Sci-Fi Dictionary Goes From Afrofuturism to Zero-G | Arts & Culture
In the summer of 1987, the cinema audience met for the first time Robocop in the sci-fi classic about violence and corrupt corporate power in a dystopian future Detroit. But the word of the title is much older than that, dating back at least to a 1957 short story by writer Harlan Ellison, in which a sprawling “robocop” chases a character. The prefix “robo-“, on the other hand, dates from at least 1945, when Breathtaking science fiction published an article by AE van Vogt mentioning “roboplanes” flying in the sky. “Robo-“, of course, comes from “robot”, a word created by Czech author Karel Čapek in his play from 1920 RUR: Universal robots from Rossum, about synthetic humans created to perform chore jobs who end up rebelling, destroying humanity.
It’s the kind of rabbit hole a reader can find in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, a decades-long resource that is now available to the public in an accessible form. Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower started the project years ago when he was editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
OED is the best-known historical dictionary in the English-speaking world, and Sheidlower notes that it was also a crowdsourcing project long before the internet made it easier. In its early days in the 19th century, he says, the OED ran ads in literary magazines looking for volunteers to research old books looking for particular words and their usage.
“People annotated the books, sent the notes,” he says. “To this day, that is still the way the system works to some extent. “
When the Internet arrived, dictionary editors quickly took advantage of it. For example, Sheidlower says, at one point they were researching early uses of the word “mutant” to mean a genetically mutated being with unusual characteristics or abilities. The oldest they found was from 1954, but they were sure earlier examples must exist. So a freelance writer posted a query on Usenet newsgroups and quickly received an example of use of the word from 1938.
Soon, editors began to search for other projects online.
“It was at a time, around 2000, when there was the Internet… and people were online, but it wasn’t universal like it is today,” Sheidlower says. “We wanted to do a project where people dedicated to a particular field, the fans, could make a contribution. “
Not only were sci-fi fans particularly likely to be online, they were a valuable source of material. The world’s most prestigious libraries, where OED researchers have done much of their work, have typically not kept issues of mid-20th century pulp magazines, such as Yes Where Amazing stories. But many fans, it turns out they had boxes full of them.
The new project, researching the history of keywords used in science fiction, was written on early blogs and sites like slashdot. Over the next decade, it attracted hundreds of contributors. In 2007, publisher Jeff Prucher published a book based on the work, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction.
The project may appear to have run its course, but Sheidlower, who managed the project while he was with OED, believed there was still work to be done. When he left the publication in 2013, he did not lose sight of the project. Eventually he got permission to revive it as a personal project. He continued to add terms and references, which was facilitated by two factors. First, over the past year, forced inactivity during the pandemic has given him time to work. And second, Internet Archive staff and volunteers downloaded over 1,000 science fiction magazines, making all of their content accessible and searchable online.
Elizabeth Swanstrom, co-editor of the journal Science fiction studies and an English scholar from the University of Utah, says the dictionary is “a fantastic resource” not only for fans but also for academics interested in the history of science and technology.
“It’s not uncommon in science fiction to see ideas that are later explored to be put into practice,” she says.
In some cases, science fiction writers are also scientists who bring real research developments to their writing. Others change the understanding of new technology culture even without technical expertise. Swanstrom notes that author William Gibson created the idea of cyberspace in 1982 and helped found the cyberpunk genre, although he doesn’t know much about how computers work.
“Terminology like this has really shaped the culture, and continues to do so,” says Swanstrom.
Isiah Lavender III, professor of English at the University of Georgia and co-editor of the science fiction journal Extrapolation, says the dictionary could help in the academic analysis of issues such as social and economic issues reflected in authors’ representations of robots. He notes that the original robots from apek were essentially enslaved beings with human thoughts and feelings. Isaac Asimov’s Robotics Laws, introduced in 1941, could be seen as reflecting the slave codes or Jim Crow laws that still restricted the lives of many black Americans at that time.
“Having these original dates in mind can help a student or scholar construct a framework for analyzing something like the concept of the racial ‘other’ where robots and androids (as well as aliens) replace them. oppressed peoples, ”Lavender explains.
Lavender notes that the dictionary quotes, largely derived from mid-20th century pulp magazines, do not reflect the diversity of the sci-fi world. Many current black sci-fi writers, such as Nalo Hopkinson and NK Jemisin, do not appear.
“From what little I’ve explored in the dictionary, it comes across as a tool that supports a monochrome future envisioned by publishers in the heyday of SFF magazines,” says Lavender. “So it’s problematic that way. “
Sheidlower acknowledges that the dictionary is limited in the authors and terms to which it refers, but argues that it is a product of its mission: to document the “core” science fiction vocabulary that recurs without ceases, both in stories and in reality. world.
“When writers do more ‘interesting’ things it becomes more difficult to include them in what is supposed to be a basic vocabulary study,” he says. “Samuel Delany is quoted a number of times when he writes about the usual things of space travel, but not many when he goes outside that range. There is only one quote from [Delany’s dense, stylistically complex] Dhalgren, for example, but a lot of Babel-17, just as OED has ten times as many quotes from Odysseus that of Finnegans Wake. “
In general, Sheidlower says, to be included in the dictionary, a word must either be widely adopted in science fiction or be part of a larger culture. “Ansible” – a word for a device allowing faster communication than light invented by Ursula K. LeGuin – does the trick because other authors use it as well. Jemisin’s “orogens” – people capable of controlling tectonic energy – don’t because it’s a concept unique to his Shattered Earth trilogy. Likewise, “Wookiee” is in the dictionary because Chewbacca is a familiar cultural figure, but dozens of other named alien species from the Star Wars universe that you can discover on Wikipedia (or Wookieepedia) don’t deserve to be. inputs.
Of course, it’s easy to find in-depth dives into almost any sci-fi universe on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the internet. Sheidlower says the dictionary’s mission is different.
“A dictionary is not an encyclopedia,” he says. “There is a reason for encyclopedias and there is a reason for dictionaries. “
The dictionary is a simplified way to see how terms have evolved over time and to read historical quotes that shed light on their meaning. He also links many of his quotes to the Internet Archive, where readers can see their context and even read the full story.
Sheidlower says the dictionary, which he continues to update as a hobby, is still a work in progress. He plans to expand into related fields such as games, comics, and cartoons. He also hopes to systematically add entries and quotes from books that have appeared in the ten years since the end of the initial phase of the project. Although Sheidlower has done most of the recent work himself, he is looking for volunteers to help him with tasks such as checking quotes, researching quotes, and writing entries.
“I hope there will be interest here,” he said. “Right now, I still do everything myself, but the system allows other people to do this work.”