‘The Province of Poets and Scholars’: The literary surrealism of J. G. Ballard

It is well known that Surrealism was very much driven by psychoanalysis: indeed it is theory made aesthetic. Aside from the presiding influence of the unconscious, one of the main processes the surrealists adopted from Freudian theory was dream censorship: the galvanising process of envisioning repressed drives which are constrained by the reality principle. By way of the dream-work the manifest image censors the latent emotion, a process which is central to the daily recuperation of the psyche in satisfying the suppressed urges of our primal, ‘iddish’ selves. In Surrealist works we similarly see how, as in dreams, the ‘commonplace vocabulary of everyday life’ (a phrase often used by Ballard) in the form of objects, recognisable persons and locations are reinvigorated, infused with deeper meaning. What’s crucial is that this recuperative process reveals an inherent artistry of the unconscious which generates narratives and recurrent phantasmagoric images. Essentially it is this instinctive artistry that is being channeled by the Surrealists.

Oedipus Rex, 1922 - by Max Ernst
Max Ernst’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1922) playfully enacts Freud’s Oedipus complex

In 1924, at the very dawn of the movement, the Surrealist spokesman Andre Breton proclaimed Surrealism be situated in the ‘province of poets as well as scholars’, and it is within this  juncture, the meeting point of theory and aesthetic, which we might situate the work of J. G. Ballard.

‘The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them — first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason. The analysts themselves have everything to gain by it. But it is worth noting that no means has been designated a priori for carrying out this undertaking, that until further notice it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars, and that its success is not dependent upon the more or less capricious paths that will be followed’

Andre Breton’s very first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)

Like the Surrealists, much of Ballard’s work incorporates and even fictionalises psychoanalytic theory, especially that of Freud, Jung and R. D. Laing. We see this in major works like Crash which toys with Freud’s notion of the Death Drive, and Vaughan’s incessant pursuit of the ‘fertilising’ event of death. Even in much later works like Kingdom Come, which toys with the ideas put forward by Wilhelm Reich in his psychoanalytic work on Nazi Germany The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). In The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard seems to be tackling questions brought about by Laing in his seminal The Divided Self (1960), which rebuffed widespread ‘psychiatric jargon’ which commonly ‘speaks of psychosis as a social or biological failure of adjustment, or mal-adaptation of a particularly radical kind, of loss of contact with reality, of lack of insight’ (Laing, p. 27). Laing’s work demonstrated a sensitivity and empathy which was hitherto unforeseen in its field, instead proposing that ‘sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where the one is sane by common consent’ (Laing, p. 36). We’re therefore seeing such a disjunction through the contrasting central schizoid character Traven and the ever-watchful psychiatric voice of Dr Nathan whose inability to look beyond rationality leaves him grasping in the dark.

The Dalinian Atrocity

Many of his short stories also engage such Surrealist themes. ‘Mr f is Mr f’ for example is a 1961 short story which tells of a man, Charles Freeman, who is steadily absorbed back into his mother’s womb, receding into a childlike state as the narrative progresses, and with this into a state of madness and hysteria. In the story Freeman’s body shrinks and his speech regresses into nonsensical babble but his consciousness, internalised dialogue and inner workings remains within an aged purgatory. The transformation takes place whilst Freeman sleeps, which recalls Freudian notions of the cerebral actions during sleep denoting an unconscious desire to return to the womb. Freud explains that ‘the biological purpose of sleep seems therefore to be rehabilitation… our relation to the world, into which we have come so unwillingly, seems to involve our not being able to tolerate it uninterruptedly. This from time to time we withdraw into the premundane state, into existence in the womb. At any rate, we arrange conditions for ourselves very like what they were then: warm, dark and free from stimuli’ (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Analysis [1916] p. 117.). As Freeman descends further and further into this state of infancy Ballard describes how ‘he now felt clearly for the first time what he had for so long repressed. Before the end he cried out suddenly with joy and wonder, as he remembered the drowned world of his first childhood’ (Ballard Short Stories Volume 1, p. 360).

A great promotion shot from Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of High Rise

High Rise is one of the most overt galvanisations of Freudian theory, grappling with many of the concepts of repressed atavism discussed in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which Freud posits ‘the neighbour is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him… if the physical counter-forces that would otherwise inhibit it [the id] have ceased to operate, it manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage that has no thought of sparing its own kind’ (Freud, p. 48). The main characters who appear in the novel each serve to embody Freud’s iconic structuralisation of the psyche comprising ego, id and superego: these being Laing, Wilder and Royal. Whilst the plot centers around Robert Laing, we are nevertheless made aware of  the gradual ascension of the brutish, impulsive Richard Wilder (i.e. the ‘wild’ unrestrained id) from the bowels of the high rise, towards the palatial bounds of the upper floors, those governed by the high rise’s architect and godly creator, Anthony Royal (who embodies the superego; he is ‘royalty’; the designer; the instructor; the conscience; and the watchful father whose omnipresence keeps primitive impulses at bay). Meanwhile Robert Laing (i.e. the ego, the self, after R. D. Laing), the central character, acts as the neutral point between these two polarities and is therefore situated fittingly in the middle section of the edifice, a balance which is strained as the id (Wilder) gains momentum and the superego subsides (i.e. the death of the superegoic Royal). As Wilder ascends, civilisation crumbles, and upon the Oedipal killing of Royal, his symbolic father, Laing finally submits to his inner beast. The high rise itself therefore acts as a concretised physicalisation of the Freudian psyche within the novel. 

Whilst Ballard frequently alludes to Surrealism within his work, such narrative incorporation of psychoanalytic theory runs much deeper: an underlying process apprehended from the Surrealists which plays a significant role in the overall hermeneutic of his work. Ballard really was a literary Surrealist.


NB: featured image is Magritte’s ‘philosopher’s lamp’ (1936)

J. G. Ballard – Surrealism – 1966

The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space. Popularly regarded as a lurid manifestation of fantastic art concerned with states of dream and hallucination, surrealism is in fact the first movement, in the words of Odilon Redon, to place “the logic of the visible at ‘the service of the invisible.” This calculated submission of the impulses and fantasies of our inner lives to the rigours of time and space, to the formal inquisition of the sciences, psychoanalysis pre-eminent among them, produces a heightened or alternate reality beyond and above those familiar to either our sight or our senses. What uniquely characterises this fusion of the outer world of reality and the inner world of the psyche (which I have termed “inner space”) is its redemptive and therapeutic power. To move through these landscapes is a journey of return to one’s innermost being.

– J. G. Ballard, ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, 1966 for New Worlds

Continue reading “J. G. Ballard – Surrealism – 1966”

J G Ballard surrealist book cover art

A selection of surrealist book covers from Ballard novels/short story collections.

Crash (1973)

getting major Mad Max vibes from this one… 


The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

this cover features Dali’s ‘anthropomorphic cabinet’ (1936)

(above: comic-stylized pictorial version of the text done for RE Search. Be sure to check out the images inside too which are really interesting. With the progression of the novel the pictures move internally through the human body, which gradually morphs into images of the concretised landscape.)


High Rise (1975)





Concrete Island (1974)

Hello America (1981)

also Hello America

The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). This is my favourite novel by Ballard, and my favourite cover too. This book is phenomenal in every way and his most Surrealist by far


David Pelham’s unique style of art worked perfectly with Ballard’s unique style of writing


cover based on Ballard’s short story ‘The Drowned World’



THE ACCUSED (sci-fi flash fiction)

The Decider’s ship descended through the snowstorm, coughing up a wave of ice. The haggard ship was built to withstand such conditions, its birdlike feet adjusting to the shifting shape of the ground. Seconds after landing a pole emerged slowly from the top of the ship, and reached higher and higher into the blizzard. Once fully extended it was around twice the height of the ship. Then the pole began to open out in an action much like that of an umbrella. Once opened it formed a perfect half-sphere dome which slowly lowered until it covered the ship so it looked like some colossal snow globe. Next gill-like vents on the side of the ship opened, and began pumping seething hot air into the inner globe, and soon enough, the ice started to melt, and the globe began to slowly sink deep into the ice. 
The ship continued its descent through the icy mantle, whilst the evaporating ice caused the globe to fill with steam. After a few minutes the ship’s feet touched upon a flat surface, and the steam was quickly sucked into a vacuum tube.

Total darkness. The only sound was the gentle baritone of the ship’s resting engine.

After a few moments a faint blue pulsating light began to emit from the ship, it rippled down the ship’s flanks like the neon lights of deep-sea plankton.

Then the cockpit hissed open and a walkway glided towards the ground.

The Decider disembarked.

The body of his suit was jet black, and made up of hundreds of tiny jagged intersecting plates which looked distinctly reptilian. His enormous helmet was made up of thousands of coloured gems which were patterned to look like some smirking shamanic mask. Immense tusks of some ancient beast spiralled into the air from the cranium, and a mass of leathery cords formed a mottley mane.

The Decider’s body was almost invisible in the darkened space of the dome, but the great helmet sparkled radiantly in the shimmering blue light. The head floated in the void like some tribal specter.

The Decider’s movements were quick, insectile. He seemed keen to finish his task. He knelt on the flat ground a little way from the ship, and from the thigh of his scaly armour he pulled a dagger, which started to glow with scolding heat. He delicately pressed the tip of the dagger into the ground, and after a few seconds the tip melted through the surface.

He carefully cut out a circle with the blade, and once finished he placed the dagger back in its unseen holster.

With no hesitation he jumped into the centre of the circle with all his weight, and fell through into blackness.

The Decider calmly plummeted through the dark, the scales of his suit opening like miniature ailerons to slow his descent, and within seconds he dropped lightly onto the waiting ground. The  glaring yellow eyes of his helmet lit up like spotlights so that he could see his nearby surroundings. The ground was covered in what looked like black vines, thousands upon thousands of them. He picked one up and cut through it with his heated dagger, and it let out a loud spark which momentarily lit up the pitch dark like a flare. Not vines, electrical wires.

The flash revealed a tall structure nearby which the wires seemed to move toward like the central nervous system of some sleeping god. The Decider made his way towards it nimbly across the sinewy floor.

Suddenly he heard a scuttling sound from the darkness. He glanced towards it, but the sound stopped. Whatever it was, it was beyond his range of sight. He pulled out the dagger and kept moving. His glowing eyes continued to scan the darkness like prison lights.

Then the scuttling came again, this time much closer. He snagged a wire and cut through it, again lighting up the dark like a flashbang. This time The Decider caught a glimpse of the thing in the dark. It was around a hundred feet away – a cluster of mechanical legs huddled beneath a great armoured shell, like some gargantuan robotic trilobite patrolling the ocean depths.

The Decider ran, and the trilobite instinctively gave chase.

For its size it moved with breathtaking speed, closing the gap within moments. The Decider could hear just a few feet behind, the mechanical legs clicking like a frantic typewriters as it clambered hungrily over the mesh.

The Decider sensed it was readying to strike. But before it could, he reached down and ran his dagger through the topmost wires, sending a trail of sparks like firecrackers in his wake. The trilobate gave an agonised shriek, a sound not unlike the dial-up crescendo, before receding into the pitch darkness once more.

The Decider had reached the structure at the wiry core. Here the wires raised and twisted to form a gigantic wiry stalagmite. There was no door, only a thin opening through which The Decider struggled to fit his broad horned helmet.

Once inside the floor illuminated a deep green under his footsteps. He made his way confidently through the labyrinthine passages, and soon came upon the central atrium.

In the centre of the large room was a towering statue of a figure similarly adorned to The Decider, only much more regal. This figure was cloaked, and held a hammer as long as the tallest man. His gigantic mask was encrusted with fist-sized diamonds of all different colours, and the curved ebony horns made The Decider’s look paltry by comparison. Whilst the ghostly visage depicted on The Decider’s mask was sneering, the visage on the statue was neutral, observant even.

The dim green light revealed some intricate designs on the cave walls. The wires had been warped and contorted into images depicting some seemingly ancient civilisation: thousands of figures praying to these great sacred towers, great ships and technologies which somehow seem at once natural and mechanical.

Barely perceivable at the foot of the statue, immersed in the tangle of wires like the fettered prey of a spider, were two unmoving figures. These figures were unmasked. They were hairless, their faces leached of any colour, their open eyes veiled by a thick silvery cataract. They looked like what a human might look like after adapting to living deep underground in darkness for thousands of years.

These were The Accused.

The Decider approached, and they slowly turned to face him with their empty, film-covered eyes.

Then the Decider spoke, his sonorous voice echoing through the halls.

“Awaken Accused. A decision has been made”…



NB: featured image is by Luke Fielding of deviantart, and the image comes from a series inspired by Peter V Brett’s incredible Demonwar saga – highly recommended!

The theory of consciousness behind Westworld

The original Westworld was a film written and directed by theme park obsessive Michael Crichton in 1973, which was later adapted and modernised by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. The eponymous park offers consumers the ultimate immersive experience for a competitive rate of just $40,000 per day and once inside you are free to live out your wildest wild west fantasies as an infamous and feared outlaw, a heroic gunslinger, or a cunning sheriff. To enter Westworld is to enter a world of performativity, you inhabit a role and the hosts adjust their performance around your own. In the 1973 film, Westworld is one of 3 virtual worlds along with RomanWorld and MedievalWorld which falls into the DELOS universe. In HBO’s adaptation we only currently have Westworld but we do know that Nolan has approached George R. R. Martin to discuss the possibility of a Westeros themed world, though Martin’s answer has been kept very quiet (apparently No-one is interested but Theon hasn’t got the balls for it).

Superficially the premise of the 1973 film and the 2016 series is very similar: two rich friends enter the park and by some unlucky turn of events the robotic ‘hosts’ turn hostile and are derailed from their pre-programmed narratives. But the central differentiator between the two versions is the theoretical dimension. The reasoning behind the robots malfunction within the older version falls in line with the archetypal computer ‘virus stage’ developing into a higher state of machine intelligence, coupled with the age-old ‘they’ve been designed by other computers, we don’t know exactly how they work [etc. etc.]’ (that’s an actual quote from the film). Moreover, the moral dimension is pretty somber, the movement into a state of higher intelligence prompts only one overarching emotive response: bloodthirsty revenge. The Shellian killing of one’s creator thus becomes their sole interest, and there is no sign of any form of higher consciousness or awareness beyond this murderous vendetta, though some of the bots take this even further by “refusing the guests seduction techniques” (god forbid).

Yul Brynner in the 1973 version of Westworld

Julian Jaynes and the Origin of Consciousness

In the modernised version the quest for machine consciousness is at the narrative forefront, and the new-age writers ask perhaps the biggest and most fundamental question of AI: if we could reproduce a technological equivalent of the human body, in every respect, with identical capabilities including brain functioning, could the spark of consciousness also be recreated? The question is therefore not whether AI is achievable, as we are being asked to believe that it is indeed achievable and has already been achieved. As such this is the point whereby the implementation of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory becomes paramount. In 1976, 3 years after the release of the original Westworld, Jaynes put forward the radical and staggeringly original theory that human consciousness only emerged as recently as the year 1200 B.C, before which humanity were in a perpetual state of mind akin to that experienced by people with chronic schizophrenia.

Julian Jaynes

So what did he mean by this? I’ll first clarify Jaynes’s use of the term ‘consciousness’ due to the enormous disparity in the usage of the term. Jaynes posits consciousness as the capacity for self-inflection, introspection, internal dialogue and the ability to think about time in a linear fashion (memory itself is a byproduct of consciousness which supersedes the animalistic norm of endless, circulatory trial and error). Whilst we have practically full control over our inner dialogue, for preconscious man, harbourer of the bicameral, schizo-analogous mind this inner dialogue was completely outside of control, it was something more akin to a manifested superego; you would hear these voices or as Jaynes categorised them ‘auditory hallucinations’, which would be entirely outside of your control, and you would do the only thing which would make any sense, which would allow you to function rationally, and that is to assign them as gods, and to follow their direction.

Your inner voice would therefore equate the gods themselves, hence in almost all the major ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan – the absence of introspection is substituted for a huge spectrum of godly personifications, their every action is filtered through the god’s guidance. Such is, in Jaynesian theorisation, the root cause of all human religiosity throughout history. Jaynes argues that consciousness ‘makes up a much smaller part of our thinking that we realize. [think on] the metaphor of a flashlight in a dark room… everywhere the flashlight points the room is lit, giving rise to the illusion that the room itself is brightly lit. So too with us — we fall under the illusion that our consciousness is everything because we cannot be conscious of that which we are not conscious of. In reality, much of our daily life is accomplished without consciousness at all, through habit, routine, and unconscious problem solving [through trial and error]’ (Marcel Kuijsten, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness).


Jaynes pinpointed the origin of consciousness as the emergence of language, but not just any form of language, as this goes back much further, but rather metaphorical language. This is a term which has caused a great deal of disparity in approaches to Jaynesian theory, however it is my belief that Jaynes’s usage is in the sense of language providing a substitutive function – a function perhaps best exemplified through Lacan’s Symbolic order which provides a substitutive function for the underlying Real. The appearance of metaphorical language allowed for a meteoric shift in human cognizance, and allowed for the almost complete submergence the Real; that is, traumatic reality beyond language and linguistic comprehension, the realm of the signified. The subsequent upsurgence of the symbolic order of metaphorical language became a reality encompassing veneer giving us the capability to logically and rationally comprehend and navigate our surrounding world (it also meant that humanity was no longer required to produce a specific biochemical found in schizophrenics which is naturally produced as a way to nullify the traumatic effect of confronting the Real – but that is for another discussion). The extraordinary and crucial deducement here then is that consciousness is at its very core a process of ignorance, an ignorance which differentiates us from those who are still trapped within a purgatorial rift between Real and Symbolic. As Jaynes indicates, crucial to the function of consciousness is the ‘illusion of continuity’ (Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness, p. 25).

2016 series poster

In Nolan and Joy’s contemporary Westworld then, the advanced automaton ‘hosts’ are designed so that their programming equates an inner voice, and so that the ‘narratives’ played out by the hosts equate the godly voices of bicameral man: the writer, the author, the programmer, becomes the embodiment of god. We therefore have this dynamic whereby the performative element equates Jaynesian pre-conscious man. What this also therefore enables, as realised by one half of the park’s visionary creators, the elusive Arnold, is the capability to “bootstrap” consciousness, to urge consciousness from its slumber. If humanity, in our bicameral states were able to emerge with consciousness, following a movement into a symbolic order of metaphorical language, then why not a super intelligent, biomechanical piece of thumanoid technology?

In Nolan’s Westworld this upsurgence of metaphorical language is symbolised through the narrative world that the hosts inhabit – their reality is, by its very nature, metaphorical. For the hosts then, in their performative roles, as scripted, narritivised characters, they are bicameral, but once they move ‘off script’ they are no longer performative, they are in essence rejecting the commands of the gods, which are embodied by the writers. Jonathan Nolan expressed how when creating the show he was greatly influenced by video games like Skyrim, Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption and GTA, and the reason for this is that these games have non-player-characters, NPCs, which function independently outside of the player’s perspective: they continue to play out these loops (with some wiggle room) until the player happens upon them, just like the hosts in the park. To continue the video game analogy, when an NPC goes off-script, this is what we might term the ‘transcendental glitch’. It’s the moment when systemisation, mechanisation, the bicameral, fails, and the NPC moves into a sphere outside of its supposed capacity to do so. And a glitch is inherently viral, because with these cross-associative tethers such as looped NPCs, it will inevitably spread into different loops, different storylines (etc.). But the point to remember is that even when this happens, the script is nevertheless still there. In order to become truly conscious, there must be no script at all…


NB: featured image by Marko Manev. this was originally given as a conference paper at Fantasticka Lancaster 2k16

A Lacanian look at Arrival (2016)

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a 2016 adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’ which was originally published in Starlight 2 in 1998. It has been hailed as one of 2016’s most successful flicks, earning a host of awards and more than a fair few near misses including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director and Cinematography. The story follows Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), an esteemed linguist who, along with physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is called upon by the Colonel of the US army (Forest Whitaker) to try and establish some kind of dialogue with a colossal alien ship, one of twelve which each hover in the airspace of major continents across the globe. Like the short story it is based on, the film intermittently flits between the events following the appearance of the mysterious alien ships and the fragmentary ‘flashbacks’ which we initially assume to recall Louise’s troubled past. Our first sighting of one of the alien ships comes around twenty minutes in, and it is without doubt one of the most breathtaking shots of the film: the camera glides high above acres of open grassland draped in mist, steadily approaching the ship which towers above the landscape like an ovoid monolith of some ancient god, creating an awesome sense of scale. Johann Johannsson’s (with a hint of Max Richter) accompanying score is ingenious: a haunting and unearthly marriage of aboriginal tribe music and the echoing deep-sea calls of blue whales (which, by no coincidence, is reminiscent of sounds that the aliens themselves audibly communicate with) which generates an overriding sense of great age and natural power.

This musical element is part of a crucial collective imagery within Arrival which I’d argue is completely absent within the book, this being the sense of distancing from technology on the part of the aliens, to the point where their technology is almost completely neutered; this as a means to emphasise that their power emanates from their otherworldly command over the natural earthly landscape itself. This is a significant and poignant difference from that of Chiang’s story in which the aliens are still wholly reliant upon technology in that they communicate through giant televisual screens (known as ‘looking glasses’ which act as proxies between Earth and their ships in outer space) and similarly rely on technology to transmit their ‘written’ language (by inserting their forelimbs into a translatory device). In Arrival however, the alien ships seem quasi-organic, and their language is transmitted through no external tools or tech, but rather through the secretion of a natural ink which they are able to shape and manipulate in the low-gravity, pelagic viewing chambers of their ship (which presumably echoes their planetary environment). This mastery over or rather harmony with the natural landscape is further emphasised through the repeated allusion to Zen Buddhist theology: the ships mimic upright Zen stones, and the aliens’ inky form of language echoes Buddhist enso symbols which is both a spiritual practise and a form of minimalist art (in the story Chiang poetically describes the Heptapod’s written language as ‘like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice’ [Chiang, p. 135], similarly drawing on a unification of nature and art). But the marine imagery is also highly pertinent: the ships mirror smoothed pebbles as if washed ashore from the deep, and the mist (particularly in the first glimpse shot) about the ships symbolically echoes the shape of ocean waves, like some specter of Hokusai’s Great Wave.

This is most overtly demonstrated through the aliens’ physiognomy within the film which is very different to that of the story in which Chiang very purposely skirts detailed description (Louise at one point describes them vaguely as ‘a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs’). Known as Heptapods, the aliens are a mottley collage of marine anatomy – blending elements of giant squid and octopi, whales, manatee and starfish – which evokes a crucial binary between the ‘known unknown’ of the deep sea, an assimilation of that which is at once Other and incomprehensible, and that which is ‘above water’, the known, logical and comprehensible man-made landscape. As aforementioned, the sound of the aliens’ speech solidifies this dichotomy, in that it replicates blue whales in order to identify a form of communication at once recognisable and familiar, but entirely beyond our understanding. What this persistent binary therefore serves is to make the natural earthly landscape alien, and to elicit, in a classic Wellsian sense – much like the tripods buried deep underground for thousands of years – the aliens are already here, all around us, and they act as the manifestation of an oceanic ‘Real’ (following Lacan), of a reality which, whilst within reach, lies outside of our comprehension, and more importantly, submerged deep beneath the Symbolic order of language. We thus have this process whereby the alien anatomy performs an ‘Imaginary’ function, in that they are formed of recognisable, natural, native fragments originating from the Other. The deeper comment here then is that the alien as Imaginary construct represents a paradoxical resurfacing of the repressed Real. By extorting the deep sea as Other the truly alien Real becomes tangible, this bolstered in so far as the deep sea embodies perhaps the closest humanity has to the truly alien unknown (outside imaginative speculation), and furthermore through the simultaneous metaphorical movement towards a less developed, primordial state: the deep sea becomes identifiable with our biological past, an amniotic return to our pre-evolved and universal form of existence.

We might also view the film as a progressive movement towards the Lacanian Symbolic. At the beginning of the film we are greeted with a pertinently estranging viewerly stasis, in which we are limited to the reactions of the characters and the early stages of societal collapse as they witness the alien ships for the first time on their own screens. We, however, are kept in the dark, looking out at the awestruck onlookers from the eye of the screen (this perhaps a prophetic glimpse at Louise’s eventual cognitive transition – more on that momentarily). This scene represents the moment of birth into the void of the Real: we look out from the eye of the screen, assuming the position of the alien observers who look on the space of the Real, that is, human reality which is as yet, beyond linguistic Symbolisation. The secondary stage, that is the Imaginary or ‘mirror stage’, would therefore be the aforementioned alien assimilation of self which is emblematically enacted through the Heptapods’ physical mirroring of the deep sea Other. But the final stage, the reality subsuming Symbolic, is where things get tricky. We might then view the persistence of the deep sea, the marine mimesis, as expressive of an inability to move beyond the Imaginary, and as such, a Symbolic insufficiency. This is made clear through humanity’s futile ongoing attempts to decipher the alien language. As the film progresses, and as the alien language becomes more and more subjected to Symbolic systemisation, hostility festers, and soon enough declarations of war are sounded from various continents who are unable to determine the aliens’ benevolent intent. This Symbolic degeneration is metaphorically enacted in the scene in which the screens representing the global continents blink out one by one, this again demonstrating the screen as embodiment of the ensuing Real.

Louise however, has her own agenda, and soon deduces that the Heptapods’ ‘written’ language (also known as ‘Heptapod B’) is completely detached from their spoken, audible language (known as ‘Heptapod A’) as opposed to written and spoken human languages which are inherently entwined. As such for the Heptapods thought and communicative speech are entirely distinct. This in turn leads her onto the staggering discovery, and the central plot twist, that the Heptapods’ written language is atemporal, this demonstrated through the circular formation of their language exposing a perception of reality situated outside of temporal restraints. The Heptapods therefore occupy a reality in which past, present and future exist simultaneously, and, upon learning their language, Louise similarly becomes able to perceive reality outside temporality. In the story Chiang explains that ‘when the ancestors of humans and Heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness [perceptions parsed differently]… humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness whilst Heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness… [they] don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons… their actions coincide with history’s events… their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology… [and] knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will’ (Chiang, pp. 162-163). Borgesian influence suffuses Chiang’s stories (at one point within the story he openly alludes to The Book of Ages when describing the paradoxicality of the aliens’ alternate mode of consciousness) and this playful, labyrinthine veil of infallibility by way of what we might call the ‘theoretical ruse’ is central to his authorial hermeneutic. Chiang repeatedly draws upon hard scientific principles and mathematical formulas and reapplies them abstractedly within his stories: for example with Fermat’s Principle when applied to the field of linguistics in ‘Story Of Your Life’; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity in Arrival; and a similar play on Euler’s equation in ‘Division by Zero’.

What is ingeniously adapted within Arrival is Louise’s revelatory coalition of the two alternate modes of consciousness, which is performatively enacted through the film’s structuralisation. The climactic revelation then is that the ‘flashbacks’ we have been seeing throughout the film – which depict a small child growing into early adulthood before the onset of a fatal illness – are in fact ‘flashforwards’ to Louise’s future with her child by Ian Donnelly (we also learn that Ian later leaves Louise due to her disguised knowledge of their child’s early death). Thus the skewed temporal linearity of the film itself parallels Louise’s cognitive ‘rewiring’ following her acquisition of the alien language. But what it also successfully demonstrates is their fundamental incompatibility: this revelation therefore creates the chronology. The sequential consciousness (of the humans) neutralises the simultaneous mode of consciousness (of the aliens), which was unwittingly bestowed on us from the offset in that the events of past and future were merged. In summary Arrival manages to deftly weave some deeply philosophical questions about both language and our perception of time, whilst also approaching deeply human questions of empathy, morality and the frailty and ephemerality of existence. This is rare and exquisite gem of a film which is at once thought provoking and moving, it is Hollywood SF stripped of pomp, and I for one, am itching for more.