How would you start a conversation with an alien? Could you use Clean Language?
That’s just one of the thoughts that’s been buzzing round my brain since watching the provocative movie Arrival last night.
Here’s the set up. Aliens have landed… and they aren’t much like humans. The central character (played by Amy Adams) is a linguist who has the job of getting them talking, to find out what they’re here for.
As she sets about her work, she provides a beautiful example of Clean modelling. While the military men around her bring in a great big assumption – that the aliens’ thinking will be all about war and conquest – she accepts she has no idea how they think.
So, she starts at the very beginning. To ask, for example, “What is your purpose?” and have a hope of a meaningful answer, she needs to know if they understand the concept of a question, and the idea of a collective “you”, before getting into the big stuff around “purpose”.
It reminded me very much of David Grove’s work with Clean Hieroglyphics and Pronoun-Scapes. And it was very Clean: minimise your own presuppositions and metaphors, and create space for the other person (or “person”) to speak.
Her Clean attitude gets results, and I don’t think it’s to much of a plot-spoiler to say that communication is established… with fascinating consequences.
(There’s an inspired plot theme I won’t reveal involving Sapir-Whorf. Is this the first Hollywood film centred on the theory? I know has a pedigree in sci-fi via the Trekkie version, Sapir-Wolf: “talk like a Klingon, think like a Klingon, act like a Klingon”.)
What Adams’ character doesn’t do, though, is ask any actual Clean Language questions. I wish she had! There were a few times when I was willing her to ask, “What kind of X?” to get the aliens straight to the point.
But that would have sliced through a great chunk of plot… and we wouldn’t have come anywhere near as close to World War 3. We might even have got through a whole sci-fi film without any kind of gun being fired… and that would never do 🙂
- Have you seen the film? What do you make of it? How would you start a conversation with an alien? Please comment below.
- Well done to the guys at Richmond Odeon for letting us see the film even though the cinema’s computer system prevented them from taking payment. Much appreciated!