Alien Language

Christopher Fowler
I'm currently reading hard SF writer Paul McAuley's majestic dissection of Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil', written for the BFI. Like most writers, he delivers other pieces outside of his regular novel output. I realised that I'd kept a huge electronic file of old articles, unseen pieces and bits of fiction, many of which have dated but are nevertheless worth a trawl-through, just to remind me of a time before my memory was shot. Here's a snippet I stumbled across in the vast stack of critical essays and reviews written at the time... The SF film ‘Moon’ took themes of isolation and mortality and explored them in the lonely confines of space. The shock was seeing someone actually acting in an SF movie, as Sam Rockwell gave a performance (or should I say ‘performances’) that changed the outcome of the plot. The other shock was the realization that special effects don’t have to be over-detailed for you to like a film. The exterior moon sequences were roughly on a par with those in ‘Space 1999’ but it didn’t matter, because the story was so intriguing. As a result, ‘Moon’ has joined films like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Solaris’ and ‘Gattaca’ in a select group where the idea is placed ahead of the effects.

Having sat through the cheesy footage of the upcoming ‘Avatar’, with its wide-eyed videogame-style blue elves, I can only hope James Cameron has a few smart ideas in his head, because I won’t care whether every blade of grass is lovingly rendered in 3D if 

With the exception of ‘Aliens’, Cameron has never been about the narrative. He was worrying about getting the silverware right in the Titanic’s dining room while failing to notice that every dialogue line in the entire film rang painfully false because the characters had absurdly modern behaviour patterns, in the same way that ‘The Tudors’ bore no relation to the times in which it was nominally set.

Happily that idea has now been embraced by shows like 'Bridgerton' that said, 'If you're going to nit-pick about the number of mixed race people in period drama, here's something for you to really complain about. By the way, where are you from? No, but where are you really from?' Jeez.

Well, blow me down if the second Avatar film got reviews on the level of 'Cats' in the UK while American critics looking to ride the B.O. gravy train. raved about its immersive atmosphere. In this case it won't matter, because every moment that looks like a Roger Dean album cover (ie. all of them) will thrill and delight the undemanding. But give me the heartfelt 'Moon' any day. And it had a cool poster. Bridgerton's fast and loose attitude to jarringly modern/period dialogue hasn't been taken up in novels. Is literature more rigorous about keeping to the rules? Is that something readers expect? Funnily it works well the other way. Viz magazine's comic character 'Raffles, the Gentleman Thug' antiquates modern colloquialisms to great effect. As a child of the sixties I'm a massive fan of non-naturalistic dialogue, but I appreciate it's a style that has gone out of fashion. Oscar Wilde, whom I would describe as more epithetical, Ronald Firbank, Joe Orton, Brigid Brophy, Peter Barnes and Charles Wood, as well as a host of US authors I'm not qualified to discuss, would fall into this bracket for starters. No dialogue is ever fully natural. When Ardman Animation put adults' voices into the mouths of animals, the clash of animation and natural dialogue was brilliant (not to mention award-winning).  


Ed DesCamp (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 21:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I had forgotten how brilliant this was. Thanks for sharing. We’ve had a long-running discussion about lab animals at the University of Washington. Perhaps the growing capabilities of genetic research and manipulation will dispense with the need for animal testing as part of medical research. Biomedical progress is always messy and often cruel, and the resulting ethical questions about greatest good for the greatest number are not easily resolved. Topic for discussion at the family gathering next weekend.
Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 22:06

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Well put, Ed. I have never understood the need for animal testing, except in a few medical cases and the way they seem to do it; how much of this will it take to kill... ? is ridiculous.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 22:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh, and I loved the Brazilian panther, although shouldn't he have been black? (Oh, right, diversity in casting. I forgot that and there was a lot of whiteness about in that.)

Joan (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 23:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Isn’t a Brazilian Panther a Jaguar? They are kind of mottled which would make them very diverse.
I worked down the street from the U of T building where Banting discovered Insulin working with dogs. Poor Pups but it was a great discovery all the same, sometimes good can come out research with animals.

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 00:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Creature Comforts brings to mind the animal/cow in Restaurant at the End of the Universe. It explains to diners which parts of him are on the menu, describes how tasty it is and how he has been eating special diets to make various parts of himself more delicious.

US FDA is trying to move away from animal testing (NAMs project) with AI, models, organs on a chip, etc. But we still farm and eat animals. I'm incensed when I see octopuses at the fish mongers, having researched their amazing capabilities and sentience. Still I'm buying free range cage free chicken.

btw, panthers range from brown to black. And what are those fowl creatures?

Ace (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 01:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I am prepared to mentally 'ooh and ahh' at the occasional CGI extravaganza (the very occasional CGI extravaganza) but draw the line when the effects become the story/message or at a minimum, the leading character(s). I did find myself oohing and ahhing at James Cameron's 13-years-in-the-making, 'Avatar: The Way of Water' --- at least for the first 90 minutes out of its marathon running time of 3+ hours. Then, Cameron's obsession with underwater performance capture in particular (the simultaneous recording and synching of movement, voice and expressions of a live actor with their animated or virtual character) began inexorably (in my view) to move his message and its necessary cinematic support to the background. A modest, but noble message about the need for humans to promote ecological harmony and equilibrium. But it's as if he (who co-wrote the script as well as directed --- not always a good idea) decided that once he established this ecological point of view early on, he no longer had to deal with it further in any meaningful way.

This is not to say his rendering of underwater action with exceptional realism (at least I was told so by someone conversant with the behaviour of oceans and other large bodies of water) --- was anything but groundbreaking (uh...hit the 'high seas ?') but, the medium too soon became the message for me. The hyper realism of an unusual environment became hyper distracting. This disconnect was, I think, echoed to some extent by the recommendation of many critics to see the film on the biggest possible screen. Since it is a fantasy, dislocated or anachronistic behaviour patterns and dialogue are not an issue. An honest and consistent story that shines through the 'make-up' is -- as simple as it might be.

Peter T (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 09:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Laboratory animals are most often not so badly treated, certainly nothing compared with what happens in a slaughterhouse. There are videos for those with strong stomachs or read Donna Leon's 'Beastly Things.'

A panther may be a jaguar or a leopard, which aren't the same; essentially, it's a big cat that happens to be black. And big cats are of the genus panthera. None the wiser, but better informed.

Sometimes period dialogue isn't what I expect. Sherlock Holmes would regularly 'send a wire.' The expression always sounds 20th century American to me, but, it seems, that it was used in Victorian England.

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 14:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Speaking of weather, Helen and Ed, your winter arrives in our City this afternoon- temp dropping to -10C. Sleet/Ice, not snow. Friends in midwest say you can see the weather change as the "arctic bomb" moves in, like the Grinch. Hope you are warm and safe.

Ace (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 15:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Using modern language in historical fiction or period pieces strikes me as a hazard with warning lights flashing. Language,after all, is a strong cultural indicator, so unless the creative is careful to retain the sensibilities and conventions or mores of the period, what you essentially get is a bunch of characters or actors in fancy dress. Why bother ? Language can also be an intrinsic value or element of the original work. In other words, is Shakespeare in other words, still Shakespeare ? Or does it matter ? The educators among us probably have a unique perspective --- especially about encouraging (or is it 'pounding in' ?) appreciation of the classics. For what it's worth --- my choice for the Aardman big cat (and allowing for artistic license) would be a South American cougar or puma based on size, face and colouring.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 19:37

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Stay safe, Brooke. My niece is in Wisconsin and at the moment it's -4°.
Helen, I'm glad that the walkway and driveway got cleared - if only temporarily - and that someone brought you two nice treats to enjoy.

Joan (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 20:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We are bracing for a Monster Ice/snow storm in Ontario for the next few days. Just in time for holiday travel, Merry Christmas all! Try and stay off the roads if possible.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 20:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Weren't the special effects in Blade Runner supposed to be ultra-modern at the time and it was only as they dated that people realised it was a film where the ideas were what mattered?
My own nit-picking with Moon is that there's no explanation for why the gravity is the same as Earth's. Was the difference so unimportant to the makers that they didn't bother about it or was it pure ignorance?

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 20:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Never underestimate the power of ignorance, Roger, but I'm guessing the explanation would have got in the way of something they felt was more important. Bad choice because it left at least one viewer thinking about gravity when he should have been thinking about their important item.
Keep safe and warm, people.

Ace (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 23:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Roger/Helen --- My understanding is that Duncan Jones, director of 'Moon,' was aware of the scientific inconsistency when it came to showing gravitational pull on the moon's surface and inside the base, but for story purposes and the difficulty (and presumably, the extra cost) in trying to replicate low gravity indoors cinematically, decided to keep everything at normal (Earth) gravity. Apparently Kubrick took the same approach with '2001' but had the excuse (if he needed one) that no one knew the moon's gravitational effect at the time.

Rob Lloyd (not verified) Fri, 23/12/2022 - 08:25

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I try to at least gesture to 17th century dialogue in my books.
I got a lovely review the other day which asks, 'What's with the weird syntax in the dialogue? Is it supposed to be historical?'
Yes. Yes, it is.

Roger (not verified) Fri, 23/12/2022 - 12:33

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Ace: I enjoyed Moon, but I was mildly irritated by the failure to acknowledge the question - a throwaway remark about a "gravity generator" or some other nonsense would have satisfied me. In fact, I wondered if it would turn out they weren't on the moon at all and was off course as to what kind of film it was at all. It's interesting with 2001 - perhaps because of all the hi-tech special effects we accept it more readily. Perhaps we were prepared by the centrifuge on the spaceship and imagined something similar when we first watched ir. Certainly the effects of the moon's gravity were known then. They were standard aspects of SF in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ace (not verified) Fri, 23/12/2022 - 13:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Roger -- Yes, we certainly had a fairly accurate estimate of the relative gravity of the moon as far back as the end of the 19th c, which was confirmed /made more precise by the unmanned lunar probes in the 20th. The thought about Kubrick and 'gravitational effect' had to do with what it would look like visually, which we did not actually know (factoring in the moon's surface) until the landing in '69.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 23/12/2022 - 15:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Back to the post's original theme, does Clock Work Orange count as alien language. Nadsat... In the novel, Burgess' talent as librettist are front and center.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 23/12/2022 - 21:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Nadsat has been described as an 'anti-language', used within an 'anti-society', and this is where we get tangled in definitions : 'An anti-society is described as a small, separate community intentionally created within a larger society as an alternative to or resistance of it.'

So if the intent is to exclude outsiders and join insiders together, Polari would also count. [But it's messy, academics don't agree where the borders between linguistic goings-on are. Well it keeps them in jobs so....]

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 23/12/2022 - 22:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy, helpful explanation. Thanks for intro to Polari--not one I've come across before.

Peter T (not verified) Sat, 24/12/2022 - 09:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The only words I know in Klingon are Merry Yuletide, though the literal translation isn't so friendly. As it sounds and reads like a serious case of catarrh, I'll settle for Happy Holidays everyone.

Roger (not verified) Sat, 24/12/2022 - 18:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If the intent is to exclude outsiders and join insiders together academic English is a definite "antit-language", Snowy.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 24/12/2022 - 19:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ah, academic English, an attempt to cover all aspects of a topic in such a way and with as many synonyms as possible so that the reader is required to consult a dictionary for every third word and loses the sense of the sentence before reaching its midpoint. (a failure of grammar in there, you notice.)

Sunman42 (not verified) Tue, 27/12/2022 - 03:59

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The story goes that two of the more famous physicists of the day were taking a walk along the old city wall of Heidelberg during break in a conference in the late 1920s, and their conversation came round to the differences between poetry and physics. One of them finally declared, “In physics, one tries to say something no one has ever known before in a way everyone can understand, whereas in poetry….”

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sat, 31/12/2022 - 21:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've just been listening to Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, I think she gets the language spot on, it's a book I've been meaning to get to for a long time and it hasn't disappointed.

Viz is a gem, when it hits it is spot on, although sometimes......

Well with all the dialects and accents English is a minefield, and in most fields jargon abounds, a language in itself.