Don’t Call a Smeerp a Rabbit, Either

In the course of eviscerating one of Robert Sheckley’s early stories, James Blish penned (or typed, more probably) the immortal line “they look like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps that makes it science fiction.” This made its way into the famed (and partly infamous) Turkey City Lexicon as an injunction against “false exoticism.”

I thought about this recently when xkcd published the fiction rule of thumb” (embedded approvingly by John Scalzi on Whatever):


The first time I saw it I sort of shrugged: I know where the complaint comes from. You don’t call a rabbit a smeerp.

But it bugged me, too, because you also shouldn’t call a smeerp a rabbit. Say your heroes ride vipplequangs around, and a vipplequang is like a horse–except it’s a kind of lizard and whenever the three moons are aligned in the sky it turns into a relentlessly carnivorous land-fish that is prone to devouring its rider. Should you call it a horse just to make it easier on the reader? Obviously not. It doesn’t really do that, for one thing, if the peculiarities of vipplequangs are important for some story you’re telling.

Also, people read SF/F, in part, to enter a landscape that has vipplequangs not just horses and smeerps not just rabbits–other worlds, with real exoticism, not false exoticism. SF/F that doesn’t meet that test, that makes imaginary reality into an unfunhouse mirror of the mundane, may have other virtues that make up for this glurky sucking quality that reeks of fail. Or, you know, may not. It’s a case-by-case thing.

Either way, I argue that the proposed rule-of-thumb be rejected. Everyone gets to make up as many words as they want for their stories; success or failure depends on whether it’s well done or badly done, nothing else. (And, from what I’ve seen, Stephenson does it well in Anathem and xkcd’s criticism is the sound of someone not getting it. But I’ve only read excerpts so far, so take that with a pinch of salted thumb.)

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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31 Responses to Don’t Call a Smeerp a Rabbit, Either

  1. fpb says:

    How about books where whole languages are made up? And don’t pretend you don’t know who I’m talking about. 😎

    These things always look funny at first. Then you start connecting with your brain.

    • JE says:

      Right! In the alt-text (or whatever it’s called) for the cartoon, xkcd made an exception for Lewis Carroll and Tolkien. I could drop half a dozen others into that list (Vance and Le Guin for starters). So I think any worldmaker should be a wordmaker, too. This is not an excuse for people who do it badly, of course.

  2. peadarog says:

    A good comment. Especially regarding Neal Stephenson’s brilliant work where he *deliberately* goes against the rule. He renames mobile phones and cameras in order to imbue them with exoticism — not for the reader — but for the Fraas who have deliberately kept themselves free of most technology.

    And then we have the opposite effect, used just as deliberately by Paul Park in his “Soldiers of Paradise”. He refers to ‘people’, who we would consider aliens and ‘horses’. This lulls us into a false sense of security until the ‘horse’ does something very, very unhorselike with its beak. The effect is used with great skill and is always startling.

    • JE says:

      I think one can make a case that mobile phones are really misnamed nowadays anyway. But I’m glad to have my view confirmed by someone who’s actually, um, read the book. (JE hangs his head in shame.)

      The opposite effect is cool, and in fact it’s one of the things I liked about “Where Beauty Lies in Wait”.

    • fpb says:

      Hayao Miyazaki did the same thing graphically. He just drew normal objects from trains to windmills just differently enough that our eye was held. But it is a thing that only real talent can do properly.

  3. scbutler says:

    All rules of thumb should be rejected, but only by those writers capable of pulling it off. Which is not as many as we might think.

    • JE says:

      Well, I have a slightly different slant on it. I feel that there are too many fake rules out there about writing. (My favorite is “Don’t use ‘-ing’ words! They’re weak!” But the general hostility toward adjectives and adverbs is probably more pernicious.) So now I think that all rules are guilty until proven innocent.

      • scbutler says:

        Definitely agree with you about the passive voice police (especially since they often get it wrong). And adverbs are our friends. On the other hand, I’m enough of an old-fashioned traditionalist that I think a lot of writers need to learn how to walk before they can fly. There is a lot of false exoticism out there; too many writers think they can pull off a technique better left in the hands of a Park or Stephenson.

      • fpb says:

        I bitterly hate the superstition against the so-called split infinitive. CS Lewis, one of the few English writers to really know what grammar was about, called it, quite rightly, “a frenchified schoolroom superstition”, and my advice to young writers is to always split infinitives, to split them with gusto and energy, because there is no reason not to do so, and in fact to do otherwise weakens and stiffens the sentence. But people who could not tell a noun from an adverb to save their lives still know this so-called rule, and it is the only one they know.

        • newguydave says:

          Strangely enough, as a new writer, and posting work to Online Writers Workshop, I hear all sorts of “rules of thumb” thrown at me. From “ing” and “was” usage creating passive sentances to, nix the adverbs and stop splitting infinitives. For a new guy, sometimes it’s hard to know which rules to adhere to and which to twist, bend or break.

          If I had a nickel for every comma splice, split infinitive, and string of adjectives I read in spec fiction, I would not need to write.

          • JE says:

            I really, without kidding, do not think any of those things are rules, even provisional “avoid this until you get your license” rules. But in critworld (which is a word I think I just invented) there are lots of people with a little knowledge who are too inclined to lay down the law.

          • Anonymous says:

            (which is a word I think I just invented)

            The probability of this thread being good just fell.

            –Jeff Stehman

          • JE says:

            It was always kind of a longshot, anyway. But Google just gave me 8 hits for “critworld” so maybe there’s still hope.

        • JE says:

          I have to completely agree here. And what drives me craziest about this is the way people try to tag Latin with the origin of the pseudo-rule. Not anyone who knows Latin, of course, but plenty who want to sound like they know more than they do.

      • Anonymous says:

        (My favorite is “Don’t use ‘-ing’ words! They’re weak!” But the general hostility toward adjectives and adverbs is probably more pernicious.)

        To that I say, read more slush. In my experience, many new writers could improve their writing by following the usual suspects of guidelines. However, when people don’t understand the guidelines, they often pass them on in a corrupted form. That leads to innocent present participles being accused of gerunding without a license and every instance of “was” being berated as passive and generally lacking in backbone (although that one might be Microsoft’s fault.) Chaos reigns supreme, dogs and cats living together, etc., etc., yadda-yadda-yadda.

        That said, militant guideline enforcers should bugger off.

        –Jeff Stehman

        • JE says:

          I definitely think writers should understand their instrument. It would be a better world if people who taught grammar had some philological understanding… [JE drifts off into his usual daydream where everyone takes Latin in school, realizes what he is doing, snaps out of it.[] …The “enforcer” mentality is a personality problem I’ve noticed in most toddlers. It seems to come at a time when the kids have some notion that there are rules but aren’t clear on their applications or limits.

  4. Anonymous says:

    neologisms and exotic animals

    I remember Leonard Nimoy remarking once (to me actually) that Tuvok “Obviously came from a different part of the planet.” And at the time, I was struck by the fact that a black Vulcan was no more or less realistic than a white one – that an alien would resemble us at all, and not be green, or purple, or have three eyes – was absurd, so if it IS going to look like a human, what human it looks like doesn’t really matter. A planet that’s managed to produce our same physiology begs coincidence enough. That it can do that and rabbits too – too much for me! Unless we’re talking parallel worlds (which is what all secondary fantasy worlds really are, right?) – Lou

    • JE says:

      Re: neologisms and exotic animals

      Yes. What bothered me, not just about Tuvok but about every Vulcan except Spock (and Mark Lenard, I guess), was that they looked too human. With Spock they took a lot of thought and effort to give his skin tone an odd greenish pallor. Everyone else, starting with the original series, they just slapped a couple of pointy ears on the actor and went with it.

      I was recently rereading some later Vance (Araminta Station), where this planet was being kept as a nature preserve… except for some species that had been introduced from earth. Which is like saying, I’m a vegetarian, only I eat hamburgers and steaks. I wish he had just called those rabbits smeerps; it would make a lot more sense.

  5. burger_eater says:

    Everyone gets to make up as many words as they want for their stories; success or failure depends on whether it’s well done or badly done, nothing else.

    Yes.

  6. zornhau says:

    “Say your heroes ride vipplequangs around, and a vipplequang is like a horse–except it’s a kind of lizard and whenever the three moons are aligned in the sky it turns into a relentlessly carnivorous land-fish that is prone to devouring its rider. “

    Go on, write the book!

    • JE says:

      Well, I was thinking of throwing Morlock in with some werewolves. And why should it just be men (and wolves) that changes shape? Why shouldn’t there be an entire ecology of shapechangers?

  7. newguydave says:

    World building to me is not just changing the name of an object. Even adding or changing some characteristics is not enough to rename something. If you want your heroes on vippleguangs, then create an entirely new creature. Let us embrace the creativity of the author who does this right.

    Imagine my surprise when my half-elf ranger became a leonnyr shamman in the first revision. The horses did not like a lionman nearby, and it added a whole new depth to the story.

    • JE says:

      Oh, I agree. But limiting the made-up words writers can use would limit (to some extent–see Peadar’s comment above) the amount of made-up things those writers can use. I’m against that.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The probability never goes to zero. Anathem (which is the first thing I thought of when I read the strip Thursday) is safe.

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      Well, except the strip seems to be directed at Anathem specifically. (See the alt-text.)

      • Anonymous says:

        Excuse me, I need another laugh break.

        Okay, sorry about that. As I said, I thought of Anathem when I first looked at the strip, but after reading his sample text, I thought he might have read the latest Paolini or something. It smacked of juvenile EFP.

        If I recall correctly, Stephenson used pretrained external brain packs to help him sort out the language and make sure the made-up words were correct or good or reasonable. You’d think a language/math wonk would have more appreciation for it. Doesn’t bode while for my upcoming attempt at reading it.

        –Jeff Stehman

  9. Anonymous says:

    As an SF/F reader and not a writer I had never heard of the Turkey City Lexicon until this past Thursday when the subject was brought up at a Scalzi/Buckell appearance in Columbus. Then I come home about an hour later and find another reference to said subject on your site. I don’t believe in fate and this seems just a little to strange for coincidence…I think I might have to make a word up for this.

    Thomas Babb

    • JE says:

      Fatum.

      Or better: Meleagridotychia: “turkincidence”.

      How’s life with you? How was the Scalzi/Buckell reading?

    • Anonymous says:

      In my copy-editing days, when my boss or I would happen upon a word we hadn’t seen before and it required discussion, invariably one of us would run into it again in our personal reading that night/weekend. It kinda got spooky.

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