Monday, February 6, 2012

Naming Rites

"Daley announced that, beginning in 2004, all new housing developments in the Chicago area will be numbered with a positive integer."
- The Onion, "Chicago Out Of Names For Subdivisions"

Early in the lifetime of this weblog, I wrote about the importance of creators giving workable, if not carefully-chosen, names to the people that populate their worlds. Even if you have stellar, praiseworthy prose, if you give your characters names like "Bob Dingusdingus" or "Big McLargehuge" outside of a specifically comedic context, you're likely to run into trouble. The reason why isn't that complicated - people have an intrinsic familiarity with names, and something that sounds wrong in an inappropriate setting is going to squeal like a violin in a wood chipper.

Place names, on the other hand, don't always fall into this - particularly so in science fiction, and especially so in the earlier days of pulp and wide-media science fiction. Star Trek, the original 1960s series, may be one of the better-known examples of this. The episode that came on last night reminded me of this: it saw the Enterprise crew dealing with the strange civilization on the planet Beta III. Indeed, it seems to have been something of a tradition in the original series for planets to be some permutation of "Greek letter + Roman numeral."

You don't see this in other kinds of series; though my knowledge of the fantasy genre is admittedly shallow, I doubt any fantasy author worth their typewriter would try to get away with building a fantasy world with places like the "Kingdom of B" or "Z City." That is, after all, all that Greek letters are; letters. In the astronomical context, they're meaningless without a constellation. Modern science fiction is much better with this, to the extent that I really can't think of any franchises other than Star Trek or Babylon 5 that really did the whole "Alpha Constellation III" thing to any significant degree.

Personally, I have trouble understanding why it was done in the first place. The idea of stellar catalogs already existed at that point, and while designations like "HD 98618 b" can be obtuse and perhaps not the best thing to cram into an actor's mouth, it's not like that's the only option. I never understood why outside of a few particular contexts, Star Trek and science fiction like it seemed to be so allergic to giving individual planets their own proper names... Earth instead of Sol III, and so on. Even when it did, it was almost always because the native species had already been named - so the Vulcans are from Vulcan, the Andorians are from Andoria, the Bajorans are from Bajor, and by inference humans are thus obviously from Huma.

To me, it's not that it's just uncreative naming... it feels artificial. Is it really that difficult to come up with a name that can stand on its own?

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