On the etiquette of homonymy in fiction

22 03 2013

A month or so back, I posted a call-to-arms for support in endorsing ‘Erebus’ as a name for one of the two most recently discovered moons of Pluto. I was encouraged at the support that ‘Erebus’ received, almost 28000 votes, but it looks unlikely that the name will get up, based on the popularity of some of the competing suggestions. It was always going to be a long shot, up against Cerberus (famously misspelled¬† as a cartoon aardvark) and Styx (best known as a 70s / 80s prog-rock band), and then when a late entry to the race was announced, pretty much everything else got Shatnered into submission. Well, them’s the breaks.

It’s not yet certain that ‘Vulcan’ is going to get the nod from the IAU as a valid name for one of the moons, but assiming it does, it raises a few questions.

Consider this: Vulcan, the Roman god, has given his name to (1) a town in Alberta, Canada (and several in the USA, and others elsewhere), (2) a hypothesised but ultimately nonexistent inner solar system planet, (3) an extrasolar planet in the fictitious Star Trek universe, and now, perhaps (4) one of the two most recently discovered moons of the outer solar system (dwarf) planet Pluto. Now, this is all eminently fair dealing, but there’s a catch, of a sort. The popularity of Vulcan as a name for Pluto’s moon derives not from its connection to the Roman god, but from its adoption as the name of the race and their homeworld in Star Trek. So, in a sense, a work of fiction appears to have inspired the naming of a real-world solar system object. This is a principle; take note; this can happen, in the real world. (Not that this is an isolated incident, of course–there’s Mount Doom on Titan, and a number of Shakespearean moons orbiting Uranus, but they weren’t internet-poll-driven phenomena.)

Now. I consider myself a hard SF writer. I like the challenge of writing space-based SF that hews, as closely as possible, to the known, or the plausible, or the recognisable. In connection with this, I try to sketch out plausible futures, and to extrapolate from where we are today to get to that point. This ‘Erebus’ thing arose because I found myself in the position of needing to guess at a plausible name for an at-the-time-unnamed moon of Pluto. Now, it turns out the plausible names for such an object include names from works of fiction–and that’s fine, it’s fair dealing. In the real world.

But what about the world of fiction? Say I want to set a story on an extrasolar planet? Can I name it after a fictitious world? I’m guessing not–it’d be a bad look. It’d look like plagiarism, even though the intent would be not to rip off another author’s work, but to guess at a plausible name for an extrasolar planet. (Because you can bet your sweet patooties, when we start giving real extrasolar planets actual names rather than just serial numbers, the real-world pressure on astronomers to give them names like Tattooine, or Gallifrey, or Arrakis is going to be intense.) But try to translate that plausibility into fiction, and it won’t wash. Art dare not imitate Life too closely.

The upshot? If you’re an astronomer, and you want to name an extrasolar planet after the Klingon homeworld, go for it. The fans would love you for it. If you’re an SF writer, looking to do the same thing, forget it. They’d never allow it.

There’s an irony there, somewhere …

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