What Role Does Fake Swearing Have in Science Fiction?

You got your drokking peanut butter on my clotting chocolate.

Run! It’s the gorram law!

Or (said to C-3PO by the E-3PO): E Chu Ta.

e3po

If all or most of this makes sense to you, you’ve read and watched your share of science fiction where standard expletives are substituted with other language. In the television series Firefly, the replacement language is Chinese. In the case of so many other shows, books, and movies, the made-up words are used in context where we can guess the English equivalents with confidence.

But why is this done?

“Censorship!” you cry.

fork

Maybe. Sometimes. At first blush, especially with television like Battlestar Galactica’s Frack and Felgercarb (watch the original series for this one), the invented language serves more as a stand-in for traditional expletives. Ronald D. Moore’s 2003- BG show run had Frak used more prolifically and more believably, rolling off of character’s tongues in numerous iterations, e.g. fraking, frak you, and frak-all. It gave the characters something with a kick to say while making the show airable. It also sounded pretty good and fell into the background as part of the language of the universe the characters lived in.

The American release of Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe, and Everything replaced “Fuck” with “Belgium,” a curse also used in the movie and in the original series’ radio program while the British edition of the book left in the rude word. Here the censorship is blatant.

The Sten series by Alan Cole and Chris Bunch has its Clot and Drakh. There are scores of other simple substitutions in other works. Maybe you have your favorite.

sten cover

Admittedly it wasn’t so long ago that obscenities in a work would keep it from seeing the light of day. Hemingway notably had obvious stand-ins throughout For Whom the Bells Toll with its “muck you” and “mucking” and other interesting turns of phrases.

But too many good science fiction movies, television shows, and novels never bothered with any expletives whatsoever. Doing without has been an acceptable route to follow. Seeing obscenities fly freely can be distracting if the speaker has no connection with Earth and its culture and is removed from our time by centuries. Star Trek and Dr. Who did just fine even under the iron thumb of censors. In contrast both Killjoys and Dark Matter, both 2015 shows on SyFy,  had license to say “shit” once per episode and the word got thrown in whether it served the scene or not. I didn’t mind hearing it, but the word’s singular use each episode made me wonder why the characters didn’t use the word more often. I blame the clotting censors.

subtitle
Stand in words work reasonably well and are a conscious choice made by writers, a choice as justified as replacing units of measurement with made-up terms.

But do they sound good when spoken? Some do. Take ’em for a spin if you don’t mind nerding out. A good colorful expletive stand-in can add humor (Belgium!) or even authenticity (Gorram!) to a story. It can also be distracting. Going the other direction, the decision to use the real McCoys in a science fiction tale is no longer a roadblock to being published or enjoyed by the majority of the current market. If Mark Watney in Andy Weir’s The Martian started saying “Frak” whenever something went wrong, the novel would suffer. So when you’re deciding to have your characters utter some colorful language, the choice is yours. Just be aware that some still would rather read and hear their Drokks, Drakhs, and Frells.

3 thoughts on “What Role Does Fake Swearing Have in Science Fiction?

  1. Thanks for following.

    I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I do write in that genre, ironically. And I, too, have censored a lot of the curse words. Like goddamn became gotdamn on my fake island of atheists. I didn’t know that was a trend in the genre. Thanks for enlightening me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Somewhere I recall a how-to book on sf writing (maybe it was Barry B. Longyear’s) talking about how futuristic cursing could be used to hint at what a society reviles.

    Like

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