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Language and science fiction

In a comment to me on this post, John said: “I’d love to see a survey from you of novels where the language is foregrounded”. Well, I don’t have the time right now, but I did write something vaguely on this topic back in around 1996, which might be of interest. So I reproduce it here …

The sides of the gate rose high above us, pierced at wide intervals by windows of some material thicker, yet clearer, than glass. Behind these windows we could see the moving figures of men and women, and of creatures that were neither men nor women. Cacogens, I think, were there, beings to whom the avern was but what a marigold or a marguerite is to us. Others seemed beasts with too much of men about them, so that horned heads watched us with eyes too wise, and mouths that appeared to speak showed teeth like nails or hooks. I asked Dr. Talos what these creatures were.

‘Soldiers,’ he said. ‘The pandours of the Autarch.’

Jolenta, whose fear made her press the side of one full breast against the thigh of the man on the merychip, whispered, ‘Whose perspiration is the gold of his subjects.”

The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)

Gene Wolfe

Their house stood apart from the others in a tree-fringed hollow. It opened a sleepy eye as she approached, then its doormouth parted, enveloping her in warm living air. As soon as she was inside, her cloak slid from her shoulders and scuttled over to the heart to bask in its warmth.

Mortal Remains (1995)

Christopher Evans

One of the least controversial things that the American critic Harold Bloom proclaimed in his monumental survey of The Western Canon (1994) was that William Shakespeare is the central figure in the entire history of Western literature. Shakespeare was the most important writer in English that the world has yet seen. But no modern edition of Shakespeare is complete without its copious notes on the language. He was writing a bare 500 years ago in a language that is still essentially the everyday language of those of us in Britain, America, Australia or anywhere in the English speaking world, and he wrote an ordinary, demotic version of the language meant to be understood by the least educated groundlings. Yet what he wrote is frequently incomprehensible without explanatory notes, and even where it appears straightforward a shift in the meaning of a word can give it an entirely different connotation from what we might assume.

The language has changed, and continues to change. Within the lifetime of most of us, the meaning of the word ‘gay’ has changed fundamentally; so much so, indeed, that the work of writers of the 1920s may well require an explanatory gloss by the 2020s. At the same time, new words are entering the language at an exponential rate. A dictionary of new words published, say, in 1990, would be hopelessly out of date by now; such is the rate at which new coinages are entering the language that we could probably support one such dictionary a year, if not more.

All of which affects science fiction in a vital way. It is not just that science fiction is itself a source of neologisms (two of the most widely taken up coinages of recent years have been William Gibson’s ‘cyberspace’ and Gardner Dozois’s ‘cyberpunk’, which have themselves inspired a host of other words built upon the prefix ‘cyber-‘ or the suffix ‘-punk’, just as, post-Watergate, the suffix ‘-gate’ has been attached to any political scandal). It is more that neologisms are, or have become, increasingly essential in the construction of science fiction.

Consider a novel set in a future 500 years from now. Assuming that English is still, if you will pardon the expression, the lingua franca (and that term alone suggests it won’t be), we must assume that the language will have changed at least as much as our language has changed since Shakespeare’s day. More than that, however, the very stuff of science fiction is invention: new devices, new ideas, new approaches, each of which will generate words to name, describe, encompass them. Sometimes these will be new words, sometimes old words will be appropriated and given a new, subtly (or not so subtly) different meaning. Of course, words do more than simply name things, just as a new invention has a more wide ranging effect than simply doing one set task more efficiently. Language and socio-cultural structure are intimately connected (a fact recognised by writers as varied as George Orwell in 1984 (1949) and Samuel R. Delany in Babel-17 (1966)), so the invention of neologisms does not just name the new objects which are the signals identifying a science fiction world, they also help to introduce us to that other world.

In an article called ‘The Words that could Happen: Science Fiction Neologisms and the Creation of Future Worlds’ (Extrapolation, Winter 1993), Gary Westfahl suggests a quantitative reckoning of the number of neologisms in a work of science fiction will reflect the number of new ideas. Apart from the dubious notion that new ideas is the defining feature of science fiction, this article seems to concentrate on the words alone rather than the language they represent. Samuel R. Delany is perhaps closer to the mark in his article, ‘About 5,750 Words’ (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, 1977), which proposes that science fiction is itself a language. We learn the words, and the worlds these words represent, over the period of our acquaintance with science fiction: Wells informs Clarke, Bester informs Gibson. But each new science fiction novel is a new world, which suggests that we must learn a new language with every book we pick up. The world depicted in the arcane language of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is very different from the Mars seen in Christopher Evans’s Mortal Remains, learning the vocabulary of one would not help to understand the other.

What science fiction writers, and particularly those who set their stories in a far future, are actually doing is painting a world in all its complexities that we can never see. To do so, they use essentially the language we use today. Far and away the majority of words in any science fiction story will be words we know and use every day. Even in such a radical work as Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban, in which the whole story is cast into the debased and unwravelling language of this future dark age, the shock is in the spelling. The words themselves, if we read the book phonetically, are largely familiar. Without this familiarity there is no gateway into the world, we would be locked out by incomprehension. But some hint of the alien is given by the selective quoting of words from the contemporary language, the magician’s flourish that is indispensible to the illusion.

The words that are quoted, the way they are constructed, the echoes they sound of our own world, or their sheer alienness, are important for the type of illusion they are creating. The extract from Wolfe, for instance, has been chosen almost at random from a work that seems to the average reader to be clogged with strange language. The profusion of such words helps in the depiction of a world far removed from our own, so much time has passed, so many things have happened, that the language cannot even be fully translated into modern English. Yet the words are not so alien as they appear, many are drawn from or built around words that have fallen out of use, Wolfe uses the language of the past and so hints at a society that has reverted to an old pattern. Despite the alien influences that have shaped this world, it echoes a still older past, elements of the archaic appearing everywhere in the setting, the social structure, the narrative shape as well as the language.

Evans, on the other hand, has a more familiar and more traditional purpose in mind behind the neologisms he has constructed. It doesn’t take much to see in the doormouth, the scuttling cloak, the heart that at first seems an apposite misprint for hearth, an anthropomorphism at work, and then, through that, a world that is biologically engineered. Our houses do not have eyes, our clothing does not have a will of its own, but it is easy for us to enter this world because the language creates it. In fact, although the opening chapter of Evans’s novel (from which this short extract is taken) seems to be filled with strange and wonderful new ideas, the number of actual neologisms is very small. In the quoted paragraph there is only one, ‘doormouth’, in itself a simple and obvious conflation of two very familiar words; it would probably score surprisingly low on Westfahl’s quantitative test, but it seems you don’t necessarily need new words to suggest a new language, and with it the new ideas that make up science fiction.

11 thoughts on “Language and science fiction

  1. One of the primary pleasures in reading a new Philip K. Dick novel is discovering what word he used that time around to describe flying cars.

    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: hover-car, car
    Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said & The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: autonomic cab, auto-cab
    The Game Players of Titan: auto-auto


  2. Thanks for this, Paul. It seems to me that we’re more likely to see contemporary writers use the full resources of language in not only the poetry and so-called experimental genres, but also in science fiction and fantasy.

    1. Lewis Carroll would like to have a word with you. (A made-up, nonsensical word.)

      Sci-fi and fantasy are like anything else: some writers are interested in playing with the language, some aren’t. I think it’s hard to make generalizations about either genre overall, though. Neil Gaiman is a contemporary fantasy author who little-to-no interest in playing with language; he’s as transparent as tall outdoors. But then look at Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire: linguistically, it’s farther out there than a lot of self-titled experimental fiction. And Neil Gaiman wrote the intro for it.

      1. Yes, I agree. I don’t think that science fiction and fantasy is characterized by its play with language. Did I suggest otherwise? I think we’re more likely to see it in so-called speculative fiction than we are in mainstream so-called realism or any other genre besides poetry and so-called experimental genres.

        1. No, my point is that sci-fi and fantasy neither are nor aren’t characterized by their play with language. Some sci-fi and fantasy writers are interested in playing with language, some aren’t. We could spend all day thinking examples of both categories: J.R.R. Tolkein was, C.S. Lewis wasn’t. Alan Moore is, Neil Gaiman isn’t. Are there more than one type than the other? Who knows? (What does it mean to play with language? Where do we draw the line?)

          In other words, I don’t agree with your earlier comment that “we’re more likely to see _contemporary_ writers use the full resources of language […] in science fiction and fantasy.” There are past sci-fi/fantasy writers who care greatly about language, and ones writing today who do not. And vice-a-versa. I don’t see how one can quantify such a statement (although by all means convince me if you have the evidence).

          Shifting subjects, and admittedly going off on a bit of a rant here: I kinda hate the term “speculative fiction,” which I regard more as a re-branding of sci-fi and fantasy and horror to get past people’s uneasiness with those genre terms. But whose uneasiness? Sci-fi and horror and fantasy are extremely popular today. So the term is for the benefit of “more literary” types, who can then write and read genre fiction without acknowledging it, and therefore remain apart. It’s like calling comics “graphic novels” so people won’t be ashamed of reading comics. I find this kind of re-branding pretty silly, not to mention generally elitist.

          Sci-fi and horror and fantasy have always been very literary genres, capable of doing anything that any other genre can do. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is invited to take the matter up with William Shakespeare*, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft, Stanisław Lem, Philip K. Dick, Angela Carter, Thomas Pynchon, Christine Brooke-Rose—among many others.

          *The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

          1. I still don’t see how my comment can be construed in the manner in which you’re describing it. Having reads perhaps hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels, I think I’m aware that these genres are not characterized by language play. However, to reiterate my point for the umpteenth time, just as we are more likely to see poets (not all) and so-called experimental writers (not all) utilize the full resources of language, you will find more fantasy and science fiction writers utilizing the full resources of language than you would find in contemporary mainstream so-called realist fiction, and audiences that are much more receptive and conversant with same. Do you really need evidence?

            As for your final three paragraphs: there’s a bit of preaching to the choir here, that is, if you were talking to me (I’ve read substantial portions of all the writers you’ve listed), don’t you think?

            I think it’s possible to use terms like “speculative fiction” and “graphic novels” without being burdened by the snobbiness you’re suggesting.

            1. And in light of your most recent (interesting, funny) worrying over how a catchall word like “postmodern” has become diffuse because of it’s being used to label a gazillion disparate things, it’s surprising that you would be bothered by the use of terms like “speculative fiction” and “graphic novel”. I mean, I can picture you posting a gazillion examples of disparate things all placed under the banner of science fiction or fantasy, and a similar post about comics, and then showing the limitations of each term.

              Hairsplitting and naming can be confining, they can be forms of denial, but they can also certainly be liberating, broadening. Wouldn’t you agree?

              As for elitism: it’s a term often bandied about to criticize people who write/speak in specialized, sometimes cryptic, sometimes, admittedly, jargon-filled language to a specialized audience. I also think that there is a place for writers.

          2. The point, surely, is what the authors are trying to do. When you write science fiction, somewhere along the line you are presenting something that will be new to the reader. The only tool at your disposal for making this convincing to the reader is language. So the very fact of writing science fiction can require a little more flexibility with regard to language than is usually necessary in other genres. If your subject is the strange, the alien, the remote, the unimagined, then you’re not going to encompass it without some thought to the words at your disposal.

            A couple of old short stories worth checking out in this respect: ‘Day Million’ by Frederik Pohl, where he attempts to give the feel of living in a radically different time; and ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’ by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore) which presents Lewis Carroll’s language as an accurate transcription of a visit from the future.

            A lot of the time science fiction does not stray far from the here and now, and so the new can be presented using perfectly normal, everyday language. Sometimes, it can be done just by making up a couple of words and no more. But just occasionally it necessitates a radical rethink of the way language is used throughout the story. But this is always at the behest of story, rather than for the sake of the language game itself.

            Oh, and because sf authors often have to be more aware of the language they use doesn’t necessarily mean they are any more adept in its use.

            And following your shift of subject, Adam, personally I like ‘speculative fiction’ slightly more than I do ‘sci-fi’, which always feels like a childish diminutive to me. But really I prefer ‘science fiction’ or ‘sf’.

            Speculative fiction was coined by Robert Heinlein, so I don’t think he was aiming the term at those uneasy with genre. I think, rather, he was trying to tackle the inevitable problem that science really has very little to do with an awful lot of science fiction. But I don’t think ‘speculative’ is any better.

            And you are absolutely right that sf, horror and fantasy have always been the basis for great literature. Though there is always the related problem, when we cite sf by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley, for instance, there is the old old cry that they’re not really sf because they’re good.

  3. “William Gibson’s ‘cyberspace’ and Gardner Dozois’s ‘cyberpunk’”

    As far as I know, it’s a matter of historical fact that the term “cyberpunk” was coined by Bruce Bethke for the story of the same name. (Available at http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/cpunk.htm )

    It’s very curious that Bethke has been disappeared from cyberpunk history (Bruce Sterling’s seminal introduction to Mirrorshades, The Cyberpunk Anthology refuses to mention his name, so the disappearing seems to have started near-immediately). From a cursory reading of his blog years ago, Bethke seems to cleave to a generally conservative (for the US) worldview, but surely that wouldn’t be sufficient reason for social exclusion?

    More to the subject of the language of sf and discussions above, the recently-published Inca 5 includes a mid-seventies dialogue between Frederik Pohl and Alfred Bester where the latter repeatedly refers to sf as a form of poetry. For example:

    “I still think science fiction is the poetry of literature, and if you want new ideas and ways of telling a story and new kinds of stories, you go to science fiction, because God knows you can’t find it in ordinary commercial fiction today.”

    Thanks to Mr Kincaid et al for your observations.

  4. I’ve heard many different versions of the origins of ‘cyberpunk’. The one that seemed to have most currency at the time I wrote this piece was that Dozois had coined the term in a review of a novel by Bethke, and I hadn’t had a chance to go back and check sources. So it is interesting to see this story, which presumably gave Dozois the word he would use in a different context in his later review.

    Yes, Bethke does seem to have been written out of the history. I suspect it’s because he was instrumental in giving the movement its name, but played no part in creating its aesthetic. I don’t think it would be for his politics (though if he is conservative even by US standards he must be very far to the right by most other standards); not all the cyberpunks were as far to the left as they would sometimes pretend (though, none, I suspect, were as far to the right as Bethke might appear to be).

    I do like the Bester quote.

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