Plot Summary (contains spoilers)
This two-and-a-half-page story consists of a series of emails/memos, all involving some change in the classification of astronomical bodies. In 2007, for example, the Board of the fictional Puget Coast University (PCU) informs all its staff that Pluto can no longer be considered a planet (this based on a real decision by the International Astronomical Union in 2006). Faculty and Staff of PCU may refer to Pluto as a ‘dwarf planet,’ a ‘plutoid,’ or even ‘the object formerly as the Ninth Planet.’ But under no circumstance can they refer to Pluto as a ‘Planet.’ Any attempt to do so ‘shall be subject to censure.’
Fast forward to the year 2227, the United Planets Commission on Astronomical Nomenclature (UPCAN) has recognized that since Pluto crossed inside Neptune’s orbit, Neptune can no longer be considered a planet based on the 2006 criteria. In the year 2333, UPCAN decides to refine the definition of a solar system, giving 4 specific criteria that qualify such an astronomical body. Sadly, this plan backfires and in 2405 an anonymous informer points out that the Earth/Sol system does not meets the definition of a ‘solar system’ put in place in the year 2333. This process continues further to galaxies and, in a sardonic conclusion of the story, to entire universes within the multi-verse.
Of course, this constant re-classification and re-categorization is not without consequences. Because an astronomical body may or may not be a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, etc., this in turn affects the respective ‘shuttle’ systems that transport passengers to those locations. In the year 2187, for example, the Inter Planetary Shuttle (ISP) announces that it will only serve bodies designated as ‘Planets,’ thus excluding Pluto. Passengers desiring to go to Pluto must use one of the smaller partner transports. In a familiar pattern, this extends to solar systems and galaxies. Every nomenclatural email is invariably followed by an email declaring a change in the appropriate shuttle services (even if, adding more to the cynicism of the whole process, some trips may take longer than the average human lifetime).
‘A Plutoid by Any Other Name…’ explores the intermarriage between science and bureaucracy. With increasing scientific knowledge, with data that spans entire universes, there’s an inevitable need for a structured hierarchy of information. It’s present in every field, and certainly something I personally have to deal with in my daily life. Science is still science, no doubt, but the romantic notions of the ever-brave explorer must coexist with the categorical distinctions needed to make sense of it. From taxonomy to computational physics, its full-time job just to remember all the divisions, categories, and acronyms that exist in modern science. Richard Lovett’s story extrapolates an instance of this phenomenon to its extreme and arrives at a comical – yet somewhat disturbing – conclusion.
The story’s title is a play on words of the well-known line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name…” (or possibly the Star Trek TOS episode “By Any Other Name”). A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – does the same apply to Pluto? One may say yes. After all, the laws of physics have not changed, and all properties that have applied to Pluto thus far still do. From the perspective of the ISP in the second email, however, Pluto is no longer the same. To them, categorization is everything.
In the first email Pluto is somewhat personified. The Board of PCU makes clear that despite its ‘demotion’ from planet to dwarf planet, this move is not in any way derogatory towards Pluto. Yet everything that follows is derogatory. ISP chooses to no longer serve Pluto based only on this semi-arbitrary distinction. Presumably, the demand for Pluto has not changed. Nor has it changed for Neptune, the next planet to be thus ‘demoted.’ Let us be reminded that many human injustices throughout history were the result of unequal classification of certain people as ‘different’ from others (I will not attempt to stretch this allegory further – I’m not sure it was intentional – but there are, nevertheless, obvious parallels).
Although the physical characteristics of Pluto are evidently different from the other planets in our solar system, the ‘demotion’ of Neptune is outright silly. A clear example of sticking to a principle out of stubbornness.
Lastly, the structure of this piece merits a few remarks. While there is a ‘narrative’ (in the sense of progression), the story lacks the traditional storytelling beats, the up-and-down inflections that accompany character actions. There are no characters here (except slightly personified planets, perhaps). In many ways it is like experiencing a lively painting, a concise snapshot that gives its audience something to chew on.
‘A Plutoid by Any Other Name…’ is a wonderful and thought-provoking piece of short fiction. I highly recommend it to anyone who can get their hands on it. You can purchase a print or digital subscriptions of “Analog Science of Fiction and Fact” on their website. Alternatively, you can probably find free copies of the magazine at your local library.