Saturday, 29 July 2017

Esperanto and SF: A Potted History

Esperanto was invented as an international secondary language by Ludwig Zamenhof, who published his first book on Esperanto in 1887. He believed that a common mode of communication between people would eliminate the problems and misunderstandings of translation and ultimately lead to a more harmonious world system.

Zamenhof was not the first to come up with the idea of an international language. Like many others, he was motivated by the utopian impulse to create a better world, a universal vision that could, through language, overcome the divisions created by humankind. Esperanto is, however, perhaps one of the most famous – or infamous – of such languages, partly because of its widespread uptake and partly because it has been the subject of various parodies and criticisms. For example, it is believed that Esperanto provided the inspiration for Newspeak in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the introduction of a simplified universal language operates as a form of social control to restrict thought.

This leads me on to the topic of this month’s post: Esperanto and SF. While Orwell was sceptical about the implications of a language like Esperanto, many other SF writers have been fascinated by the positive reconfiguration of the world it might bring about, or the kinds of societies that might be amenable to a shared secondary language.

Philip José Farmer's Riverworld novels are perhaps among the most famous works to make use of Esperanto – in the second volume it is the language of the peaceful religion of the Church of the Second Chance. Likewise, the stories of lesser known writers such as Mack Reynolds often explore issues of universal basic income and universal religion and language. In his 1974 novel Looking Backward From the Year 2000, a re-writing of Edward Bellamy’s 1888 work, the protagonist finds himself in a future where the revolution in communications and transportation has led to the large-scale adoption of Esperanto as an interlingua.

Morojo with Ackerman in costume in 1939
SF fanzines also have their notable Esperantists. Myrtle Douglas, known by her Esperanto name ‘Morojo’, was a fanzine editor from Los Angeles, who was active between the years 1939 and 1958. From 1939 until 1947, Morojo co-edited the fanzine Voice of the Imagi-Nation with the SF writer, Forrest J Ackerman, who she met at an Esperanto gathering. With Ackerman, she also attended the first World Science Fiction Convention (1939), for which they wore matching futuristic costumes (see image). From 1941 until 1958, Morojo published the zine Guteto, which promoted Esperanto among science fiction fans. After her death, Ackerman wrote of her, ‘she was an expert Esperantist’ and ‘a real science fiction fan’.

These examples reflect the overlap between the imaginary communities explored in the works of SF writers and the radical aspirations for Esperanto as a means of achieving societal transformation. Such experiments in invented language have been sporadic and, at best, only partially successful. However, like language, SF works to both represent and translate cultures, echoing the hopes and fears of the societies from which it is produced.

More information about the inclusion of Esperanto in literary works can be found in the online book The Esperanto Book by Don Harlow.


  1. A further SF-Esperanto connection can be found in the ill-fated 1966 fantasy/horror film Incubus, credited as the second Esperanto-language production. Directed by Leslie Stevens, creator of the original 1960s American SF series The Outer Limits, and starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, several of the cast met untimely deaths. The film was criticised for the poor pronunciation of the language by actors who had to hurriedly learn their lines phonetically, and believed lost until 1996, when a remaining print was discovered in the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Incubus, or Inkubo in Esperanto, can, at the time of writing, be viewed on YouTube.

  2. It's going some way back, but I seem to remember Esperanto featured heavily in the first series of Red Dwarf.