Mar 21 2012 1:00pm

Genre in the Mainstream: What Does the Prose of the Future Read Like?

On Monday, I had the pleasure of having a live discussion at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore with Ben Marcus, author of The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women and recently; The Flame Alphabet. Though not a science fiction guy, Ben’s fiction is nonetheless experimental, and The Flame Alphabet’s basic premise is possibly his most genre-blurring book yet. Marcus has always been a champion for experimental fiction in the literary mainstream, with his 2005 Harper’s essay being one of the finest articulations on the subject.

As we were chatting, he mentioned something interesting: he said he plans to have his students try and write stories emulating what fiction will be like 50 years from now. The stories didn’t have to have futuristic elements, but the writing should feel like it was from the future.  This got me thinking: what books have attempted this? Which authors have tried to imagine what prose itself will be like in the future?

In order to imagine what prose is like in the future, one probably doesn’t have to be a linguist, thought it wouldn’t hurt. Author and translator Anthony Burgess was famously also a linguist, which likely informed the invented future-langue of A Clockwork Orange. Though Burgess was later unhappy with the public’s reception of this novel, the incorporation of imagined-future slang into the basic fabric of the novel is fairly groundbreaking and unparalleled. Some versions of the book include a glossary of terms while others do not. Which way is the best way to read it? For my money, A Clockwork Orange works best when you don’t have the glossary, meaning you’re fully immersed in the setting of the novel, which allows its satire and imagery to work on a different level.

Something else Marcus asserted during our conversation was the notion that “…we don’t fully understand language. If a person put together the right words in the right order, we don’t actually know what that could do…” Unsurprisingly The Flame Alphabet explores this concept pretty effectively, but when Ben mentioned this notion, I was reminded of the Paul Park story, “Untitled 4” in which a character is imprisoned for a writing a novel so powerful, that just cracking it opne can cause nations to crumble. Park doesn’t always experiment with futuristic prose on the actual page, but he certainly alludes to it in that story and in his novella “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” in which a science fiction writer living in the near future is at one point tracing his family’s past by looking through some of the books they’ve written.

Alfred Bester’s lesser-known novel, The Computer Connection, also handily drops the reader into a world with prose which has evolved into something recognizable as English, but is certainly not English. Here, Bester has characters say “Y” instead of “yes” and simply uses the letter “V’ for “very.” But The Computer Connection doesn’t only rely on dialogue tricks; Bester inserts some of this into the narration, owing to the fact that the book is written in first person, meaning the futuristic prose is being directly addressed to the reader. This book doesn’t so much experiment with a future-kind of prose as it does predict some of it.

Jennifer Egan did the same thing a few years ago in the last chapter of A Visit From the Good Squad, in which characters in a near-future New York discuss the meaning of various future acronyms. Gary Shteyngart played with this quite a bit too in the e-mail exchanges in the future New York of Super Sad True Love Story. What makes The Computer Connection interesting is that Bester oddly predicted certain abbreviations which resemble “LOL” and “TTYL.” (As the title suggests, the book also kind of predicts the Internet.) Notably, Alfred Bester’s messing around with a futuristic language takes place in a bona fide science fiction novel, whereas Super Sad True Love Story, and A Visit From the Goon Squad, despite their genre crossover, are for the most part, not science fiction. Does this mean the future of futuristic prose experimentation has shifted over to the literary circles? Maybe.

Further, what is the value of all of this, beyond an interesting thought experiment? Could fiction stories actually move a person not just emotionally, but to some kind of essential revelatory state? Could fiction literally be as dangerous as it is in Paul Park’s “Untitled 4” or in Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet? The latter actually has the main character Sam constructing literal new letters, which are seemingly quasi-organic. This is one of the more interesting ideas about language in the future: at the point at which the medium of writing becomes non-writing, then what the hell are we even talking about?

In an opening scene of Back to the Future 2, a young child mocks Marty’s love of an arcade game by saying “You have to use your hands? It’s like a baby’s toy!” Could prose be like this someday? An outdated arcade game which required some sort of rudimentary interface? And if words are just words, how can we reach to the future with them? Must we invent new words?

And now kind readers, let me know what other novels (science fiction or not!) which have experimented with a future-prose. (The Shakespearian Klingon does not count, because as Gorkon said: it was originally written in Klingon.)

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. berthok
This is a very interesting topic! I haven't read any of the works you reference, but I may just have to pick one of them up.

I'm not certain if this applies 100% to this article but I'm reminded of the cyberculture language in Neuromancer. When I read it in college (only a few years ago) I had to really take my time in understanding all of the terms William Gibson crafted for his future universe. It reminded me of a puzzle and had me absolutely fascinated from the start.
John Coulthart
2. John_Coulthart
Max Beerbohm's humorous short story 'Enoch Soames: A Memory of the Eighteen-nineties' (1916) imagined that the prose of 1997 would have turned phonetic:

The document lies before me at this moment. Strange that the words I here copy out for you were copied out for me by poor Soames just eighty-two years hence!

From page 234 of "Inglish Littracher 1890-1900" bi T. K. Nupton, publishd bi th Stait, 1992.

Fr egzarmpl, a riter ov th time, naimed Max Beerbohm, hoo woz stil alive in th twentith senchri, rote a stauri in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld "Enoch Soames"—a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im! It iz a sumwot labud sattire, but not without vallu az showing hou seriusli the yung men ov th aiteen-ninetiz took themselvz. Nou that th littreri profeshn haz bin auganized az a departmnt of publik servis, our riters hav found their levvl an hav lernt ter doo their duti without thort ov th morro. "Th laibrer iz werthi ov hiz hire" an that iz aul. Thank hevvn we hav no Enoch Soameses amung us to-dai!

I found that by murmuring the words aloud (a device which I commend to my reader) I was able to master them little by little.
C Smith
3. C12VT
What about Greg Bear's Slant? As I recall that had a lot of embedded futuristic language, and not just in teh dialogue. Though it's been a while since I read it.
4. Eugene R.
Most post-apocalyptic novels go for some form of evolved/devolved language, as in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. But, the prose structure usually stays consistent with contemporary forms. Hmm. Maybe the best examples are the experimental fictions from the New Wave era and after, where the prose is infused with the elliptical compression of poetry, probably as a parallel form of alienation of the reader in the narrative to accompany the alienating power of the subject matter. I am thinking of Delany's The Einstein Intersection (post-human future) or Crowley's Engine Summer (post-apocalyptic unreliable narrator). Another elliptic fiction is Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus (alien worlds narrative shattered over 3 novellas).

I am not sure if any of these works is quite "post-verbal", but they do strike me as prose that could have emerged to meet changed conditions. Certainly, in terms of genre speculative fiction, movement away from the classical "transparent" prose produces a frisson of the future in me.
Dom Bell
5. Jaggysnake
Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

I personally found it quite difficult to read the phonetic speech used by the main charcter when in the cryptoshere (a kind of virtual computer network for peoples minds).

I have read of examiners complaining of some test papers being littered with unorthodox abbreviations and phonetic spellings but who's to say it won't be the norm in the distant future?

Couldnt finish the book myself tho i will definately give it another try as he's by far my favourite author!

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