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What are the linguistic demands of Science Fiction?

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  • What are the linguistic demands of Science Fiction?

    Hi to all,

    I'm doing a little research for my thesis on language phenoma in sf literature. Since there are a lot of interested and educated people in this community, I thought why not bother you with a couple of questions?

    Now, I was wondering what would you say are the demands of the genre on the language?

    Is there a specific pattern authors use to make their texts sf-ish?

    What goes on in an author's mind when writing sf?

    What makes sf texts different from other genre-texts?

    How do sf authors express their concepts?

    I know it is very difficult to set a clear boundary to any genre, esp. sf. And I agree with Mike that genre definitions are nothing more than the human mechanism of categorizing perception into easy-to-digest information chunks. Clear definitions of genre are thus not really possible.
    My questions are therefore pretty open - I just would like to know your opinions and experiences based on books you see as sf.
    And of course I'd be very grateful if Mike could tell me a bit about his view on the matter.

    Already thanks for your help.

  • #2
    I have to give your questions a bit more thought, but I encourage you to also post your topic on this board, where I am an Admin. The "SF Chat" forum there is filled with just this type of discussion.

    Unfortunately, due to a recent spam barrage (not unlike the one happening here at the moment) we had to require people to get a free EZ Board account in order to post. This will hopefully be temporary, but again, it's a free deal you just have to look at some dumb ads when you login (but can stay logged in most of the time). Would love to have you get the discussion going with our regulars as well as the fantastic group here on the Moorcock board.
    My Facebook; My Band; My Radio Show; My Flickr Page; Science Fiction Message Board

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    • #3
      O.k., I think I'm ready to have a go at answering this (though I do still hope you'll follow the link above and post it there as well!) I'm only answering in terms of what I consider good SF writing, so I'm not talking about the many cliches of the genre (as any genre will inevitably have.)

      Now, I was wondering what would you say are the demands of the genre on the language?

      The demands are based upon the idea that the author individually creates. SF is about taking an idea, primarily a scientific one, and extrapolating on it - usually in a future environment, but also in alternate presents and pasts. So the language will be affected by this idea that is the root of the reality created. If the author envisions a high tech future, then language will take on a decidedly more tech edge. If the author instead envisions a collapse of society, then the language may well also become more primitive. Oftentimes science fiction writers have invented technological concepts for their stories, and then they had to invent the words for these devices and whatever their function would be. Sometimes these creations, including Michael Moorcock's "multiverse" have later become a part of mainstream science and popular culture with the very fictionalized names still in tact.

      Is there a specific pattern authors use to make their texts sf-ish?

      There often is in cliched writing, i.e. "technobabble", but I stated that I wished to avoid talking about the cliches and look instead to the writing that pushes the envelope instead. That said, there still can be in good writing as well. There has to be some inclusion of science to make it "science fiction", even in the more "science fantasy" side of things. This effort to explain things in itself has the result you are asking about. In addition, the language of the science used, be it astronomy, electronics, nanotech, or whatever inevitably works it's way into the text. A major difference between good and bad authors is how seemlessly it does so.

      What goes on in an author's mind when writing sf?

      In short, they should be invisioning a possible future or alternate reality. It's not about "escapism" as in pure fantasy, because they are thinking about things that could be rather than never could be. Of course there are still elements of fantasy and escapism in nearly all SF, but they should not be the root of the concept.

      What makes sf texts different from other genre-texts?

      Hmm. I guess the second part of my answer above really addresses this. SF should look at what can or may happen and extrapolate on what the outcome would be and how it would change individuals and society. Obviously this differs from nearly every other genre in at least some way.

      How do sf authors express their concepts?

      An infinite number of possible answers to that one, but the best ones do it by involving the reader in an interesting human drama (though the "humans" may not always be human).
      My Facebook; My Band; My Radio Show; My Flickr Page; Science Fiction Message Board

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      • #4
        There is a very good article in the first issue of Studies in Fantasy Literature that addresses genre boundaries and expectations, and how they may be irrelevant in the context of Mike's work. It deals with fantasy, rather than SF, but may give you some ideas.

        I'm being a bit self-congratulatory to call it a good article, as I wrote it. If you cannot track down a copy of the journal, but are intereseted in the article, let me know and I can get you a copy.

        I'm pretty sure you are already familiar with John G. Cawelti's The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature. While a bit dated, this remains one of the best introductions to genre and formula I know.

        With respect to your question, the genreric boundaries of SF are especially tricky, as they constantly splinter and subdivide. People who do space opera have very little in common with futurists who have very little in common with the skiffies (etc., ect., etc...) Each relies on its common tropes and themes.

        I'll have much more to say if I know the direction you are wanting to take.

        I should add that I find D-A's responses mostly dead-on. In particular, I think that people who write stories that fit categories by coincidence usually wind up writing much better and much more interesting stories than those who follow a by-the-numbers formula.

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        • #5
          Aside from any input Mike might be able to provide, I'd check out some of Samuel Delany's non-fiction work (such as The Straits of Messina, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Silent Interviews and others), if you can find them at reasonable prices. He has written extensively about sf (both his own and other authors) and language has always been one of his primary concerns.
          'You know, I can't keep up with you. If I hadn't met you in person, I quite honestly would NOT believe you really existed. I just COULDN'T. You do so MUCH... if half of what goes into your zines is to be believed, you've read more at the age of 17 than I have at the age of 32 - LOTS more'

          Archie Mercer to Mike (Burroughsania letters page, 1957)

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Doc
            very little in common with the skiffies
            Who or what is a skiffy?

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            • #7
              Originally posted by johneffay
              Who or what is a skiffy?
              I'm guessing it's a corruption of 'sci-fi'. (Normally pronouced sigh-fi - to rhyme with hi-fi - but in this instance having a 'hard C', perhaps to draw attention to the fact that the correct abbreviation of Science Fiction is 'SF'?)
              _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
              _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
              _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
              _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

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              • #8
                David has it right. People who insist on the "skiffy" title seem to accept the notion that abbreviations like SF have improperly cornered the genre. They also seem to think that skiffy is qualitatively different (and better) than work lazily labelled SF.

                Look what happens because of genre taxonomy...

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                • #9
                  If you're coming at this from the perspective of formal linguistics then a systemic analysis of a set of broadly comparable texts will tell you a lot. You could take, for example, descriptions from three different works of a group of protagonists engaged in a procedure typical of the genre - setting off on a quest, being confronted with danger or whatever - and compare the grammatical usage in each. I suggest systemic grammar because it's very intuitive when used in literary analysis. Comparing the ways in which, say, John Norman, Lin Carter, Vance, Bulmer and Mike use language will give interesting results...

                  If you need a grounding in the approach (and you may well not, of course) try Margaret Berry's introductory books (overpriced in the US but available s/h very cheaply from Amazon.co.uk) - the fact that she taught me this subject [cough] years ago is incidental.. Just to tie this all up, I used three reviews of 'The Condition of Muzak' for a systemic analysis essay which she set me!

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