Futurespeak, and Some Other Topic

Lately I’ve been reading – in some cases rereading – classic science fiction novels. BookBub, a website that notifies you of one-day sales on eBooks, often has one of them in the daily listing so I link over to Barnes & Noble and download it to my Nook for a pittance, like $1.99. Some are free but those tend to be B-listers you’ve never heard of.

  • By the way, I love my Nook. With failing eyesight, having an ereader that allows you to crank up the font size to whatever you like is a fabulous thing.

Classic novels are characterized by several things I guess but obviously one of them is that they’re old. They were written decades ago. As such, the authors necessarily wrote from the perspective of the era they were living in – the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, whatever. With science fiction, that also meant foreseeing the future from the perspective of their particular present time, and as we all know, predictions of the future are pretty loose and evolve as the ‘present’ moves forward. Maybe movies teach us that better with perhaps Blade Runner, made in 1982 and set in Los Angeles 2019, being a prime example of a future prediction that wasn’t quite on point. With novels, I go with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. As we all can now attest, the events of that dystopian future took place not in 1984 but a bit later in 2016 with the election of the Mango Mussolini and subsequent demise of the last remaining rational Republicans.

But this post is actually a rant. I’m not here to expound on the greatness of classic sci-fi novels. I’m here to complain about an aspect of the novels that often bothers me, and sometimes makes the book unreadable. It’s futurespeak. That might not be the correct term and I certainly didn’t coin it. Futurespeak is what it literally sounds like – speaking in the future. In other words, the language, idioms and peculiar syntax that future people speak, or at least how the author imagines they might speak. As a concept, futurespeak is not only good but inevitable. Consider pastspeak – how folks spoke in the past. It’s said that an English-speaking person transported back in time a couple of hundred years to England would have trouble understanding the locals despite their speaking ‘English.’ Language evolves, and fairly quickly I’d say. Consider also old movies, maybe a 1940’s gangster flick. The slang used by the characters is often entirely out of use today, and I’d suspect that a lot of young people might not even know what some of it meant. And that’s just half a decade or so.

So when a science-fiction writer puts pen to paper on a novel set a few centuries or more in the future, it’s logical that the characters would be speaking a language quite unfamiliar to us today. But is that really what we want to read? I say no, at least not that much. Take Samuel R. Delany’s classic Dhalgren. Acclaimed as one of the great novels of our time, it leans heavily on futurespeak. I’m not sure how far in the future it’s set but the characters use a whole lot of unfamiliar words, slang, idioms. It’s sometimes hard to parse. Mind you, Dhalgren is one of those books I’d read before – maybe on the submarine – and I recall thinking highly of it, so clearly I haven’t always had this aversion to futurespeak.

Probably most people reading this post (clarification: no one reads these posts) will think my issue with futurespeak is at best trivial and at worst, a sign that I’m embracing ignorance. Frankly, I lean towards the latter; as I grow older, I feel less inclined to put in much effort to read books. My life has been one of reading difficult things, albeit mostly technical stuff involved with three disparate degree programs and a career as an engineer/technician. But I have read a lot of the heady, classic books. I just don’t want to anymore. Instead, I’d like authors to concentrate on the plot, character development, suspense and the like and not force me to learn a new language. After all, if I wanted to read War and Peace (I don’t want to), I really think I’d like the English translation over the original Russian and French, even though those languages are what the characters would have spoken.

Some futurespeak is OK – I’m currently reading Across a Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg, which is set a few centuries in the future and employs a moderate amount of unfamiliar slang and other futurespeak, certainly less than the characters would probably actually speak given the time. So I’m not totally ignorant.

Oh, and the ‘other topic’ this post’s title alludes to? I’ve actually already touched on it: my aversion to challenging reads. Didn’t used to be that way but I now really only like easy reading. Probably a sign a failing mental acuity. Sigh.

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