Monday, August 17, 2015

SFF names #7: Shevek

Wickes: How do you choose your names? it seems to me you have a hodgepodge, or is that deliberate? 
Le Guin: I don't think you'll find too much hodgepodge in the phonemes of any language that is implied by the names in a certain island or a certain country in my books. I tried to have fairly clearly in mind what pool of sounds they used because it bothers me very much in other people's fantasies when they have a hodgepodge of sounds that don't go together. 
(Conversations with Ursula Le Guin, ed. Carl Freedman, p. 23)
Ursula Le Guin is sometimes given as an example of a SFF author with a rare skill for naming. (Anne McCaffrey is supposedly the other end of the spectrum. The Evil Overlady solved a pressing problem in 2007: all apostrophes in the middle of fantasy names are to be pronounced "boing").

It is interesting, therefore, that the founders of Le Guin's ambiguous syndicalist anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed (1974) seem to care so little for names. Parents do not give names. Names are randomly generated and assigned by a computer:
“Shevek,” he said mildly. “No ‘doctor.’”
“Is that your whole name — first and last?”
He nodded, smiling. [...]
“Is it true that you get your names from a computer?”
“Yes.”
“How dreary, to be named by a machine!”
“Why dreary?”
“It’s so mechanical, so impersonal.”
“But what is more personal than a name no other living person bears?”
“No one else? You’re the only Shevek?”
“While I live. There were others, before me.”
“Relatives, you mean?”
“We don’t count relatives much; we are all relatives, you see. I don’t know who they were, except for one, in the early years of the Settlement. She designed a kind of bearing they use in heavy machines, they still call it a ‘shevek.’” He smiled again, more broadly. “There is a good immortality!”
Vea shook her head. “Good Lord!” she said. “How do you tell men from women?”
“Well, we have discovered methods...”
After a moment her soft, heavy laugh broke out. She wiped her eyes, which watered in the cold air. “Yes, perhaps you are uncouth! ... Did they all take made-up names, then, and learn a made-up language — everything new?”
‘The Settlers of Anarres? Yes. They were romantic people, I suppose.”
“And you’re not?”
“No. We are very pragmatic.”
“You can be both,” she said.
He had not expected any subtlety of mind from her. “Yes, that’s true,” he said.
(Chapter 7)
This isn't really indifference, of course. The founding utopians were very interested in linguistic determinism, the idea that language enables and constrains the possibilities of thought and experience.

The founding utopians knew that names were a special kind of language, and they recognised the danger of names. Unless names are constantly redistributed, they start to accumulate reputations. Names become markers of status or faction. Shevek marvels at Dr. Atro, a hawkish conservative from the neighbouring capitalist society of A-Io:
Atro could trace his genealogy back for eleven hundred years, through generals, princes, great landowners. The family still owned an estate of seven thousand acres and fourteen villages in Sie Province, the most rural region of A-Io. He had provincial turns of speech, archaisms to which he clung with pride. Wealth impressed him not at all, and he referred to the entire government of his country as “demagogues and crawling politicians.” His respect was not to be bought. Yet he gave it, freely, to any fool with what he called “the right name.” In some ways he was totally incomprehensible to Shevek — an enigma: the aristocrat. And yet his genuine contempt for both money and power made Shevek feel closer to him than to anyone else he had met on Unas. 
(Chapter 5)
So how many bi-syllable, non-hodgepodge, non-bong! names are possible? Well it all depends, but let's assume a monosyllable can have one of about 80 onset phonemes, one of 12 vowel phonemes, and one of 100 coda phonemes. That might work out to about 9.2 billion, which is interestingly where some demographers see world population peaking some time this century. I'm sure my math is at least as dodgy as theirs.

But the proposition is not only mathematical: it is also cultural. The preoccupation with scale and boundary is inscribed into all Annareans names. Every new Annarean you meet reminds you of the permutational plenitude, the almost -- but not quite -- endless diversity contained within certain inflexible shared limits. Shevek meets a Shevet: they fight. How would Shevet have felt had he met a Shevet?

Despite the huge number of possible names, and despite the Millennium Bug style fixes we can imagine for Annareans's naming computer, this utopia (in sharp contrast for instance to the constitutively imperialist utopia dreamed up by Iain M. Banks a decade later) has an inner commitment to the enclave form. It is a utopia that doesn't think it can be endlessly scalable. Okay, maybe this is a utopia that could be for everyone. But perhaps only for certain values of "everyone."

Earlier:
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

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