Trilogy: Questions & Topics for Discussion

(Copied with permission from Suzette’s SFWA website to preserve for posterity’s sake.)

The Native Tongue Trilogy
by Suzette Haden Elgin

Questions & Topics For Discussion

  1. Native Tongue and Judas Rose are written as novels framed inside a “meta-narrative.” Their prefaces introduce them by describing them as the joint publications of a group of fictional organizations: “The Historical Society of Earth; WOMANTALK, Earth Section; The Metaguild of Lay Linguists, Earth Section; and the Láadan Group.” Suppose this was all the information about the books that was available to you: What would it tell you about the fictional universe in which each of the books was published? What characteristics could you assume that those fictional universes — all of them different from the fictional universes in the novels — would have? What events could you assume have happened over time in the meta-narrative, even though they haven’t appeared in the novels?
  2. What do you think of this meta-narrative device? Does it add anything to the novels for which it is a frame? Would it have been better if the author had written an opening (or closing) section that presented the information about the meta-narrative’s fictional universe in a more straightforward way, as is often done in science fiction novels?
  3. Earthsong has no preface; readers are given no information about how it came to be published, and no mention is made of those organizations. However, there is a foreword in which Nazareth Adiness Chornyak explains to the reader what the problems of constructing and publishing the books are, as well as how she plans to go about getting that done; there is also an appendix of materials at the back of the book, identified as “Selections from the Teaching Materials of the Meandering Water Tribe.” Could this foreword and appendix be considered analogous to the prefaces in the other two books? Do they establish a place for Earthsong in the meta-narrative, or not?
  4. The style of Native Tongue and Judas Rose is conventional; the books are straightforward narratives in roughly chronological order, following clear plot-strands. Earthsong is very different. It not only doesn’t follow a clear timeline or clear plot-strands, it brings in chunks of other narratives that aren’t even part of the trilogy’s narrative. (This is one of the things that Nazareth warns readers about in the foreword.)The three books are supposed to be a trilogy — a work that hangs together as a single larger item. In the Earthsong FAQ the author explains what she was trying to accomplish by writing the book in a fashion so different from the other two novels: The first two books portrayed a highly organized and orderly universe, which had broken down into disorder in the third book, and she was trying to write the novels in such way that their form was a metaphor for their content. What do you think of the explanation? Does she succeed? Was it a mistake for her to do this? What problems does it create? In her place, how would you have handled this?
  5. In addition to being a science fiction trilogy, the three books are also a thought-experiment. They were used to “release” the Láadan language into the real world outside the novels, to observe what happened to it, and to test the data against the hypotheses the novel was exploring. The author gave the experiment an arbitrary ten-year limit, which is why she waited until 1994 to bring out the third book. The experiment had run its ten-year course in the real world, and the author was able to say with confidence that one of the hypotheses [the hypothesis that women who were given a language designed to express their perceptions would either welcome and support it or would propose an alternative such language of their own] had been proved false. What is your opinion about this experiment? How do you feel about an author using novels for such a purpose? Is it different from the Klingon language project that developed out of the Star Trek series, which was welcomed and supported so enthusiastically that there is a Klingon institute and journal supported by a university? Does the fact that the author didn’t warn readers about the experiment (which would of course have made it invalid) create ethical problems?

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