April 11th, 2006

ozarque figure

Writing science fiction -- a fictional U.S. with "touchism" rather than "sightism"; writing seminars

For a number of years, I've been working on a science fiction novel set in a fictional United States where the sensory system bias is very different from the way it is in the Real World. I've posted about this before, in bits and pieces; for example, there's this paragraph from a post on November 9, 2004:

And then there's the question "Suppose we lived in a culture where the most preferred sensory system was touch, and the sensory system that everybody was prejudiced against was sight; what would that be like?" I've read chapters from that novel at conventions several times, and people seem to like it very much -- they especially like the idea that "motherlooker" would be the worst obscenity anybody could say or write -- but sf publishers have without exception said "Nicely written, interesting idea, but nobody would want to read a book about a touch dominant United States; we'll pass." I haven't tried doing that one as a short story yet, because I'm so fascinated by the exploration of that society. [Think of all the questions.... In a touch dominant U.S., what are restaurants like? What are computers like? What are hospitals like? How do people greet each other? What are weddings like? What is clothing like? I can play with that endlessly, myself.... but it looks as if that may be a personal idiosyncracy.]

I have learned when I do seminars always to position the subject of touch dominance at the end of the session, because once I bring it up it's almost impossible to get an audience to drop it and move on to some other topic. Usually, when you tell an audience "I'm sorry; we really do have to move on," they're polite even if they're reluctant. With touch dominance, it's different; they say, "Wait, I have just one more question, and it's really important," and they flat out refuse to change the subject.

On the other hand, I made a sincere effort years ago to set up a Touch Dominance Network, with its own newsletter, and that fell flat. Face to face, enthusiasm for that project was overwhelming; but when it came to the written rather than spoken word, everything fell apart. Which perhaps means that all the editors and publishers who've told me that the touch dominance novel "has no commercial potential" are correct. Maybe the only way to stay connected to others in the touch dominance context is with spoken language? I don't know. I do keep working on the novel, when I have an occasional free moment or when I think of some particularly cool new wrinkle to add to it, in spite of the resistance.

Some of the recent comments have asked me how I went about doing my medical seminar for a heavily touch dominant audience (as in 700 surgeons) differently. The answer is that I had a written text available -- whenever I teach any course for the first time I write it down precisely as I would write an article or an essay or a keynote address. I never just wing it. And when you have plenty of time, it's possible to write American English touch language that's truly elegant; it's hard, but it can be done. (See the work of Annie Dillard and Richard Selzer, for example.) Everywhere in my seminar text that I had a choice between a touch item and the one that would ordinarily be used, I used the touch item -- but I moved things around in the sentences and tweaked them in all sorts of ways until the result was felicitous. When there was no way at all to accomplish that, perhaps because of a total lexical gap, I wrote a standard non-touch sentence and then followed it closely with a touch language restatement. I moved all metaphors into touch mode; I added a substantial amount of overt body language that kept me moving. Anything that it wasn't important for people to remember, I left in Academic Regalian (standard American English ProfSpeak). And I practiced, until I was certain that it was a smooth and coherent presentation.

Maybe there is in fact no market for my touch dominance novel; maybe touch dominant people are so accustomed to the idea that there's nothing in fiction for them to read that trying to get them to pick up my book and read it would be a waste of time and money; maybe the publishers are right. Maybe not.

I'd like to close this with one more quote from an earlier post about touch language in science fiction:

In C. M. Kornbluth's short story "The Slave," the extraterrestrials are touch dominant beings -- that is, in the same way that mainstream American society today favors everything visual, the ETs in the story favor everything tactile. After a human slave learns to read their Braille-like writing system, Kornbluth has the slave's master say, "If it amuses the fellow to pretend that he can read, I see no obstacle. And if it contributes to the efficiency of your department, we all shine that much brighter." And then Kornbluth adds: "More literally .... his words could be rendered: 'If it amuses the fellow to pretend that he fingers wisdom, my hands are not grated. And if it smoothes your quarry wall, we all hew more easily.' "

[The index to earlier touch language posts in this journal is at http://www.livejournal.com/tools/memories.bml?user=ozarque&keyword=Touch+language&filter=all .]
ozarque figure

Personal note....

Two things.....

I want to thank you for all your suggestions for ways to fill the lexical gaps in example sets such as "You're the apple of my eye; you're music to my ears; you're ...??.... to my skin." I'm always searching for ways to do that, and many of your suggestions have been excellent. I've been stashing them all in a file for future reference, with your LJ names, and am very glad to have them.

I also want to let you know that I haven't forgotten all the questions -- from the discussion on disagreeing without being disagreeable -- about whether the strategies and techniques discussed are any use on the Net or can be tweaked in some way that would make them useful on the Net. I think that's an important issue, and I don't plan to drop it. I'll get back to it.