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It is becoming clear that reading The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr is going to take a long time. Not because it is a difficult book; he uses rather more academic jargon than I think he realises, but it is not off-putting or impenetrable. No, the problem is that after just about every paragraph I have to stop and think, and then work my way through the various extraneous ideas that he has set going in my mind.

For instance, I came across this paragraph:

In a linguistically dynamic culture, where language is constantly being invented and recast in tandem with social-technological changes and cultural contacts, people become accustomed to learning new terms quickly. Such rapid acquisition has complex and varied social effects. A culture of speakers skilled in learning new words and concepts learns to anticipate linguistic newness; indeed, it may be difficult for them to distinguish between the expectation of new discourse and the expectation of material changes. This indeterminate balance is a spur to different kinds of creativity and play. Subcultures strive to keep pace with transformations in society at large by absorbing them into their alternative universes of discourse, and revaluing them. These subcultures themselves mutate under the pressures of larger social transformations, and the terms that might once have been used to establish playful and distinctive shibboleths of articular groups may attain currency across dissolving subcultural boundaries. With each transformation, political power is redistributed, and reconsolidated. The creation of language is a source of power.

There is a lot to absorb in that, but where Csicsery-Ronay is setting up a discussion of the development and role of neologisms within science fiction, my mind immediately turned to the apprehension and acquisition of such language by the reader of science fiction.

Language is power, but language is also profoundly democratic. If everyone speaks and comprehends the same language, then power is spread evenly among them all. That is why those who want to hold on to the privilege of power, those who want to hold on to a little corner of power in a sea of disinterest, and those who feel powerless but want to pretend to power, will establish languages that are not common, that are not meant to be fully understood outside their little power structure. That is why we get all sorts of distinctive languages within the language, from the jargon of big business or the academy, to the slang of street gangs.

And because language is power, because these distinctive but far from playful shibboleths are designed to establish the power, the authority, of those who speak the language, and emphasise the exclusion, the powerlessness, of those who do not understand, encountering the new language, from a hoodie growling ‘innit’ to a banker talking of ‘endogenous tax growth’, can be daunting and not a little frightening.

And that applies equally when a non-sf reader turns to our neologism-sprouting fiction. Those of us who have been reading the stuff for years have learned the language. This doesn’t mean we have learned the vocabulary, because each new story can introduce an entirely new vocabulary, but we have learned the grammar, the structure of science fiction. So we know, when a new word comes along, how to fit it in to our understanding of the story. Indeed, going back to the quoted passage, we anticipate the linguistic newness as a way of helping us to understand the story. But anyone not already conversant with the language of science fiction sees a power-play designed to keep them out, to emphasise the us-ness of the sf reader against the them-ness of the rest.

Coupled with this is the perception that it is young people, teenagers, who are most adept at learning new languages (including creating their own street slang). Which may be yet another reason why, as David Hartwell claimed, the golden age of science fiction is 13.

First published at LiveJournal, 15 April 2009.

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