One of the stumbling blocks of the science-fiction fantasy spectrum I’ve seen as a whole is knee jerk rejection of new material based purely on someone else having used similar materials before. It’s something I’ve heard, read and seen across more than a decade of interaction with both fans and professionals. This fixation is killing the genre.
Michael Z. Williamson was flogged from pillar to post in text for daring the sacrilege of naming a book in homage to Heinlein novel. Farnham’ s Freehold was an inspiration for Williamson’s Freehold, but to compare the two stories, or call Williamson’s a derivative[i] work is not only a diminution of Williamson’s Freehold, but also a mischaracterization of Heinlien's. Both are anti-war novels, both deal with major social issues but word count alone will tell you it’s not done the same way. The 1994 reprint of Farnham's Freehold was a lithe 304 pages, essentially a running back among novels. 2004 saw the paperback advent of Freehold at 688 pages, making it more of an offensive tackle. RAH’s world works around the then contemporary issue of rising black Muslims, MZW’s world deals with mega-corps, universal government and the issue of freedoms versus safety and individual rights versus societal dispositions, in a detailed showing vs RAH’s style which lay closer to telling.
Same ingredients, different results. Think about it for just a minute. Hollywood has a lot of faults, but one of the most compelling virtues of that part of the world is the willingness to take a concept, a character, or a well loved story and make it their own. One need only compare the different versions of Batman starring Adam West, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale to see how different one character can be when molded by different hands. Temporally, Keaton and Bale were closest in their portrayal of Gotham’s guardian, but the two just don’t imbue the role with the same air. West is in an entirely different area when playing Bruce Wayne, than either of his heirs, but all three when invoking the avatar of street justice are undeniably Batman. I like all three movies, I’ll watch all three in different moods.
Originality is a great thing, like gold or platinum, it’s also far rarer than either. A story of star crossed lovers isn’t exactly a jaw dropping departure from the norm. But if we’re going to discredit the authors of today and tomorrow for telling such a tale, we need to equally discredit Shakespeare and Bernstein for their tales of lovers caught in the cruel fingers of fate, since Homer clearly beat either to the punch by a good thousand years or more. It’ also remotely possible that someone between Homer and “the Great Bard”might have crafted a similar tale.
Imagine if you will, Lois Bujold, Dave Freer, Elizabeth Bear, Robin Hobb, John Scalzi, Elizabeth Moon, David Drake, China Meiville, and Cory Doctrow all coming together for a charity event. For the event each is going to write a novella starring a character named Sam, who is a little under-tall, who will be traveling with some friends and get into a big, big fight towards the end of the story. All the novellas will appear in one big anthology which will be distributed in the name of a Big Name Charity and get them oodles of time under the eyes of millions and millions. Among Sam’s friends will be at least one non human, and at least one human, someone in the group will have a heaping helping of ability to do things that none of the others in the group can. Just pause right here, think about the possibilities for a few minutes. Go ahead, get pausing I’ll wait.
Go ahead, kiddies, raise your hands if you think there just might be a few differences in execution amongst this group, even starting with the same base. Question one: Will all the Sams be the same gender? Question two: What variety of non human(s) will we see? Question three: What genres will we see from these writers? Freer and Bear have written across the whole spectrum of speculative fiction, Bujold and Drake have each written space opera and epic fantasy. What about language? Lois Bujold and China Meiville are both known for their language use. Tone? Robin Hobb’s books have been a touch darker than most of Freer’s work, and neither of them have the same resonance as Scalzi. As for socio-political schema, just try imagining David Drake and Elizabeth Bear portraying a political establishment the same way as each other, much less in the same manner as Cory Docorow, really. I do however suggest that you don’t try and convince any mental health professional of this who has read any of these authors. As for the way Sam is portrayed, both inside his/her own skull, and from the point of view of others, will they be a trickster, a slime ball, a military officer, truly bonkers, sympathetic, an anti-hero?
I suppose what it comes down to is execution. Not what is done, but how well. I and many, many others love Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, but that doesn’t mean I’m never ever going to love another young, effusive, military mad, pseudo-aristocrat with health problems. A good lampooning of “classic literature”as is done in Rats, Bats, and Vats, is never, ever to be discounted and I will undoubtedly adore anything that can make me laugh at the absurdity of holding up the mental meandering of pre-electric prudes as the model upon which society should be built. The starscape of vampires and how they are done is enormous, some sparkle in sunlight and make me gag at their mere mention, others like Saberhagen’s and Thurman’s are simply various people in bodies with different needs.
Do I want to see someone glue a sheet of plastic wrap over the serial numbers on Slow Train to Arcturus and send it to me with little more than the names and times changed from the original? Of course not, no more than I’ want to read a copy of Urban Shaman that was relocated to New York because the city was ‘ore accessible’ or a retelling of Hobb’s Liveship Traders books to be more positive and discourage promiscuity. I want to see a writer telling their story, not a writer telling the story they think (rightly) is demanded by the publishing powers that be. Unfortunately, what I think is so much alcohol through the kidneys. I don’t control the publishing houses, only the Shadow has any idea who’s in charge of the book chains, and those are the people who keep demanding “more of the same only different” regardless of actual quality because they will at least know how to market something they’ve already seen a dozen time with only the authors name changed.
What we’ve seen over the last several years is an abandonment of some of the more fun aspects of the SF/F continuum. Namely the exploration of what might happen in favor of some gewgaw of a plot point or world type or social stance that gets run into the round, through the crust, into the magma and out the other side. I have a positive love of (well executed) urban fantasy, but I’ kill to have two new space opera series appear on the book shelves this year that I could fall in love with and read (and reread) for the next fifteen years. At one time our genre set its compass on exploring all the implications of a certain change, the good, the bad, the prudish, the puerile, the inane, the insane and sublime. I’d love to see an epic fantasy world with horizons as broad as in Feist’s Magician, and science fiction novel that challenged the precepts of the age in way like unto Ender’s Game. Do I expect publishing to change today, tomorrow or next year for the broader, the bolder, and better bastions it once held? I suppose not, but then I’ve always preferred to view life from a base of facts and fun from great speculative fiction.
A special thanks to exobrain of the day Kate Paulk for helping find the right words when I only (sorta) knew what I meant.
[i] In the lingua franca of the genres most strident historiphiles a classless attack on the “riginal”work. [a slur, sometimes even politely intoned]