Artist's Impression of the Galactic Core
In an article entitled “BRAVE NEW WORDS” I mentioned how we have entered a science fiction world in which words derived from science fiction have invaded everyday usage. Below I’ve given definitions of words taken from BRAVE NEW WORDS The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction and from my own reading as well as some of my rambling thoughts.
alien n.In the sense of an intelligent being from another planet or place in the universe. Source: First appeared in the Collected Letters of T, Carlyle & Jane Welsh, collected by Thomas Carlyle in 1820, but the first time in science fiction was in the short story, “One Prehistoric Night” by P. Barshofsky in Wonder Stories, Nov., 1934.
cyberpunk n. A science fiction genre noted for its focus on high tech and low life. According to editor Lawrence Person, classic cyberpunk characters are, “marginalized, alienated loners who live on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life is impacted by rapid technological change, ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” Source: Bruce Bethke’s 1983 short story “Cyberpunk.”
Note ~ I know I cheated by adding this term because it’s not one that everyone outside the science fiction field will recognize like the other terms herein. It’s so closely related to “cyberspace” and “cyberphobe” though, I couldn’t resist. So sue me, okay?
cyberspace n. The realm of electronic communication. Cyber- from cybernetics combined with space. Source: First used in a short story by William Gibson written in 1982 called “Burning Chrome” and popularized by his 1984 novel Neuromancer. Though these and others of his stories were set in cyberspace, when he wrote them he was a cyberphobe*. He typed them on an electric typewriter.
*cyberphobe: Irrational fear of computers.
flash crowd n. A word meaning the large, rapidly assembled crowd of people called together by cell phone or email. Source: From a story of the same name by Larry Niven in 1973. (“Flash drive,” the small storage unit for computer files, derives from this term.)
gas giant n. Huge, vaporous planets like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune whose great size is due to a vast gaseous cloud surrounding a relatively small solid core. Source: I’ll bet astronomers will be surprised to find that the term was first used by James Blish in a 1952 in a short story called “Solar Plexus.” I know I was when I looked up the etymology.
grok v. A term that means “to understand” or “to identify with.” (Or to ’60s hippies, “to dig, man.”) Source: Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 cult classic novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land. I’m always surprised and appalled when I see the term misused by writers who don’t know who Heinlein is and have never heard of the novel from whence it came.
Orwellian adj. Any work of fiction or non-fiction or any event that seems to predict a dystopian future. Source: Certain of George Orwell’s novels, especially 1984, written in 1948 about the world thirty-six years in the future. It gave us many words that we take for granted in everyday political life: Doublethink, thoughtcrime, Big Brother and many others.
spacesuit n. A protective garment worn to maintain a safe pressure and atmosphere around the wearer for use in outer space or on other worlds. Source: Science Wonder Stories: “”Normal communication by speech would be impossible…when one is out ‘in the open’ (in the space suit).”
time travel n. the act of journeying to another point in time. Source: Clifford Simak’s short story “World of Red Sun” in Wonder Stories, Dec., 1931.
virtual realityor VR n. A computer simulation of a real or imaginary world or scenario in which the participant may interact with simulated objects or living things in real time. More sophisticated VR systems make use of sensors on the participant’s body that increase tactile, visual sensations that give the user a heightened sense of reality. According to Wired magazine, the Oculus is currently the best VR device. It is especially favored by gamers. Source: Though this term has only been around since 1985-1990 it seems to have arisen mysteriously and simultaneously in cyberspace. If anyone knows a specific source, please let me know.
virus n. Not the kind that gives you a cold or the flu but one that infects your computer. Source: David Gerrold’s 1972 novel, When Harlie was One. It was written many, many years before any of us knew we’d be using computers in our daily lives.
worm n. A companion term to virus, meaning an invasive code that travels from computer to computer, virus fashion. Source: John Brunner’s 1975 novel, Shock-wave Runner.
What about the term science fiction itself? Nowadays everyone understands more or less what the word means but it was originally known only by the science fiction crowd, right? Well, not exactly. While researching the word I ran across a source cited from an essay from 1851 that mentions science fiction as a kind of fiction that is “Poetry of Science, clothed in the Poetry of Life.” A little flowery for modern tastes but seventy-five years ahead of the first magazine to publish sf short stories, Astounding Stories, another sort of corny title. By the way, the editor of that magazine, Hugo Gernsback, was aware of the word “science fiction,” but preferred the ugly “scientifcation,” formed by slapping together “scientific” and “fiction.”
Now that we have met the future, we are probably likely stuck living in this Brave New World from now on. Thanks again to Jeff Prucher, editor of BRAVE NEW WORDS.