Swearing with @cadigan, @gavingsmith & @cstross #worldcon #loncon3 Rat’s Monkey’s Ahem

One of the other more interesting panels I went to at WorldCon was “Rat’s Monkey’s Ass”, a panel with Pat Cadigan, Gavin Smith, Mihaela Marija Perkovic, and Charles Stross on the use of swear words in genre fiction. Many pieces of work feature constructed swearing, such as frak in Battlestar Galactica and some of the more farcical attempts at science-oriented swearing in earlier science fiction. (Let’s not even start on Harry Harrison’s bowbidy-bowb.)

Image from tshirtbordello.com. It is a strangely satisfying word, though.

Image from tshirtbordello.com. It is a strangely satisfying word, though.

I’ve met Mihaela before, when she visited Australia, and she did a great job on keeping the panel going, as well as contributing some excellent swear words of her own. Of course, the authors present did a great job of swearing like a variety of troopers from a range of different timezones and militaries, but there are important aspects to this, which were also excellently covered.

The blurb for the panel reads:

 Swearing in science fiction and fantasy is occasionally a minefield of anachronism, but then, there’s often nothing weirder than hearing someone yell “frak”. Or even worse, a teenage character that refuses to curse at all. This panel will explore swear words in the genres. What purpose does swearing have within a society? What purpose does it serve in fiction, and how important, or not, are profanities to the narrative? When are invented curses more (or less) effective than real (contemporary or historical) examples, and why?

The general feeling was that conveying emotion is important and that swearing is an important part of this. It feels really hollow when a hardened space pirate says something like “Oh, dash” and this matters when you’re trying to convey the sense of reality required to hold up the parachute silk of disbelief.

There is one issue, which I raised in question time. Given that many young people do not have the delightfully proper middle and upper-middle class upbringing we see so often in Young Adult fiction, it’s positively disingenuous to remove swearing from certain works because that is the world those kids are growing up in. When people have fewer words at their disposal, they make use of the ones that they have. We know that children in the US from non-educationally successful backgrounds, with few books, can have a vocabulary deficit measured in the thousands of words and, probably, a lot of their emotional conveyance is going to come from the use of swearwords, whether we like it or not.

When someone picks up a book, they have to have a reason to keep reading, either by seeing themselves in there or just being really interested. When YA is a sterile “Boy’s Own” adventure of “Gosh” and “Golly”, this would seem farcical to a teen who is told to take out the f-ing garbage at night or they’d be in the s*. (Bowdlerised to keep my blog’s general rating, embarrassingly enough.) There’s an important issue in reaching the reluctant reader and we’re already aware of how much certain areas of education, such as Computer Science, have to be hidden from peer groups for not being perceived as “cool” enough.

I’m not recommending that Harry Potter has to start calling Ron an *#&*&#$@ piece of #(*#$ that wouldn’t *&#($ in a (()#$# )()#$, but there is a wider world that swearing can constructively reach, if we’re going to try and engage some of these borderline readers. (Of course, the frequency of pseudo-racist slurs between pure bloods and non- in the Potter world is astoundingly awful when you come to think about it, but I’m not actually as positive on that. There’s a big difference between giving people a voice that sounds like theirs and having a large number of cheerful racists mostly getting away with constant, casual racism.)

Panellists may have a completely different opinion on this so I welcome followups! Thank you!


I Can’t Find My Paperless Office For All The Books

I tidied up my office recently and managed to clear out about a couple of boxes full of old paper. Some of these were working drafts of research papers, covered in scrawl (usually red because it shows up more), some were book chapter mark-ups, and some were things like project meeting plans that I could scribble on as people spoke. All of this went into either the secure waste bins (sekrit stuff) or the general recycling because I do try to keep the paper footprint down. However, my question to myself is two-fold:

  • Why do I still have an office full of paper when I have a desktop, (two) laptops, an iPad and an iPhone, and I happily take notes and annotate documents on them?
  • Why am I surrounded by so many books, still?

I don’t think I’ve ever bought as many books as I have bought this year. By default, if I can, I buy them as the electronic and paper form so that I can read them when I travel or when I’m in the office. There are books on graphic design, books on semiotics, books on data visualisation and analysis, and now, somewhat recursively, books on the end of books. My wife found me a book called “This is not the end of the book”, which is a printed conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. I am looking forward to reading it but it has to wait until some of the other books are done. I have just finished Iain M. Banks latest “The Hydrogen Sonata”, am swimming through an unauthorised biography of Led Zeppelin and am still trying to finish off the Derren Brown book that I have been reading on aeroplanes for the past month or so. Sitting behind all this are “Cloud Atlas” and “1Q84”, both of which are officially waiting until I have finished my PhD application portfolio for creative writing. (Yes, dear reader, I’m nervous because they could as easily say ‘No’ as ‘Yes’ but then I will learn how to improve and, if I can’t take that, I shouldn’t be teaching. To thine own dogfood, be as a consumer.)

A book that I hope to read soon!

A book that I hope to read soon!

Why do I still write on paper? Because it feels good. I select pens that feel good to write with, or pencils soft enough to give me a good relationship to the paper. The colour of ink changes as it hits the paper and dries and I am slightly notorious for using inks that do not dry immediately. When I was a winemaker, I used black Bic fine pens, when many other people used wet ink or even fountain pens, because the pen could write on damp paper and, even when you saturated the note, the ink didn’t run. These days, I work in an office and I have the luxury of using a fountain pen to scrawl in red or blue across documents, and I can enjoy the sensation.

Why do I still read on paper? Because it is enjoyable and I have a long relationship with the book, which began from a very early age. The book is also, nontrivially, one of the few information storage devices that can be carried on to a plane without having to be taken from one’s bag or shut down for the periods of take off and landing. I am well aware of the most dangerous points in an aircraft’s cycle and I strongly prefer to be distracted by, if not in-flight entertainment, then a good solid book. But it is also the pleasure of being able to separate the book from the devices that link me into my working world, yet without adding a new data storage management issue. Yes, I could buy a Kindle and not have to check my e-mail, but then I have to buy books from this store and I have to carry that charger or fit it next to my iPad, laptop and phone when travelling. Books, once read, can either be donated to your hosts in another place or can be tossed into the suitcase, making room for yet more books – but of course a device may carry many books. If I have no room in my bag for a book, then I don’t have to worry about the fragility of making space in my carry-on by putting it into the suitcase.

And, where necessary, the book/spider interaction causes more damage to the spider than the contents of the book. My thesis was sufficiently large to stun a small mammal, but you would not believe how hard it was to get ethical approval for that!

The short answer to both questions is that I enjoy using the physical forms although I delight in the practicality, the convenience and the principle of the electronic forms. I am a happy hybridiser who wishes only to enjoy the experience of reading and writing in a way that appeals to me. In a way, the electronic format makes it easier for me to share my physical books. I have a large library of books from when I was younger that, to my knowledge, has books that it is almost impossible to find in print or libraries any more. Yet, I am in that uncomfortable position of being a selfish steward, in that I cannot release some of these books for people to read because I hold the only copy that I know of. As I discover more books in electronic or re-print format (the works of E. Nesbit, Susan Cooper in the children’s collection of my library, for example) then I am free to use the books as they were intended, as books.

What we have now, what is emerging, certainly need not be the end of the book but it will be interesting to look back, in fifty years or so, to find out what we did. If the book has become the analogue watch of information, where it moved from status symbol for its worth, to status symbol for its value, to affectation and, now, to many of my students, an anachronism for those who don’t have good time signal on their phones. I suspect that a watch does not have the sheer enjoyability of the book or the pen on paper, but, if you will excuse me, time will tell.