Friday, February 10, 2012

The Language Problem in Science Fiction

            Part of the problem is familiar to any viewer of the original Star Trek.  You’re sitting there watching an episode and suddenly you think, “Hey, why do these aliens speak English with vaguely Eastern European accents?”  In the original Star Trek, this was just one of those things you weren’t supposed to question, like the physics of Warp drive and William Shatner’s hair.  By the time The Next Generation came around, something called the UniversalTranslator had been invented as a work around.  One of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books explained it by having tiny fish in people’s ears doing the translating. 
            I’m sympathetic to the problem.  It really slows the pace of your dialogue if you have to wait for a translation, so it’s much easier if you can just pretend that intergalactic language barriers just wouldn’t exist. 
            Of course, it’s all a lie. 
            It’s hard enough to talk to someone one generation removed from you about the latest feature on your phone, even if you otherwise share the same language and culture.  It’s ridiculous to think that communication is going to be easy in any future-globablized world, never mind in any intergalactic context.
Furthermore, the most interesting aspects of language are often those most subject to change.  We all speak language that reflects the slang of the moment and the shorthand we use to get things done.  GGN and GR8 aren’t much different than 23 skidoo and the bee’s knees, but neither would mean much to characters in a Jane Austen novel. But too often sci-fi ignores the problem of language so that it’s easier to write narratives that stretch over hundreds or even thousands of years.
            Many contemporary SF writers go in the other direction, immersing readers in the techo-jargon of a given moment, in hopes that we will pick it up as we go along.  Sometimes this works well.  I’m reading PauloBacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and having no problem picking up the genetic engineering lingo.  But I found the short story, “The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe in Rewired:the Post-Cyberpunk Anthology to be impenetrable.  The anthology editors described it as “crammed.”  I can think of more descriptive adjectives.
            In the novel I’m working on, I need to find ways to present various forms of speech over more than a century.  The challenge is navigating between the Scylla of plausibility and the Charybdis of understandability.  I’ve gotten around this in one section by having Business English mandated as the only acceptable means of public discourse.  In another section, I’ve abused Google Translate to have conversational English peppered with a range of terms from other languages.  For the last section I need to write, I need to figure out how to make funny jokes about future settings.  That may be the biggest challenge, but it’s also the litmus test.  You know you know a language when you can make jokes in it.  

1 comment:

  1. I vote you just go for the Heinlein approach in "Stranger in a Strange Land" and just constantly use unusual terms, the reader forced to eventually grok them. Only stop to explain a few, letting the readers get the rest of the slang and new terms themselves (what does it say about me that I understood the old lingo examples in your post but could only decipher one of the contemporary ones?)