J.J. Abrams' Pet Peeve: When Futuristic Stories Use Present-Day Jargon

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Sunday sees the first episode of Almost Human, the android-cyborg buddy cop show from some of the peeps behind Fringe. Co-creator J.J. Abrams has been doing interviews to promote the show, and he brought up the biggest thing that annoys him in future-set stories: anachronistically present-day references.


Talking to Time, Abrams says:

I don't often kick my feet up and ponder what it'll be like 50 years from now, but I find myself — whether it's been working on movies like Star Trek or a series like Almost Human — I do find myself asking what do I believe about what could happen. Frankly, one of my biggest pet peeves is the use of certain phrases that I just can't for the life of me believe will exist five decades from now...

Even little things. If you read a story about a hard drive, it's like, There won't be a hard drive! I'm not saying there won't be a version of a memory cartridge or some obvious equivalent. If you're telling a story about the future, we're going to be bipeds, we're going to be wearing clothes, we'll live in structures, we'll consume comestibles, we'll inhale oxygen. They're all things we know we'll maintain. The truth is that almost every relationship — whether it's between people or people and their work — there will always be these analogous situations you can get. The thing that drives me crazy is when it's a literal connection to what exists now. When you think on a day-to-day basis how many little things we might say or refer to that if 30 years ago someone had said to you, "You know, I'll text you in 10 minutes," you'd be like, "What'd you say?" It would almost be like alien talk. You have to think in terms of practical dialogue. Producing a TV show or movie, there are just going to be certain phrases and terms that will be completely alien to us now, if we heard them from the future.



I think it's just artificial to try to replace terms like "hard drives" with exact equivalents. Asimove said it well in a note preceding his novel Nightfall:

Kalgash is an alien world and it is not our intention to have you think that it is identical to Earth, even though we depict its people as speaking a language that you can understand, and using terms that are familiar to you. Those words should be understood as mere equivalents of alien terms-that is, a conventional set of equivalents of the same sort that a writer of novels uses when he has foreign characters speaking with each other in their own language but nevertheless transcribes their words in the language of the reader. So when the people of Kalgash speak of "miles," or "hands," or "cars," or "computers," they mean their own units of distance, their own grasping-organs, their own ground-transportation devices, their own information-processing machines, etc. The computers used on Kalgash are not necessarily compatible with the ones used in New York or London or Stockholm, and the "mile" that we use in this book is not necessarily the American unit of 5,280 feet. But it seemed simpler and more desirable to use these familiar terms in describing events on this wholly alien world than it would have been to invent a long series of wholly Kalgashian terms.

In other words, we could have told you that one of our characters paused to strap on his quonglishes before setting out on a walk of seven vorks along the main gleebish of his native znoob, and everything might have seemed ever so much more thoroughly alien. But it would also have been ever so much more difficult to make sense out of what we were saying, and that did not seem useful. The essence of this story doesn't lie in the quantity of bizarre terms we might have invented; it lies, rather, in the reaction of a group of people somewhat like ourselves, living on a world that is somewhat like ours in all but one highly significant detail, as they react to a challenging situation that is completely different from anything the people of Earth have ever had to deal with. Under the circumstances, it seemed to us better to tell you that someone put on his hiking boots before setting out on a seven-mile walk than to clutter the book with quonglishes, vorks, and gleebishes.

If you prefer, you can imagine that the text reads "vorks" wherever it says "miles," "gliizbiiz" wherever it says "hours," and "sleshtraps" where it says "eyes." Or you can make up your own terms. Vorks or miles, it will make no difference when the Stars come out.