Arrival - No Zap-Gun Science FictionSaturday, November 19, 2016
A winged spark doth soar about—
A winged spark doth soar about—
I never met it near
For Lightning it is oft mistook
When nights are hot and sere—
Its twinkling Travels it pursues
Above the Haunts of men—
A speck of Rapture—first perceived
By feeling it is gone—
Rekindled by some action quaint
I remember the evening sometime at the end of 1950 (because it was a hot Buenos Aires summer) going with my mother and father to the premiere of George Pal’s Destination Moon. We were at the cavernous but lovely Gran Rex cinema on Calle Corrientes. The film was in brilliant Technicolor.
I remember the evening a few months after Rosemary and I were married in 1968. We lived in an extremely narrow (no more than 15 feet wide apartment on Calle Estrasburgo in the Zona Rosa in Mexico City. The view from our window was the parking lot of a monstrous (but somehow lovely in its sparseness) latest technology movie theatre, Cine Latino. That evening we crossed the street and walked around the block to the Paseo de la Reforma to see the just released Stanley Kubrick film 2001-The Space Odyssey. It was my first experience with true surround sound.
By 1972 I had Acoustic Research AR-3As so I could listen to the low notes on the organ pedal of Richard Straus’s Also sprach Zarathustra
Last night, I will remember, going with my son-in-law Bruce Stewart and friend Paul Leisz to see Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.
I do remember but not as much Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn and Michael Caine.
There is one minor, but very important, connection between Interstellar and Arrival. It’s the salient fact that both feature stunning red-haired actresses who happen to act very well.
What these four films have in common is the difference between that low brow Sigh-Fi and the more subtle and intelligent science fiction which at one time would have been called speculative science fiction. Even many of the episodes of the original Star Trek featured stuff that was more cerebral and less shot-em-up with the ray gun.
The fact that last night’s viewing of Arrival was in a room that was half full speaks to what I am writing about. The trailers featured the soon-to be released in December Rogue One – A Star Wars Story and yet another (and I don’t care how good an actor Benedict Cumberbatch is or how startingly wonderful Tilda Swinton is when bald) in Dr. Strange.
For me the three best science fiction novels of all time are Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (a plot with ancillary connections to Arrival) and Rendezvous with Rama and Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker.
In Starmaker, written in 1937 when Europe was almost at war a depressed protagonist in England begins the novel:
One night when I had tasted bitterness I went on to the hill. Dark heather checked my feet. Below marched the suburban street lamps. Windows, their curtains drawn, were shut eyes, inwardly watching the lives of dreams. Beyond the sea’s level darkness a lighthouse pulsed. Overhead obscurity……I sat down on the heather. Overhead obscurity was now in full retreat. In its rear the freed population of the sky sprang out of hiding, star by star.
On every side the shadowy hills or the guessed, featureless sea extended beyond sight. But the hawk-flight of imagination followed them as they curved downward below the horizon. I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal, filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness. And on the skin of the little grain all the swarms of men, generation by generation, had lived in labour and blindness, with intermittent joy and intermittent lucidity of spirit. And all their history, with its folk-wanderings, its empires, its philosophies, its proud sciences, its social revolution, its increasing hunger for community, was but a flicker in one day of the lives of stars.
If one could know whether among that glittering host there were here and there other spirit-inhabited grains of rock and metal, whether man’s blundering search for wisdom and for love was a sole and insignificant tremor, or part of a universal movement!
Overhead obscurity was gone. From horizon to horizon the sky was an unbroken spread of stars. Two planets stared unwinking. The more obtrusive of the constellations asserted their individuality. Orion’s four-square shoulder and feet, his belt and sword, the Plough, the zigzag of Cassiopeia, the intimate Pleiades, all were dully patterned on the dark. The Milky Way, a vague hoop of light, spanned the sky.
Imagination completed what mere sight could not achieve. Looking down I seemed to see through a transparent planet, through heather and solid rock, through the buried grave-yards of vanished species, down through the through the molten flow of basalt, and on into the Earth’s core of iron; then on again, still seemingly downwards, through the southern strata to the southern ocean and lands, past the roots of gum trees and the feet of the inverted antipodeans, through their blue, sun-pierced awning of day, and out into the eternal night, where sun and stars are together. For there dizzyingly far below me, like fishes in the depth of a lake, lay the nether constellations. The two domes of the sky were fused into one hollow sphere, star-peopled, black even, beside the blinding sun. The young moon was a curve of incandescent wire. The completed hoop of the Milky Way encircled the universe.
And that man above soars into outer space and deep into other constellations without a starship, wormholes but just the power of his imagination.
What is interesting for me is that I first read this novel when it was published for the first time in Spanish in Buenos Aires in 1965. The introduction was by Jorge Luís Borges. The book’s title was the far more beautiful Hacedor de Estrellas. By strange coincidence Borges had published a book, one of my favourites el hacedor.
Rendezvous with Rama is all about a huge structure/spaceship that parks near the sun. People from Earth send an expedition to explore it. They find an immense inside city without inhabitants. They learn a bit from what they observe. Then one day the ship moves and leaves the solar system. The people from earth figure out the ship is from far away and is going in another direction, far away. It parked to “gas up from the sun” and it (the invisible Ramans perhaps?) considered Earth and its people not important enough or advanced enough to bring into their cosmic consideration. This novel perhaps soars with an imagination of stuff but it brought me down as it convinced me that we perhaps take ourselves too seriously and overdo our importance. It is a sobering novel.
Childhood’s End is similar to Arrival in that large pods or ships park overhead in many spots of the world. `But it is different as it finishes with the end of the world in a cataclysmic explosion. The last man on earth chooses not to escape its destruction and escape with the beings of the pods.
Arrival has a far more positive approach to our future. What is best is that this is a science fiction film for women as the principal protagonist, Amy Adams does a splendid job. Who would have known that I have seen a film that I will see again, but this time with my wife?