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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 objects anyway? 

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 something else?

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.


*"They look like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps, that makes it science fiction." The Issue at Hand,  James Blish (writing as William Atheling Jr.) Advent Publishers ISBN-10: 0911682171.