The poetics of SF

Science fiction is scared of language.

It’s practitioners come, in bulk, from the numbered disciplines. Physicists. Engineers. Coders. The number is absolute. Seven is seven is seven is seven. It’s not six and it’s not eight. This is the whole point of whole numbers.

Infinity is just a slippery sound made by a monkey with highly trained lips and tongue. Represented as a set of scrawled sigils on paper. Even if we can agree on a spelling for spectre (specter to my American readers) it’s still a ghostly concept, summoning one net of denotations and connotations for me, entirely another for you.

Dammit Jim, I’m a semiotician not a mathematician!

Science fiction deals with it’s fear of drowning in uncertainty by staying in the shallow end of language’s infinite slipperiness. It’s science fiction, not science poetry, and it’s remarkable how descriptions of the alien and interdimensional can be so conservative in their use of language.

“Language is the true portal to sensawunda, to other worlds, to alternate realities.”

To be an “easy read” fiction must meet the reader on many levels. Narrative must conform to the psychological rhetorics of story. Language must conform to a shallow pool of concretely agreed terminology. You are going to need to understand these rules before you can break them. But you are going to have to break them.

If I only communicate with you in words you already understand, I can only show you a world you already know. It matters not if that world is in the galaxy Andromeda, in its assumptions about society, hierarchy, the realities of class, gender, sexuality, the operations of the human mind and psyche, it will be only an imprint of the shopping mall world of today.

Samuel Delany talks orniphoters in his collected essays on writing craft. Science fiction finds its poetry when it synthesises new words for non-existant things. Ornithology plus helicopter gives us a bird like chopper. A doorway irises open. Into a wider liguistic world. But this is only the the start of the downslope into the deep end.

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Science fiction’s poets – Delany, Gibson, Le Guin, Ballard, Mieville, Bradbury, Valente, Chiang and sorry for those I leave out – do not write poems (they might also, that’s another matter). They strain at the boundaries of language and narrative, to push them just so far beyond the reader’s understanding that an “easy read” becomes a “rich read”.

Language is the true portal to sensawunda, to other worlds, to alternate realities. There’s a reason great SF is so often about language 1- Babel-17, Embassytown, Arrival, to name a few. To crack your reality open, we need to go Sapir-Whorf on your ass. We need to recode the code your reality runs on – the slippery code of language.

Science fiction is scared of language. You must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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