The Drowning City and Fantasy Naming

Posted: October 26, 2009 in Braak
Tags: , ,

When I was a kid, the teachers at my high school made bets about how many fantasy names I’d have in my head by the time I finished college.  The numbers were up there.  A thousand, maybe?  I read a lot of fantasy novels and, until recently, never had any trouble keeping track of names.

UNTIL RECENTLY, when I realized I’m fucking old.

Fantasy novelists are often taken to task for their ridiculous naming conventions, and this is not alway altogether inappropriate.  Principally, of course, it’s not completely fair:  regular novelists make up all of their names too, it’s just you don’t notice it because they’re able to use names like “Steve” and “Ted.”  And in many cases, the naming convention represents an admirable investment in “world-building”–Tolkien, in addition to inventing (well, pilfering) many languages, and discussing the evolution of those languages, established intricate conventions so that all of the names were consistent, at least.

So, that brings me to the book I just started reading–The Drowning City by Amanda Downum–and that I’m probably never going to be able to finish.  It’s got a quote on the cover by Elizabeth Bear that says, “If you read only one first novel this year, read this one,” but I’m not sure when she was actually quoted as saying that–maybe it was during a really slow year for first novels.

Anyway, I don’t have a problem with stealing from real languages to govern you linguistic conventions (The Translated Man is littered with just that sort of thing), but man.  She’s got three separate conventions going on at once–the city (Symir) appears to be a primarily Vietnamese or otherwise southeast Asian city conquered by an Arabic-sounding empire, and visited by a woman from a place where their names are all–I don’t know, actually.  They look like a kind of Greeked-up or Latinized Anglo-Saxon.  The main character is “Isyllt Iskaldur,” if that helps.

So, look, this wouldn’t be so bad, except it’s compounded by the fact that ten characters are introduced in the first two chapters, plus we’ve got two cities, two nations, a river, ghosts, bridges, mountains, landmarks, terrorist organizations, one of the guys has a nickname, for fuck’s sake–all in all, thirty names that are all essentially meaningless to me, because they’re based on linguistic conventions from languages I don’t know, and this is before we’ve even gotten to the plot.  As the book proceeds, I’m supposed to recognize these people as being related to each other or knowing each other, as the events proceed outward in an ever-increasing web of complexity blah blah blah…and I can’t.

Maybe I’m old, maybe my name quota has finally been reached and my memory saturated, but I can’t tell these people the fuck apart.  I’m halfway through the book and I have no idea what’s happening; I finally understand what it was like for my mom when she tried to read Robert Jordan.

Now, I know there’s some irony involved in this, but in The Translated Man you weren’t supposed to be able to tell a lot of the names apart.  The rich guys with their hyphenated names were supposed to be largely indistinguishable and vaguely ridiculous.  The feud that drives all of Trowthi civilization is about which order the names “Vie” and “Gorgon” are supposed to go in.

I don’t think that Downum was trying to achieve the same effect in The Drowning City, and it’s too bad.  Maybe it’s a great book!  I just can’t tell what’s happening.

I think this leads to an interesting point about language in fantasy worlds, though.  We’re often in a weird sort of limbo as to the actual world and its language–is the conceit here that this book was written in some native language of this world, and that it’s been translated somehow?  That this world uses English as its primary language?  That latter would be weird, but probably not the weirdest convention we’ve had to accept.  In any case, it could be an analogue for English.

I think we’re usually using something like the first case, because often the characters are speaking English, but their names are clearly derived from nothing that you’ve ever heard of.  Because, obviously, you can’t give them English names–you can’t even really give them English names if there was an English analogue in this world, because so many English names are borrowed from other languages.  You’ve got an English name convention, sure, but name one guy “Elijah” and suddenly you’ve got to find a Hebrew analogue, too.  It’s a pain in the ass.

Sometimes, you end up with authors doing re-ordered version of recognizable names (Isylt, for example, looks an awful lot like Isoldt); this can be helpful, because it makes it easier for the audience to remember the name if it is, in some way, meaningful.  On the other hand, you can also get stuck with a priori assumptions about the character based on what the name reminds people of.

It’s a tricky business!  I don’t know what to do about it.

  1. Moff says:

    I’m not sure either, but I think a good place to start would be a ban on:

    (1) names where y is substituted for i,

    (2) names with ae in them,

    (3) and names with apostrophes.

    I have more or less stopped reading fantasy because of the above. I can’t fucking take it anymore.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    “…but in The Translated Man you weren’t supposed to be able to tell a lot of the names apart. The rich guys with their hyphenated names were supposed to be largely indistinguishable and vaguely ridiculous. ”

    Whuh- but…but I took notes! I TOOK NOTES!!!!

  3. Moff says:

    The names and the Architecture Wars were one of my favorite parts of The Translated Man.

  4. richie says:

    I usually don’t have a problem until I try to read a sequel a year later. Who the hell are these people with the funny names? Was he the one who wore the hat, or the one who could fly but didn’t because it was slowly killing him?

  5. Dave says:

    My girlfriend had a similar difficulty interpreting The Age of Wire and String which, whilst not a fantasy novel (more a book of nonsense verse structured like a collection of allegories) was littered with peculiar words that sounded like something, but not closely enough to hang an interpretation on.

    It took her three weeks to read and at the end she said “I still don’t get it”. I felt bad telling her that well, really, there wasn’t anything to get – like Jabberwocky, it was the rhythm and the sounds that made it work, not the meaning.

    More on topic, I like Bank’s use of names – ludicrously long but mostly following a set pattern. They’re almost immediately discarded for abbreviated nicknames, dispensing with much of the complexity and allowing the story to proceed much more smoothly.

  6. braak says:

    Yeah, and some of Banks’ names are so outlandish and thoroughly distinct from each other that it’s easy not to confuse them.

    I think the name of the drone Turminder Xuss is my favorite.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    I feel at this point it’s important to link to the “Gentlemen Broncos” trailer:

  8. wench says:

    I tend not to read names unless I absolutely have to. Usually, I just sort of see a few key characteristics about a name. I starts with a J, ends with an N, and there’s an o somewhere in there – that’s one character. This one starts with an S and has a double vowel – that’s another. As long as none of the characters have similar-looking names I’m good to go, but stick a Reeferteezen and a Reefertoezen together in there and I’ll get really darn confused.

  9. Liz says:

    You have thoroughly articulated why I am incapable of reading Chekhov.

    Russia, fantasy-land; same difference when the names are 20 characters long, unpronounceable, come in four different variations per character, and have “diminutives” that are longer than the goddam original.

  10. braak says:

    Oh, man, 100% agreed on that. Chekhov is a god-damned nightmare to try and read.

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