Naming the Future

Sep 8th 2007

One of the greatest challenges of envisioning a future world is filtering out the present. Our current tastes infiltrate even our wildest imaginings. The effects may be subtle at first, but the more that time passes the more, say, a 1970s sci-fi movie looks and sounds like the 1970s.

Suppose you wanted to set a novel in the mid-range future. What would you name your heroes to keep them from sounding like time travelers from 2007? You could take the time-honored neologism approach, stringing together sounds to create a new namelike creation (think Lando Calrissian). You could morph a traditional name into a vaguely futuristic variant (Leia). You could push the envelope a little farther and imagine whole new fashions -- say a fad for Hungarian names, or names of chemical elements. Or you could be a crafty namenik and aim for a hundred-year style revival cycle. By that approach your characters in the year 2057 might be Jerry and Brenda.

Craftiest of all, you could combine those approaches. After all, multiple fashion threads run through every age. 2007 is the era of Liam, Alejandro, Braeden and Jack. So let's call our 2057 friends Arlex, R!chard, Istvan, Cobalt, Doug and Cheryl.

Not so good? Well, I never claimed to be a Hugo Award winner. So let me put you, instead, in the hands of one who is. William Gibson is a wildly inventive and influential science fiction author, the coiner of the term "cyberspace" and godfather of the cyberpunk genre. His first novel Neuromancer won not only the Hugo but the Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards for good measure. Neuromancer was published 23 years ago and could reasonably be expected to be showing its age by now. Yet the book still maintains an impressive measure of popularity and reader impact. Let's take a look at the names of the future, 1984 vintage.

- Your protagonist Case (he went by his last name)
- Your cybernetically enhanced heroine Molly
- The rastamen Maelcum and Aerol
- Bodyguard Hideo
- Magnate Lady 3Jane

Sure enough, something for everyone in a diverse fashion future. An aspiring sci-fi writer might take note that the effect is more than just atmospheric. The mixing of disparate styles means the author can't be caught guessing wrong, and helps keep this vision of the future from sounding like the past.

Comments

1
By Leia (not verified)
September 8, 2007 8:25 PM

Wow, Leia as a "...vaguely futuristic variant." I've never thought of my name like that before. And yes, my parents got the idea for the spelling of my name from Star Wars, which was popular at the time of my birth. However my name is pronounced like Leah, not 'lay-uh' as in the movie. So I guess, in a way, it's futuristic.

2
By Hillary (not verified)
September 8, 2007 8:40 PM

Leia - I am not sure if you commented on the last post but there is a gal wanting to name her little girl Leela (lee-lah) and can't decide how to spell it. She isn't 100% fond of Leela but she is afraid Leila or Lila would be pronouced lay-luh. I think it is quite interesting that you are Leia and are pronouced Lee-ah....How many issues with pronounciation did you have growing up?

3
By ClevelandKentEvans (not verified)
September 8, 2007 9:44 PM

Well, there are big differences on this depending on whether or not you are writing a novel set in the NEAR future or the far future. For the far future, you of course have a lot of freedom. But for a novel set within the lifetime of children born today, authors can make mistakes.

A very popular (and generally very good) series of books about the terraforming of Mars (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars) were published by the author Kim Stanley Robinson starting in 1993. The first book is set in 2026, and the author specifically states that the original 100 settlers of Mars (most of whom are Americans) were born in the 1980s. But the names he gave those characters were mostly things like Frank, Ann, John, Phyllis, and Arthur, which definitely are NOT what you would expect a group of Americans born in the 1980s to be named. It really detracted from my enjoyment reading the book to have those names so "off" from the reality of their generation.

4
By Cleveland Kent Evans (not verified)
September 8, 2007 9:47 PM

An example of a good use of name knowledge is a line in Mary Doria Russell's _The Sparrow_, set in 2019, where a character in suburban Cleveland, Ohio hears a young girl being called "Heather" and says something like "She must have been named for her grandmother; you don't hear that one much any more."

5
By Cleveland Kent Evans (not verified)
September 8, 2007 9:49 PM

On the other hand, a good use of "name knowledge" in a science fiction novel is found in Mary Doria Russell's _The Sparrow_, set in 2019, where a character, on hearing a young girl being called "Heather", says something like "You don't hear that one much anymore! She must have been named for her grandmother."

6
By Cleveland Kent Evans (not verified)
September 8, 2007 9:50 PM

Sorry for the double post; guess I shouldn't have been so impatient when the first didn't show up right away. :)

7
By Arlene F (not verified)
September 8, 2007 10:12 PM

In JD Robb's "_______ in Death" romance/sf/murder mystery series (something for everyone there :)), set around the year 2059, there's a throwaway line in one scene, set in a nursing home, where an attendant says to a resident, "Come on, Tiffany, time for your medicine."
Well, Tiffany spiked in the 80s, so that's about right.

8
By Amy A (not verified)
September 8, 2007 10:12 PM

Leia, it's interesting you say your name is pronounced "like Leah, not lay-uh"... Lay-uh is exactly how I would pronounce Leah!

I never know how to pronounce Leah actually; I always thought that lay-uh was the 'correct' pronunciation, but I have a baby cousin named Leah, pronounced Lee-uh. She's Scottish, and I noticed Leah is disproportionately popular in Scotland, so I wonder if all these little Scottish Leahs are Lee-uhs too? Are there more lay-uhs or lee-uhs?

9
By Adelaide (not verified)
September 8, 2007 11:36 PM

Amy- In Australia Leah is predominantly pronounced Lee-uh. I've not many anyone with it pronounced Lay-uh, nor anyone who's accidently said it that way.

10
By Meg (not verified)
September 9, 2007 12:30 AM

Off topic, but I don't know when else to raise this: What reactions do people have to the name Renee? I've already looked up the stats (long run of moderate popularity in the 60's and 70's, but never wildly popular). Now I'm more interested in actual people's actual reactions. Does it sound dated? Does it evoke a particular era? Were you aware of it being popular back when it was popular? Also, as a side note, any speculations as to what would cause a name to rise and then fall from popularity, when it isn't ever popular *enough* to be on everyone's lips? Is it just the sound-fitting-the-era thing? Thanks for your input!

11
By Sadhbh (I've changed from Zaneeta because this is my new fao (not verified)
September 9, 2007 12:41 AM

Does anyone know when _Fahrenheit 451_ was set in? Was Mildred a realistic name for middle-aged Mrs. Montag?

12
By Beth (not verified)
September 9, 2007 12:51 AM

Meg, I'm not wild about Renee, I must say. I knew a couple in high school who were just sort of flaky girls, so that's part of it. To me the name belongs with Michelle, Denise, and Stephanie, all Americanized French names of girls born in the mid-to-late 1960s.

On the other hand, there is the 1920s poet born Pauline Tarn, who changed her name to Renee (reborn) Vivien (alive, I think), then wrote poems about death and starved and drank herself to death at the age of 32. Interesting, at least, if a bit gloomy.

13
By J&H's mom (not verified)
September 9, 2007 3:35 AM

Science fiction is one of the genres I don't read much. It does seem like K and Z are big science fiction letters.
I definitely agree that it depends on the kind of future the author envisions and, in particular, the knowledge these future denizens have about their ancestors, how they feel about them, and so forth...
For example, one could imagine a future filled with genetically modified beings who name their children after popular drugs of the 2000's (as we've discussed before, so many of these would make lovely names).
Of course, it seems to me that the best science fiction transcends these details.
On Renee-I like it, and it feels fresh to my ear. It is a pretty popular middle name, and I think because of that it has a "filler name," feel to some. It also makes me think of Celine Dion's husband (I wish I had Beth's high-brow associations-I'm embarassed at the slop filling up my brain these days).

14
By Liz & Louka (not verified)
September 9, 2007 6:16 AM

Hi Meg,
I think Renee is a cool name! That's probably because I associate it with Renee Geyer, an Australian singer from the 70s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9e_Geyer). I don't actually know of any other Renees. Yes, it sort of goes with Michelle, Denise etc, but perhaps because it was never as popular, it retains more mystique.

15
By Trillian (not verified)
September 9, 2007 10:17 AM

On Renee: Eh, so-so. I'd expect it to be attached to someone 40-ish. But I know a Renee who uses the nickname "Wren," which almost redeems the name for me.

On future names: I liked the names in the Octavia Butler "Parable" books... The first book is set about 2025, so some of the characters would be born in the 2000s, mostly in California. African-American main character Lauren has brothers Marcus and Keith--sounds about right. Other characters are Harry, Zahra, Larkin (Lauren's daughter), Aubrey, Taylor, Andrew -- all plausible for the 1995-2010 generation and the next. The author wants these dystopias to seem uncomfortably close to current reality, though, so naming characters too oddly would let the reader off the hook.

16
By Laney (not verified)
September 9, 2007 1:24 PM

Not really a fan of Renee. I guess I knew a bunch of annoying ones growing up too. It sounds fakey french to me.
I also think it fits in with Stacey and Denise and the other names of that era. It was pretty common where I grew up.

They all wanted to put the accent mark on it too.

17
By RobynT (not verified)
September 9, 2007 2:03 PM

Re: Leah: I always felt it was predominantly pronounced Lee-uh. The only Lay-uhs I know are Lea Salonga and this Filipino-American I know.

Re: Renee: I knew a few folks with this name born in the '70s/'80s. I think it's good in that it's a known name but not one that is used a lot. J&H's point about it being a common middle name is interesting. I guess, yeah, going along with that idea, Renee does seem... not spectacular. Not a name for if you want your daughter to be a center-of-attention type. (I mean, I don't know how much names actually give children their personalities, but it seems like Renee wouldn't convey the wish that you wanted your child to be the center-of-attention, like fancy/star type.)

J&H's mom: I like the idea of science fiction letters. I think you are right and yet it sounds like such a funny idea.

18
By Irene's mom (not verified)
September 9, 2007 3:43 PM

On Renee: I've never personally known a Renee, but I've known two male Rene's. I've always thought of it as a boys' name.
The sci-fi movie Serenity had a male named Jayne, which I thought was actually a very good choice... I don't remember any of the other characters, though.

19
By Heather A. (not verified)
September 9, 2007 3:52 PM

I met a little 3 year-old girl the other day named Sayre. This is a surname that I'd never heard used as a firstname, but it didn't sound at all odd. I actually thought it sounded a lot "better" (to my ears) then some of the surnames that are currently popular as girl's names, like Taylor, Madison, Riley, etc... It has a softer feel to it, like a Southern lilt. Of course I wanted to ask her mother all sorts of questions: "Is it a family name?", "Did you know that was Zelda Fitzgerald's maiden name?", "Are you from the South?" (For some reason I associate this surname with the American South.) I had to refrain, so she wouldn't think I was a nut. And she didn't offer anything on her own.
Anyhow, I wonder if in the coming years we will see "softer" or "more feminine sounding" surnames become more popular for girls?

20
By Anne (not verified)
September 9, 2007 4:30 PM

Sayre is such a pretty name! It almost sounds like a more feminine Sawyer. Though I've met a couple people with the last name Sawyer, I've never met a Sayre. I think the 'softer surname' trend is plausible, since the 'harder surname' thing is in but a lot of people probably still like their girls to sound like... girls.

On Renee: It's an alright name. Kind of blah, I guess, because it's kind of common but not in any sort of spectacular sense - if that makes sense.

21
By LKB (not verified)
September 9, 2007 4:52 PM

Heather -- How do you pronounce Sayre?

On Renee -- It does nothing for me. Completely blah to my ears, and also a bit dated (60s-80s). Still it's familiar and consistently in the top 1000, so I think it's a safe choice. I doubt anyone would hear it and think "what were her parents thinking?!" On the other hand, I think the majority of people would hear it and think "nothing special."

22
By Arlene F (not verified)
September 9, 2007 5:35 PM

My mil had a friend--if she were still alive, she'd be in her 90s--named Renee, pronounced REE-nie. Always made me cringe, like somewhere along the line someone didn't know how to pronounce it. Or maybe it was a nn...I don't know.

23
By kristin dawn (not verified)
September 9, 2007 5:48 PM

Some of the other names from Firefly were Simon, River, Kaylee, Malcolm, Wash, and Zoe. I know I'm forgetting a couple of them. I don't think any of those names sound suitably futuristic, esp. with the emphasis on Chinese culture that they have on that show.

Sayre reminds me of the female character Sayward, from the Conrad Richter books about precolonial America, I forget the name. They pronounced it Sayard.

Renee has too many negative connotations for me, sorry to say. Every Renee I've ever known (many, many) has been a pretentious stuck up type with really big hair, and the name is too lumped in with all those ooh-la-la French faux-glamourous 70's names like Desiree and Nicole.

Along those lines, my grandma is hoping I have twin girls and she even has names picked out for me...Nanette and Suzanne!! That left me speechlesss!

24
By Anna (not verified)
September 9, 2007 8:03 PM

Leia - I always assumed that was your nickname when I read your previous posts. I absolutely love that name/spelling, but thought it would be too obviously Star Wars. It's one of my favourite hypothetical choices - Leia Louise - though I also considered "Leah" to make it sound more normal, if that makes sense. How was it for you to grow up with that name? Did you get lots of Star Wars quotes, or was it alright? One of my worries would be that a girl called Leia would get lots of teasing at school...
About Renee, I agree that it sounds a bit bland, and, er, 70s/80s.
As for science fiction names, i think names that are "timeless" now and have been 50 years ago, will still be timeless classics in 50 years time (Julia, James etc).

25
By Irene's mom (not verified)
September 9, 2007 8:42 PM

The Richter trilogy was The Trees, The Fields, and (I think) The Town (or village or something). In the 80's there was a tv mini-series based on them. I've known one Sayward that pronounced it say-word.

26
By Jennie W. (not verified)
September 9, 2007 8:52 PM

I remember watching a movie in middle schools (early 80s). It was B&W and I'm guessing it was made in the 40s-50's. It was all about what life would be like in 1980. The part I really remember was a girl riding in her rocket to school (HA!) and talking to her friend Joan. Even at age 13 I thought how ridiculous it was that someone my age would be named Joan.

27
By Jessica (not verified)
September 9, 2007 9:10 PM

How do you pronounce Sayre?

Nanette and Suzanne? I say how darling!! Even though I would have a hard time naming my baby Nanette bc it is hard to hear - to my ears, I think I like her style. :)

28
By Nell (not verified)
September 9, 2007 10:23 PM

I've heard of a Rene pron REE-nie (also elderly) but I always thought it was short for Irene (pron the eye-REE-nie way). I rather like Renee but don't think it ever took off in the same way in the UK so doesn't sound such a dated Danielle.

Wren is adorable and there is also a Ren in the Wolf Brother books. They are set in the stone age so the opposite of science fiction I suppose!

29
By Lisa (not verified)
September 9, 2007 10:56 PM

I have a 1 year old niece named Renee. I was surprised by the choice, especially since her big sister is Maia, and they don't seem match at all to me. Still, I know a number of little girls called Maia or Maya now, whereas Renee will stand out at school I think.

30
By Sarah (not verified)
September 9, 2007 11:53 PM

Totally off subject...
I am leaning towards Elliot. Which of the following names do you like best for mn (ln Carlson)?
Alexander
Asher
Augustus
Cassius
Jack
James
Nicholas
Quentin
Walker
Jacob

31
By Sarah (not verified)
September 9, 2007 11:56 PM

Not to be too negative, but I don't like Renee or Sayre. I used to work with a woman whose last name was Sayre (pron. Say-er) and she was seriously the most negative, nasty person I've ever met. Renee is just plain and boring to me. I have known a few people who had it as first or middle name and just never cared for it.

32
By Mary (not verified)
September 10, 2007 12:22 AM

Someone mentioned Firefly/Serenity! I must comment! Anyway, the main characters are named-

Malcolm Reynolds (M)
Zoe Washburn (F)
Hoban Washburn (Wash)(M)
Inara Serra (F)
River Tam (F)
Simon Tam (M)
Jayne Cobb (M)
Derrial Book (M)
Kaywinnit Lee (Kaylee) Frye (F)

All we have to do is live for 500 or so years to see if Joss Whedon was a naming genius or not.
Joss is a cool name for a writer and director to have BTW.

33
By Valerie (not verified)
September 10, 2007 12:23 AM

Sarah:
I like James, Quentin and Walker in terms of how the names work with the first and last.

34
By mj (not verified)
September 10, 2007 12:37 AM

Sarah:

I think the 1- or 2-syllable names sound better, since Elliot is longer. Stylistically, I think James or Jacob sound best.

35
By LKB (not verified)
September 10, 2007 12:44 AM

Sarah, I think the following combos work best/are my preferences:
Elliot Alexander, Elliot James, Elliot Nicholas

The following also work, but not my preferences:
Elliot Asher, Elliot Augustus, Elliot Walker.

I think Cassius sounds out of place, Jack is too short, or for some reason just doesn't seem to fit, Quentin sounds a bit much to me when followed by Carlson (a big mouthful), and Jacob just doesn't sound right to me -- maybe it's the "cob"-"carl" sounds in sequence. doesn't flow well.

36
By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
September 10, 2007 1:20 AM

I haven't read "Neuromancer," but I did recently read Gibson's "Pattern Recognition," which featured some interesting names. Although the novel is set in present day, it still has a sci-fi sort of a feel to it. The main character is a young woman named Cayce Pollard. Cayce makes a big deal about how her named is pronounced "case" and not "casey" (a tribute to Neuromancer?).

Gibson is trying to capture a sort of hyperreal postmodern sense of the US after 9/11 in this novel, and the names he uses is a big part of the way he sets the mood. One of the characters, a sort of larger-than-life advertising executive, is named Hubertus Bigend. Almost every time a new character is introduced, Cayce comments on his or her name and what she makes of it. I think the names largely succeed in evoking the mood of the particular time and culture Gibson was trying to depict...kudos to him! I'll have to read Neuromancer now.

37
By Arlene F (not verified)
September 10, 2007 1:25 AM

Sarah--
I think the 3 and 4 syllable mns are too much of a mouthful.
Cassius brings to mind Shakespeare's Cassius, from "Julius Caesar," with his "lean and hungry look."
I think the k at the end of Jack bumps awkwardly into the hard c of your ln.
Don't care for the echoing final n sound with Quentin and the ln; also, now that I'm saying it to myself, I don't like the echoing k sounds at the beginnings either.
I just don't care for Walker, for no specific reason.
I'd go with Asher, James, or Jacob.
Looking back over the previous responses, James seems to be the big vote-getter!

38
By georgia (not verified)
September 10, 2007 1:49 AM

Off topic but...My husband loves the name Finley for a boy, I think I like it too but the jury is still out. My concern though, is does it sound too feminine? Will he have trouble with the name or is it masculine enough? Also, what do you think of the name?

39
By RobynT (not verified)
September 10, 2007 2:02 AM

Sarah: I vote against Cassius, Jack, and maybe Quentin. I think I don't like the rhyming of Quentin and Carlson, but maybe it is not a big deal. Jack just sounds too short to me, and I guess I am not a fan of Cassius. Maybe the similarities to your last name also bother me. Maybe it also depends how you are pronouncing it: I am assuming like Cassius Clay, but if you're thinking Cas-see-uhs, then I think I like it a little better. Love the rest. Oh, also if you go with Walker, I would assume it was a family name. If that matters...

Re: Firefly: Something about the name Inara Serra told me the character was non-white. I wonder what it is and I wonder how they came up with the names... I also expected the Tams to be Chinese. Are they? I can't really tell from the pictures on IMDb... I wonder if it is something about their first names that told me this or only the last name...

40
By RobynT (not verified)
September 10, 2007 2:04 AM

georgia: i wonder if it would help if you gave us an idea of some names that you think are too feminine. my own taste is generally opposed to names that end with the ee sound because they sound nickname-y or too light and playful to me. maybe this is related to femininity, though i have the same "rule" for girls' and boys' names.

41
By J&H's mom (not verified)
September 10, 2007 2:58 AM

Sarah-I like several of your choices, but James seems like the clear winner to me as well. Do any of them have special meaning?
georgia-I personally like Finley, Finn, Flynn, Phinneas, Finnegan et. al.
I know some find them too trendy. I'm a sucker for the Irish (or faux Irish)myself.
I don't think it sounds too feminine at all, but it is true that boys' names with the long e ending often switch sides- e.g. Riley and Emory. Only you can decide whether this is a big deal. Honestly, though, it doesn't sound like you're super excited about the name-do you like one of the variants above better, or are there any others in the running?
How about Cress for a science fiction name? There was this tiresome story about a girl named Cress in an old literature anthology I once used. I've never heard it anywhere else, but it has a sci fi. vibe to me. Oh, and Kexx.
There is a Kexx in the credits of the Arthur cartoon.

42
By April (not verified)
September 10, 2007 4:01 AM

The best sci-fi, in my opinion, is about characters and ideas more than it is about gimmicks. So I prefer it when names don't draw too much attention to themselves, as if declaring loudly, "We come from the future!" Many names in sci-fi feel like logically futuristic versions of names we already have: Geordi from Star Trek, Han and Leia from Star Wars. In general I'd rather see names that already exist, but on the other hand, a novel I recently read which takes place in the near future, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, has as its protagonists Jason, Diane, and Tyler, who were born in the 1980s or 1990s and are the same age. These names felt poorly matched to me; at a guess, I'd put them about 5 or 10 years apart in popularity, first Diane, then Jason, then Tyler. As for Joss Whedon's characters, the Firefly names are not really futuristic, just Whedonesque. River and Kaylee fit right in with, say, Willow and Harmony.

43
By Anna (not verified)
September 10, 2007 6:37 AM

Sarah - I too think James would go best, although I do like Elliott Alexander Carlson as well, even though it's long. But it's got a nice flow to it.

Georgia - Finley is a nice Scottish name, I don't find it feminine at all. True, it sounds "soft" and gentle, but in my opinion that doesn't make it sound feminine. Personally, i prefer the spelling "Finlay", that looks a bit rougher as well :) The name does seem to become hugely popular though (at least here in the UK).

44
By Anna (not verified)
September 10, 2007 6:40 AM

Sorry for double posting - On a totally different matter: having finally bought Laura's book, I absolutely love it - I just wish there was an English/UK version! Not only in terms of popularity of names, but also as there is a different cultural background to consider. Does anyone know a good name book for over here that's somewhat like Laura's?!

45
By Hannah (not verified)
September 10, 2007 9:57 AM

Robyn T- River and Simon from firefly aren't Asian. Here's a link to a clearer photo of them...
http://www.prettybadplanet.com/Button01.jpg

46
By Katharine (not verified)
September 10, 2007 11:23 AM

Kristin Dawn: Nanette is certainly one you don't hear every day! :-)

Anna: I too would like to know if there is an English equivalent to laura's book?...

On the Renee debate: Everyone seems to have negative associations with it, but living in England where the name never really had that surge of 70's popularity I really don't (there are a few old ladies called Rene pronounced Ree-nie though). Having said that, I'm still not at all taken with the name.

I do love Wren though - there's a character on US children's show 'Even Stevens' called Wren (don't ask me how I know these things!) and I thought how spunky it was when I heard it! - it fits in with the trend for nature inspired names too...

47
By Eo (not verified)
September 10, 2007 1:04 PM

Chiming in on "Wren"-- I love it too. That, and another bird name, "Pheasant" which I have heard rarely, are charming. What I like about them is that they seem to stand outside of time. Not likely to be dated.

Going with the Wren sound, another favorite is "Renny", which has mostly been used for boys, but could work for a girl. I think of a carefree adventurer, perhaps an Irishman. "Renny Whiteoak" in the Jalna novels was part Irish. Don't think it was short for anything in that context. But COULD be short for "Renard" (don't like), or "Reynolds", (better) I suppose...

48
By theotherkate (not verified)
September 10, 2007 2:00 PM

Elliot James sounds best. Any of the "A" names would make his initial EAC and it reminds me of the East Australian Current from Finding Nemo. I know, it's strange but that's what I thought of!

49
By theotherkate (not verified)
September 10, 2007 2:01 PM

Regarding Renee: Being French-Canadian, I know male and female Rene/Renee. It never did anything for me. Renata/Rihanna has a little more interest to my ears.

50
By lizpenn (not verified)
September 10, 2007 2:08 PM

Meg, for a different take on the name Renee, how about the Italian Renata? Means the same thing (reborn) and it sounds fresher and more romantic to my ears. It's also nowhere in the top 1000, so you'd have the only Renata on the playground ...