In his essay “About 5750 Words” Samuel Delany proposes a model of science fiction that focuses on its specifically linguistic properties, on the way words in it refer to things that “have not happened. He gives the example of Heinlein’s phrase “the door dilated,” which he takes to be the first-ever appearance of the now-widespread concept of the iris door. In this sentence, he suggests, the meaning of “door” is at once immediately apparent to the reader, and yet radically different from any meaning it had before this sentence was written. The limits of our language are the limits of our world: once a door can dilate, no door is ever quite the same again. What this suggests is that science fiction is not just a matter of writing adventure stories, but of using language itself in radically transformative ways.
If so, this sort of linguistic transformation is a resource that has recently (say for the last 150 years) been, on the whole, overlooked by those soi-disant technicians of language, poets. This was not always the case: a lot of canonical poetic works are clearly speculative in nature. Paradise Lost is so spec-fic, it even includes a worldbuilding digression on the digestive systems of angels, who apparently don’t poop, but instead excrete unneeded food as gas through their pores in a sort of gentle continuous all-body fart. Fantastical poetry, however, has been out of fashion in the poetry world approximately since Emily Brontë and Christina Rossetti. Admittedly, there has been a movement for self-consciously science fictional poetry at least since 1978, when the Science Fiction Poetry Association was founded, but mainstream poets and poetry publications have not taken it seriously. SF literary communities have been a little more hospitable (this publication, in particular, has an honorable and ongoing history of publishing SF poetry) but only, perhaps, a little.
There are reasons to hope this is changing. “Po-biz” is certainly starting to embrace some distinctly sci-fi lyric poetry by writers like Franny Choi or George Abraham. But what about the other end of the stick? Are sci-fi readers and publishers ready to pay attention to long sci-fi narratives written in verse? Recent examples, such as Oliver Langmead’s gripping Dark Star, or Alyse Knorr’s witty Copper Mother, have already suggested there are rewards for doing so. Harry Josephine Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia represents a brilliant addition to this list.
Deep Wheel Orcadia is being released by a major publisher in the UK, Picador, under their Picador Poetry imprint, but it is being billed as a verse novel. This is appropriate: in form the book bestrides lyric poetry (it is constructed as a series of short or medium-length poems) and novel (these poems form a continuous narrative). It certainly reads as compulsively as any sci-fi novel I have read in a while: I devoured it in a day, skipping out on other responsibilities, missing my stop on the train, all the clichés. At the same time, I want to argue, what is really electrifying about it is the way it does something distinctly science-fictional, not only at the levels of worldbuilding and plot, but at the level of language.
On the level of technical and political word-building, the book is interesting, but not startlingly original. Its location—a long-isolated backwater space station, with a distinct, insular culture, losing out to the development of newer trade routes and technologies, but about to be at the centre of a revolution no-one saw coming—is not unlike settings to be found in recent books by James S. A. Corey or Suzanne Palmer. As with all settings like this, it descends, directly or indirectly, from the massively influential work CJ Cherryh did in her Merchanter/Stationer novels in the 1980s and 1990s. It is, by now, a known quantity.
On the level of plot, something more unusual is happening. In its story of humans in an apparently empty universe coming into contact with something which may or may not be alien, but is certainly unknown, it could be argued that it resembles Ann Leckie or, again, James S. A. Corey. However, those writers, for all their beautiful characterization of individual characters and relationships, focus primarily on the galactic political and military struggles those lives are swept up into. By contrast, in Deep Wheel Orcadia, although the world is being turned upside down, this upheaval is not the focus of the plot. Instead the book’s central interest is in the characters’ day-to-day lives—their halting love affairs, their difficult family ties, their local political squabbles, their academic and artistic aspirations, their dances and conversations and daydreams.
One major success of Deep Wheel Orcadia, then, is that it pulls off the difficult feat of making us care even more about whether an errant daughter, back on a visit, decides to stay, or to return to the big cities of Mars, or about whether an archaeologist will kiss a bartender, than we do about what exactly is going on with all those mysterious space hulks out near the gas giant. How does it achieve this? Well, partly by having likeable characters and well-constructed plot arcs, of course. But also, much more unusually, through poetry.
Importantly, Deep Wheel Orcadia is written primarily in something like (I’ll come back to the something like) Orcadian dialect. This is the dialect spoken in the islands off the far northern tip of Scotland. Orkney culture has important ties to both Scandinavia and Scotland, but is also very much its own thing, and its dialect is equally distinctive:
the curn o fock fae a curn o ships
at cam to big a curn o a staetion
an raffled thir myndeen o some histry
intae a kinno culture, parteeclar.
Orcadian is joined on the page by another dialect, one something like what we call “the Queen’s English” or “Received Pronunciation,” or “RP”—the dialect of the English upper classes, of academic scholarship, of “standard literature” (and, of course, of this review). RP comes into the book through two routes: first, in the voices of two characters who are not from the wheel, the archaeologist Noor and the traveler Darling, and secondly, in a prose paraphrase which labours to accompany the Orcadian verse.
I say “labours,” because the RP paraphrase is deliberately painstaking and lengthy, not attempting to match the deftness of the Orcadian text with its own deftness, but rather measuring all the many occasions when it falls short, most notably by means of the deployment of compound words whenever the ambiguities of an Orcadian term have no exact RP equivalent. It reads, not like a poet’s translation, but like a scholar’s gloss. Thus the opening description of the Wheel is brilliant in Orcadian:
sheu waatched the Deep Wheel approch,
gray-green, hids Central station tirlan yet
anent the yallo yotun, peedie
bolas teddert aroon hids ring,
pierheids trang wi yoles, wi glims,
an fund the gloup atween ootbye
an in clossan slaa—but only noo,
wi this soond, deus sheu ken whar sheu is.
But more awkward in RP:
she watched the Deep Wheel approach, grey-green, its Central station still turntwistwhirlspinning againstaboutbefore the yellow gas giant, little bolas ropemoormarried around its ring
pierheads fullactiveintimate with boats, with gleampointlights, and found the chasmcleft between outside and inside closing laxslowly—but only now, with this sound, does she know where she is.
Sometimes this is taken to the point of absurd punctiliousness, as when “her een is weet” gets translated as “her eyes are wetrain” as if the secondary Orcadian meaning were in any way a viable translation, or as if “wet” were not also a synonym for rain in RP.
Partly, this is done, I am sure, to avoid displacing the Orcadian as the primary text. The RP can’t be as good as the Orcadian—if it was, all non-Orcadian readers would just read it instead. And in this it certainly succeeds—I quickly got the hang of reading the Orcadian text, only occasionally glancing down to gloss a word or phrase. But the interplay between text and gloss does more than merely aid readers—it also sets up a relationship, within the world of the book, between the dialects themselves, a relationship which both reflects and extends explicit in-world political differences. That this relationship also mirrors the relation between dialects like these in our own world is, of course, not coincidental.
From the point of view of the gloss, or of the speaker of “galactic RP” we might imagine as being responsible for it, the Orcadian text is simultaneously valuably exotic (its every nuance must be preserved) and marginal (it cannot be understood without mediation). The gloss is metropole, the text is periphery. This relationship is apparent, not just in the gloss’s general condescending ungainliness, but also, (a key detail) in the specific way it translates distinctly science-fictional Orcadian words (words, that is, with the same kind of valence as Heinlein’s “door”) into much flatter RP versions—thus just in the example above “yotun” becomes “gas giant” and “yole” (a kind of local spacefaring vessel, distinct from the interstellar “ships”) becomes “boat” (rather than, say, a more distinctive RP alternative like “yawl”).
A similar dynamic is active within the Orcadian text too. Perhaps there should be a spoiler warning here (spoiler: poetic coup!) because it is actively shocking the first time an RP voice appears in the Orcadian text:
“Thir,” sheu says, an looder again, “That wey.”
Darling tries tae gaither Martian manners.
“Thank you so so much,” says Darling.
That repeated “so” is a brilliant bit of mimicry, capturing not just the change in accent, but the deployment of a certain effusive, patronizing politeness, so characteristic of the British upper classes. This starkness departure in tone mirrors the stark foreignness of Darling in the context of the Wheel: a posh trans girl, fugitive from her rich Martian family, she is not from around here. Her dialect, her almost innocent condescension, carries the power of her class position.
She starts seeing Astrid, a girl from the station. Astrid takes Darling to meet her parents, and is then dismayed when the pull of the prestige of Darling’s dialect results in her family, including herself, code-switching into a more “respectable” register:
sheu hears thir vooels roondan, thir consonants clippan,
thir wirds sweetchan tae marry Darling’s awn,
an gits unspaekable barman. an whan her awn
“een” is “one” sheu sits quiet, waantan
a body tae notiece, her mither tae smile an say “Buddo”
an tak her back tae the aald faimly taeble,
Conversely, when Darling attempts to deploy an Orcadian word, “piece” (meaning “placedistancepartwhile”), in an argument with Astrid, her class power also twists the dynamic. “The wird is cruel,” the narrator comments.
Noor, the other RP speaker, is a different kettle of fish: not from a rich background, she speaks galactic RP as the language of her academic career, and as a sort of lingua franca. She represents a different political relation: two different peripheries meeting in the dialect of the metropole. It is, accordingly, somewhat more endearing (though still funny) when she slips into Orcadian:
But,” sheu adds,
sofnan, seean madram turn tae pickloo,
feelan hid fillan her crampit, caald offiece,
no waantan tae aye be awey oot the edge o the Wheel,
“you’ve mynded me on about reports of not
unrelated incidents on other
The pairing of “mynded me on” with the academic “reports of not unrelated incidents” is another beautiful piece of observation.
This is not just observation though. As it traces, with truly poetic care for nuance and technical detail, the disposition and use and relation of these two mostly real dialects, these two particular ways of speaking, in this imagined world, Deep Wheel Orcadia is subtly involved in doing something extremely ambitious.
To return to where I began: Delany identifies Heinlein’s “door” as representing the linguistic power of science fiction—the power to take a word, and, by placing it in a different context, transform that meaning, and so forever transform, not just the reader’s understanding of the fictional world depicted, but also their understanding of our own world. The limits of our language are the limits of our world: once a door can dilate, no door is ever quite the same again.
Giles does this same small trick with Orcadian words, for sure—I have already noted “jotun” and ”yole,” and the list might also include “codd,” “cruisies,” “waaken claes,” “burns,” “rouk,” “rotad,” and many more—but they also do something far more dramatic. By not only building the political relation between the two dialects they deploy into the basic structure of their science-fictional world, but also weaving it, through the presence of the gloss, into literally every word of their book, they transform the meaning, not just of individual words, but of the entire dialects themselves.
Orcadian, in Deep Wheel Orcadia, is no longer the dialect of an island in the North Sea: it is something like that dialect, for sure, but within the narrative it is the dialect of a space station in the outer Northern Federation. They may be similar, but they are not the same. Likewise, RP is no longer the dialect of the London/Edinburgh ruling classes, it is the dialect of the “muckle domms an tooers o Chryse” on Mars. The dialects are still themselves, but different too. And the political relation between them likewise.
This allows for two complementary effects. Firstly, all the weight of the relation between metropolitan and peripheral dialect in our own world can be imported onto the linguistic choices of the characters and narrators in Giles’s science-fictional universe. This gives their language a poetic weight and importance rarely achieved in science fiction. Their exact words, not just their paraphraseable meaning but their precise choices of phrasing, become full of comprehensible information about character, and this gives the characters themselves an unusual reality and presence. As in all good poetry, it is the language itself, and not just the plot and worldbuilding, that makes us care.
However, it is not only the science-fictional word that is transformed by this importation. In the course of this book the reader’s understanding of the relations between the two dialects in our own world is torqued, and extended in startling and thought-provoking ways. Just as, after reading Heinlein, a door is no longer quite the same thing, so, after reading Deep Wheel Orcadia, a dialect is no longer quite the same thing either. As a result, Deep Wheel Orcadia is able to describe what has not happened, not just in regard to events and objects and people in that story, but in regard to the very language in which the story is told. It is not just poetry about a science-fictional subject. It is poetry in which the poetry itself is science fiction.