The art or craft of naming things – nomenclature – is something I leave largely to my subconscious. Rarely do I come to a piece of writing, whether a novel or a short story, with the names of characters already set in stone.
So, regarding the names that my subconscious conjures up… can I look back and claim, on behalf of my subconscious, an insight that was lacking in my upper brain at the time of writing? Did the names relate to mythology, or have some deeper meaning than was at first apparent? Well, leafing through my last few novels, it would seem not. I see many routine Anglo-Saxon names, a few Indian names, and a few – belonging to aliens – that I must have made up because they sounded euphonious, or just plain right.
I tend to spend more time, for some reason, thinking about the names of things: planets, cities, starships, etc. These have to sound right, convey the correct impression, the required atmosphere. For instance, in the novel Satan’s Reach, the second book in the Weird Space sequence, I have the following names of planets: Ajanta – which sounds Indian, sultry and exotic, to me, which is the atmosphere I wanted to instil in the reader’s mind; Tourmaline (which I have an idea Ed Bryant used for a planet, too) which sounds bright and shiny, and for some reason rural; Teplican – the corruption of the name of a town in, I think, Hungary, which I came across in Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. Teplican sounded mysterious, and indeed there is a mystery on the planet; then the next world our intrepid heroes venture to is called Vassatta – an ice world which describes a highly erratic orbit around the sun, so that a winter lasts for a hundred Terran years. Vassatta sounds a little Nordic, which worked in the context of the chapter. (I get a lot of names for planets and cities from other books, often non-fiction: I’ll read a name that resonates with me, then play about with it, change a consonant here, a vowel there, until I have something that fits.)
In the same novel I have two starships, one chasing the other, and in the first and second drafts of the book I left the names blank (or rather wrote ???, where the names should be), and only during the third go through will I give the ships names, after a lot of careful consideration.
I keep a note-book in which I jot down words which will one day become the names of planets, cities, or alien races. In France a few years ago I saw a poster for a music concert, and one of the bands was called, if my memory serves, Bokkota; this became Bokota, the name of an alien race in one of my books. Many moons ago I came across a list of words that were synonyms for kambucha – a type of fungus tea that was apparently good for the digestion (it wasn’t: it made me ill): many of these words were wonderfully alien in their own right, and found their way, altered slightly, into my fiction. One day I hope to use names lifted from Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar: he was travelling through Malaysia by train, and at one point describes the names of a series of railway stations and comments that they sounded like the names that a science fiction writer might give to planets. Thanks, Mr Theroux.
I have a couple of favourite writers who are brilliant at giving things – people, planets, cities, societies – just the right name. Jack Vance is a genius. Open any of his books and you’ll come across wonderfully evocative names, names that combine the exotic and the commonplace but which perfectly describe whatever he’s writing about. James Lovegrove is another author who works hard at his names: he’s a wordsmith par excellence, and his novel Provender Gleed is an object lesson in the naming of things.
In my novel The Serene Invasion I have the S’rene come to Earth and stop human beings from committing violence. Of course the S’rene soon come to be known as the Serene. Their enemy are the ugly-sounding Obterek, and I have no idea where that name came from. I have a number of Indian characters in the book, and I had fun with Hindu baby name websites, matching the names and their meanings to individual characters.
But, that said – as with all my work – I owe most of what I do to that mysterious thing called the subconscious.
I power up the PC in the morning, make sure I have a cup of piping hot green tea at my elbow, then send down a silent prayer to that strata of my mind that will, for the next few hours, with luck, transport me to a world light years away from this one.