TT: Naming Imaginary Places

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wanderings, just page back for trains, technology, and the difference between knowledge and information.  Then come and join me and Alan as we chat about places that don’t exist – but certainly seem to do so!

JANE: We’ve been talking a lot about real place names and what they can tell

A Source for Imaginary Places

about the history of an area.  Given that we’re both readers of SF/F and I write it as well, the logical place to go from here is fictional place names.

As I see it, Tolkien set a really high bar in his books for place names.  Not only did he name places and natural features, often they had different names in different cultures.

ALAN: There’s no doubt that Tolkien was an absolute genius when it came to naming things. Mostly, of course, this was because he was so immersed in the history (the back-story as it were) of Middle Earth. But he was by no means the first writer to be good at naming things and neither was he the first to work within an invented history.

Robert E. Howard invented a whole mythology and history for the world in which Conan went adventuring. Many of the books which collect the Conan stories together are prefixed with a long and erudite essay called “The Hyborian Age” which goes into this in great detail. It’s an extremely clever essay which sounds completely real and which is very convincing. I think Howard made it so convincing because it was a mishmash of real names (“the Picts”) and names which sounded as though they ought to be real (“Aquilonia” – I’ll swear that’s a province in Spain…). The whole was greater than the sum of the parts and Howard’s Hyborian age felt utterly real as a result.

JANE: I didn’t read Howard until I was an adult.  I really enjoyed the Conan stories.  It’s a pity how the movies have presented him only as a shallow brawler when he’s actually a complex character who evolves throughout his life.  I found it easy to imagine that Howard’s Hyborian Age fit into real history somewhere.

ALAN: Henry Rider Haggard was very good at this as well. And, like Howard, he did it with a judicious mixture of the real and the imaginary. The Africa in which Allan Quartermain and Umslopogaas lived and died was very real. The lost cities of Kor and Milosis were not. But nevertheless they felt like part of the real landscape and even today the description of Umslopogaas’  defense of the Queen’s Staircase in Milosis can bring tears to my eyes.

JANE: Now that I think about it, there is a long tradition of fitting imaginary places into our real world.   I have a book on my shelf – The dictionary of Imaginary Places, by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi – that takes a look at a wide range of these from several different  genres.  I guess making up new places is part of the pleasure of writing.

Of course, there can be too much of a good thing.  I remember when I was a kid, I found Tolkien’s insistence on everything (and many characters) having multiple names annoying.  Rather than adding to my reading pleasure, it detracted from it.  I blush now to admit that I preferred The Sword of Shannara because things had only one name and it was basically the same plot.  To excuse myself, I was very young…

ALAN: There’s nothing wrong with youthful follies – we all have them. Personally I was imprinted on Edgar Rice Burroughs at a young and impressionable age. And he too was just brilliant at the naming of names. Burroughs’ lost city of Opar, and also Athne and Cathne, two cities eternally at war, were just spellbinding. Again, as with Howard, there were hints of real history to make the story convincing. The cities were lost colonies, probably Phoenician, though I seem to remember that Tarzan also stumbled upon a lost Roman city in one of his adventures.

I was never completely convinced by the city state of Helium that John Carter found on Mars. Even as a child, I knew that helium was actually a gas – it’s the gas that makes balloons float and makes people speak with squeaky voices when inhaled. The mental image of John Carter trying to seduce Dejah Thoris and declaring his undying love in a voice that sounded like Donald Duck always broke the spell of the adventure for me…

JANE: Oh!  I also loved Burroughs, especially the Tarzan stories.  They had a huge impact on me.   John Carter never worked for me, though.

On the whole, though, I like place names that tell you something about the area and the people who settled it.  Larry Niven’s Known Space was all the richer for me when – as a reader, adventuring, so to speak with the characters – I learned why “We Made It” was called that or why there was a Mount Lookatthat.

ALAN: I find that completely convincing. There’s actually a bay in New Zealand called Taylor’s Mistake because a ship’s captain (the eponymous Mr Taylor) sailed into it under the impression that he was somewhere else entirely. So Niven’s names definitely strike a chord with me.

JANE: Great…  We’ve been talking about some of the best, but maybe it would also be fun to look at the worse and the just plain weird.  Let’s go for it next time!

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5 Responses to “TT: Naming Imaginary Places”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    I wonder if Helium got its name because the element was first isolated in 1895, and the first Mars book was written in 1912. A Princess of Mars seems much more deferential to current science than ERB’s later books were. In general, it’s a good reminder that whatever’s new and shiny when you write a book will inevitably lose its luster. For example, I suspect our current fascination with nanotechnology as a panacea will look as silly and quaint as the radium bullets the Tharks fired in 1912, using rifles with “wireless” gunsights.

    As for the bad side of names, perhaps we can point to Burroughs’ love of T words (Tarzan, Tharks, Therns, Tars Tarkas, Dejah Thoris) and Lovecraft’s love of consonants? Did Cthulhu have a human enough mouth behind those tentacles to pronounce his own name? It’s hard to get TH out of a beak. Ask any parrot. And I won’t even get into the inherent racism in some of the other words Lovecraft came up with.

    Also, while I know there are a lot of “News” on Earth, do we really need New New England as the name for a planet?

    Great theme, though. I love place names.

  2. Chad Merkley Says:

    I don’t know that I really pay that much attention to fictional place names, unless the author was trying to use the name to evoke something. Lois McMaster Bujold has some novels set in a fictional country called “Ibra”, and many elements of the story and the culture are based on the real Iberia (Spain and Portugal, in modern American terms).

    What I really notice, based on my own interests and education, is the geography and ecology. If an author puts in a forest or a desert, I want there to be a good ecological reason for a forest or desert to be there. I want to know what made the coastline a certain shape. This makes the maps that many fantasy authors put in their books a source of fascination and frustration both. This can really shape my expectations about a book or series. For example, in Jane’s Firekeeper books, she set up an ecology identical to eastern North America. I was really hoping that she’d go across the mountains and go out west in kind of a fantasy version of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Instead, she decided that the original colonies and their parent countries were where the story needed to go, and told it very well. The resemblance to North America (where the westward expansion and exploration was arguably more important than its relationship to Europe, especially during the 19th century) was ultimately a red herring in terms of Jane’s story. But that’s the kind of detail I pick up on.

    In my own few (amateur and unpublished) efforts at fiction, I’ve found that developing the setting and the landscape is often more important to me than the characters or the plot. I’ve decided that if I try again, I’ll just have to steal a real landscape for the setting.

    And Jane, I still think a story about Firekeeper meeting Royal Bison, or maybe even Royal Wooly Mammoths, would be very cool.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks for the thoughts… I really wasn’t trying to duplicate North America, just to avoid the boring Fantasy template where everything is a very generic, very reduced England, Europe, sorta.

      Evolving ecologies as a part of World Building is a real challenge. I’ve heard that McCaffery on Pern, for example, wrote “horse” for “runner beast” and then did a global Search/Replace in the draft to make it more skiffy. I don’t know if it’s true, but the question of how much unfamiliar to introduce and how much just gets in the way of the story is a serious one in Spec/Fic.

      • Chad Merkley Says:

        And that issue starts to tie into making up words and con-langs, which you discussed in blog post a few months back. I think I recall you also discussing reader expectations a while ago as well. But the point I was trying to make is how our individual experience and interests affect our expectations and perceptions of a work. For example, I have some good friends, who are brother and sister, who had vastly different reactions to the movie Avatar. She’s an artist and has a degree in museum curation. She loved it just for the visuals. He’s a former Army officer working on a doctorate in International Relations. He hated it because of how the economic and political dynamics were portrayed. I enjoyed it but had to actively ignore blatant impossibilities relating to the world-building and ecology in order to do so. We each focused in on what was important to us individually.

        As for the Firekeeper books, I think that fact that you did not use the generic, stereotyped Europe-like setting was what got my hopes up that the ecology would be an important “character” in the series. But things like the economics of transportion and their effect on politics and power were important points, and really added a lot of depth and interest to the story.

        Now I think I need to go find those earlier blogs about reader expectations and making up words and reread them.

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