A Rose is Not a Smeerp
By Cheryl Peugh
Copyright © 2009 by Cheryl Peugh, All Rights Reserved
Ever notice those
funny-looking and odd-sounding names when you pick up a science fiction
or fantasy story -- the names that might have apostrophes thrown into
the mix, and if you dare try to pronounce them, might cause severe,
irreversible damage to your vocal chords?
Why do science fiction and
fantasy writers feel the need to change the names of people and
Shakespeare, in Romeo and
Juliet, said, "That which we call a rose by any other name would
smell as sweet." If we were to channel Shakespeare for a moment, when
would you call a rose a rose and when would you call it something else?
The short answer is, of
course, when it's no longer a rose.
Before we discuss the genre
of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) in particular,
however, let's look at another genre -- romance -- and compare the two.
Generally, if the writer writes about cars and horses in a romance, the
reader can be reasonably certain that the car is a car, and the horse is
a horse. The cars and horses might differ in degree, but never in
general design or species. Certain reader expectations about how cars
and horses act, based upon mutual experience, are set in motion.
Speculative fiction is
different. In particular, a car might not be a car, and a horse might
not be a horse. Or the reader wouldn't recognize them as such from the
writer's description and use.
So speculative fiction
writers tend to use different naming conventions. They might call a car
a hovercraft, and a horse a riderbeast. The hovercraft and the
riderbeast embody the same idea as a car and a horse---they're both
intended to carry people or objects somewhere. But the manner and
design in which they do this function are different -- the
hovercraft flies and looks like a small spaceship, and the riderbeast
runs without tiring and has horns. The writer rightfully wants to
distinguish these abilities and physical characteristics by naming the
car and the horse something else. That way, the reader immediately gets
the idea that she is reading about something new and different. New
expectations are put in place once the reader understands how the
hovercraft (or the riderbeast) performs within the scope of the story.
Some speculative fiction
writers seem to throw in difficult names just to lend a science
fictional flavor to the story. (Remember the apostrophized names
mentioned above?) If the writer puts a car (or horse) in her story, and
it appears and functions exactly the same as a car, should it be named
The answer is no. Sometimes
a rose is just a rose. The phrase "Call a rabbit a Smeerp", attributed
to James Blish*, illustrates this well. The phrase has come to stand
for the fallacy of using an exotic name for something commonplace. If
the car looks and acts like one, why call it anything else? The author
invites impatience from the reader by calling the car a 'smeerp'.
It wouldn’t be a rule,
albeit an unwritten one, unless there were exceptions.
A writer might have a reason
for calling his vehicle a car even though it also floats on water. He
must alert the reader up front about the floating ability. Certain
reader expectations snap into place once the writer uses a commonplace
name. Conventional cars do not float on water. Nothing will annoy a
reader faster than the writer pulling a rabbit (smeerp) out of his hat
to explain why the car speeding toward the lake at the end of the road
doesn't mean the end of the road for his character. If he lets the
reader know what's going on ahead of time, reader expectations are not
jarred when the car hits the water and keeps on going.
The speculative fiction
writer sometimes tries to explain an object or species that does not
exist, and will never exist. Giving the object or species a new name,
and then explaining the rules whereby this new thing operates, has
blessed the speculative fiction genre with some of the most interesting
and unique stories ever written.