JANE: Last time we started taking a look at why the style (in which we included narrative conventions) of older SF can provide a barrier to newer readers – even those who are perfectly willing to accept, say, a Mars with breathable air or starship engineers who use slide rules, as a sort of “alternate history.”
Since anyone who missed that can look here, I’m just going to dive in where we left off.
ALAN: Go for it!
JANE: I think one of the biggest hurdles older SF faces is that – especially given that these stories are full of people who are little more than talking heads – the dialogue sounds so fake.
Let me quote from early in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934).
“Well,” exploded Harrison abruptly, “are we going to hear what happened? You set out all shipshape in an auxiliary rocket, we don’t get a peep for ten days, and finally Putz here picks you out of a lunatic ant-heap with a freak ostrich as your pal! Spill it, man!”
If this had been the narrative hook, I might be more forgiving, but we’ve already had a page of info dump… including a very long, very dense, very dull paragraph, much of which has absolutely nothing to do with the story.
If you will bear with me, I’ll take a closer look.
ALAN: The closer the better – I’m intrigued.
JANE: First, I’m reminded, once again, of old-radio dramas, where, since they can’t show what’s happening, they tell you, often through dialogue. Let’s take a closer look at that dialogue.
“Exploded abruptly” is redundant. Explosions are by definition “abrupt.”
“Shipshape” would have been verging on old-fashioned jargon even in 1934, unless you were a very traditional wet water sailor.
“Peep,” “pal,” “freak,” “spill it” all seem to be trying too hard to sound like casual, slangy speech.
Moreover, I think Weinbaum himself was aware of how fake and stilted his dialogue was, since one of the subtexts of the story is a commentary on language. Nor is that commentary restricted to the difficulties of talking to aliens, but is dealt with repeatedly between the humans.
As soon as Harrison finishes his diatribe, that it is intended to be confusing is made clear. Again, I quote:
“Speel?” queried Leroy perplexedly. “Speel what?”
“”He mean ‘spiel’,” explained Putz soberly. “It iss [sic]to tell”
Note the redundant adverbs “perplexedly” and “soberly.” Again, I think Weinbaum was completely aware of what he was doing, because he stops later in the story. But to an audience not in on the joke, this is a barrier they may never get beyond. Actually, they may never get beyond the info-dump in paragraph three.
Okay… I’ll stop now.
ALAN: Righto – I’ll start.
If you are paid by the word, which many of these writers were, it helps your pay cheque if you can insert some extra words here and there. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the adverbial and adjectival redundancy that you spotted was quite deliberate.
We’re on shakier ground when it comes to slang. I know little or nothing about period American slang, but “Peep,” “pal,” “freak,” “spill it” may well have been commonly used terms when Weinbaum was writing (I’m sure I’ve seen these and similar words in other stories from the period).
If so, of course, his original audience would have accepted them unquestioningly. What’s a poor writer to do? You can only use the words that you know, even if you are sure that they will not stand the test of time and you may well end up looking quaint. Your only other alternative is to try and invent a future slang and that will almost certainly leave you looking ridiculous.
JANE: To clarify… It is the sheer amount of slang crammed into those sentences, not any one word in itself I was noting. But you do have a good point. Go on!
ALAN: As far as I know, only Robert Heinlein ever had any real success here – waldo (from the short story “Waldo”), grok (from Stranger in a Strange Land) and tanstaafl (from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) were so successful that they have migrated backwards and, particularly in the case of “grok”, have become part of everyday speech in the real world. I guess that makes Heinlein a neologiser of Carrollean skill!
JANE: I agree that Heinlein was very successful. I’m sure someone reading the word “waldo” out of the context of the initial story (in which the inventor’s name is given) would assume that Heinlein was using an established term, not that his term for remotely operated robotic devices had entered the general language.
Jack Williamson also had a talent for inventing terms that would become mainstream. His include “androids,” “genetic engineering,” and “terraforming.”
ALAN: But of course none of that invalidates your conclusions and I think you are right about why a modern audience might find those stories difficult to read. And that will only get worse as time passes. Already they sound quaint and forced. Soon, I suspect, they will stop making sense entirely.
JANE: If I had to choose, I’d say that info dumps are a greater danger than any amount of “quaint” language – especially if they come before the audience is fully hooked. However, both were part of the dominant style of older SF.
ALAN: Infodumps are almost always a turn off, particularly when they start with a character saying something along the lines of “As you know, Professor…”. Harry Harrison parodied this beautifully in his novel The Technicolour Time Machine. A character asks the inventor of the time machine to explain how it works. Cue infodump. But the inventor replies by telling the character that he is too stupid to understand the explanation. The story moves on and no infodump takes place!
JANE: Editors sometimes use the phrase “As you know, Bob…” as a shorthand for “obvious infodump.’ After all, if you know, why would you need to be told?
But SF style, even that used by those “older” writers, isn’t all bad, is it? Maybe we can take a look next time!