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July 12th, 2005, 12:41 PM
Yes, the title is slightly odd, but the title is relevant...

What happens when in your scifi story you have a "horselike" creature, or a "tortilla like" food... If there are Earth people prancing around the galaxy, it's easy to just compare the two, but what about when this is a self contained planet? You, as the writer know what a horse looks like, or what a tortilla tastes like, but the people of this planet have no idea what they are... Do you have to go into full descriptions (quadriped with a mane and tale, short hair covering the body, and a long snout)? You can see how I just ATTEMPTED to describe a horse in a quick and short way, but there are a lot of other images that could possibly point to.
How do you all, as writers of sf and f work around this?

Hereford Eye
July 12th, 2005, 01:08 PM
Recommend you call it a horse. Your readers know what horses look like and the problem is solved. If it is crucial to the storyline, spend some time pointing out the genealogy of your beasts but don't underestimate the intelligence of your readers. The same problem occurs with all flora and fauna. A woodpecker has a nice niche in an ecology that only the woodpecker can fill. If one of these wakes your protagonists some morning after an all-night draink fest, the headache will be the same and the pain inflicted by the woodpecker doing its thing will be the same. I think it's on the order of "a rose by any other name..."

James Barclay
July 12th, 2005, 01:08 PM
I'm of the school that says, if it's a horse, call it a horse, different world or not. If your extra-terrestrials use terms like man, woman, window etc in their dialogue then it's probably safe to assume that they would call your maned quadruped a horse, if that's what you mean it to be...

If it's a physically different animal, then you should call it something different. If you start describing one familiar animal or item and call it something else, where do you stop? And would not your readers start to wonder why you are renaming some things and not others? That wouldn't make me belive this was another world, it would just be a little confusing.

As for tortilla, well, a triangular corn chip can be many things to many people :)


July 12th, 2005, 02:42 PM
I do agree with what you both are saying, but I'm not sure that's a complete answer to the EarCollector's question. See my selective quoting:

You, as the writer know what a horse looks like, or what a tortilla tastes like, but the people of this planet have no idea what they are...

This turns into a problem of Point of View. If the horse is an alien from Earth, for example, say, the sole surviver of a space ship crash, you wouldn't necessarily call it "horse", because that might suggest a familiarity that isn't there.

If you're a 3rd person omniscient narrator (especially of the whimsical and/or commenting variety) you'll get away with calling it a horse (but you'll still have to make sure that the reader knows this is the narrator's perspective).

In 3rd limited, and more pointedly in 1st, the term horse would not be available. Or if it is, the concept juggling will get complicated, as you might find yourself in the position to describe the difference of a native "horse" to a "terrestrial" horse, and all the while only using one word. ("My, what a strange horse you've got there?)

One trick, in such a situation, is to separate the technical description from the description content. So, while technically a character may be describing the alien animal elswhere known as horse, the narrator is actually describing the character's point of view to the reader. Of course, it would have to be pretty obvious that it's a horse being described, and that's more difficult in writing than, say, in a movie. But it can be done, I think.

Perhaps, you've established another animal that is somewhat similar to a horse, and it would be instinctively categorised as a strange specimen of that? Or, perhaps, they've got zebras; in that case the horse would be a large, oddly-coloured zebra.

If, however, they've always had horses than the name should be used, I agree.

July 12th, 2005, 04:11 PM
If it looks like a horse, call it a horse. If's it like a horse, describe how it's different.

I loved this story where this guy travels back in time to capture a horse, only nothing he read about them prepared him for this very dangerous horn growing out of its forehead.... ;)

July 12th, 2005, 06:16 PM
If it looks like a horse, call it a horse. If's it like a horse, describe how it's different.

I loved this story where this guy travels back in time to capture a horse, only nothing he read about them prepared him for this very dangerous horn growing out of its forehead.... ;)

Larry Niven's Svetz story I think. He wrote several stories including a collection called Rainbow Mars.

For the thread, I think it still comes down to the fact that you are describing this for your reader unless the point is a human character trying to explain something to an alien or creature. You just have to sometimes use references for the reader which might seem a little off for the story.

July 12th, 2005, 06:29 PM
We (the readers) assume that the story has been translated into English for our reading pleasure. When you (as the writer) mention an object or concept that's untranslatable, then you've got to use the alien word for it, and explain it in the story so the readers understand.

Sometimes you can do this by implication. For instance, many people in the village own cavanbeasts. Cavanbeasts are wonderful companions, they're furry and cute, affectionate and loyal, and they chase away rats. So . . . you've never described a cavanbeast, but we (readers) understand that they are dog-like pets. Maybe they look more like chimps, but that doesn't matter, because their purpose is to act as dogs.

Personally, I prefer alien stuff. I'd rather see people riding yak-like giant goats called Shaggamuffs or something other than horses.

Rocket Sheep
July 13th, 2005, 06:54 AM
I'm with Dawnstorm. Stay true to the point of view. Do not take the path unto darkness and confusion.

July 13th, 2005, 12:41 PM
It depends what mood I'm in and the context of the story. I might call it a horse or a tortilla, as I may be using man, woman, window, etc., or I might decide to call it something else. I might describe what it is in detail, slight detail or not at all. (For instance, China Mieville likes to come up with names for things that give you a vague idea what they are without him really describing them at all.) Fantasy readers are quite used to this, sf readers perhaps a little less so, as most sf stories are not about variants of humanity but humanity itself, usually at some future point in time.

To decide, you basically have two main factors to consider:

1) what you're trying to do in the story, which includes the story's style, focus, tone, plot development, setting development, etc.

2) the background for the story, to wit:

Where did these people come from -- descendents of Earth, or an alien race? If from Earth, why don't they know any history of Earth, of their past? If they don't know any history from Earth, where did their language or languages come and develop from? How do they name things (as different languages and cultures use different methods)?

If you have a horse, is it descended from actual horses on Earth or is it a native species that just is like a horse? If the population is descended from Earth, then the word horse is likely to have lasted and been handed down in the language and been applied to either horse descendents or alien species who look like horses. Or, if that's too prosaic for you, you could use the word for horse from a hundred other languages which may have been principal in the population.

Tortilla comes from the Spanish word torta for cake, developed from Latin. It was created as the name for the types of flat, circular bread used by Amerindians in Latin and South America. I'm sure the Amerindians used to call the breads other things. But, the word is commonly used in English as well as Spanish. So if your population is descended from English, American, Latino people from Earth, it is possible that the word tortilla was passed down, as were the techniques for making that sort of bread. But tortilla is not technically an English word, and therefore, you may want to use something else if you're sticking primarily to English words. Likewise other bread names like pita and baquette. If you want to give a Spanish flavor to the culture, you could use both the words tortilla and caballo, the Spanish word for horse.

So, lets say your population is descended from Earth, but so long ago that such history has long been forgotten. There is on this planet where they live a native species that looks like a horse and so is called horse, or caballo or something else -- roadbeasts -- or whatever. (Assuming they have roads and call them roads.) And they like to put meat and veggies in flat round breads and roll them up or fry the bread until it is crunchy. And they call this bread tortilla, or pita, or pookie. And you may describe this bread in detail or you may not, depending on what you're doing in the story. I'm sure readers can get the general idea, and even if they get it wrong, that's okay, unless tortillas are absolutely critical to the plot, in which case, you probably should describe them in fuller detail if you aren't calling them tortillas.

Every word that we use in sf/f -- man, woman, window -- is a shortcut. It is okay to use shortcuts every time, or to try something more complicated linguistically, as long as it serves the story. Such non-normal details may make your story more distinctive, and can make your world setting more real because readers have to pay more attention to it. But that can add more narrative text if you have to explain small details. Luckily, you don't have to explain much. You can just say, "Monty climbed on the back of the schibacwack and wound his fingers in its long neck hairs." Then later you can mention the schibacwack has hooves. Monty can feed it an apple or some other fruit, etc. Or you can go full out and describe a schibacwack and readers will figure out it's a horse or horse-like. Or you can call it a caballo, or a horse, and take the shortcut. (After all, you're taking the shortcut of using the words "hooves" and "apple.")

While the term "flux capacitor" inspires giggles now, it's entirely possible that two hundred years down the road, somebody is going to name something the flux capacitor. You can't know. So you choose. Do you want it to be a horse or no?

July 13th, 2005, 12:53 PM
I get what you are saying about the term "tortilla" Kat, so on the most basic level of English I would just call it a "flour disk" or something. But how do you narrow down something like a horse into your own language?

I guess this is a fantasy type question since they deal with mythical beasts, wonder how a scifi crowd would take this...

And to mention the flux capacitor, it brings dread to my mind not giggles. Of course, that is because we have a sit up variation involving three people called the flux capacitor, I'll let you imagine that one ;)