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