Alien Language

Neal Asher’s newest tale—”Moral Biology”—is the cover story for our May/June issue. Read below for Neal’s take on language in SF and some background on his current story!


by Neal Asher

As is usual for me, I was a book ahead of the publisher. In the past, I’ve kept going to put even more books between me and their publication date. When I wrote the Transformation trilogy, I wrote all three books to first draft long before the first even needed to be handed in. This time, rather than get to that stage, I turned to something I’ve been for a long time telling myself I must do: write more short stories. This I started doing, though, unfortunately, I undermined my aim when the second short story I started on kept growing and turned into yet another book. Once that was out of the way to first draft, I turned back to the short stories again. But where do they come from?

I read a lot of science—usually five articles every morning before I get to work. I’m of the opinion that I need to keep feeding stuff into my skull to produce stories and, since I write SF, science reading is a necessity. But there’s other stuff too. During a recent new relationship, I found myself visiting heritage sites and art galleries, and was bought a book on one of my favourite artists: Hieronymus Bosch. This, combined with a very weird dream about sharks being a source of biotechnology, resulted in a story about a far-future advanced biotech world in which the monsters of Bosch are raised to punish a crime. The pretension of the art world combined with my interests in molluscs and this idea of tattooed-on computing resulted in a story called “Skin.” And other interests and activities have had their effect too.


What has this got to do with SF, some may ask. It would be a silly question, because everything has something to do with SF—everything is grist to the writing mill.


As a blog post and story for Asimov’s may have made some aware, I spend a lot of my time on the island of Crete. Like many foreigners there, I spent my first years learning little more of the language than some very basic basics. The Greeks make it very easy for people because most of those in the tourist sector (the country’s second largest source of income after agriculture) speak English, and quite often you’ll find a barman or waiter who has command of other languages as well. However, in recent years, after a major life change, I decided I needed to learn Greek properly. Being an exercise freak too, I rather liked the idea that learning a language is about one of the best mental exercises going.

I began reading and speaking what Greek I knew as much as possible, despite the irritation of Greeks who wanted me to speak English because that was easier for them than trying to sort out how I was mangling their language. Later I paid a woman in my village to give me language lessons. These were mostly written down at first but then, when focusing on talking rather than writing, I recorded and transcribed them. I got strange looks too when walking in the mountains reciting Greek verbs—there goes the crazy Englishman.

What has this got to do with SF, some may ask. It would be a silly question, because everything has something to do with SF—everything is grist to the writing mill. In the specific case of this blog post, however, it relates directly to my story “Moral Biology” to be published in Analog [in our May/June issue, on sale now]. In previous stories I’ve looked at forms of communication and considered what they might be. Information can be imparted by every form of emitted radiation, by electricity, by vibrations inaudible to us, by chemical means—pheromones, for example—in fact, any medium that can be changed can be used as a language. So, of course, when we get to meet aliens they could be using any of these methods to communicate.

This year while back in the UK, I’ve been reading and reciting Greek every day without fail to try and get more of a grasp on what is a very complicated language. Even the basics are difficult, because to simply to be able to use a Greek-English lexicon you must first learn a Cyrillic alphabet, learn the diphthongs and digraphs then, moving on to the words themselves, the tonos or stress in words. For example, asking for the brandy Metaxa in a kafenion in the mountains, where they didn’t know English, they had no idea what I was talking about. But with the correct emphasis—MetaxA—the penny dropped. Another is the word “pote.” Pronounce it pOtay and it is “when;” pronounce it potEH and it is “never.”

But while learning a new language you learn something else too. This is not just a case of acquiring the mechanism for translating your English wants and ideas into Greek and just spitting them out. Certain words are used more often; others have many iterations and variations; word order can be illuminating; some words have no true equivalent in English. Throughout learning all this, you find you are learning a culture, a mindset at variance to that of the British. Language, in essence, is a product of a culture, but is also a large part of what forms that culture. So how about an alien culture: one with very different biology to us, a totally different language form, different ways of interacting, mating, hating and loving, a different technological base. How different might be the mores, the morality of such a culture? And how would they be the same as ours?

Just as with the short story that turned into a book, I felt the ideas of my “first” short story called “Moral Biology” deserved exploration. That exploration turned into a novella separate from the original short story, much more intricate, involved and focused. It then turned out that in reality the title of the short story suited the novella much better. So novella became “Moral Biology” and short story acquired the title “The Host.”

This story is set in the future chronology of most of my books. The Polity fits like an old glove now and is precisely serving the purpose I intended for it: a milieu in which I could tell just about any story I choose. I fully intend to be telling many more, and I hope you enjoy this one!


I was born in 1961 in Essex, Great Britain, and divide my time between there and the island of Crete. I’ve been an SF and fantasy junky ever since having my mind distorted at an early age by JRRT, Edgar Rice Burroughs and E C Tubb. Sometime after leaving school I decided to focus on only one of my many interests because it was inclusive of the others: writing. Over the years I worked my way up through the small presses, write the inevitable fantasy trilogy (still in my files) and zeroed in on science fiction. Finally taken on by a large publisher, Pan Macmillan, my first full-length SF novel, Gridlinked, came out in 2001, and now in total I have over 28 books to my name, also in translation across the world. I can be found online at http://theskinner.blogspot.com/ and http://nealsher.co.uk.

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