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Speculative Lexicons

Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice” gives me a chance to talk shop. In a science fiction novel, like the Radch series, a writer is confronted with the need to express novel concepts through the English language. Whether introducing an alien species or a new technology or simply a specific style of dancing, a author must choose from three basic options.


Wind Sculpture near Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe. Taken by Morgan Crooks (2013)
One: use common English analogues to express concepts similar to ones more familiar to readers. So instead of calling an alien fork a Quedebblian food-trident, call it a fork assuming it has the same basic function. Secondly, a writer could resurrect a less frequently used word and apply it to the situation - think the Wachowski sibling's use of the word 'Matrix.' Finally, a writer might created a neologism. This last category is in someways the most broad as it includes portmanteaus, figurative transliterations, and out-an-out inventions. However, for the most part, a writer would do well to make the most use of the first category, significantly less of the second, and as little as possible of the third.

Turning to Ann Leckie’s work, we can see how these choices inform the kind of the story she is trying to tell. Leckie uses all three types of speculative lexicon I outlined above. While she probably has a very specific image of the hyperspace hopping battleships described in her books, she refers to them, for the most part, simply as ships. If someone is using a dagger, it’s called a dagger and a shirt is a shirt. There is a very good reason to rely on common terminology as much as possible when writing speculative fiction. For one thing, a good science fiction writer is already introducing challenging concepts and technology during the course of the story; every word a reader must learn is one more barrier to easy comprehension of the story. In addition, playing with the reader’s expectations when it comes to common words can be very rewarding.

Recently I read a short story (and talked it up in my monthly short story column) called The Sound of Useless Wings, written by Cecil Castellucci. I enjoyed this story's subject matter - a portrayal of an alien’s perspective on exploration and love. I especially appreciated the language Castellucci used to achieve this goal. This sort of story can go off the rails so easily, getting bogged down in paragraphs of exposition and off-putting phonetic versions of some alien concept or another. Castellucci’s approach is to simply use everyday words to describe important concepts to the aliens and then suggest how these words do and do not fit our preconceptions.

For example consider this passage from the short story, where her protagonist Heckleck encounters a potential partner, a mate from a different social class.


I do what any Hort would do. When we are alone in a storage locker, away from the others’ eyes, I pull my wing and open my back plate and I show her my tiny beating heart.
I am in love.
“It’s so small,” she says.
“It will grow,” I say.


The meaning of this passage is accessible to anyone, the first awkward adolescent brushes with intimacy. However, the biology is different. Castellucci accomplishes a neat trick in this passage, simultaneously reinforcing the ways her protagonist is different from a human being while highlighting the profound similarities. She clues in the reader first, “I do what any Hort would do,” embracing an important principal of storytelling in dealing with the reader honestly. Castellucci shows you what she is going to do - namely describe the alien courtship between two giant space insects - but also draws you in close so you can experience this moment the way a Hort would. Wings and backplate pulled back, a heart is revealed. The word heart creates a certain image within the mind of the reader, presumably one in keeping with human physiology. And Castellucci allows that association to persist even as she complicates it. Human hearts don’t literally “mature," and we certainly can’t expose them at will by removing a backplate. Thus Castellucci has given us something familiar framed in an unusual and off-putting way. What’s masterful about this passage is that when the idea of a Hort heart is revisited later in the story, I think the reader still has this more or less human concept of what the organ is. Even though the reader has been trained by this point to appreciate the difference between what Heckleck means by a word and what we might mean by it, and yet that fundamental attachment of the word “heart” builds sympathy between the reader and Heckleck. Words bridge the gap between an invented arthropod to allow empathy for another being’s plight. If speculative fiction has any value at all, it is in moments such as these - pushing the frontier of what is a person, what a human being might empathize with.

What Leckie also makes use of repurposed familiar words. One great example is the different classes of ships in her novel. The main character Breq, used to be an artificial intelligence aboard a flagship vessel of the Radch empire. Now that ship could be called any number of things, from a dreadnought  or a warbird or a spaceship to name just a few examples. What Leckie does though is list three different classes of ship, from the pocket-sized Mercy, the mid-sized Sword and the largest class, the Justice. That’s smart. In addition to making each of the sizes immediately accessible to a casual genre fan, these choices also communicate something of the values of the empire that constructed them. The smallest component of their force is mercy, by far the largest some conception of Justice.

Another best practice when it comes to speculative lexicons is to be judicious with the introduction of specialized vocabulary. If a reader truly needs to know a new word to appreciate a story, make sure that new word its a thorough grounding and context, and make sure the word is used to its utmost. There is really nothing more off-putting than reading through a paragraph that seems half-written in some foreign language. Although I do enjoy Melville’s talent for world-building, the guy asks a lot of his readers. There was an XKCD post that made this point a lot more succinctly than I could ever hope to so I’ll just leave that here.



That said, I don’t think that a speculative writer should just swear off all use of neologisms. There are plenty of occasions where a new word is needed and only a new word will work. In my day-job as a teacher I make a point of spending some time explaining the word ‘pharaoh’ during our Egyptian unit. A pharaoh is often defined as a king of Egypt, or the ruler of the kingdom.  Now, if you know anything about Egypt’s long history of dynasties, you know the word ‘king' is not really satisfactory to explain the relationship between the ruler of Egypt and his/her subjects. A pharaoh, especially during the Old Kingdom, was  considered a sort of living god, a personification of Horus. This granted a pharaoh something approaching unlimited power within the Nile Valley. A pharaoh had a complicated and elaborate symbology surrounding his or her authority, one outstripping any but the oldest monarchies on the planet. To me, that means if you want to describe the ruler of Egypt, you should certainly use the correct word - pharaoh.

In a similar way, while Leckie keeps her neologisms to an absolute minimum throughout much of the story but she does use them. The Radch, to name one example, is presumably some phonetic version of what the characters call their civilization. Leckie could have simply called this civilization that Empire, or the Union, or any number of different things, but providing the peek behind the curtain of English creates the sense of another language lurking just out of sight of the reader. Things that have an obvious unique impact on the characters - the different worlds and alien races - are named with invented words.

The one big exception is right up front in the title, her appropriation of the word “Ancillary.” Now, ancillary, as defined, means a person whose work provides necessary support to the primary activities of an organization, institution, or industry, is not exactly a dead word but it’s not a word that most people hear on a daily basis. Leckie uses the word to mean human beings puppeteered by a ship-borne intellegence. That’s somewhat different from the dictionary definition and yet, remains a deft choice because it communicates the status of those machine-driven slaves. They are secondary, supplemental to the ship. As a word not frequently uttered in general conversation, ‘ancillary' has the benefit of novelty. But it is also not a completely foreign word.

So why not use whatever word the Radch call the ancillaries? The reason is familiarity. If a phonetic neologism was used, instead of a translation, the protogonist would be farther away from the reader. We would have to learn a brand new word to even begin talking about what the character was. With ancillary, we have a vaguely familiar word to hang on to while attempting to make piece with Breq’s radically different style of perception. Speculative fiction succeeds or fails on tiny decisions like this.

Words are the substance of writing. An author's ideas are transmitted through words and they can either be clarified or muddied by the lexicon employed. Leckie provides strong evidence that by far the best way to handle speculative lexicon is with a careful and parsimonious hand.
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