Sunday, October 19, 2008

Destination: Genreville—An Interview with Rose Fox

Genreville debuted in July, 2008. I’d heard about it, but what really caught my attention was Rose Fox’s piece on The Next Big Thing: Space Wenches.

Because The Galaxy Express visits everything in the vicinity of science fiction romance, this article prompted my fangirl response here. Then I started to think about all the fascinating posts at Genreville, and what a treat it would be for all of us to hear from Rose Fox and her incredible work.

Well, I hit the jackpot! Genreville’s chief graciously agreed to answer a few questions. Read on to learn about one of the hippest pads at Publisher’s Weekly, why you simply can’t live without a Language Construction Kit, and her swashbuckling alter ego.

Language Into Images

How did the Genreville gig come about, and what is its mission statement?

I used to contribute to a general PW reviews editor blog called Notes
from the Bookroom. One day we were discussing ways to make it more
interesting to readers, and one of the editors suggested spinning off
genre-specific blogs for mystery and SF/fantasy/horror. I expressed some
enthusiasm for the latter, and Sara Nelson, our editor in chief, asked
me to write up a pitch for it. She liked my suggestions and gave me the
green light. I've been keeping a personal blog since early 2001, so I
figured it would be fun to try my hand at staying within a theme and
keeping a more professional tone. It is fun, but it's a lot of work too!

Genreville has an extremely general mission statement: I discuss
anything and everything related to book publishing in the fantastical

As a result of the “…proliferation of sub-subgenres…” in SF that you touched upon, do you think it will impact the market share for SF books in the near future?

I don't think the sub-subgenres will do that nearly as much as major new
genres like paranormal romance have done. To affect market share, I
think you need something that has very broad appeal and is a fairly
general categorization.

Calculating market share also requires defining the genre in the first
place, a very thorny question. Some people might not consider paranormal
romance part of SF, for example. Some might put space opera and epic
fantasy in one category, or consider them separate categories. Almost no
one considers YA or children's books as part of the "SF market share",
even though so many of them have fantastical elements. So the parameters
of the question really need to be defined before it can be answered.

In an earlier Genreville post, you described your background as a linguistics major. Please share some book titles that in your opinion feature skilled use of made-up languages. Can you suggest any resources in this area for aspiring writers?

What a delightful question! I think I mostly remember the really
terrible ones, like Eric Van Lustbader's Pearl Saga, where characters
have names like Rekkk and Thigpen. I defy anyone to correctly pronounce
that triple k, and really, what unkind parents would name their child
Thigpen? Or there's Susan Kearney's The Ultimatum, where made-up words
are relentlessly italicized and often refer to things that have clear
Earth analogues. Why say "marbellite" when you could say "marble"? Why
call a flower a "rolilly" when you could call it a rose or a lily? So
that's more about what not to do. Other beginner mistakes include
creating words that have no obvious similarity to other words, or
putting in weird punctuation at random. We know why there are
apostrophes in "don't" and "y'all" and "prob'ly": they note the omission
of a sound and mark the word as in some way informal or nonstandard. If
you have something called a glafin'gla, what has been omitted from it?
How did the term develop? Why is the apostrophe necessary?

There are only two major reasons why one would need to create a word:
because it's a proper noun, or because it describes something that is
completely unlike anything in this world. Proper nouns have the
fascinating property of (mostly) resisting translation. My friend
Gian-Paolo is Italian; I don't call him "John Paul" when I'm speaking
about him in English, even though the meaning is the same. Given this
property, creating cultures implies the need for creating names. You can
take this to extremes, as Theodore Sturgeon did in "The [Widget], the
[Wadget], and Boff", where two of the alien names simply can't be
pronounced or understood and therefore get silly-sounding placeholders.
You could go the other way and have Earthlings call aliens Joe and Carol
and give places descriptive names like the Crater of Needles. Most
writers take the middle road of creating proper nouns that give a sense
of the created language and culture without requiring a full-on
glossary. If all members of the nobility have names that end with -to,
you can guess without being told that -to is some sort of honorific
suffix. If all women have names that end with -a, you can guess without
being told that the author is not thinking too much about language

Other vocabulary also needs to reflect culture, but this can very often
be done by repurposing English words rather than creating new ones.
Tanya Huff does this pretty well in her Quarters books, where each
culture has a different set of swear words: those who believe that the
Circle encloses all good things might refer to something dreadful as
"unenclosed", an equivalent to the English "damned", while devotees of a
war goddess say "slaughter" the way we say "fuck", a neat analogy of a
sacred act done profanely. Catherynne M. Valente makes extensive use of
simile in The Orphan's Tales because simile is so often present in
folklore, and The Orphan's Tales are essentially folklore for a world
that doesn't exist. A phrase like "the shadows wrapping around him like
slippery river eels" tells you a great deal about the culture it comes
from: there are rivers, there are eels, the reader is expected to
immediately recognize their slipperiness. The errors made by a foreigner
will give a sense of how that foreigner's native language is structured:
"Please to show the way" suggests a language where the infinitive of a
verb is one word rather than two, and where pronouns are often implied
rather than stated outright. Then you can go into ideas about what
implied pronouns suggest about a culture: are people very self-effacing,
refusing to talk about themselves? or are they very selfish, assuming
that oneself is the default and all others must be named explicitly?

I would recommend that anyone who wants to play around with language in
a created world should first pay really close attention to language in
our world. Look up the origins of English words and phrases. Read the
wonderful Language Log blog, or look through the Straight Dope archives
for obscure language questions. Read a book written a hundred years ago
and look at how words change. Read a book written in another
English-speaking country and see what phrases signal foreignness. Read
Idiom's Delight. Get a basic linguistics textbook and learn about
language families and the way sounds and meanings change across distance
and over time. Learn a bit about other Germanic languages; see how much
you can puzzle out of Der Spiegel just based on the similarities between
German and English. Learn about languages that are completely different
from English, like Japanese or Hungarian. Learn about record-keeping
systems around the world.

Then start looking at what are essentially languages created within
English, like Boontling and Cockney rhyming slang and the incredibly
specific, always increasing vocabulary of doctors and taxonomists. Read
up on the history of Esperanto, Loglan/Lojban, Klingon, and of course
the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. Read science fiction
about language and communication: Joe Haldeman's "A !Tangled Web", Mary
Doria Russell
's "The Sparrow", Sheila Finch's "The Guild of
Xenolinguists", anything by Suzette Haden Elgin (whose website includes
fabulous conlang resources). Look at why people create languages, what
assumptions they make, how they start and where they go.

Around this point, start thinking about the physical nature of the world
you're creating. Who is using this language? If they're non-humanoid,
what language-emitting parts do they have? Are they in space, in
atmosphere, underwater? We communicate using all our senses; think not
just about speech but about gestures and body language, the firmness of
handshakes, involuntary reactions like blushing or pupil dilation, the
means by which words are turned into permanent records. Then think about
the cultures. How old are they? How big are they? How much do they
interact with neighbors or distant cultures? What things are important
to them? Imagine entering the culture as a stranger: what would be in
your phrasebook? Imagine growing up in that culture as a child: what
stories would you hear from adults or your fellow children? Begin to
develop simile and metaphor and hierarchy and family structures and
politics and priorities. If your culture looks a whole lot like an Earth
culture, study the language of that culture and consider adapting it for
your purposes. (There's no shame in this; Tolkien borrowed heavily from
several languages.) Write a few pages (or chapters) using only English,
developing regionalisms and accents and intricacies of phrasing.

Then, finally, use the Language Construction Kit…to build the actual language. Remember that 99% of it should never appear in your story or book! Like good worldbuilding, most of good languagebuilding is below the surface. Translate from English into your created language only where absolutely necessary.

I'm going to show my true east coast elitist colors here: If this all
sounds like a lot of work for very little payoff, then don't do it. Use
English instead. Building a language is mostly its own reward, and you
have to take it seriously if you're going to do it well. People think of
language as just being vocabulary, but it's intimately tied to culture.
Whether you think language shapes thought or thought shapes language,
you simply can't have one without the other. A language that does not
reflect its culture will inevitably ring false.

Whew! Rant over.

How many SF/F books do you read in a month?

Depends on the month! When I was reviewing, I read three a week. Lately,
it's more like three or four a month. I've taken up knitting, which cuts
extensively into my reading time.

If you were a female space pirate, what would be your name, weapon of choice, and signature accessory?

My name would still be Rose Fox, which I think is actually a pretty
great space pirate name. I would carry blasters in twin quick-draw
holsters and my signature accessory would be the classy eyepatch decal
on the outside of my bubble helmet, which on the inside would display
useful information drawn from my ship's computer.

What are some of your favorite SF/F conventions?

I never miss a Readercon. It's my must-do convention of the year. I also
go to Arisia almost every year; 2009 will be the second year that my
husband and I run the Green Room there.

Have you read any science fiction romance books? If so, what did you think?

I obviously wasn't wowed by the Susan Kearney title I mention above. On
the other hand, Sharon Shinn's Samaria books are very much science
fiction romance--though not usually billed that way--and I absolutely
adore them.

Is there any Genreville news or information that you’d like to share?

I'm going on vacation from 10/27 to 11/7, and I have some fabulous guest
bloggers lined up: Catherynne M. Valente, Gregory Frost, Mindy Klasky,
Marie Brennan, Jim C. Hines, and John Levitt. I expect their posts to be
far superior to my usual output. Keep an eye out for them!

Thanks so much for the chance to reach out to your readers. I really
appreciate it.

Rose, thank you for that exciting journey through Genreville! I encourage you, my splendid passengers, to make Genreville one of your regular stops for informative, stimulating news about the science fiction & fantasy genres.

Joyfully yours,


Postus Scriptus: All the links were provided by The Galaxy Express except for The Language Construction Kit.