3 Vershindas ago I was walking in the Gerfluuven…

Sci-fi writers love to make up words.

I’m not just talking about the names of races or planets, I’m talking about the whole pantheon of terms that connote “the future”. We call money something different, we might even lose gender pronouns.

Take the “new calender” for instance. At some point in our distant future, we stop using our Gregorian calenders and switch to a new system of time measurement. Maybe we don’t even think about years the same way. In Smallworld, By Dominic Green, we have Dia’s and Kilodia’s (a thousand Dias?).

Personally I find this tendency very tiring, and hard to read.

I understand the idea of using changes in language to denote changes in culture, but usually our “future” languages are very mired in the past they were written in. Do you think you’re ever going to “Grok The Fullness”?

Maybe this is a symptom of being more of a Futuristc (or Speculative Fiction) author, than a straight sci-fi guy. I write about humanity in the not so distant future. Coffee is still coffee, we still use dollars, and even if it fires a laser, it is still a gun.

I’m all for technical words, AI, robots, phaser, transporter. These have specific function and meaning. In fact, Sci Fi often helps to name technology, Cybernetics and Robots just to name a few. It would be unspeakably awesome to coin a term for some future technology and have it used by actual members of the field.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about … weird for weird’s sake. I’m sure money will change in the future, we’ve already seen the rise (and possibly fall) of a new currency with the Euro. Bitcoin exists today and countless virtual currencies. But personally, I like the sci-fi stories that either stick with generic credits, or something bizarre like … loonies (see Anachronox).

It’s hard to explain, but I think a lot of authors throw these sorts of weird names around not because it has any relevance to the story, but merely because it sounds futurey or syfy. If your change in years has some bearing on story, the character of the race, or what have you, then fine. But if not, why don’t we just call years a year, dollars a dollar, and coffee Raktajino (Klingon Coffee for those who didn’t know).

Good stories don’t need flash and weird words. I like plain simple prose that takes you to bizarre places, not bizarre words that take you nowhere.

What do you guys think?


Filed under Writing

12 responses to “3 Vershindas ago I was walking in the Gerfluuven…

  1. I’m all for simplicity and clarity in science fiction. Lord knows we could always use a little more of both.
    Many times, I think writers invent words like that because there’s no good alternative. If I’m writing a story that’s set on an alien planet, or ten thousand years in the future, talking about “dollars” just sounds absurd – and while “credits” does the job, ideally I’d like to be a little more creative. So I have to make something up. The story demands it.
    You said: “Maybe this is a symptom of being more of a Futuristic (or Speculative Fiction) author, than a straight sci-fi guy.” I think that’s exactly right. The stranger your fictional world is, the more strange terms you have to invent just to make it believable.

    • Well and speaking of currency you know that I use “Surs” to denote currency in the book you’ve read that I’ll be releasing in January. But several of my beta readers found that term confusing, even when I explicitly explained it in the text of the story.

  2. Oh and by the way, I hear the Gerfluuven has excellent Bibbelsvitzyll this time of year.

  3. I think the fancier and more complicated the world the more “real” it is or perhaps better put, more intelligent the writer will feel. But a lot of readers come for the story and the ideas more than the needless details that are hard to grasp. If it gets in the way of the story instead of support and strengthen it, then there’s a problem.

    • I agree that invented words can make worlds seem more real. It’s a tough distinction as to when words help and when they hinder. For instance, I’d never ask J.K. Rowling to get rid of all of the delightful made up words for us Muggles, but there are other instances where those words just muddle. Your distinction of whether it gets in the way is absolutely right. Thanks Amber 🙂

  4. I started reading this book Rex Rising – the concept was intriguing, and I assumed it would have some action or an explosion or two. (Yay!) But by like the 5th page, there were so many “invented” words that I couldn’t take it anymore. I JUST WANNA READ THE DAMN STORY! Reading shouldn’t require so much work. I don’t mind weird names for characters or places, but I need to at least somewhat be able to pronounce them. Otherwise I just linger there on the same page trying to figure it out.
    Reading shouldn’t make me feel dumb, unless it has math in it.
    Nice post, btw. 😀

    • I definitely think a balance needs to be struck especially at the beginning of a story, when the reader is just dipping their toe in your world. You need to be able to know what’s going on. I think where it gets most aggravating is when an author invents a word and doesn’t explain it. I don’t mind if your character wears a Jigpharsen, just tell me what that is, socks, pants, jacket (is it blue?). Otherwise, you’re right, I spend a lot of time lingering on a page, a sentence, or just a word, without making any progress into the story. Thanks Mel 🙂

  5. Yes and no. I don’t like made up words for the sake of made up words, but I don’t see why an alien race of insect-like creatures who come from a planet shaped like a sausage that rotates around a dead star would measure things in feet, for example. They would be more likely to measure in… I don’t know, something insectical. (Yes, I know it’s not a word. I can make them up too.) Understanding the origins of our own words for time, distance, etc can be very useful in determining appropriately culture-specific words for alternate times/races/places.

    Although I have to admit that when I’m reading sci-fi, I auto-correct every type of currency to Space-Bucks in my head.

    • I totally agree that an alien species would have different words, but there are a lot of authors who even change what we humble humans call things. It’s a tough distinction to decide whether it’s helping or whether it’s hurting the narrative, but as I was saying to Mel, words without explanation are annoying. If your creatures live on a planet shaped like a sausage and call it Frankfrtr, it’d be nice to know that Frankfrtr means sausage shaped planet (though in that case I think we could guess).

      BTW I do a similar thing with currency, names, places. If an author is using strange names, especially ones without vowels (cause aliens just don’t use them), I tend to remember only the first couple of letters, which can get confusing if they have a bunch of names starting with the same characters.

      And done right, alien languages are great. If they have a structure and specific meaning in relation to the culture, that adds a whole new layer of depth. But most of us aren’t Tolkien, we’re not linguists. If we’re making up random words, it might be better to stick with English. (Again, speaking as a totally biased futuristic fiction writer who doesn’t truck much with aliens in the first place). Thanks Jo 🙂

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