Opin­ion

David Langford is tick­led by some of SF’s more pe­cu­liar mon­ick­ers

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - David Langford told them again and again that peo­ple would mis­read the mid­dle let­ter of SFX, but did they ever lis­ten?

David, bon­nie and penny: your friendly SFX colum­nists.

Bob Shaw once ex­plained his strug­gle to find the per­fect name for the hero of his next SF novel. A name to ex­press ev­ery nu­ance of the guy’s per­son­al­ity and sub­tly im­ply his whole life story, so once Bob had hit on the one true name it was un­nec­es­sary to write the book. I don’t know whether Neal Stephenson went through this ag­o­nis­ing process with his novel Snow Crash be­fore re­al­is­ing that the only pos­si­ble name for the hero, or pro­tag­o­nist, was Hiro Pro­tag­o­nist. Stephen R Don­ald­son is spe­cially fond of fan­tasy mon­ick­ers with over-the-top ap­pro­pri­ate­ness. Not just Lord Foul, but a Gol­lu­mish fig­ure with the gig­gle­some name Drool Rock­worm and a no­ble sea­far­ing gi­ant called Salt­heart Foam­fol­lower. Con­versely, I rather liked Jack Vance’s SF tale The Anome with its mys­te­ri­ous, enig­matic char­ac­ter known as If­ness.

Else­where in SF we meet a dark in­vader called Darth Vader, ul­ti­mate su­per­be­ings called Ul­tans (Bob Shaw on a bad day), mys­te­ri­ous en­ti­ties called Mys­terons (Cap­tain Scar­let), a large world called – by its alien denizens, who pre­sum­ably know Latin – Ter­ro­magna (Cap­tain WE Johns of Big­gles fame), a naughty-boy char­ac­ter called Malen­fant (Stephen Bax­ter) and tyran­ni­cal rulers called Tyranni (Isaac Asimov). One critic friend ob­jected to Vonda McIn­tyre’s story ti­tle “Of Mist, And Grass, And Sand” for be­ing too evoca­tive. Lovely ti­tle, he whinged. “Con­jures up a whole land­scape. And then you read the thing and Mist and Grass and Sand are just three bloody snakes.” Sorry about the spoiler there.

There was a sim­i­lar sense of vague let­down when I read Bruce Ster­ling’s nifty novel Schis­ma­trix. Ob­vi­ously a schis­ma­trix must be a woman who goes around caus­ing schisms. Af­ter wait­ing for half the book for her to turn up and start schis­ming, I learned that in the jar­gon of this in­ter­plan­e­tary fu­ture the whole frag­mented So­lar Sys­tem was a ma­trix of schisms, ged­dit? Oh dearie me.

Some au­thors pick names that give type­set­ters a hard time. A favourite ex­am­ple from EE Smith’s Lens­man space op­eras is the oc­ca­sion­ally men­tioned planet Al­sakan. In­evitably, ev­ery other ref­er­ence got cor­rected to the more plau­si­ble “Alaskan”. I found my­self think­ing that since this far-off world was known only for ex­ports of Al­sakan tobacco, it might have been wiser to call it Vrig­inia.

It was sim­i­larly easy to mis­read the name of the dire con­ti­nent-wreck­ing Mon­ster From The ID in Clive Barker’s Everville, the Iad Uroboros. The cap­i­tal I kept com­ing across as lower-case L, in­tro­duc­ing a lad called Uroboros and lead­ing to dis­tract­ing thoughts that Uroboros Lad must be a re­ject from the Le­gion of Su­per­heroes (be­cause his only su­per­power was an amaz­ing abil­ity to bite his own bum). Just like that fiercely in­de­pen­dent fel­low Stand Alone Stan who was in fact the ti­tle of a fan­tasy novel by Phillip Mann…

Would-be comic names can lead us into even grim­mer ter­ri­tory, as when L Ron Hubbard at­tempted bit­ing satir­i­cal wit in his truly aw­ful Battlefield Earth by in­tro­duc­ing a char­ac­ter called Ar­se­bog­ger…

Some au­thors definitely need the as­sis­tance of Baldrick in Black­ad­der, who of course sug­gested a cun­ning al­ter­na­tive when his mas­ter an­nounced his ter­ror­in­spir­ing pseu­do­nym: “I shall be known from now on... as The Black Veg­etable!”

“L ron hubbard in­tro­duced a char­ac­ter called ar­se­bog­ger”

Illustration by Andy Watt

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