How can a scifi story's language reflect its far-flung setting?S

In "Language and science fiction," Paul Kincaid notes a curious predicament science fiction authors face — often, scifi stories occur in the unfathomable future or another world, so how can a book's language sound exotic (and not anachronistic)?

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.

This post originally appeared on Big Other.