The first thing I did on my first planet was fall flat on my face. Rushing down the shuttle's steps, I leapt too far in the lighter gravity and crashed nose-down in the alien dirt. It smelled good. Anything smells good after weeks in space.
I picked myself up and looked around. I saw Hawk stepping carefully out of the shuttle, trying not to laugh at my spectacular trip. Beyond... it was difficult to focus. The vast horizon was a shock after so long in enclosed quarters, and there was so much to see that my gaze kept channel-surfing: from the reddish sun to distant hills, to dark wings hovering above the plain, to a clump of pseudo-trees with green trunks, looking like giant broccoli. I looked down and saw a small red creature hop onto the strip, inflate its throat and imitate the shuttle's landing roar. Was it threatening the intruder or hoping to mate with it? I decided to call it the echo gecko. One down, a million to go. I felt like Adam, being asked by God to name the whole of creation.
One wintry day many years ago, I was walking through Gledhow Valley Woods when I suddenly thought, "What if there was a guy whose job was to name planets?"
I have no idea what sparked that inspiration. One moment, I was kicking through dead leaves; the next, I had a wild concept in my head. Instinctively, I knew it was a story I wanted to write. It appealed for the implied sense of scale — a setting where so many planets needed naming, a specialist was employed for the task. Every once in a while, a sci-fi writer yearns to work on a big canvas, writing about old-fashioned spaceships hopping between uncounted stars. Another appeal was the intrinsic fascination of the naming process itself, and the relation between names and reality. As a child I loved Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, with its island-strewn map and its magical system based on everything having its own true name.
At the beginning of my writing career, I had only the haziest conception of how ideas got converted into stories, and in particular what kinds of concepts fuelled page-turning plots. That knowledge I learned by wrestling with actual ideas, and discovering the hard way that some had more potential than others.
The first problem with this particular idea was that it was based on someone's job. Very few jobs have intrinsic dramatic potential. There's a reason why TV schedules are filled with endless cop shows and hospital dramas — it's because not many other professions deal with life-and-death decisions. There aren't any TV shows about a guy who works at a branding consultancy coming up with names for new flavours of toothpaste.
A more subtle problem arises from the creative-writing maxim that "a short story should be about the most important event in the protagonist's life". As with all the prescriptions in how-to-write handbooks, it's easy to ridicule this notion by pointing to myriad exceptions. Nevertheless, the rule does have a lot going for it. After all, if you have a character, then why would you not write about the most important event in his life? Why settle for something that's smaller, that's less interesting?
The key point here is that the most important event in a person's life is rarely work-related. Think about your own life and the significant events in it: how many of them depended on your job? For many of us, employment is just something that pays the bills and allows us to do interesting things in our free time. Indeed, people usually read books for a window into a more exciting world. If you work in an office all day, you probably don't want to read a story in which a guy sits in an office all day — even if his job is to name planets.
Finally, there's the danger of inappropriately transferring the author's feelings about his own job to his character's job.
I've mentioned these potential pitfalls to give some context to the fact that "Proper Names" was a hard story to write — the version that eventually sold was the seventh draft. The story underwent radical change as I tried and discarded different plotlines for the protagonist.
In the final version, my character visits a newly discovered planet, accompanied by his boss. The protagonist's job is "to name the planet, its features, and the settlements we were building", because "research shows that potential colonists prefer worlds with lettered maps, named menageries, and so forth. It reassures them, gives them the impression that the planet's been thoroughly vetted." His boss goes along "to do whatever it is that managers do". There is conflict over the proposed names: "Too obscure, too many syllables...." Meanwhile, the computer that's doing the hard work of actually building the colony is also resentful of the manager's supervision: "Why does CosmoCorp even bother with computers? If all you want is dullness, the same old recipe on every planet, you might as well send out people." The computer makes a plea to our hero: "I want a name." This act of naming symbolises the underlings' rebellion, as well as determining its consequences. In the end, the hero's self-assertion — and the entire story — is encoded in the names he chooses.
One of the trickiest elements of writing this story was that to illustrate the protagonist's job of coming up with appropriate names, I had to come up with a lot of appropriate names. I ransacked my bookshelves for classic poetry, and I paid homage to many sci-fi authors including Le Guin, as well as coming up with a few names of my own. Reading the story now, I can no longer remember where all the names came from. This mirrors reality, where we live in cities — and meet people — whose names are so old that their meaning has faded into arbitrary syllables.
I look back on "Proper Names" with some fondness, principally because the story's evolution over multiple drafts demonstrates my development as a writer. I learned a lot about the craft in the process of painstakingly transmuting the straw of beginner's dross into the gold of saleable prose.