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Monday, 1 October 2012

The Language of Science Fiction

Anne E. Johnson

Like any skill worth mastering, the writing of science fiction surely takes a lifetime to master. That’s assuming you’re one of the few who masters it at all. Realizing that, I knew I would face countless challenges as I penned my first novel-length science fiction work, Green Light Delivery. Because of all the sci-fi I’ve read, I should have been able to predict many of these challenges. Still, it turned out to be a very different view from the active side of the creative process.

One of the most interesting issues that faces a sci-fi author is that of language. The issue presents itself as a complex web of decisions for the writer, based on her intended audience, the type of sci-fi she’s writing, and her own background and level of obsession.

There will be serious decisions to make about language, unless you write contemporary or near-future sci-fi. This issue can manifest itself in a number of ways, depending on the specifics of your story. Here are a few you should expect to mull over:

1. If the story takes place on Earth, but in the distant future, (a) will everyone still speak our current languages, whether it makes sense or not (Planet of the Apes), or (b) will you go through the massive effort of showing linguistic developments (A Clockwork Orange; and be aware that Anthony Burgess was a trained linguist).

2.  If the story takes place off Earth, but involves humans, how will the humans communicate with the other species? (a) Will the aliens have pain-stakingly learned English? (b) Will the human stumble by in the alien language?

The choice of (a) and (b) leads to another level of decision:
(i) You could craft an actual alien language. (Please refer to caveat above, regarding linguistic skills. If you are an author who struggles to comprehend its versus it’s, or if you struggled in Spanish 101, then inventing a grammatically consistent, credible language is not the right choice for you. Almost nobody can do this well.)

(ii) Or perhaps you’ll simply make up a small vocabulary or list of common phrases you can use to imply the alien tongue, and then switch to English. That can be a useful way to imply a language, and remind a reader that characters aren’t speaking English.

And then there’s the option for those who don’t want to deal with the different languages at all. (c) Offer some sort of universal translation device (This is hardest to pull off, unless you’re doing Douglas Adams-style broad comedy or writing for Doctor Who.)

3. If, as is true for my novel Green Light Delivery, your story takes place in an alternative universe where there never has been such a thing as English, you face different problems. You want your reader to assume that English is standing in for the actual language of the planet/solar system. But what can you do to show that this isn’t really English? I decided to invent proper names (both of characters and places) and common nouns that didn’t sound like English, and therefore reminded readers the they weren’t in Kansas anymore.

So, the following sentence, although largely newly-coined words, can make sense:
Webrid is a Yeril with a bnarli in his forehead.

If you haven’t read the book, you can still guess that Webrid is the name of a male character, Yeril is some sort of category (tribe? region? species? school affiliation?) and bnarli is a thing that fits in his head somehow. Keeping the word “forehead” is important in this example. It gives the reader a familiar point of reference.

Invented words, introduced one at a time and used consistently, are easy to slide into the reader’s vocabulary, just as in any other genre a reader can be expected to learn and remember the names of new characters.

Green Light Delivery

Webrid is a carter, like his mother and grandfather before him. It’s not glamorous work, but it mostly pays the bills, and it gives him time to ogle the sexy women on the streets of Bexilla’s capital. Mostly, he buys and sells small goods and does the occasional transport run for a client.
Then he gets mugged by a robot.
Now, with a strange green laser implanted in his skull and a small fortune deposited in his bank account, Webrid has to make the most difficult delivery of his life. He doesn’t know who his client is, or what he’s carrying, but he knows that a whole lot of very dangerous people are extremely interested in what’s in his head. Literally. And they’ll do whatever it takes to get it.
With the help of some truly alien friends, a simple carter will journey across worlds to deliver his cargo. And hopefully keep his head in the process.

Anne E. Johnson is based in Brooklyn and has published over thirty short stories in a variety of genres and for both adults and children

Her first science fiction novel, Green Light Delivery, was published in June, 2012, by Candlemark and Gleam. She also writes novels for tweens. Her other novels include Ebenezer's Locker  and Trouble at the Scriptorium.


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