Our frequent correspondent “Greybeard” complains of a current science-fiction novel:
The author ruins a perfectly good story by inserting three must-haves of modern literature.
First, the characters must use crude language even if the objects involved are not anatomically capable of the actions attributed to them.
Second, the characters must take the name of a Christian deity in vain. Even though the novel is set in a distant future where all religion is viewed as a social construct and athiesim is axiomatically understood as the only true alternative, all surprises are met with the utterance of a name first introduced in the ancient Gospels. Why doesn’t anybody ever yell, “Oh Buddha!” when they hit their thumb with a hammer?
Third, characters must speak of the normality of all politically correct perversions.
Dr. Boli agrees that at least two of these three are sins against literary craft, but perhaps for different reasons from the ones his readers might expect.
1. It seems unlikely that we should even be able to recognize the crude language of the distant future. To take the mildest possible example of current vulgarity, what would a (presumably already surprised) time-traveler from 1950 make of the simple declaration “This book sucks”? Just to start with, such a traveler would be baffled by the intransitive use of a transitive verb. The best way to deal with a vulgarian as a character in a story of the future would be to have her spout random words in grammatically unlikely contexts (“Argh! Synergizing hammer! It hit my downsized thumb!”), and allow the shock and dismay of the politer characters to show us that we were hearing crude language.
2. In the case of the Christian deity, Dr. Boli can think of a historical analogue that gives the blasphemy a bit of plausibility. A pagan Roman of the sixth century, having seen his ancient religion thoroughly beaten down by Christianity, and knowing that paganism was destined for the dustbin of history, would be quite incredulous if he were told that, thirteen or fourteen centuries later, aristocrats in the far-off island of Britain would swear “By Jove!” at the drop of a hat. Yet it was true.
3. This one, however, is certainly an egregious sin against plausibility. If a thing is actually considered normal, we do not mention its normality. No one says, “Gee, walking down to the IGA to buy a quart of milk and some corn flakes sure is normal, isn’t it?” If we do speak of the normality of something, we speak defiantly, because we know that there is a considerable part of the population that still considers it abnormal. In 1855, one might have said (and in fact one did say), “It’s perfectly normal for free colored citizens to go to church with free white citizens,” but in saying it one knew that one was causing several million egregious bigots to succumb to apoplectic fits, thus reducing the manpower of the other side in the inevitable civil war to come. So if a writer of speculative fiction imagines a future in which interspecific marriage is really considered normal, the one thing none of his characters can say is, “Irv’s wife is a Bougainvillea in a hanging basket, which of course is perfectly normal.”