My friend, David Fisher, posted this on Facebook recently:
Nerd Question: If you were a part of an supergroup or evil organization whose name was a word acronym, what would be more important to you… the coolness of the acronym or the selection of words used that created that acronym?
In other words, would it bother you to be a part of SPECTRE, even though Blofeld had to actually create an organization named ‘SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’ just to get the acronym to work right? Or to be a member of the ‘Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division’ so that you could say you were a part of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
This is an interesting question, especially if you are in the habit of writing science fiction or devising science fiction worlds. It even intersects with the broader question in sci-fi/fantasy of ‘how do you name things?’
Ultimately, all acronyms and, by extension, all names come down to aesthetics. Doing it well is as much poetry as anything else, but it’s very focused poetry – you really only have a handful or, possibly, a single word to convey the mood and tone of the organization, character, or place. Writers obsess over such things and I’d like to think that scifi/fantasy authors obsess over them even more.
I’m wrong, of course. Consider the long list of poorly named things and places throughout speculative fiction. One of my favorites is the character Pug the Sorcerer from Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga. Now, in the start of the series, Pug’s humble name fit his humble origins. However, later on, when he became The Sorcerer and the main power-broker, wiseman, and general savior of all humankind, calling him ‘Pug’ was a bit underwhelming. Likewise I might include most of the human or drone characters named in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels – Flere-Imsaho? Chamlis Amalkney? Urgh – I can’t even pronounce them, let alone allow them to work on my mind in any kind of poetic or emotional sense.
That is, by the way, what names ought to do in fiction or, heck, in real life. They should capture the imagination somehow. Do you know why names like John and David and Elizabeth have lasted so long? It isn’t because they’re boring – it’s because they mean something. They have resonance with the human experience. They wield a kind of poetic inertia. You can feel the name. There are people who look like Susan’s instead of Katies, or Katies that are better called Katherine or Kate. There’s a kid in one of my classes who’s named Nolan but whom, for reasons beyond logical dissection, I feel like calling Calvin. This, of course, is of minor annoyance to Calvin, who is also in my class. He, however, looks like a Calvin, so I never mess up his name.
Writers of spec-fic should pay particular attention to the names of everything, not just their characters or their organizations. They are creating a world and appending to it a phonetic canon of acceptable sounds and meanings. Not only should that place be new and alien, but it should also be relatable enough to our own world to allow the reader to get a fix on it. Consider the master, Tolkien: Gondor, Mordor, Rohan, Rivendell, Hobbiton, Galadriel, Balrog, Sauron, Minas Morgul, Gollum. Tolkien was a linguist; he knew how these things worked. He was well aware of how these things felt in our mouths and would sit in our minds. It isn’t only those who have read the books that can feel what that list of names mean – it’s anyone who’s a native speaker of English. They’re connected to something in ‘the deep structures of our brain’, to borrow Neal Stephenson’s phrase from Snow Crash (wherein, by the way, he has characters named Hiro Protagonist, Vitaly Chernobyl, Raven, and L Bob Rife).
So, when you’ve got some guy pulling names out of his ass just to have something on the page (Asimov comes to mind, who had simply god-awful names in his sci-fi books), it takes something away from the experience. To come back to the initial quandary as introduced by my friend Fisher, I don’t really fault SPECTRE, since it’s a wonderful name for the organization. I’d have preferred the acronym to make sense, too, but sometimes you can’t have everything. I’d rather Ian Flemming did that than come up with something more realistic but less wonderful. Telling stories isn’t always about realism, folks – it’s about conveying truth. That can require a little bit of fudging here and there.