废话到此为止，附上夏笳的小说《Let's Have a Talk》，以及她应《Nature》之邀写的创作心得。
Let’s Have a Talk
By Xia Jia
Edited by Ken Liu
There are few reasons to call a linguist after midnight.
It was three in the morning when the phone woke me. A gloomy voice said they needed me right now. My first response was:Uh-oh, they’re finally here. Aliens.
I met with some odd people in an odd dark room, where we watched odd video clips: a flock of white seal pups huddled together, clamoring continuously, sounding vaguely like a zoo mixed with a parkinggarage and a kindergarten.
“What the hell is that?” someone beat me to the question.
We listened to the explanation. A lab designed these intelligent toys, which could imitate and learn human languages from scratch, as newborn babies do. The design summary claimed that the seal pups could ultimately master the equivalent of a five-years-old’s language skills.
The lab staff had packed a hundred prototypes in a container to be shipped to beta users; however, the container was mislabeled. When the container was finally tracked down, retrieved, and opened, the staff found the seals, which ought to have been powered down and lyingon their bellies silently, were instead making an astonishing ruckus.
“It looks like they are talking with each other in some alien language we can’t understand,” an incredulous voice penetrated the darkness.
“That is the very thing we must figure out.”A man in black, who conducted this midnight meeting, nodded at us, poker－faced. “Is that possible? Who taught them? Remember, the container was sealed the entire time.”
“Sealed seals,” I murmured. Luckily no one heard me.
“There was a similar case. ISN, Idioma de Se?as de Nicaragua,” the voice in the darkness replied. “It’s a sign language developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s.”
“Tell me more.” Evidently the man in black found this interesting.
“Well, before the 1970s, there was no deaf community in Nicaragua. Then a couple of vocational schools were established there and hundreds of deaf students enrolled. The language program, which tried to teach students to lipread Spanish words, initially achieved little success. Meanwhile, however, the schoolyard, the street, and the school bus proved to be fertile testing grounds for students figuring out how to communicate with each other on their own. By combining gestures and elements of their individual, idiosyncratic, homegrown sign systems, a new type of sign language rapidly emerged, which is now known as Idioma de Se?asde Nicaragua. It is the only time that we've actually seen a language being created out of thin air.”
“Not exactly,” another voice interrupted. “Actually, someone later created robots with an ability to develop their own language. These so-called Lingodroids were designed to navigate their way through a labyrinthand to create words for mapped locations using a database of syllables. They communicated their findings to each other with microphones and speakers, thereby spawning new words for direction and distance as well.”
“How do we know what the Lingodroids were talking about?” said a third voice. “Isn’t it possible that a word that sounds innocuous could mean, for example, ‘armed revolt’?”
The idea of those simple robots conspiring should have been funny, but none of us laughed.
“Any more ideas?” The man in black looked around.
“Why seal pups?” I asked loudly.
“They look weird. Why couldn’t you have chosen puppies or kittens?”
“I don’t think that’s important.” He shrugged.
“Maybe the designer wanted them to appearas timid and inoffensive as possible,” I mused. “Doesn’t this imply that we fear talking creatures unconsciously?”
“What’s your point?”
“I mean, why don’t we turn off this videoscreen, walk out of this dark room, and talk with these...things directly, since we believe they’ve already developed their own language? All linguists know that the only way to learn an unknown language is to communicate with a native speaker, to point at objects and ask questions, and to answer their questions as well. We certainly will never understand what they are talking about if we don’t knock on the door of that sealed container and say hello first.”
I stepped through the door, and all the seal pups fell silent and watched me with their big crystal eyes.Thank God. Seal pups seem much better than creatures with teeth and claws.I extended both of my hands to show there was no hidden weapon, just as I was trained to do in my first field practice, knowing full well that this gesture was probably meaningless in their linguistic system.
A ROBOT MAY NOT INJURE A HUMAN BEING, WHILE IT MUST PROTECT ITS OWN EXISTENCE.
So high, so low, so many things to know.
“你好。” I said hello in my mother tongue, and waited patiently.
The nearest seal pup put a fluffy paw in my flat palm, and spoke—it sounded like a great big yawn.
I tried my best to imitate it. I could be saying hello, or else just yawning. Anyway it was not a bad start.
“让我们说说话？” I asked gently. Let’s have a talk, shall we?
The story behind the story: Let’s Have aTalk
By Xia Jia
Since the first fairy tale scrawled in a notebook, I have been writing fictional stories in Chinese for more than twenty years. In 2004, I published my first science fiction story “The Demon-Enslaving Flask,” inScience Fiction World, China’s biggest SF magazine. In recent years, some of my stories have been translated into English and published inClarkesworldand other venues. All of these go beyond my expectation twenty years ago.
“Let’s Have a Talk” is my first story written in English. It came from a simple idea: If I’m lucky enough, I could be the first Chinese writer who publishes a science fiction story inNature. That sounded so cool! Then I sat down at my computer and tried to make this dream come true.
When I pursued my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and World Literature at Peking University, I was fascinated with these questions: How can we explore the frontier between worlds? How can we achieve any knowledge of the unknown, as well as the understanding and empathy of the Other? If our languages are created by different social and cultural constructs, how can we possibly have a real talk with strangers? So far we have not figured out any easy answers to these questions.
I embodied this idea in a dramatic situation: Some unknown creatures are speaking an unknown language in a sealed black box: would you dare to knock at the door and say hello?
Since I am not a highly skilled English speaker, writing a story in English seemed like jumping into an unfamiliar territory without any survival kit, which also requires imagination and courage. I’m so pleased that my adventure succeeded.
Several months ago I complained to my friend Fernando Ran Wei that some dreams can never be realized because of my limited capacity. “Like what?” He asked.
“For example, I can never write science fiction in English!”
“That’s weird. You told me that you believe in your life you would probably have an opportunity to travel to Mars, but you don’t believe you can write in English?”
I was stunned by his words. After a while, I finally answered: “You got me. Why not?”
Thanks for Wei, who made me believe in something I used to not. My odds of getting to Mars is rising now.
Also thanks for my friend Ken Liu, a talented author and translator of speculative fiction. He helped me to modify my story and also gave me many valuable suggestions.
Btw. I drew a picture of the seal pup in my story. It looks harmless and huggable. So don’t panic if one day in the future it shows up in the real world. Try to shake its paw in a friendly manner and have a talk with it.