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Words on a Fertile Shore: The Evolution of Science Fiction and Fantasy Language


While eating delicious (and incredibly over-filling) holiday meals this weekend, I found myself thinking about Google Labs’ new Ngram Viewer. In my day job I deal with statistics, semantics, ontologies, and computational linguistics all day long. Which makes the Ngram Viewer a really, really fun toy. It allows us to look at the frequency with which particular words and phrases were utilized across all books in the English language for the last 500 years.

Which is really cool.

So with such a tool at my finger tips, I thought I would have a little bit of a fun. What can the Ngram Viewer tell us about language in genre fiction? What can it tell us about the genres themselves? To attempt a semi-serious answer to this question, I got out my trusty copy of Brave New Words and flipped through it find some of the tasty neologisms that science fiction has given us over the years. And having written them down, I started banging away at the Ngram Viewer. Here’s what I found:

The Rise and Fall of Cyberpunk, The Fall and Limping Recovery of Space Opera, and the Gradual Climb of Alternate History

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

So the late ’80s and early ’90s saw cyberpunk explode, rise to meteoric heights and then begin a gradual decline that still seems ongoing. Cyberpunk hasn’t seemed to eclipse any of the other major science fiction sub-genres, although it did seem to coincide with a gradual decline in space opera and future history. It’s also neat to see a visual representation of alternate history’s slow growth over the last 40 years.

Sword and Sorcery vs. Epic Fantasy, Paranormal Romance vs. Steampunk and Urban Fantasy

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Looking at fantasy, we can see the response to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s popularity. Looking at the 1970s and 1980s, we can see the impact of Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny. Then the 1990s show us the rise of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin and the other kings of the Chihuahua-killer tomes. But what I think is most interesting is the relationship between steampunk, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance.

Steampunk has been getting a lot of buzz recently, leading some authors (most prominently Charles Stross and Cat Valente) to complain that it eclipses everything else going on. But this somewhat unscientific chart at least shows that while steampunk may generate buzz, that buzz is disproportional to the volume of published work. Of course, those complaints are recent and Google’s data only goes up to 2008. It’d be interesting to see if in 2009 and 2010 steampunk really did eclipse other sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction. Looking at the data through 2008, the trend looks pretty steady and in line with urban fantasy. The data actually suggests that paranormal romance is the sub-genre really breaking out. At least by 2008.

Some Fun Genre Tropes

And since I am – technically – on vacation this week, I want to go out vacation-ing in a few minutes, just three last fun charts. The charts above track some of the sub-genres, but what about some of the most-common science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes? Some fun:

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Hard science fiction and space opera both have their share of tropes, including (typically) some means of traveling at or near the speed of light. Of course, technology changes all the time so how have those tropes changed over the years? For one thing, the generic (and typically ill-defined) “hyperdrive” seems to be eclipsing anything with real science behind it. The equally fuzzy “warp drive” looks to have peaked around the turn of the century, while scientific or pseudo-scientific also-rans like the ramjet and gravity drive seem to be holding steady. Probably the most noticeable (and interesting) phenomenon was the brief but intense plateau of solar sails, which came to be pretty common right around the mid-1980’s before settling back down into a slow upward trajectory in the late ’90s.

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Out of the stereo-typical fantasy tropes, dragons seem to be holding pretty steadily, but what’s notable is the rise of “wizard” in the late 1990s. Do I detect Harry Potter‘s wand at work?

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

And here we can clearly see the impact of Anne Rice and her Lestat as the progenitors of the vampire craze. Vampires are clearly the monster of last thirty years, and by 2008, they still have nothing to fear from either werewolves or zombies.

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