I’m reading a very enjoyable science fiction novel right now. It is fast-paced, with great voice and compelling characters. The non-Western worldbuilding is full of gorgeous imagination and rich detail. There is something that has been bothering me, though:
All of the characters sound American. Not just American, but idiomatically, casually, gen-x-ically American. And it grates, reader. It grates.
In my day job as a community college writing instructor, I work with both native English speakers and students who have learned English as a second language, either as children or adults. This gives me the opportunity to hear English as it is spoken in nearly all of its forms.
I know, for instance, that my students who are seventeen sound very different from my students who are fifty. Now, that seems fairly obvious when one considers their voices, but I can even tell, without looking at their names on assignments, which kind of writing will come from which age group. They don’t just choose different words to use, they handle information differently. They value different things.
Another thing I know is that a native English speaker from the United States chooses different words from one who was born in Britain. Again, this seems obvious. But what about one born in Nigeria? Or India? Or Guam? All of them can be native speakers, but their vocabularies are different, and, again, they handle information in different ways, think differently, and value different things.
Then, there are a whole range of English language learners. The people I teach are considered “fluent,” but their vocabularies are still tiny, compared to any American of a similar age. Even highly educated English language learners, with vast vocabularies, still lack the idioms that native speakers use without thinking.
(At this point, I am reminded of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who always claims, “I speak the English idiomatique.”)
As a result of all this exposure to different forms of English, when I sat down to write a character who was speaking a second language for most of my novel, I was careful to make her sound like one of my students, instead of just giving her the speech patterns of a native-born American. She is highly educated, so her speech is precise and polished, without grammatical errors, but it is a little stilted and formal, just like my students. She would never say, “join the club,” or “tell me about it,” or even “no kidding.” Instead, she would say, “indeed,” or “yes,” or “you’re right.” Not because she is less intelligent than the other characters, but because her knowledge of the language is different from theirs.
Now, my characters are not supposed to be speaking English at all, of course. They’re speaking the made-up language of my made-up planet. But since English is the language I’m writing the book in, it has to do all the work. And my made-up people aren’t American, so they should not sound that way.
This is important for science fiction. If I am going to convince my readers that my story is taking place far in the future, why wouldn’t I adjust the language they use? This is not the same thing as inventing words–I see plenty of that in scifi books–this is about using regular English words in different ways. It’s about creating speech patterns that differentiate my characters from each other, from myself, and from the guy down the street.
So, I’m off to revise and edit my manuscript, again, for the eleventy-millionth time. This time, I’ll be on the lookout for Americanisms to put the kibosh on. After that, I’ll stick a fork in it, drop the mic, and call it good. <shudder>