Esperanto and Science-Fiction

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This material is copyright © 1996 by Donald J. Harlow. Hard copies may be made for personal use only. Any user may make one electronic copy for personal use only. All copies must contain this copyright notice, including the date given below. No electronic copy may be located elsewhere for public access. Links to this original copy on the World Wide Web are encouraged. Please respect the conditions of this copyright notice; I simply don't want to have various unofficial (and perhaps not up-to-date) copies floating around elsewhere. Date: 2000.11.23.

Since I first encountered Esperanto through the medium of science fiction, it seems reasonable to devote a few words to the relationship between the two -- especially since, I suspect, many readers of this work will also be fans of the literature of the future.

First I should mention the whole question of languages in English-language science-fiction. By and large, authors tend to ignore this question, either assuming that everybody in the future will speak English, or that they will all speak some other common language that makes the language problem moot. This may chiefly be due to artistic considerations, particularly in the visual media. As an example, I do not remember the language question ever being addressed in Star Trek; it was simply assumed that everybody spoke a single language. Presumably, the show's producers did not feel it either desirable or necessary to waste part of an hour -- part of several hours, perhaps -- in attempting to resolve a question that was not germane to the plot of the story, and would in any case seem unimportant to the audience.

You may want to ask: what language, in fact, was the language of common use in Star Trek? Given James T. Kirk's and Mr. Spock's facility in communicating with the natives during their various visits to twentieth-century America, that language must have been English, at least in the television and movie series.(1) The Gold Key comic series, on the other hand, had them speaking "Esperanta." The very first Star Trek novel, written by a long-time Esperantist, the late Mack Reynolds, referred to their language as "Basic." The question remains an open one today. In the recent series Star Trek -- The Next Generation, English is definitely the language of common use, though the crew members occasionally make reference to "universal translators" and "all frequencies, all languages"; when Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who is otherwise an atavistic Francophile, complains about the irrationalities of one alien language,(2) Councillor Deanna Troy points out to him that "you spell 'knife' with a K," to which Picard replies: "I spell 'knife' with an N -- but then I was never very good at spelling."(3)

(There are one or two interesting anecdotes about William Shatner, star of the original series, and Esperanto, but out of respect for this popular TV figure I shall not repeat them. Those interested may wish to find a videotape copy of Inkubo, the first and only full-length science-fiction movie made completely in Esperanto, which starred Shatner. I wish them luck. I have not succeeded in finding a copy.)(4)

Occasionally, foreign languages have been used on the screen to good effect. I think particularly of George Lucas in this regard, the man who brought subtitles to science fiction. Greedo's fatal cantina confrontation with Han Solo in Star Wars was, to me, one of the most amusing conversations in the movies in quite some time. Interestingly enough, Greedo's foreign language contained at least one loan word from English. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out which it was. Later "Star Wars" films included subtitled passages from "alien" languages that turned out to be Mongolian and Kikuyu, at least according to rumor. A conversation with the interstellar gangster Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi, the third film in the series, was less realistic, seeming as it did to consist in large part of mangled English. One amusing, and very effective, passage has the "droid" C3PO recounting the entire "Star Wars" saga to a crowd of small, furry Ewoks in some totally incomprehensible alien language (spoken with a recognizable British public-school accent), punctuated with enough vocalized sound effects and loan words that the person who has watched the entire series of movies will know exactly what C3PO is saying at any given moment. C3PO, incidentally, is "fluent in six million forms of communication," and presumably speaks, but does not need, Esperanto.

Written science fiction and fantasy has been more receptive to the question of language; in fact, it is often an important part of a the background when a writer sets out to put together a consistent milieu for several different stories set against a common background.

Some authors, of course, simply assume that English, or some variant, will be used in the future, no matter how distant. The interstellar travelers of Vernor Vinge's The Witling, for instance, living some 13,000 years from now, still use English.

A few authors will even go to some length to justify this. Donald Moffitt, in The Genesis Quest, devotes five pages to having one of his characters, living in a distant galaxy 27 megennia in the future -- they are actually, in fact, thirtieth-century templates transmitted across space by radio and recreated by an alien species -- explain to the others why they all speak English and listen to Bach fugues; it is simply because English (called Inglex in the story) took the world by storm during and after the 20th century, and Western culture and language are so general and all-encompassing that all other cultures and languages can be subsumed in Bach and English.

Moffitt is a good example of an author who, whatever his abilities as a stylist and technologist, shows that he has not thoroughly researched the "softer" fields of the social sciences. It is not clear how well he understands either language or culture. For instance, he refers to 30th century Chinese as "Chin-Pin-Yin," a name that in the real world would refer not to the Chinese language itself but to a particular variant of Romanized spelling. His observation that Chinese is capable of handling many modern concepts only by "elaborate circumlocutions" is quite true, but he neglects to add that those circumlocutions are usually, in monosyllabic Chinese, only two or three syllables long -- often more concise and useful than their single-word Latin- or Greek-derived counterparts in English.

It is not clear what language is used in the galaxy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories, but presumably its distant ancestor is English. In Pebble in the Sky, Bel Arvardan, an insufferably well-meaning archaeologist, is able to understand inadvertent time-traveller Joseph Schwartz because Schwartz, a German immigrant who has lived in Chicago for a number of decades, speaks a language that is almost identical with inscriptions uncovered in strata tens of thousand of years old on several different planets; Arvardan is, by one of those coincidences so common in fiction since at least Shakespeare, one of half a dozen individuals out of the galaxy's uncounted trillions who knows this language. However, the Foundation civilization seems to be remarkably homogeneous, as regards language, and the question is not otherwise addressed. This is unfortunate; it would be interesting to know how Arvardan learned to understand spoken English, which -- since English is not notoriously phonetic -- does not closely resemble the written language, even if the standard phonemes have remained associated with the standard letters for all those tens of thousands of years.

The late Robert Heinlein (who proposed the rendering of Rhysling's poem "The Green Hills of Earth" into Esperanto, and who thus introduced me to the language(5)) was not noticeably consistent in his Future History series. Esperanto was mentioned the one time; other languages were mentioned on other occasions. By the time of the last story in the series,(6) English and Spanish appear to have moved into a sort of linguistic suzerainty of the future, a situation which other authors have also used in their stories from time to time. In other series, Heinlein proposed other languages; in Gulf (and, presumably, its third-of-a-century-later sequel Friday) the superhuman protagonists revert to a form of Basic English which is very dissimilar to anything Ogden and Richards would recognize. Several different languages are used in Citizen of the Galaxy; if memory serves me, Interlingua was the standard interlanguage. Which Interlingua, Heinlein does not say; presumably Alexander Gode's brand, since it was getting much mention in the American press in the middle fifties, when the Heinlein novel was written. Loglan is mentioned in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, a mention which apparently played an important role the recent court struggle over trademark rights between the inventor of Loglan, Dr. James Cooke Brown, and Mr. Bob LeChevalier, chief designer of the derivative Lojban.(7)

Poul Anderson, in the Technic Civilization of Nicholas van Rijn's Polesotechnic League and Manuel's Empire of the Dominic Flandry novels, is much more consistent. The citizens of the Polesotechnic League, a product of the later third millenium, apparently speak a revived version of Latin, League Latin; later, after the Time of Troubles and the growth of Manuel's Empire in the early fourth millenium, the major interlanguage is Anglic, a language implicitly and explicitly rooted in English but with numerous accretions from other human tongues. Anglic, incidentally, is also the name of an "international English" project developed in the late twenties by Prof. Bertil Zachariassen of Uppsala University in Sweden; but I doubt whether Anderson's Anglic is in any way related to Zachariassen's stillborn project.

Several authors have actually gone to the trouble to work out whole new languages for their characters to use. Such languages are often agglutinative in nature, as is Esperanto, since agglutinative languages are not only easier to learn, but also easier to invent. This may account for Lin Carter's comment, in one of the Jandar of Callisto novels, that the language of Callisto "resembles Esperanto," even though -- at least in terms of vocabulary -- I myself could see no resemblance whatsoever.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. The language of Kregen in Alan Burt Akers' Dray Prescot novels was gradually developing (until the series reached an unfortunate, and hopefully temporary, hiatus) in such a way as to parallel Prescot's gradual growth of understanding of Kregen's ties with Earth; and it was becoming more and more obvious that Kregish was a distant cousin of the inflected Indo-European tongues. Robert Jordan's Old Tongue from his Wheel of Time series is also explicitly non-regular and non-agglutinative. Austin Tappan Wright, in his semi-fantasy Islandia, created an Islandian language that, from the few samples given, seems to have been related to the post-Reformation philosophical languages -- though I could be wrong about this, as I base this statement on Wright's three Islandian words for three forms of love (alia, apia, ania). And J. R. R. Tolkien is reputed to have developed the languages of Middle Earth before he actually wrote the stories themselves; the latter were said to have been inspired by the former. These have been designed well enough not to display their seams to the first-time reader. The same, unfortunately, can't be said of Tolkien's alphabets; the cursive Elvish alphabet definitely shows marks of engineering, particularly in the parallelism between the letters for voiced and corresponding unvoiced consonants. This is not, however, a mortal sin; the same can be said of the Korean Hangul alphabet, which is in daily use among millions of people. Tolkien, incidentally, once stated in print his admiration for Esperanto. (15)

Authors have rarely used the actual names of constructed languages in their stories, except by accident, as in the case of Anderson's Anglic, mentioned above. One obvious exception is Basic English, which has been far more popular in science-fiction than it ever was in the world at large, e.g. in the H. G. Wells and H. Beam Piper novels mentioned in Chapter 3. Robert Heinlein, in addition to Esperanto (three passing mentions) and Basic English, has used Interlingua and, more recently, James Cook Brown's Loglan, as mentioned above. James Blish, in his "Cities in Flight" novels, mentions Interlingua at one point -- the novels in question were written between the late forties and the early sixties; but he also mentions Russian as the "old international language of space," (8) a concept popular in the years immediately after Sputnik. Most authors, however, seem to prefer to believe, as mentioned before, that thousands of years in the future English or some variant will be commonly used.

A number of science fiction authors have given passing mention to Esperanto, and a few have given more than passing mention. Asimov mentioned Esperanto once, to my knowledge, in an early novelette, "Homo Sol." Anderson also mentioned it once,(9) in a short story, "High Treason," published years ago in a British science fiction magazine. John Brunner has mentioned Esperanto two or three times, using it as a language of wider communication once (in I Speak for Earth under the pseudonym "Keith Woodcott") and mentioning it as the only Western language capable of handling a certain Chinese-derived concept in his more ambitious work The Shockwave Rider. Multiple references to Esperanto in John Barnes' novel Orbital Resonance appeared to late to be included in the original version of this appendix.

The widest use of Esperanto in science-fiction has come, of course, from those authors who, at least in some degree, speak Esperanto. This select group has included, in my time, Philip José Farmer, Harry Harrison, and Mack Reynolds.(10)

Farmer is reputed to have translated at least part of Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes into Esperanto. It is a pity he did not complete it; it could have joined K.R.C. Sturmer's translation of A Princess of Mars in the Esperanto Burroughs pantheon. Ah, well. Maybe someday ... And in his Riverworld series of novels, in a world into which every human being who has ever lived is reborn (again and again) along the banks of a million-mile-long river, Esperanto is used as the main means of communication. Certainly this is a use of the language far more ambitious than any practicing Esperantist has ever hoped for or dreamed of. Well, almost any practicing Esperantist ...

Mack Reynolds, who also spoke Esperanto -- I first learned of his death through an obituary not in the science-fiction magazines but in the World Esperanto Organization's organ esperanto -- had his main characters use Esperanto as the national language of a new North African nation in a series of stories about the future of that troubled continent.(11) And in one of his later Ace novels -- I think the title was Looking Backward from the Year 2000 or something like that -- he had his main character, a sleeper awakened, overhear a conversation which was said to be in "Interlingua -- a mixture of Esperanto and Interlingua," but which was, as printed, pure Classical Esperanto.

Harry Harrison, who has moonlighted as Honorary President of the Irish Esperanto Association, has probably had the greatest effect of any science fiction author on the modern Esperanto movement. More information requests about Esperanto are generated in North America by his popular "Stainless Steel Rat" novels than by any other single source. Both his best-known characters -- Slippery Jim diGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat, and Jason dinAlt of the Deathworld stories -- speak Esperanto, and make no bones about it. I strongly suspect that John W. Campbell's 1963 Analog polemic about English as the world language (see below) was written in response to Harrison's The Ethical Engineer (in book form, Deathworld II),which made heavy use of Esperanto and began publication in that magazine the next month.

Harrison often uses words from Esperanto to amuse other Esperantists who happen to read his stories. In The Stainless Steel Rat Is Drafted, Slippery Jim finds himself on a continent called Nevenkebla -- Esperanto for "unconquerable" -- where he is assigned to boot camp S^limmarc^o ("Slime-swamp") at Camp Mortstertoro ("Death-rattle") before being sent to Camp Abomeno ("Abomination"). Mr. Harrison is obviously not enamored of military life. In The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You the squishy, slimy reptilian nasties who are invading the human galaxy, after encountering Esperanto (which just about all humans speak) are so entranced by its facility and efficiency that they immediately adopt it as their own interplanetary language. And in The Stainless Steel Rat for President Harrison actually includes, at the end of the book, an advertisement for Esperanto.(12) When the this book was recently translated into Russion, incidentally, the advertisement, which included the address of the Esperanto League for North America, was carried over verbatim, and since that time the Esperanto League has been inundated with letters requesting information ... invariably in Russian, which no one at the ELNA office can read, though the two people who work there share nine or ten languages between them...

Harrison himself speaks fluent Esperanto, a fact to which I can attest, having met him in the summer of 1986 at the World Esperanto Congress in Beijing, China. He is one of a very few English-language science-fiction writers -- another was J. U. Giesy -- who have also written in Esperanto.(13) If I and some others were set on our way to Esperanto by Heinlein years ago, a whole new crop of young American Esperantists are being drawn there by Harry Harrison. (17)

To this select group I should also add Forrest J. Ackerman, not himself an author of note, but a sometime science-fiction editor, agent, and collector, well known in the world of science-fiction fans. Forrie is the person who coined that horrible English-language neologism sci-fi, which science-fiction fans hate and everybody else loves. Forrie is also a long-time Esperantist, speaking the language fluently and occasionally taking part in Esperanto events, as well as science-fiction conventions.

Esperanto has occasionally been grist for the mill of science-fiction's columnists as well as its authors. Most science-fiction magazines have, at one time or another, carried an article or editorial about the language problem in which Esperanto played a major role. This was particularly true in the late 1950's and early 1960's -- although this may be just a function of the fact that it was precisely during that period that I was paying the most attention to such matters. After all, as one sage is reported to have said, "The golden age of science-fiction ... is thirteen."

In 1957 or thereabouts, the respected author Lester Del Rey wrote an article about the language problem for Amazing Stories, then published by Ziff-Davis. The article was straightforward and made few judgements or predictions, merely giving brief descriptions of the various proposed solutions to the problem.(14) The only item in the article that sticks in my mind was Del Rey's suggestion that Esperanto Congresses, which in many ways resemble science fiction WorldCons, were somehow derived from them -- an interesting proposal that perhaps requires some investigation. There may well be such a relationship, but it probably went in the other direction, given that the first World Esperanto Congress was held thirty years before the first World Science Fiction Convention -- and given that some of those who set up that first WorldCon in the late thirties were at least peripherally involved in the Esperanto movement.

In, I believe, 1959 Galaxy Science Fiction magazine published a generally unmemorable column on the subject -- or at least I generally don't remember it! -- by the noted science popularizer Willy Ley, and followed it up, almost a year later, with a report on some of the responses he received. At that time he complained that half a dozen Esperantists had taken him to task "for not being in love with" Esperanto. His responses to a well-reasoned letter from Harry Harrison -- I have already described one of them in chapter 5 -- suggest that as a linguist Ley might have been an excellent rocket scientist.

Neither Del Rey's article nor Ley's was particularly polemical; both of them apparently believed that Esperanto was a dead issue, that English was the destined world language of the future, and that this was simply the way things were, no value-judgements implied. The editor of Analog Science Fact & Science Fiction, John W. Campbell, Jr., on the other hand, was not a man capable of passing over any subject without making a value judgement. When in 1963 he devoted an entire editorial to the subject of "The International Language," he was certainly unwilling and probably unable to avoid letting his readers know that English was somehow (mystically?) superior to all other languages in the world, and that Esperanto was a "two-dimensional" language that "nobody speaks." The editorial aroused a certain amount of impassioned discourse in the magazine's letter column -- which may, of course, have been Campbell's aim.

You, the science-fiction reader, might also want to know about science-fiction in Esperanto. It is there, and not as rare as it used to be. The best science fiction has been published in a series of (to date) ten almanacs (annual, at least theoretically, volumes) of short stories, Sferoj, ("Spheres") the product of a group called NIFO -- the Esperanto acronym for UFO -- in Santander, Spain. Six volumes consist of science fiction translated into Esperanto from other languages; the other four contain original short stories and novelettes. You'll certainly recognize a few of the names in these works, but I also feel sure that others will be totally new to you. As of 1994 NIFO announced plans to split the series into two parts, one for anthologies of translated works, the other for collections of original works. NIFO has also begun publishing a series of translated European science-fiction novels.

Other collections of short-stories include, among others, such translated works as Sin'iti Hosi's Mikronoveloj ("Short-short Stories") and Josef Nesvadba's La Perdita Vizag^o ("The Lost Face"), as well as a few original collections such as Konisi Gaku's Vage tra la Dimensioj ("Wandering Through Dimensions"). The Translators' Section of the Ukrainian Republic Affiliate of the Association of Soviet Esperantists, before that organization's unlamented demise, succeeded in publishing a small and technically unimpressive two-volume Antologio de fantastikaj rakontoj de sovetaj verkistoj ("Anthology of Fantastic Stories by Soviet Authors"), and more recently the writers' group in the Ural Esperanto Society, operating out of Sverdlovsk, have provided a whole series of short science-fiction stories to Literatura Foiro, as well as a volume of stories by the Soviet author Korotkov. Four recent volumes from Progress Publishers in Moscow are the novels Malfacilas esti dio ("Difficult to be a God"), La 2a Invado de Marso ("The Second Invasion from Mars"), La Fora Ăielarko ("The Distant Rainbow") and Pikniko cxe vojrando ("Roadside Picnic") by Arkadij and Boris Strugatskij, two Soviet S-F authors also known in the West. Tolkien's three-volume fantasy The Lord of the Rings, in translation by the Scottish poet and essayist William Auld, has been published at Sezonoj in Ekaterinburg.(16) Net publication has added a number of other pieces of SF in recent years; for instance, Edgar Rice Burroughs is represented not only by a late-thirties Esperanto translation of A Princess of Mars, but, more recently, by Gary Mickle's translation of At the Earth's Core, now available on-line. Jurij Finkel provides us not only with short stories by Russian authors Genrikh Altschuller and Valentina Zhuravleva (see below), but also the Russian alternate-world novel Gravitavio "Carido" ("Gravplane 'Tsarevich'") by Vyacheslav Rybakov.

There have been several science-fiction novels written originally in Esperanto; one of them -- Sandor Szathmari's Vojag^o al Kazohinio ("A Journey to Kazohinia"), a Swift pastiche -- is one of only four books in Esperanto to be published in English translation. Among the current crop of Esperanto novelists, the Hungarian István Nemere is the one most likely to be found producing s-f; his La Fermita Urbo ("The Closed City") is pure science fiction, as is his more recent Terra; and La Monto ("The Mountain") is an interesting modern variation on the old lost-race story.

Two or three short Esperanto science-fiction stories have also been translated into English. Esperanto was one of only six or seven languages to be represented in both issues of Fredrik Pohl's lamented International Science Fiction: with a rather old-fashioned science fiction story by J. U. Giesy, and with Clarkson Crane's translation of Jean-Jacques Mahé's "Twinning" (which was not actually science fiction at all). The Crane translation, along with a French translation, was later published along with the original in Mahé's collection Iluzioj ("Illusions"), Budapest: Hungara Esperanto-Asocio, 1983. Since the typesetting was done in Hungary, it is hardly surprising that the title was misspelled as "Twining."

I myself once earned the money to buy a pair of swimming trunks and an astrophysics text for college by selling an English translation of the Esperanto translation of Valentina Zhuravleva's Russian-language short-story "Starlight Rhapsody" to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. "Starlight Rhapsody" is one of those rare gimmick stories whose gimmick -- the interstellar transmission of music as information contained in a spectrum -- was proposed a year or so later, in another context, by the author as a viable means of interstellar communication. SETI, please note!


(1) This idea is supported by the fact that both Kirk and Spock recognize English-language authors Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Suzanne as the major literary figures of the twentieth century. See the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
(2) In the installment "The Big Goodbye."
(3) For an interesting view of interstellar communications problems -- involving aliens who speak or can be interpreted into English -- see the episode "Darmok".
(4) See comments about Esperanto in movies in chapter 9.
(5) See chapter 4.
(6) To Sail Beyond the Sunset.
(7) See chapter 3.
(8) In A Life for the Stars.
(9) Anderson also mentions Esperanto, in a way that shows a certain unfamiliarity with the language's more esoteric qualities, in his recent Time Patrol novel The Shield of Time (New York: Tor Books, 1992). The passage in question was originally mentioned to me by David Wolff; I confirmed it and wrote a letter to Anderson about it. Later, I could find no trace of the offending passage in the paperback version of the book.
(10) Similarities between the vocabularies of Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Darkovan" and Esperanto are apparently purely coincidental.
(11) Black Man's Burden and Border, Breed Nor Birth, both published as serials in Analog in the early 1960's; and a sequel, titled The Best Ye Breed, published a decade or so later by Ace Books.
(12) A similar advertisement appeared more recently in The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues.
(13) "Ni venos, Doktoro Zamenhof, ni venos!" In Literatura Foiro, Feb. 1988, pp. 10-15. Harrison's short works "The Green Future" and "The Streets of Ashkelon" have also appeared in Esperanto translation.
(14) See chapter 2 and chapter 3.
(15) Perhaps not so incidentally. Since I wrote the above, it has been pointed out to me that not only did Tolkien laud Esperanto in his late essay "A Solitary Vice," but he also wrote an enthusiastic article in favor of Esperanto for La Brita Esperantisto in 1932 -- and apparently wrote, at age 17, a short work on a phonetic alphabet for scouts ("The Book of the Foxrook") ... completely in Esperanto!
(16) One classic author associated with S-F is accessible on-line in Esperanto: H.P. Lovecraft, with "The Terrible Old Man" in translation by Donald R. Burleson and "Pickman's Model" in translation by this author. Another version of "The Terrible Old Man", in translation by Charles R. L. Power, can be found in Sferoj 9.
(17) Harrison, Harry: Nasigxo de rustimuna sxtalrato (A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born) was published by Sezonoj in Ekaterinburg in 1996. The translation was carried out over the internet by a group of eight Esperantists.

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