Of the speech by Tomas Nau, Trixia Bonsol (postdoc linguist) says:

"[...] I heard a dozen authoritarian turns of speech--and they didn't seem to be fossil usages. The Emergents are accustomed to owning people, Ezr."


Clarification: she wasn't talking specifically about Nau's speech, but about conversation throughout the evening, especially the people at her table. So I can't expect to see the "dozen" in Nau's speech - there mightn't even be any.

Trixia is a postdoc linguist, and selected above all the other candidates from an entire planet, so she's extremely sharp. We can expect a specific and reasoned technical analysis from her, not just intuition. (Though she says she has "an ear for languages" with a quick smile.) She is not Qeng Ho, but from Triland, a world of class divisions - virgin forest vs. urban slum, where only children of First Settlers may attend college - but they don't own people.

By "turns of speech," I think Trixia meant surface syntax, expressions, cliches, sayings, etc. Trixia says they aren't "fossil usages," which are maybe like dead metaphors that have lost their literal meaning; e.g. an expression like "flogging a dead horse" doesn't imply a sadistic society that debases animals. (Or does it? We have battery hens.)

Here's the speech itself, with chunks of non-dialog elided, and Nau's words bold to highlight them.

"Friends, we are all a long way from home." He swept his arm in a gesture that seemed to take in the spaces beyond the walls of the banquet room. "We've both made potentially serious mistakes. We knew this star system is bizarre." Imagine a star so drastically variable that it nearly turns itself off for 215 years out of every 250. "Over the millennia, astrophysicists of more than one civilization tried to convince their rulers to send an expedition here ways." He stopped, smiled. "Of course, till our era, tas expensively far beyond the Human Realm. Yet now it is the simultaneous object of two human expeditions." There were smiles all around, and the thought What wretched luck. "Of course, there is a reason that made the coincidence likely. Years aback there was no driving need for such an expedition. Now we all have a reason: The race you call the Spiders. Only the third non-human intelligence ever found." [...]

Nau gave a self-deprecating chuckle and glanced at Captain Park. "Till recently, I had not realized how perfectly our strengths and weaknesses, our mistakes and insights, complemented each other. You came from much farther away, but in very fast ships already built. We came from nearer, but took the time to bring much more. We both figured most things correctly." [...]

The Emergent boss gave a benign smile and continued: "There really is only one place in all the OnOff system where volatiles exist in any quantity--and that is on the Spider world itself." He looked back and forth across his audience, his gaze lingering on the visitors. "I know it's something that some of you had hoped to postpone till after the Spiders were active again...But there are limits to the value of lurking, and my fleet includes heavy lifters. Director Reynolt"--aha, that was the redhead's name!--"agrees with your scientists that the locals never did progress beyond their primitive radios. All the 'Spiders' are frozen deep underground and will remain so till the OnOff star relights." [...]

"It's time to begin working together," Nau continued. "I don't know how much you all have heard about our discussions of the last two days. Surely there have been rumors. You'll have details very soon, but Captain Park, your Trading Committee, and I thought that now is a good occasion to show our united purpose. We are planning a joint landing of considerable size. The main goal will be to raise at least a million tonnes of water and similar quantities of metallic ores. We have heavy lifters that can accomplish this with relative ease. As secondary goals, we'll leave some unobtrusive sensors and undertake a small amount of cultural sampling. These results and resources will be split equally between our two expeditions. In space, our two groups will use the local rocks to create a cover for our habitats, hopefully within a few light-seconds of the Spiders." Nau glanced again at Captain Park. So some things were still under discussion.

Nau raised his glass. "So a toast. To an end of mistakes, and to our common undertaking. May there be a greater focus in the future."

So my question is: Just what are these "dozen authoritarian turns of speech"? Are they really there?

Edit: "owning" people - slaves - is not that unusual in real historical civilizations on Earth. Fictionally, Pham Nuwen's father had slaves and concubines. So perhaps we should be looking for medieval or imperialistic "turns of speech," that relate not to technological levels but attitudes to human beings? Although it's tricky: the Romans had democracy and slaves. Which would their speech reflect?


4 Answers 4


I just finished this book myself and felt I could offer some insight. If you pay close attention to Nau's speech - and unless you're a linguist on par with Trixia Bonsol yourself, you'll never pick this up without going back to re-read the speech after her comment about Nau's "authoritarian turns of speech" - you can indeed pick out a few words and phrases that imply an authoritarian culture, if not necessarily a slave-owning one.

Pixel mentioned a few above, but here are a few more.

Over the years, astrophysicists of more than one culture tried to convince their rulers to send an expedition here ways.>

This is possibly the most blatant usage of authoritarian language in Nau's speech. The casual assumption of a hierarchy that involves rulers by Nau indicates that a democratic or communistic society (or the sort of "non-sovereign kingship" the Spiders of the Gokna Accord practice, much to the Emergents' annoyance) is not one which springs immediately to his mind. This would indicate that he grew up in a society that practices a sovereign-subject relationship, rather than a leader-citizen one. This does raise the interesting question of whether Pham Nuwen, himself from a sovereign-subject society, uses any similar terminology; I will have to check on that when I re-read the book in future.

Till recently, I had not realized how perfectly our....>

The implication here is that it is Nau making the decisions, not any sort of council or advisory body.

...[M]y fleet includes heavy lifters.>

This goes even further, implying Nau's direct ownership and/ or command of the Emergent fleet.

...Captain Park, your trading committee and I all thought....>

Nau mentions two different bodies with a say over the running of the Qeng Ho fleet, but again casually implies his own personal ownership and/ or command over the Emergent fleet.

  • 1
    While that's telling, it's only one instance, not a dozen. And having a governing monarch doesn't imply accepting slavery even here on Earth, any more than having democracy precludes it.
    – Adamant
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 23:11

Don't forget that what you're reading is a translation from a future language. Some nuances may have been lost in translation. Trixia's remark may be intended in part to convey these nuances to the reader.

What most triggers my authoritarian impression is that Nau is possessive about the fleet. He's not just an operational leader, he sounds almost like an owner. Saying “my fleet”, “Captain Park, your Trading Committee, and I” probably sound unnatural to the Qeng Ho.

The conclusion of his speech may also be part of it. “To an end of mistakes, and to our common undertaking. May there be a greater focus in the future." This sounds so vague as to be weaselly. (Plus a hint to the re-reader: focus.)

  • 2
    Thanks, lost in translation is plausible, but seems like a cop out to me. Maybe "linguistic science too advanced for us". There's lots of hand-waving for FTL etc... but here, we have the text, the raw data. So I'm unwilling to let Dr Vinge off so lightly. :-) In the Prologue, Sammy Vinh refers to "my ships", "my flagship", so that that possessiveness isn't distinctive. Is weaselly authoritarian? BTW: Trixia wasn't Qeng Ho, but a postdoc in linguistics from Triland - an expert in linguistic analysis.
    – 13ren
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 23:04
  • 1
    Yes, rulers and also human Realm (the word Realm is actually a loaded word for Vinge; the Straumli Realm in Fire Upon the Deep was originally the "warlike Straumli Realm" until he decided to soften it to lessen any human responsibility for the Blight). Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 19:43

Here's my shot at picking out some phrases that I might interpret as manipulative or revealing of an authoritarian way of thinking:

"I know it's something that some of you had hoped to postpone till after the Spiders were active again . . . But there are limits to the value of lurking"

  1. Saying there are "limits to the value of" the course of action the other party has chosen. Instead of saying, "I disagree and here's why," he's just saying "your idea isn't very good." Condescending.

  2. Characterizing the other party's proposal as "lurking" instead of using a neutral term like "waiting" belittles them.

"It's time to begin working together"

  1. Saying it's time for you guys to start doing what we want is pretty authoritarian.

". . . we'll leave some unobtrusive sensors and undertake a small amount of cultural sampling."

  1. He's talking about spying on (leaving sensors) and abducting sentient beings (that's how I read "cultural sampling") using weasel words.

  2. There are probably some more subtle messages in the way he mentions that the spiders are frozen underground (helpless) right before he starts talking about taking action.

  • Thanks, I agree with these meanings, in the context, but are they "turns of speech", which I would guess are surface syntax, expressions, cliches, sayings etc? (Trixia says they aren't "fossil usages", which are maybe like metaphors that have lost their original connotation.) Perhaps parts of what you've noted are this, which align with their authoritarian meaning, by declaring a point of view as if a fact, maybe: "there are limits"; "It's time". BTW: "Cultural sampling" could be scanning (or grabbing) books etc. (there was that other supporter of humanity in the Beyond who sampled us).
    – 13ren
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 18:52

I think it is important also to keep in mind just who they would have been talking to during that initial contact at the dinner. Ezr Vinh and Trixia Bonsol were seated among the lower-ranking Qeng Ho and, they wrongly assumed, low-ranking Emergents, including Ritser Brughel. Given that Brughel's presence was generally perceived as "pathological" in character throughout the book, I would guess he might be the source of many of the authoritarian turns of phrase.

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