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The Language of Science Fiction
by Thomas Myer

I really love the English language. I should -- I make a living at it. In my other life as full-time technical writer, I strive every day to produce usable software manuals that punch through byzantine software and reveal what users want and need. Excellence is my goal, and I drive hard.

It infuriates me when other folks in the communications industry don't cherish and respect the English language. Like the TV news reporters who say that the manager of a restaurant is being "racial" because he won't hire black waitpersons, when clearly the manager was being racist. Or when journalists say things like "myriads of" or "comprised of" -- shudder.

Good SF writers have an abiding respect for the English language. Not only have they mastered it, they make English do new tricks. They remind the rest of us what great potential (and fun!) there is in overhauling verbs, creating slang, and assaulting the senses with vivid descriptions.

I'd like to thank them -- and close out 1997 -- by celebrating some very kick-butt writing by science fiction writers.

Scott Westerfeld, Polymorph
It was a fast machine, better than Freddie's system. There was a lot of storage space. She searched the drive for askies. They were all together, eleven megs of text files in a volume called "BONITO." She smiled at his egotism.

She directoried the askies by date. One or two files had been created each day since 2/1/1989.

Scott Westerfeld's new book Polymorph bristles with action and technolust. In the passage above, he transforms ASCII text files into "askies" -- and not just for his own pleasure. Although it may seem unwarranted to change the spelling of a commonly accepted acronym, the change signals the difference between our present and Westerfeld's future. (If you don't think spelling rules can delineate periods, read some Chaucer in Middle English and then read some Shakespeare. Same language, 200 years of linguistic change.)

I also like his use of "directoried " -- this is a fresh new verb. And about time, too. We've long needed a shorthand for "list out the files in a directory."

Those of us who are UNIX lizards have a very geeky shorthand -- "ls" (equivalent to the DOS "dir" command) -- but try that on most people and you'd get a blank stare for a response.

In fact, I think I'll use "directoried" in a software manual and see who complains. (At least I'll be able to point to a source document, if challenged...)

Wilhelmina Baird, Crashcourse
Dosh was wearing a lime shirt, gilt pants and yellow boots plus a pirate scarf, which said holiday clothes and a kick in the privates for anyone who mistook his business. He'd taken forty minutes to dress and looked it.

We were following street rules: if the guy goes peacock, the bim goes guy. Otherwise they think you're hooking. So I had a black slide catsuit with an oily sheen, bare feet and earrings to my collarbones.

Not only is Wilhelmina Baird's prose full of fresh new images, but I especially admire how she curtails "bimbo" to "bim" -- which in her world is any female on the street. I also like the way she describes Dosh, in his multicolored livery, and then supplies the street slang afterward ("if the guy goes peacock"). If she ever needed to use the slang term "peacock" again, she could deploy it with one phrase and not a single reader would be lost.

Iain M. Banks, Feersum Endjinn
Consistory member Quolier Oncaterius VI sat in the single ice-scull, pulling hard on the oars while the seat slid under him, the breath whistled out of his lungs and the claw-blades bit and chipped into the smoothly glistening surface on either side. The scull was an A-shaped tracery of carbon tubing a child could lift with one hand; it skittered across the ice on its three hair-thin blades with a nervous, rumbling, hissing noise.

Iain M. Banks is a writer of amazing mental dexterity and panoramic talent -- it was hard to choose just one paragraph or passage, but I decided on the above piece because it illustrates a fine point: no matter how alien the landscape, how far away and fantastical the situations and characters, great SF writing involves the senses. We feel the seat sliding under him, hear the breath leaving his lungs; hell, the sound of the "hair-thin blades" skate across the dendrites of my mind right now, and I don't have the book in front of me!

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
The bells of St. Mark's were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun.

The above sentence, of course, is the opening sentence of The Diamond Age. It reminds me that no matter how normal things may appear in a science fiction novel (the church bells ringing), you can always expect some rollerblading punk to pop into the scene with a "skull gun". As a first sentence, this is typically effective: grounding, yet disorienting; starts out normal, yet leaves you wanting to know more.

That's good SF -- and good writing.

Thank you very much for indulging my whim of celebrating good writing. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, and a Happy New Year!

Copyright © 1997 by Thomas Myer


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