What's In A Title?

A snarl sprang across my teeth (I learned this trick from a Stephen Donaldson epic) when I saw David Zindell's new sf novel War in Heaven. The book itself is fine, Zindell being a good writer. But his title has been nicked from Tolkien's pal Charles Williams, who used it back in 1930 for one of his weird theological fantasies, still admired by a cult audience. This seems unsporting.

It happens all the time, though. Charles de Lint swiped John Buchan's title Greenmantle (1916), still regularly reprinted. John Brunner lifted Double, Double from a 1950 Ellery Queen novel. In the briny world of Napoleonic-war sea stories, Patrick O'Brian (very popular in sf fan circles) wrote The Commodore, a title uncannily reminiscent of C.S. Forester's Hornblower yarn The Commodore. When I published my own sf novel The Space Eater, I believed the title was all my own until horror fans sent solemn letters complaining that I'd obviously ripped off Frank Belknap Long's story 'The Space Eaters'.

In fact you can't copyright titles – though you can trademark valuable words and phrases, as Terry Pratchett(TM) has done with Discworld(R). This is why, last time I asked him, Bryan Talbot still couldn't tell me the main title of his forthcoming graphic novel, subtitled The Legacy of Luther Arkwright. The publishers, obviously convinced that they've got a hot property here, were keeping it secret while they pushed it through the interminable process of US trademark registration.

Of course this is more common outside the world of books. Games Workshop trademarked their game title Dark Future (several people were surprised that they got away with this, since it's a pretty common sf phrase). Later on, GW decided to release a series of Dark Future spinoff novels, and descended like a ton of writs on the unfortunate author Laurence James, who in all innocence had been writing an established series of children's sf novels with a series title which I think you can guess. The resulting court action was a colossal financial victory for the legal profession.

Getting back to 'title theft', Dan Simmons's sf/horror blockbuster The Hollow Man steals John Dickson Carr's 1935 title for one of the best 'impossible crime' mystery stories ever written. To be fair, Simmons has two good excuses. First, both authors are thinking of T.S. Eliot's poem 'The Hollow Men', which came out a bit earlier in 1925. (If Eliot had waited a year he could have been prestigiously reviewed in Amazing Science Fiction, launched 1926.) Second, Simmons is American and the publishers on that side of the Atlantic had changed Carr's title The Hollow Man to the less spooky The Three Coffins ...

Publishers love to muck around with titles, you see. Sometimes they even have reasons. A certain sf novel by D.G. Compton was renamed Chronicules for the paperback edition, after poor hardback sales had been blamed on the difficulty of ordering Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, The Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, And Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil. (Which, in case you're wondering, is the smell left behind when a time traveller has a slight accident and explodes in transit.) This is matched in bloatedness by the title which a certain clot tried and failed to put on a book of famous mistakes: The Earth Was Created in 4004 BC on Sunday October the Twenty-First at Nine O'Clock in the Morning. Er, yes, that was me.

Meanwhile, have you ever heard of The Death Machine by Algis Budrys? His publishers preferred Rogue Moon (which, adding insult to injury, is regularly misprinted as Rouge Moon). Laurence M. Janifer's dismal You Sane Men was unilaterally reissued – in a rather desperate effort to boost sales – as the more exciting Bloodworld. H.G Wells wisely dropped the title used for his first version of The Time Machine, which was The Chronic Argonauts. ('Sorry, Mr Wells. You've got ... chronic argonauts. You may never play the piano again.') Christopher Priest's American publisher sneakily changed his A Dream of Wessex to the slightly embarrassing The Perfect Lover.

This leads to my all-time favourite title change anecdote, because even A Dream of Wessex wasn't what Chris wanted to call it. His own first choice was vetoed by market-conscious UK publishers as just too boring to sell any copies. So it was left to a certain other author(R) to hit the 1994 bestseller lists with the title Interesting Times ...

David Langford originally titled this column 'Isn't It About Time SFX Paid Me More?' He should be so lucky.