Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Names of Planets

A few years late, I am finally catching up on Gene Wolfe's
Short Sun trilogy - which is deeply poignant. Noticing that the two planets in the story are called "Blue" and "Green," I was shocked at the simplicity of the names. I imagined the first travelers to these worlds seeing their colors from far above them. "But that's nothing to name a planet," I thought with some irritability at those pioneers. Then I stopped and thought about the name of our own planet, and of all its companions. We have forgotten what most of the names in the solar system mean, and because we are not contemporaries of Caesar, "Mars" and "Jupiter" are names that sound very exotic to us. But actually, our ancestors, both ancient and immediate, have named the heavenly bodies, from the nearest to the sun to the farthest away: Messenger, Love, Soil (that's the one we're on), War, Father of the Gods, Eater of Children, Sky, Ocean, and Death. Are these names any more or less wise than "Blue" and "Green"? Or any more or less beautiful?

Love and War are understandable enough, from the physical appearance of those two worlds: one shining and radiant, the other brooding and red in our sky. These are names like Blue and Green, just with one further layer of symbol and meaning. Death is also a logical enough name, for a satellite so far from the sun that it must be cold and dead indeed. Scientists named Neptune for its ocean-like actually, we did name a planet Blue, except that we named it Ocean.

But I ask you: Saturn? The most beautiful of all our worlds? We named it He Eats His Children? What injustice. And yet...if it is true that those glorious rings that circle Saturn are the remains of tiny, tiny worlds pulled apart by Saturn's gravity, then our planet Saturn did eat its children.

I am still trying to decide if these were wise names or foolish ones. In either case, what we name our worlds does indicate a lot about us. I am glad, in any case, to be living on Soil, and not on a planet named Death or Eater of Children.

No comments: