Summary: Today we have a twin review by the philosopher Kelley Ross, looking at the use of language as the driving force in the book Stranger in a Strange Land and the film Arrival. Heinlein is one of the great science fiction authors (his worst works are excellent). Arrival is powerful film based on a science fiction story, staring Amy Adams — one of the great actresses of our time.
“The Whorfian Hypothesis in Stranger in a Strange Land and Arrival.”
Review of the book and the film.
Arrival (2016) stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner;
directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Heisserer.
Stranger written by Robert Heinlein (1961).
Review by Kelley L. Ross, Posted at Friesian.
Re-posted with his generous permission.
In the novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein and in the movie Arrival (2016), the stories depend on the Whorfian Hypothesis about language being true. In both of them, simply learning a new language enables characters to manipulate the world, and apparently suspend laws of nature, in ways not possible to them previously.
In Heinlein’s book, Michael Valentine Smith, who was orphaned on Mars when his astronaut parents died (or were murdered) there, was raised by Martians and then later was returned to Earth by a subsequent expedition. He does not know that human beings, without the benefit of the Martian language, do not experience reality in the same way that he does and that they lack abilities that he takes for granted. Thus, levitation and control of ambient conditions are things that he does not find remarkable or in need of explanation. Most dramatically, if he perceives or “groks” (glossed as “to taste,” like Latin sapio, “to taste” or “know”) “wrongness” in anything, including people, he can, remotely, tip them out of our universe of three dimensional space. They disappear. When he realizes that humans cannot do these things, he cannot explain how he is able to do them without teaching his human friends the Martian language, which he begins to do. They are then able to perform similar feats.
Heinlein, of course, cannot explain what it is about the Martian language that makes interaction with the physical world so different. Ex hypothese, he could not. Eventually, Smith turns his language instruction into a religion (like Heinlein’s science fiction colleague L. Ron Hubbard?) and allows himself to be martyred to the faith. It is not clarified whether the circumstance that his spirit survives death is also due to the Martain language or is just true in general, as it appears to be.