Friday, December 4, 2009

Darmok and Me

I have a couple of serious posts brewing, but I thought today I'd keep it light and whimsical... partly because I exercised this morning and do want to get some writing done before my kids-at-school window closes, and partially because I discovered that someone had googled "Darmok" and found me.

If you've read my first published story, you already know why I find this delightful.

Even those who know me well - but from recent times - may not know that I was a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan in college. Not a Trekker, and never a "dress-up-and-go-to-cons" type, but someone who would watch Star Trek TNG every single week. This actually lasted all the way through getting married, and I watched Voyager and Deep Space Nine too, and even Enterprise. My first favorite was TNG, and DS9 was second. Something about the aliens... you all know how I love to think about the alien experience.

I remember very well when I first saw "Darmok." I was fascinated. I kept hoping I'd catch it on reruns. There was something about the language premise of a people who would speak only indirectly, in allusions to a set of stories they shared, that really fascinated me. I think it was the fact that someone had at last found a way to stump the universal translator! I was glued to the screen, and afterwards I kept thinking about the episode, thinking and thinking.

I was struggling with it.

I mean, what a brilliant concept! But things about it kept bugging me. I guess I'd already come into my obsession with cultural depth in science fiction and fantasy, even though I hadn't yet discovered writing. How, I wondered, had these folks become a spacefaring people if they didn't ever speak in productive sentences? Were there stories in their canon concerning circuits and how they went together? More than that - how was this language learned?

I'm actually pretty flexible when it comes to my expectations about how languages are learned. Kids are amazing, and they can learn a lot from the data that they're presented with. But grammar, as a force, is pretty irresistible. Witness the creole languages that grow out of pidgin languages: the first generation cobbles something choppy together so they can get things done even though they don't have a common language, but the second generation takes that and gives it grammar. It's pretty amazing.

So I struggled with the idea that a guy like the alien captain, when facing death, would still be speaking in choppy sentences. I figured the language concept would work, but that the language would have to have a grammar and it would have to be spoken productively somewhere, sometime - the same place where the language would be learned by children. Then the people would just have to have some vastly compelling reason why they'd speak in the oblique manner.

The idea sat in my head for a very long time. The vastly compelling reason was easy to come up with: religion. Religions are intimately linked to patterns of language use, and they're very good at setting up rules and taboos, so it fit perfectly. Then I realized that the stories they told were considered religious, and were told in a holy place. That led to the idea that the holy place was a community building where people could spend hours on a regular basis, particularly as children, and where behaviors would be learned.

Then I left it alone for a long time, and finally after a number of years I wrote "Let the Word Take Me." So if you've read it, and you were ever curious, yes, there's a reason it reminds you of "Darmok." In the first draft the language concept was my "punch line" and the story didn't work, exactly because I was using the Star Trek idea as the surprise - and after Darmok, it's not a surprise any more. When the story really started to take off was when I combined the Darmok language concept with some of my own experiences in Japan - an additional social aspect - and with some concepts from anthropology about coming of age.

So in the end, this post has turned not only into the story of Darmok and me, but a little description of the process of writing, and how my ideas came together for that initial story, which appeared in Analog in July/August 2008.

At this point, my stories are made up of language concepts and ideas that are all mine, but I'm very grateful for that initial inspiration, or I wouldn't be where I am today.


  1. I never saw that episode, but I love the idea. Your posts are getting me to think about language -- a lot about language. It's a delicate enough issue when writing in real world settings, but zooming out to a fantasy world, there's so much that digs down to those foundational concepts of culture and experience that drives the communication of a people...more work! But the good, fun kind.

  2. I'm glad you're thinking - that's my whole point, just to give people things to think about. It's cool to see you stop by.

  3. As I've mentioned elsewhere, "Darmok" is my second-favorite of all those ST-TNG episodes.

    Casual viewers might never know that Paul Winfeld, who plays that compelling alien captain, also starred as a Starfleet Captain in the "Wrath of Khan" movie.
    I saw Winfield's role as especially compelling, in that he was willing to face death in order to instruct Capt. Picard, when he might well have been capable of 'breaking character' and using some pidgin lingo.
    In other words, he was an unusual alien, even for his peculiar race, and in a doubly-dire situation. That makes his interspecies breakthrough, when Picard (with Data's help) finally 'gets it' -- and is able to make peace with that powerful alien crew.

  4. Correction: Makes the Alien-Winfield's breakthrough especially valuable and significant.

  5. Wow. I love this: first, the intimate peek into how one thing leads to another and another and a story. Second, I love the understanding of culture presented in this, the way things compel people, the way things are learned. Third and most of all, I love yet another intricate example of how many implications a powerful why can have. It is to me a driving force of good SFF: why.