Precognitive plagiarism

“I have been intrigued to learn that the finale of the movie Independence Day, which I have not yet seen, also involves the use of computer viruses as Trojan horses! I am also informed that its opening is identical to that of Childhood’s End (1953), and that it contains every known science-fiction cliche since Melier’s Trip to the Moon (1903).
I cannot decide whether to congratulate the script-writers on their one stroke of originality – or to accuse them of the transtemporal crime of pre-cognitive plagiarism. In any event, I fear there’s nothing I can do to stop John Q. Popcorn thinking that I have ripped off the ending of ID4.”
~ Arthur C Clarke, sources and acknowledgements to 3001: The Final Odyssey

This ever-so-slightly-bitter paragraph was when I first read about the idea of precognitive plagiarism – when two people have a really good idea at more or less the same time, but one of them gets it heard first.

It’s been a real sod when I’ve been developing, writing and rewriting my own stories. One in particular – the science fiction series – has gone through all sorts of mutations in response to Other People Getting There First. But I’ve come to realise that although my responses might’ve been for the wrong reasons, they’ve strengthened the story in other ways.

I wanted aliens that were so alien that they were living spaceships. But first Babylon 5 introduced the Shadows on TV, and then Peter F Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy introduced ‘voidhawks’ with coral skin. I also wanted four-dimensional aliens interacting with the 3D world in some weird ways, but then a British SF miniseries (whose name escapes me) in the mid-late 1990s featured this concept (but didn’t go as far as I was planning with the weirdness) – I consoled myself with the fact that multidimensional weirdness in fiction goes back to Victorian times.

I wanted to blow up Earth and have the heroes on the run; then I realised Battlestar Galactica got there first, sometime when I was less than two years old. I wanted a romantic tragedy subplot in which one lover mistakenly believed their partner was dead and took their own life, just in time for the not-dead partner to witness it; I did not react well when my friends immediately said “Oh, you mean like Romeo And Juliet?”

Another idea involved a war using time travel as a weapon. This, for me, was the conceptual mis-step of Star Trek: Enterprise, but if the trailer is anything to go by, Terminator Genisys might do it correctly. Maybe. Happily for me, Star Trek and Terminator seem to be focusing on the creation of alternative timelines as the weapons. I have something different in mind.

In any case, no matter what I thought of to throw at the story, it looked like the ideas had been done before, or other people got the ideas out and published before I could finish a draft I was happy with (and that’s a whole other writing issue).

At a Q&A during one of his book signings in Edinburgh, I asked science fiction writer Iain M Banks if he ever suffered from precognitive plagiarism. He said he did (as I recall, he lamented that by the time he was aware of it happening, it was already too late to hire an assassin – unless you could send one back in time to take them out before it happens… but that story’s already been done).

He went on to say that an author would like everyone to think they’re being original and terribly clever, but there are very few truly original ideas out there. Thinking about precognitive plagiarism made me shift my focus away from what I thought were cool conceits, and more  towards the things that really would (I hope) make it stand out.

What makes an author’s work distinctive? The characters. The story. The tone. The way different ideas are brought together and used. Star Wars wasn’t original; the way it brought existing things together was. It’s only after I started thinking about the characters and the cultures, rather than the science fiction toys, that I started to make real progress.

At some point, I’ll have to put fingers back to the keyboard and commit myself to it again!


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