Earthsong: Questions & Topics for Discussion

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

by Suzette Haden Elgin

Questions & Topics For Discussion

  1. Scattered through Earthsong, in among the narrative of the Linguist Lines and their fictional universe, there are short pieces that don’t appear to be part of that narrative. Chapter 8, for example, is made up of three such sections. What is your opinion of these items? Are they just random, or do they have some kind of organization? Do they have any purpose in the novel? Do they add anything to the novel, or are they simply a distraction? Suppose the reader just skips them entirely; would it make any difference?
  2. We know from interviews that the author’s title for the novel was The Meandering Water Tribe and that Earthsong was selected by the original publisher (who of course has the final say in such matters). Which of the titles do you think would have been the better choice? Does it make any difference?
  3. In the opening section of the book, Nazareth Chornyak tells the reader that because the story has to be channelled, it won’t be told in chronological order. Is it possible to establish a timeline for the events in the book and at least put the various plot-threads into the order in which they can be assumed to have happened?
  4. There’s almost no indication of language change in the Native Tongue trilogy, not even in this third book with its sections describing an unimaginably distant future. There are many mentions of “Panglish,” which has become an intergalactic lingua franca, but no examples of what Panglish is like. Everyone appears to speak 20th-century English except for a handful of differing vocabulary items and a few scraps of Láadan. The author has spent much of her adult life trying to make the scientific discipline of linguistics accessible to the general public and has claimed that this was a major purpose of the Native Tongue books. One of the most basic concepts of linguistics is that languages change over time, and that such change is normal and acceptable. Why, then, would she write three novels in which millenia go by without any change in the language spoken, and in which characters not only from all over Earth but all over the universe all speak exactly alike? Why didn’t she gradually show the language changing over time? Why weren’t there sections where people spoke languages other than English? Can what she did be defended?
  5. Readers learn in this book that despite all the efforts of the women of the Lines, the plan for women everywhere to begin speaking Láadan failed dismally. Does this seem plausible? Would the question be different for women in the U.S., where learning languages other than English is rare, than for women in areas of the world where multilingualism is the norm? We know that in the real world Láadan never became a popular craze the way the Klingon language did; it didn’t even gain the sort of mild interest that Esperanto enjoys. But is it likely that things would have turned out the way they’re described in Earthsong? If not, what might be a more plausible outcome?
  6. Does the “teaching materials” appendix to Earthsong serve any useful purpose? How does it fit into the narrative? Does it tell the reader anything about the fictional universe of the book?
  7. What do you think of the concept of audiosynthesis? Suppose it were actually possible for it to work — suppose human beings could survive on sound waves properly shaped into music, without any need for traditional food. That would put an end to hunger forever; it would make it forever unnecessary for human beings to kill other creatures for food. Would the people of Earth accept it as a way of life? What would it do to the economies of the world? Were the women of the Lines justified in spreading the practice as they did, even though they were unable to foresee the consequences it would have?
  8. What do you think of the concept of resonance medicine that’s introduced in the book? How is it alleged to work? Is it plausible that such a thing could exist? We know from the 21st-century discipline of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) that human beings have far more control over what happens within their bodies than has been traditionally supposed, and that there has to be a mechanism by which they use that control; could today’s PNI plausibly develop into a far-future resonance medicine?

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