Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Psychologue" and other non-verbal communication in sci-fi

Okay, I'm back. Sorry, the first two weeks of school just hit me like a Mack truck, as usual. I don't even dare look at StatCounter; I assume that I have lost all my loyal readers (sorry guys!), but I hope to win them back.

I wanted to write about different ways of describing communication between characters that does not involve actual speech. A non-exhaustive list of where this would happen would include:

- ESP/telepathy
- Minds that are part of a network or hive mind, such as Alistair Reynolds' Conjoiners
- Other computer-enhanced mind-to-mind linkage
- Regular old text messaging

I'm sure there are others I'm not thinking of. The ways I'm aware of to do this include:

- Treat it like ordinary dialogue in quotes, but mention that it's not verbal.
No one that I'm aware of does this, but you could actually make a good case for it. Take the example of a character who is speaking to another in sign language. I vaguely remember a David Eddings book in which the Thieves' Guild or some such organization had a special sign language, and he used regular quotes for that, even though it was not spoken with a "voice." I'm sure there is some book about deaf people speaking that does the same thing. So why not with telepathy? But as I said, no one that I know of does that.

- Italics
This is the old standby for telepathy, because italics already have been widely used to represent a character's thought. Alistair Reynolds uses italics to represent mental dialogue of a Conjoiner who is the "subjective" character for a particular scene (so if a scene is told subjective to Skade's POV, then her messages are italic).

- Blockquotes
This one stands out for text messaging. Obviously when you're dealing with TM you are referring back to 'epistolary' text in a book, which was often blockquoted, but sometimes just quoted. But TM is very different from a letter or even an e-mail, because it's direct and ongoing, like regular speech. I think people have yet to work TM well into fiction.

- Other font faces.
Again for TM this seems like a good possibility, but I don't know for sure if anyone's done it. I have tried to write some stories in which TM was done in a old-style computer-ish font like Lucida or something, but it's too hard to submit these to a magazine, since you'd have to have all kinds of notes to the editor which would distract them from the story. Maybe when I'm famous. :)

- Other text markup in place of quotes
In Reynolds' books, when a Conjoiner who's the "subjective POV" character gets a thought from someone else, that thought is put in brackets. Even more interesting is how Vernor Vinge does "silent messages" in Rainbows End. He uses an SGML-like markup language, that denotes who the message is from and to. So if a character named Braun is sending a SM to characters named Mitsuri and Vaz (but not anyone else in the room), it would look like:

Braun-->Mitsuri, Vaz:This is the best you could recruit, Alfred?.

Sometimes there will also be file-type attachments mentioned. Naturally this just makes all our inner geeks swoon.

One thing that all of the previous approaches have in common, though, is that it puts all such communication strictly in the form of words. It's still all just dialogue, however you mark it up. This would be necessary if you're talking about some sort of text message system.

But in the case of true telepathy, or some kind of hive-mind, I would imagine that words would begin to get in the way, to abuse another cliche. Only the surface skim of our thoughts are really represented in words. Most of our thoughts are a mix of images, smells, feelings, muscle memory, and deeper ideas than we could ever represent verbally. If we could really access each other's minds, we could transmit ideas to each other that would make any communication before seem pathetic. It would be like all of a sudden going from a telegraph to high-speed networking.

I have a writhing wreck of a book that involves undersea mutants that communicate telepathically, and in early drafts I tried to do "psychologue" using italics and other ways. But I quickly recognized that it just wasn't believable they'd use words. So instead I tried to explain the thoughts they were sending to each other. I don't know how well it worked; the book needs tons of work.

I think this is still a wide-open field in terms of fiction. It's far from unlikely that sometime in the future we will be able to communicate with each other in ways that seem science-fictional now (let's face it, we already do). As writers, we need a way to make that happen in a story that's believable and interesting.


marbelcal said...

I, too, have a novel in progress about telepaths. (I've opted for italics) Conveying whole messages is an ongoing problem. Verbal language is simply inadequate. One either falls into a habit of over describing everything or the meaning is muddled. I'm still trying to work it all out.

Heather Pagano said...

As far as typesetting psychologue solutions, you really have the bases covered.

"I wanted to write about different ways of describing communication between characters that does not involve actual speech."

My first thought to achieve this goal was using was non-verbal psychic communication.

Establishing a type of virtual reality locale where psychic characters can meet to see, touch, smell, and even taste each other (as well as talk) gives the writer back his full powers of describing communication (a good example of this is Tel'aran'rhiod from the Wheel of Time fantasy series).

Denni said...

For subvocalising/simple nonverbal communication, I use single quotes as opposed to double. If you start to access other minds' thought patterns, I think you could get away with italics as it's a continuation of the character's own thoughts. I think I've done it instinctively that way in the WIP.

Vinge's SM style is bound to date very soon. 300 years into the future, you'll identify the caller by their virtuals (like an avatar, but rather more advanced).

Separate fonts are a good solution, but editors won't allow them in submissions. They'll have to make the suggestion. And I can see why: the use of fancy fonts in novels quickly tends to throw me. Pratchett gets away with it—in moderation.