What is it with coffee?

Even liking funny words, I have a problem with coffee in science fiction and fantasy. It’s clearly coffee, but nobody ever calls it coffee. There certainly are words that can throw a reader out of the world of the story, but is coffee really one of them? Coffee isn’t a word with specific Earth-only origins, like china and cordwainer and assassin and sandwich. If people wear cloaks and sit in chairs, the writer is using English to represent what they would be called in their own language. You can’t make up a funny word for everything, or you really are writing the book in a new language and forcing the reader to learn it.

The lack of coffee is particularly jarring in books purporting to be set in our future—people aren’t likely to give up coffee. I could just about believe it if everyone referred to (all ninety kinds of it) as latte, or capu, or by some other-language realworld word for coffee (cafe, caffe, kaffee) but only if the worldbuilding justified that.

As for fantasy—Europe didn’t start drinking coffee until the seventeenth century (there’s an argument that it was the coffee caffeine high that started capitalism and the stock market) but people were drinking it in Ethopia for a long time before that. It needs to grow somewhere warm, and be traded from there, but people trade a long way for things they want. Besides, it isn’t any more weird to trade coffee than khuvi or jav. But if you’re going to have coffee, perhaps your fantasy world ought to be more manic and caffeinated than the real middle ages.

Even C.J. Cherryh in the Chanur books does this. They drink gfi. Gfi! To make it worse, they also drink tea, because tea is somehow a value-neutral word. There’s a scene where the hani and the stsho exchange crates of tea as part of a bargain, but then they go back to the ship and drink gfi. I wonder what that is!

In Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, they drink klah. Klah is clearly just like coffee, in the same way that their berry pies are berry pies. And in the Wheel of Time books they drink kaf. There are a pile of other examples at TV Tropes, including a whole set of different ones from the Star Wars universe.

Steven Brust cunningly gets a pass on this one. He has them drinking klava, which sounds just like fantasy coffee until nine books into the series at Issola, when he reveals that they have coffee as well, and klava is made out of it. It tastes like coffee smells. He goes on to give the recipe. I remember it involves filtering through eggshells.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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