The Alphabet Synthesis Machine (which I discovered in a roundabout sort of way; it’s a project by Golan Levin, which I discovered after he responded to a post by Graham about another one of his projects, the wonderful Secret Lives of Numbers) is a fun little toy, designed to take a user-entered scribble and run it through a genetic algorithm until it produces something akin to an alphabet. It’s impressively neat — I really admire it, especially because V. suggested the idea to me a year ago and I dismissed it as too hard — but it doesn’t quite look like a real alphabet. There are a heck of a lot of alphabets out there, and they all seem just slightly more complex than those I managed to create with the Synthesis Machine. The hardest thing about writing good science fiction must be coming up with plausible aliens. It’s all the difficulty of creating real, believable characters combined with an extra difficulty of creating a civilization out of whole cloth, a civilization with its own history, beliefs, mores, taboos. If they aren’t convincingly different, why make them aliens? James Blish, the author of "Surface Tension" and "Common Time", once said that if you’ve created an alien called a "smeerp" that looks and acts like a bunny, why not just call it a bunny? (This bit of wisdom was gleaned from Lewis Shiner‘s notes for the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop.) If we assume that wholly alien civilization will communicate like humans, we’re making a major error. The Jupiter probe plaque and the Arecibo message beamed at star cluster M13 were designed to minimize the amount of verbal communication in favor of pictographs; the fascinating Contact Project was a net-based game, circa 1995, in which the author, David Levine, tried to compose plausible and plausibly alien messages and left it to any interested parties to figure out what they meant. (Sadly, almost all traces of his successor project, ArchaeoSETI, seem to have been lost thanks to hard drive failure.)

I’m not a huge Tolkien fan, but one of the great things about The Lord of the Rings is how thoroughly he thought out elvish civilization. (Ursula LeGuin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness also deserves nods.) There’s history there, even though Tolkien doesn’t need to show it. If there was a word in Elvish borrowed from another language, you know Tolkien had a reason for it; more to the point, if there was a reason for it, there would be a loanword. The Latin alphabet, like the Hebrew, Arabic, or Greek alphabet, is evolved. Languages, and even alphabets, are not static; communicating with the future needs to be reduced to something that doesn’t involve words, as in physicist and s.f. writer’s Gregory Benford’s work on designing warnings for nuclear waste sites so that, even ten thousand years from now, future civilizations won’t enter. Some of the scripts in the Alphabet Synthesis Machine archives are beautiful and some even look like plausible scripts, but nothing really seems quite dirty enough; there isn’t any history embedded in those letters. They look just like what they are: messages birthed in a bottle.