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Monteverde cover

Monteverde is about the planet Aanuk, and its multiple languages, but we only really get to experience the planet and its people second-hand—or maybe even thirdhand. Our guide to Aanuk is Rachel Monteverde, who has been sent by the Society for the Study of Interstellar Languages to study not just the language of the Aanukian people, but of the Fihdia, a blind, cave-dwelling race unknown to the tourist companies who had explored and then abandoned Aanuk years prior. The book is a collection of linguistic observations, journal entries, and interview excerpts, and it documents Monteverde's personal relationships and feelings at the same time as it documents Aanuk and its people. It is, almost by default, concerned with questions about what it means to be a translator, who you're performing translations for, and where you're doing them. The bulk of my translation experience is with ancient Greek of various dialects and eras, a project that is in many ways quite different from Monteverde's. Doing anthropological work through translation is something I am not at all qualified to do—and, yet, an awareness of cultural difference feels like a requirement, or a non-negotiable responsibility. This leads to questions so basic that it can feel embarrassing to ask them: how do we read these texts, and how do we come to understand them, both as scholars and as people? I'm going to be asking a lot of those basic questions here, both because Monteverde raises them and because I can't always tell why Monteverde raises them, or if I'm asking the questions that the book wants me to ask.

When Monteverde sees Aanuk for the first time, she takes the opportunity as her ship flies over the planet to perform an observational exercise. "Some linguists opine that, on reaching a planet to research its language, it is convenient to fly above it to view it as if it were an empty world, newly discovered by ourselves. One must be attentive to the impressions that this first visual contact produces, impressions mediated only by our own language and those others we know, which we would alter be able to match against the specific words used by the inhabitants of that world" (p. 12). Even here, this early on, the book is either laying the ground for a fruitful set of questions about the relationship between language and cultures, language and each individual who speaks it, and the role of scholars (especially scholars who study other people)—or it is setting up some of those questions without quite realizing it. Sometimes I can't tell which is which, or when the novel is aware of the questions it seems to raise and when it is not; and this was a question that nagged at me throughout the entire book.

The questions that this initial exercise raises set up problems that will recur again and again throughout Monteverde: the exercise cannot account for the Fihdia, or, at least, it can't account for them in the way the exercise expects, because a direct visual correspondence doesn't exist. At the same time, the exercise also begins to introduce questions about what it means to study a language—and a culture that uses that language—for the first time. What might happen if Monteverde had encountered the language without seeing the place where it was used? What happens when a language is removed from its context (and, presumably, adapts to a new context)? It also asks questions about a particular form of visual data that can only be gathered in a particular way—by flying over the planet. The Aanukiens, Monteverde tells us just before this, once built planes but no longer use them; the Fidhia, as far as I can tell, have no planes at all. Some of these are ideas that will matter later; if nothing else, the problems they raise help us to begin building an impression of Aanuk that's slightly different from Monteverde's. But I cannot tell if that is what this exercise is meant for, or if we are, instead, meant to go along with Monteverde and perform the exercise for ourselves, in some way.

As Monteverde continues flying, she describes how the landscape of Aanuk changes. At one point, she says, "I didn't recognize the trees" (p. 13). This, to me, highlights something Monteverde is primarily interested in: issues of accidental translation, or of filling in blanks too quickly. Monteverde does not recognize the trees, but she still calls them trees, a word that is laden with particular assumptions about what these things are. Do they fill a similar biological niche to that which trees fill on Earth? What symbolic valences can they have? And, perhaps most importantly: is Monteverde considering these questions when she uses the word "trees" here? Would she modify these impressions later on? Has she read literature about Aanuk that describes "trees?" Even though the novel subtly points at these questions, it never answers them; it could be that, because what we're reading here is supposedly a condensed version of Monteverde's longer linguistic treatment, these sorts of considerations are simply omitted here [1].

This idea, however, also raises questions about understanding language versus understanding culture, and learning about the place in which that language is used. Some of Monteverde's linguistic questions bleed over into anthropological and cultural questions far more directly, such as when Monteverde studies Aanukian and Fihdian metaphors. Fihdia metaphors, while not based on sight, work similarly to Terran metaphors; they create correspondences that are "intelligible," even if they might not be the same correspondences that a Terran would make. However, Aanukiens create metaphors that are always deeply personal, based on correspondences that carry no directly identifiable meaning to anybody but the person making the metaphor. "Why, for them, is the heart a slow gold ship; the twilight a shield; dawn a fever of unknown origin; death an icosahedron of matchless perfection? And any Aanukien says they quite easily understand those metaphors, considering them as clear and simple as what is, for me, comparing a red star with a ruby" (p. 71). At the risk of taking this Aanukien concept away from its source, we could make this into an argument about the problems of interpreting language in general—or it could be an argument that "problem" is the wrong word. By calling it a "metaphor," Monteverde is putting this type of speech into a particular category of communication. It could be that she's doing this because "metaphor" is the closest available analogue (much like the word "tree"), but she could also be categorizing it this way in order to say something about what is being communicated—not just the particular meaning of a metaphor, but the type of work a metaphor is doing.

"Metaphorization happens by establishing a correspondence between two terms that share more than one seme" (p. 70). What if the point of calling this a metaphor is to indicate that this sort of linkage exists? That the Aanukien who makes the metaphor has noticed some correspondence of meaning that speaks to them? Even if communicating that correspondence is impossible, at least directly, they can communicate that the correspondence is there, and carries weight for that person. In doing so, it could be that the person listening knows what to pay attention to, or that something is marked as significant. When the Aanukiens say they can "quite easily understand those metaphors," does that mean that they could translate those metaphors into a literal meaning, or, perhaps, another metaphor? Or could it instead mean that the Aanukiens know what those metaphors mark?

This is a juicy problem, but Monteverde never gets any farther towards answering her questions about metaphor, at least not directly. Most of her field observations leave off in a similar way. They're pithy, and just detailed enough to invite speculation, but, because of how much there is to explore, and how difficult it is to answer these questions, she simply moves on to the next thing. On one level, this is how observational notes work. But, on the other hand, if the notes are all we get, without developed analysis or further complications from the Aanukians or the Fihdia, the interpretations we can make of these cultures, which are literally alien to our own, may trend towards vagueness or excessive prettiness in a dangerous way. These are not just notes about how these cultures act; these are Monteverde's notes.

Monteverde's title, then, is well-chosen. The book certainly is concerned with Aanuk as a place—its history, its geography, its resources and even its ecology, to a certain extent, are all included in Monteverde's logs and influence her thought. It also pays a great deal of attention to the Aanukien and Imu languages; studying the language(s) of Aanuk is one of Monteverde's primary objectives (even if Gutia, the secret, sacred language of the Fihdia's divinity, remains beyond her grasp—as, perhaps, it should). The cultures of the different people of Aanuk lie on top of the planet and its languages, and Monteverde makes a point of living with and examining various different groups and their interactions. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, none of these aspects of Aanuk would be accessible to us without Rachel Monteverde. This manual serves as an interpretation of Aanuk; her entire method relies on interpretation, unavoidably and, I think, unapologetically. This is not to say that Monteverde is irresponsible, or that she is blinded by an agenda—in fact, whether she is or not is a question I haven't been able to answer for myself. One of the joys of the book is watching Monteverde as she grows aware of her own biases and her own interpretations. But that also means that the book is much more a portrait of a scholar who studies alien planets than it is a work of scholarship about an alien planet.

According to the first page of the book, Monteverde is a "condensed version" of "The Monteverde Report: A First Approach to the Study of the Languages of the Outer Planet Aanuk," which was originally over three hundred pages long. The "condensed version" includes "the personal notes [Monteverde] had written during her stay," but it also includes fragments of linguistic notes from Monteverde's personal notebooks that may or may not have been developed and expanded in the longer version. What might this longer version look like? And, perhaps more to the point, how much does Monteverde learn here—and what might we learn from her? These questions about Monteverde-the-person in relationship to Monteverde's body of work, then, seem embedded in the nature of the document; it's asking us to consider how her theories came to be, and why.

It is sometimes hard for me to tell if this is what the book is trying to do, or if that interpretation is just one particular way I've found to deal with the parts of the book I'm unsure about. There are times at which Monteverde's actions make me deeply uncomfortable, even when part of me is touched by them. One particularly unsettling instance of this comes near the book's end, when Monteverde takes her closest Aanukian friend to her Fihdia mentor in an attempt to help her friend find happiness. "'I don't have the least idea of how you can resolve your conflicts. I only want you to help me so that Ridra understands that she can live on Aanuk and have peace with herself . . . Just like you Fihdia are able to live in this world . . . despite your different condition'" (p. 83). Guutiga-Nama, Monteverde's mentor, eventually says yes to this request, but it feels oddly simplistic to me, even though Monteverde has specifically said that she is not doing this in order to resolve any type of political or cultural conflict. Maybe it is because Monteverde assumes that Guutiga-Nama agrees because of "her conscience . . . not the divinity," meaning that Guutiga-Nama somehow knows and understands Monteverde's background and motivations. Maybe it is because of the way Monteverde still reads the Fihdia as being defined in relation to everything else on Aanuk, while the Aanukians are free from that (even their names speak to that problem.) Either way, there seems to be an overemphasis here on Monteverde's own interpretations, and the actions she takes based on those interpretations.

I do not quite know where Monteverde stands on the questions it raises. Every part of this book that I find beautiful also makes me wonder what it is I am missing, or if it is simply Rachel Monteverde's own interpretations that I find beautiful. I want to hear an Aanukian poem for myself; I want an Aanukian's point of view, or one of the Fihdia. Could Monteverde give us that perspective? Or will Monteverde always be speaking to us, too?

How do we, as readers, writers, and people from one place, responsibly create, examine, and understand people (and creatures) from other places? This is a problem that goes far beyond the SFnal, to the point where even asking it about the SFnal may seem ludicrous. But it seems to me that if we are going to engage with this type of fiction, and to try to forge these places and these lives, taking them into and upon ourselves, then these are questions we must take seriously. Monteverde does that, even if I've come away from it unsure of what it wants to say about those questions.

Endnotes

  1. As this paragraph continues, it turns out that these "trees" have "leaves" that fall in the autumn (which is, I think, a word that's safer to use, because it relies on an astronomical process that's presumably analogous to what gives us seasons on Earth). Does this continued resemblance mean that calling these things "trees" becomes more acceptable? I'm not sure. [return]


Phoebe Salzman-Cohen is a PhD student studying fantasy and science fiction, along with Homeric Greek. She enjoys writing stories about sentient fog and magical fireworks, and plays as many RPGs, tabletop and virtual, as she has time for. You can contact her at pvs5340@psu.edu, or via Twitter.
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