Book titles tend to be one of two things: a verbatim description of the tale contained within, or else wildly evocative of some more ephemeral aspect of the writing (often grabbed from a cryptic quote towards the end of the narrative or tipped off by a free standing quote or two from another work or works – real or fictitious – at the start of the book).
It’s easy to come up with an exhaustive list of the first type of obvious title: The Odyssey, Le Morte d’Arthur, The Canterbury Tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Gulliver’s Travels, Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Frankenstein, Through the Looking Glass, The Brothers Karamazov, Gone with the Wind, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse-Five, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Hobbit, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Where the Wild Things Are, American Gods, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Wolf Hall, Doctor Sleep,… I could go on and on and on.
But I have to admit that I love the titles where they don’t make sense until they do. For instance, in Helen Oyeyemi’s imaginative retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, the title Boy Snow Bird sounds strange and nonsensical until you realize that those three words are actually the proper names of her main characters. It isn’t until halfway through Patrick Rothfuss’s epic book that you realize The Name of the Wind is an elusive power that hero Kvothe may or may not be able to tame. A line in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird brings that title into crisp clarity, likewise with William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury when paired with the famous Shakespearean speech from whence his title came. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being seems to make sense until you read the opening pages, and you realize that there is another whole layer to meaning of “the Time Being” – and that’s exciting.
Then there are books where you wonder why the author settled on that particular title. I just read Deborah McKinlay’s wonderful gem of a book, That Part Was True, and while I can understand the gist of where the title came from, it didn’t really seem to fit the tone or intention of the book for me at all. One of my biggest head scratchers is Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. I absolutely adore this book, and yes, it’s full of absolutely bizarre things (such as main character who lives in San Francisco but his father is a mountain and his mother is a washing machine – trust me, it’s a fantastic book, well worth the read), but finding a meaning behind his title is either a testament to the obscure or else a nod to the obvious. (And for the life of me, I can never remember off the top of my head if the first part of it is someone coming or someone going…)
That being said, I am in a state of utter awe and appreciation for the titles that author James S. A. Corey has used in the first four out of an announced nine titles in the Expanse series of science fiction novels, currently being published by Orbit Books, and which have been picked up by SyFy for development into a television series.
(A fun side note before I talk about the titles, and perhaps giving a little insight into them: James S. A. Corey is actually a duology of authors -Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The pseudonym comes from Abraham’s and Franck’s middle names, and S.A. are the initials of Abraham’s daughter. So the something-that-seems-straight-forward-but-really-means-something-else-that’s-kind-of-personal is already in play before we even talk about the titles.)
The first four titles in the Expanse series (the only volumes to yet be published) at first glance seem to have nothing to do with the books themselves. There are no whales in the first volume, no Shakespearean productions in the second. There are no eponymous quotes printed just after the title page to set a stage, nor any specific speeches or insights that have to do with titles at all. And yet, they are Just. Effin’. Perfect.
Let’s look at each one individually:
- Leviathan Wakes: Leviathan = a sea monster, usually thought of as being huge, often attributed to whales. Like I said, there are no whales in this book, no large creatures, not even a doomed search for personal demons, but this book is the one that puts into play all the huge, frightful, sweeping actions that will echo for at least eight more volumes, all set (we assume) in the huge ocean of space. The monstrous sea beast awakens! Quelle magnifique!
- Caliban’s War: Caliban is most famously a character in Shakespeare’s tragic play, “The Tempest” (you know, the one where an innocent young woman states, ” O brave new world/That has such people in’t!”). He is the half human son of a demon witch, and Shakespeare calls him a “mooncalf” (which is a term for an aborted cow fetus!). He is at times depicted as being mad, deformed, and/or beastly (sometimes even as half man/half fish); at the very least, he is subhuman. He has been pressed into cruel servitude by the wizard Prospero after attempting to rape Prospero’s daughter. Since this second volume in the Expanse series deals with a “protovirus” that takes over and manipulates organic matter (yeah, think about that a minute, and be horrified) for some billion year old alien agenda that was subverted by circumstance, you can get a feel for the genius behind this title.
- Abaddon’s Gate: Okay, I’m starting to get into a bit of speculation on this one because I’m only about a quarter of the way through the book, but even at this point I think I can see the focus behind the title. “Abaddon” is a Hebrew word meaning a place of destruction, often associated with a bottomless pit, and also often found alongside the word “sheol”, which is the land of the dead. Abaddon also is the name of an angel as noted in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. He is the king of an army of locusts; his name, transcribed from the Hebrew into Greek (Abaddon) and then translated from the Greek into English is “the Destroyer”. I don’t believe this reference is to the protovirus anymore; it seems like it could be directly applied to a newly introduced character and her actions, or even be associated with the focus of her actions. But the foreshadowing in the title is awesome.
- Cibola Burn: I readily admit that I do not know the significance of this title having not even laid eyes on the book, but I am intrigued. “Cibola” is one of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, a Spanish myth of seven fantastical cities to be found across the vast deserts north of Mexico, containing riches that went beyond the dreams of avarice. Conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado actually ventured to Cibola, arriving in 1540, but discovered that the stories were lies, and that there was, in fact, no treasure. I have no idea how this myth will play in with the action of a well entrenched and compelling space drama, but I can’t wait to find out!
Ah, such brave, new titles, that have such inferences in them! My hat’s off to James S. A. Corey (both of ’em) and to all those authors who give us such wonderful and evocative titles to go with their wonderful and evocative stories!