Thursday, 7 January 2010

Dave's favourite SF, part 5

This is a celebration of weird language, and an excuse to talk about one of the greatest SF books of all time.

For sheer fun (that is, fun for the kind of weird person like me who finds language funny) and for a weird take on the use of Saxon-Norse mythology as a basis for scientific nomenclature, try 'Uncleftish Beholding' by Poul Anderson. A few samples of the scientific words: ymirstuff = uranium; forward bernstonish lading = positive electric charge; minglingish doing = chemical reaction; lump beholding = quantum theory.

I found it got funnier the more I thought about the words; 'weeneitherbit' for neutrino and 'roundaround board of the firststuffs' for periodic table of the elements cracked me up. (Maybe that's just me.)

Written in what English might look like if William the Bastard had failed to take England, it is available as a free text from here.

Another dystopia, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, has jumped into my top 10 SF novels ever. Written in 1979, it depicts Kent over 2000 years into recovery from a nuclear war, and maybe a fusion power disaster too. The language is fragmented, "worn down"' as Hoban himself describes it; all backstory is told in a shattered English patois that reveals starkly how much scientific understanding had been lost. The names of towns are transfigured by an earthy, vaguely pagan culture, so that Herne Bay becomes Horny Boy. A correspondent of mine hooked me into this book with the following quote:

Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us dont have no name.’
I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said, ‘Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it dont even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’

I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’

Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’

I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’
She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant find the arm hoals and it tears us a part. I dont think I took all that much noatis of it when I ben yung. Now Im old I noatis it mor. It dont realy like to put me on no mor. Every morning I can feal how its tiret of me and readying to throw me a way. Iwl tel you some thing Riddley and keap this in memberment. What ever it is we dont come naturel to it.’

I said, ‘Lorna I dont know what you mean.’

She said, ‘We aint a naturel part of it. We dint begin when it begun we dint begin where it begun. It ben here befor us nor I dont know what we are to it. May be weare jus only sickness and a feaver to it or boyls on the arse of it I dont know. Now lissen what Im going to tel you Riddley. It thinks us but it dont think like us. It dont think the way we think. Plus like I said befor its afeart.’

I said, ‘Whats it afeart of?’

She said, ‘Its afeart of being beartht.’

I said, ‘How can that be? You said it ben here befor us. If it ben here all this time it musve ben beartht some time.’

She said, ‘No it aint ben beartht it never does get beartht its all ways in the woom of things its all ways on the road.’

Wel I cant say for cern no mor if I had any of them things in my mynd befor she tol me but ever since then it seams like they all ways ben there. Seams like I ben all ways thinking on that thing in us what thinks us but it dont think like us...

The story circles round the ring of towns celebrated in an old song that no-one can remember the meaning of, spiralling into the radioactive ruins of Cambry (Canterbury), where the Ardship of Cambry is chosen from amongst the mutated, blind survivors. The idea is that the Ardship will be tortured (torture is called 'helpin quirys'!) in the hope that his tranced-out shamanic journey will bring back knowledge of the lost sources of energy.

The story has various mythic layers - the half-forgotten songs, a poem describing a rood screen, one of the few fragments from Canterbury Cathedral, and ultimately the story's heart of darkness, the Punch and Judy show. Not the polite modern version, but a future regression to a tale of ancient brutality suited to brief and savage lives.

This book is strangely uplifting, because of the spirit of the main character. I've read worse dystopias, and the language is stunning, no harder to penetrate than that of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and it's a deeper and more powerful story than that.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Null Immortalis - Nemonymous 10

Nemonymous 10, Null Immortalis, is now open for submissions. The book is planned for publication in July 2010. It will be the last Nemonymous.

Deadline is 30 April 2010. Payment is 1p a word up to a maximum of £100. All submissions must include a character called SD Tullis, Scott Tullis, Mr Tullis or Tullis. Stories should be submitted as Word .doc attachments sent to both and

See here for the full guidelines.