Change the Language, Change the World

A Note from Liz Bourke: I’ve asked Fran to write this week’s Sleeps With Monsters column because I really like her novel Updraft. Let her tell you something about how she went about writing it.

“… in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like ‘the ordinary world,’ ‘ordinary life,’ ‘the ordinary course of events’ … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.”

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, in her 1996 Nobel Prize speech about the work of poets, concluded the above paragraph this way: “It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.”

All writers do this work in some fashion, even if poets get to use the prettiest knives. Part of the work is a constant re-honing of language; making us think about its power, and the uniqueness of everything we use language to describe, lest its opposite deaden our response to the world around us.

Writers are like that, refusing to let things go dull.

This is especially true of science fiction and fantasy. We constantly invent new words to go with new worlds (“cyberspace,” for instance), and new ways of using old words that shake the reader out of complacency.

Sometimes we discover a simple change in linguistics that alters the structure of the worlds we’re writing, often for the better. And if we’re lucky, some of those changes can alter the world around us, too.

Ursula K. Le Guin does this with “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” first in a simple paragraph about joy that devastates with hindsight: “Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?” Here, joy is a lynchpin that Le Guin will remove over ensuing paragraphs… in fact, the very next paragraph begins by taking away everything that we might suspect underpins that joy. Later, she asks us, “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.” And once you have read what she has to tell you next, you will no longer think of joy in the same unencumbered way.

The Handmaid's Tale book cover language maydayIn another fashion, Margaret Atwood vividly re-inscribes the meaning of a phrase in The Handmaid’s Tale multiple times. She turns the sentence “It is a beautiful May Day,” into a keyphrase that invokes “mayday”—the old distress signal and, soon, “Mayday,” a resistance group. Hearing it, the handmaiden Offred recalls a conversation from her past:

“Do you know where it came from? He asks. Mayday?… It’s French, he said. From m’aidez.”

The next line stands alone, its own paragraph: “Help me.”

With a passing phrase, a memory, and not much more, Atwood tears the fabric of her world and resets it, offering Offred a way out, and us a way in.

Anathem book cover Neal Stephenson languageLinguistics and word-honing can also impact worldbuilding. In Anathem, Neal Stephenson uses “Maths” to denote monastic-styled structures created to protect intellectual thought, and those engaged in it, from the outside world. The term shifts from something you do, to something you are, and something that you live in. In China Mieville’s Bas-Lag, the term “Remade” becomes a horrific form of punishment and societal control. He then coins “fRemade” as a new word made from two old ones—free and remade—to embody those who have broken that control.

I love watching writers hone language like this. I aspire to similar acuity in my own work. And probably this is the basis for my favoring puns, which are a form of word-work as well, known as “play.”

But where Mieville retook “remade” and Atwood layered “mayday,” in Updraft, I focused mainly on honing the smaller words: prepositions and pronouns, as well as inverting common assumptions.

For a society focused on always moving higher—for safety, for status—the language in Updraft had to move away from the assumptions we on the ground hold dear. As the bone cores of each tower push out, and each generation moves higher above the clouds, the very axis of the text had to shift.

Updraft Fran Wilde language down upIn Updraft, gravity is not what keeps us safely on the ground; it is what pulls us from the sky. The clouds themselves are feared—and so become a muttered curse. The wind is a friend, but it too carries dangers; it is something to be navigated.

Most important, my prepositions had to shift—to flip, really. Things that would normally be passed down, one generation to the next, must be passed up.

“The lenses had survived for who knew how long, handed up, the straps replaced, dents carefully pounded from the frames. She considered them her good-luck charm.”

Up becomes a focus of the society, and reframes how they mourn—

“Jador Mondarath fell in service to the city. Look up to watch his soul pass above. We do not look down in mourning.”

—and how they challenge themselves to keep going:

“You don’t live long in the towers if you can’t pull yourself back up when you tumble.”

There are politics with up and down as well—living downtower is thought of as unlucky. Downtower is closer to danger; uptower is better.

A citizen can be sent down, so weighed down by Lawsmarkers it is impossible to fly, and, worst of all, thrown down.

During copy edits, I found myself defending my pronoun choices. I’ve used the third person singular “they” for many years, preferring it to the wordier “he or she.” In addition to word count, the he-or-she construction requires the author to put a gender before another quite literally, when it isn’t necessary—and to consciously alternate between he-or-she and she-or-he, which also is not necessary (and highly binary). In addition, when gender is neither stated nor clear, imposing the binary feels like jumping to conclusions. In Updraft, where a character may take on societal roles from councillor to hunter, trader to Singer regardless of gender, the choice to use “they” was deliberate, and used consistently until more information was known.

When my usage was questioned, I stuck to my guns, waving the ALA manual and going as far back as Chaucer and Jane Austen for precedence. I see numerous other writers and editors doing the same thing. Recently, Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine (F&SF) editor Charlie Finlay mentioned his preference is similar, although the magazine always follows the lead of the author.

There are many ways to change the world with language, small and large. Trading up for down, three words for one.

The more we see and say the words, the more carefully we hone our usage, the more our experience will open up each unique setting, and within those settings, each unique person.

Fran Wilde’s first novel, Updraft, debuts from Tor Books on September 1, 2015. Her short stories have appeared at, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, and in Asimov’s and Nature. Fran also interviews authors about food in fiction at Cooking the Books, and blogs for GeekMom and SFSignal. You can find Fran at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.


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