Words of Other Worlds (Part 1)

There are robots and extraterrestrials, androids and cyborgs, hyperdrives and wormholes. Characters beam Earthside and chat over commlinks; meanwhile, in cyberspace, digitized avatars and AI routines converse in newspeak. And the multiverse is abuzz with infinite variations.

The fact that you understood most of the terms or concepts in the paragraph above is indicative of how much the language of science fiction has seeped into common usage. What were once specialist terms, reserved for the nerdy elite, are now part of mainstream culture.

The language of science fiction – its various neologisms and its new interpretations of other words – plays a significant role in how the genre is understood. Critic Samuel R. Delany argues that science fiction operates on the level of each individual sentence. A sentence such as “He turned on his left side” has a fairly straightforward meaning within a naturalistic framework, but within the context of science fiction, it acquires new meaning – perhaps depicting a bionic man who is activating the left side of his body. It is therefore not surprising that the genre, which maintains a distinct level of subjunctivity from other genres, has spawned a vast catalogue of neologisms. Some of these, such as FTL, are shorthand for scientific or technological innovations. Others, like Heinlein’s famous grok, attempt to express entirely new concepts. It’s staggering how many of these words have outgrown their original usage, permeating wider culture beyond science fiction.

The whole concept of science-fictionality, from which this blog borrowed its title, encourages the idea that we are living in a science-fictionalized present, where our contemporary world has been so influenced by the culture and imagined (and sometimes real) technologies of science fiction, that we begin to frame our reality through the lens of the genre. Anyone who has picked up a new gadget and felt like they’re living in a sci-fi movie has experienced this moment of estrangement. And this is none more obvious than in those science-fictional words that are becoming increasingly commonplace. It’s a process that fascinates me. And I think it’s worth doing a brief A-Z of science fiction terminology that has spread into more common usage.

(The list below is by no means exhaustive. I have merely selected terms that I found to be interesting.)

Alternate history

The idea that changing a single event could lead to an entirely different history is not a new one, but it has spawned an entire sub-genre of such stories, becoming one of the most popular (and accessible) strands of science fiction. Mainstream movies such as Sliding Doors (1998) and The Butterfly Effect (2004) have introduced the concept to a wider audience.

The point of divergence – where a decision can result in two possible futures – is called a Jonbar Hinge, derived from the Jack Williamson novel The Legion of Time.

Ansible

Coined by Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1966 novel Rocannon’s World, the ansible is a device that allows instantaneous communication regardless of distance. Very helpful for colonising the galaxy. Other SF authors have adopted the term, most notably Orson Scott Card and Charles Stross. More sophisticated versions of the device have often featured hand-waving references to quantum entanglement to explain the science behind it, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be inventing the ansible any time soon, given that it violates a fundamental rule of physics.

Beam

The term beam – referring to a narrow stream of energy or particles – is, of course, a product more of physics than science fiction. But it was science fiction that encouraged us to begin using the word as a verb. “Beam me up, Scotty” is the cliché example, but it’s been used as a verb since at least the early 1950’s.

Star Trek demonstrated that the only downside of beaming is when you are inadvertently replaced by your evil doppelgänger.
Star Trek demonstrated that the only downside of beaming is when you are inadvertently replaced by your evil doppelgänger.

Big Brother

Named after the all-seeing authoritarian ruler in George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, this term is usually bandied about whenever we want to criticize something we perceive to be intruding on our personal liberties, particularly when it comes to state-sponsored surveillance.

I feel that the term has been misappropriated since the international television franchise used it as its title. The show just doesn’t capture the hideous reality behind Orwell’s concept. Perhaps if they began torturing contestants by having rats eat their faces… Unlikely.

-con

I’m continually amazed that organisers of science fiction conventions haven’t run out of words to which to attach the suffix -con. Conventions were the by-product of science fiction fandom, and the habit of adding that suffix has been around since at least 1940.

Cyberspace

Remember when cyberspace was just a grid of lines traversed by virtual reality motorbikes? Thanks, Tron. But, more accurately, we have science fiction author William Gibson to thank for his 1982 coining of a word that would one day be used to describe the basic foundation of our global communication network.

Is anyone else disappointed that the internet doesn't look like this?
Is anyone else disappointed that the internet doesn’t look like this?

Doublethink

The second Orwellian concept on this list, and solid evidence of his genius as an author. The belief that two contradictory ideas are correct. A particularly malicious form of subversion that only Orwell could create.

E.T. (ExtraTerrestrial)

The idea that creatures could live on other planets is as old as the very notion of other planets – quite seriously, one of the Catholic Church’s main theological anxieties about Giordano Bruno’s plurality of worlds concept was that each world may potentially harbor alien life that had not been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice. But it was Spielberg’s E.T., in 1982, which cemented the term extraterrestrial in mainstream culture.

This little guy is responsible for popularizing a term for a whole generation.
This little guy is responsible for popularizing a term for a whole generation.

Fan fiction

The whole concept of fan fiction – amateur writing involving characters or settings invented by other authors (or movies, television, etc) – was actually an invention of early science fiction fandom. Over time, it has grown into a fairly respectable genre in its own right, though the term can still be used disparagingly to denote bad writing.

FTL

The abbreviation for Faster-Than-Light travel is so ubiquitous now that I’ve seen it appear in all sorts of science or news articles. But science fiction got there first.

Grok

The linguistic legacy of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a four-letter word that conveys love better than love itself. Grok means to understand deeply and intuitively; to accept on the most primal level. It’s a concept that is characteristic of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s, and the term became a favourite of hippies and students.

It’s a word that I come across on a daily basis: the student magazine at Curtin University is named Grok, much to my secret nerdy satisfaction.

Hyperdrive

The genre’s go-to method of travelling between stars, hyperdrive is a term that has been in use since the 1940’s. It’s derived from hyperspace, which was a mathematical concept long before it was used in science fiction.

Admiral Ackbar tests out his new hyperdrive. It's a trap!
Admiral Ackbar tests out his new hyperdrive. It’s a trap!

Infodump

A critical term used to describe passages in science fiction writing in which too much background info is presented all at once. It almost seems unique to the genre, with novice authors keen to explain the history of their fictional worlds, often at the expense of the narrative.

It’s something that I encourage my students to avoid: too much information can disrupt the flow of the story. A good writer can insert information in small snippets, without interrupting the narrative.

Multiverse

And since the letters J, K, and L have precious little to add to this post, we jump straight to M and multiverse, the accepted term for a set of many universes. It’s a concept used in a staggering variety of books, movies, and television shows. The science behind it is quite respectable, with Hugh Everett’s Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics in 1957 inspiring a whole generation of scientists to reassess their understanding of wavefunction collapse. And there’s something comforting in the idea of an infinite number of universes with an infinite variety of possibilities.

That’s enough for now! I am deeply indebted to Jeff Prucher’s Hugo-Award-winning Brave New Words for some of the definitions above.

The rest of the terms will be coming soon in Part 2, in which I will arduously prove to the internet that I am capable of reciting the alphabet. Success!

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