Communication, empathy and time-travel in Arrival and The Peripheral: we might just survive

Anne Savage

Department of English & Cultural Studies, McMaster University


Communication, Empathy and Time Travel in Arrival and The Peripheral: We Might Just Survive

My paper looks at the film, Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s story “This is the Rest of Your Life,” and William Gibson’s The Peripheral through the perspective of the SF time-travel trope as activated or manifested in human language and empathy. In both narratives, empathy is essential to our species’ survival, while different registers and habits of language and bodily presence either enhance or prevent survival. Also in both, the time-travel trope is expressed within a desperately short window of opportunity to turn a potentially disastrous future around, a symptom of a rising urgency in the necessity of doing something about looming ecological, medical, economic and technological disasters.

As awareness of the Anthropocene grows, many SF authors and film-makers are demonstrating a strong awareness of the doomsday clock as it has been calculated in real terms to do with climate change and the possibility of more intense disaster scenarios resulting from that and other kinds of human activity. The time-travel trope within a narrow window has been framed in The Peripheral and Arrival as an actual warning, rather than a speculative warning, and, in both the above narratives, we are shown how human empathy is an essential quality easily lost in the rhetoric of institutional War Machines, as communication is coopted by the state and/or privileged minority culture. Both narratives offer hope in a current world overwhelmed by the power of a few: empathy and communication demand risk and trust; both Arrival and The Peripheral suggest that only an enhanced temporal perspective can make these advantageous in the most dangerous scenarios. But we already have an enhanced temporal perspective in terms of our own scientific models.

I continue to work on SF as an activist genre, in the sense that it illustrates both real possibilities, and possibilities which are so nearly possible as to be convincing.

Keywords: empathy, language, communication, time-travel, war

Anne Savage is an Associate Professor in the Department of English & Cultural Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton Ontario.

2018 National Conference
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