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Language and the Lunar Rebellion

February 4, 2010

I recently finished reading Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  It’s a brilliant novel, intricate and beautifully told, and I would recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in science fiction.  Set in 2076, where the Earth’s moon (Luna) has been settled as a penal colony, the novel follows the Lunar revolution to gain freedom from the near-tyranny of Terra.  The revolution is orchestred meticulously by the wise Professor Bernardo de la Paz, computer technician Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis and the rebellious Wyoming Knott with the essential aid of the moon’s supercomputer (affectionately known as Mike) who has developed consciousness akin to a human being.

There are an abundance of topics for discussion: the politics and strategies of the rebellion itself, the comment on society’s structure, themes of humanity, and so forth.  But what I was instantly intrigued by was the language of the novel itself.  I’ve avoided spoilers, so read ahead even if you haven’t read the book.

Narrated by Mannie, the whole book is written in the language of the fictional era, using its grammar and slang constantly.  The word ‘the’ is consistently ommited, as are some indefinite articles and other brief, ‘filler’ words.  The sentence structure is unusual, rearranged so as to eliminate unnecessary sounds while still getting the meaning across.  This is no doubt a result of the fact that Luna was originally colonised as a prison, and lesser education would have had a direct influence on the development of the language and slang. 

I was struck by how quickly the language itself established the storyworld.  Heinlein’s imagination is extensive, and his detail of the Lunar culture and all its quirks is astounding – one could imagine he left out whole aspects of the world he devised when it came to writing the book.  But it was not these details that truly gave me the insight into life on Luna.  As much as I admired his breadth of creativity, I sometimes found the minute insights a bit too much or intrusive to the storytelling.  Alternately, once I got the hang of the strange grammar, it never bothered me.

Words are indicative of our personality and culture, and our way of using them only exemplifies this further.  By the way someone speaks, you can generally determine whether they are well-educated or street-wise, denizen or visitor.  It should be no surprise then that writing in a distinctive voice would assist the establishment of the setting.  The spartan prose of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road reflects the emptiness of his post-apocalyptic environment, Holden Caufield’s narration in The Catcher in the Rye is as spontaneous as his adolescent attitude, and so forth.

But in these cases, it is more the style of writing that sets the tone – the placement of words, the choice of colloquialisms.  There is still a familiarity within the foreignness.  But when whole grammatical rules are turned on their head, as they are in Harsh Mistress, it forces the reader to dive head-first into the imagined world.  There is no way that Mannie’s sentences could be mistaken for anything of this world – they wholly belong to the novel’s Luna. 

It is a property of the setting, just like the interplanetary catapault or Mannie’s collection of robotic arms.  If those objects were corporeal, and we could see them and touch them, they would make Luna, 2076 a tangible, believable, real place.  And the language has the same effect.

The language, the grammar and the slang shapes the storyworld not only because it is “proof” of the “reality” of the storyworld, but also because it is the corridor through which we enter Heinlein’s story.  The politics, the society, the characters are important and we invest ourselves in them.  But the words, sentences and paragraphs are inherent to our experience with the story – and its environment.  We cannot discover the story without them, and it is through interaction with them that we enter the world.

The language is how we define Luna.

I know that Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange utilises a similar technique, with the story narrated in the invented slang-heavy language Nadsat, but as I haven’t read it or seen the film, I can’t make a comparison.  If you have, I’d love to hear what you have to say about how the language affects the perception of the story.

And in general, is their any benefit to shaping a unique language with which to tell a story?  Does it alienate or engage?  Have I forgotten a key literary text that invests heavily in invented discourse?  Sound off in the comments!

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 20, 2010 8:12 AM

    Discussion from Facebook:

    “I agree Anthony Burgess uses the same techniques to great effect, my droog, in stories that search for the definition of goodness vs free will. As I recall, the book was FAR more effective at the use of language to this end than the movie. The “new” language was certainly used more consistently.”
    — Tim

    “Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land also has some interesting linguistics references. I took a Descriptive Linguistics course in college that used examples from the book, and had an “empowerment” workshop at work that promoted being a “fair witness” to avoid making assumptions about situations and relationships.

    There are a number of famous novels that use narrative slang to set the tone and mood – Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn comes to mind. Science fiction, however, is uniquely suited to the use of “new” language.”
    — Cindy

    “The language in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is meant to have features of Russian grammar (the missing articles) and Australian slang. Heinlein intended the story to be a mixture of the American Revolution and Australian convict history. I’m not sure where the Russian fits in with this, other then being an obvious influence of the many Russian convicts. READ CLOCKWORK ORANGE. The language is also meant to be based on Russian. A trend!”
    — Ginny

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