A Pyrzqxgl by Any Other Name

Are you disconcerted when an evocative book title turns out to be just the hero's name? Do you expect me to restrain myself from showering you with daft examples? Is the Pope a Scientologist? Here we go: Ben Bova's apparent family saga Kinsman is about a chap called Chester Kinsman. John Cowper Powys's Wolf Solent sounds dramatic, until you read the opening in which Wolf Solent – who only sounds like some warrior hero with a fur jockstrap – sits placidly in the slow train from Waterloo. Keith Laumer's title "Greylorn" implies a mood of sad romanticism but in fact delivers an action story about tough space-Captain Greylorn quelling mutiny with his needle gun.

Joyleg (Ward Moore and Avram Davidson) suggests the smuggling of happy drugs, Ember from the Sun (Mark Canter) a solar mass-ejection event, and Divine Endurance (Gwyneth Jones) a spot of monkish asceticism. Actually, Joyleg is a immortal US hillbilly, Ember is a Neanderthal girl and Divine Endurance is a cat. But it's a relief to discover that in Jack Vance's unforgettably titled Servants of the Wankh, the Wankh are merely aliens. A later edition is titled simply Wankh. A still later edition, after the irritated American author had heard about British idioms and the British fondness for infantile sniggering, changes the name to Wanekh.

James Lovegrove's Provender Gleed is a special case. The title is the hero's name – in an alternate history where anagrams are vital to detective work and names contain secrets. (It is of modest importance that our man's middle name is Oregano.) Lovegrove, as "Jael", has been known to set crosswords for UK newspapers.

In Silverlock (John Myers Myers), our hero starts as A Clarence Shandon but acquires the title nickname in Fantasyland, which is fair enough, not least because he actually has a silver lock. But Deathstalker (Simon R Green) stars a chap who all his life, even when he was Nappywetter or Pimplesqueezer, has been called Deathstalker. It must have been tough for him at school. Green believes in taking advance revenge for such cheap comments, and reports that a book in "my first horror series ... will be taking place in a haunted public school, called Langford Hall. Which I will probably blow up at some point."

Some character names seem a shade too appropriate. Both the forename and surname of J K Rowling's werewolf teacher Remus Lupin have wolfish associations. Since he wasn't born a werewolf, you wonder how his parents knew before the christening that one day he'd get bitten. Captain W E Johns of Biggles fame wrote several SF novels featuring a brilliant, spacefaring professor. What's a good way to hint at a genius's beautiful mind, his luscious brain? Yes, I'm afraid he reached the page as Prof. Lucius Brane.

Of course the eccentric hero of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (Norman Hunter) is meant to have a funny name. Comedy operates by different rules. Before Douglas Adams invented Ford Prefect and Slartibartfast, there was Bob Shaw's Warren Peace, who took a hypnotic treatment to change his name irrevocably to Leo Tolstoy and made sure he got it right by focusing hard, during the hypnosis, on a certain book jacket. John Brunner's alien Crodnobegorthsk'vk is painfully sensitive about being mispronounced as Crodnobegorthskvk. In similar vein, Terry Pratchett realized that if supernatural beings can be commanded by saying their true names, those will be devilishly hard to pronounce – like the demon WxrtHltl-jwklz in Wyrd Sisters.

In pre-Pratchett times, inhabitants of L Frank Baum's Oz could change to any shape by correctly pronouncing the magic word in this column's title. Superman regularly faced the worse problem of persuading his impish tormentor Mr Mxyztplk to say his name backwards, the only way to return the little pest to the fifth dimension. Even DC Comics couldn't keep this monicker straight, and let it mutate to the doubtless unforgivably rude "Mxyzptlk".

A favourite SF name cock-up appears in Samuel R Delany's Babel-17, one section of which is titled "Jebel Tarik". There's a lot of linguistics in the novel, and someone soon translates that Arab name – belonging to a huge spaceship – as Jebel's Mountain. Unfortunately for our author's erudition, it's the Jebel and not the Tarik (or Tariq) that's Arabic for mountain.

SF authors' names can also be curiously unconvincing. S Kye Boult was the pseudonym of US writer William E Cochrane, who genuinely had worked on the Skybolt air-to-air missile. Randall Garrett sometimes wrote as Seaton McKettrig, presumably while diabolically influenced by the arch-demon Satan Mekatrig. Other grotesque pen-names have never been satisfactorily explained. Why did various British authors write as Vargo Statten, Vektis Brack, Volstead Gridban and Vector Magroon? Maybe the Shadow knows.

Eva D. Fanglord uses a subtle pseudonym for columns like this.