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Fiction Flashback – Neil Williamson

August 1, 2011

Do you remember that Earthsea story by Ursula K. LeGuin?  “The Rule of Names” has always stuck with me; if I hadn’t known the importance of naming and names by then, then it would have cemented that belief.  (Heck, I went through a phase of saying only  Morning”! after that.)  And, well, it also underscored my belief in the importance of words.

Particularly as names.

But “The Euonmyist” is science fiction, and where in sf are names just as important as in magic?  Yes… science!  And did you ever imagine someone would write a story about that?

I first read this story in Logorrhea.  I think my very favorite part is the end.  :D   I like Calum’s family too.

This story originally appeared in Electric Velocipede #9 in Fall of 2005.

-Anne S. Zanoni, southeastern MI August 2011


“The Euonmyist”

by Neil Williamson

Calum knew there was a word for it. This sick feeling that had been accreting stealthily in his gut since the transport burned down from the orbital and lit in over the North Atlantic; that had formed a discernable kernel over Arran and bubbled up to his chest when they landed. When he set foot on Scottish tarmac again, he felt it tickle his heart in a most unwelcome way. It was like anticipation of something you knew you should be looking forward to but suspected might not turn out the way you wanted at all. Anticipation, yes, and there was an element of leaden fatigue to it, too. There was definitely a word. Calum pondered it as the government car shushed him southwards out of Prestwick on the rain-glittered expressway heading down the Ayrshire coast. If anyone should have been able to come up with the name of this feeling, it should have been him but, even with the implants off, his head was still mired in the Lexicon mindset. None of the words that came to him out of the residuals created in his flesh brain by the thousand-language database were quite right.

It was a human feeling. It needed a human word. He was sure it would come to him in time. Now that he was home.

Scotland in July. The lazy, wheeling polka of sun and rain, baking the earth to oven stillness before dousing it with steaming flash showers. Chasing the clouds down past Ayr, heading inland via Maybole, the car’s windows were slapped with wet foliage so lush and luminous green that for a disorienting moment Calum could have been back in Ghessareen’s island jungles. To stop from thinking about that he mouthed the names of the roadside plants to himself—the thick ferns, the wide-leafed sycamores and chestnuts, the tall, purple foxgloves springing erect, relieved of their burden of water by the car’s passing. Calum enjoyed the foursquare precision of the Latin, the quirky, old folksiness of the English. On Ghessareen nothing had a name until he had given it one. Here, it had all been done centuries ago. Foxglove, he thought. Whoever it had been that came up with that, they had a sure gift for euonymy. The name fit perfectly. Of course it had originally been ‘folk’s glove,’ but whoever had decided that the little bell-shaped blossoms might have been used as faerie mittens had created a lasting image. Calum sometimes wondered what it would have been like if the Unification Bloc had come here before humans had evolved language. What would a foxglove have been called then? If the influence of the Integrated Machine Intelligences had been ascendant at that point it would have been something horribly functional like, ‘flowering-plant-of-average-height: 0.7m-with-many-blossoms-of-hue: 400nm-wavelength.’ Thank Christ Earth had been overlooked for long enough for uniquely imaginative names like ‘foxglove’ to rise up, get spread around, and achieve acceptance through established use and their own organic rightness.

“Foxglove.” He said it aloud, and the unnamed feeling receded.

 

###
Calum looked into the baby’s eyes once more, just to be sure. The infant gazed up, yawned in a way that suggested the serenity she had displayed for the last five minutes was about to slip into boredom. He took it as a warning sign. He’d had her long enough anyway.When Calum opened the door the expectant sotto voce murmur stilled, and the faces of thirty or so assorted family, extended family, close friends, and neighbours all turned his way. En masse they leaned forward an inch or two. The youthful mother—his cousin Donna, who had barely started secondary school when Calum had left Earth—and her equally callow boyfriend beamed like idiots. This was almost as stressful as reporting a naming judgement to the Bloc.

“She looks to me,” he said, “like an Ellen.”

There was a pause before the predictable chorus of oohs came, followed by a smattering of applause. It had been just a hint of a pause, but it was a familiar one to Calum and it brought the feeling back with a vengeance. It was the pause that happened when no-one wanted to react to a new name until they found out what the person it mattered most to thought. A grimace of consternation passed across the baby’s features. It matched the look on her mother’s face. Calum decided it was a good time to reunite them.

“There you go,” he said. “Congratulations.”

Donna offered a niggardly smile. “Thanks.”

As if seeking to head off an onrushing display of petulant ingratitude, Calum’s always harmonious Uncle Dan wedged himself into the picture.

“Well done, Calum, son.” He pumped Calum’s hand. “We’re very grateful.” His eyes widened. “Honoured, even.”

“There’s no need really,” Calum murmured. “For the family, it’s a pleasure.”

Through the resuming chatter, and the baby’s precursory whimpers, Calum heard Donna whine peevishly to her mother. He matched Uncle Dan’s fixed grin with one of his own.

“Honoured,” Dan repeated. “That a famous . . . er . . . . ”

“Euonymist,” Calum supplied.

“Darling, you can always use it as a middle name.” The whole room must have heard his Aunt Geraldine’s whisper. The volume of conversation swelled with shared discomfort.

“ . . . a famous unanimist . . . . ” Dan attempted gamely.

“Something classy, I agree . . . . ” Geraldine soothed.

“ . . . should do us the honour of naming our wee Ellen.”

“Shaz-nay!” bellowed Donna. “Her name’s Shaznay!”

The feeling that Calum had been unable to name filled him completely. The heavy anticipation had blossomed into resigned embarrassment, and in its wake came that universal certainty of not being able to please all of the people all of the time. And by the way the rest of the onlookers were guzzling their drinks and inspecting the contents of their paper plates he suspected that they shared some of what he felt. He wondered if any of them knew what the feeling was called.

Calum looked around for a diversion, but no-one was helping him out on this one. Even his mum had vanished. Then an unlikely escape route appeared, and it came in the form of an old woman rearing up unsteadily off of one of the kitchen chairs that had been set out to provide extra seating. It was the dress Calum recognised. It was a violently puce floral affair that did nothing to disguise Auntie Bella’s uncertain shape—a morphology of bone curvature and body fat redistribution peculiar to Scottish grande dames that Calum had long suspected was due to the accretion of density through years of accumulated nicotine, sarcasm and fried potato scones. It hadn’t happened yet, but with the increased longevity treatments coming out of Earth’s trade with the Bloc it was surely only a matter of time before the first Scottish granny turned herself inside out and ended up as a kind of greasy black hole. All that would be left would be a set of false teeth, a pair of wrinkly tights and a box of After Eight mints filled with empty wrappers.

“Whit’s he cried the bairn then?” Auntie Bella’s croaky caw had once engendered terror in all of Calum’s cousins, seeing as it was usually followed by a smack on the legs or, worse, a flabby kiss. Now, however, it was more than welcome.

“She’s called Shaznay.” Donna’s tone defied anyone to disagree.

Bella wobbled closer, peered at the increasingly fractious infant. “Shaznay?” she said. “Whit’s that, Shaznay? Wha’s cried Shaznay? Lookit thon face? Dis that resemmle a Shaznay to you?”

“Actually, the name was Ellen.” Calum’s mother had reappeared at the living room door. Better late than never. He made a mental note to thank her for her support later.

Bella regarded the baby again. “Aye, Ellen’d be fair eneuch, hen. Yer mither’s got a second cuisin in Canada cawd Ellen.”

“I have?” said a surprised Geraldine.

At that moment baby Shaznay/Ellen, or whatever she would eventually be known as when she was old enough to choose for herself, decided that enough was enough and began to scream.

“Aye, and she was a greeter an aw,” finished Bella, turning her attention to a plate of hot sausage rolls.

 

###
Calum sat on the garden bench with his mother. Even at the end of the long-stretched summer evening, with the stars beginning to show in the deepening sky, it was still quite warm enough to sit out. If you didn’t mind the midges. A cloud of them spun like a slow tornado around the nearby flowerbeds. There was another perfect euonym. The word just encapsulated the infuriating quality of the tiny insect; and it could be utilised as satisfying invective if the need arose.“Midges.” Calum smiled, then slapped his hand against his arm. “Wee bastards.”

His mother smiled with him. “Thanks for doing that today,” she said. “Pay no mind to Geraldine and Donna. They may not stick with the name you gave them, but they’ll take the prestige that comes with it.”

Calum shrugged. “I name planets for a living. What did they expect?”

The midge-cloud had gyrated above the roses, lingering there over the creamy, pinky, yellowy blossoms. Strange behaviour. Usually they headed straight for him, but he’d only been pestered by a couple of stray ones so far. Something about the rosebeds was apparently more interesting than him tonight. He wondered if it was the perfume. Did midges have a sense of smell, or was that the insects on Yrrow he was thinking of?

“You were the model of diplomacy,” his mother said.

Calum laughed. “I’ve played to tougher audiences.”

“You always had a way with words, though. Ever since . . . . ”

“Ever since I was four years old, when I looked at myself in the mirror for a whole hour and then told you I wasn’t to be called Brian any more because my name should really be Calum. I remember.”

“And when we told you not to be so silly, you screamed the place down.”

The midges had moved on to the big rhododendron in the garden’s back corner. His mother got up from the bench and approached the roses, slipping a pair of secateurs out of her cardigan pocket as she knelt by the bed. “I hope young Shaznay has similar moment of self determination when she . . . oh.”

“What is it?” When his mother didn’t answer Calum went over to see.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” She leant back to let him see.

At first Calum thought it was just a stray shoot. Some sort of weed, no more than three inches tall, dwarfed among the tall rose stems, but with spiky looking stiletto leaves to rival its neighbours’ thorns. Then he saw the way it gleamed in the last of the sunlight, flaky amber on silver like rusted steel.

His insides lurched. He had a very bad feeling about this. Much worse than the unnamed one. This one was the cast-iron cannonball of dread.

 

###
When Calum came back into the house his mother had turned the kitchen into a research centre. A stack of discarded gardening books surrounded her at the table where she had unrolled a screen and an interface to search the web for more exotic specimens. She tapped awkwardly at the flat keyboard. The lacerated gardening glove and blunted secateurs lay beside the screen. The end of her bandaged thumb was turning pink again.

“Nothing yet?” Calum asked, in hope rather than expectation. He wanted her to find it, but he was becoming increasingly certain that she would not. Not a viciously bladed bio-metallic organism like that. Not in all the botanical lists on this Earth. He sneaked a glance at the readout of his analyser. Please wait, it read. It would take longer to consult the vast botanical databases of the Bloc, of course, and while discovering a known extro species in his mum’s back garden carried with it a number of unpleasant implications, it would still be preferable to it not finding anything at all. He hadn’t turned on the Lexicon implants. That would come later, when all else had failed.

Calum looked out the window. It was too dark to see it now, but he could feel it out there, a problem growing with every minute that passed. It hadn’t been there when his mother had been out that afternoon shortly before he arrived, she had assured him—and he believed her, gardeners had an eye for these things—which meant that it had grown four inches in a few hours. Which really wasn’t a good thing at all.

Calum checked his analyser before he went to bed. Please wait. He knew he didn’t have to wait. He was pretty sure what the answer would be anyway, so he could act now—should act now—but given the option, he waited.

 

###
They started arriving not long after dawn. Calum woke to a gabble of voices, the kind of squabble that universally signified opposing vested interests. He checked his watch, his phone, the analyser: 05:12, seven missed calls, No species match. The unnamed feeling woke too. It shifted inside him like slipping sand.Calum got up, pulled on some clothes, then, reluctantly, sub-voxed a command that engaged the Lexicon implants.

The scene in the kitchen was chaotic. An auditory nightmare that his translator implants would have approached melt-down to make sense of. Fortunately, he had neglected to turn them on as well. Best just to leave it that way for now. That the majority of the yabbering occupants were human was something of a relief, but Calum immediately spotted representatives of at least three other Bloc races. A Peloquin pair were haranguing a black woman with a placatory attitude and a very expensive-looking suit. Earth-Bloc liaison, Calum decided. She could handle it. A breeze of movement and a purplish blur in the air in front of him told him there were Tage here too. He unfocussed his gaze for a moment and saw it clearer, a vague indigo outline. A noise like a jar of wasps—a big jar. It was agitated about something. Calum shrugged, tapped his ear to show he didn’t understand, and the Tage buzzed angrily and moved on. The third species he recognised was a tall, butter-skinned Uidean. That was encouraging. If this panned out like he feared, Earth was going to need all of their friends on side. For now though the unfortunate sod had been cornered by Aunt Bella.

“Is sumbody puttin the kettle on or no? I’m awfy drouthie, so I am,” she told it.

The confused-looking extro was tapping the side of his head nervously, but Aunt Bella didn’t seem to understand the signal. Calum thought about rescuing it, but the Uideans were seasoned diplomats. They’d surely faced worse—though perhaps not stranger—than Bella. Besides, there was activity in the garden that demanded his attendance.

There were maybe half a dozen people standing around—or in—the rosebed, which itself was now covered in an open tent of heavy plastic sheeting. Calum’s mother stood to one side in her dressing gown and slippers talking to a rumpled-looking man in a hairy suit. Calum would have recognised his boss from his posture alone.

“Good to see you, Clarence,” he said. From the centre of the group clustered around the roses came sounds of exertion and a metallic grating that made Calum think of sharpening knives.

Sneijder turned, and he didn’t look happy, but then he rarely did. “You should have notified us.”

“I followed procedure,” Calum replied calmly. “Species discovered in pre-nomenclatured areas have to be cross-referenced with both local and Lexicon lists.”

The Dutchman’s lip curled. “Calum, you understand, don’t you, the implications if this turns out to be a completely new species? You should have notified us straight away. God, for containment and assessment, if nothing else.”

Calum felt the feeling shift inside him again. He could almost hear the sighing of the slipping sand. One of the workers stepped to the side, revealing that the plant had already erupted into a dense bush as tall as his chest, sprouting fists of blade-leaves in all directions. One of the other workers did something that set the whole thing quivering with a noise like an emptied cutlery drawer. “Bloody . . . thing,” the worker tailed off, at a loss for a suitable epithet. Then, examining his steel mail gloves for damage, he told someone to fetch the torch.

“All the more reason for following procedure,” Calum told Sneijder. “Given the political ramifications, they will be examining every step of the process. We’ve got to be above board all the way.” This was true, but what was truer was that he’d suspected that he knew what was going on from the moment he saw the plant, and he’d wanted to postpone all of this as long as possible. If there was a contamination risk, the botanical one at least wasn’t unmanageable. At least he’d got a decent night’s sleep out of it.

“All right, what’s done is done,” Sheijder came closer. “But I need to ask you about Ghessareen.”

Calum had thought he might. “What about it?”

“Well, specifically the quarantine procedures?” Sneijder said. “Is there any chance at all . . . . ”

“That I could have brought something back with me?” Calum sighed. “Well, let’s see. They pulled us off Ghessareen with the job half done and no explanation, and replaced us with an inexperienced team of Bellussibellom. Then they quibbled about just about every item in our necessarily incomplete report, rendering any information about any of the catalogued species confused to the point of useless. And even though they made us go through the decontamination procedure three times before they let us leave the station, virtually everything on the Ghessareen orbital just happened to be glitching from a suspected virus that they never did track down. So, in short, yes, it’s possible that I brought something back with me that wasn’t killed dead like it should have been. It would certainly be one explanation for how this thing ended up in my mother’s garden.”

Sneijder’s nose wrinkled in disgust. He might have known what the problem was with the Ghessareen survey, but he wasn’t going to let on.

Calum wasn’t going to let being kept in the dark about it upset him. “Look there are plants not a million miles away from this in the northern archipelagos. Similar, but not the same. The plants that grow on Ghessareen wouldn’t survive our alkali soil, let alone flourish like this. This is totally new.” He looked at Sneijder to see if he had caught the subtext.

The Dutchman arched a bushy brow, lowered his voice. “Mutation?”

“Almost certainly.”

“Natural or engineered.”

“I’m not a botanist, Clarence, but given the source of the naming assignation used on Ghessareen . . . .”

“I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“Peloquin.”

“Fuck,” Sneijder spat. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I thought they were pretty quick to get out here.”

“Exactly.” This time Sneijder sighed with him.

“I’m going to have to get guidance from the diplomats on this,” he said at length. “I shouldn’t do this because of your involvement, but none of the others can get here sooner than a week, so I’m officially appointing you the case euonymist. But do me a favour. Don’t go making any promises until you hear from me.”

“No fear on that score,” Calum said. “I’m going back to bed.”

 

###
It turned out to be the best thing he could have done. Not only did it give him the chance to rest, but it also insulated him from having to actually interact with the various Bloc representatives who were still crowding the house. He didn’t sleep, just lay there in the darkened room, staring at what had been his childhood bedroom walls. There beside the closet there had been an RSPB poster showing a montage of British garden birds, and he had memorised every one of them by the age of ten, spellbound by the names. Finches: chaffinch, bullfinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, crossbill, linnet, yellowhammer . . . . Yellowhammer. There was a euonym if ever there was one. Surrounded by names like those it was little wonder that he’d found himself suited to a career in euonymy. If only there had turned out to be more naming and less strenuous diplomacy involved in the job, it would have been perfect.

Calum engaged his translator implant and listened in to the discussions still going on through in the kitchen. Not surprisingly, the Peloquin pair were trying every trick in the book to get an audience with him, but the liaison Sneijder had left behind did a fine job of stonewalling. Eventually it was his mother who brought peace to the house by turfing them all out.

A quiet knock on the bedroom door.

“Can I come in?” It reminded Calum of when he was a teenager, made him smile.

“Of course,” he said.

His mother sat on the end of the bed. “Is it always like this in your job?”

He nodded, shrugged. “Can be,” he said. “Cultural imperialism is a big deal. There’s a lot of prestige awarded when one race’s languages are used for naming over another and it can all get a bit heated. There have been wars fought over the naming of a new planet, civilisations wiped out. In fact it’s one of the reasons the Bloc exists. It was originally set up to ensure fairness, and encourage harmony and trade, but in lieu of conflict the various races have developed internecine one-up-manship to a fine art. My job is to ensure that all of the languages in the Lexicon are represented equally while at the same time apportioning a name that is apt.”

“Sounds like a bit of a juggling act,” his mother said.

“Mostly, it’s close to impossible,” he replied. “There’s so much diplomatic bartering involved that your newly discovered planetary system ends up with a nomenclature comprising a hundred different languages. It’s a mess.”

“How do you decide which languages to use then?”

“We cross reference terrain, flora, fauna, weather types—a whole bunch of criteria—and derive the names from the things that we already have names for. The Lexicon provides a ballpark and we go with that. The races whose languages are used gain a little extra cultural clout in the world in question.” He sighed. “Which is why discovering a plant on Earth that resembles a species we have just named using a Peloquin language is a problem.”

“Why?”

“If we use the same nomenclature, it gives them the first non-human cultural claim on Earth.”

“That doesn’t seem very fair. They don’t let people name the plants that are grown in their own gardens?”

“Existing species are fine, they’ve already got names. And if contact had been yesterday, before we were adopted into the Bloc, we could have used any language we liked to name this thing. But on a Bloc world any newly discovered species has to be named using the Lexicon. And all of Earth’s living languages—English, Mandarin, Spanish, German, all the way down to Gaelic and Swahili, everything that’s taught in schools—are in the Lexicon. And they know this.”

His mother looked shocked. “You think all of this is deliberate?” She whispered it as if she might be overheard.

“I’d bet on it,” Calum muttered. “Of course we can’t prove that I didn’t bring back some germ with me from Ghessareen. That whole operation was such a mess that I’m not even certain of that myself. I’d be surprised if they don’t conveniently provide a very clear trail of evidence to prove it. So I’m afraid they’ve succeeded. There’s nothing we can do.”

 

###
It was lunchtime when the call came through. Sneijder, who had smartened himself up in the intervening time, was back on the orbital. Calum recognised a canteen that had been turned into a makeshift hearing chamber. The Bloc representatives could be seen assembled in the background of the picture.Calum had set his phone up to take in both his and his mother’s deckchairs and the susurrating rust-silver tree that now overhung the corner of the garden.

“Calum, you’ve had time to consult the Lexicon. The representatives are eager to hear your judgement,” Sneijder said. He fidgeted. “I should advise you that this call is being broadcast to the United Nations.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but in the end didn’t. The fact that Calum hadn’t heard from Sneijder before this just meant that their hands were tied diplomatically as surely as they had been euonymically.

Calum straightened himself in his chair. “Yes, indeed,” he said. He had spent the last few hours trawling all of the languages in the Lexicon for an alternative. Sneijder’s silence confirmed what he already knew. That there was none. There was a clear path of semblance and antecedence. No matter what tack he took the Lexicon always brought him round to using the Peloquin naming.

Calum looked squarely into the phone’s little screen. The human contingent looked nervous, the Peloquin looked eager—but then they always did. He had delivered naming judgements to similar groups many times, and while some of those occasions had been fraught with complicated layers of vested interests, he had never felt so personally responsible before. That was the moment that he decided that he’d had enough. He’d perform this one last naming and later he’d call Sneijder and resign. The job had so little to do with an ability with names that there had been little or no satisfaction in it for him for years.

“Oh aye, that’s it is it? Loonging aboot, ye docksie pair, when I’m after my twaloors. What’s all this oancairy onywey?” Aunt Bella’s timing could not have been better. Calum’s mum sprang to her feet to turn the old woman around and fix her something to eat in the kitchen, but Bella had already covered the ground between them.

“Calum, who is that woman?” It was Sneijder’s voice, but the phone’s screen was blocked by Bella’s stout frame. “I can’t make out a word she is saying.”

“Aye, well?” Bella said, either ignoring or not hearing Sneijder. “Brian, son, you look awfy peelie-wallie. You maun be scunnered with all the palaiver that’s been ongaun the day.”

Calum looked at Bella with wonder. That was the word. Scunnered.

“Calum?”

That was the euonym for the feeling he had been trying to name since Ghessareen. Scunnered. In fact, pure scunnered. He’d not heard that word in years. Like most Scots words, it was essentially dead in linguistic terms. The old language, a historical victim of wave after wave of cultural erosion, had been steadily supplanted over generations with Anglicisms, Americanisms, Euroisms and most recently the backwash of intergalactic contact. Only the eldest in the rural areas still used it, spoke it, thought in it. Calum had been steeped in the Lexicon so long he had almost forgotten it existed. A few of the words had been absorbed into English, but never having been ratified as an official language in its own right, the Scots tongue had never made it into the Lexicon.

“Calum, if you can sort out the domestic business as soon as possible.” Sneijder didn’t try to hide the sarcasm. “The representatives are waiting.”

Calum reached around Bella, spoke to the screen. “I’ll call you right back.” Then he took his elderly relative by the hand and led her gently to the knife tree.

“Bella, how long have you lived around here?” he asked.

“All my puff,” she replied, looked at him sidelong. “How?”

Calum grinned. “I think you just might be about to save the planet,” he said. “See this here? We’re having a lot of trouble with it.” He indicated the tree. “What would you call it? In your native language, that’s not in the Lexicon.”

She peered at the plant: examined it slowly from its impenetrable roots right up to its branches and the deadly hanging blades of its leaves; twanged a steely twig with her finger. “Aye it’s a scunner for sure,” she declared at length. “You should howk it out and chuck it on the midden.”

“A scunner, is it?” he asked, seeking confirmation.

“Aye, a scunner right enough.” That said, Bella turned to Calum’s mother. “Now, Magret, I’m hauf stairved, here.”

“A scunner it is then,” Calum said to himself, and picked up the phone. They weren’t going to be happy about the use of a local language not in the Lexicon. In fact they’d be arguing about the legality of it for years. And by the time they sorted it out it’d be someone else’s problem.

Now he’d made the decision he knew it was the right one. And now the feeling was gone, he was aware that it’d been with him for a lot longer than he’d realised. Before coming home, before Ghessareen even. A long time.

Scunnered.

He knew there had been a word for it.

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