Linguistic SF recs?
April 8, 2021 7:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of science fiction where linguistics is the science in question, or one of them anyway. A few examples I'm already aware of (and love, thus my wanting to find more): Babel-17 by Samuel Delany, Embassytown by China Miéville, the story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang (that the movie Arrival was based on), arguably aspects of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Any SF where translation plays a major role would probably fit the bill. Qapla’!
posted by slappy_pinchbottom to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Classic Star Trek tie-in novel Uhura's Song. People almost die of a mistranslation.
posted by praemunire at 7:49 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance, probably fits this.
posted by escabeche at 8:02 PM on April 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

Max Barry’s Lexicon.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, at its heart.
posted by lhauser at 8:02 PM on April 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

Mary Doria Russel's The Sparrow is about a linguist's first encounter with alien life.

I sort of weirdly consider it a companion piece to "Story of Your Life" even though they're of different eras and completely different in style. They both handle the "alienness" well, and are similarly thought-provoking--and similarly problematic (science-wise and otherwise).
posted by rhiannonstone at 8:03 PM on April 8, 2021 [8 favorites]

Native Tongue
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:06 PM on April 8, 2021 [10 favorites]

Absolutely run don't walk towardsSemiosis (the author is a translator) about colonists on a new planet learning to interact with various life forms including how to talk to them. Also I did not love, but MANY people did love Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky which is a little bit about cross-species communication in ways that are interesting but it's a lot more about lost/missed messages. Also agree with Lexicon. And for a YA take there is All Rights Reserved, kind of more about capitalism, ultimately, but a solid book.
posted by jessamyn at 8:12 PM on April 8, 2021 [8 favorites]

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.
posted by bcwinters at 8:19 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

roger zelazny's '64 hugo-nominated novella, 'A Rose for Ecclesiastes'. protagonist is a linguist capturing the language of a dying martian civilization. the genre firmly moving away from pulp towards it's 'new wave', of which this is the general example.

a wee hyperbolic, but one man's take:

Theodore Sturgeon called the story "one of the most beautifully written, skillfully composed and passionately expressed works of art to appear anywhere, ever."

short fiction, quick read.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:26 PM on April 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

A Memory Called Empire has a lot of linguistic aspects, mostly related to the concept of metaphor in a language which has a strong foundation in poetry, though it's not exactly the plot.

The second book in the series is ostensibly more about alien communication, but less of the actual translation stuff and more ... metaphorically.
posted by Grim Fridge at 8:28 PM on April 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

The SF video game Heaven’s Vault springs to mind. (“I never would’ve thought one of my favorite gaming moments of the year would be realizing that a particular symbol denoted the past tense, but here I am.” —Kotaku review quoted in the linked Metafilter thread)
posted by Syllepsis at 9:04 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Classic Star Trek tie-in novel Uhura's Song. People almost die of a mistranslation.

The author of that novel, Janet Kagan (former Mefi member), also wrote Hellspark in which language is a significant plot element.
posted by RichardP at 9:08 PM on April 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of A Spacewoman.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 10:20 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question. It didn't ask specifically about sci fi, but you may find it useful.
posted by sacrifix at 10:52 PM on April 8, 2021

Blindsight by Peter Watts is entirely about communication, verbal and otherwise, among a group of unusual humans who are in turn trying to communicate with some very alien aliens.

China Mieville's The City and The City is also about translation and (incredibly subtle) communication, among humans in an urban environment. Even the writing style is an exercise in communication; I read it with my work book club and almost no one realized he was a native English speaker.
posted by esoterrica at 10:59 PM on April 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

I know I'm departing from scope of the question to talk about a video game, but there is precedent upthread. Consider checking Sethian, which came out a few years ago. Instead of reading a sci-fi novel about translation, this is more like actually experiencing it. A description/review here is probably enough to let you know if that interests you or not.
posted by seasparrow at 11:40 PM on April 8, 2021

Linguist Maggie Browning's Princeton University home page has a section on linguistics in fiction; it's mostly SF.
posted by bleston hamilton station at 12:26 AM on April 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

"Shaka! When the walls fell."

This is one of the best TNG episodes. Picard hat to establish diplomatic relations with a race that speaks an unique language that seemingly consits of metaphors.
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 1:05 AM on April 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

Ursula K Le Guin has, of course, done some great thought-experiment writing about cultures; some of them with difficult-to-translate languages:
  • The Nna Mnoy Language (short story, published in Changing Planes)
  • The Silence of the Asonu (also in Changing Planes)
  • The Author of the Acacia Seeds (published in The Compass Rose)

posted by vincebowdren at 2:29 AM on April 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Since we're on a TNG streak, let's not forget TNG S2E5: Loud as a Whisper, where a deaf-mute negotiator Riva, who relied on his telepathic translator/assistants to communicate, only to have a terrorist killed them all, decided to continue his mission by sitting down with both sides and ask both sides to learn ASL as their common ground.
posted by kschang at 2:34 AM on April 9, 2021

Somebody already mentioned Native Tongue, and a little taste of Suzette Haden Elgin's work can be found at We Have Always Spoken Panglish.
posted by inexorably_forward at 2:49 AM on April 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

The main character of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner (and sequels) is a translator/diplomat, with more emphasis on the translating.
posted by mersen at 4:13 AM on April 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

To Serve Man's main plot twist hinges entirely on a translation gone awry.
posted by dkg at 6:52 AM on April 9, 2021

Although I've read and enjoyed several of these the first one to mind was CJ Cherryh's Foreigner series, which I loved.
posted by Lady Li at 6:55 AM on April 9, 2021

I’d add Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Linguistic study per se isn’t part of the plot or the characters’ skill set, but the entire book is told in a rich, layered, post-apocalyptic vernacular that Hoban invented very thoughtfully. Walking through the riddles of that made-up language is delightful and necessary (and difficult): “axel rating the Inner G” for accelerating the energy, “Pry Mincer” for Prime Minister, “Belnot Phist” for Nobel physicist and “1 stoan Phist” for Einstein, etc., etc. Folk etymology and how language evolves is definitely part of the story here.
posted by miles per flower at 8:41 AM on April 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh, also: Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria is great and is very much about studying a new language. Includes some haunting and haunted scenes of translation, though they’re more about the emotional experience of engaging with literature than about technical linguistic stuff.
posted by miles per flower at 8:54 AM on April 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Aliya Whiteley's short story Peace, Pipe (included with novela The Beauty) would be right up your alley: it's about a linguist in an alien prison!
posted by Paper rabies at 9:30 AM on April 9, 2021

I'm not sure it quite makes sense as sci-fi but Vita Nostra was one of the most interesting linguistics-adjacent books I've read in recent years. A girl is coerced into attending a very strange college where they make everyone read blocks of letters that make her sweat and lose time. Why? What is going on?

It's a very interesting book and probably my favorite of several "magical school" type books I read recently, a couple of which had a sci-fi bent to them. Translated extremely well from Ukrainian, where I believe it was quite popular when it came out. Beware spoilers!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:37 AM on April 9, 2021

Ej-Es by Nancy Kress is amazing.
posted by catquas at 12:01 PM on April 9, 2021

You have Delaney's Babel-17, you might also look at his Neveryona novels.
posted by feckless at 2:28 PM on April 9, 2021

I think you might like The Embedding by Ian Watson.
posted by wittgenstein at 4:51 PM on April 9, 2021

Would Arrival count? Professional linguist attempts to translate an alien language and solve a mystery.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 7:09 PM on April 9, 2021

I don't know if you consider it SF, but Orwell's 1984 had a lot to say about language and linguistics.
posted by Acey at 12:45 AM on April 10, 2021

Seconding the Foreigner Series by CJ Cherryh. The main character is literally a translator between humans and an alien species and she has a lot of syntax and grammatical details sprinkled through, her worldbuilding is great.
posted by ceithern at 5:47 AM on April 10, 2021

The short story The Moon Moth is partly about this; I found the communication really fascinating.
posted by Occula at 11:10 AM on April 11, 2021

"Not So Certain" by David Masson from 1966 is not a great story (you might call it a speculative essay, almost); but it's 100% about alien linguistics. While I can't find it online, his only short story collection includes it and was republished by SF Masterworks so it's quite accessible.
posted by solarion at 7:41 PM on April 12, 2021

If you're OK with fantasy grounded in linguistics, I really enjoyed Iona Datt Sharma's "All Worlds Left Behind" linked in this FPP by brainwane a couple of weeks ago.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:48 PM on April 16, 2021

Oh, and Greg Egan's "TAP" is one of my all-time favorite SF stories about communication--it posits a sort of language based on whole subjective experiences transferred via brain implants: "A single TAP word could capture this moment -- perfectly encoding my entire sensorium, and everything I'm thinking and feeling."
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:07 PM on April 16, 2021

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