More “Boys vs. Girls”, Fewer Books from Borders…

Apropos of my Friday post about audience gender in Speculative Fiction, I came across this today: an article about Joanne Rowling’s mega-successful “Hermione Granger” series

Now, I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series, and I’m also a believer in egalitarian ideals.  So I get where this article is going.  Essentially, it is critiquing not Harry Potter but the society that makes it such that in order to meet the goal of “appealing to both genders” the series necessarily had to be about a boy.  I’ll agree, Hermione was easily the most capable character in the book, and I seriously identified more with Hermione and, say, Neville Longbottom than I really did with Harry. I didn’t have a terrible upbringing like Harry.  But I was seriously good in school, and I studied and worked hard throughout.  And it would’ve been cool, I thought, if the hero could’ve been someone who was like me – who was good in school and liked studying and liked knowing things.  Instead, that role went to a supporting cast member.

(Now, Hermione lost me when she went ga-ga-eyed for some dumb jock, i.e. Viktor Krum.)

I disagree with the criticism leveled directly at Harry’s character in that piece, but the general criticism of society is sadly valid. Continue reading

Writing Process & Pottermore: The Unpublished Underbelly of the Story

So, if you’re a serious, hard-core fan of Harry Potter – or, alternately, if you’re such a SF&F nerd that you actively seek out any and all news on the SF&F industry (and maybe, also, happen to be a fan of Harry Potter, which is clearly a related condition) – then you may have heard about the announcement of Pottermore yesterday.

For those who haven’t, despite ascribing to either of the above-listed conditions, a short primer: Pottermore is basically the official release of the ebook editions of the wildly popular Harry Potter series made concurrent with a fan-community/facebook/online HP-encyclopedia.  You read through the e-editions of the Potter books – which will only be available on Pottermore.com – while also playing games, maybe sharing your family-friendly fanfiction (this is unclear from the announcement, but hinted at), and otherwise interact with other fans together online… as if you couldn’t already do almost all of that online except read the books on your e-reader.  Regardless, it seems like an interesting idea – and almost certainly a keen marketing coup that should drum up interest in the impending release of the ebooks.  If I had an e-reader, I’d definitely be interested… and even so, without one, I’m at least a little curious to see what it’s really all about.

But what caught my attention about this announcement is a line I read here that touches on some of Rowling’s background notes related to the Harry Potter universe.  I was already thinking about writing this week about background notes and research and my “Project Bible”, so this confluence struck me as a good way to open the discussion.  Here is what was said about the previously unpublished material:

Though fans of Harry Potter expecting another book from the author set in the wizarding universe will be disappointed to hear that Rowling has “no plans to write another novel,” hopefully they’ll take solace in knowing that later this year Pottermore will unveil of 18,000 unpublished words about characters, places, objects and more from the world of Harry Potter. For example, there’s material on a certain romance between Professor McGonagall and a Muggle when she was a young woman, how Vernon & Petunia Dursley met each other, more extensive information on Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff houses (we know quite a bit on Gryffindor already) and plenty more.

Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 2: Refining a Definition of Mythopoeia Through a Sample Exegesis of the Fantasy Corpus

In the previous post I began a discussion of a topic I’ve long wanted to address here on this blog: the concept of Mythopoeia as a distinct genre within the sphere of Speculative Fiction.  However, I ended the first part of my discussion with what appears to be a fatal contradiction.  I defined Mythpoeia as a work of constructed or artificial mythology, but then acceded that most works of modern Fantasy Fiction (and indeed many works of other subgenres of Speculative Fiction) are predicated on invented mythologies.¹  Still, I contend that there is a line of separation between a true work of Mythopoeia and a work of modern Fantasy Fiction.

Just what, then, is that line of separation?  Consider this: I would assert that Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, in fact, is not a work of Mythopoeia.  It is, rather, an artifact of Tolkien’s Mythopoem.  It is a physical manifestation, in book form, that attests to the existence of the underlying mythopoetic work.  In other words, a novel, or a novel series, is not Mythopoeia.  But a novel – frequently, but not always, a novel of Epic or High Fantasy – is typically the the primary mechanism by which the reading and media-consuming public will discover and interact with the Mythpoetic work. 

It is my contention, therefore, that while many works of modern fantasy and science fiction include mythological motifs and invented backstories and mythologies, few writers and creators are creating Mythopoeia by design.  Most of the imaginary mythologies and backstories exist solely in support of the fantasy novel to which they are attached, with little or no intrinsic value of their own, and with little of interest to explore outside the framework of the novel.

Take the Harry Potter novels, for instance. Continue reading

From Whence Greatness?

A post on the blog of T.S. Bazelli the other day made me think back to some thoughts I had a year or two ago about what makes a novel or a book great.  I thought this would be a great place and time to go back to those thoughts, re-examine them, and share them.

The question of greatness in books is one that can cause a good deal of contention among those who are well-read.  The erudite and scholarly may have the ability to pontificate on the relative merits and flaws of the great classics, from Tolstoy to Nabokov, from Shakespeare to Dickens and from Joyce to Fitzgerald and beyond.  (You’ll note how each of these is readily identified merely by their last names, as though nothing else is needed for their introduction.)  Well, I haven’t read a word of Tolstoy nor much of Nabokov.  I’ve read smatterings of Shakespeare and Dickens, nothing of Joyce, and only what they made me read in school by Fitzgerald.  The same could be said for any number of other “great” writers.  But, frankly, I’m not interested in scholarly or academic discussions of greatness.  I’m a young man who yearns to be a writer, himself.  So, what I’m interested in is the kind of greatness that churns out best-sellers.  The Stephen King kind of greatness.  The Dan Brown kind.  Or the J. K. Rowling kind.

And it was a consideration of Rolwing’s “masterpiece”, as it were – the Harry Potter novels, as though they need any introduction either – that originally got me thinking about this subject a few years ago.  I haven’t read King or Brown (though I’ve seen many of their movies), but I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series.  Now, this reading is but one datum to consider, but when I think back over the stories I’ve loved throughout my life – over nearly all of the books I’ve found most compelling – the key learning I gleaned from this consideration holds constant and true.  Let me take you back to the beginning, to where my thoughts on the topic began.

I had just finished one of the Harry Potter books, whether the fifth, sixth, or seventh I no longer remember.  By this point, Harry Potter was past being a phenomenon and had become the touchstone of a cultural moment.  By 2007 the New York Times felt forced to create a whole new category of best seller to which it could shuck the quarter-dozen Harry Potter titles that were clogging up its normal best seller list.  And as a writer, I wondered.  What made these Harry Potter books so great?  Why were they such a huge bestseller?  Why did so many people love these books?  And were there any lessons I could glean from them that I could apply in my own work?

I approached these questions from the point of view of one who would also write heroic fantasy stories of wizards and dragons and the fate of the world in balance.  And right away, I was able to rule all of that out as a factor in Harry Potter’s success.  Certainly, other tales have done spectacularly well relying on just those very themes: the Lord of the Rings comes as one clear example, and there are other great bestsellers (though none quite so best selling as Harry Potter) in the fantasy genre that rely still on these same themes.  Harry Potter is something of a bildungsroman, but so are many other fantasy tales.  There is a young boy destined to defeat the evil wizard.  He has a wise old mentor who is destined to die before the young boy can fulfill his own destiny.  Sound familiar?  Lots of great fantasy stories have been told with the same motifs.  So have lots of truly awful dreck.  My own fantasy novel rested on these same themes, and yet I knew in my heart of hearts by this point that my novel was practically unpublishable.

No, I reasoned, these themes were not a reason for success.  Neither, it was clear to me, were they a hindrance, no matter that you always hear that we, as writers, have to avoid such clichés “like the plague”.  The success of Harry Potter proved for certain that the old saw about fantasy clichés was no true path to greatness in fantasy literature.  Many stories have been new and unique and inspired.  Many of them have been consigned to the dustbins of history.  No, there is no formula for greatness in the way that we approach these fantasy clichés.

What about Rowling’s prose, and her style?  Certainly, one can count points in her favor here.  Yet it cannot escape notice that though these were books written for and to a young adult and juvenile audience, they nevertheless had an appeal to a much broader audience.  Adults and people of all stripes and ages were completely caught up in the Potter-mania.  Should we all strive to write YA-fiction with broad market appeal?  How would one do that?  No, that line of reasoning is silly.  Stephen King churns out a never-ending stream of best-sellers, and his books are decidedly not YA in appeal.  Still, there is something to be said for writing style: for finding an authorial voice that has general and broad appeal.  But this is not a lesson that can easily be applied, in principle.  Each writer must find his or her own authorial voice, and it’s something I’ve yet to see a standard or formula that could replicate success in this regard.

So, my thoughts continued.  It was not Rowling world-building.  While her world was interesting and at time immersive, there were nonetheless numerous inconsistencies that would crop up from time to time.  But they were not central to the plot, nor to our enjoyment of the book, so as readers they were easily forgotten or missed entirely.  It was not her meticulous plotting.  While engaging, the plots were almost entirely self-contained from book to book, with only a handful of threads continuing across the entire series.  But… we’re getting closer.

And that’s when it hit me. The characters.  The relationships.  This became clear to me, especially, while reading the last book of the series.  All throughout the series we’d been introduced to a wide array of characters with interesting backstories and, more importantly, a complex web of relationships between them.  And, as the stories progress, we see the consequences of the interactions of the characters – both those that take place within the timeline of  the books and those that took place in the past – play out in the climaxes of each book.  What the villains do – whether Severus Snape or Draco Malfoy or even Lord Voldemort – is influenced by their pasts and the relationships they had with the people around them.  And the same is true of the heroes. 

As I realized this, I knew I was onto a profound discovery.  We human beings: we’re social creatures, even the most introverted of us.  We crave human interaction.  We crave relationships.  It’s woven into the fiber of our beings.  And stories?  Stories are about people.  People who have relationships.  The more interesting and dynamic those relationships, the more interesting and compelling the story.

A quick survey of my fantasy favorites confirmed my budding theory.  The Lord of the Rings?  You’ve got the powerful friendship between Sam and Frodo.  Boromir’s betrayal, fueled in part by his (offscreen) relationship with his father, and strained relationship between Boromir’s brother, Faramir, and their father.  You have the growing friendship of Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn, and the (mostly offscreen) love between Aragorn and Arwen and the attendant angst related to it.  You have the friendship of Pippin and Merry.  And so on.  Whilst writ large, at mythic scope, the story is nonetheless fraught with relationship complexities. 

Or the Prydain books of my youth?  Here, you have the conflict in Taran between who he was – a question of his relationship with his unknown parents and with his mentor, Dallben – and who he has become, in light of his new relationships with the princess Eilonwy, the bard Flewddur Fflam, the creature Gurgi, the dwarf Doli and the prince Gwydion.  Or how about “The Wheel of Time”?  There are so many characters and complex relationships that it becomes rather easy to lose track, and you need a half-dozen online encyclopedias to keep track.  (If anything, “The Wheel of Time” sometimes seems to suffer from relationship overload.)

Yes, my friends, I did and do believe that I discovered the secret of greatness in writing.  Which is not to say I’ve discovered a magic formula for best-sellerdom.  What I have found is the secret ingredient.  There are a lot of ingredients that will make the stew of a great novel a savory and steamy affair.  You need an interesting plot, and an immersive world.  You need attention to detail, and an eye for the setting details that bring your story to life.  You need clean prose and a style with wide appeal.  You need some new idea or some new take on the conventions of your genre.  But if you fail to deliver a perfect tale in any of those regards, you may, I believe, still have a perfectly fine and publishable book.  But what you cannot do without, I have come to believe, is a caste of interesting characters caught in a web of relationships.  It is these relationships that will drive your story.  Without these, your story will ultimately be forgettable.

At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe.

Happy writing.

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 
     
     

                                                                  

  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!

Fiction & Linguistics

If you’re a nerd in the know, by now you probably know at least a little about James Cameron’s new flick, Avatar, that comes out tomorrow.  If you’re not a nerd in the know, well, the short-short version is it’s a sci-fi special-effects extravaganza that sort of tells the alien invasion story in reverse.  (In an unrelated bit of happenstance, I wrote a short story and stage play in high school that tells a very similar story; I suppose I ought to post that up for folks to see an example of my high school work: still rough around the edges.)

Interestingly, to create this film, Cameron turned to a linguistics expert to create a wholly imaginary alien language for the aliens in the movie to speak.

Genre fiction and linguistics have a long relationship.  Genre writers and artists have been creating new words and inventing whole languages as part of their work for almost as long as these genres have been in a category all their own.   Karel Capek, a sci-fi writer in the 1920s, for instance, introduced the word “robot” to the world lexicon as part of his short story “Rossum’s Universal Robots“.  Prior to 1997, when “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (the original British title) was published, the world “Muggle” was a nonsense word.  But author J. K. Rowling imbued those syllables with meaning.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet was famously translated into the language of the alien Klingons, of Star Trek renown – a language invented  for the sci-fi show and movie series.

Professor J. R. R. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous of the fantasy and science-fiction linguists (if not the certain greatest, which is another argument, altogether).  His invented languages, Quenya and Sindarin  – languages with their own vocabularies, syntax, grammar, and phonology – form the first threads of the fabric that became his grand epic, The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien might be considered the prototypical fantasy linguist, and it was his early love of languages, and of inventing new languages, combined with his fascination for mythology, that provided an early impetus for the link between new languages and genre fiction.

But, as demonstrated above, this link runs far and deep.  Language, at its heart, is an attempt to gain meaning and understanding from the world around us – and to communicate that meaning to others.  It is a way for cultures to share information and to share ideas and perceptions, to share mythology and stories, to share experiences.  Science Fiction & Fantasy, in the same way, are a form of modern mythology and modern myth-making with a similar purpose and pedigree.  So it’s no wonder that language-making and myth-making are so tightly integrated – and that the artistic expression of each so frequently cross paths.

To some, the propensity for creators of fantasy and science fiction works – whether written or film in nature – to pepper their works with artificial languages (conlangs in the lingo of those who follow this as a hobby) and made-up words – is either unneccessary or pretentious.  But a closer look at this reveals that the two crafts are intimately linked in purpose and history.

This is a trend that I don’t see reversing course any time soon, and one that I don’t believe ought to be reversed.  Human beings have an innate desire to learn and understand more about their world – a desire muted by the workaday nature of adult life, but which is never really destroyed nor sated – and this desire manifests in our language.  Invented languages in genre fiction lend not only an air of mystery and excitement, but a sense of reality, purpose, and meaning in works of genre fiction.  They speak to the cultural significance of our modern-day myth-making, and they tie the experiences of these imagined characters to our own experiences in intrinsic ways – reverting us to our childhood when everything was still new to us, and when we did not yet know the words for all things, or how to properly express ourselves in a grown-up world.

Whether you go to see Cameron’s new film epic, or gain a moment of joy perusing the appendices of Tolkien’s books, or prefer to take your sci-fi and fantasy without delving deeply into the invented words and languages that are spoken in these imagined worlds, I hope you’ll take with you a sense of appreciation for the work and artistry that goes into their creation, and a sense of the wonder they seek to engender.