Author Archives: Marjorie Pak PhD

The Third Tower (2018)

by Deborah Eisenberg

We read a series of stories this semester that took up the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign—the most important feature of language, according to Saussure—and troubled it in various ways.

  • In ‘Funes the Memorious’ we saw a mind incapable of abstraction and thus compelled to coin new words, generating an ever-changing and unshareable lexicon.
  • In Every Boy Should Have a Man, we encountered a society with no language variation or change and thus no recognition that words could mean different things to different people.
  • In ‘Elliott Spencer’ we heard the narrative voice of a man recovering from a memory wipe, and watched in real time as his signified-signifier associations became progressively freer and more expansive.
  • In Embassytown, we saw a society that believed that each word directly exposes a thought, rather than symbolically representing a thought, and were thus unable to lie, use metaphor or recognize machine-generated speech.

I’m glad we ended with ‘The Third Tower.’ It’s a troubling and confusing story, and it’s good to be left troubled and confused about the nature of language, community and freedom.

‘The Third Tower’ shows us the mystery of the linguistic sign…and leaves it a mystery. Therese struggles to describe her experience of words; she gropes for metaphors and analogies and comes up with casings, twins, explosions, halos, floppy margins—all extraordinarily evocative and not at all explicit.

At the same time, ‘The Third Tower’ makes me think about what stories mean. When I read it I struggle to figure out the story, to answer questions like those we discussed in class today—Is Therese in a hospital or a prison? Are her visions real or hallucinatory? What’s the title referring to? But the answers remain obscure and out of reach, evocative and suggested but not pinned down. There’s no key.

(Holy shit—key! Remember the keys?!)

Please read this really insightful and generous blogpost by one of my students last semester. I owe my initial appreciation of this story to Dani, Nico and Trinity from Fall 2023. And you all deepened my appreciation of it today. I was very much moved listening to your comments about ‘Elliott Spencer,’ The Hunger Games, Peter Pan, dreams, fascism, neurodivergence, conversion therapy, and ordinary human imagination.

To wrap up, here’s a comment by the anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber that I found myself thinking about after class today, from his book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy:

“It’s worth thinking about language for a moment, because one thing it reveals, probably better than any other example, is that there is a basic paradox in our very idea of freedom. On the one hand, rules are by their nature constraining. Speech codes, rules of etiquette, and grammatical rules, all have the effect of limiting what we can and cannot say. It is not for nothing that we all have the pictures of the schoolmarm rapping a child across the knuckles for some grammatical error as one of our primordial images of oppression. But at the same time, if there were no shared conventions of any kind–no semantics, syntax, phonemics–we’d all just be babbling incoherently and wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other at all. Obviously in such circumstances none of us would be free to do much of anything. So at some point along the way, rules-as-constraining pass over into rules-as-enabling, even if it’s impossible to say exactly where. Freedom, then, really is the tension of the free play of human creativity against the rules it is constantly generating. And this is what linguists always observe. There is no language without grammar. But there is also no language in which everything, including grammar, is not constantly changing all the time.” (p. 200)

Every Boy Should Have a Man

by Preston L. Allen

This is our longest reading, and the most disturbing one, at least for me. But we had a well-attended, insightful discussion, and I came away appreciating this book in new ways—so thanks, as always.

Emily took some excellent notes on what we talked about. We started with the novel’s form: the shifting perspectives, the absence of a continuous main character who stays with us from beginning to end, the use of epithets and nicknames instead of proper names, and of course, the Jack and the Beanstalk and Tower of Babel stories lurking in the background.

George Cruikshank, 1854

Every Boy Should Have a Man describes a version of our world with two kinds of people, who look pretty similar except for their size. The world is divided in two by a firmament. Giants (‘oafs’) live exclusively above the firmament and are unaware of the lower world; ‘mans’ inhabit either the upper world (with giants) or the lower world (without giants) and typically live out their lives without ever being aware that the other side of the firmament exists. Only Jack and his family know how to travel between the worlds.

Like the fairy tale, the novel leads us to identify Jack and other mans as being more like us, and oafs as the monstrous enemy. But by dropping odd hints here and there and then ending with Mike’s story, Allen forces us to ask ourselves: What if we’re more like the oafs? Or what if we’re equidistant between mans and oafs? What if the differences between mans and oafs—not just their clothing and diet but also their size and lifespan—are cultural rather than biological?

(There would still be that strange detail about the opposable big toe in chapter 10. I haven’t figured out what to do with that.)

The book doesn’t answer any of these questions for us. It doesn’t tell us whether mans or oafs are more moral or deserving of success. We could celebrate Jack for his resourcefulness, bravery and persistence—but is it really virtuous to go uninvited into another world and steal their goods? On the other hand, is it virtuous to live like the oafs: utterly incurious, never exploring, stagnating in class warfare, treading the same ground forever until all your resources are depleted?

The story refuses to tell us the answers. Instead it does what good sci-fi does, in my opinion: it helps us think about the questions, much more carefully and thoroughly than if we’d just considered them in the abstract.

The language stuff. The main reason I include Every Boy Should Have a Man in this class is because of this passage from chapter 12, where Rose returns to Zloty for a visit and tries to explain to him what she has learned about language:

…[T]here is no such thing as talking mans and mans that cannot talk. Mans that cannot talk are simply mans who speak a different language…

You do not know of languages because your people only have one language. So you do not even have a name for the language you speak. You do not even have a word for the word language. (p. 141)

What becomes clear in this chapter is that oaf society is so homogeneous and geographically constrained that there is no language variation. Oafs take it for granted that everyone talks the same, the way we take it for granted that every physical object we encounter will obey the law of gravity. We don’t need a word for ‘the set of objects that obey the law of gravity,’ because we don’t know of any other kind of object; our world doesn’t have that kind of variation. That’s what language is like for the oafs. They don’t need a word for ‘the set of sound-meaning correspondences used by a group of people’ because there is only one such set in their known world, and no need to talk about other possible sets.

It would never occur to an oaf that somebody could use different combinations of sounds to refer to similar ideas. So when they see a man doing that, they don’t recognize it as language at all.

It’s wild to imagine thinking this way. MJ reminded us of ‘Mazes’—the alien failing to understand the narrator because it simply wasn’t prepared to see the bodily movements of a tiny creature as intentional, intelligent attempts to communicate. The same basic disconnect is happening in Every Boy Should Have a Man; what makes it remarkable is that both oafs and mans are speaking with their mouths, producing many of the same sounds and perhaps even some of the same words (Allen tells us the languages are Frisian and English!)—but the oafs are so unprepared for the possibility of other languages that they can’t see one even when they’re staring right at it.

Linguists are trained to view variation and change as essential to language; Saussure established diachrony (change over time) as foundational to the discipline (Part I ch 1). Moreover, we take it for granted that every human culture can use language to talk about language; this reflexiveness was included in Hockett’s famous list of design features that makes human language different from other animal communication systems: ‘Bees dance about sites, but they cannot dance about dancing’ (p. 10).

Every Boy Should Have a Man helps us poke at these claims, helps us imagine a group of people whose language doesn’t change and who don’t use language to talk about language. Of course it’s fiction; it’s not evidence in the traditional sense. But it helps us imagine an alternative to something we might otherwise accept complacently as universally and automatically true. It presents us with an alternative and entices us, by engaging us in a narrative, into doing this idea justice.

It helps us imagine. Imagining is so important in education, and so often skipped over.

After our class I found myself thinking about what one of you said about Rose’s first child Mike, and how the story ends with this (bicultural?/biracial?) character being torn between two worlds and feeling alienated from both of them. So much sci-fi is about traversing worlds, so it makes sense that we’ll encounter characters like this; we also had Serenity from ‘Solitude’ and the creature in Frankenstein. Anyway, I started realizing that some of my favorite non-sci-fi authors write about characters dealing with the same kind of alienation in our real world, usually in the context of emigration and immigration: Jhumpa Lahiri, Laila Lalami, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ha JIn, Lisa Ko… and there’s Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novels may or may not be sci-fi but also deal with alienation and moving between worlds.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

by Ted Chiang

We had such a great discussion on Friday. A friend of mine walked by our table and told me later that he could tell it was a good discussion just from seeing us.

But I had trouble writing about it.

I’ll start with the easier stuff. I think ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ is an essential text in a class on linguistics and sci-fi. This story does a better job than I ever could of teaching some important basic lessons in linguistics:

  • Language can and does exist independently of reading and writing.
  • Our metalinguistic knowledge (our conscious awareness of the structure of language) is both enhanced by and contaminated by our literacy.
  • Our confidence in the notion of word—that we know what a word is, that we can count the words in a sentence, etc.—is largely based on arbitrary conventions of writing, and is therefore suspect. If our language didn’t have a written form, we might not have a concept of word.

I try to tell my linguistics students these things, but I know it doesn’t sink in at first. It’s too difficult to dissociate our knowledge of writing from our knowledge of language. As adults at an elite U.S. university, most of us learned to read very young and now spend hours every day consuming and producing text. It feels second nature, almost as natural and organic as speech.

‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction’ does what good sci-fi does: it helps us dysrecognize something we take for granted, in this case our literacy. It places us in the mind of Jijingi, a Tiv adolescent in the 1930s who has never seen a book before, and walks us through his process of learning to read and write.

There’s a brilliant segment where Jijingi asks why he has to leave spaces between some ‘clumps of marks,’ and Moseby the missionary tries and epically fails to explain what a word is (pp. 693-694):

  • First Moseby looks up word in his Tiv-English dictionary, but there’s no word for word in Tiv.
  • Then he tries to convince Jijingi that you pause briefly after every word, but this just isn’t true, as Jijingi points out.
  • So Moseby revises and says you could pause after each word, but that doesn’t work either—because you could pause after every syllable, and a word is different from a syllable.
  • Finally Moseby gives up and says ‘Just leave spaces where I leave spaces.’

It’s great. And then Chiang does this:

‘It was only many lessons later that Jijingi finally understood where he should leave spaces, and what Moseby meant when he said ‘word.’ You could not find the place where words began and ended by listening. The sounds a person made while speaking were as smooth and unbroken as the hide of a goat’s leg, but the words were like the bones underneath the meat, and the space between them was the joint where you’d cut if you wanted to separate it into pieces. By leaving spaces when he wrote, Moseby was making visible the bones in what he said.’ (p. 694)

Our literacy—the way we constantly experience language in a form that we can see and touch—misleads us into thinking that words are concrete and tangible. But they’re not. They’re abstract, just as languages are. Which isn’t to say that they’re not real.  

The harder message of this story—but one that’s just as necessary for us to grapple with—is that the truth is also an abstraction, and that our most cherished beliefs and memories are unstable.

This message hit me especially hard this time. The day before our class discussion was sine die, the last day of the Georgia legislative session. Here are some of the things I saw our Assembly do this year:

  • They rejected a bill that would have made health insurance available to people who can’t afford it.
  • They passed a bill that will pay families to take their kids out of public schools.
  • They passed a bill that cancels the next Public Service Commission election, denying us the right to hold elected officials accountable for rising electricity bills.
  • They advanced (but didn’t ultimately pass) bills that would have banned sex ed through grade 5, empowered vigilantes to disenfranchise voters due to clerical errors on their registration, and allowed drivers to run over protestors as long as they could claim they were fleeing from a ‘riot’ (Georgia code defines riot as two or more people acting in a ‘violent and tumultuous manner’).
  • Up until 1am the night before our class, they were considering a bill (which didn’t pass) that would have banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender kids, including kids who’d been on that therapy for years. An opponent said in a floor speech: ‘Know that when you vote, if you push the green button to make this the law in Georgia, you are damaging children.’ And a majority of the senators went ahead and pushed it.

I’m exhausted. I don’t understand how some of these legislators think, how they explain themselves to themselves. And part of me says I don’t need to understand them, that to try to muster empathy for them would itself be wrong. But how can empathy ever be wrong?

So hopefully you see why re-reading ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ the next morning kind of messed me up.

The story is easy to read in the sense that Chiang’s prose is simple and straightforward and there’s no violence or apocalypse. But as you progress through this story, you feel your beliefs being destabilized and your confidence being shaken. For me the disruption proceeds like this:

Beginning of story:  literacy = good
Remem and other invasive technology = bad
Erica the corporate hack = bad
cool journalist challenging the corporate hack = good
colonialism = bad
Moseby the missionary =  nice enough but probably bad
traditional Tiv life = good
treating women as property = bad  (oh wait…)
verbally abusive parent = bad   (oh…)
End of story: telling lies = bad…?
the truth =

Every time I read this story I feel empathy for the narrator, even though I’m horrified by what he said to his daughter and disgusted by his obtuseness. I admire Jijingi’s final decision, even though its implications are terrifying. Jijingi chose to conceal what may have been the truth (what actually happened, mimi) because he was trying to preserve another kind of truth (what’s right for the community, vough).

It seemed like a good thing when Jijingi did it. But how far can you take that logic?

Did those senators who pushed the green button think they were preserving vough?

There’s much more to say about the form of this story, the implications of Remem, whether this is sci fi, and more. Here’s the essay some of you mentioned about telling the story of Hamlet to Tiv people (thanks, Micah!), and here’s a very creepy Guardian story about a new technology that sounds a lot like Chiang’s lifelogs.

Please feel free to comment!

Funes the Memorious (Funes el memorioso)

by Jorge Luis Borges

We had a lovely, lively and stimulating discussion of ‘Funes the Memorious.’ Our edition is only six pages long and I felt like we could have kept talking about it for another hour at least.

Here’s the piece about ‘Funes the Memorious’ that I shared during class. It includes some of Borges’ own comments about the story, as well as a photo of the newspaper where the story was originally published in 1947.

‘Funes the Memorious’ poses the hypothetical question: What would it be like to have an infallible memory and perception, to notice every detail and never forget anything? Would it be a gift, a disability, a superpower, a curse? How would it affect your identity, your humanity? Would you still be able to think?

Could you have language?

I said no. Some of you pushed back. It comes down to how you define language. That’s why this story is such a great one to read in a class like this.

The language question

On Day 1 of Intro Linguistics we often teach students that language has two basic components:

  • A vocabulary or lexicon, i.e. a list of arbitrary sign-meaning correspondences. These have to be memorized and stored.
  • A combinatorial system that allows you to put vocabulary items together to create novel phrases and sentences. Phrases and sentences don’t have to be memorized; their meanings are compositional, systematic, calculable, predictable.

After his accident, Funes’ brain is capable of remembering anything and everything. He starts to feel ‘discomfort’ with the systematic, combinatorial way that we use words to refer to numbers and instead invents a mini-language where every number has a unique, atomic name: ‘In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Pérez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad… In place of five hundred, he would say nine.’ (p. 152-153)

For us this approach to numbering is ludicrous, impossible. The only rational way for our human brains to name large numbers is with a compositional system: three hundred sixty five is literally the sum of its parts, three hundreds + six tens + five ones. But for Funes, our compositional approach is intolerably inefficient. Why use four words when we could use just one? Language is all lexicon for him: his capacity to memorize and store new words is as limitless as the set of all possible numbers. This is why he’s able to learn ‘the arduous Latin tongue [with] no other instrument than a dictionary.’ (150)

So… is that language?

And that’s not all. Remember that Funes’ perception is also affected. He discerns everything, every leaf, every crevice, every molding. He has difficulty not only with the idea of a general category corresponding to the word dog that includes both dachshunds and rottweilers, but also with the idea that ‘[a] dog at 3:14 (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at 3:15 (seen from the front).’ (p. 153)

Funes can’t generalize or make abstractions; he can’t form categories. His natural inclination is to create a unique word not only for every object, but for every time (and every way) he experiences an object. ‘En el abarrotado mundo de Funes no había sino detalles, casi inmediatos’ (In the jam-packed world of Funes, there was nothing but details, almost immediate).  (p. 154)

Language for such a mind would just be a constant, frenetic act of naming: coining a new label for each instance of each thing he perceives, and—most likely—never using that label again. Is that language?

Moreover, this never-ending labeling activity would be entirely solitary. If I can’t generalize from my view of a dog at 3:14 to my view of the same dog at 3:15, then I also can’t generalize from my experience of a dog to yours. Without this kind of abstraction—the ability to take the leap of faith necessary to believe that someone else’s experiences of the world are fundamentally similar to mine—there’s no way we could establish a set of shared conventions around what words mean.

This reminds me of Wittgenstein’s private language argument: if I decide to write an ‘S’ in a diary every time I feel a particular sensation, is that a language? Wittgenstein suggests that it is not, since I’m not accountable to others or even to myself about what ‘S’ means; there’s no ‘criterion of correctness.’ Funes, arguably, wouldn’t even be able to keep such a diary: if ‘his own hands surprised him every time he saw them’ (p. 153), how could he recognize ‘S’ as the ‘same’ sensation from one day to the next?

Other questions

For such a heady, philosophical and ultra-short story, Borges spends quite a bit of text grounding us in a particular time and place and assigning mundane properties to the two main characters. The narrator is an educated, well-off young man from Buenos Aires who ‘summers’ across the Río Plata in Montevideo or Fray Bentos (Uruguay). Funes lives in Fray Bentos year-round—he’s a local, a townie, working-class: his mom does ironing and nobody’s quite sure who his dad is. The story takes place in the 1880s, but Funes seems strangely obsessed with Uruguayan history: he drops seemingly gratuitous references to ‘our two nations in the Battle of Ituzaingó’ and later to ‘the 33 gauchos of Uruguayan history.’ Why?

Another thing that mystifies me a bit: I never really sympathize with either character. I can imagine a version of the story where we feel deeply, achingly sorry for Funes, but it’s not this version. Funes comes across as odd, fey, grating: he ‘avoids contact with people’ and his voice is ‘shrill, mocking’ (p. 149). The narrator comes across as a pretentious, unfeeling little snot: his narrative voice is stilted and pedantic; when his dad gets sick he feels only the excitement of being at the center of a drama; he’s so stunned to hear an uneducated townie speaking Latin that he almost loses his mind: ‘The Roman syllables resounded…my fear took them to be indecipherable, interminable’ (p. 151).

Why did Borges set this story in this time and place, in these particular characters? I haven’t been able to articulate a response yet. But when I reflect on this question, I’m left with an unsettling sense of instability: the story is showing us that our differences are illusory and temporary, that our alliances are too, that our fortunes are easily reversed, that vanity and puffery are…well, vain and puffed-up.

‘Funes’ is full of gorgeous and haunting imagery. I asked students to write down a few words about the impressions this story left them with, and the responses were wonderful: esoteric, bleak, remote, being trapped, dark, vampiric, dreams, youth, wisdom, anxiety, imaginary numbers, no filter, memory vs. thought

I think mine would be obscurity. My dominant impression of ‘Funes’ is of a world enveloped in storm-clouds, smoke, shadows or nighttime darkness, where the lack of light has the potential to be both frightening and comforting. Here’s the passage that always blows my mind:

‘Before that rainy afternoon when the blue-gray horse [el azulejo] threw him, he had been what all humans are: blind, deaf, addlebrained, absent-minded… For nineteen years he had lived as one in a dream: he looked without seeing, listened without hearing, forgetting everything, almost everything.’ (p. 151)

There’s something profoundly moving about this idea of all of us humans stumbling through our lives in a haze, convinced that we’re seeing reality when we’re really just seeing a vague outlines and shadows. We heard similar messages in ‘Story of Your Life‘ and Frankenstein. It also reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave, and of St. Paul’s strange, mysterious phrasing in his first letter to the Corinthians:

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Whale Fall

by Wendy Nikel

‘Whale Fall’ was an experiment for me this semester. I came across it over winter break, read the first few paragraphs, and saw that it was about a person talking to a whale via some kind of communication device. I thought: ‘Cool, this fits. I’ll put it in the syllabus.’

Hahahaha. When I finally read the whole story, I found out how misled I’d been: the communication device is never mentioned again. The whale dies just one page into the story, and we never get to see how a human-whale conversation works.

But the story still fits! It’s connected to our course themes in all kinds of unexpected ways. It’s densely packed with meaning, and our discussion today made me appreciate it even more richly.

Katheryn started us off today by referring to the Book of Jonah, which makes perfect sense: the story after all starts with a quote from Jonah (2:3): You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas.

This line is from Jonah’s prayer to God after he’s been swallowed by the whale. It’s an oddly ambivalent line; Jonah seems to be both admiring and rebuking God. It reminds me of the epigraph to Frankenstein that we talked about, Adam’s rebuke ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / to mold me man? Did I solicit thee / from darkness to promote me?’ (Milton, Paradise Lost, X)

So that’s one way ‘Whale Fall’ fits in our course. Every story we’ve read this semester has been about a human response to some kind of unfairness. The unfairness may take the form of a plague (‘The Easthound,’ ‘Speech Sounds’), a child’s death (‘Story of Your Life’), forced captivity (‘Mazes,’ ‘Elliott Spencer’), isolation and ostracism (Frankenstein), or rigid cultural norms (‘Solitude’). In ‘Whale Fall’ it’s politics: factions waging senseless war and sustaining it via entrenched poverty, ignorance, environmental blight and anti-elite resentment. For people like Jemina, there are ‘no good options’ (p. 124).

Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jemina responds initially with anger. Her fuck-it-all scorn and fury infuse much of the narrative. That scene where her mom’s boyfriend abandons her on the docks is characteristic: we see her grinding up the lollipop in her teeth, leveling a hard gaze at the retreating boyfriend, marching off to enlist (pp. 124-125). And when Jemina finds out later on that the Federation has been exploiting her, she decides she’s ‘angry enough to die’ (p. 128).

That’s…whoa. That’s really angry.

Jonah is also a very angry person. He’s furious when God shows mercy to the people of Nineveh. He insists that he’s right to be angry ‘even unto death’ (4:9), just like Jemina. Disturbingly, Jonah’s anger is rooted in bigotry and tribalism—he wants the people of Nineveh to suffer and feels personally cheated when they don’t.

But to counter Jonah’s anger, we have God. And to counter Jemina’s anger, we have Odonto the whale.

Whales are the other reason why this story fits in our course. Like many of our other stories, ‘Whale Fall’ is about humans sharing time and space with an intelligent but unfathomable other species, trying to communicate and succeeding only partially.

What’s up with whales? Most of us today agreed that we think of whales differently from how we think of other animals. Whales are mysterious. They live underwater, so we don’t get to see them. They’re huge, slow-moving ‘gentle giants.’ They rise and fall, take and give back. We definitely don’t associate them with anger.

They’re also disturbingly like us in some ways: they  have hipbones! and maybe language! They’re smart.

Odonto turns out to be the smartest character in the story. He’s figured something out that Jemina somehow missed, and he’s kept it a secret. When she tells him about the Federation’s plans, Odonto knows immediately what to do, and he does it without hesitation.

Odonto could have told Jemina his intentions—they have that communication device, after all—but he chooses not to. Why? Emilio’s interpretation (which I share): Odonto knew that Jemina wouldn’t be ready to accept his decision—and finally let go of her anger—until he was dead. The best way to communicate his message was non-linguistically.

Jemina’s anger and despair, like Jonah’s, are deeply human. But at the end of the story she finds a different way to be human, another way to respond to the grotesque unfairness of the human condition.

Gods, monsters, aliens… and whales.

We talked about so much more today—please post whatever thoughts you have. Here’s the gorgeous video we watched together that inspired Nikel to write the story: Whale Fall (After Life of a Whale).

Frankenstein (chapters 10-16)

by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein is often called the first sci-fi novel. For this class we don’t read the most sci-fi-heavy parts of the book: we skip over Victor’s education in scientific theories, his construction and animation of the creature, his warnings about the dangers of too much knowledge.

What we read instead is the innermost ‘core’ narrative of this famously layered novel: the chapters where the creature tells his own story to Victor. It’s a remarkably eloquent, absorbing, relatable monologue. Whatever your response—whether you pity the creature or abhor him, whether you think his resentment is justified or overly self-dramatizing, whether his struggles seem noble or cringe—you respond to him as you would to a human. You judge him by human standards; you don’t experience him as an inscrutable other, like the alien in ‘Mazes’ or the heptapods in ‘Story of Your Life.’

This has everything to do with language, of course. Chapters 10-16 of Frankenstein are all about language and how language makes us human. And like knowledge itself, language in Frankenstein is shown as an ambivalent force: it brings satisfaction to the creature but also dissatisfaction; it makes him acutely aware of his loneliness but then fails (spectacularly) to bring him into fellowship with others.

I’ll touch on a few points here. Please add your own thoughts. Also feel free to read my post from last fall, when I read the entire novel with a smaller group of students.

1. The creature is recognizably human even before he has language.

In Chapter 11 the creature tells Victor about his first moments of awareness: what it was like the first time he opened his eyes, walked, felt cold and heat and hunger and thirst. This kind of account could never exist in the real world: thanks to childhood amnesia, none of us can remember our first moments, or much of anything from our infant and toddler years. Presumably what makes this creature different is that he’s ‘born’ with an adult brain.

There’s an important question to ask about the reliability of this creature’s account. The creature’s thoughts at this early stage weren’t linguistic, but he’s now using language to describe them. How successful can language ever be at describing non-linguistic thoughts? How extensively does the act of communication reshape, filter and contaminate memories themselves? We’ll come back to this theme again in Chiang’s ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ and Borges’ ‘Funes the Memorious.’

From almost the very beginning, the creature’s behavior is unmistakably human. He approaches fire, for example, not as something to be feared but as the object of a scientific experiment: he examined, sat still watching, reflected, discovered the cause, contrived. This is how humans behave with fire, not other animals. And it’s kind of adorable, the way the creature puzzles out the fire: he seems so curious, so endearing, like a human child. It’s jarring to remember that the book is subtitled A Modern Prometheus – oh yeah, discovering fire is maybe not so great! This vignette is meant to remind us about the ambivalence of human curiosity: it may be cute, but it’s also our ruin.

2. How the creature acquires language (and literacy!)

After the creature moves into the hovel adjoining the DeLacey’s cottage (chapter 12), it takes some time for him to figure out language. He watches the family closely and seems to know instinctively how to read their facial expressions as sad, despondent, cheerful, pensive. But he doesn’t know what their vocalizations are for. Then he has a breakthrough:

I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experiences and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it.

This is another depiction of the magical power of language that we’ve been talking about all semester. Frankenstein’s creature puts a slightly different spin on it though: he’s interested in the power of language not to make other people do things, but to make other people feel things.

What’s the importance of calling language a godlike science? Calling it a science suggests that language is a puzzle to be systematically figured out and ‘unraveled’, through ‘clues’ and ‘great application’–like how he learned to control the fire. Calling language godlike means it’s extremely powerful, potentially dangerous, and not to be shared with other animals; i.e. it’s not quite natural.

The predominant view in modern linguistics is that language is a natural outgrowth of a human mind, not requiring any special intelligence or conscious training. On day 1 of intro linguistics we tell our students that any baby, assuming they’re living among humans engaged in ordinary social interactions, will automatically and naturally acquire the grammar and lexicon of the ambient language.

Frankenstein’s creature, of course, doesn’t get the experience of a typical human baby; he’s deprived of social interaction. He doesn’t make any real progress with the godlike science until Safie arrives in chapter 13; then he learns by eavesdropping on her language instruction by Felix. A baby wouldn’t have been able to learn French by watching an adult Turkish speaker’s L2 French lessons, but this creature (with his adult brain) is. And he immediately starts working on something else that babies don’t do: he learns ‘the science of letters’ and starts reading.

3. Effects of reading

As hyper-literate members of a 21st-century university, we may find it hard to believe that reading and writing are not ‘natural’ human activities. But writing is a technological invention, by no means universal to the species: only 60% of the languages that exist today even have a writing system, and many of those systems aren’t used in daily life. While language appears to be a spontaneous, organic, natural outgrowth of the human mind, writing must be consciously and laboriously invented, disseminated, taught and learned; it’s artificial.

In Frankenstein, both literacy and language itself are made strange, through the experience of the creature. The effect is to make us think about language itself as artificial, of humanity itself as unnatural.

The creature’s exposure to certain texts–first Volney’s Ruins of Empires (read aloud by Felix, chapter 13), then Plutarch’s Lives, Goethe’s Werther, and (most importantly) Milton’s Paradise Lost (chapter 15)–trigger a series of self-reflections that destroy the creature’s emotional equilibrium. His learning makes him ‘turn towards [him]self’:

[W]hat was I?…When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth…? …Sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst and heat!

The emotions this creature feels are all unmistakably human. When he commits murder, we recognize the bitter envy and vengeful rage that Rye felt in ‘Speech Sounds,’ rather than whatever unfathomable urge drives the monsters in ‘The Easthound.’ Frankenstein’s creature doesn’t control his emotions the way an adult should, but that’s not surprising given that he doesn’t have an adult’s experience. He doesn’t have a parent, mentor or tutor, so he’s disproportionately influenced by Goethe’s Werther and Milton’s Satan.

I put a handout together for students who haven’t read Paradise Lost. It’s really striking to see how closely the creature models his own narrative after Milton’s.

4. The creature’s language as artistic performance

Over the entire novel, Frankenstein’s creature only engages in a handful of conversations. His first one is with old Mr. DeLacey at the end of chapter 15. It fails to produce the desired outcome–famously and disastrously–but it’s still a remarkable linguistic feat.

The creature passes as a native speaker of French. He has gained complete control over not only lexicon and syntax but also rules of discourse. He exhibits great dexterity in evading direct answers without technically lying–for example, DeLacey asks, ‘Where do these friends reside?’, not realizing that ‘these friends’ are himself and his own family, and the creature responds ‘Near this spot.’ (ha!)

And the creature does actually does manage to gain DeLacey’s trust. ‘[T]here is something in your words which persuades me that you are sincere,’ says DeLacey; ‘it will afford me true pleasure to be in any way serviceable to a human creature.’ (He called him a human creature!)

The creature’s encounter with Victor is only the third conversation of his life, and it’s another virtuoso performance. When Victor suddenly comes face-to-face with his creature in chapter 10, what’s remarkable—and comical—is that it’s Victor who comes across as an inarticulate monster. He’s reduced to sputtering epithets: ‘Vile insect!’ ‘Abhorred monster!’ ‘Wretched devil!’ and erupts in physical violence: ‘My rage was without bounds; I sprang on him, impelled by all the feelings which can arm one being against the other.’

The creature, who is much larger and stronger than Victor, is the one who uses his words instead of his fists. This reminds us of ‘Speech Sounds,’ of course: the positive, pro-social power of language to prevent violence. And it’s interesting to examine the various rhetorical strategies the creature uses to calm Victor down. First he shifts to thee/thou/thy pronouns, perhaps as a supplicatory device: ‘I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me.’ But this language seems to enrage Victor further, so the creature shifts back to you.

Then the creature starts appealing to fairness: ‘Am I not alone, miserably alone?…Shall I not then hate them who abor me?’ He cites the law: ‘The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defence before they are condemned.’ Finally he appeal’s to Victor’s human curiosity and human frailty: ‘Hear my tale, it is long and strange, and the temperature of this place is not fitting to your fine sensations; come to the hut…’

By the end of the chapter Victor is calm. He follows the creature to the hut, listens to his long tale, and ultimately agrees to make him a companion.

I’ve described the creature’s conversations as if they were artistic performances. The creature himself talks about language this way: he says he wants to ‘acquire the art of language’ (chapter 12) so that he can ‘discover [people’s] motives and feelings… win their favour, and afterwards their love.’

Once again, we’re confronted with the ambivalence of language. Is it good magic or bad magic? Art(ifice) or natural? Does the creature’s language restore Victor to nonviolence and rationality, or does it seduce him (like Eve) into doing what he knows is wrong?

Final thoughts on why I love Frankenstein. This semester I’m sitting in on my colleague Jim Morey’s class Middle English Language & Literature. On the first day of class we read a lovely anonymous 13th-century lyric called ‘Foweles in the frith‘:

Foweles in þe frith,
þe fisses in þe flod,
And I mon waxe wod.
sulch sorw I walke with
for beste of bon and blod.

‘Birds in the wood / the fishes in the river / and I am going mad. / Such sorrow I walk with / for best~beast of bone and blood.’

The poet is lamenting the fact that other animals have their homes; they belong on this planet; but we humans are aliens. We’re out of place. We’re beasts of flesh and blood, but we’re also the best of flesh and blood–set apart from all others, not quite at home in nature.

Here’s Victor at the beginning of chapter 10, traveling the treacherous and desolate path up Montanvert on the back of a mule:

Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute… If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us.

Victor too is lamenting our difference from other animals. And he specifically implicates language: it’s our sensitivity to the ‘chance word’ that makes us humans vulnerable and unfree, rather than powerful and free.

Frankenstein shows us the ambivalence of language that’s at the core of the ambivalence of being human.

Speech Sounds

By Octavia Butler

‘Speech Sounds’ is all about language. It’s a wonderful story for this class because it allows us to peel back layer after layer of the extremely complex question: What is language? It frames this question by asking, What is lost when language is lost?

The story is narrated in the third person from the perspective of Rye, a former writer and history professor. It’s set in Los Angeles, but the institutions that once made L.A. a city have fallen apart. Humanity has been ravaged by an illness of unknown origin that is ‘stroke-swift in the way it cut people down and stroke-like in some of its effects… Language was always lost or severely impaired… Often there was also paralysis, intellectual impairment, death.’ (p. 8, emphasis added)

Rye has been largely spared by the illness but has lost pretty much everything else—her family, her work, all sense of connection and hope. The entire story takes place within a couple of hours, which (of course) turn out to be critical for her.

‘Speech Sounds’ makes us grapple with how much our sense of what makes us human is tied up with language, and how much ‘dehumanization’ is (and is not) entailed when we lose it. There’s a lot to discuss in this story, and I try to let students talk about what they want, but I make sure we at least touch on three linguistically relevant layers of analysis.

Layer 1. Right from the outset, Butler does something noteworthy: she distinguishes language from speech, just as Saussure distinguished langue from parole. The illness in ‘Speech Sounds’ attacks the brain, not the vocal tract; it’s a kind of aphasia.

Butler adds various details to make this clear:

  • Left-handed people ‘tend to be less impaired’ (p. 5), suggesting that the illness targets the left hemisphere (where language is lateralized for almost all right-handed people but far fewer left-handed people).
  • Sometimes the illness affects reading and writing (alexia) rather than spoken language; this is what happened to Rye. Others have the opposite syndrome, like the ex-cop Obsidian.
  • It’s abundantly clear that people can still vocalize: they’re described throughout the story as whimpering, screaming, squawking, hooting, roaring, grunting, shouting, and sometimes uttering repetitive CV syllables like ‘da, da, da.’ (Note that these are the sounds of chimpanzees and babies, not adult humans. Rye is questioning—or just flatly denying—the humanity of the people around her.)

So, what people have lost is not the motor function of the larynx, but the ‘higher-level’ ability to understand and produce language.

At the same time, though, Butler shows us that people have retained some ‘higher-level’ language-like abilities:

  • They point, nod, and shake their heads ‘no.’
  • The bus driver has ‘pasted old magazine pictures of items he would accept as fare’ on the sides of the bus. (p. 6)
  • People wear or carry ‘name symbols’ (p. 9), objects that stand for what their former name meant, and seem to have developed a ritual for exchanging these symbols in order to introduce themselves.
  • People use manual gestures that are more stylized and arbitrary than pantomime: e.g. one man points at Rye, then at Obsidian, then holds up two fingers, and this sequence is immediately understood to mean ‘Those two people are a team.’ (p. 7)
  • Obsidian retains the use of some non-iconic, conventionalized gestures, e.g. drawing a cross to mean ‘dead’ and using rock-the-baby gestures to mean ‘child.’
  • Obsidian still wears his LAPD uniform and badge! (Paraphrasing one student: wtf?)

All these communicative acts are voluntary, symbolic, and culturally learned (as opposed to more species-uniform communicative acts like frowning and sighing, or less symbolic gestures like pantomime). I would argue that the acts bulleted above are either language proper or language-like, and as such they’re very human.

Layer 2. In imagining this language-targeting neurological illness, Butler taps right into a core question in linguistic theory: Among all of our other cognitive abilities, how specialized is our linguistic knowledge? Sometimes this question is framed around whether language is ‘domain-general’ or ‘domain-specific.’ ‘Speech Sounds’ frames it by asking: What does it mean to distinguish linguistic impairment from intellectual impairment?

For example: The story starts with a skirmish on a bus, which quickly escalates to a brawl. Obsidian arrives on the scene and uses tear gas to clear everyone out of the bus. The bus driver is furious with Obsidian, rather than grateful:

‘[The bus route was] his livelihood… If his bus did not run, he did not eat. On the other hand, if the inside of his bus was torn apart by senseless fighting, he would not eat very well either. He was apparently unable to perceive this. All he could see was that it would be some time before he could use his bus again.’ (p. 6, emphasis added)

It’s unclear in the story if the bus driver’s limited reasoning is due to his linguistic impairment or to more general cognitive impairment. And it’s also unclear in real life, as our Linguistics senior seminar students learn when we read De Waal, Pinker and Tomasello. It’s very hard to tell if our human ability to think through hypotheticals and their consequences depends on language or just coexists with language.

Another example: We humans also like to believe that we’re better able than other species to suppress our emotional (‘animal’) impulses. But the people in ‘Speech Sounds’ are angry, hostile, prone to physical violence. Is this because they’ve lost the ability to ‘use their words’ instead of their fists? Or has the illness damaged the emotional-regulation part of the brain as well as the linguistic part(s) of the brain? Similar questions arise in the study of real-world Broca’s aphasia patients, who often show distress about their condition: are they reacting the way they would have previously reacted to a loss of this magnitude, or are they reacting more strongly because the brain lesion has also affected their emotional regulation? Check out this talk by Blaise Morrison on ‘Psychosocial Aspects of Living with Aphasia,’ from 2/29/2024.

Layer 3 is where we get into the really tough questions, similar to those raised by ‘The Easthound’ and ‘Story of Your Life’: How do we respond when we lose everything that’s most important to us, and what do our responses tell us about our humanity? What’s the connection between our proclivity for meaningful language and our search for a meaningful life?

Here are some of the questions we talked about on Friday, as well as one or two that I thought of afterwards:

  • How much does our identity depend on (i) language and (ii) being able to interact regularly with others?
  • How is Rye’s isolation in ‘Speech Sounds’ different from Serenity’s isolation in ‘Solitude’?
  • Why does Obsidian keep wearing his cop uniform? Do you find this character pathetic, ridiculous, heroic, quixotic/Quixote-like? (Note: This story was published in 1983, eight years before Rodney King’s brutal beating by four LAPD officers was caught on film and nine years before a jury failed to find any of those four cops guilty. Butler may not have written this character in quite the same way now as she did then.)
  • Rye’s physical appearance is never described; Obsidian is described only as having black hair and a black beard. Either character could be any race. Do you think this is a deliberate omission, given that Butler usually explicitly identifies each character’s race in her stories? What might such an omission mean in ‘Speech Sounds’?
  • Rye is at first going to leave three corpses unburied on the street, but then she decides to take two of them home and bury them. How does this reversal fit with her other emotional reversals at the end of the story? In what ways is burying the dead a language-like activity?

A final note: ‘Speech Sounds’ is the first story I read with students when I piloted my sci-fi course in summer 2020. It was tough to read then, and it’s tough to read now.

Butler rewards us, though, with her characteristically stoical, unflinching narration. Sometimes the most reassuring thing you can do when things are really awful is to just tell it like it is—honestly, without sentimentality or brutality—and Butler does this with astonishing, bracing clarity. I wish I knew how to be this kind of honest.

Story of Your Life

By Ted Chiang

I’ve taught ‘Story of Your Life’ in many different ways over the years, depending on the focus of the course and the interests of the students. I wrote down a bunch of thoughts here, so it’s a long post. Our discussion on 2/9/2024 focused mostly on #2, #3 and #5.

I’m not going to try to avoid spoilers here, so proceed at your own risk!

#1. Formal linguistics. This is by far the most linguistic-y story we’ve read. The narrator-protagonist Louise Banks is a linguist, an academic with a field-research background. Aliens have arrived on Earth and she’s been hired to learn their language and figure out what they want.

Chiang sprinkles linguistics jargon unapologetically throughout the narration: we hear about phonemes and graphemes, spectrograms and vocal tracts, logograms, ideograms, case markers, center-embedding. I’ve spent an hour or two with Languages of the World students trying to reconstruct a Heptapod-B-like language based on the descriptions on pp. 105-114. It’s a lot of fun, and I hope students eventually see that while Heptapod B is formally very different from English, every one of its features has a close analogue in some human language. What makes this language different is not its formal structure but its social function, which does not become clear until late in the story (see #3).

#2. The structure of the novella is remarkable, and I make sure to spend at least a few minutes talking about it. It’s broken down into about 45 segments, ranging in length from a few lines to a few pages, and alternating between two narratives:

1. past-tense narrative about Louise’s research on the aliens (heptapods)
2. future-tense narrative about the life of Louise’s child, who is addressed and referred to as you (we never learn her name)

Narrative 1 progresses chronologically and gives a complete account of Louise’s research: It begins with her being hired onto the team, describes how the work proceeds, and ends with the aliens’ departure.

Narrative 2 is neither chronological nor complete. We read first about the child’s death (99), then about the child as a teen (102, 107), then about the child as a 6-year-old (111), then about her college graduation (114), and so on. Many of these segments begin with I remember followed by a future-tense complement: ‘I remember a conversation we’ll have when you’re in your junior year of high school’ (107), ‘I remember when we’ll be driving to the mall’ (114), ‘I remember when you’ll be a month old’ (136).

The first and last paragraphs of the story narrate the same moment: just before the child’s conception, when the father asks, ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ (91, 145) These ‘bookend’ paragraphs are narrated in the present tense, and can thus (as MJ pointed out in class) be understood to be describing the moment of the narration.

Here’s a plot diagram/reverse outline I made for the story, inspired by one of my students last semester (thanks, Nico). So cool!

#3. Social function of language; speech acts. As Louise gains proficiency in the Heptapods’ language, she comes to understand a profound difference between their cognition and ours. Human cognition is sequential and causal, so we experience events chronologically and believe that each event directly influences the next. Heptapods instead experience ‘all events at once,’ with a ‘purpose underlying them all’ (134, 140). A heptapod already knows everything it will ever experience. Its life, Chiang suggests, can be explained teleologically, like Fermat’s account of a ray of light: the endpoint of the life is given, and the path to that final state can be understood as the optimal way to arrive there.

Whoa. It takes a lot of work to get your head around this idea, and I encourage students to talk about it at length (see #5). Somewhere in that discussion, I make sure to spend a few minutes on its linguistic implications.

Near the end of the story Louise poses the hypothetical question: ‘If the heptapods already knew everything that they would ever say or hear, what was the point of their using language at all?’ And then she answers the question for us: ‘For the heptapods, all language was performative.’ (137-138)

We recognize the performative capacity of language in utterances like I hereby pronounce you husband and wife; we discussed this at length with The Easthound. For the heptapods, every utterance enacts reality. Using language the way the heptapods do is ‘like performing in a play’ (139); every utterance is ‘a ritual recitation,’ ‘the realization of a plan.’ (140) Language is still meaningful, but not as a way to share new information, rather as a way to recognize a moment, give moment to the moment.

Remember Mazes? That poor narrator kept trying to perform gorgeous, meaningful dances, while the clueless alien thought the narrator was just trying (and failing) to find food. Neither character ever understood the other; they were doing entirely different things with the maze.

The heptapods are in some ways like the narrator of ‘Mazes’—performing with great intention, awareness and meaning, while (most of) the humans around them are completely missing the point, obsessively fixed on why did the aliens come, what’s their goal, what do they want? The last scene, the botched gift exchange and the heptapods’ sudden unexplained departure, leaves Colonel Weber and the State Department reps as unsatisfied and deflated as the alien at the end of ‘Mazes.’

#4. Whorfian stuff. As Louise gains proficiency in Heptapod B, the language starts changing the way she thinks (126): ‘My thoughts were becoming graphically coded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams with my mind’s eye…articulating even complex ideas all at once.’ (127)

By the end of the story Louise has gained a heptapod-like knowledge of her own future—including her child’s life and death, as well as her own death. She no longer ‘exercises freedom of choice’; instead she senses her ‘motives coincid[ing] with history’s purposes’ (p. 137).

This sounds a lot like linguistic relativity—the idea (usually attributed to Edward Sapir & Benjamin Whorf) that the grammar and lexicon of your native language have a non-trivial influence on your cognition. But it’s not clear to me that this story is really trying to show us linguistic relativity (or determinism) per se.

For one thing, I think it’s important that Chiang, with all his knowledge of linguistics and willingness to drop linguistic jargon, never mentions Sapir, Whorf, relativism or determinism by name. It just never seems to occur to Louise to frame her experience this way.

Moreover, Louise explicitly says that the effect of Heptapod B is ‘something more than language.’ (127) What does she mean by this? The semagrams are ‘almost like mandalas’; when looking at them, she enters ‘a meditative state, contemplating the ways in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable.’

This description is mysterious, mystical, incomplete. Louise could be experiencing the effects of prolonged meditation, a suspension or infiltration of the mind brought about by her disciplined practice rather than by the grammar of Heptapod B itself. Eventually, Louise says, ‘new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration’ (140). Perhaps learning Heptapod B activates a part of the brain that’s normally latent? Perhaps it has effects like those of a psychotropic drug? The story leaves this a mystery. It’s a fascinating mystery—I’m just not sure how much it helps us understand the Whorfian hypothesis.

The film adaptation Arrival (2016) makes the Whorfian connection much more explicitly, and I think inaccurately. I may write about that later on.

#5. Free will. The aspect of Louise’s story that’s probably hardest for us to accept is that she—and the heptapods—do not have free will. This means that she will answer ‘yes’ to ‘Do you want to make a baby?’, even knowing that the child they conceive will die young and probably in great pain.

The story tries to help us understand that the absence of free will is not necessarily coercion, that there is another way to know both past and future and still live intelligently and meaningfully. To do the story justice, I think we need to spend some time in class really grappling with this idea.

I think it was Micah who helped get this discussion going yesterday. Here are some of the questions we talked about, as well as some others I’ve thought about:

  • What does it mean to ‘come to terms with’ some terrible piece of knowledge? Why do very painful memories tend to get less painful over time?
  • Why is it that even if we already know much of what will happen to us, we still experience it as a surprise or shock? I think Katheryn talked here about the whole story of humankind being framed as predestination in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
  • Why do we love re-reading books, re-watching movies, re-listening to songs?
  • Why do people so often say they ‘don’t regret a single day’ they spent with a loved one they lost, even when that loss has brought them such excruciating pain?
  • The story begins and ends with Louise telling herself to ‘pay attention, note every detail’ (91, 145). Solitude ended with a very similar exhortation: ‘Listen!…Be aware!’ Louise and Serenity are very different characters with different worldviews; what do they have in common that makes them both say these things?
  • Some of you (Emilio and Emily, I think) spoke with affection about how your grandparents take great pleasure in mundane activities like grocery shopping; is this because, as we live through more and more of our experiences, we learn to better appreciate the present moment?
  • What would it really be like for us to suddenly acquire the heptapods’ simultaneous awareness of time? I think Gwen likened it to a profound trauma, something that might induce insanity.

I find it deeply moving to talk about these questions with students. I try not to be maudlin, but these discussions always make me recognize (and remember) how difficult young adulthood is. Our society encourages us to believe that our lives are entirely in our hands, that every decision is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and that the ‘wrong’ choice may lead to crippling regret and turn your whole life into a giant failure. It’s terrible to believe this and virtually impossible to make yourself stop. Ted Chiang, in his story commentary, leaves us with this quote from the elderly Kurt Vonnegut (on the 25th anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five); I offer his words here as an antidote:

[R]emembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now… To … all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and loves you no matter what you are.’ (278)


by Ursula K. Le Guin

Here’s what Steven Pinker says about language in the intro to his classic The Language Instinct (1993):

‘Chances are that if you find two or more people together anywhere on earth, they will soon be exchanging words. When there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even to their plants. In our social relations, the race is not to the swift but to the verbal—the spellbinding orator, the silver-tongued seducer, the persuasive child who wins the battle of wills against a brawnier parent.’

Pinker’s claims here are so widely accepted that they’re almost platitudes: humans are social animals; we love and need to talk; we will inevitably find ways to satisfy this drive.

‘Solitude’ is a story that asks: Really?

Is it possible for humans to have language without using it socially? What would that look like?

For at least a decade, Chomsky has been urging linguists to stop thinking about language in terms of its (social, communicative) function: ‘It is…odd to think that language has a purpose,’ he insists. ‘Languages are not tools that humans design but biological objects.’ (2015, What Kind of Creatures Are We? p. 16)

But it’s remarkably difficult to really get what Chomsky wants us to get: we’re so used to thinking of language as fundamentally social, as ‘designed for’ communication and collaboration and bonding, that we need help imagining how it could be otherwise. ‘Solitude’ helps us do this. This story shows us how language can be separated from its social function.

‘Solitude’ is set on a planet (Soro) that was populated by humans long ago, then lost contact, and has now been ‘rediscovered’ by a whole new (but still human) set of space explorers. The language spoken on Soro has changed, but it is still a human language, and the explorers learn it without trouble. But this doesn’t lead to mutual understanding. As our narrator-protagonist (Serenity) puts it, ‘language was not a problem. Yet there was a communication problem.’ (p. 120)

The humans on Soro don’t like to talk. Talking is taboo.

Adults can talk to children, and children can talk to each other, so language continues to be transmitted intergenerationally. But adults don’t talk to each other. They don’t chit-chat, gossip, shoot the bull, or bond through conversation.

If a Sorovian adult urgently needs to deliver news to another adult, they tell it to a child within the adult’s earshot (p. 132).

Even when adults are speaking to children, there is a preference for more formulaic language—stories, songs, chants—rather than spontaneous speech. (p. 134)

And above all, using language to influence or persuade is absolutely prohibited—a dreadful kind of magic, to be feared and rejected as ‘an art or power that violates natural law.’ For the Sorovians, ‘marriage, for instance, or government’—which we know are language-independent institutions—'[would be] seen as an evil spell woven by sorcerers.’ (p. 124)

Our last story, The Easthound, helped us ‘dysrecognize’ the world-changing power of language: we were made to really appreciate how shocking and potentially terrifying speech acts can be. ‘Solitude’ takes us further, to a place where any persuasive language is viewed as malign. For Sorovians, it is always wrong for one person to be in another’s power, and any language that attempts to achieve this is evil. Pinker’s ‘spell-binding orator’ and ‘silver-tongued seducer’ would be castigated rather than celebrated on this planet.

Serenity is a child through most of the story. Her mom is an explorer, an anthropologist, who has brought her children to the planet in hopes of gaining easier access to the culture. So Serenity is raised bi-culturally: Sorovian women teach her Sorovian values; her mother uses her to learn about Soro while also trying to instill in her their home-planet’s values. (Spoiler: This ends up not being so easy.)

Serenity is taught that if another child tries to influence her behavior with language, she should ‘back away’ and ‘tell [their] mother’ (p. 126). She learns that if someone asks her a question she doesn’t want to answer, she can simply ‘raise [her] head a little and…not answer’ (p. 127). If someone is really persistent, she is taught to say the words You have no power over me again and again, covering her eyes and ears if necessary, until the ‘sorcerer’ retreats. (pp. 138-139) And she learns that if she allows herself to be overpowered by such a sorcerer, she would be held guilty of ‘working magic’ too. (p. 123, 130)

But this doesn’t mean Sorovians lead lonely, friendless lives. One of my favorite moments from the story is when Serenity returns to the planet after a two-year absence. Her ‘soulmate’ Hyuru sees her outside her family’s old house and walks over:

…Hyuru came by. She squatted down near me in the garden in the sunshine. I smiled when I saw her, and she smiled, but it took us a while to find something to say.
‘Your mother didn’t come back,’ she said.
‘She’s dead,’ I said.
‘I’m sorry,’ Hyuru said.
She watched me dig up another root.
‘Will you come to the singing circle?’ she asked.
I nodded.
She smiled again… ‘Hi, ya!’ she sighed in deep contentment, lying down in the dirt with her chin on her arms. ‘This is good!’
I went on blissfully digging. (p. 143)

It’s comical, to us, to imagine a reunion between two teenage girls that contains so little speech. But Le Guin’s narration (through Serenity) shows us what Serenity’s mother never understands: that Sorovians can and do care deeply about each other, take delight in each other’s company, and feel entirely comfortable and happy in their mutual silence. They still form close social bonds; they just don’t use language to do it.

At one point during her two-year stint with the explorers on the ship, Serenity accompanies a zoologist doing field research on a Sorovian cephalopod species. The creature is intelligent, and appears to be emitting language-like sounds, but the zoologist hasn’t been able to translate them: ‘We don’t know what we’re talking about,’ she says. Serenity observes the creature for a moment, then says: ‘Maybe it’s not speaking at all. Maybe it’s thinking.’ (p. 141)

The zoologist is baffled with Serenity’s insight, but I think Chomsky would be pleased.

There are many, many other things going on ‘Solitude’ that are worthy of attention and discussion; 75 minutes is never enough. ‘Solitude’ is a story about gender and sexuality, about resistance and freedom, about parent-child relationships, about being caught between two cultures and pulled between loyalty to yourself and loyalty to your family. As Le Guin herself said, it’s a story about being an introvert. If you haven’t read it yet, read it! See if you think Soro is a dystopia or a utopia.


by Ursula Le Guin

This story is a good one to start the semester with, for a few reasons.

First, it’s very short, so students who enroll late can read it right before class, or even during class (I set aside 10-15 minutes for this on the first day).

Second, ‘Mazes’ shows very effectively how we’re defining sci-fi in this class. There’s no advanced science or tech in ‘Mazes,’ but it’s still sci-fi by the Philip K. Dick definition we adopt: it ‘dislocates’ some aspect of our real world and thereby produces a ‘convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition.’

The shock of dysrecognition in ‘Mazes’ is almost palpable. Once you understand what’s going on in this story, your perspective is disrupted; familiar things seem strange; everyday things are suddenly puzzles that demand explanation. That’s what makes it sci-fi. Moreover—and another reason why it’s a good story to start with—it shocks us into seeing language differently.

‘Mazes’ is about a catastrophic communication failure. There are two characters: the narrator (‘I’) and the alien (‘it’). The narrator is dying, apparently of starvation exacerbated by profound depression, both of which could probably have been avoided if the two characters had achieved communication. Why couldn’t they? In answering this question, we have to think about what communication is—for the narrator, for the alien, for us.

Here are some questions to get the discussion going. (ALERT: I’m going to try not to spoil the central surprise of ‘Mazes’ here, but if you’re worried you should go read the story now and then come back!)

  1. At what point in the story did you experience the big surprise? What were the clues in the text that led you to it?
  2. The narrator understands the mazes as a medium for communication: ‘It seemed pretty clear that…a first approach toward communication was being attempted.’ (71) How does the narrator try to use the mazes to communicate? What kind of messages does the narrator try to send? How is this kind of communication similar to and different from ‘typical’ (human) language?
  3. What is the alien trying to do with the mazes, and how? In what ways is this similar to and different from ‘typical’ (human) language?

Students of speech-act theory can think about illocutionary force as they consider #2-#3: perhaps one of the characters is using the mazes to ‘utter’ directives, while the other is using them to utter expressives.

As the narrator recognizes, part of the communication problem is due to a difference in modalities. The alien and the narrator use different parts of their bodies to ‘speak,’ and the alien’s anatomy is too different for the narrator to interpret or replicate (‘that is too foreign a language’ (75)). Of course modality mismatches don’t have to lead to communication failure—spoken English, typically interpreted by human ears, can be made interpretable to the eyes or hands instead (English alphabet, Braille, finger-spelling), and we’ll read about other solutions in ‘Story of Your Life’ and Embassytown. But these solutions take time, collaboration and usually technology, and the narrator of ‘Mazes,’ starving in solitary confinement, doesn’t have those resources.

The more profound problem in ‘Mazes’—which may not be surmountable—is that the narrator and the alien have different assumptions about what the maze is for, and by extension, what language is for. They’re bringing in completely different cultural conventions around communication.

‘Mazes’ helps me understand Wittgenstein’s aphorism: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand it.” (Philosophical Investigations, Part 2, XI, p. 225). When I heard this the first time, I thought: Why not? If you actually got to the point of sharing a small vocabulary with a lion, a set of signs that you both recognized, wouldn’t that mean you understood each other?

‘Mazes’ shows us how two species can appear to share some vocabulary but still fail to understand each other, because they have different beliefs about what words are for. The two characters in ‘Mazes’ do in fact share some potential words: the leaves, the food pellets, the knobs, the various gestures and postures they make with their bodies, are all available for interpretation. But each character has been acculturated to interpret these ‘words’ in profoundly distinct ways, to do different things with them. One uses leaves to entice, the other interprets them as a ‘ritual or superstition’ (71). One fails to see the intentionality of the other’s movements; the other sees intentionality where it is absent. The only sign they both understand is the narrator’s rebellious act of defecating on the knobs—presumably because both species happen to share the same cultural attitudes about this act. Otherwise each of the character’s habits, beliefs, Lebensformen (Wittgenstein’s ‘forms of life,’ Philosophical Investigations §19) are utterly foreign to the other.

Some more questions to think about…

  1. Our daily lives are sometimes full of communication failures. Think of some examples from your life. Are these incidents qualitatively different from the communication failure in ‘Mazes,’ or just different in scale?
  2. In our own lives, we can and sometimes do use language in the way the narrator tries to use the maze (e.g. poetry). What would it be like to live in a society where language was used primarily in this way, and only secondarily for transmitting information? (Here’s a passage from Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff & Johnson) that I was reminded of when thinking about this: “Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way…we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing arguing” (5).)
  3. There’s a huge power imbalance between the two main characters; the alien is a ‘giant’ that has used physical force to take away the narrator’s freedom. Certainly this imbalance enhances their communication failure; do you think it also entails communication failure?
  4. The surprise at the heart of this story could be attributed to another communication failure, one between the narrator and the reader (and enabled by the author). What kinds of expectations did you have going in to this story, and why? How did Le Guin encourage your assumptions at first, then shock you?
  5. We talked about lots of other stuff–communication across neurodivergence, differences in metabolic rates (e.g. trees), the possibility that all ‘successful’ linguistic communication is illusory… Feel free to comment further on any of this, or any other aspects of the story.