Out of the many lines that have escaped the confines of genre and made their way into mainstream cultural consciousness, “Shaka, when the walls fell” is perhaps one of the more memorable ones. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Darmok” episode has Captain Picard attempting to communicate with the Tamarians, a race whose language is constituted entirely by metaphor. Through the course of the episode, Picard experiences emotions of bafflement, incomprehension, suspicion, and—eventually—glimmerings of realisation. Notably, “Darmok” does not end with understanding, but only with the possibility of understanding: after the Tamarian captain has sacrificed his life in an effort to bridge the communicative gap between the parties, and hostilities have been averted, Picard suggests to his first officer, Riker, that human beings might need to return to the metaphor-oriented roots of their own mythology, in order to understand the Tamarians better.
“Darmok” is one of the more famous instances of SF’s enduring preoccupation with communication, its possibilities, and its breakdowns. If the “alien other” has long been a figure that has haunted SF’s footsteps, then untranslatability—or illegibility—has been a fundamental characteristic of its otherness. We see it in the earliest works of contemporary SF: for example, in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), the villainous Morlocks—an under-class of workers who are confined to living underground their entire lives—speak in unintelligible grunts (while, on the other hand, the Time Traveller is able to learn some of the language of the overground Eloi). Interestingly, in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)—effectively, a prologue to The Time Machine—we are introduced to proto-Morlocks, who are in the process of developing a different dialect of English. Unintelligibility as a basic feature of otherness, thus, is one of the structuring principles of Wells’ worldbuilding.
While the genre has no shortage of works that use incommunicability—or the seeming inability of another species to communicate—as a justification for space colonialism or species hierarchy, the subject has also received its fair share of thoughtful and sensitive explorations, including in recent times. China Mieville’s Embassytown (2011) and Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” (1998, later adapted into the film Arrival ) are just two of the examples that demonstrate contemporary SF’s continuing engagement with the theme.
In a world in which consensus is breaking apart, and communication growing more fragmented, a resurgence of SF’s interest in translation would be no surprise; and it is this idea that binds together the six seemingly disparate novels on the shortlist of the 2022 Arthur C. Clarke Award. At first blush, the shortlisted books have no unifying theme: there is a robot novel set in a near-future American dystopia (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun), a time-travel story set in a class-ridden near-future British dystopia (Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time), a far-future novel set in the aftermath of species conflict (Aliya Whiteley’s Skyward Inn), a First Contact story at the fringes of a far-future Galactic Empire (Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace), a chronicle of generations-long human-alien conflict (Mercurio D. Rivera’s Wergen: The Alien Love War), and an orbital station story written in the Orkney dialect, entirely in verse (Harry Josephine Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia).
In this essay, I do not intend to assess the individual works on the shortlist (later on, I will flag other reviews that have done so) but, instead, to ask whether, taken as a whole, the shortlist reflects common themes. I believe that, contrary to initial appearances, it does. Scratch a little deeper, and the themes of otherness and communication—and anxieties about the inevitable failure of communication—are woven into the warp and weft of each of these diverse stories. The issue of incommunicability occurs not only in its literal sense—in the same sense that Starfleet and the Tamarians could not understand each other because they spoke different languages—but also in more indicative and suggestive senses, with literal incommunicability between species often acting as the background framework within which other ways and forms of incommunicability are explored.
It is in Wergen: The Alien Love War that this theme is most present, and most in the foreground. The Wergen are an alien species, whose genetic composition consigns them to love human beings and to want to serve them unconditionally. Unsurprisingly, humans take full advantage of this, and exploit the Wergen to the hilt, while holding them in deep contempt. At least a part of this contempt is born out of significant differences between the species (Wergen mating, for example, ends with the physical submergence and disappearance of one of the partners into the other). But also, crucially, the unequal power relationship between the two species ensures that (other than in a few exceptional cases), human beings never feel the need to try and understand the Wergen. This asymmetric relationship eventually escalates into conflict (the apogee of mutual unintelligibility), and the book ends on an ambiguous note. The problems of translation and intelligibility are, however, present throughout, and not simply in the form of inter-species relationships.
Wergen: The Alien Love War plays around with the idea of love beyond the human-Wergen relationship (albeit framed by it), and the question of whether, in the last analysis, it is reducible to chemical reactions in the brain. In one of the interconnected vignettes that constitutes the book, the characters spar over the use of a chemical that precisely replicates the neurochemical reactions that accompany “being in love.” “What we shared,” one of the characters insists, “was … deeper than dopamine coursing through our brains” (p. 80). “So says the man of science,” he’s scoffed at, “the man who studies the biology of love for a living” (p. 80). The resolution of the story suggests that the answer is neither straightforward, nor one that we might particularly like.
The distortion of communication under conditions of unequal power is also a theme that runs through Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace. At one level, A Desolation Called Peace is a story of First Contact, of literal untranslatability between the human Galactic Empire and an alien species that appears to communicate through bursts of static and the language of arbitrary destruction. The protagonists of the novel—Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—are brought together to solve the problem of untranslatability, and decode the alien tongue. However, as I have argued elsewhere, untranslatability in A Desolation Called Peace is not limited to First Contact. Three Seagrass is a cultural liaison of the Teixicalaani Empire. Mahit Dzmare belongs to Lsel Station, a mining world that also serves as an outpost of the Empire, and whose inhabitants are commonly referred to as “barbarians” by the Teixicalaani aristocracy. Mahit and Three Seagrass find their growing intimacy repeatedly stymied by the roles they occupy, and the power difference between them (a power difference exacerbated by the fact that their translation assignment takes place on board a Teixicalaani military vessel). “A barbarian pretends that civilization might grow in the small hours of the night, between two people” (p. 124): these lines, recounted to Mahit, reflect that chasm of communication between herself and Three Seagrass, a chasm structured by Imperial power, and a chasm that the individual can try—but never entirely succeed—in bridging.
A chasm of communication often stems from—and is intensified by—a chasm in experience. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is the story of imperfect communication between a human girl, Josie, and her android (or “artificial friend,” or “AF”) called Klara. Klara and the Sun opens with Klara in a shopfront window, attempting (not always successfully) to understand human communication and human emotions simply by observing life in motion upon the sidewalk. Klara’s eventual purchase—and transfer—to Josie’s home opens a new chapter in the story, focused upon Klara’s attempts to be a good AF by successfully parsing the sickly Josie’s moods, and responding to them (while doing the same with her mother). As the novel shifts to a more dystopian register, however, the problem of untranslatability grows more acute: if, in Wergen: The Alien Love War, the question was whether a chemical can entirely replace the human emotion of love, the question in Klara and the Sun raises the stakes in an altogether more terrifying way: can human beings themselves be replaced by an entity that is functionally indistinguishable, in all respects? “My responses have been stored,” says Klara (p. 204), and this deadpan line—all the more frightening for its matter-of-factness—asks whether a human being is, after all, just an assemblage of responses to stimuli … and if so, why can’t the same human being be infinitely replicable without losing anything? Much as in Wergen: The Alien Love War, perfect translatability seems closer in the spectrum towards a nightmare than a dream.
One striking thing about all three of these novels—Wergen, Desolation, and Klara—is that, to different extents, the story is told from the perspective of the “other”—the very being that is difficult, if not impossible, to translate. Desolation begins and ends with missives from the alien species (by the end, we are able to understand better than we do in the beginning—but only relatively so); a few of the vignettes in Wergen are written from the point of view of the Wergen, allowing us to see the world, and their relationships with human beings, from their perspective; and the entirety of Klara and the Sun is narrated by Klara herself. This reversal of the gaze turns the human world into an object of observation and scrutiny, by non-human eyes—and reminds us that communication, and communication breakdown, presuppose both seeing and being seen, with neither ontologically or normatively prior.
The gaze turned inwards is also a striking feature of Aliya Whiteley’s Skyward Inn, a book in which the breakdown of communication escalates into a breakdown of history, and of meaning itself, as the story moves from nostalgia to the full-blown weird. Set in a far-future Britain that has retreated into itself after an alien war with doubtful consequences, the novel progresses from a seemingly straightforward First Contact story to a world-turned-upside-down: what begins as a guided tour of the alien homeworld reveals that world to be less and less intelligible the deeper one goes, and ends with the boundaries between worlds blurring to the extent that it is no longer possible to tell which is which. Resisting intelligibility (and, for that matter, meaning) is thus a central theme in Skyward Inn, to a greater, and deeper, extent than either Desolation or Wergen—both of which also, of course, deal with the issue of just how much can an alien lifeworld be made intelligible to us. Whiteley—in a novel of “assimilation and merger”—asks the further disquieting question: how much should it be made intelligible to us?
Amid all this, Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time might at a glance seem an outlier in the Clarke shortlist: no First Contact, no unintelligible alien species, not even an identifiable “other” as in Klara and the Sun. Instead, astral projection, alternative histories, and blurred temporal and spatial realities characterise it in their place. I would argue, however, that beyond the speculative pyrotechnics of A River Called Time (which have drawn conflicting responses from critics), there lies submerged in the story’s riverine progression, a deeper communicative chasm: class division and conflict. Newland’s Dinium—an alt-London—is a city divided, with an “Ark” in the central space that houses the city’s elite (and access to which is strictly controlled). Some of the most memorable and vivid scenes in A River Called Time depict the border between the two worlds, and the moment that the protagonist—Markriss—is able to cross that border and enter the more hallowed life of the Ark. Once there, Markriss struggles to adapt; he is caught between worlds, his class background in conflict with the spaces that he now moves in, with the two impossible to reconcile right until the very end of the story. Newland’s “others” might be more difficult to identify than the human/alien or human/android binary, but there is little doubt that the two classes—of the Ark and of the outside—face each other across a chasm of unintelligibility; and, in its own way, like A Desolation Called Peace, A River Called Time illustrates the limits of what an individual can do to bridge that chasm.
The logical end-point of our discussion is the seeping of untranslatability into form. This is why I consider Deep Wheel Orcadia at the tail-end of this essay: what the other five books communicate through plot, action, and character arcs, Deep Wheel Orcadia communicates at the level of form, of stanza, and of individual word. Deep Wheel Orcadia is a simple and familiar enough story of space migration set upon an orbital. The story is written in verse, and in the Orkney dialect. The layout of the book is that on each page, the original Orkney occupies the top half, and its English “ranslateon” the bottom half. When you read the two together, a particularly striking feature emerges: many of the Orkney words do not have a direct English translation. Instead, what we have are new, compound words that grope towards meaning: for example, “slaa” becomes “laxslowly,” “mynd” becomes “rememberknowreflectwill,” “weyghty” becomes “heavymeaningful,” and so on. Thus, through form, and in every stanza, Deep Wheel Orcadia reinforces the fundamental theme of the 2022 Clarke Award shortlist: that, in the last analysis, all translation must necessarily be an approximation.
Let us, then, end this essay as we began it, with “Darmok.” Like much of The Next Generation, “Darmok” is, at its heart, a story of optimism, even when it is wreathed in tragedy. The Tamarian captain’s sacrifice does not go in vain. Picard does grasp the metaphor-laden Tamarian language, and responds in kind. Hostilities are averted. And Starfleet leaves with a plan to retrieve the mythological roots of their own language, the better to communicate with the Tamarians. SF invariably reflects the times we live in, and in 2022, perhaps, it is more difficult to summon up such easy optimism. The Clarke Award shortlist’s engagement with communication, translatability, and intelligibility is altogether more circumspect, even cautious. Wergen ends with a separation between the species; Desolation only hints at a resolution; Klara and the Sun gives us a simple happy ending while leaving the problems it set up unaddressed; Skyward Inn has no identifiable conclusion and A River Called Time grants us no synthesis; and as Deep Wheel Orcadia shows us in the form, translation always leaves something unsaid. Perhaps, then, the enduring lesson of the 2022 Shortlist is that communication takes place neither in optimism, nor in the tragic mode, but is always a reaching out and a reaching forth, an … approximation.