Fantastic Terminology

One of the great challenges in the depiction of worlds and phenomena distant from reality as we know it is mastering the art of the coinage. It’s not easy; take it from a writer who’s struggled with it for thirty years.

Some science fiction writers are truly gifted at this art. Larry Niven, in his early “Known Space” stories, displayed a talent for introducing strange words as labels for strange things. For example, when he decided to allow faster-than-light travel in his fictional universe — always a chancy proposition — he gave us the hyperdrive shunt. He called the kidnappers who break up their victims for transplant organs organleggers, after the fashion of liquor bootleggers of yore. His aliens always bore interesting names: thrintun, tnuctipun, grogs, trinocs, kzinti, kdatylino, and so forth. (When he revealed to the world that his “secret” was to save his misspellings and employ them later, many SF fans were greatly grieved. We’d had no idea it was that easy.)

Military SF specialist Tom Kratman has done well choosing names for the subvarieties of his Posleen aliens. The nonsentient mass are prosaically styled normals, but above them are the cosslain, semisentient and capable of emotional attachments, and at the peak we have the fully sentient God-Kings, who regard the rest of their race, and any other race they encounter, as fodder for their various needs — especially dinner.

The brilliant Robert Charles Wilson wins the prize for the simplest name given to a new technology: the planetary barrier, imposed on Earth by distant intelligences, that causes time here to pass at a nanoscopic fraction of that in the universe beyond, he calls a spin.

Ursula LeGuin bears the honor of having coined the most frequently “borrowed” word in SF: ansible, her name for a device that permits instantaneous communication between any two points, regardless of the distance between them. Orson Scott Card and others have made free use of this evocative term, hopefully not to Mrs. LeGuin’s disadvantage or displeasure. Her characters dream of someday breaking the lightspeed barrier for physical travel, an achievement she styles transilience.

Alexei Panshin, though his SF has been rather sparse, owns the cutest term for a futuristic criminal. What Niven called an organlegger, Panshin termed a thumb runner. Though the crime it labels is unquestionably awful, it’s hard to see the term without giggling over it.

Alastair Reynolds, the reigning monarch of hard SF, depicts in his novel House of Suns an unusual sociological development: shatterlings, clones a thousand in number, of a single individual with great resources. Those clones then effectuate a galactic diaspora, reconverging periodically to update their collective knowledge of conditions in the Milky Way. In his recent book Terminal World, he introduces an equally ingenious term to cover a maximally brash conception: extreme variation in the laws of nature, within distances of geographic scale, right here on Earth. Levels of feasible technology, and even the viability of the chemical processes that sustain life, vary greatly among the zones. Persons who are capable of influencing the boundaries between the zones are called tectomancers, an inspired use of the “tecto-” root we find in the word “tectonic.”

And what, you ask, does this have to do with storytelling?

Well, if you want to transport your reader to an exotic setting — whether the exotic aspect is of natural law, technology, or placement in the universe — any neologisms you choose will be of critical import:

  • They must attach firmly to their referents.
  • They must be relatively easy to remember.
  • They must not allow a lot of ambiguity.
  • If there are to be sequels, they must “travel well” down your fictional arc.

Terminological considerations such as these have a disproportionate impact on the legibility and memorability of an SF story.

Consider the wide variety of scientific and technological premises, aliens, and landscapes that characterizes modern SF. We’ve come a long way from the days when simple space opera dominated SF storytelling. Without innovative terms for the new ideas and motifs that help to frame and propel these stories, they would be difficult to tell, and even more difficult to make comprehensible. Genuinely new things require genuinely new words.

(One of the reasons I disdain most visual SF — television shows and movies with science-fictional coloring — is the lack of innovation displayed by their premises. That pedestrian quality is most clearly shown by the sameness of their terms for central technological motifs. Couldn’t Gene Roddenberry come up with anything better than phaser and transporter?)

In the speculative uber-genre, recent SF displays a terminological creativity superior to recent fantasy of all sorts. That superiority reflects a superiority in overall creativity as well: whereas SF authors keep coming up with new stuff, fantasy writers have barely advanced since the Nineteenth Century. The stultifying sameness of the elves, trolls, dwarves, vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, and so on has caused a number of aspiring fantasists to shift their storytelling emphasis from their fantasy elements to romance. That does not bode well for the creative prospects of modern fantasy. In this regard, the works of Lilith Saintcrow are a bright spot in a sea of dreary uniformity.

The moral is this: He who seeks to bring something new into the fictional universe has the responsibility for naming it, and a serious responsibility it is. If he can’t come up with a truly new and memorable name, he should question whether his “creation” is truly new, or whether he’s just retreaded a motif other writers have been using for decades.

Writers, watch your words.

Categories: Fiction Tips, Self Publishing, and Writing Tips.

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