the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘language

 

What’s your favorite science fiction theme, asked another SciFi Month participant.

Without a doubt, my favorite science fiction theme is First Contact. What will we say to aliens when we meet them? How will we communicate? How will we be understood? What if they are incomprehensible?

I really dig the “communication” part of first contact stories. Of course we’re going to try to talk to aliens! Of course we will wildly misinterpret everything they say! And of course we have the ego and the hubris to have no idea that we are misinterpreting everything, because the first time a xenobiologist or xenolinguist admits they are “approaching this problem with the mind of student”, some idiot will say “are you saying you’re too dumb to be here?” and that will be the end of the conversation and the beginning of the misinterpretation.  More on the tip of that iceberg at the end of the post.

 

Anyway, I love me some first contact stories, and if they touch on language, all the better!

If you like that too, here are some recommendations that may be of interest to you.

 

Arrival – When aliens arrive and start giving us their written language, a linguistics professor is brought in to translate. What she sees makes no sense, and when the symbols are finally translated, it is more than just language and sentences. She’s literally able to see the events of her life in a new, and sometimes frightening way. This movie is based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. I’m a sucker for visuals and effective pacing, and I have a major thing for linguistics. I enjoyed the short story and LOVED the movie.

 

Babel 17 by Samuel Delany – All the linguistics fun of Arrival, plus a bucket of super cool characters, a wild adventure, and smart people talking about smart things. Did I mention the main character is a poet? I vaguely remember in the movie Contact, there is a line “they should have sent a poet”. Well, Delany did. You’ll like this one, I promise.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – are you in the read-along for this? What do you think so far? Yeah there is aliens in this book and first contact! The Sparrow is probably the most unexpected first contact book ever written. It’s weird, because we don’t actually learn much about the aliens. Well, we see a lot, and figure out a lot of what their saying, but it always seemed to me that what the humans had so much trouble with was the paying attention and actually listening part. So in a way, they do learn, only after it is too late.

 

Defenders by Will McIntosh – so, we meet aliens, and they can read our minds. We don’t quite understand their invasion or what they want, so humans make the group decision to freak the hell out. We design and build cyborgs to protect us. And then we win the war against the alien invaders. So what to do with all these cyborgs, who have been programmed to protect against an invader that isn’t a threat anymore? I appreciate that McIntosh talks about the aftermath of a failed alien invasion.

 

District 9 – When the aliens visit, their mothership hovers above Johannesburg, and doesn’t move. Nothing happens for months. When our military cuts into the ship, we find starving creatures, so we “rescue” them. And put them in a “refugee camp”. It gets so much worse and more dehumanizing from there. Every time I see this movie it is harder to watch, because I know what’s coming. And every time I watch this movie I enjoy it more, because maybe there’s hope that humans won’t always be shit heads.

Blindsight by Peter Watts – just an excellent book, all around. This was the book that got me turned on to the idea that humans think we are really good at communication, but we are actually quite terrible at it. The aliens lurking at the edge of solar system might really not want to talk to us. Or, in a weird way, maybe they are just saying hello? There’s probably no way to know. If you like edge of your seat scifi thrillers, this is the book for you. Also, scientifically possible vampires.

 

The Visitors by Clifford Simak – I just read this last week! The most peaceful alien invasion story I’ve ever read. The aliens come, and they just sit in the woods and in some farms. They literally just sit there. They eat some trees. A few cars accidentally get eaten. The aliens don’t talk to us, they don’t communicate at all (or do they?). Before leaving they give us a gift, something they think we will enjoy having. It is a gift that could destroy our civilization as we know it. At first, I thought these kind aliens were giving me a “yes, there really is a free lunch!” type story, and then when I got to the end of the book I realize that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

 

Have you read any of these books or seen any of these movies? What did you think of them?

What are some of your favorite first contact books and movies?

 

 

What fascinates me about First Contact stories, is that when it comes down to it, those stories are not about the aliens. They aren’t about how humans will interact with, communicate with, be judgy about, or be accepting of aliens. First contact stories are a mirror for how we interact with each other. They mirror how we communicate with each other, how we judge each other, how we accept (or don’t. Or eventually come to accept) anyone who is different from us.  Like many science fiction themes,  First Contact stories show how humans can normalize certain types of reactions to anything that is new, or different from what we are used to.

I don’t know if it’s brilliant or depressing that we need science fiction to show us that humans have a habit of being assholes to each other.

Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist by Lola Robles, translated by Lawrence Schimel

first English edition 2016, originally published in Spanish in 2005

where I got it: purchased new

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What’s twitter and social media good for, you ask?  Of course I can’t find the tweet now, but Rachel Cordasco recommended this book to me during a twitter chat. She knows I love anything having to do with language, communication, and linguistics, and she knows I love science fiction.  Without the power of social media, I would never have known this wonderful little book existed.

 

Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist, is exactly what it says on the tin – this is a short (too short!) memoir of Rachel Monteverde, the first linguist from Earth to visit the planet Aanuk.   Told through a combination of diary entries, excerpts from papers, and excerpts from interviews, Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist is part The Left Hand of Darkness, part A Natural History of Dragons, and entirely something new and wonderful and beautiful and glorious. Stories are words on a page, but language transcends.

 

I loved this book for the observations about how language evolves because of how it’s speakers interact with the world.  I know that sounds kind of obvious, but Robles takes it in directions I didn’t even think of, and she literally shows this to the speakers who are so steeped in their own languages, societies, and cultures, that they never before saw/heard what was happening.

 

Aanuk had been colonized by humans generations ago, a ship had crash landed there. . . and then forgotten about.   The planet had plenty of easily available food, plenty of sheltered areas, and no large predators, so the survivors of the crash did quite well for themselves in their new idyllic home.  Too far away to be worth travelling to, not enough natural resources to be worth developing, the forced colonists lost contact with Earth and that was fine with them.

When it was finally rediscovered, Aanuk gained the nickname “Paradise”, for its beautiful and vividly colored forests, it’s lovely beaches, and it’s rolling hills.  Aanuk has more than enough seafood, grazing land, orchards, and space for everyone. While there are small domestic disputes, there has never been war on Aanuk. The Aanukians are never in a hurry to get anywhere, they never seem in a hurry to have knowledge before someone else. Airplanes and the printing press never took off, as anything more than passing novelties.  To a foreigner, living on Aanuk seems like a never ending relaxed vacation. Rachel Monteverde was thrilled to get to spend a year there, learning the Aanukian language (and maybe even a few words of the Fihdian language). She has a secret mission, as well.

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On a lark, I picked up China Mieville’s Embassytown to reread.  I read this back when it came out in 2011, and it blew my mind. (I even wrote a pretty good review!) I remember being intimidated by the vocabulary, of having dictionary.com open while I was reading. I remember that at the time I wondered if half the words were made up, or if Mieville was trying to prove that he was smart and I was dumb.  I was the girl who read what was given to her.  Maybe Mieville was just telling me to pick up a damn dictionary already.

 

On this reread, pen in hand, I decided to underline every word I didn’t know.  I underlined maybe five words? All of which I could figure out contextually. That girl, the one who got all defensive because she ran into words she didn’t know? Eight years later that girl is a stranger to me.  These days, words I don’t know are like eating a fruit i’ve never had, or a dessert i’ve never heard of, or gaining access to the rare book room at the library. They are a joy.

 

Speaking of weird words I don’t know Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun tasted like mochi and illuminated manuscripts .  To put that in context, the first time I tasted Mochi I cried with joy.

(Words you don’t know is like rehearsing with a jam band. You want to be the worst musician in the room, because that guarantees you’ll learn from the other musicians. Being the best musician in a jam band is boring – you risk not becoming a better musician)

 

I can’t talk about Embassytown without talking about language, and how spoken communication is both more and less about the actual words that come out of our mouths.  My fave subgenre of scifi is books that deal with language, linguistics, first contact, communication. I hate the word “communication”, it is such a bland, cheap sounding word for something that encompasses basically everything.

 

This post  has minor and major spoilers for Embassytown. Consider yourself warned.  But like any Mieville book, i can tell you what happens at the end, and it won’t spoil any of the good parts of the book for you.

 

In the book Embassytown, the aliens, the Ariekei, speak with two mouths, two voices at once.  If what they are saying is two syllables, they say both syllables at the same time. The way this is presented within in the text fantastic, it looks something like this:

 

 

It takes two humans, speaking at the same time, to speak in Language that the aliens will understand.   One human talking just sounds like white noise to them. They hear sound (maybe?) but the sounds are just noise.

(spoilers, and hella cool conversation on language ahead!)

 

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.