Saturday, 18 December 2010

SF Alphabets

Why are SF and Fantasy so drawn to the making of new alphabets? This doesn't seem to me a so much a feature of culture outside SF (though I mention Voynich, below); but 'alphabetogenesis' is a hardy perennial of science fiction and Fantasy. I've talked about Tolkien's contribution to this body of work before on this blog. What else?

Klingon—the letters seem to be fashioned from knives and swords, or perhaps are as-it-were cuts made into the parchment. There is a telling literalism about this, a kind of grapheme conceptual short-circuit embodied by the alphabet itself.

Voynich—what’s significant here, surely, is that not only has this ‘code’ baffled the most sophisticated attempts at translation or solution—although it has—but that it is a script that prioritises a larger aesthetic logic above the alphabetic principle that each distinct grapheme represents a different phoneme. Voynich doesn’t do this (if it did, we would have cracked the code), but it does manifest the appearance of an alphabet, and in ways that connect it with the logic of the visual text. Which is to say these letters look like organic forms and shapes.

The Matrix—the baseline reality is precisely a mysterious alphabet. The atoms of the oppressive world of the machine intelligence, in which humanity is trapped, are literally made-up of made-up letters, the fabric of reality itself is an invented alphabet.

This, then, is my thesis; that SF’s fascination with invented alphabets is precisely a mode of apprehending apocalypse, the world-turned-upsidedown entailed by its novum.

Fantasising the new alphabet is the dream of grasping the root of the world. Plato speculated about learning the alphabet of nature, out of which all specific complexes are formed (Statesman, 278, Sophist 253a, Philebus 1bc). Even Heidegger—in the Heraclitus Seminar (1966-67)—saw ‘genetics’, or as he puts it ‘the alphabet of nucleotides’, as the most prodigiously significant development in human culture (‘in comparison the explosion of the hydrogen bomb means little’)

This in turn connects with a kind of contemporary, SFnal variety of magical thinking—that if we remake the alphabet we remake the world. More, we might say that this is a way of defining SF: it writes the world, and the world it writes is our world; but it does so in a modified alphabet.

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