as to cause and effect. Of course, dogs are definitely capable of operant learning when its about something like finding food. Any conscious creature is. In fact, it’s one of the signs of consciousness. But whether they can reason about symbols on paper is an interesting question.

      Second, I think any endeavor to show pictures to dogs would have to use care and remember that their visual perception is different than ours. Humans see in reds, greens, and blues, and combinations thereof. Dogs see in blues and yellows. And their visual acuity, their ability to make out distinct shapes, if far more limited. A detailed color picture might look like a splotchy mess to them.

      (I always used to wonder why my dogs never found the scenes on TV interesting. Now I suspect it was because TVs are designed for human eyesight, and the pictures on them probably look like nothing real to dogs.)

      Of course, all these issues could exist, and even be exacerbated with aliens. But with aliens intelligent enough for technology, it seems like the pictures could be relatively abstract, simple black on white stick figures, with the aliens hopefully able to map the patterns to reality. But if we’re dealing with aliens who see in a radically different part of the spectrum, I could see all kinds of possible hangups.

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      • Fascinating stuff, right? I’m not sure what type of conditioning is involved. The author says that you have to get the dog very well trained with verbal commands only, and she tells you how to do that so that you don’t end up inadvertently giving away the answer with your eyes or gestures. Once the dog is doing the commands without gestures, and reliably, then you move on to the “reading” part of it. You use basic white computer paper, and get the (presumably black) written word commands from her website and print them out—the print is fairly large—then laminate the paper and make sure it’s very clean. She’s adamant about this. No fingerprints or stains on the paper. Don’t try to handwrite it on a small piece of paper and expect that to work. Then you have to be prepared to hold the flashcards in a certain way, and at the exact time that you give the command. There were other things you have to do, but I forget. It’s highly controlled, which is part of the reason why I haven’t tried it (too lazy to laminate). Also, I don’t see any need to do it. Geordie’s pretty close to getting a few basic commands down without gestures and I haven’t really been working on him much, but I still don’t see any need for him to know how to read flashcards. I was more interested in naming objects, but her book is geared toward actions.

        Anyways, the surprising thing the author found out was when she moved to action symbols (stick figures) rather than words. Apparently after she’d taught the basic command words (sit, down, etc.) she tried to use doggie stick figures to see what would happen. On the same dog who’d mastered the written commands, she pulled out a stick figure of a dog standing on its hind legs with its paws on a table. She thought she’d have to teach the dog what the stick figures meant, but the dog did it spontaneously in the middle of a demonstration. Hard to believe, especially if you saw the stick figure, which looked really strange to me. And she claims the dog continued to do whatever the stick figure was doing, even when the trainer made a mistake (like, by accidentally holding the card upside down). I’m still incredulous. Also, dogs can learn Chinese, she claims. This seemed amazing to me considering how detailed Chinese characters are, but I’m more inclined to believe it after seeing a documentary demonstrating that dogs can count, and quite rapidly too. That’s another lengthy explanation right there, which I won’t get into.

        As for TV, I’ve heard that older TVs were difficult for dogs to see the way we do, but our newer ones are fine. They see them as moving images rather than a series of stills. I can tell you from my experience with Geordie, he definitely sees the TV. He doesn’t always actively watch it, but he really liked the animal documentary that’s been showing on PBS recently on spy animal robots. (Great show. You should check it out. I think you’d like it.) With Geordie and the TV, he definitely sees the animals on there, since he jumps up at them and barks, usually his “play with me” bark, but he doesn’t understand that they’re not real (or if he does, it’s only after he calms down…I’m pretty sure excitement ruins his ability to think clearly…I’ve seen him bark at his own mirror reflection while in the midst of rambunctious playing, but otherwise he seems to know his own reflection). He often runs behind the wall behind the TV and looks for the rest of the animal, at least at first. Other times (usually after we’ve told him to stop barking) he sits up on the couch with his ears pointed forward and watches with us—only the animal shows—and can sit calmly depending on the kind of animal on the TV, and whether they’re doing something exciting, and whether their actual natural sounds are coming through. The sound is really important in getting his attention. He did once bark at a still image of a fox with no sound, though.

        With dogs it’s easy to find out their motivations, and fairly easy to use those to get their attention to communicate with them. Of course, every dog is different, in my experience, so you know what works and what doesn’t once you spend enough time learning them. (I can say “laser” and get Geordie’s undivided attention 100% of the time, even when he’s very interested in something else, but “treat” isn’t nearly as interesting to him. I imagine that’s different with other dogs.) Aliens, I would think, would require the same sort of understanding. We’d have to know what motivates them, what gets their attention, and, as you say, what CAN get their attention. If they can’t see, it would be hard to show them images, etc.

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