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The Reference Library

by Don Sakers

When you ask those who don’t read SF what they think of the genre (and sometimes when you don’t ask), one thing that’s sure to come up is vocabulary. “Why do the names always have to be so weird?” they complain. “Where do they come up with these weird words?” “What’s a Slan? What does frell mean? Why can’t they just talk regular?” (These are people who routinely use Google and Uber, follow news of Kim Jong-un, and refer to dogs as “puppers,” but never mind that.)

So let’s talk about the words of science fiction, and maybe give you some ways to explain them to your non-SF friends.

First, we’re just going to have to face the fact that SF can’t exist without a lot of unfamiliar words. We deal with places, people, things, societies, and concepts that not only don’t exist, but in many cases have never been imagined before. All of these need to be represented in language. Further, authors have to present all this stuff without slowing down the story or unduly confusing the reader.

To that end, SF writers use a whole toolbox of techniques. I’d like to present some of them, along with pertinent examples. This discussion will quickly bog down if I present sources for all of these terms; I’ll try to cover the more obscure ones, and leave the rest as a fun party game for you and your SF-reading friends.

One technique is to take perfectly good English words and give them different meaning or significance. Thus we have spice, jaunt, Lens, transporter (and the verb “to beam up”), between, and the planet Coruscant.

Another widely-used technique is to construct new words from English roots (aka neologisms). If done properly, these terms are all but self-explanatory. Consider: spaceship, starship, antigravity, stargate, bladerunner, fire lizard, viewscreen, Skywalker, Ringworld.

Of course, one can appropriate words from languages besides English. The classic example is “robot” (from the Czech word for “worker”). Droog, malchik, and other vocabulary from A Clockwork Orange stem from Slavic roots. Dune used many Arabic terms, including Mahdi, Siridar, and Bashar. Cordwainer Smith gave us the human-hunting robots manshonyaggers (from German roots meaning “men” and “hunter”).

When you’re looking for unfamiliar words, especially names, history is a great source. A great ruler might have the title Sargon. In Stand on Zanzibar a supercomputer is named Shalmaneser. One of the ships in The Matrix was the Nebuchadnezzar, and one character was called The Merovingian. The Stargate series deserves special mention for drawing so many names and terms from the ancient Egyptians.

Words constructed to seem scientific are so common in SF that we have a special pet name for the practice: technobabble. Constructing good technobabble is an art, and good terms can take on lives of their own, often beyond the field. Some examples: teleporter, robotics, psychohistory, android (and droid). And of course there’s cavorite, contraterrene matter, and agenothree.

SF words and names drawn from astronomy are so common as to be cliche. Nowadays, no serious writer would name a character Altair.

Another source for SF terminology is acronyms. Some of these can be sublime indeed. Before science settled on the name “antimatter,” we called it “contraterrene matter,” which Jack Vance turned into Seetee (“CT”). We’re accustomed to HAL, the TARDIS, Tanstaafl, and FTL—but how about Ursula K. LeGuin’s NAFAL drive (Nearly As Fast As Light) or Melissa Scott’s jump-n-jostle (a hybrid drive of hyperspace jumps combined with Just Slower Than Light travel)? An, of course, one of the most famous acronyms in SF is R.U.R.

One can take proper names and turn them into words. We use waldoes, take the Voight-Kampf test, travel to Sherman’s Planet, and measure warp fields in cochranes. And Doctor Who gave us a doomsday device called the Osterhagen Project. (“Well, who invented that? Someone called Osterhagen, I suppose,” the Doctor said.)

What would SF be without made-up words? The justification for using what are essentially nonsense words is that a lot of the real-world words we use would sound like nonsense to earlier generations. Besides, a good made-up word is a pleasure to behold: grok, slan, banth, tribble. Made-up words are particularly useful in SF for cursing: frak, frell, poodoo, shazbot, feldercarb, sprock.

Often SF writers will establish guidelines for particular cultures, to lend a bit of perceived consistency in names and words. Anne McCaffrey’s dragons all have names of similar form, and one can tell at a glance that Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas come from the same cultural background, and you know Star Wars droids are going to have names composed of letters and numbers. Some SF writers go on to create partial or complete alien languages.

Finally, I want to talk about what I’ll call “Easter eggs.” These are SF terms or names that have some meaning beyond the context of the fictional universe; they’re usually in the nature of in-jokes for readers. Thus Star Trek had the alien librarian Mr. Atoz (A-to-Z, get it?) and Jeffries tubes (named after designer Matt Jeffries). Hugo Gernsback famously wrote of a character named Ralph 124C41+ (“one to foresee for one”). One of Cordwainer Smith’s far-future cities was Meeya Meefla (MIA MIFLA, or MIAMI FLA). Frank Herbert named an important world in the Dune universe “Ix” because it was the ninth planet from its sun (IX is 9 in roman numerals). And in The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold & Larry Niven, the main character was called Purple, which was derived from the alien translation of his name, “as a color, shade of purple-grey”—which is to say, “as a mauve” (Asimov).

*   *   *

Karin Tidbeck
Vintage, 216 pages, $15.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks: $11.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-101-97395-0
Genre: Dystopian SF, Literary SF, Psychological/Sociological SF

George Orwell’s classic 1984, which has again been in the headlines lately, is an SF book that’s all about the power of words and language in general. The book—along with Orwell’s earlier essay “Politics and the English Language”—is something of a touchstone in any discussion of the use of words in politics, especially in real or imagined authoritarian and totalitarian societies.

For decades, Orwell’s ideas have been a guide for SF authors writing about dystopian futures. So strong is the foundation he built, that subsequent writers have added little.

Now along comes Karin Tidbeck and Amatka.

Tidbeck is a Swedish author who writes in both Swedish and English. She appeared on the American SF scene in 2012 with Jagannath, a short story collection that won praise from the likes of Ursula K. LeGuin, China Miéville, and Karen Lord. That collection was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, and it won Tidbeck the Crawford Award (given annually by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts).

On the surface, Amatka is a fairly routine dystopian story. On a vaguely communist world, government inspector Vanja is sent to the far north colony of Amatka to gather intelligence. She finds a population under constant surveillance, accusations of subversion, and corrupt local authorities.

Vanja, falling in love with her housemate Nina, prolongs her investigation in order to find the truth of what’s going on in Amatka. She finds that officials are covering up a threat to the colony. The nearer she gets to answers, the more dangerous her investigation becomes.

That would be a enough for an engaging, exciting story. But Tidbeck’s after something deeper.

In Vanja’s world, language has the literal power to shape reality. Objects—buildings, landscape features, furniture—must be actively and continuously named, or they will cease to exist. Changing the name of a thing changes the thing itself. History is malleable: when all references to an event are destroyed (“redacted,” in official terms), that event never happened, and reality adjusts.

In such a world, freedom and individualism aren’t just threats to the rigid order of society; they threaten the entire structure of existence. And Vanja, in her newfound love of Nina and her deepening search for truth, is becoming the greatest threat of all—an independent, creative thinker.

Amatka, it turns out, is about more than the political power of language, the nature of dystopias, and the place of the individual in society. It’s about the nature of reality and the way we shape the universe by the ways we describe it. Quantum physicists and cosmologists who struggle with these questions express them in rigorous scientific language and rarefied mathematics; Tidwell expresses them in . . . well . . . the words of science fiction.

This isn’t just a good read and a rewarding story; it’s an important book that we’re going to be talking about for a long time to come. Don’t miss it.

*   *   *

C. A. Higgins
Del Rey, 317 pages, $27.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $13.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-553-39448-1
Series: Lightless 3
Genre: Artificial Intelligence, SF Thriller

We last heard from C. A. Higgins in Supernova (reviewed in the July/August 2016 issue), which continued the story begun in Lightless (reviewed December 2015). Radiate completes the trilogy, bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the story of Ananke, the artificial intelligence animating the military spaceship of the same name.

In Lightless, a rogue computer virus brought Ananke to sapience. Her friend and mentor, engineer Althea Bastet, guided Ananke along the path to maturity.

Meanwhile, a revolutionary named Constance overthrew the dictatorial System government on Earth.

In Supernova, Constance became as much a tyrant as the System she despised. At the same time, Ananke tracked down Ivan, the creator of the rogue virus that changed her nature . . . who Ananke considers her spiritual father. A brilliant mind in service of the revolution, Ivan is the key to the path the System government will take in the future.

Against the background of a solar system convulsed with war and terrorism, Radiate focuses on Ananke and Ivan, two characters who, in their own different ways, stand apart from humanity while trying to define how they relate to it. Ultimately, the answers they find will determine the future of sapience in the universe.

This is another book that can be read on several different levels. It’s a military adventure story with some delightful politics thrown in. It’s also a story about what it means to be human, in terms of both potential and limitations. It’s a psychological story of real, relatable people and the different ways they respond to fear and stress.

But Radiate—and the trilogy of which it is part—is also an extended meditation on intelligence, empathy, and the nature of consciousness. In this book, we get to see more of the world from the viewpoint of Ananke, a complex artificial intelligence who, despite her attempts to become more human, is ultimately an alien mind. (These, in my opinion, are the best parts of an already very good book.)

One test for a good book is that you find your thoughts returning to it days and weeks after you’re done. Radiate passes with flying colors. It’ll be interesting indeed to see where C. A. Higgins takes us next.

*   *   *

Shadow Run
AdriAnne Strickland and Michel Miller
Random House, 400 pages, $17.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-399-55253-3
Genre: Adventure SF, Psychological/Sociological SF, Teen SF

We need to get two things out of the way immediately. First, this book has no connection to the long-running fantasy role-playing game Shadowrun. The only relationship between the two is a similarity of titles.

Second, this Shadow Run is marketed as a young adult (i.e. teen) book. I don’t want you to let that dissuade you, if you don’t usually read YA books. There’s plenty here to appeal to adults.

Qole Uvgamut is captain of the starship Kaitan Heritage, operating out of the frozen planet Alaxak. The youngest person to ever have her own ship, Qole heads a crew of talented, appealing misfits who have become family to one another.

They make their living by fishing interstellar space for Shadow, a kind of exotic matter that’s the main energy source for the galaxy. Qole comes from a family with an unusual sensitivity to Shadow, and she’s one of the most sensitive in generations. This ability gives her an edge in the search for Shadow—but it also has its downside. Repeated exposure to Shadow is physically harmful even for ordinary people; for those like Qole, it leads to degeneration and early death.

As the story begins, a young man named Nev joins Qole’s crew. It soon turns out that Nev is more than he seems: in fact, he’s a young prince under orders of his royal family to kidnap Qole and bring her to their planet.

But Qole is harder to kidnap than Nev expected, especially since her crew is completely loyal to her. Before his mission succeeds, they discover that another, rival set of royals are after Qole as well. . . . and they don’t seem to care if she’s alive or not. If Nev wants Qole alive, he’s going to have to protect her—and if she wants to live, she’ll have to trust him.

Both royal families, it develops, see Qole as the key to a scheme to fuse Shadow with living matter in hopes of producing a powerful weapon to secure their dominance.

The true delights in this book come in two flavors. First, the detailed, well-thought-out background and worldbuilding put Shadow Run a step above the usual ship-of-misfits adventure story that we’re accustomed to. And second, the crew is an eccentric bunch of well-drawn characters who are just plain fun to read about. It’s a wonderful portrayal of a family of choice united by mutual respect and loyalty, and it’s no wonder that Qole’s fundamental desire is to protect her crew.

Shadow Run is the first of a series, but there are no cliffhanger endings here: the story comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Readers will definitely be left anticipating the next title.

*   *   *

Cold Welcome
Elizabeth Moon
Del Rey, 431 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-101-99731-8
Series: Vattas War 6
Genre: Military SF

Elizabeth Moon is no stranger to old-time readers of Analog; she had a half dozen or so stories published in these pages in 1986-88 (most recently “Gravesite Revisited” in the Mid-December 1988 issue). She’s primarily known, though, as a novelist. Her first book, The Sheepfarmers Daughter, won the Compton Crook Award for best first novel of 1988; The Speed of Dark won the Nebula Best Novel Award in 2003. She’s known for her high fantasy Paksennarion series, space opera Families Regnant series, and two collaborations with Anne McCaffrey in the Planet Pirates series.

Her most popular work, without doubt, is the Vatta’s War series of military SF novels. The last Vatta’s War book, Victory Conditions, appeared in 2008. Cold Welcome is the start of a new cycle in that series that Moon (or her publisher) calls “Vatta’s Peace.”

Kylara (“Ky”) Vatta is a scion of the family that owns and runs Vatta Enterprises, an interstellar shipping concern. Her military training for the Spaceforce is interrupted when she’s assigned a post as captain of a family trade ship. Over the next five books, Ky rises through the ranks defeating pirates, combatting hostile corporations, enduring the deaths of many of her family in a sneak attack, and struggling to rebuild and secure a shattered commercial empire.

Through it all, Ky is the sort of dependable, capable Hornblower-esque commander we’ve come to expect. As with David Weber, much of the appeal of the Vatta’s War series comes from the deliciously convoluted politics, in this case the corporations and families that populate and control the galaxy.

In Cold Welcome, Ky is summoned to Slotter Key, the Vatta homeworld. It’s a world filled with bad memories, treachery, and tragedy, and Ky would just as soon never return—but a family summons can’t be ignored.

Unfortunately, the shuttle taking her to the planet is sabotaged, and crash-lands in an arctic wasteland. This portion of the planet, outside the temperate terraformed zone, is uninhabited and hostile. Ky takes responsibility for the survival of the passengers.

They find a frozen island and Ky discovers that it’s not as deserted as it’s supposed to be. A secret government faction is operating there outside the view of the family. And now Ky’s up to her elbows in mystery, treachery, and conspiracy.

This one is a whole lot of fun, and if you like David Weber or even Lois McMaster Bujold, you should find much here to like. Cold Welcome is a standalone story; you don’t have to have any familiarity with the other books in the series. But when you finish, you’ll probably want to read them, too.

*   *   *

Who is Willing?
M. C. A. Hogarth
Studio MCAH, 139 pages
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $2.99 (e-book)
Series: Alicia Forrest 3
Genre: Alien Beings, Anthropomorphic SF, Romantic SF

For most of the last decade, M. C. A. Hogarth has been quietly and diligently producing some fine SF and fantasy stories exploring the thoughts and feelings of aliens and other nonhumans. In her Pelted universe, humans long ago genetically engineered various animal species into fully sapient beings, collectively known as the Pelted. While Earth remained a backwater planet, the many species of Pelted spread across the stars and established a loose trade alliance.

Alysha Forrest, Alliance Fleet lieutenant, begins a temporary assignment aboard the starship Songlance. The ship is one of the few to include a crew of aquatic races; Songlance is divided into air and water habitats. Alysha’s work puts her in contact with the mermaidlike Naysha species as well as the utterly alien Platies, intelligent creatures that resemble flexible mats of algae. The Platies are the best navigators in the universe, able to guide their ships safely through hyperspace folds at a speed that leaves other ships in the dust.

Alysha’s also responsible for the ship’s contingent of Flitzbes, a veritable army of little fuzzy balls with limited cognition and communications skills who nevertheless are of use assisting the medical staff.

Everything looks fine to Alysha . . . until she meets one of her fellow lieutenants, Mike Beringwaite. Alysha and Beringwaite have a history—they became antagonists during officer training years ago, and the breach has never healed.

When a disaster strikes in the water habitat, the two are thrown together, and Alysha knows she has to find a way to make peace. Not only that, but she’s going to have to decide if she can trust Beringwaite with her life. . . .

It’s an entertaining story, but the real delight is the way Hogarth portrays the different alien races. The Naysha and Platy characters each have their own distinct personalities, and the Flitzbes are just plain fun. If you’re looking for a cross between Anne McCaffrey and James White, look no further.

*   *   *

R. R. Haywood
47 North, 402 pages, $9.00 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $4.99 (e-book)
Series: Extracted 1
Genre: Military SF, Time Travel

R. R. Haywood is probably an unfamiliar name. He’s best known for the Undead series of zombie horror novels; Extracted is his first foray into science fiction.

Ben Ryder is an insurance investigator in contemporary London. As a young man, he became a hero after he intervened when he saw a gang attacking a woman and her child—singlehandedly, he killed the five attackers. To evade the resultant publicity, his family changed their name and moved to another city.

Now Ben’s in the London Underground, on a routine investigation of an accident, when a group of terrorists attempts to set off bombs in a crowded station. Ben leaps into action to stop the terrorists—when out of nowhere, three men appear to abduct him, knocking him out with drugs.

Harry Madden is an English soldier in the Second World War. He became a legend for completing impossible missions, until during an attack on a German military base—you guessed it—three men drug and abduct him.

Safa Patel is a police officer in an elite antiterrorism squad in 2020. While she’s on duty at 10 Downing Street, armed terrorists storm the building and Safa defeats as many as she can. But it’s too late; they’ve killed the prime minister and set bombs . . . and then Safa, too, is abducted.

The three awaken together in unguarded cells in a concrete bunker amidst trackless jungle. Their captor, a man named Roland, tells them that they’re in the Cretaceous period. He’s brought them there with a time machine for a very specific purpose.

In 2061, a scientist invented a time machine. He travels to the year 2111 and finds a suitably advanced society. On a subsequent return to that year, something has changed: all the world’s people are dead, and cities lie in ruins.

Roland suspects that some unknown opponent managed to copy the time machine and somehow change the course of history. He recruited Ben, Harry, and Safa—pulling each from the timeline moments before their deaths—in order to find the culprit, determine the nature of the damage, and avert the end of the world.

Intrigue, suspense, action—Extracted has it all. It’s a gripping story. Fair warning, though—this is the first of a series, so you can’t expect to have everything wrapped up by the end of the book. Keep your seat belt fastened; it’s going to be a thrilling ride.

*   *   *

Little Green Men—Attack!
Edited by Robin Wayne Bailey and Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Baen, 292 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks: $8.99, Kindle: $8.80, Nook: $11.07 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8213-3
Genre: Alien Beings, Humorous SF, Original Anthologies, Visitors From Space

From the title alone, you know that Little Green Men—Attack! isn’t a scholarly exploration of invasion themes in contemporary science fiction, or a set of stories portraying the depths of alien psyches. It’s nothing less than an anthology of 19 original, funny stories of alien visitation gone awry. In that, it’s almost the flip side of Hank Davis’s recent anthology Things From Outer Space (reviewed in the January/February 2017 issue), which concentrated on scary stories of alien invasion.

In his introduction, editor Robin Wayne Bailey evokes the shades of Frederick Brown, Robert Sheckley, and William Ten—three of classic SF’s funniest writers—and states that the goal of this book is to present “stories that make you think and laugh.” He and co-editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt have done a fine job.

You’ll find stories by big names (Esther M. Friesner, James E. Gunn, Elizabeth Moon, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick, Robert Silverberg, Allen M. Steele), up-and-comers (Seannan McGuire, Selina Rosen, Ken Scholes, Steven H. Silver, Alex Shvartsman), and relative newcomers.

Friesner’s “A Cuppa, Cuppa Burnin’ Love” is the tale of a decidedly different invasion by creatures who go after us humans where we’re the most vulnerable. Resnick’s “The Little Green Men Take Their Hideous Vengeance, Sort Of” hilariously links the arrival of the aliens with the glory days of pulp-era science fiction. Silverberg brings us “Hannibal’s Elephants,” in which some truly incomprehensible aliens land in New York’s Central Park on something that might or might not be a mission of conquest.

These, plus fourteen others, add up to a hilariously-entertaining volume. I’d advise that you take your time with this one—reading the whole book in one sitting could lead to apoplexy or injury from falling off your chair.

*   *   *

Non-Parallel Universes
Bud Sparhawk
Fantastic Books, 268 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-1020-1
Genre: Short SF Collection

If you’ve been a reader of Analog for any length of time, I’m just going to assume that you’re familiar with Bud Sparhawk’s short stories. You last saw him in the December issue with “Footprints in the Snow,” and I count him with at least two dozen stories in these pages over the last (forgive me, Bud!) four decades.

Non-Parallel Universes collects 19 of his recent stories from 2007 through 2015. Half of them were originally published in Analog, and if you like Sparhawk’s stories and don’t want to go digging through nine years of back issues for them, that’s reason enough to get this volume.

But wait, as they say, there’s more! The rest of the stories appeared in a variety of places on a number of different platforms, from anthologies to obscure print magazines to webzines.

There’s “The Tortuous Path,” a coming-of-age story of a young man in training as an acolyte in a far-future guild of hyperspace navigators; “True Friends,” a tale of intelligent canines fighting with human partners in the space marines; “Ten Winks to Forever,” about the life of a space pilot across relativistic time; and many others.

Sparhawk is known for variety; he’s not one of those authors who always writes more or less the same kind of story. If there’s a common denominator to his stories, it’s the depiction of characters who seem exotic to us, but who are perfectly ordinary within the framework of the unusual worlds they inhabit. Which, after all, is one of the things science fiction is all about.

And now, there are words for where I am in this column: out of space. See you next time.  

Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, the Rule of Five serial at, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit


Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, and the Rule of Five serial at For more information, visit

Copyright © 2017 Don Sakers

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