Bad Worlds, Bad Language, and Worldbuilding Gone Bad


Recently, I’ve been reading Star Carrier Book One:  Earth Strike by Ian Douglas.  I was intrigued by the epic military SF setting and decided to plow into it.  What begins as a solid piece of action writing, however, quickly dissolves into a linguistic nightmare in the first chapter written from an alien POV.  In this chapter, Douglas stops using standard words for time or distance and instead opts for a series of nearly incomprehensible terms:  mr’uum, g’nyuu’m, g’nya, g’nyurm, and lurm’m. 

I’m not sure what these terms actually mean, nor do I care to find out.  What annoys me about them isn’t just that they are incomprehensible, but that no other vaguely scientific (or intensely scientific, for that matter) elements are written in this way.  Douglas is careful to avoid turning all
scientific references into alien gibberish, and yet chooses to turn the simplest of these concepts into words that have no inherent meaning.

For me, this is an utter failure to properly worldbuild.  If you are going to maintain all the other scientific references so that your audience can understand what the aliens are talking about, then it is absolutely necessary not to disengage that audience from the spatial and temporal logics of the narrative’s world.  It is worse still if there is no logical reason for these linguistic invasions.  What purpose does providing alien terminology as replacements for human terminology serve?  To alienate us?  Isn’t that accomplished by providing the perspective of the alien itself?  Of course it is.  Since we’re already in a futuristic society, taking us into the alien means we can still relate to something.  But “mr’uum” has no obvious relation.  It is not derived from a language English speakers would be familiar with.
After two or three pages of these terms, I decided to read something else.  I may not go back.  The linguistic intrusions served as barriers to entry for me as a reader.  I became overly aware that I was reading a fiction, and especially that I was reading a fiction comprised of words on a page.  In other words, escape became impossible.  Each new intrusion meant severing me from the imaginative realm of the novel.  Once you do that to me a few times in a row, you’ve likely lost me for good.

These choices are best avoided.  There are better ways to convey the alien; one need not use linguistic trickery to get the job done.  Aliens have different physical features, different cultures, and different worldviews.  Any of those elements could serve to heighten the reader’s sense of alienation without pulling them from the story.  Ultimately, however, there must be a reference, a “thing” for us to cling to so that we don’t get lost in the alien.  But more on that another day…

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “Bad Worlds, Bad Language, and Worldbuilding Gone Bad

  1. That's the straight dope man. It is a slippery slope when you decide to go the route of turning common words into neologisms. Where do you stop? It becomes arbitrary. And why do they always have to be impossible to pronounce?
    Simpler is better, I agree.

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