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
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!