NANP: A Squishy Treasure Map
Posted by Abhinav Jain
It’s another Angry Robot author on the blog today as Jo Anderton joins me on “Names: A New Perspective“. I read her first Veiled Worlds novel, Debris, earlier this year and I was quite taken with it. The whole Russian cultural dressing on her setting was really well done, neither too heavy, nor too light. A good balance. It definitely has been a year for some awesome Angry Robot novels as far as I’m concerned. When I invited Jo to do a guest post for the series, she wrote back with one of the best pieces I’ve read so far.
by Jo Anderton
For me, entire worlds start with a vague feeling, and a single image.
Debris was just the same. Before I even knew about pions, before I understood debris, there was a feeling, and a single image. The feeling: a sense of something oppressive, like you haven’t quite got the space to breathe, and you daren’t move because someone, somewhere, is watching. The image: a single mountain rising cold and icy-tipped above a grey cityscape.
It might sound vague because, well… it is at this stage! But this is the place where names come from.
Anyone who has read Debris and Suited will know the society of Varsnia has a pseudo-Russian bent to it. That’s where this feeling eventually took me. It’s not actually Russia, obviously. It’s more like a series of Russian-ish snapshots that, combined with some impossible magic and a solid helping of not-quite-quantum physics, come together to create a starting point for this world. It’s pre-revolutionary tension. It’s cold-war spies. It’s industrial revolution. Domed buildings with magnificent frescoes. The construction of grand, symbolic and government-driven artworks. The Russian bear even became the Varsnian bear, because I don’t think you want to poke either of them. That was a lot of the inspiration, anyway, and the starting point for most of the names.
This vague sense of Russian-ness is there most strongly in the names of countries, cities, and even the government. Movoc-under-Keeper, for example, was directly inspired by reading about Yaroslavl on the Volga. The government that controls Varsnia and the city of Movoc-under-Keeper is the veche — a council, or assembly, such as the one that ran the Novgorod Republic.
It follows through to character names too. The main character, Tanyana, came with her name already prepared… Actually, now that I think of it, I’m not sure what came first. Did I know her name before I even started down the Russian-ish rabbit hole? Maybe she was the one who gave me the first kick in that direction? That’d be just like her too. Anyway, even though she chose her own name, it still has meaning. It’s odd, a bit of an homage to an old friend I don’t see anymore, whose name was Tonya, and who is like Tanyana in more ways than she’d probably like to hear. In my search for Russian names I also discovered ‘Tanya’ as a nickname for someone with silver hair. Given Tanyana’s fixation on her very short, very blonde hair, this felt strangely fitting.
I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of gut feeling going on when I name characters. Most of the time I’ll find or make up a name and know it’s right, but I couldn’t tell you why. It just is. But not for everyone. Some people have very specific reasons for their names. After all, who is Natasha but the quintessential Russian spy? And when I read that Aleksey (sometimes Aleksei) meant the defender of mankind, well, what other name could I possibly give him? Kichlan and Lad, the two brothers on Tanyana’s debris collecting team, are a combination of both. Kichlan’s name just spoke to me. It didn’t mean anything in particular, it just felt right. There was something serious and responsible about it, and it balanced well with his brother, Lad. Lad, who behaves like a boy in an adult’s skin. Lad, who is actually far more complicated than he appears on the surface. Lad, who really is as innocent, and as earnest, as his name suggests.
But finally, there are two characters who stand out from the Russian-inspired crowd, and they do so for a very good reason. They are the Keeper, and the Other. The Keeper is an ancient, benevolent deity worshipped by the pre-enlightened masses, but now thought to be little more than a superstition. The Other is his opposite. In the old stories, the Keeper saves the people of this world from the Other, who terrorises them from the darkness. No one believes in the Other anymore either, but his presence is still strong too, he’s there on tombstones, and he gets used as a swearword a lot.
Their names were vital, because their role in this world is absolutely fundamental. Their names needed to be universal, and symbolic. The Keeper keeps the doors. The Keeper keeps everyone safe. The Other… well, that’d be giving too much away.
In Debris and Suited, Tanyana discovers that there are truths to these ancient superstitions, that old myths and stories should not, perhaps, be forgotten. The truth about the Keeper and the Other are inextricably bound to her journey. But, you know, it all comes back to that original vague feeling, and the single image. The sense of oppression isn’t just about an authoritarian government like the veche, and that single mountain isn’t just there for decoration. Movoc-under-Keeper is so named because sits at the base of the Keeper Mountain, and that’s no coincidence either. Like the Keeper himself, the mountain is a beacon, it is hope, rising above all that darkness and oppression. The Keeper and the Other were born directly out of that feeling and image.
So there you go. It doesn’t seem particularly scientific, but that’s what naming is all about, for me. Every world already exists somewhere at the back of my brain, and I have learned that of I follow the little clues it gives me — the images, the occasional character springing forth fully-formed, and the gut-feelings — eventually, I’ll get there.
It’s like a squishy treasure-map. Take ten paces south from vague-feeling, turn right at nice, clear image of a single mountain, and you’ll get to a fully-realised world. Eventually.
The next guest is author and friend Tim Marquitz on 3rd January. Until there will be no more guest series posts. Happy Holidays!
Posted on December 24, 2012, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged 2011 Debuts, Angry Robot Books, Debris, Jo Anderton, Names, Names A New Perspective, science fantasy, Science Fiction, Suited, The meaning of Names, Veiled Worlds. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.