Science Fiction Dialog
Some ideas, tips, and suggestions about genre dialog
enre literature can create some special challenges for writers. For those interested in writing science fiction stories, here are some tips for writing great sci-fi dialog.
First, you should almost never have dialog between two robots. Why? If you have a group of robot soldiers or security guards, they would not talk to each other out loud. Just like real soldiers and security guards, they would need to be able to communicate at a distance. They would communicate silently via radio waves, Wi-Fi, or other ways. If a group of robots can do that, there would be no need to use a speech synthesizer.
How do you show that two robots are communicating without words? The same way you might discuss a remote control “talking” to a television. Avoid the temptation to anthropomorphize robots, and just use general description.
However, a robot might speak out loud to another robot if they had vastly different programming, incompatible wireless hardware, and so on. Spoken words would be a kind of “international language” for robots, like their own Esperanto.
When your robots are speaking out loud, your first concern should be this: what is the robot’s function? While it would be an advantage for any machine to be able to learn, most robots would be on the level of “smart appliances.” Only a few specific functions would warrant highly advanced, human-like intelligence.
“But my story is set far in the distant future; all the robots are just like people!”
Then your story is fantasy, not science fiction. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…) Think about it! Clocks are amazingly cheap. Why isn’t there a clock in your stapler? The manufacturers could have added one without adding much to the price, so why didn’t they? Because it’s a stapler. It doesn’t need to tell time.
No one would want to have in-depth conversations with a robot janitor, so they would not be designed with any level of real intelligence, even if the technology was inexpensive and readily available. A robot’s intelligence level would be determined by two factors: how often does it interact with humans, and how complex is its job?
Here are some possible types of robots, listed roughly according to intelligence and conversational skills – Starting at the best conversationalists and moving down:
- Robot Companion – A robotic friend for children, the elderly, and so forth
- Sex Robot – A robotic “friend” for adults
- Human Handlers – Robotic receptionists, museum guides, translators, etc
- Medical Robots – Robotic doctors, surgery robots, and so on
- Emergency Robots – Robotic fire fighters, police, and others
- Retail / Service Industry Robots – Robotic waiters, bellboys, etc
- Robotic Repairmen – Robot auto mechanics, spaceship repair robots, and so on
- Toys – Any interactive children’s toys, especially the educational variety
- Robot Janitors – Robot vacuum cleaners, carpet shampooers, and the like
- Industrial robots – Anything on an assembly line or in a factory
Even relatively intelligent robots would have a specific list of things they were programmed to know, and thus would have limited conversational abilities. A robot doctor would have to be extremely intelligent, but it wouldn’t be able to discuss, say, philosophy or politics. (At least, not without searching the internet for more information!)
Any dialog between a human and a “lower” robot should portray the machine as having little intelligence. What knowledge the robot does have would be very narrow and specific, and the robot would have trouble understanding anything outside of its function. If the robot is low enough on the list, a real conversation would be impossible. It would be like trying to have a chat with your toaster. Even if it could talk, it wouldn’t be able to say much more than “your toast is ready!”
Time Travelers from the Future
Let’s assume that you are in the United States. You’re out walking, and you run into a man in a very clichè-looking silver jumpsuit. At first, you think he’s a human-looking alien. And then you notice the book: Gray’s Sports Almanac – Complete Sports Statistics 2000-2050. And you think, “Ah, a time traveler!”
Gambling aside, most time travelers want to avoid changing history. Any changes your time traveler makes in the past could change the future in completely unpredictable ways. A major change might mean he was never born at all. So, the time traveler would want to be quiet and anonymous. You’d be lucky if you could get him to speak to you at all.
But let’s suppose you do get him to speak. Assuming your time traveler is also from the United States, how would you expect him to sound? Could you understand him at all?
Languages change a lot over time. As I mentioned in Writing Believable Aliens, one of the biggest influences on a language is other languages. When two groups who speak different languages meet, the result depends upon the length of the meeting and how often it happens, and the status of the two groups. Two equal groups will interact in a different way than if one culture is more advanced or has a stronger economy or military.
When two equal cultures meet, they might become bilingual, speaking both languages. Or the businessmen and traders might use a separate language as a means of communication, rather like the way English is used today.
If two unequal cultures meet, the people in the less advanced culture might learn a simplified version of the other’s language, called a “pidgin.” The less advanced culture might lose their language entirely, completely switching to the other’s language. Or they might become bilingual, with a “high” and a “low” language. The high language might be used for business and the low only spoken at home.
So, what does this mean for your time traveler? According to statistical projections at Census.gov, by 2050, Hispanics will make up twenty-five percent of the population of the United States. Therefore, some sociologists say the U.S. will eventually become bilingual nation. (If the entire country doesn’t become bilingual, then parts of the country may. The situation would be similar to the English and French-speaking areas of Canada.)
On the other hand, there might be a certain degree of language convergence, which is when two languages “smoosh” together. One language takes words, grammar, and slang from another, the two languages becoming more and more alike over time. A century from now, we might see a kind of Spanish-English creole (combination of both languages) becoming the dominant language in the United States.
Of course, you are writing a science fiction story. You are free to make your time traveler’s future society whatever you want it to be. Perhaps the United States has been conquered by China, or a future president has conquered half the Middle East. Or the walls between countries have dissolved, leading to an epic amount of culture-mixing. Whatever future you decide to write, keep the process of language change in mind.