It’s all in a name…

February 25, 2010

I do not remember a time when the words “Skywalker” or “Alderaan” sounded nonsensical and silly. In fact, I don’t know if that time ever existed. They seem like perfectly natural names – a future surname and the name of a planet, celestial in theme but seemingly normal in the natural evolution of language. They were what we would call things, once we ventured into outer space. The name “Chewbacca” was so perfect, he already had his own nickname.

Now, “Starkiller” – that doesn’t sound right. It sounds crude, immature, like the caption, written in pencil, under a comic filled with bulging muscles and bouncing breasts and scrawled in a junior high notebook.

Lucas should get an award for the Star Wars nomenclature (although he damaged his rep with later names like “Dooku”). The names in his universe – at least his first trilogy – are equally iconic and natural. Even with the Ewoks. I remember both times – pre-Ewoks and post-Ewoks – and there was never a time in between when I had to get used to that word. It fit.

The challenge in properly naming things in a sci-fi or “speculative” universe cannot be underestimated. A bad name is like a bad special effect – it takes the reader or viewer right out of the world. Margaret Atwood, for all her diffidence to the label “sci-fi,” should take a lesson from that. For that unabashedly sci-fi epic Star Wars accomplished something she could not. In her book The Year of the Flood, she has a variety of hybrid animals running around, the products of gene splicing, with names like “rakunk” (the combination of a raccoon and a skunk, get it?). One of her characters eats something called a “Joltbar” – seriously. Did she come up with that name in the cab on her way to her publisher’s office?

I am not one to criticize – and I am still reading the book, which is entertaining for the most part (and the Website for the book is a great example of cross-platform marketing). It has some big ideas, expressed well, but as a reader, the names bother me. They strike me as lazy – or the crass attempts by an amateur with paparazzi sensibilities newly introduced to the joys of portmanteau. Maybe she should venture out from the protective shell of “speculative fiction” and see how real sci-fi writers do it.

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