On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 12: $#*%!

If you want to see a group of writers go just crazy about something, start a conversation about whether cussing is appropriate. Asking this question in a group of children’s books writers or religious writers is like adding jet fuel to a bonfire. Maintain minimum safety clearances at all times and wear the appropriate protective gear properly. Better yet, Run! Run away and hide!

I will freely admit to you that I am one of those prudes who does not want bleep-able language in my entertainment, so I don’t use it in my writing. I’m not even a fan of “made up” cuss words. Once the meaning of those fake words is established, you lose whatever you thought you gained by making it up.

If other artists and writers feel the urge to use “technician talk,” that’s up to them. I only control my own pen. I might not enjoy the work as much as I would have if the writer had kept it clean, but I will only make suggestions. You control the output from your pen.

So, how did the paragons of speculative fiction do on their potty mouth tendencies? That varied a great deal, actually. There, at one extreme, was Gateway, whose main character was apparently wholly incapable of uttering 10 syllables without an expletive. Taking the middle ground was Ringworld with its made-up swear words. I don’t recall that any were completely clean. Even the Harry Potter book Goblet of Fire had NSFW language, or at least language not suitable for kids, IMHO.

So, to have good speculative fiction, do you have to get some words from the verbal sewer? No, but apparently doing so is not a hindrance to greatness.

Ultimately, you get to choose your vocabulary, but for me, I would rather be creative than crass.


6 thoughts on “On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 12: $#*%!

  1. Edward Forrest Frank

    I find in some instances the profanity and vulgarity seem to be used just for the sake of profanity or vulgarity and are unwanted in my readings in that context. In other cases it suits the setting or the feel of the character. In Gateway I did not have a problem with the language. You on the other hand seem to find it distasteful. Perhaps that difference in perception and reactions to the language is why I feel it is the best science fiction book I have ever read, while you had a less charitable opinion. Was your lower rating of the book based upon your distaste of the language or because of the story itself? Similarly I am not a big fan of sex in my science fiction and fantasy stories. I want to read a science fiction story or a fantasy story that focuses on science fiction and fantasy elements, not a soft core porn book or even a variations of main stream novel that needs to spice up an otherwise boring story line. I am not opposed to sex in the stories, but if the acts do not progress the story further, I would rather not have them taking up space.


    • I did find the excessive profanities in Gateway unnecessary and distasteful. The same angst and distress could have been dealt with differently. More than that, though, the protagonist did reprehensible things like beating his girlfriend. He was a scheming, conniving, arrogant, womanizing jerk. I’m not a fan of “anti-heroes.”

      I, too, find reproductive lessons in fiction really irritating. In spec fic, it’s particularly bad because it is almost always an interruption in a perfectly good plot. I put gratuitous violence on the same level.


  2. Edward Forrest Frank

    The other thing that comes to mind when I read these articles on the Hugos and Nebulas is a question of context. You went back and reread many of the past winners, but you are viewing them with the perspective of the present day. The impact that many of these books had on the genre really can’t be appreciated unless they are viewed in the context of the time they appeared and the nature of the field at the time. Dune for example is one of the first books to try to portray and entire ecosystem as part of an epic tale. This was something so dramatically different that what had been done before that in made an enormous impact on the reader and affected authors in the field ever since. Most planetary settings that you read about today have some aspect of world ecology included. Dune was responsible for introducing that to the field. It reflected the nascent environmental movement with the non-fiction works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Edge of the Sea becoming popular. It represents a transcendent moment in science fiction. Maybe what it added is common place now, maybe some newer books have done a better job of portraying planetary ecology, but they did not change or impact the field as did the novel Dune. So when considering a classic of the genre, there needs to be consideration of the times in which it was written, the state of the genre when it was written, and the impact it had on the field as a whole.


    • You’re absolutely right. I’m using a modern lens to look back at historical works, but there is a reason.

      The pal who challenged me to read 10 Hugos/Nebulas told me this would “teach me how to write good science fiction” today. “They’re classics for a reason.”

      I’m not altogether sure I agree with that perspective. I don’t think some of the classics would manage to get published in The Big Five today, and they’d probably bomb out in many smaller presses.

      They’re still interesting reading, but I don’t know how relevant to the modern time … especially since there was so much variation. You can find examples of many different writing practices … even contradictory ones … among the Hugos and Nebulas.


  3. I think there is an art to swearing and I also think people don’t have to agree about it.


    • Yes, I only have command of my own writing, but I know what I do and don’t like. I have discarded a book that used gratuitous profanity, sex, and/or violence. Mileage will vary for other folks.


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