Lawrence Schoen on Linguistics, Hypnosis and Cuisine — With a Side of Buffalitos

Lawrence Schoen has been nominated for a Hugo for best short story, 3 Nebulas for best novella, and a Nebula for best novel, as well as a Campbell for best new writer.  He is the editor-publisher of the Paper Golem anthology small press, a founding member of Codex Writers Group, a graduate of the Taos Tookbox, the editor of the Eating Authors blog, and a recipient of the SFWA’s service award.  He is a hypnotism and linguistics aficionado and is fluent in Klingon.  He has a B.S. in psycholinguistics and a M.S. and Ph.D. in psychology.

CARL SLAUGHTER:   Let’s start with a really big topic.  How does linguistics fit into science fiction?

LAWRENCE SCHOEN:  I think you can make a case that about the time of the New Wave we started seeing more science fiction with an emphasis on “soft sciences” (e.g., anthropology, psychology, sociology) in addition to or instead of the classic “hard sciences” of hard SF (physics, chemistry, biology). Linguistics is a natural extension of this, and the first impact of this on my own reading, lo some four decades ago, was when I discovered Le Guin’s novels (I have no doubt others were addressing some of the same topics before her, though perhaps not as rigorously or consistently).

The focus shifts from things (spacecraft, planets and stars, intergalactic empires) to people (customs and behavior of aliens and humans from other realms/times, etc.). The stories are writ smaller, more personal. What we lose in scope, we gain in individual relevance. But it’s not just a matter of scale. I would argue that it yields a qualitatively different kind of “wonder.”

CS:  What have you discovered in your study of memory and does it fit into science fiction?

LS:  Most people (by which I mean, folks who haven’t made a point of studying cognitive psychology beyond that one undergraduate course they slept through back in their junior year of college) tend to think of “memory” as a single thing, like it’s a big file cabinet in the mind where we keep things. Digging a bit deeper we find that there are many different kinds of memory (back in my professoring days, I would invoke the parable of the blind men and the elephant — hint: the elephant is memory), and getting into the details of the various flavors of this aspect of mind can be quite captivating to readers, particularly when you take some piece that we all know and use every day and either give it a new wrinkle or simply take it away from a protagonist. But then, a lot of the history of psychology (and general medicine, for that matter) involves studying people who have some deficit and understanding the working person by examining what is lacking.

CS:  What is hypnosis, what are the common misconceptions about hypnosis, and does it have a place in science fiction?

LS:  One way to understand hypnosis is to say it is the deliberate creation and/or manipulation of a trance state. Trance is a perfectly natural phenomenon. We all go into trance every day. Trance occurs any time you separate your awareness from your environment. So, if you’ve ever been lost in a good book or film (and I know you have), you’ve entered a trance state. Likewise, that common experience of driving home after a long day from work and suddenly you find yourself parking the car with no conscious memory of the drive, that was trance.

This is NOT what most people think of when they think of hypnosis, but I’d argue that’s because what most people know about hypnosis is utterly wrong and informed only by popular culture. Which is great if you want to defend against the mesmerizing gaze of a vampire, but otherwise not much help.

Hypnosis is the deliberate manipulation of an altered state of consciousness. As such, it has as much of a place in SF as the author can utilize it to tell a compelling story. But, that’s the same criteria I’d apply to any question of”does X have a place in SF.”

CS:  Why the interest in Star Trek and what has been your involvement in/contribution to the Trekkie community?

LS:  Since 1992 I’ve been involved in promoting the use and study of the Klingon language. I’m the founder and director of the Klingon Language Institute. I’ve given lectures at conventions and museums in a dozen or more countries, and I’m responsible for organizing language practitioners, and the creation of such projects as have resulted in publishing Hamlet, and the Tao Te Ching, and Gilgamesh, in Klingon. As well as an annual, international conference of Klingon speakers that in 2016 will enjoy its 23rd year.

But I came to Klingon because of a fascination with language in general (and constructed language in particular) that actually began two decades or so before that when I fell in with some fans who were playing with Tolkien’s Eldarin languages.

Dr. Lawrence Schoen

Dr. Lawrence Schoen

CS:  Is Paper Golem still publishing?  Who and what have you published and what have you learned along the way?

LS:  My small press continues, but it’s had to take a distant backseat due to demands on my time as a novelist. The main focus has been in two directions. The first is a series of novella anthologies, because when I started Paper Golem there were very few markets where a writer could sell a 20-40K story. The second is a series of single author collections, basically exciting new writers that didn’t have a novel contract yet but who I thought were writers to watch.

As for learning along the way, editing has taught me a considerable amount about my own writing. Seeing how other authors create particular effects of style and pacing and plot has informed my work. It’s been a real win-win journey.

CS:  Why the fascination with cuisine and how did you get so many speculative fiction authors to share extensively about their experiences with food?

LS:  The protagonist of my Buffalito stories and novels is a stage hypnotist who goes by the name of the Amazing Conroy. Food is his weakness. Any time he visits a new place, he has to sample the local cuisine. When he was wealthy, he went to fancy restaurants and when he was broke he ate at local dives. He’s a foodie. I started my Eating Authors blog series using his predilections as an excuse to invite other authors to tell me about their most memorable meal. Part of the thinking was to drive more traffic to my blog by getting content from more recognizable names, but only part because about half of the authors I invite are brand new novelists eager to pimp their first book. So here too there’s a bit of “paying it forward.” The final piece of the series is that I believe readers like to get a little peek into the minds of the authors they read, and seeing the what and why of a great meal provides that.

CS:  BTW, what’s the current head count at Eating Authors.

LS:  I think I’m at just over 260 thus far (not counting the episodes that I have on deck, awaiting the turn of the calendar). The series started on Monday morning, June 6, 2011, and I’ve only missed a single Monday since then.

CS:  I interviewed Loren Rhoads and she shared how food was a part of a her Templars series.  Any other Eating Authors contributors talk about food in their stories?

LS:  Some do, but usually only as an aside. The one question that I ask if “What’s your most memorable meal?” If they get to that by way of invoking what a character ate in a story, that’s fine, but it’s not what I’m interesting in for the blog.

CS:  What did you do to for the SFWA that they were grateful enough to give you their service award?

LS:  It’s a mystery to me. I’d been the head of the Election Committee for about eight years, and took a turn on the Norton Award jury some while back, and I’ve lent my resonance and volume to some SFWA auctions at cons now and again, but seriously I think they should have given the prize to someone else. But too late for that, and I’m not giving it back. I’m particularly happy with it for two reasons: 1) because it’s named for Kevin O’Donnell, and I really enjoyed his books, and 2) because Gay Haldeman was the one to present it to me and she is just one of the sweetest people in the world.

CS:  Elephant’s Graveyard was up for a Nebula.  The main characters are advanced Earth animals.  How much of human characteristics do they retain and how much of their old animal nature do they retain?

LS:  The term “advanced” may be a bit misleading. David Brin tends to use the term “Uplifited,” but I went with a more restrictive “Raised Mammals” which I like to abbreviate as RM. In any case, we’re talking about imposing sapience on a variety of species that don’t otherwise possess it, and presumably altering their physiology so they walk around upright and are able to be tool users (i.e., hands and fingers and opposable thumbs). These are all, arguably, human characteristics, but what else is? And likewise, what constitutes an animal’s nature? I did a fair amount of ethological reading for Barsk and tried to transition traditional species traits to the respective raised mammals in the book. Thus, the elephants have a sexually stratified society, all the adult males are off on their own in bachelor apartments or rooming homes or lodges. Adult females live in large households of extended families with groups of sisters and cousins and aunts, and all the children, not unlike elephants in our world.

CS:  Does it matter that they are animals?  Could they be humans without affecting the plot?

LS:  Yes and no. There is a major plot point that I don’t want to give away that hinges on them being animals. But for the most part, no, they’re people. People who happen to be descended from elephants or yaks or sloths. They have complex motivations and goals, and interact with one another according to their nature as people more so than because of their species, though of course some of their respective world views are shaped by their physiology and species specific behaviors.

CS:  What do we hope to learn from Elephant’s Graveyard?

LS:  That probably depends on who you are or who you ask. I’ve had people come up to me and insist that the book is about this thing or that thing, and while I can see why they might think as they do, I don’t agree. Though, any book should be an interactive experience, and so all those differing perspectives are valid in and of themselves. I’m still not sure if being the author really gives me the final say in the matter.

For me, the lesson is that friendship transcends even death, that the relationships we create in life define who we are and how the universe will remember and understand us.

CS:  What exactly is a Buffalito?

LS:  Also known as a “Buffalo Dog,” a “Buffalito” is an alien creature about the size of a breadbox that bears a very strong resemblance (except for size) to an adult American Bison. Also, they have big, anime eyes. They are capable of eating anything, from conventional food to the plastic containers it came in, everything from metal to toxic waste. And through the miracle of a biology we do not understand, they perform what amounts to internal acts of fission and fusion, because everything that goes in the front end comes out the back as pure oxygen.

One buffalito, Reggie, is the companion animal of the Amazing Conroy, the stage hypnotist protagonist I mentioned earlier. At another level, I suppose it’s fair to say that I started writing about buffalo dogs because I was mourning the loss of my own canine companion of eighteen years. Mind you, I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. I thought I was just writing funny stories. I had to have someone else point it out to me after she’d read the first Conroy novel. That’s when I realized that it was okay to stop mourning that dog and I went off to the shelter and found another that needed a home. That’s coming up on six years now. It’s good to have a dog again.

CS:  Do the main characters in your Buffalito series find adventure or does adventure find them?

LS:  The latter. Seriously, Conroy just wants to do his act and grab a good meal now and then. Stuff just happens, people make assumptions, or have plans, or both, and like it or not they drag Conroy into their own agendas. Sure, he ends up saving the day, but he is at best a reluctant hero.

CS:  How long will the Buffalito series continue?

Assuming another publisher picks them up, I have a story arc that runs another five books (and includes two spinoff novels, and possibly a spinoff series). But that’s a ways down the line (unless that mysterious publisher shows up with a bonus incentive!).

CS: What’s on the horizon for Lawrence M. Schoen?

LS:  I have ideas for at least two more books involving our friends on Barsk, and there’s plenty of room left to write other novels in that same universe (lots of other RMs on many other worlds). I also want to write a series of shorter stories about other characters on the planet Barsk, some of whom are contemporary with Jorl and Pizlo, and others who are from the planet’s history.

Meanwhile, I’m also working on the first book in a new fantasy series that involves the entelechies of cities and how they exist to push civilization forward. Among other things, it lets me go back seven thousand years, and bring Gilgamesh to modern Philadelphia (you know, as one does).

Beyond that, I have several short stories and a novella to write, both for my own amusement and to play in the backyards of other authors, pushing myself to grow by trying new things. It’s all very exciting.

5 thoughts on “Lawrence Schoen on Linguistics, Hypnosis and Cuisine — With a Side of Buffalitos

  1. The Conroy books are great fun. Imagine trying to hypnotize other species, some of whom cannot lie. And buffalitos are THE BEST. I want one. Or at least more about them. The first buffalito story is free at his website in many languages.

    “Eating Authors”, praise Jesus is NOT a video or podcast, but is in good ol’ written words that you can enjoy quickly and without hassle.

  2. *perks up*

    Linguistics in SF?

    My favorite: Suzette Haden Elgin (who earned a Ph.D. in linguistics).

    Her _Native Tongue_ trilogy (first one seems to be republished? is based on the speculative question, “What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was true?” (i.e. if language determined reality, though that’s way over-simplified).

    Laa’dan (the language created for the trilogy) doesn’t get much attention, but it was around before Klingon.

    Loved it.

    And her Ozark trilogy based its system of magic on (I LOVE IT) Noam Choamsky’s transformational grammar! (And wow, looks like it’s back in print:

  3. So glad to see another fan of Elgin’s. I loved her Ozark trilogy. I once found her blog a while back and she came across as the nicest person!

  4. I ended up reading Native Tongue as part of a University-level SF literature correspondence course several years ago; included with that was a tape containing an interview with Elgin about some of the concepts behind it. Interesting ideas…

  5. @Ita: I was thrilled when she started posting on LiveJournal–I got to tell her that I recognized transformational grammar was the basis for the Ozark magic when I took my first stylistics course. She said nobody had ever said that before!

    @Jenora: I’ve taught NT in several themed composition courses, not as a “literary novel to analyze as literature,” but as a way of showing how theories of language and gender work. The students overall quite liked it (in fact one became an English major on the strength of that class!).

    Have you read the other two in the trilogy? (It’s sort of a loose trilogy, and the third one has some problems.)

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