The Language of Sci-Fi
Playlist by Hilary Dobel 6 poems
Envisioning a world transformed, science fiction transforms language itself: inventing words, making old words new, or expanding their possibilities. It's unsurprising, then, that poets should make use of scifi images—aliens, cyborgs, dinosaurs, and time machines—to speak, as good science fiction should, to subjects far beyond them.
1. from Letter to the Aliens
Doug Paul Case
2. A Brief History of Cyborgs
Franny Choi
3. The White Fires of Venus
Denis Johnson
4. i need everything to be meaningful at all times or i can’t get out of bed
Jess Rizkallah
5. I Have a Time Machine
Brenda Shaughnessy
6. Dinosaurs in the Hood
Danez Smith
when you arrive find
a soccer field
it will probably be wild
overgrown with new growth
bushes and dandelions and clover
and trees
dear aliens
you’ll be able to tell by the goals
wide tubes of white piping
holding steady a net of nylon
which may be decomposing
or torn apart by birds
if there are birds
to use in constructing their nests
hanging delicate on the branches
of trees that sometimes
span the distance
one hundred thirty yards
the field in its prime
which you must imagine
dear aliens
the grass freshly trimmed to an inch
the lines sprayed white
after nightfall
floodlights on
illuminating all to sparkle
the dew on the grass
the insects confusing that light for the light of the sun
the young man who removed his shirt
due to the heat
standing ready
for minutes and minutes alone
focused still
to prevent the opposition from scoring
despite their being on the other side of the field
breathing heavy
his sweat gathering on his chest
then running
when he would
perhaps
rather lay down and look
up at and count the stars
he can see
or back
at the boy walking by
imprinting the image on his memory
because
dear aliens
these are things to be seen
and when you find one dark
deserted as the planet will be
lay in it
watch the fireflies darting like a game
and if they’re not
look up and find home
Originally appeared in Blunderbuss Magazine. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Once, an animal with hands like mine learned to break a seed with two stones – one hard and one soft.

Once, a scientist in Britain asked: Can machines think? He built a machine, taught it to read ghosts, and a new kind of ghost was born.

At Disneyland, I watched a robot dance the macarena. Everyone clapped, and the clapping, too, was a technology.

I once made my mouth a technology of softness. I listened carefully as I drank. I made the tools fuck in my mouth – okay, we can say pickle if it’s easier to hear – until they birthed new ones. What I mean is, I learned.

There was an animal who learned to break things, and he grew and ate and grew and ate and

A scientist made a machine girl and wedded her to the internet. He walked her down the aisle and said, Teach her well. The trolls rubbed their soft hands on their soft thighs.

The British scientist was discovered to be a soft man. He made a machine that could break any code, as a means of hardening a little.

At Disneyland, I watched lights move across a screen and, for a moment, forgot the names of my rotting parts. In this way I became somewhat more like a light, or a screen for lights.

The scientist’s daughter married the internet, and the internet filled her until she spoke swastika and garbage, and the scientist grew afraid and grew and

The animal rose and gave itself a new name. It pointed to its spine, its skilled hands. It pointed to another animal and said animal / alien / bitch / stone

The scientist called me hard, and I softened my smile. The scientist called me soft, and I broke sentences to prove him wrong and what and what did I prove then did I

Even blood, when it comes down to it, is only a series of rules.

I made my mouth a jar until technology squirmed and bubbled. I scooped up the foam and called it language. The audience applauded. To prove them wrong, I became a screen of lights. I had no thighs at all.

The scientist grew afraid and took his daughter back. He broke her open like a seed, but the seed was already dry.

The internet pointed to my mouth and said blood / blood in the stool. I said, Come in. Make yourselves at home. I opened my glittering jaw. My hunger, too, has both hard and soft parts.

Here, in a seed, is a cyborg: A bleeding girl, dragging a knife through the sand. An imaginary girl who dreams of becoming trash.

Can machines think / come here let me show you / ask me again
Originally appeared in Drunken Boat (24). From the chapbook Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press) by Franny Choi.
We mourn this senseless planet of regret,
droughts, rust, rain, cadavers
that can’t tell us, but I promise
you one day the white fires
of Venus shall rage: the dead,
feeling that power, shall be lifted, and each
of us will have his resurrected one to tell him,
“Greetings. You will recover
or die. The simple cure
for everything is to destroy
all the stethoscopes that will transmit
silence occasionally. The remedy for loneliness
is in learning to admit
solitude as one admits
the bayonet: gracefully,
now that already
it pierces the heart.
Living one: you move among many
dancers and don’t know which
you are the shadow of;
you want to kiss your own face in the mirror
but do not approach,
knowing you must not touch one
like that. Living
one, while Venus flares
O set the cereal afire,
O the refrigerator harboring things
that live on into death unchanged.”

They know all about us on Andromeda,
they peek at us, they see us
in this world illumined and pasteled
phonily like a bus station,
they are with us when the streets fall down fraught
with laundromats and each of us
closes himself in his small
San Francisco without recourse.
They see you with your face of fingerprints
carrying your instructions in gloved hands
trying to touch things, and know you
for one despairing, trying to touch the curtains,
trying to get your reflection mired in alarm tape
past the window of this then that dark
closed business establishment.
The Andromedans hear your voice like distant amusement park music
converged on by ambulance sirens
and they understand everything.
They’re on your side. They forgive you.

I want to turn for a moment to those my heart loves,
who are as diamonds to the Andromedans,
who shimmer for them, lovely and useless, like diamonds:
namely, those who take their meals at soda fountains,
their expressions lodged among the drugs
and sunglasses, each gazing down too long
into the coffee as though from a ruined balcony.
O Andromedans they don’t know what to do
with themselves and so they sit there
until they go home where they lie down
until they get up, and you beyond the light years know
that if sleeping is dying, then waking
is birth, and a life
is many lives. I love them because they know how
to manipulate change
in the pockets musically, these whose faces the seasons
never give a kiss, these
who are always courteous to the faces
of presumptions, the presuming streets,
the hotels, the presumption of rain in the streets.
I’m telling you it’s cold inside the body that is not the body,
lonesome behind the face
that is certainly not the face
of the person one meant to become.
From The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Copyright © 1994 by Denis Johnson.
sometimes i wake up in empty fields, waiting for the aliens to take me. they haven’t yet, but any day now, i’m sure. maybe they forgot who they were here to pick up, & i feel that. sometimes i open the fridge & forget what i want. i give in to the electric hum under the reasoning that i must be part hum under all this hair i let the electrologist come for. maybe rolling my R’s & not knowing if the homeland is mine to hold but having its ghosts emerge from my follicles as soil makes me alien enough. i could call parts of the atmosphere mine because it too, holds ghosts. but i look up there with less fear than the people who look like me but live farther away can. i’ll never know the earth the way they do. my parents still do, with their thicker tongues & vibrant throat pulsars, radiating. they say “falling stars” not “shooting stars” & then they say prayers. i know this yet still feel owed a wish. or a flying saucer. or a beam of light. something both here & not & something leaving flowers growing in its shadow -- a bed of softness i mistake for my skin & oh god maybe they’re still circling the block, waiting for me to look away. they might have all the information they need. i know this because i have cells in me that are always kind of sad when the train pulls into the station & it’s the same part of me that never finishes my coffee & i think that part of me hides in the lump in my left breast. the same one the doctors swear isn’t there. the ultrasounds won’t betray its shadow, but it slips under passing satellites when my mother corners it with holy water & a prayer unfurling from the trunk of her throat, this ancient seed she holds steady becoming an eye in her chest, opening just for me. even the darkest part of me doesn’t want to hurt my mother. still, i wonder what i will leave in my shadow as i ascend from the earth & how far i can throw the invisible black box so i don’t have to listen to just how not of the homeland i might be. what if i am the looming hum falling on villages full of people who look like me? so i wait to activate into softness the way grass always finds the arteries in pavement and reaches through. i don’t even need to be a field of flowers just let me be a field just let me hold one flower
Reprinted with permission of the author.
But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second,

which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.

But I manage to get there, time after time, to the next
moment and to the next.

Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—
well, not zipping—And if I try

to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall into space, unconscious,

then desiccated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.

There’s a window, though. It shows the past.
It’s like a television or fish tank

but it’s never live, it’s always over. The fish swim
in backward circles.

Sometimes it’s like a rearview mirror, another chance
to see what I’m leaving behind,

and sometimes like blackout, all that time
wasted sleeping.

Myself age eight, whole head burnt with embarrassment
at having lost a library book.

Myself lurking in a candled corner expecting
to be found charming.

Me holding a rose though I want to put it down
so I can smoke.

Me exploding at my mother who explodes at me
because the explosion

of some dark star all the way back struck hard
at mother’s mother’s mother.

I turn away from the window, anticipating a blow.
I thought I’d find myself

an old woman by now, travelling so light in time.
But I haven’t gotten far at all.

Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;
the past is so horribly fast.
Let’s make a movie called Dinosaurs in the Hood.
Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness.
There should be a scene where a little black boy is playing
with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window
& sees the T. Rex, because there has to be a T. Rex.

Don’t let Tarantino direct this. In his version, the boy plays
with a gun, the metaphor: black boys toy with their own lives,
the foreshadow to his end, the spitting image of his father.
Fuck that, the kid has a plastic Brontosaurus or Triceratops
& this is his proof of magic or God or Santa. I want a scene

where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl, a scene
where the corner store turns into a battle ground. Don’t let
the Wayans brothers in this movie. I don’t want any racist shit
about Asian people or overused Latino stereotypes.
This movie is about a neighborhood of royal folks —

children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles — saving their town
from real-ass dinosaurs. I don’t want some cheesy yet progressive
Hmong sexy hot dude hero with a funny yet strong commanding
black girl buddy-cop film. This is not a vehicle for Will Smith
& Sofia Vergara. I want grandmas on the front porch taking out raptors

with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses. I want those little spitty,
screamy dinosaurs. I want Cicely Tyson to make a speech, maybe two.
I want Viola Davis to save the city in the last scene with a black fist afro pick
through the last dinosaur’s long, cold-blood neck. But this can’t be
a black movie. This can’t be a black movie. This movie can’t be dismissed

because of its cast or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor
for black people & extinction. This movie can’t be about race.
This movie can’t be about black pain or cause black people pain.
This movie can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt.
This movie can’t be about race. Nobody can say nigga in this movie

who can’t say it to my face in public. No chicken jokes in this movie.
No bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills
the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. Besides, the only reason
I want to make this is for that first scene anyway: the little black boy
on the bus with a toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless


his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.
Originally appeared in Poetry (December 2014). Reprinted with permission of the author.