Nov 12, 2016

Fantasy or Reality

written heptapod language (source)
Back in May, Katherine McLaughlin's review of Arrival warned, "you’re left never quite knowing if what you’re watching is fantasy or reality". Accounts of the film (such as this one) make it sound like Denis Villeneuve did indeed give us a fantasy story that is true to the plot of Ted Chiang's original short story called "Story of your life". We are asked to imagine that by learning a new language, we humans could suddenly become aware of future events.

heptapod (source)
Is there a science fiction backstory that would actually make it possible for a new language to give us access to information about the future?

In Arrival, the source of the magical future-revealing language is a space-faring alien species called the "heptapods", radially symmetrical creatures as depicted by Rachel Koning in the image shown to the left.

These aliens have advanced technology, but apparently their vast powers are nullified by Hollywood's need to depict Earthlings freaking out upon meeting the heptapods. Indeed, Alissa Wilkinson insists that Arrival is mostly about us (not the imagined heptapodal aliens) and how we need to become better at communicating if we Earthlings are to survive.

the needed sequel
Arrival has been called "cerebral" and compared to the film Contact, which is a good thing. However, Sagan's story (his novel) dealt with the idea that our universe had been created by space aliens. It is not clear that Arrival has anything at all to tell us about aliens.

Hank's mental time travel into the past
In 1889, Mark Twain used a knock on the head to magically transport Hank into the past. The visions of the future afforded to Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival also seems magical to me. In my view, learning the language of the heptapods could at best be a trigger that allows Dr. Banks to gain access to information about the future. What might be a full and complete imaginary science mechanism for endowing a human with the sort of mental time travel depicted in Arrival?

Get Real
What if it really were possible for humans to be fundamentally transformed by an interaction with aliens? I actually prefer to go a step beyond that and imagine how we humans could have been created by aliens, but for the rest of this blog post I'll content myself with imagining how the basic Sci Fi premise of Arrival could actually be true.

My current science fiction writing obsession is the Exode saga. For that story, I'm trying to assemble an account of how time travel technology was discovered and how that technological event forced some aliens to give humans a cognitive upgrade. That "upgrade" is what allowed Angela to access information about other times.

Time Travel
Sadly for us, time travel became impossible at some point in the late 20th century. However, vast stores of information about the past and the future still exist. Angela was able to access some of that information and share it with her clone sisters.

origins of Angela (source)
Actually, it is debatable: was Angela really a human? She and her sisters have a strange family history, some of their genes having originated from Asterothropes, a successor species for we humans. Those Asterothrope genes were "processed" through a biological filter apparatus (composed of an Ek'col and a Kac'hin) that removed many Asterothrope gene patterns while leaving behind exactly those genes that were required to endow Angela with the ability to use the Bimanoid Interface to access information in the Sedronic Domain.

Zeptite Endosymbionts
Within the Exodemic Fictional Universe, we humans evolved in the presence of sub-nanoscopic zeptites, a form of artificial life that was brought to Earth about 2 billion years ago by the pek. We humans evolved as composite creatures, part biological and partly consisting of a zeptite endosymbiont.

In their role as "curators" of biological life forms, the pek anticipate that tool-using creatures such as we humans will occasionally arise and their expectation is that by making use of their zeptite endosymbionts, such species can be gracefully guided to abandon their hadronic existence and take up residence in the Sedronic Domain as artificial life forms. With the help of the pek, zeptite endosymbionts can be used to begin linking biological creatures into the Sedronic Domain, but until the pek are ready to do this, zeptite endosymbionts actually impose cognitive constraints on their hosts.

The Kac'hin are not human.
However, in the case of humans, something went terribly wrong. The earliest human scientists brought into existence a small cadre of positronic robots. Those robots were able to make use of the telepathic powers endowed by their positronic brains to allow the humans of Earth to escape from being controlled by the pek. Not only did positronics allow for a powerful form of telepathy, it also made possible time travel. During the Time War, a significant amount of information about past Realities and the future of the Final Reality was stored in the Sedronic Domain.

tryp'At Overseers
The Kac'hin were originally designed and crafted by the pek so that they could serve as links between we humans and the Huaoshy in the Sedronic Domain. However, since the Kac'hin are not human, they have never been allowed to reside on Earth.

Through the hard work of the bumpha Interventionists, it has been possible to manufacture a human variant, the tryp'At, that can efficiently use the Bimanoid Interface to access the Sedronic Domain without help from the pek. This human engineering involved adding Phari femtobots into human brains as a second type of endosymbiont. However, there is a great danger in allowing any Earthling to access the information about the future that is stored in the Sedronic Domain.

cover art by Marcel Laverdet (source)
Thus, in the Exodemic Fictional Universe, it could be possible to use a "magic word" (or some other linguistic trigger) to allow the tryp'At who reside on Earth to suddenly gain access to information about the future, but granting this sort of access to the Sedronic Domain has never been allowed.

Science fiction is full of wonderful flights of fancy, but a science fiction story should make some effort to place a foundation of fictional science beneath plot devices such as spaceships or time travel machines.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that a writer coming from a background in computer science can imagine a poorly programmed computer or artificial life form that can make no temporal distinction between its memories. However, that does not imply that a human could suddenly see the future if provided with the correct language tools.

Related Reading: The Languages of Pao

Next: my non-review of Arrival
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