Academic journal article Extrapolation

In Space No One Can Hear You Speak: Embodied Language in Stanislaw Lem's Solaris and Peter Watts's Blindsight

Academic journal article Extrapolation

In Space No One Can Hear You Speak: Embodied Language in Stanislaw Lem's Solaris and Peter Watts's Blindsight

Article excerpt

1. the Dream of the Babel Fish

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix. (Adams 42)

The famous Babel fish from Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2002 [1979]) is a humorous take on a frequent motif in science-fiction literature: communication with extraterrestrials. While the above passage is more of a "fiction" than "science," the Babel fish vision of Contact is ubiquitous in speculative fiction. The most distinctive feature of this vision is radical optimism about the possibility of interstellar communication. In many cases, the protagonists operate some sort of machine translator: an advance device which accepts input in one language and produces output in another language. In some cases, humans are able to master an alien language, just as one masters a foreign language. A hidden assumption underlying stories of this sort is that extraterrestrials use concepts similar to ours, they express them, and they do so by means of a semiotic system similar to human language. Instances of this type of communication can be found in numerous sciencefiction universes, including Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek (1979), to mention the most famous ones.

From the point of view of modern linguistics and semiotics, these assumptions are somewhat credulous. In the stories where the problems of interstellar communication are not essential for the plot, such oversimplifications and naiveties can be easily forgiven. Yet a more realistic depiction of Contact needs to take into account the complexities of human language. A comprehensive survey of possible problems resulting from the complexities is offered by Adam Glaz in the article "Rorschach, We Have a Problem!" (2014). Glaz provides insights from psycholinguistics, cognitive science, linguistic anthropology, and information theory to formulate eleven arguments explaining the failure of Contact in Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice (1999 [1968]) and Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006). Embodiment is the third argument on the list, but it is discussed rather tentatively. The argument is worth expanding, because embodiment affects not only the way of expressing signs, but also the meaning expressed by the sign. Since embodiment influences both the formal and the semantic aspect of language and any other communication system, it may be a central and fundamental problem in interstellar communication.

The key claim of this article is that all Contact narratives can be arranged along a continuum of growing pessimism: from the carefree optimism of Star Wars and Star Trek, through to the moderate skepticism1 of Watts's Blindsight, to the deep pessimism of Lem's Solaris. Progressing pessimism coincides with the increasing awareness of how embodiment affects communication. The depictions of Contact will be investigated against the prototypical communication script. Originally, script was a concept developed by Abelson (cf. "The structure") as a knowledge representation model in the field of artificial intelligence, but it eventually evolved into a generic form of knowledge structure in humans. Scripts are conventionalized scenarios encapsulating assumptions and expectations about events in the world. A prototypical script for a communicative event involves the following chronologically arranged stages:

1. interlocutors A and B enter each other's perceptual field;

2. interlocutor A produces a message with the use of a semiotic code understandable by interlocutor B;

3. interlocutor B interprets the message and responds with a message understandable by interlocutor A, who also interprets the message;

4. …

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