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The Big Idea: Alex Thomson

Language is aural, and in the case of sign language, visual — but are these the only ways a true language could exist? Maybe not! In Spidertouch, author Alex Thomson posits another way, and he touches on it in this Big Idea.

ALEX THOMSON:

The idea for Spidertouch started with a Wikipedia rabbit-hole of nostalgia. I found myself reading about Smell-O-Vision, and reminiscing about the ill-fated attempt of Noel’s House Party to bring Scratch and Sniff cards to the British population in 1995. I remembered it well, watching and sniffing as a fifteen year-old boy – I thought we were about to embark on a golden new era of television, like the invention of the “talkies”. Alas, it never came to pass. But it did remind me that a “smell language” was theoretically possible – other members of the animal kingdom do it all the time, passing on information with scent. The difficulty for humans is creating a variety of specific smells on command: apart from parfumiers and chemists, we’ve never got the hang of it.

If smell is problematic for us on a practical level, what about the other senses? Taste fulfils some of the criteria of a language – the tongue has thousands of taste receptors and is capable of distinguishing between a huge number of different foods. As anyone who has listened to a wine bore knows, even a sip of fermented grapes can apparently be decoded into a fascinating message. But the senses of hearing and sight are, of course, where humans really come into our own. Obviously, we communicate with speech all the time. And even when the world is silent, we have created a whole host of visual languages. The written form of speech – yes, fine, though that loses points for the lack of immediacy. More impressively, sign language, which for my money is one of the most underrated human inventions in terms of utility and originality. We also use semaphore and all sorts of expressive gestures, without forgetting the body language that we subconsciously communicate with.     

Which leaves us with touch. It got me thinking: why have humans never developed a fully functional touch language? We’ve flirted with the idea, with the invention of Braille (“touch reading”). You can certainly make broad communicatory brushstrokes with touch: think of the tap on the shoulder, the handshake, the poke in the chest. Not a nuanced language, though. I’m sure an evolutionary biologist will pipe up with a few reasons why, but that feels a bit Captain Hindsight for my liking. After all, consider the tone and range of emotion our fingers are capable of creating with the piano, the guitar, or hand drums. You can immediately create a whole range of effects with your hands, and it is an outrage that we have never properly learned to converse with them. We sometimes act as though oral communication is the most natural thing in the world, but is it, really? All that vibrating, that contortion of our tongues and lips, the non-stop expulsion of air – it is an astonishingly complex procedure, and open to all kinds of misinterpretation, whether that be a result of mumbling, gabbling or different accents. 

This was my big idea then, and I knew a fantasy novel was in there somewhere – an alien society that communicated via the medium of touch. And it made sense to have a narrator who could speak both orally and digitally (i.e. with his fingers – not new-fangled “digital communication”) – an interpreter, then, who spent his time translating for the race that spoke with their fingers. In addition, something that had always fascinated me was the potential of translator as the ultimate unreliable narrator – when they are the only person who knows both languages, how do the two other parties know they are translating accurately? Especially with a touch language, when you cannot even eavesdrop on the message or lipread. The story of Spidertouch flowed fairly quickly from that idea; I ended up with a revolutionary cult attempting to recruit the interpreter, with the goal of overthrowing their “fingerspeaking” oppressors.

The linguistics geek in me wanted to Tolkien the hell out of the idea, and construct an entire grammar, syntax and vocabulary for this language; a glossary for the reader, as in A Clockwork Orange, and perhaps an appendix like Orwell did with Newspeak. Fortunately, better sense prevailed, and I contented myself with sketching the essentials of the language, and not allowing it to take over the plot of what was evolving into a city-under-siege thriller with a dash of slave-uprising thrown in – a tale of parenthood, sacrifice and loss. One idea I could not shake off, though – what kind of people would we be, if we did speak with our fingers, and not our mouths? What impact would it have on our relationships with each other? For language forms an essential part of who we are, how we define our identity – and the medium can be just as important as the message. Part of me wants to take the concept of a touch language further, if only for the glory of being the next Samuel Morse or Louis Braille. But right now, I’m more focussed on research for a sequel, with a language based on Smell-O-Vision…


Spidertouch: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

8 replies on “The Big Idea: Alex Thomson”

Are you familiar with tactile signing used by deaf blind people and their translators? Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan pioneered it, but especially in the past several decades it has become a fully developed language. I used to work around the Washington State legislature and one of the most effective lobbyists for the differently-abled community was deaf and blind.

On a related note, in Light on the Sound, Somtow Sucharitul posited a culture that was deaf and blind that was used to harvest the creatures needed to fold space time to provide FTL travel for a galactic ruling class. I’m also recalling a short story, maybe by John Varley, about a society that blinded anyone joining it — if my memory is worth a damn, I remember the streets and walking paths had different textures to help people orient and navigate themselves.

Epiphyta, thank you for confirming my memory. It’s more than 40 years since I read The Persistence of Vision, so seems to have haunted the depths of my memory as well.

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