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By Any Other Name: Pseudonyms in SF

Have you ever had this experience?  You settle in for a couple chapters of a debut author's work.  Maybe it's a little different from what you ordinarily read, but the jacket looked kind of interesting.  Several hours later you sit in the near-dark (wait-- wasn't it light outside when you started reading?) gaping at the last page of the book, utterly blown away by the quality of the writing.  (Why are you suddenly so hungry?  Did you read straight through dinner?)  You scramble to find the author bio, desperate to know more about the creator of this fantastic work that has so captivated you.  This can't possibly be the author's first book, you think, it's just too good.  And there, in the author's bio, you find those three fateful letters: A.K.A.  A-HA!   You feel vindicated and... maybe just a little bit "had."  Debut author, my foot!  This is a well-known, established writer.  They're not even trying to hide it, it's right there in the author bio.  But... why? Why would a beloved author desert you and sneak off to write under another name?

There are a lot of reasons why an author might take on a pseudonym.  Some of the reasons are pretty straightforward; for example, the author's given name is hard to spell, "too foreign," or not "authorial" enough for the intended audience.  You may not recognize the name Somtow Papinian Sucharitkul, but you've probably heard of Hugo- and Stoker-nominated horror author S. P. Somtow.  SF author Carolyn Janice Cherry goes by C. J. Cherryh because her first editor thought her real name sounded too much like a romance author (the initals helped to disguise her gender, and the silent "h" made her name more appropriately exotic).  Collaborating authors will sometimes write under a single pseudonym, either to keep from cluttering the title page or to circumvent the question of which author should be listed first; husband and wife team C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner frequently shared a writing credit under the name Lewis Padgett. There are also "house names"-- pseudonyms owned by the publisher, who hires a succession of authors to write under that name.  (My teenage self was crushed to learn that I could never, ever meet Carolyn Keene, author of my beloved Nancy Drew Mysteries.)

Sometimes a pen name is used to protect the writer's given name from the stigma of "mere" genre writing.  When young Stanley Martin Lieber got his big shot at authorship, it was writing filler text for the newly-founded Timely Comics line.  Certain that he was destined for literary greatness someday, he didn't want to waste his birth name on a lowly comic book byline.  His first effort went to print under a modified version of his first name instead... though had he known what was in store for comics writer Stan Lee, he might have chosen very differently.  Conversely, astronomer and teacher Harry Clement Stubbs saw nothing shameful about writing science fiction; he just used the name Hal Clement on his novels to distinguish his fictional writing from his academic work.  Names that shield an author's identity can also work in a positive way; a number of early female SF authors used male-sounding names (or initials) to help them break into a male-dominated field, among them Alice Sheldon (a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr.) and Alice Mary Norton (Andre Norton).  The ploy generally worked, too-- in Henry Kuttner's first fan letter to his future wife C. L. Moore, he mistakenly addressed her as a man.

There are more amusing reasons for pseudonyms, too.  A series of parodies written under such seemingly transparent pseudonyms as *s**c *s*m*v, R*b*rt H**nl**n, and Ph*l*p K. D*ck were all, in fact, John Sladek being silly.  Robert Heinlein wrote stories that regularly appeared in Astounding magazine alongside those of "Anson MacDonald."  Anson MacDonald was Heinlein; the author was so prolific (and reliable) that he'd sometimes have two stories in the same issue.  Since the editor didn't want to appear as though he were overly favoring Heinlein, he'd slap the MacDonald pseudonym on the second story.  Author Max Frei doesn't just write fantasy-- he is one.  Supposedly, Max himself writes the series in which he stars as the main character; in actuality, he's the metafictional construct of Russian author Svetlana Martynchik. 

With all the reasons I've mentioned above for the creation of pseudonyms, there's yet another reason they're proliferating like mad these days: branding.  Think of branding as typecasting for authors.  Fans come to expect a particular genre, style, and voice from the authors they follow.  Anyone who's seen a James Patterson cover is probably familiar with the concept of an author as a brand; the prominence of the author's name and photo on the cover promote the idea of "the new James Patterson" as much as (or more than) the individual title.  Some author brands are so strong they persist after death-- the mystery and suspense genres are particularly guilty of this.  Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, Mickey Spillane, and Robert B. Parker put a whole new dimension on the idea of "ghost writing," as titles continue to come out under their author-brand long after their deaths.

Reader expectations are all part of growing one's brand, but they can also inhibit an author from stretching her creative muscles.  If an author has become well-known in a particular genre, it can be really hard to break out of that genre mold and try something different.  And sometimes the author doesn't even want a clean break-- she still has stories to tell in the genre she's known for, but wants to dabble her toes in another genre as well.  That's where pseudonyms come in!  By writing under a different name (and making her connection to that name known), an author can send a clear signal that the new books aren't going to be like her usual fare, while still leaving the door open to fans who are willing to try out the new genre along with her.  Nora Roberts is probably one of the best-known success stories for this form of branding.  As herself, she already had an extensive romance following.  Rather than risk that following, she released her futuristic suspense In Death series under the moniker J. D. Robb, and now has two successful names to her credit.

Sometimes, an author brand just doesn't launch successfully.  It might be a marketing mishap with his early titles, or simply a matter of time before the author finds his writing stride.  Whatever the case, he's lost his initial audience, and will sometimes choose (or have his publisher choose) to "rebrand" himself for a fresh start.  Nicholas Yermakov is a perfect example-- his science fiction was critically acclaimed, but never caught on with the reading public.  Sales became so poor that he finally had to do away with the Yermakov identity entirely and relaunch himself under a new name (as Patricia Bray puts it, "committing pseudonym").  In his case, the venture paid off-- the rebranding was successful and, as Simon Hawke, he went on to write several popularly successful series. 

Rather than giving you a list of titles this month, I leave you instead with a list of authors and their alter egos.  I've listed them in the format REAL NAME  /  PEN NAME.  Collaborations are listed as JOINT NAME (REAL NAME and REAL NAME).  Under one name or another, every author in this list writes speculative fiction, but their other aliases may write different genres-- be warned!  Check them out... maybe you'll find a new old friend in a genre you never thought you'd read!

Daniel Abraham  /  M. L. N. Hanover
Ann Aguirre  /  Ava Gray
Ilona Andrews (Ilona and Gordon Andrews)
Ellen Connor (Ann Aguirre and Carrie Lofty)
Dawn Cook  /  Kim Harrison
James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
Teresa Edgerton  /  Madeline Howard
Leslie Esdaile  /  L. A. Banks
Barbara Hambly  /  Barbara Hamilton
John Hembry  /  Jack Campbell
Amanda Hemingway  /  Jan Siegel  /  Jemma Harvey
Will Hubbell  /  Morgan Howell
Jane Johnson  /  Jude Fisher
Sherrilyn Kenyon  /  Kinley MacGregor
Gabriel King (M. John Harrison and Jane Johnson)
Stephen King  /  Richard Bachman
Stephen Leigh  /  S. L. Farrell
Megan Lindholm  /  Robin Hobb
Louise Marley  /  Toby Bishop
Seanan McGuire  /  Mira Grant
Karen Miller  /  K. E. Mills
Kim Newman  /  Jack Yeovil
Tim Pratt  /  T. A. Pratt
Irene Radford  /  C. F. Bentley
Alis Rasmussen  /  Kate Elliott
Anne Rice  /  Anne Rampling
Nora Roberts  /  J. D. Robb
Lane Robins  /  Lyn Benedict
James Rollins  /  James Clemens
Gillian Rubinstein  /   Lian Hearn
Kristine Kathryn Rusch  /  Kristine Grayson  /  Kris DeLake
Judith Tarr  /  Kathleen Bryan  /  Caitlin Brennan
Harry Turtledove  /  H N Turteltaub  /  Dan Chernenko
Lawrence Watt-Evans  /  Nathan Archer
Catherine Webb  /  Kate Griffin
Dave Wolverton  /  David Farland

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authors' pseudonyms

I discovered to my surprise that Benjamin Black was really Booker Prize winner John Banville.  He wrote Christine Falls and The Silver Swan.,   Also that British murder mystery thriller writer Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.