NANP: Naming the ®Evolution

Joining me on the blog today for Names: A New Perspective is debut author Stephanie Saulter. Her first book, Gemsigns, is now available from Jo Fletcher Books and from what I’ve read of it so far, it is shaping up rather nicely. A near-but-distant future Earth where mega-corporations have created tens of thousands (perhaps more) of bioengineered human slaves who have recently been given their freedom? Behind-the-scenes industrial politics and conspiracies to control these slaves even as they form a rebellion against the oppression? Sounds pretty fantastic to me and so far, about 70 pages in, Stephanie has definitely maintained my interest in the book. Looking forward to the rest of it! Here’s what Stephanie has to say on the topic of names, how she came up with the naming conventions, and what they all mean.

gemsignsNaming the ®Evolution

by Stephanie Saulter

Names unlock stories. It’s true. Names are symbols that immediately conjure for us the thing that they represent. Your friends, hearing your name, will know it means you: and the you it conveys is not just a selection of syllables attached to a mental picture of what you look like. Instead it transmits the full richness and texture of who you are, what you mean to them, what your shared history has been. Hearing your name, they recall your story. For me, writing the ®Evolution started – and in the case of the first novel, Gemsigns, ended – with finding the right name.

The spark that became the story came to me out of the void several years ago. It was shapeless and nameless and I didn’t know what to do with it, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. So I picked at it and worried at it and turned it over, and wondered who these people were and why I seemed to care about them so much, until one day the central character popped back up to the surface yet again. Only this time she had returned from the depths of my subconscious with a name.

Her name was Aryel Morningstar.

And I knew.

Knowing her name told me her story. Knowing her story told me the story of the others who surrounded her in the strange tableau in my head. I didn’t know all of their names, not yet, but now I knew how to work them out; I knew what they needed to suggest, to symbolise. I realised that names were going to work on several levels in the book I was about to write. They were going to have meaning within the story, where naming conventions would underline the unequal status of gems and norms; they were going to be a subtle but important part of the worldbuilding I needed to do for the reader; and they were going to even more subtly underpin some of the big, mythic themes I wanted to develop. But before we get into the significance of character names, let me tell you a little tale about the name of the book itself.

In the beginning there was no ®Evolution Trilogy. The working title for Gemsigns was simply ®Evolution, and when my agent and publisher pointed out that it wasn’t really the most pronounceable, marketable, sensible thing to call the book, I was stumped. It’s not that I didn’t know they were right. It is a word that is more easily read than said; that incorporates opposing descriptions of the thing it signifies. With a title like that it shouldn’t be surprising that there are characters in the book who have radically different perspectives on the same events, and that readers of it might also diverge in their opinions. That’s fine with me; after all I was writing about dichotomy, and I was quietly pleased to have the hint of alternate truths that pervades the story reflected in what the story itself was called. But I had to recognise that while a sense of artistic satisfaction is all well and good, it doesn’t count for much if you are an unknown author trying to get readers to buy a book with a title that nobody (including you!) knows how to say.  A new title was needed.

However ®Evolution is so deeply symbolic of what I think the story is about that it took me some time to move past it and find another name, equally descriptive but less promotionally problematic. The thing that delighted me about Gemsigns when we finally hit on it, is that as a title it is a symbol about symbols; every gem bears a ‘gemsign,’ visible and permanent evidence of their engineered status, and several plot points hinge on the implications of gemsign being hidden or faked, or apparently not there at all. So Gemsigns too is a name loaded with layers of meaning, a name that stands for the story’s substance, and it made it okay for me to bump ®Evolution up to become an overarching title for the series.

Back to characters, and the challenge of naming the inhabitants of a genetically segregated society in the London of the 22nd century. The thing with near-future speculative fiction – as opposed to fantasy, or the alternate reality of space opera set a thousand years from now, in a galaxy full of alien civilisations far far away – is that it shouldn’t feel too unfamiliar. Many of today’s common names were just as common a century ago; why wouldn’t many still be in use a century from now? So there’s a John and a Robert, a Sharon and a Sally in Gemsigns. With the exception of Zavcka Klist – a name I consciously invented out of the harshest, spikiest, snakiest letters of the alphabet – norm names are the names we know.

I wanted gem names to feel like names we almost know, close to mainstream but not quite. It made sense to me that the gemtechs – who would have been very focused on reinforcing the gems’ status as property, but would also have been keen to market their human products as unthreatening and easily integrated into the workplace – would choose names that their clients would be comfortable using, but that would nevertheless feel just a little alien; outdated or possibly foreign, as opposed to artificial. So we have Nelson and Horace (names that feel old-fashioned even now) alongside Mikal and Donal, Callan and Herran. There are recurring patterns here, as you would expect in any company’s branding strategy for its products: sets of ‘family resemblances’ among gem names. The phonetic similarities tell you they are part of the same tribe, as is common in naturally evolved societies; but the reader is always aware that they did not evolve naturally, and that the façade of kinship is an imposed one.

Another reflection of gems’ second-class status is their lack of surnames. Prior to their emancipation these would have defaulted to the name of whichever gemtech engineered and owned them; but the newly freed gems have rejected this convention, which means they go by given names only. I repeat the surnames of the norm characters quite a lot to quietly emphasise this difference. And I repeat Aryel’s most of all, for the same reason: the fact that she is a gem with a surname, one that is not the name of a ‘parent’ gemtech, immediately marks her out as different from other gems.

The issue of family names becomes particularly poignant in the case of Gaela and Bal, who as gems have no experience of normal family. There’s a sweet, sad logic to them solving the problem of what to call their adopted son by hybridising their own names into Gabriel. Gabriel is a ‘normal’ name and therefore also a clever choice, as it will not in itself distinguish the child the way his parents’ names distinguish them; but it shares the repeated ‘el’ / ‘al’ syllable which is a common feature of many gem names. And Gabriel is a name with a strong religious resonance, a name out of Judeo-Christian foundation mythology.

Which brings us the the third thing the names of the ®Evolution do.

There is a level at which the story is allegory, is indeed a fairly radical retelling of  one of our most ancient and influential myths. Don’t worry if you don’t spot the source; it lies many layers deep and if you don’t know it’s there you won’t miss it. But those familiar with the tale will spot its echoes in Aryel and Eli’s names, as well as in that repeated syllable. The gemtechs may have used it to subliminally reinforce their branding, to constantly remind the gems of their otherness; but names are symbols, and symbols can have more than one meaning.


Stephanie Saulter on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is author Scott Lynch, and his post will go up this coming Monday on the 13th. You can check out the full schedule in the link up top.

Posted on May 9, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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