Monday, December 04, 2006

Old people's language and Old Man's War

I'm rereading John Scalzi's Old Man's War. It's the first book I've read more than once in years; it and its sequel, The Ghost Brigades, are among my favorite sci-fi books ever. I'm strongly recommending the two books. Both books tell interesting, creative stories about people you genuinely like, and they're thoughtful and observant in lots of tiny ways. They're almost a textbook study of how to write and structure good fiction.

Since I read OMW the first time I've read several reviews, and some of the reviewers' comments stuck with me. In particular, one critic didn't like that that the old people in the novel don't talk like actual old people. I've been paying attention while I read, and I've decided that it's not a valid criticism. It's based on a misunderstanding of how old people talk. The book, set centuries in the future, is peopled by septuagenarians who talk more like middle-aged people than like old people. Which old people? Old people today, of course. How do old people talk? Almost exactly like young people talked 60 years ago. In fifty years we'll have a generation of senior citizens who say "cool!" and "sick!" to mean "good!", just like we've now got a generation of old people who will gladly tell you if something is indeed the bee's knees (or how far out it is, depending on your definition of old).

Complaining that old people in the future don't sound like old people now shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how language changes over time. The fact that we can understand people from the distant future at all is somewhat of a fictional device, yet I'm sure no one has yet complained that the Americans of the future aren't speaking an English/Spanish/Hindi/Chinese creole, which is the direction the language seems to be heading now....

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