imagine a machine

I’ve been thinking recently about how languages change over time. I think of the movie Ladyhawke, which had a setting that was something like France during the Middle Ages, but was marred by a kind of modern, low-register dialog delivered by a post-Ferris-Bueller Matthew Broderick. People very easily percieved that the dialog didn’t fit with the setting — it was jarring and unbelievable. 

And this is something I war with, specifically when I write science fiction, which is for the most part set in the future? A future, a possible future. When Tolkien wrote about his imagined, alternate past, he chose or created a language specific to it. How can we presume to write about any future, without also considering the kind of English that will be spoken then?

You can pick up any English-language book, open it to any page, read randomly from it, and make a fair guess as to when it was written. Chaucer reads differently from Jennifer Egan, Hemmingway from Mary Shelley, Junot Díaz from The King James Bible. It’s not only style, it also has to do with the underlying language being used. Language isn’t static — it’s a living thing, it’s changing all the time. It has to.

I think people generally appreciate when an author pulls off the feat of writing something clearly separate from her own time. It aids in setting and the suspension of disbelief; it contributes to voice. Language well-rendered from some other era can strike us as beautiful simply for its strangeness.

At the same time, I sense that editors, agents, MFA teachers, writing coaches nearly universally counsel against attempting this. They all want the language a writer uses to be clean, modern, functional, easy to read, free of artifice.

But there’s something more, something beyond imitating the language of a different time or culture. Certain writers advance our language, they push it forward into new function and expressiveness. They become some of those forces that cause language to evolve.

Certainly Shakespeare did this; long lists exist of the words he invented, the idioms he created. The consensus is that Hemingway did this also, cutting away a lot of the florid overgrowth that preceded him. To this list I’d be inclined to add the Beats, specifically Burroughs and Kerouac, and also Renata Adler and Susan Steinberg. My knowledge of literature is probably neither deep nor broad enough for me to make a very complete list.

But is this something that is reasonable to aspire to in one’s own writing? I would like to argue that, when writing about the future, naturalism requires it of us. Perversely, perhaps, but there it is. We can’t see it, but we’re meant to reach blindly for it.

“The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.” – Margot Livesey

Something about this Margot Livesey quote really rings for me. It’s taken from her essay Shakespeare for Writers, in THE WRITER’S NOTEBOOK, Craft Essays from Tin House. It’s a knowing and inspiring essay, and I encourage writers to find and read it entire. (Also, I can’t recommend Margot Livesey’s fiction strongly enough.)

Writers coming out of MFA programs, and those holed up in garrets in Brooklyn, might have good reasons to reach for novel language, but they’re writing now, about the Now, and probably hoping to write broadly appealing works that earn them a living wage. We amateur SF writers, working on the fringe, perhaps even on the frontiers of our own fringe, are writing of the future(s), and may perhaps even be resident in a future, in some sense. It’s our particular responsibility to be the explorers and the pioneers of new language.

I’m imagining a machine, a very elaborate machine, that would read and comprehend every extant work of English fiction. It would probably need to be fairly large, even if it were distributed in ‘The Cloud’. It would reply to verbal questions, with a British butler’s understatement and submerged amusement.

It would analyze all the paragraphs, the sentences, and the word choices, of everything that had ever been written in any English-language story ever, and graph the results over some multi-dimensional space relevant to writers and their choices. And then it would regress a series of average points over all those dimensions, one point for each calendar year, with each work of fiction contributing to the point corresponding to the year of its creation. Then, this machine would draw a smooth curve through all those points, from oldest to most recent. It might need to perform some further averaging in order to do this, but it has a degree in statistics from Stanford, and its judgement is good about such things.

Then, most ominously, it would employ some trusted method to extend the curve, extrapolate from this year forward, out into the future.  What points would that curve intersect?  What could we divine about the writing and speech of future English-users, as a result of this frightful amount of analysis?

We might imagine a future in which English were streamlined, made simpler and more compact.

Writers, particularly short story writers, are always pitched up against word count limits imposed by editors, publishers, by their own time, and by the wavering attentions of readers. I wonder how much of Hemingway’s economy is attributable to limits imposed on his writing by external forces?

“I am going to the store.”  (Usually when people say this, they haven’t yet left for the store – what they really mean is “I am going to go to the store.” Let’s overlook this for now.)  This sentence seems straightforward, lacking in any embellishment. On the surface, it seems atomic.

But I is the implied subject of every am. The word to would be unnecessary if going were transitive. The word the imparts no new information about which store is meant. “I am going to the store.” could become “Am going store,” maybe even “Am go store,” without giving up any content at all. (What value does the present participle add here?)

This sentence is an existence proof that there is a lot of space in current English that could be streamlined, reorganized.  The result sounds alien but that’s not immediately a reason to dislike it if its meaning is unambiguous. It has a certain pleasing spareness to it.

The idea here would be not (just) to squash all the unnecessary stuff out of each utterance, for brevity’s sake, but rather to reduce the distance between the beautiful, the tangible, the fateful bits. The parts of what you’re saying that actually matter.

Also, it strikes me that a lot of grammar — all the declensions and agreements — serves, at least in modern use, no purpose other than to make distinctions between speakers: who is a native speaker, who is an outsider, who has had what kind of education. I think of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. When this first occured to me, I was revulsed. Try to imagine a future where this kind of gate-keeping weren’t built into the very language.

These are just some ideas. I don’t know where they lead, and whether many readers wouldn’t be entirely put off by having to follow an author through a grammar partially (or entirely) invented and different from their own. Surely there must be some precedents in the corpus of existing SF (to be explored in a later blog post.) But I put this here as a reminder to myself, and as part of my effort to try to capture my writing ideas while they are still fluid.