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I am looking for the title of the following story (or possibly two stories):

I read a short story in the late '80s where people were defined by their names. A man sees a depressed woman and wants to offer her comfort. She has no choice but to be depressed because her name is X. However, before he has a chance to, she changes her name to Y, and therefore isn't depressed any more because all people called X are depressed by nature but no-one called Y is depressed.

I'm not sure if this is part of the same story or an entirely different story, but there was a train that travelled through the land collecting passengers. As more people got on board it "grew" more carriages. The people who were on the train stopped being productive, existing in an endless party. A young boy sees through the illusion (a la The Emperor's New Clothes) and starts telling the passengers. Knowing the truth causes the train to start disappearing as it is powered by belief or something like that.

  • There is a comic which I won't link to because it's very adult, but one of the particular comics concerns the doom of those who dare insult the dreaded Apellomancer. – Broklynite Jan 1 '16 at 8:47
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This sounds something like Asimov's "Spell My Name with an S". Not entirely, but you've given us lots of wiggle room, so...

In that story the protagonist, Zebatinsky, is badgered by his wife to visit a numerologist, in spite of being a physicist and considering the whole concept entirely bogus.

He visits the man, who immediately recognizes his skepticism but nevertheless goes through the process. At the end he suggests changing the first letter of his last name to an S instead of a Z, just to see what happens.

He does, and this sparks off a series of events that are hidden to the newly christened Sebatinsky.

Trying to figure out why he would make this change, the security division in the lab concludes he is trying to break links with his family roots in Poland. They discover that he has a relative working in the Soviet version of their own nuclear labs.

Considering what he might know about his relative's work, they surmise that his relative is working on a system that suppresses nuclear reactions, and plan to use this as a defense against nuclear attack. The US immediately begins research into such a system.

To "buy off" Sebatinsky so he won't look to hard into it and potentially discover their efforts, he is significantly promoted and moved into a non-classified position. This means the numerologist's prediction of positive changes in his life comes true.

The story ends with the reveal that the numerologist is actually an alien who bet his friend that he could prevent a definite upcoming nuclear war with a trivial change, a "class 1 outcome from a class 3 change". The story ends with a double-or-nothing bet that he can return the stage to one where a war will take place. There are strong parallels between this story and the Twilight Zone episode where aliens cause chaos on a suburban street simply by playing with their electricity.

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Might this be related to the Xanth novels, by Piers Anthony? Perhaps a short story by the same author? Names do frequently relate to or define the characters in the series, and changing one changes the other - the example that made me think of it is a girl who has bad luck because her name is fortune, and she is a young girl (thus "miss fortune") who solves the problem by getting married. I don't recall a match to the second half of your query, and the names are not X's and Y's, but its the similar enough I thought I'd offer.

  • Thank you, but it's definitely not Xanth. The story had a much more serious tone. I don't remember there being any humourous elements. I can't remember any of the names but it might have been that all Alices are depressed but no Bettys are. I don't remember there being any connection between the meanings of the names and how they affected their owners. – CJ Dennis Dec 2 '15 at 19:41
  • Sorry I couldn't help, then. I do hope you find it, it sounds interesting. – Megha Dec 3 '15 at 10:13

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