Language at the End of the World

How will we speak in a post-apocalyptic future?

The post-apocalyptic novel seems to be having something of a moment. Edan Lepucki's California may be the most talked-about, but The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen is also receiving critical praise. Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, meanwhile – a post-apocalyptic novel set 1,000 years in the past  has just been longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

The third novel by American writer Sandra Newman is the latest to explore what happens following a catastrophe of planetary proportions. Like Kingsnorth's, her book
The Country of Ice Cream Star is also written in a new vernacular – in Newman's case, one inspired by African-American English.

Here, Newman, whose debut novel – 2004's
The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done – was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, discusses language, youth culture, and her life-long passion for science fiction.

The post-apocalyptic seems to be something of a go-to milieu for literary novelists turning their hand to science fiction. Why do you think this is?

I would guess that the post-apocalyptic appeals to literary novelists because it’s usually not true science fiction; it’s fiction about the contemporary world, with one major change. So it’s a way of commenting on contemporary life, or on mortality in general, rather than a mode which generally lends itself to wild speculations about scientific discoveries or imaginary civilisations. I mean, my book is far enough in the future that you get the imaginary civilisations, but I don’t have to pretend to understand physics or biological engineering.

I think my personal interest in the end times is very much like that of other people. Most of us get weary of living in a world with eight billion plus other people, with all the attendant noise and pollution and ugliness. And most of us nervously anticipate that the world is much too fragile, and people far too volatile, for this situation to end well. So we put those things together and end up with something that’s both a compelling fantasy and a compelling horror scenario.

On this note, literary novelists are often derided by the SF community for in some way retreating from the full-blooded experience of ‘cognitive estrangement’ SF is considered to provide in favour of a simpler, more allegorical rendering of SF tropes. Were you self-conscious about entering new and potentially hostile territory?

The first adult books I read as a child were my father’s science fiction paperbacks, and I’ve never stopped reading SF. So I don’t really want to separate my writing from SF. I think some of the greatest literary works of the last 100 years were written in that genre.

It is fairly common for literary authors to use a well-worn SF trope, and then get congratulated by non-SF readers and reviewers for their amazing concept. To an SF reader, it’s as if someone were congratulating an author for coming up with the idea of writing about a man who cheats on his wife. Generally, the author wasn’t claiming the idea was new, so it’s not her fault, but it’s understandable that genre fans are disgusted. But I think that phenomenon is dying out, since SF has become so much more mainstream.

For myself, I wasn’t really self-conscious about it, because I’m so familiar with SF that it didn’t feel particularly new, much less hostile. And literary authors have been writing about the distant future, or about imaginary civilisations, or even about other planets, since there have been literary authors. Or before; arguably the book of Genesis, and all similar creation stories, are SF. And you can make a very, very long list of canonical authors who wrote SF or SF-like books: Rabelais, Swift, Bunyan, Dante.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fantasy narrative. There never was a firm line.

So, in writing my book, I was aware of the places where it intersected with genre science fiction and fantasy narratives, but I wasn’t really that concerned about which genre people would assign it to.

The inhabitants of The Country of Ice Cream Star speak with a very distinctive vernacular that demands a great deal of attention from the reader. What were you attempting to achieve here, and how did you set about creating your lexicon of the near-future?

I like to think that it doesn’t demand that much attention from the reader. But that said… I started out with the vernacular because I just couldn’t believe that a person born 80 years in the future, after the collapse of contemporary civilisation, would use the standard English of today. And I decided to use African-American English as a template, both because it’s beautiful, and because I think it’s a credible way that American English might develop. Even white Americans now use it (however imperfectly) as a kind of lingua franca of coolness.

Ultimately, though, the beauty and vitality of it was more important to me. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways of introducing the potency of poetic language into fiction, without making the fiction flowery, self-conscious, or gratuitously difficult.

So here, my narrator is just using the same language she uses to have any conversation. She’s not crafting metaphors, or devising clever-clever ways of describing her emotions. She’s very straightforwardly telling you about her adventures. But because her language is new to us, and perhaps because she’s living in a world which is a little Homeric in its attitudes and experiences, it comes across as very poetic. Or at least, that’s my hope.

I think this also comes from the poetry inherent in African-American English, which is in itself an art form. That is, any vernacular is a popular art form; people invent new words, idioms, and language forms, and the most beloved ones are adopted into the language; and there’s a poetic intelligence at work there which really isn’t that different from what happens when a poet sits down to write. But at the present moment, African-American English is far more vital than any other vernacular English, at least in the United States.

The ‘Posies’ plague has transformed The Country of Ice Cream Star into a literal youth culture. We live in a metaphorical youth culture, and fantastical narratives like this one are immensely popular with teenagers: why do you think this is? How does the age of the protagonists inform the book’s tone and texture? Were teenagers in your mind’s eye as part of the novel’s potential readership, as well as the protagonists?

There are so many reasons that teenagers are often interested in fantastical worlds. It starts out with the transition from reading children’s books, which tend towards talking animals and imaginary worlds. So there’s a sense in which teens are just closer to a child’s sense of wonder and possibility. They’re not quite ready to accept that there’s just one real world, which isn’t likely to radically change. This situation is objectively boring, and teens aren’t yet reconciled to the many boring aspects of life. This boringness is also exacerbated for teenagers by the fact that they get to make so few choices for themselves.

In my book, the age of the protagonists made less difference than I expected. They’re a little more impetuous than they would be if they were adults, but since they already have all of the responsibilities of adults, they don’t have the freedom to be irresponsible or to spend much energy on figuring out who they are. They have to take care of smaller children, rule towns, and wage war. So although they are much more idealistic than adults would be in the same situation, and less risk-averse, they’re working within the same constraints, and that determines a lot of what they do.

And really, it wasn’t so long ago in world history when it was normal for nineteen-year-olds to have children and support them with full-time work. So when we say that we now live in a youth culture, part of that is that we’ve moved the goalposts so that 'youth' includes our twenties, when previously it was a few years of adolescence. Most of our narratives are about people in this later 'youth', which is when most people do most of their falling in love, going to war, competitive sports. So it’s really unsurprising that we end up with so much material about people under thirty, considering that these are the kinds of narratives most people find interesting. If you go back and look at stories written in previous eras, they are mostly also about people under thirty. There’s also a difference because we live in the world of stories to an unprecedented degree, but then that’s another issue...


Image credit: Jonathan Potts.

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