A Time of Changes - Robert Silverberg
Someone once wrote, so I am told, a novel using no word that contains the letter “e.” When I first heard about it, the idea gave me the shivers, for writing novels is hard enough work when one is employing the full range of one’s vocabulary, and tossing in a handicap of that sort is enough to guarantee a case of terminal hiccups, at the very least. Spare me, I prayed, from the urge to attempt such stunts.
And then, years later, I found myself embarked on a novel in which it was forbidden for any character to refer to himself in the first person.
I had been working on it for a week or so, struggling against the strange self-imposed constraint of having to avoid the vertical pronoun, when I remembered that “e”-less novel. I broke into a sweat as I wondered how I was ever going to get to the other end of my book with my sanity reasonably intact; and then I took a deep breath, told myself that I wasn’t writing my book under such a strange limitation as a stunt or as an act of penance, but because it was a story that had to be told that way by virtue of the nature of the society I had invented for it, and I got back to work. And eventually I finished the book and it was published, and it went on to win the Nebula Award for the best science-fiction novel of 1971, and both it and I lived happily ever after, and I’ll never ask a similar exercise of myself again.
My purpose in avoiding the use of the word “I” in A Time of Changes was not to display my own cleverness, of course, or to make a hard job harder for myself, but only to represent, by a grammatical approximation in an equivalent language, the linguistic practices of an imaginary extraterrestrial culture so repressed, so enchained by rigorous self-effacement, that all verbal references to self are taboo and must be handled euphemistically. It wasn’t a particularly original notion—there are existing cultures in our own world, notably among the Eskimo, where first person singular is considered improper usage—but I thought it might be new to science fiction. In that I was wrong, naturally. (Absolutely new ideas in science fiction are a lot less common than is generally suspected. I mean altogether new ideas, not merely ingenious variations on familiar ones. The last such really original SF idea I can think of is Bob Shaw’s “slow glass” concept in the short story “The Light of Other Days,” and that was more than forty years ago. It will probably turn out that something much like slow glass figures in some Jules Verne novel of the 1880s, anyway.)
My central situation in A Time of Changes has had at least one well-known previous use—in a book that I had read in 1953 and long since forgotten. This was Ayn Rand’s Anthem, a short novel first published in 1946 and dedicated to Rand’s usual theme, “The world is perishing from an orgy of altruism.” In the dystopian society depicted in Anthem, the collective society has triumphed, and the first-person-singular pronoun has been abolished; the narrator speaks of himself as “we,” as does everyone else in that society, but eventually he discovers the Unspeakable Word and launches a revolution intended to restore the sacred rights of the individual ego. This is not quite what I was doing in A Time of Changes, where the problem is not all-engulfing collectivist socialism but rather a dour, ritualized, formalized pseudo-modesty that conceals ferocious macho self-assertiveness. The narrative effect, though, is the same. Rand’s character and mine struggle toward liberation of self, which requires them, among other things, to move through dense grammatical thickets, hers speaking of himself as “we” and mine speaking of himself as “one,” and there is a similar rigid courtliness to the style. What struck me as eerie, though, was the similarity between Rand’s opening lines and my own. When I rediscovered Anthem in 1972, almost twenty years after I had read or thought of it and several years after I had finished writing A Time of Changes, I was astonished to find that its opening paragraph went like this:
It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone