Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: Houston, Houston, Do You Read James Tiptree?

This week, Futures is pleased to welcome Rachael K. Jones with her story Houston, Houston, Do You Read James Tiptree?. Rachael is based in Athens, Georgia, and you can keep up with her work at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, Rachael reveals the secrets behind her slightly unusually titled tale — as ever it  pays to read the story first.

Writing Houston, Houston, Do You Read James Tiptree?

I have no idea how long our species has engaged in word games, but I’d wager the practice dates back to the dawn of oral communication. Language is more than just our tool. It is our toy, our medium for humour, social bonding and creative invention.

Consider the five components of language: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. For each of these five components, we’ve invented games, many of them so embedded into the fabric of our culture that we take them for granted most of the time. Some of these games aid our children in their language development, such as rhyming games that teach the distinctive  sounds of English. Similarly, semantic games like Mad Libs play with parts of speech and word meanings. Other games double as practical tools to aid communication, such as the creation of acronyms (quick, what does LASER stand for?). The game in my story is a syntactic game, designed to reward creativity with clause formation in English.

Legend  has it Gardner Dozois invented the game featured in my story. Its official name is ‘The Man Who Melted Jack Dann’. However, the rule where you create a synopsis to go with your title is my own addition. Houston, Houston, Do You Read James Tiptree? is itself a title/author mashup, and the story is based on the synopsis I thought should go with it.

Most  of these words games can be enjoyed alone, but I’ve always found them more enjoyable with company. In the same way, when I think about the challenges of extended space travel, I think the social-emotional problems of long-term isolation will be among the most difficult to overcome. We’re social creatures at heart. In the absence of someone else to speak to, we won’t learn language to begin with. Houston, Houston, Do You Read James Tiptree? captures a situation that’s just as much about our psychological fragility  in absence of a communication partner as our physical fragility in the cold, empty void of space.

While we’re talking about linguistic games, try out ‘The Man Who Melted Jack Dann’ yourself! It’s challenging and fun trying to discover new, elegant combinations. If you do give it a shot, send me your best ones on Twitter (#sfmashup). I’d love to see what Nature readers can come up with.


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