Who Owns Language?

December 14th, 2016

meNot long after humans began to use shaped grunts as symbols for things, we discovered that we could argue as much about symbols as about the things they represent. The most obvious example of this is monotheistic religions which argue, among other things, about the proper name for God. This often baffles outsiders, who would suppose that if, as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all assert, there is only one God, then surely they must all be talking about the same Deity. Does giving Him a different name really change anything? As Shakespeare observed, “That which we call a rose, by another other name would smell as sweet.”

And yet words and names do matter to us. Though some names are neutral, many names carry the connotation of male or female, a phenomenon exploited by Johnny Cash in his famous song “A Boy Named Sue”, in which a father gives his son a female-sounding name in order to ensure ridicule will cause him to grow up tough.

The wrong words at the wrong time can lead to altercations: “them’s fightin’ words”. The right words can pour oil on troubled waters and broker agreements, and we even have a word for that: diplomacy.

Words have a magic all their own. In A Wizard of Earthsea, author Ursula K. Le Guin introduced a world in which a pebble could be made to look like a diamond, but merely by calling it by “tolk”, its true name in the Old Language, one could shed the spell of glamour and restore its appearance as an ordinary rock.

Nowadays, one of the more peculiar (and often annoying) uses of language is political. We feel that we can somehow right wrongs (or at least, prevent their recurrence) by changing the words we use to refer to things and people. The rise of Feminism, for example, has caused the term “stewardess” to be replaced in common usage by “flight attendant”. Stripping job titles of their gender-implications, it is thought, will stop men from viewing women as mere sex objects. As an extension of this, the use of the word they as a nonsexual pronoun was made Word of The Year in 2015.

Even words which change their meaning can be outlawed nowadays. The infamous “N word”, used in centuries past to denote non-Caucasians by the British has, because of its association with American racial slavery, been hacked down to a single letter used to represent the word that must not be spoken (except by descendants of the wronged who are allowed to use it on each other, for some reason).

But who owns language? As a writer, a person who views words as my pigments, and my ability to string them together into sentences as my paintbrush, I know that the words I use, precisely because humans instantly convert them into memories or imaginations of images, sounds, actions, and so on, affect people…and this puts me in an awkward situation. I want to trigger passions as well as pondering, but violating the new political taboos could limit my readership. I am reminded that the library of Samuel Clemens High School, named after the author who went by Mark Twain, had to take Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn off its shelves because Clemens used the N word. Think about that for a moment. They want to remember his name…but not what he actually wrote.  To moderns who excoriate him, I must point out in Twain’s defense that he did not use the N word to incite hatred or scorn for African-Americans, as modern racists do. He had his characters use that word because that is the way people spoke in the South before and after the Civil War. Clemens was doing what Steven King recommends in his book On Writing, in which he advises that characters must be allowed to speak as they actually would if they were real people: a coarse villain must be allowed to swear instead of saying “my goodness gracious” because to do otherwise would be out of character and destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

I have seen agents and editors and publishers and booksellers all state they will do no business with books that employ “hate speech”. And look, I get it. No one wants to be associated with hatemongers. No rational person wants to be the one who abused freedom of speech by shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, causing people to be trampled to death in the ensuing panic.

I would argue, however, that there is a difference between a real person shouting the N word at another in order to cause pain, and having a character in a book use that same word in order to explore and condemn the use of it. I’m not saying I’m a fan of that word or that I plan to use it in my own novels. But please, cut Mr. Clemens some slack. How can we condemn racism if we cannot even discuss it rationally…even in fiction? How can we see how far we have come in our discourse, if we censor out past references to hated words, out of fear of offending the descendants of the wronged?

So who owns language? The racists? The politicians? The scientists? No. We all own it. While it is laudable to try to correct certain ways of thinking by “correcting” the terminology we use, we must keep in mind that so-called “political correctness” can become its own kind of verbal fascism. We must use this tool of language-change cautiously…because you never know who will decide they are in charge of it in the future.


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Surfing the Frenzy

September 30th, 2016

meThis crazy election keeps trying to suck me into the fevered tumult. Hey, I get it. People care deeply. On both sides. And yes, I am going to vote.

But, please, I have so much else on my plate. STOP sending me all these “urgent” voter surveys that always ask for money! For two reasons.

ONE, I have already informed the party leaders who I will vote for. (so stop acting like you don’t know or think I’ll change my mind. I won’t.)

And TWO, sorry, you are not going to make me believe that Civilization will fall if I don’t send my five dollars in. No matter who is elected, the world will continue to turn, grass will continue to grow, and the swallows will return to Capistrano.

Election years remind me of the cicadas. Several times i have been “blessed” to witness the emergence of these insects from their underground development. In Pikesville, Maryland, particularly, the sheer volume of chitin crawling and flying around at such times is grotesque, to say the least.

And I feel similarly about the way my fellow Americans suddenly emerge from their political slumber and discover they Care Greatly about politics all of a sudden. Like the cicadas, the politically passionates swarm into view as if there is not enough to deal with every day.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in Democracy. I believe in Freedom. You have the right to express yourselves…as long as I have the right to go somewhere that I don’t have to listen to it all the time.

I just have to shake my head when strangers attack strangers, family members try to outshout each other, and newscasters decide that the candidates are the only news worth covering. NEWS FLASH: I know who is running and I have made my choice. Tell me more about SpaceX or the newest research on graphene or quantum dot solar cells.

And buy my books!  (Sorry, just had to throw that in.)


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The Burden of Knowledge

September 9th, 2016

meThese days, many readers combine science fiction and fantasy into a single genre. It would be convenient for me personally if they were the same thing. But they’re not.

You see, my challenge as a SF writer is to expand your mind without insulting your intelligence. There are all kinds of mind-bending things I would like to write about, but I have a handicap: a formal education in science.

The fact that I was a hard-science Physics major should help me write science fiction, right? Yes and no. It does give me a technical vocabulary and some knowledge of how matter and energy work. The problem is, suspension of disbelief starts long before a reader opens my book. It starts with me: I have to believe in the book to write it. This means that because of my background I want to explain everything scientifically, to justify it to myself and help my suspension of disbelief.


So I try to walk a narrow path between extremes. In Gamers and Gods I have post-mortal Greek and Egyptian gods, but they are limited by their incarnation into a quantum computer. So, a mix of fantasy and science. On the one hand, I extrapolate a level of consciousness beyond humans, but with its own limitations - as the ancient Greek storytellers did. But I mix this in with predictions of how quantum computers might influence online gaming in the future, and to do that I have to talk about logic, software, loopholes, qbits, and all the technological wizardry that we might have to play with in a few decades.

TMCIn The Metaspace chronicles I do the same kind of mixing. I have a “wizard” who calls himself a psionic engineer trying to rebuild a technical civilization. He uses “magic” — but it is all done by manipulating properties of space like its curvature, spin population, or energy distribution. I mix sword-and-sorcery with post-apocalyptic to produce a story line which is neither pure fantasy nor hard SF but a little of each.

If you want to call it a formula, fine. But it works for me, at least to the extent that it permits me to proceed. And the readers have not been displeased.


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The Question

August 18th, 2016

me in Rift

The Question

And old man gazed with sightless eyes upon a silent sea
and wondered: have I missed the tide?
I should have scattered seeds upon the wind
and sewn a richer tapestry
I should have built my castles in the sand
and dared the wind and waves to do their worst
Instead, i stand here wond’ring on the dune
and wait for evening’s breeze to call the night.
Yet none can say that I did not attempt
to make a mark. I soared on wings of hope
and raced the sun across a hollow sky
but when the flight is done, no trace remains;
the clouds themselves will fade, their storms forgot
as mountains crumble into sand
I wipe my weary brow with trembling hand…
Please tell me it was not in vain
when all the stars go out, and silence reigns
Please say there was a reason for it all
when matter is a memory
I was too busy earlier to hear
but I am listening now. Is there a Plan
that holds a place for rocks and trees and us?
Were all our minds mere accidents -
our cries in pain and joy a useless noise?
Or is there more to know, a path unwalked
I want to know. I want to hope.
But so far, all I hear is gulls and wind.

– MRK 7/31/2016 Crystal River, Florida

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Playing Catch Up

August 5th, 2016

SisyphusIt’s true, what they say: “You don’t really appreciate something until you lose it.”

In my life, at various times I have had to do without food, money, and a functioning automobile, but it was not until my computer failed over a week ago that I learned what real withdrawal feels like. As I sit here, pecking out this blog entry on my phone screen keyboard (and, apparently, whining about it), I find myself realizing, more than ever before, how dependent I have become upon computers and the Internet.

Sure, I can still write with a Bic pen and a sheet of paper. But paper has no spell check. It has no copy&paste, and cannot research a word or topic at the click of a mouse button or the tap of a finger. How spoiled I have become!

I will get through this. I shall have to make do with watching Netflix on my Kindle Fire. And even now I get some help from silicon, for my smart phone & Kindle are  computing devices…even if they are keyboards challenged and limited to small screens.


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Why I Do It

June 30th, 2016

meMany of you ask why I do it. Why do I write science fiction?

I ask myself the same question. Maybe with a different emphasis: why do I write science fiction? I mean, I read it. I watch television shows and movies based on it, like many other people. But why do I write it?

The cynical answer would be that I do it for the money. But if that were my main motivation, then there are other genres that would be more efficient at generating income. Whether you call it Scifi, SF, or speculative fiction, science fiction is a relative small piece of the fiction pie, money-wise. Far more money is made writing romance fiction and thrillers. Maybe this is because good science fiction, almost by definition, needs to have some good science in it, and most people seem to prefer books that won’t make them think about much science. Or maybe because violent conflict and love are things we are obsessed with and want to read about. Most good scifi includes such things.

Do I do it for the fame, then? Shakes his head. Name ten famous scifi authors. Hint: I’m not one of them yet.

The answer I keep coming up with when I ask myself that question is, because I have been inspired by it and I want to pass on that inspiration to others. I think the first SF novel I read was Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I read it in sixth or seventh grade, and the idea of owning a space suit captured my imagination so strongly that my Halloween costume that year (back when most were hand-made and not bought) was a couple of cardboard boxes with holes cut out for my arms and legs and some plastic for a face plate. It didn’t look much like a NASA space suit, so I told everyone I was supposed to be a robot. But in my heart I was an astronaut.

A lot of us like to read historical fiction, and it can be fascinating stuff, especially for romance, because we will always have a nostalgia for “the good old days” that is unaffected by our knowledge that those good old days included human slavery, widespread disease and illiteracy and nearly constant war. But reading about kings and princesses cannot really inspire us to emulate them, because it’s sort of difficult these days to become a king or a princess. We can identify with the handsome prince or the beautiful-but-strong princess, but when we are finished we put the book down and go on with our lives.

Science fiction is different. It looks forwards, not backwards, in history. And there will be a need for more astronauts, so it’s not crazy to want to become one. Well maybe it is for me, because I’m way too old to get into the space program. But you get my point. SF doesn’t encourage us to dream about what we could have done in the past. It inspires us to dream about what we might be able to do in the future.

I’d like to be a part of that.


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