Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 20, 2007
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Sci-Fi Dictionary, Cryptic Crosswords, American Novels
Science fiction writers make up words.
We have to. Since our job consists of thinking up ideas and machines that
don't exist in the real, contemporary world, but might come to exist, we need to
have labels for those inventions.
And the labels need to be usable as words. This is for a very practical reason:
Many of the things we make up are going to be used over and over in the story
(or stories) in which we introduce them. If we give them hideous,
unpronounceable names, the reader will stumble over them every time.
Imagine if Karel Capek had called his mechanical men "Umphrablski" instead
of "robots." (Don't look it up -- I just threw down nearly-random letters for the
It is a rare mark of success when a writer's coinage gets picked up and used in
our regular language. Harriet Beecher Stowe might not love the use it is put
to, since it indicates a gross misreading of her original character, but "Uncle
Tom" has certainly entered the language and stayed.
Science fiction writers are more likely to make up words that get used in
specialized settings. Glovelike controls for machines that mimic the hand
motions are called "waldoes," a tribute to Heinlein's story "Waldo";
"hyperdrives" do not, to our knowledge, exist, but we have a word for them
that, thanks to Star Trek.
Usually, our coinages don't penetrate the general culture, but we do give each
other a hats-off now and then by picking up another sci-fi writer's word and
running with it. I did that when I used Ursula K. LeGuin's coinage "ansible" for
a machine with a similar function in my Ender series. (Because readers often
see the word first in my work, I'm sometimes given credit for coining it, though
of course I didn't and always correct the mistake.)
Now there's a dictionary of words from science fiction and the culture of sci-fi
readers, critics, and writers: Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of
Science Fiction, edited by Jeff Prucher.
I already knew most of the words in the book, of course, because they're part of
the language I used during the years when I was actively taking part in the sci-fi culture.
But just like politicians who check the index of books about Washington to see
if they're there, I naturally scanned the whole book to see if any of my coinages
made it in. Their standard seems to be that two different writers have to use a
term before it's considered to be anything other than a nonce word.
I was disappointed to discover that a word I thought I made up -- xenocide --
had in fact been used earlier, though in works I never read. So I did invent it
-- but so did somebody else. Not really a surprise -- it's rather an obvious
Of course "ansible" was there, with LeGuin as the coiner and me as a later user
of the word -- but I'm proud to share that space with her.
And, to my surprise, two other words -- also obvious coinages -- listed my
work as the earliest source: braintape as "a recording of the entire contents of a
person's mind," and vid as "a video program or recording ... often pl. as the
What's really annoying is the citation of me as the author of a term I dislike. In
giving examples of the syllable "-verse," taken from "universe," as an affix to
other words or names, they included the word Enderverse from the subtitle of
my story collection First Meetings.
The thing is, I hate that word. I didn't coin that word. And yet because it's on
the title of a book of mine, my name is attached as if I made it up.
What makes most of these new words work is that, like most good coinages,
they use existing pieces of language in such a way as to make the meaning of
the new term instantly obvious.
The new word has to be pronounceable, which is why "scientifiction" did not
catch on and "science fiction" did -- nobody knows which syllable should get
the stress in the first (and earlier) term.
Most important, though, is the fact that we have to need the word before it will
become part of the language. For good or ill, most of the things we sci-fi
writers make up never become part of our daily lives, and therefore never gain
currency in our common tongue.
Cryptic crossword puzzles aren't for everybody. I know this because my wife
treats them like vampires -- put garlic on them or ram a stake through their
heart to keep them from accidentally afflicting her with their horrible,
Because it's the clues that make them so weird (and, for people like me, fun!).
Ordinary crosswords give you straightforward clues -- a seven-letter word with
the clue "French roof style" yields "Mansard."
But the cryptic clue might be "Male's half-fervent roof style." How in the world
do you make sense of that?
For fans of cryptic crosswords (otherwise called "British style"), this would be
easy. First, each clue divides into two (unmarked) parts. One is usually a
definition, the other a wordplay. (Sometimes, if a word has two meanings, both
sides are definitions, and sometimes the whole clue is both wordplay and
In this clue, the definition half is "roof style."
The wordplay portion is where the fun begins. You have to recognize that all
punctuation is meaningless -- it's there to distract you. "Male's" therefore
becomes "man's" -- only you delete the apostrophe.
"Half-fervent" means you take half of a word that's a rough synonym for fervent
-- in this case, "ardent," and stick it on the end. The first half of "ardent" is
"ard." Thus "mans" plus "ard" makes "mansard."
I thought that sounded way too complicated when I first started working with
cryptic crosswords, but since then I've come to regard them as much more fun
(usually) than the regular ones.
It's possible for a puzzlewright to go too far, making cryptic clues absurdly
difficult, and that's not fun. Thus not all cryptics are created equal.
That's why 101 Cryptic Crosswords from the New Yorker, edited by Fraser
Simpson, is so good.
The New Yorker cryptics are always in an 8x10 grid, with no black squares --
every square is a letter that must be filled in. (Heavy bars separate words in
the same line and letters that aren't part of crossing words.)
Because the puzzles are so small and so many letters are crossed by other
words, you can work them relatively quickly. They're great mental exercise for
times when you have only a few minutes to spend.
You really do get used to taking apart the clues and solving them. And
because each clue contains two ways to reach the solution, you can be sure
you have the correct word before you ever write it into the grid. The result? A
crossword you can work in ink!
This past semester I taught a course on the Contemporary American Novel at
Southern Virginia University. Ordinarily, a course with that title would offer
only the coolest of postmodern literary fiction -- Don DeLillo and David Foster
Wallace, for instance, and probably the novelists, like Pynchon, that the
postmodernists always cite as being part of their movement even though they
wrote before the movement became self-aware.
I have enjoyed works of DeLillo and, much more, Wallace, and there are other
writers now labeled "postmodern" whom I greatly admire (like Donald
Barthelme and Samuel Beckett).
But these works are only relevant to the tiny minority of Americans who (a)
read novels and (b) believed what their English professors told them.
There is a much larger group of readers who constitute the real "American
literary community." These are the people who read, not to be impressed, but
for the sheer joy of stories -- for the feelings that fiction can arouse or for the
ideas it can offer.
This is the real American literary culture -- the people who read for the content
of the fiction and not its manner of presentation; the readers who allow
themselves to be changed by what they read, rather than analyzing it and
keeping it at arm's length.
Some might argue that an English professor's job is to teach students to
appreciate rarefied literature.
I don't think so. I think that when English professors prescribe what fiction
ought to be, they are the enemies of art and should be devoutly ignored by
writers. Literature does not take place at the university -- it takes place in the
constant interaction between writers and readers.
Literature professors (and other critics) are observers and commentators; the
moment they begin to prescribe what should be written and declare vast
reaches of literature not to be literature at all, they have actually admitted
themselves to be irrelevant to the real literature of their age.
It's like the snooty people in Shakespeare's day who thought that only poetry
was real literature, and epic poetry was the highest form. The result was Faerie
Queen, which is wonderful but not very influential on later writers -- not a
seminal work, but rather a derivative dead end.
The most vital literature of the age was being written for the groundlings in the
playhouses and for the people who paid tiny amounts for one-sheet printed
sonnets and songs. It is Shakespeare, along with Jonson, Marlowe, and other
playwrights and sonneteers whom we remember now as the greatest writers of
So when I developed my list of writers and books, I wanted my students to
come to an understanding of the literature that actually matters to American
readers -- the literature that stands on its own, not relying on English
professors to prepare an audience to receive and understand their work.
There were some genres I felt confident in ignoring. Westerns, once vital, are
now effectively dead for the broader American audience -- Larry McMurtry
being the lone exception, Louis L'Amour being dead. The "woman's romance"
genre with the "clinch" covers is almost completely editor-controlled and has
devolved into a kind of pornography; it is not part of the literary conversation
among writers and readers.
But that still leaves us with the Young Adult Fiction, Chick Lit, Fantasy,
Science Fiction, Mystery, Legal Thrillers, Military Thrillers, Horror, and Literary
Fiction categories to examine in order to gain a reasonable understanding of
what is going on in contemporary American fiction.
I came up with a list of seminal writers in each genre -- the ones that other
writers emulate or imitate -- and then chose exemplary books from each.
Robert Cormier, I Am the Cheese
David Lubar, Hidden Talents
Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
Louis Sachar, Holes
Why did I use four young-adult novels? First, the novels are short -- it doesn't
take as much time to read them. Second, "young adult" is an age category, not
a subject matter, so each of these novels does double duty. I Am the Cheese is
arguably a thriller, a mystery, or a psychological novel; Hidden Talents is also
science fiction and Holes is fantasy; and Speak is also chick lit.
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
This is certainly not what most people mean by "fantasy." And I could make a
very good case for The Princess Bride to be considered a literary novel that uses
fantasy tropes in an obviously ironic way. But the fantasy tropes are there!
But since we also have Holes and two other novels (the McCrumb and the King)
that contain strong fantasy elements, and since heroic fantasy uses many of
the same techniques as science fiction, which is also represented, and because
the major works of fantasy are sprawling multi-volume works that would
consume an inordinate percentage of my students' reading time, I did not
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
Richard Russo, Nobody's Fool
Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
I think that Irving's best novel is The World According to Garp; I used Owen
Meany for the course because it is structurally more productive for class
analysis and because it is something like a last gasp for what once was a vital
American genre: The religious novel.
Lloyd Douglas (The Robe) and Taylor Caldwell (Dear and Glorious Physician)
once ruled the bestseller lists that way Stephen King and John Grisham do
today, only with Christian novels and affirmed and explored the roots of
Those days are gone -- when the Bible is touched on, it tends to be
destructively or anachronistically, as with The Red Tent. Even Owen Meany,
while purporting to be religious, is vicious in its treatment of organized religion.
I thought that was an important thing for the class to experience and try to
Meanwhile, Tyler and Russo are, in my view, the finest "literary" writers
working today. Their books are about a subject matter, about American life;
the postmodernists are generally showing us how clever they are, and the
subject matter is usually secondary (though, as I said, there are works of
Wallace and DeLillo that I have enjoyed and admired).
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
Sharyn McCrumb, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O
It almost hurt to have so few mysteries in this class. Writers like Connelly,
Crais, Grafton, Lehane, Maron, and Parker are arguably doing a better job of
writing about contemporary American life than all but a handful of literary
I narrowed my list down to include Mosley and McCrumb because they both
did double duty. Mosley's mysteries are also historicals and they deal with the
experience of blacks in urban America. McCrumb's Appalachian mysteries
show the lives of the rural poor and include folk beliefs that hark back to the
roots of American life.
In other words, they aren't just mysteries, they are directly concerned with
important aspects of American life that are generally outside the experience of
Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada
Adriana Trigiani, Big Stone Gap
Jane Stanton Hitchcock, Social Crimes
Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree
Prada is practically a definition of the genre of Chick Lit. This is perhaps the
most fascinating and, in my view, important of the categories we studied,
because (a) women are a large majority of book buyers in America, so the books
that female readers think of as "theirs" are particularly significant, and (b)
unlike the editor-driven Women's Romance category, Chick Lit is entirely
driven by the conversation among readers and writers.
Thus it is not necessarily formulaic, though, as with all genres, there are
important elements that most books in the category share.
Big Stone Gap departs from the strict Chick-Lit definition by having a small-town rather than urban setting. Social Crimes is definitely urban, but the
heroine is not a young single woman on the make (though she was, when the
full story began), and the story has something of a thriller structure.
Cold Sassy Tree is actually a historical, and follows a different literary
tradition: It is experienced through the viewpoint of a young boy. Yet the
audience is largely female, and story is absolutely about the love life of a young
woman. In class discussion I actually linked it with the McCrumb, because
they share memories of an older American society that does not fit well with
Octavia Butler, Dawn
The choice of Butler was obvious: She was simply the best sci-fi writer of the
eighties and nineties. I could have chosen novels of hers that speak more
directly about contemporary American society, but I wanted to show the
science fiction genre with absolute clarity, distinct from the others.
The result was that while most of the books in this course explored aspects of
what it means to be American, this one made us face what it means to be
human. And yet ... it still revealed itself as both American and African-American.
Stephen King, The Dead Zone
I know. This novel is more sci-fi than horror. But it shows King at his best,
and is typical of his work in the way it deals with American culture. If I'd used
Cujo or Christine, we would have become mired in King's personal cliches and
some outright silliness. Sometimes a teacher is allowed to choose his favorites.
Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October
This genre is so new and so exclusively male that it seemed wise to use the
novel that spawned it. Besides, Clancy's later work is either so detailed that
my mostly-female class would have been nearly suicidal by the end (Red Storm
Rising, for instance!), or is simply bad by his own standards (the later Jack
John Grisham, The Rainmaker
You can't talk about contemporary American fiction without dealing with
Grisham. He didn't invent the legal thriller, but he made it a category (even if it
isn't displayed that way in the bookstore).
There are categories I left out -- serial killer novels, for instance, and political
thrillers -- but these are really subcategories that use techniques we would
already have explored using the Mystery, Horror, and Legal Thriller novels.
I also didn't use The Christmas Box or its ilk, on the theory that precious-size
books aren't really novels. (Yes, that size is really called "precious" in the
In addition to these required novels, I had students read other books from a list
I provided and report on them, in detail, to the class. So the students were
exposed to other books by the same authors, allowing them to have a good idea
of what else these writers (and a handful of others) produced.
So Cormier was also represented by The Chocolate War and Fade, Goldman by
Boys and Girls Together, Russo by Mohawk, Tyler by Breathing Lessons,
McCrumb by St. Dale and Bimbos of the Death Sun, Butler by Wild Seed and
Parable of the Sower, King by Misery and The Stand, and Grisham by The
Client. We also got a good look at In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner.
Let's say you have already read (or take it upon yourself to read) all the books
my students read (or pretended to have read -- this is college, after all). Are
you ready to take the final in my course?
Here's a sampling of questions my students were faced with on the final:
Referring to novels read for this course, explain decorum, the morality of the
characters, the moral stance of a novel as a whole, and how these affect or
are affected by American culture.
What function do genre classifications serve? What do you expect of books
from particular genres? How do genres harm or benefit the reader? The
Protagonist/Antagonist; Hero/Villain; Good Guy/Bad Guy. Do these pairings
mean the same thing? How are heroes distinguished from villains (etc.)? How
does the villain's role in a novel differ from that of obstacles or complications?
Explain the function of major characters in novels (perhaps including
sidekicks, henchmen, best friends/buddies, family members, foils, informers,
Explain and evaluate how the authors handle the flow of exposition in two
novels and how the different strategies affect the reading experience.
Explain the role of verisimilitude in realistic vs. fantastic fiction.
In the two novels in which milieu (setting, ambient culture) was most
interesting/important to you, explain why the milieu affected you so and how
the choice of milieu affected the story.
Contrast the effects of power over other people on those characters that have it
and those that don't, using one novel that uses magical or superhuman
power, and one that doesn't.
Contrast the treatment of God, faith, and/or organized religion in at least
two novels read this semester.
How are families depicted in these novels? How do narrators, protagonists,
and/or antagonists regard family? How do the novelists seem to regard family?
Choose one novel: To what degree is story driven by the conscious choices of
the protagonist, as opposed to his/her unconscious drives and needs and the
choices of others? To what degree are the protagonist's conscious choices
based on love, duty, loyalty, or other at-least-partially altruistic motives
(which may include guilt), as opposed to mostly-selfish motives like
hunger/lust, fear/dread, pride/status-seeking, or shame?
I think these are the kinds of questions that matter most in fiction -- both in
studying the techniques of the writers and in trying to understand how they
reflect and change the culture from and to which they were written.
Some of you may wish you had taken my class; most of you, I suspect, are
profoundly grateful that you didn't.
But I certainly loved teaching it, especially reading what my students said in
class and wrote in their papers and on the final.
In fact, their answers to one of my questions actually changed my life. But I'll
talk about that next week.