by Michael Cassutt

[Trigger warning: this post, allowing for some authorial meandering, will eventually deal with the subject of slurs and derogatory language.]

         You read that correctly: the L is absent. We aren’t talking about the global complexities of creating and maintaining an alternative world, which are challenging enough, but about the art and craft of making certain aspects of that world real to a reader or viewer.

         Such as the words. 

         In narrative description, it’s words that allow readers to picture the land- or cityscapes of a different world, to imagine the sounds and smells, to learn about its inhabitants, inside and out.

         A vital subset to this art is the unique terminology of an alternative or fantasy world . . . its place names, its events, its honorifics, and especially its common jargon, slang, insults and slurs.

         Where do we get them?

         New words are added to most real human languages every year. For speakers of English, that magpie language, there is the mild amusement of seeing which new ones (something like 600 in some years) are approved by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary every quarter. For example, see https://public.oed.com/blog/january-2018-update-new-words-notes/.

         The French have an honest-to-god academy that is charged with purging English terms that have somehow parachuted into francophone lands and then developing and recommending new French terms.

         New words frequently emerge from science and engineering – consider the number of computer-based words you’ve learned over the years – as well as entertainment, popular culture and other languages. 

         Literature and theater are a major source. Shakespeare is credited with hundreds of invented terms, from assassinationto swagger. Recall Joseph Heller’s Catch-22or Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit. San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen created beatnik.

         The science fiction world has contributed a decent number of new terms, from spaceship(usually credited to J. J. Astor in an 1894 publication, but also traced back to an 1880 review of a Jules Verne novel) to robot (Czech playwright Karel Capek) to terraformingand genetic engineering(both from our old friend Jack Williamson) to cyberspace(credited to William Gibson).

         The field is also poised for future adoptions, too, with Ursula LeGuin’s ansiblefor a faster-than-light communication system.

         SF writers have also re-purposed words from our language. A good example is Frank Herbert’s spicefrom DUNE. The brilliant Gene Wolfe filled his Urth of the New Sun with what appeared to be wildly-imaginative usages, like fuligin (the color of soot) or alzabo(a wolf-like critter) and names like Dorcas, only to reveal after the series was published that these terms were English, just no longer in common use (and found in an ancient edition of the Oxford English Dictionary).

         (Not only has Wolfe written about this gambit, but there is an entire book devoted to the larger puzzles of THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN with emphasis on its marvelous world-building – LEXICON URTHUS by Michael Andre-Druissi, published in 1994 and updated in 2008.)

         I may be mis-remembering this (it’s a blog post, not a formal article, so I’m allowed a bit of laziness, right?), but the origins of Tolkien’s Middle Earth were linguistic . . . that Tolkien’s interest in ancient northern languages and myths led him to create his own, and the words shaped the world.

         And isn’t that the heart of it? Not just SF or fantasy, and not just in fiction . . .  that language gives shape to existence?


         Well, here we are with Wild Cards, the universe which takes its name from the central term for humans affected by a virus unleashed by the alien Takisians in 1946. Ninety percent of the affected die, this unfortunate state known as drawing the black queen. Of the remaining ten percent, ninety percent are transformed into jokers, humans whose bodies have been transformed into something freakish or horrible. The other ten present as unchanged humans, but have developed useful powers and are known as aces.

         (Those who present as humans but possess silly powers are called deuces.)

         When you are stricken with the Wild Card virus, you turn.

         There are brazen gangsters known as Card Sharks.

         And on and on.

         Where did these come from? Let’s listen to our founder, Mr. Martin, recalling the evolution of the Wild Cards concept from the SuperWorld role-playing game that was its genesis in the 1980s:

         “I insisted that (unlike SuperWorld) we needed a single origin for all the powers, Melinda [Snodgrass] suggested a virus, Vic [Milan] elaborated on the idea and filled in some details in his supplementary material (at the end of book one)… but I was the comic guy, and I soon found out that DC and Marvel had jointly trademarked the term “superhero,” so we needed something else.   Given the random nature of the virus, “wild card” and “ace” were natural, and “joker” followed from that.”

         Which brings me to a missing moment in the Wild Cards narrative: some time after that pivotal day of September 15, 1946, citizens of New York, the USA and the rest of the planet started referring to the Wild Cardvirus, and then to jokers, aces, black queens. The moment has not been described in the books. A review of Volume I shows that Wild Cardsand the attendant poker jargon was in common use in the second story, Roger Zelazny’s “Sleeper”.

         But when was the term first heard? More to the point, who invented it? My sense is that it would have been a newspaper reporter, a man or woman more than a bit familiar with poker, who was faced with the challenge of labeling the afflicted – and possibly a victim herself. (There must be a Wild Cards historical story in this.)

         These terms have served us well for three decades, though I do think there would have been more obvious evolution, in the same way that schools become learning centers. Would a third-generation joker be happy saying she had turned, or would she use a more positive (since turn sort of implies turning away from an ideal) or simply fresher word or phrase, like saying she had been re-formedor morphedor even something like perfected.

         Which gets to the nasty idea within the idea I’d like to explore – demeaning names and slurs in this universe.

         I grew up in the 1960s in an environment that was so white that the minority group was Italian-Americans. Derogatory terms for those individuals were commonly used, as were the usual ones for people of color, for members of different ethnic groups (defined as any ethnic group to which the offending speaker did not belong), and for people with what we would now call non-cis sexual identities. (Or even just the suspicion of same.) as well as people we would now call special needs.

         Fifty years on, use of those words is less common, in my experience, anyway, and considered taboo in decent society. (Granted, people do still toss these terms around, and some – frequently the same ones – have evolved fresh slurs, like snowflake, though these don’t yet possess the verbal violence of the earlier examples).

         What slurs are used in Wild Cards? Here again I turn to Mr. Martin:

         “Mark Lawrence cast ‘joker’ itself as a pejorative in his KNAVES OVER QUEENS story, makes a good case for it. The title FORT FREAK implies that ‘freak’ must serve as such.


   “Also ‘geek’, as in the Jokertown gang Killer Geeks – not geek in the modern, computer sense, but the older carny sense – the alky who bites the heads off chickens.”

         Well, yes, joker certainly fits, though it’s been mainstreamed in the Wild Card universe to the point where it can’t be automatically insulting.

         We have used freak as a slur at times, and it certainly works, though it feels too common, too much of the non-Wild Card world.

         Geek is exactly the type of slur that would have been re-purposed in the 1940s. But none of us writers seem to have adopted it for our sad, racist characters. And the real world usage in the computer business and broader SF and fantasy fandom makes it too confusing, I think.

         A writer friend and I were debating this subject recently, and God help us, fell into the game of trying to invent a Wild Cards slur, or for that matter, a whole lexicon of nasty terms.

         One we went to instantly is jike, for its obvious echoes of a persistent slur.

         It quickly evolved to jake, which managed to have the echoes of 1940s real world slang (“That’s jake with me,” meaning “it’s okay”) and also played well in imaginary dialogue:

         “He’s a real jake.”

         “She’s pretty jakey, if you know what I mean.”

         “They were very jakish.”

         And so on. 

         We then moved on to other bits of nasty slang.

         What would we call nats who have sex with jokers? Joker pokers. (This one is almost too good, in that it references a card game.)

         What do joker sex workers engage in with johns? They trick, of course. (Echoes of the real world and the same term, but impossible to resist.)

         And so on. 

         Why engage in such sordid speculation? Well, the flip answer is that this is what writers do when they’re supposed to be writing. (Wait, would flip serve as a word that could replace turn?)

         The real answer is that it’s just part of the job of world-building, the preparation for actual writing. I can’t promise that any of these new terms will ever appear in a Wild Cards work, but I do predict that their linguistic cousins will . . . because this rich and inventive universe keeps growing and evolving with every new story.

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