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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.

REVIEW: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald


Title: The Dervish House
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: July 27, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exceptionally well-crafted setting and utterly believable.

The Dervish House is Ian McDonald’s new novel set in a near-future Istanbul. Soaked in history, nanotechnology, and McDonald’s always-amazing settings, this book is arguably one of the best science fiction titles I’ve read this year.

I have loved “traveling” with McDonald since I first picked up River of Gods, his 2004 novel set in a near-future India. Following that book, he has carved a very nice niche for himself by setting his novels in somewhat unusual (read: non-American/British) settings. Chaga (published in the US as Evolution’s Shore) took us to Kenya, River of Gods took us to India, Brasyl took us to (surprise!) Brazil, and now The Dervish House brings us to Istanbul.

Setting has always been central to McDonald’s works (even in his earliest novels like the harsh yet beautiful Desolation Road). I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but I’d never visited India, Brazil, or Kenya. So when I read his earlier books, the settings were lush and fascinating to me, but still alien. But Istanbul, I’m familiar with. I lived in Europe for ten years and spent quite some time in Turkey on business, so for the first time I was able to read a McDonald book with pre-existing familiarity with the setting and culture. And as far as I can tell, McDonald nails it.

Istanbul has always been a crossroads of commerce, history and religion. Today, it’s at the heart of a maelstrom of geopolitics, religious debate, and energy economics. McDonald captures that intersection and projects outwards from it, taking us to a Turkey that just-recently joined the European Union and still struggles with its identity as a nation, its religious history, its place in the region, and its internal politics (generals vs. intelligentsia vs. religious fundamentalists of various types). His Istanbul is recognizable to anyone who has even spent a day in that city, capturing the Byzantine streets and the culture of a city that straddles two continents. A writer of lesser skill would have simplified the reality, perhaps skimped on the economics or drawn caricatures of the complex cultures that intertwine in the city. But McDonald doesn’t. He balances the different interests and cultural backgrounds of his characters deftly, showcasing a nation that waking up to its dreaming potential.

The book follows the lives of six characters who live in an old building that long ago had belonged to or been involved with an ascetic Sufi fraternity. The dervish house is the hub, the connecting strand that joins together the six characters in this story. The events of the book unfold starting with a suicide bombing, and how it affects – directly and indirectly – the lives of the people who live in the tekke (dervish house). The story is told from the perspectives of each:

  • An academic economist forced into retirement,
  • A nine-year old boy with a dangerous heart condition,
  • A rural young woman determined to make it as a professional in the big city,
  • An ambitious young woman who runs a religious art gallery,
  • A ruthless energy trader, and;
  • A troubled, screw-up caught up in the development of street sharia.

Their lives are tied to together by the tekke, by the suicide bombing several blocks away, and by a near-mythical relic from Istanbul’s past. Each character is painstakingly crafted. Their voices are distinct, their judgments and values a clear outgrowth of their background. These characters have depth, and plainly show McDonald’s careful research into some of the more esoteric branches of market theory, contemporary futures contracts, and obscure kabbalistic sects. This research gives this book its lush, rich texture and bring the characters and setting alive.

The intersecting character arcs are exceptionally well done, and they are at once the book’s primary strength and its greatest weakness. In fact, that’s the only reason why I’m giving this book four stars instead of five: I feel like I have seen this device used before. When I think about McDonald’s works, the ones that instantly come to mind are Desolation Road, its sequel Ares Express, and River of Gods. Each of these books relies on the same narrative structure: different characters whose lives intersect through one (or a handful) of locations. McDonald does this better than anyone I can think of just now. But I’d like to see him stretch more, maybe try some different structures out. It would be nice to see, because having read most of his work I find that I know how it will flow. I can’t predict the events of the plot, but I can predict its cadences and rhythms. It’s like listening to a new symphony by a beloved composer: you can just tell how the music will swell next, even if you’ve never heard it. Much as I enjoy McDonald’s symphonies, I’d like to be surprised.

The physical book itself is great. Pyr did an excellent job with the hardcover, designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and with a cover illustration by Stephan Martiniere. The cover illustration sets the tone for the whole work, showing the crowded streets of 2027 Istanbul, the combination of history (old buildings, traditional clothes) and uber-modernity (neon advertisements, robots, etc.). That cover image captures the mixing pot that is Istanbul, and captures the intersections of its residents lives just as well as the text. Martiniere’s covers and McDonald’s prose are a great pairing, and I’m glad to see that Pyr has maintained that connection through all of McDonald’s books they have published. Great job with that, and I hope they maintain it since I think that combination is just getting better and better.

This is not a rip-through-it-in-one-night, page-turning adventure. It has its moments of high tension and danger, but this is the kind of book that you want to enjoy over the course of several nights. This prose should be savored. If you have had your fill of anglophone settings and cultures in your science fiction, you should pick this up. If you are interested in high-quality literary fiction that just happens to be set in the future, pick this up. I think this is one of McDonald’s better works, and I definitely enjoyed the trip he took me on. If you find that you like this, there’s a variety of other great science fiction set outside of the American/British cultural background that you might enjoy, most notably the books by George Alec Effinger and Lucius Shepard‘s Life During Wartime.

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