Kim Stanley Robinson
Languages change over time when people use new words. Fairly often these new words are borrowed from other languages, and linguists call these loanwords, though the return on the loan is never reciprocal, being no more than some kind of social-psychic tribute to the ingenuity of the host language’s culture. Probably there should be a word too for this mysterious return on the loan.
Science fiction, consisting of stories set in the future, has often led its writers onto the perilous ground of making up new words, or even new languages. These languages suggest the historical and technological changes that have occurred between the present and the time of the science fiction story, and more generally they create the feeling of estrangement appropriate to science fiction’s transport by mental travel to distant times and places. Orwell’s controlocracy in 1984 is famously facilitated by Newspeak; Anthony Burgess cleverly portrayed a Russian-inflected English dialect in A Clockwork Orange; Russell Hoban conveyed an apocalyptic scenario in the postliterate language of Riddley Walker; Suzette Haden Elgin invented a postpatriarchal language in her Native Tongue series. Many other writers have portrayed dense accelerated futures partly by way of a blizzard of neologisms, as in Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels.
Science fiction writers have also often invented new words, inserted into our familiar English to indicate a new technology or a new mental phenomenon. Two excellent examples are Ursula K. Le Guin’s word ansible, a communication device that transmits information instantaneously across any distance, and Robert Heinlein’s grok, which is a kind of telepathic gestalt understanding of some other person or idea. For a decade or more, the popularity of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was such that lots of people used the word grok in real life, which is quite an accomplishment for any writer. On the other hand, Heinlein also coined the word tansstaafl, from the acronym “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” and although some libertarians still love to quote this untrue truism, it suggests to me that Heinlein’s ability in this realm was hit or miss.
The book you are about to read focuses on individual words or short phrases, either from other languages or invented, that English, and perhaps all languages, could use to better describe our historical situation, which we now often call the Anthropocene—another new word, and one that is very likely to last, defining our period in both human and geological terms, now collapsed to the same thing. One scientist, Eugene Stoemer, invented this word, and another, Paul Crutzen, popularized it. Now it is an important and permanent part of our language and our sense of history. Though this origin story might seem surprising, recall that ecology is a word coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1873, while the word scientist was coined by William Whewell in 1834. People invent new words! It’s obvious when you say it, and yet still a little startling to remember.
Each word or phrase included in this book is more than a word or phrase, being also a concept. Of course all words are concepts, but familiar words contain their concepts in a familiar way, and so seem simpler than new and unfamiliar words. As all the words included here are new to English, they bring new concepts with them, so the short essays accompanying each word are crucial to the success of the project. The essays all move from straightforward definition to discussions of the contexts of the concepts evoked, elucidating larger systems of thought and culture, and casting light on the “long emergency” of the twenty-first century, when anthropogenic climate change will impact the biosphere and all its inhabitants.
So many new words gathered together like this, each bringing with it a new concept and system, creates a dizzying effect. This is good and right, because we live in a dizzying time. What we do now as a global civilization will create one future out of a vast array of possible futures, an array which ranges from utmost disaster to lasting peace and prosperity. The sheer breadth of this range is all by itself extremely confusing, to the point of inducing a kind of mental and emotional gridlock. Anything could happen! So what should we do? Maybe nothing! Maybe we can’t do anything!
But we can do things, if we can figure out what they are. Various good futures are achievable, even starting from our current moment of high danger. So some really comprehensive analysis, destranding, and remapping is now part of our necessary work. Inevitably new concepts and new words will emerge—lots of them. So this book’s profusion is an accurate foretelling of what will come. It’s a kind of science fiction story in the form of a lexicon, and it postulates and helps to create a future culture more articulate and wiser than we are now. Thus by definition it is a utopian science fiction story.
Among other good effects, this book makes us more alert to new words already out there, and it puts us on the lookout for more. Recently I noticed a couple of meteorological phrases new to me, which helped me while I was compressing and revising my Science in the Capital trilogy, written between 2002 and 2006. I saw in my 2016 revision that I had described what we now call an “atmospheric river” a decade before the phrase appeared (at least to me), and I happily inserted it into the text, as being better than earlier names like “pineapple express.” Similarly, in the second volume I had described what we now call a “polar vortex,” but again, either the term had not yet been invented or it had not yet shifted from the meteorological community to common usage (or to me). Again, I retrojected the phrase into the text.
These kinds of re-visionings are going to keep happening to us all, expanding from small meteorological clarifications such as these I’ve mentioned to much larger and more important expressions of the zeitgeist, including definitions of actions we can take to wrest history into a good Anthropocene. As these inventions pop in our heads, this delightful lexicon can serve as sourcebook, clarification, diagnostic, and stimulus. It’s an already existing example of the way people playing with language can help bring things and events into sharper cognitive focus. Playful and useful: I trust you will enjoy this book, and I hope you will put it to use.