Science Fiction Studies

#25 = Volume 8, Part 3 = November 1981




Dagmar Barnouw

Linguistics and Science Fiction

Walter E. Meyers. Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction. Athens, GA: Georgia UP, 1980. 257p. $16.00.

Parallel to our making of our social world we can see ourselves engaged in "the making of the universe through that which is at the root of our social being: our language." Meyers quotes Ian Watson to this effect in order to emphasize the potential usefulness of his proposed inquiry into the intermeshing of SF and linguistics (p. 11). Watson is an intelligent and responsibly imaginative writer. Much of SF has dealt with the problem of communication concerning aliens in a sloppy, irrational, unimaginative fashion, as Meyers proceeds to show. Pleasantly sensible and concerned about communicating with his readers, Meyers is neither too credulous nor too condescending in his approach to the large number of SF texts dealings in various ways, with language.

There are, of course, many difficulties to cope with, many fallacies hard to resist. Chapter Two, "The Future History and Development of the English Language," points to some of them. Too many SF writers are either not aware of or don't want to deal with the fact that languages change. In the year 2500--the very near future in terms of SF time--English will have changed: how to anticipate such changes intelligently and consistently and how to make them palatable to the reader is a problem that has proved, to Meyers' disappointment, almost unsolvable to SF writers. It seems easier to communicate with dead cultures (see his third chapter, "Resident Aliens: Mummies and Machines") or with animals--at least easier to write about them. Meyers points to the overeager, distorting reception in SF of John C. Lilly's work on dolphins: with few exceptions, reviewers in the field of SF have made much more far-ranging claims than has Lilly. It is true, of course, that writers of SF need to be plausible rather than factual, and it is understandable that they espouse all too willingly some of the potential implications of Lilly's speculation on contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial creatures (see the chapter on "The Importance of Interspecies Communication" in his 1976 The Mind of the Dolphin). Reviewers and SF essayists, however, might be expected to show some restraint with regard to the wider significance of Lilly's attractively eccentric, yet guarded conclusions. Meyers contrasts the many instances of more or less imaginative mushiness with the intelligent handling the problem received in John Brunner's Total Eclipse (1974). Here the linguist-protagonist solves the riddle of a language not based on a sound-to-symbol correspondence but on symbols that are a direct reflection of what is going on in the alien's nervous system, and he does not neglect to take seriously the problem of displacement. Such rigor is not often encountered in SF texts dealing with language, and if it is, the reader fails to become engaged with the fiction. Meyers' comment on W.P. Lehmann's "Decoding the Martian Language," published in the Graduate Journal of the University of Texas, is that while " ...mighty short on plot, its science is impeccable" (p. 72).

There could be a great deal of ingenuity and imagination invested in working out exotic channels for communication--smells, colors, tastes, touch. Meyers does not think very highly of what has been done here so far. Yet his account of the less-than-perfectly-satisfying attempts is, on the whole, instructive and useful, because he makes his reader aware of the possibilities as well as the difficulties, and above all, makes the reader participate in expanding the definition of language in ways which will make the term "language universal" appear very insular (p. 85).

It is not only writers of SF that fall into the communication gap characteristic of the projected situations of first contact. Poking gentle fun at the message designed by Frank Drake and space enthusiast Carl Sagan and fixed to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft in the hopes that it will be interpretable to intelligent aliens, Meyers points out that it is possible to design messages that have far fewer ambiguities and that, in fact, some SF writers have dealt very intelligently and imaginatively with that problem. He particularly admires a 1934 story by Raymond Z. Gallun, "Old Faithful," in which a Martian receives signals arranged in Morse code and finally understands them to the extent that he can attempt communication--a long and difficult process, carefully thought out and vividly described. Meyers manages to convey a sense of the particular achievement of texts he likes; he does not just assert it. In view of the scope of his inquiry, this is no small achievement on his part. Concluding this stimulating chapter ("Take Me to Your Leader"), Meyers points out that first contact stories have been particularly immune to that pervasive modern literary pessimism with regard to communication:

Therefore when an attempt at communication with aliens is a total failure, as has more often been the case in the last decade, we have still another sign of the disappearance of barriers between the genre and literature as a whole, even though we might have wished that influence to have proceeded in the other direction. (p. 100)

This sober position does not, however, prevent Meyers from appreciating a sophisticated story of failure like Lem's Solaris. And it is useful to stress the importance of the observation that communication is the opposite of violence. SF "presents examples in great number of sane and tolerant responses to the most unexpected and frightening situations; anyone concerned with the social dimensions of literature will find much in the genre to praise" (p. 103). There are, for instance, a great many SF writers who make their space travelers learn the alien language--it has been difficult to do the same with US terrestrial travellers. In "Berlitz in Outer Space," Meyers examines texts dealing with problems of language acquisition. He is not, on the whole, impressed by the ways in which learning processes are handled. Writers of SF seldom spare their protagonists where physical and mental degradation and suffering are involved, but they do shy away from the rigors of learning a foreign language, resorting to methods like hypnosis, neural changes, sleeplearning, electric shock, chemical means, DNA or RNA, and that confidence game of "unsoundest" linguistics, the automatic translator.

The magic decoder has been an irritant to SF critics, especially the adherents to what Meyers calls "the strong form of the theory of plausibility," which include a high theoretician of SF like Darko Suvin. This strong form, however, does not work with many interesting SF texts which are more fruitfully explored with the "weak form of plausibility theory." Meyers agrees with its "usage" variant as "the most sensible reconciliation of the different claims and arguments that have been advanced on the subject" (pp. 128ff.). SF must not violate plausibility unless there is some more important artistic reason. The fiction component in SF takes priority.

Those SF texts in which "problems of language are at the heart of the plot and inform our perception on the work as a whole" (p. 146) are explored in chapters 10 and 11, where Meyers seems most engaged--and engaging. He deals with Tolkien's languages, which he admires, and criticizes the Whorf hypothesis and its ramifications regarding language control, the individual's and the group's. His interpretation of Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao (1958) stresses the text's success as "hard" SF in terms of the intellectual rigor with which a theory is worked out in fiction. Presenting the dangers of a limited world view, one defined by Western science and technology, the same text also presents a welcome questioning perspective on much "hard" science:

The only notes characteristic of Whorf not to be found in Vance's novel are Whorf's somewhat mystical feelings about ultimate reality, shown most clearly by the linguist's later interest in Theosophy, and Whorf's Rousseau-like admiration for non-technological cultures. (p. 169)

Despite his relaxed attitude regarding the plausibility theories, Meyers is quite clearly in favor of less rather than more of what Spinrad described as "rubber science," so particularly attractive to SF--a case in point being Alfred Korzybski s Science and Sanity (1933), promoted by Campbell without regard to its quite obvious quackery and popularized by widely-read SF authors. His approach to Delany's Babel-17 and Triton, written under the all-too-over- whelming influence of Whorf and Foucault respectively (pp. 180ff), is very useful to the reader in its mixture of prudence and openness. Meyers points out the considerable and irritating weaknesses in Delany's argument and his frequent factual mistakes. At the same time, he manages to draw attention to Delany's admirable curiosity and his imaginative impulses to take risks. In the case of Ian Watson's extrapolations in the sophisticated and disturbing The Embedding from Chomsky's transformationalism, Meyers appreciates the writer's peculiar fusion of logic and social imagination.

The concluding chapter, "The Children of Sir Thomas More," starts from the notion that a high percentage of utopias will have language as an important concern and that dystopian languages can be examined using the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis because all of them involve thought control (pp. 199ff.). Skinner's Walden Two, then, appears to Meyers as a dystopia because--its sensible arrangements notwithstanding--its society is controlled by "the Code" which forbids the influence of another language (exchange with the outside) or the extension of current words to include other meanings or the invention of new words. Similarly, in Le Guin's Anarres (in The Dispossessed), Meyers finds all the language controls that would make it a dystopian society. The Dispossessed is a much more ambiguous case than Walden Two, though many critics have responded in too simplistically positive ways. "If the Odonians have become great, and they have many admirable qualities, it is in spite of a language designed for propaganda and a government willing to employ it" (p. 208). Like More's Utopia, with its repressive elements so clearly visible to the modern reader, The Dispossessed should be read "as a thought- experiment in which the relative merits of different social contracts can be explored before signing" (p. 208). This experimental nature applies to all worthwhile SF, and its readers would benefit from being open to it. SF has been seen as a means of mediating between the humanities and the sciences; it seldom does so meaningfully, and why should one expect it to succeed with this most difficult, if most important, of contemporary cultural problems? We have no right, Meyers points out in conclusion, "to demand anything more than art from its writers." However, he would not write on SF with so much fairness and appreciation if he did not see the possibility for more than good or competent fiction: "the possibility includes the chance to say something about language, something liberating and tolerant and entertaining" (p. 209). By not asking too much of the genre but approaching it with informed critical curiosity, Meyers has managed to realize this possibility in his own study.

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