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.


  1. Ann Othuerflop says:

    Hey Dr. Boli – A multiple choice punch-line joke for you:

    What did the man who married a Bougainvillea in a hanging basket say to her when she presented him with divorce papers?

    A) “My darling wife, please don’t leaf me!”

    B) “Please, think of the children, we mustn’t uproot them!”

    C) “Fine! But, don’t expect to go without a fight. I will have my lawyer dig-up whatever dirt he can find on you!”

    D) All of the Above.

    • RepubAnon says:

      The Bougainvillea probably found out that the spouse was dallying with a different type of flower often found in hanging baskets – and suffered fuchsia shock.

      As to the first point above: many of today’s insults consist of instructions to commit acts which are anatomically impossible (without permanent damage), so I see no reason why insults of the future should discontinue this trend. Example (from one of Keith Laumer’s Retief stories): instructions to stick one’s primary organ cluster up one’s ventral orifice.

      As to the third point: this is not limited to science fiction. I’ve seen any number of books staged in various historical settings where the protagonists act like modern people with modern sensitivities. Example: books staged in the 1890s where there is no prejudice against the Irish.

      It smacks of Isaac Asimov’s classic definition of space opera: take a horse opera, replace six-gun with blaster, small town with planet, Native American with alien, stagecoach with starship, etc.

      • Sean says:

        I was attempting the other day to put together a list of the cardinal sins of alternate history writers with some friends. The first transgression to come to mind was “Suspicious Progressivism” That is, when all of the main characters (whether they were or were not actual historical figures) who have social attitudes (particularly relating to race, gender relations, and sexual mores) tend to cluster together and come out on top in whatever future the flapping butterfly has created.

        Also, airships. But, since our dirigible-less universe is demonstrably incorrect on this account, showing other, better places as an example is acceptable.

  2. A friend of mine is (was? This was forty years ago!) addicted to Louis L’Amour novels – so I read one.

    As a novel, it was all right, I suppose. It was set in the US in the late 17th Century – and the protagonist’s outlook was indistinguishable from a mid-twentieth century libertarian (and atheist).

    I never read another.


    • Jared says:

      I had no idea that there were so many gunslingers throughout the American west in the 1600s!

      • Dr. Boli says:

        It is true, of course, that there was nothing called the “United States” in the late 1600s, but you must admit that there was something very wild-westy about Bacon’s Rebellion.

        The Editor has suggested that we give up numbering centuries, since it always ends in tears.

        • RepubAnon says:

          Bacon’s Rebellion sounds like some sort of reaction to the current “bacon in everything” fad.

          “When they asked me to be a flavor in ice cream, they had gone too far – so I joined with the apple-smoked clan and the uncured tribe in open revolt. Today, the frying pan – tomorrow, the fire!”

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