Archives: Neal Stephenson

Currently in the Book Chute

I am usually reading three or four books at any given point, all at varying points of completion. Call it the book chute. There are books upstream, queuing up to enter the chute, and there are others just emerging from the chute, freshly read. So here’s a snapshot of the book chute now, and it is fairly representative.

I finished Robert Sheckley’s “Immortality, Inc.” recently. And I’m about a quarter into Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash.” Yes, I’m late to the party on both of those. “Snow Crash” I’ve meant to read for years, but I wanted to buy a copy instead of checking it out from the library. I’m also cheap, so I wanted to buy a used copy, but have never been able to find anything other than new. Birthday gift card to the rescue! Actually my intent was to pick up the latest of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, but Barnes & Noble didn’t have a copy in stock (odd, since they’d been pushing it in the inescapable online advertisements that accompany my web browsing.)

I mention “Immortality, Inc.” and “Snow Crash” together because I find it interesting to read almost side by side two visions of the future written about fifty years apart. Both still hold up despite missing certain developments. Sheckley didn’t forecast the computer revolution. And it is disconcerting to read so much about telephone operators and pay calls. The nineteen-fifties permeate the book, but it is still an inventive take on the future. Stephenson stuck with the cyberpunk conception of the internet as an immersive, virtual world, navigated on foot by avatars, interfacing with programs on an almost physical basis instead of through the intermediation of a keyboard. And he didn’t take wi-fi far enough, not envisioning the speed and data capacity we now take for granted. But I’m digging the book to this point.

I’m also reading M.A.R. Barker’s “Flamesong.” I finished the first of his Tékumel novels, “The Man of Gold,” a couple of months ago, and moved on to “Flamesong.” The world-building is first rate, and hyper-detailed. Perhaps overly so. I almost worry there will be a test once I’ve finished the book.

I’m reading “The Thousand” by Kevin Guilefoile. Think Dan Brown, but with more originality and a bit of a sci-fi component. And, so far, better writing.

Then there’s the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories sitting on the upstairs toilet tank, “The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” One must have a bathroom book, right?

In line I’ve got a couple of Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno novels, conveniently combined in a single volume, and a John Ringo novel, “Live Free or Die.”

So long as I keep the chute fed, I’m content.

Naming Characters

“What’s in a name? That which we call a  rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Well, sure, Juliet, but books communicate only through words, not smells.  The names chosen often must be capable of more than simply differentiating one character from another, they must be able to convey certain information, whether about the character or about the world the author has created.

And creating worlds is what speculative fiction authors do.  The aliens, elves, planets, or kingdoms invented need names.  There are many approaches to naming conventions.  Glen Cook, in his “Black Company” series employs common English words: “Opal,” “Juniper.”  Or relatively uncommon but still familiar names: “Elmo”, “Otto.”  Some readers, perhaps conditioned to expect that fantasy will adhere to certain conventions, find this hinders suspension of disbelief.  It works for me, however; it helps ground the stories, provides a sense of gritty reality.

Another option is to become a philologist, invent several languages, and provide appropriate names from word roots or compounds of those invented languages.  This option works best if your name is Tolkien.

Other writers seem to peck randomly at the keyboard and then go back and insert an apostrophe.  These writers don’t, apparently, attempt to pronounce the names or quite grasp what an apostrophe within a word is supposed to accomplish.  Vide “the Apostropocalypse” in Neal Stephenson’s “Reamde.”  His takedown of this particular naming convention is quite clever, as one would expect.

In my first novel – that has been consigned to a box in the closet, never to see the light of day – I resorted to the atlas.  Characters from certain invented lands were assigned countries from the atlas and I selected place names from the respective countries (e.g., Estonia) to repurpose as character names, ensuring a consistency, a sense of commonality among characters within the discrete lands.  At least that was the intent.  No one will ever know if I succeeded.

My second novel, “Reunion” (to be released by Twilight Times Books this October) is essentially a contemporary piece, so names presented little difficulty.  However, a couple of characters did require some thought.  For reasons that – I hope – make perfect sense to those who read the book, I modified ancient Babylonian names to tag these two characters with.

I am faced with a different challenge in the novel I am currently writing.  I want the names of the alien race to exemplify their language.  Thus most of the names feature ch, k, or g to indicate that the alien speech consists largely of gutturals and harsh consonants.

Names can help establish a sense of place, of verisimilitude.  They can also, of course, be allegorical or symbolic, if the author wants to go down that path.  Something to consider before assigning a moniker.

What’s in a name?  Maybe quite a bit.