When John Carter came out I was surprised to see postings on the internet about how it was a rip off of Avatar. This from a tale that was a century older than the James Cameron movie. It’s funny how things can be perceived in our culture. In this instance, anything that had even the slightest resemblance to something already out there is considered a rip off. Like everything that is ever done that is any good is totally original. I think that concept died when our caveman ancestors told stories of chasing a deer beyond the mountains and finding a horrible civilization, meaning one that lived in not caves, that was a threat to their cave dwelling culture. Then came the Greeks, who borrowed from everyone else to make their original stories, then the Romans, then on and on, everyone taking the stories of others and changing them in some ways to make something new. People ripping off others through the ages. Or if not ripping them off consciously, then doing it without realizing it. It has surprised me how many times during the years I have come up with an original idea, only to find it in some other work that was published after I came up with it (or before, but I had never read it). Now neither myself or the other person went into the mind of the other and ripped out the idea (or ripped it off). Ideas seem to come to groups of people when the time is right, based on the knowledge that is already out there.
I like to compare writing to music, which, in some respects, it is. Listen to your favorite piece of music. Let’s say it’s some rock with a heavy guitar solo. Now first of all it most probably follows some well known scale developed far in the past. Otherwise it would sound like a mishmash of noise that our Western ears are not accustomed to. The riffs might incorporate parts of something done before. The power cords may have been used a thousand times before, but are presented in a different order or time than something that has been done before. You may even hear parts of arrangements you have heard in other works, just arranged differently in relation to each other. But still it’s an original piece of music, not really ripped off from anyone. Still, some people may bring out the rip off tag.
In literature things are borrowed all the time, then rearranged into something different. Is the Hulk a rip off of Superman? They both have super strength, and are very difficult to hurt. But they are completely different characters. Is Conan ripped off by Brak, Kane, Fafnir or Elric? There are similarities, they all kill people with swords. But they are really completely different characters. Or Dominique Flandry, Poul Anderson’s future super spy, is a commissioned officer in the fleet as well as an intelligence operative, but is he really the same as James Bond? Probably the most used technology other than some kind of hyperlight travel is powered armor, first developed by Heinlein in Starship Troopers and then used in hundreds of books in different forms. I use powered armor in Exodus because it makes sense that we will have something like that in the future. Just like we will have multi kilometer skyscrapers in enormous cities, but they won’t be exactly the same as those in Star Wars. And the list goes on.
I am finishing up the first draft of a series called Exodus, which I hope to have coming out, book 1 and 2, in the Fall of 2012. The series starts with the human race fleeing from aliens determined to kill them all. They establish themselves in another section of the Galaxy and start growing an Empire that might have a chance of defeating the aliens. Now I mentioned the idea to a friend who replied that it sounds a lot like Battlestar Galactica. Sort of kind of, but it really is in no way like Galactica, which I happen to like by the way. I mention wormhole gates developed using a station around a black hole (actually stolen from my own earlier work, The Deep Dark Well) and I hear, this sounds a lot like Stargate. Not really, but there is that one superficial similarity, even though my gates are not created in any way that would look like something from Stargate. Mention a Galactic war and it’s like Star Wars. But not really. You see, like most writers I borrow ideas, and then change them, combine them, work with them, until they are my own and not really like this or that. Of course there are some similarities. I can either have enormous warships, or middle sized warships, or small warships. Not really any choices beyond that, and so they look similar to something else. I use lasers and particle beams, so they look like something that has already been done. I have developed my own imaginary method of faster than light travel, and use real physics in normal and hyper travel, so the strategy and tactics of space warfare have to follow the constraints of these technologies. Other ideas are left out of the book through either made up rules of nature or through man made laws, so there will be no immortality, cloning or self aware robots. It clashes with what I am trying to achieve, so they will either not be there, or there will be problems in the past that keep them from the mix.
In another series, Refuge, the first book of which is already out with number 2 coming this week, I borrow a lot of well used themes from other sources and then change them some. I have other races of humans, who have their own designations, Ellala, Conyastaya, Grogatha, Gimikan. The humans who see them have their own names for them, taken from our popular culture. High elf, forest elf, orc and dwarf. These are the names they are familiar with, and the names they will use, just as I call the Deutsches characters in the book Germans. And they use fire balls and lightning bolts, not because I can’t come up with something different, but because these are well known forms of magic, and so might come from the connection between the worlds into our own modern mythology. And because the magic system works for what I want it to do, in a place where many beings can work magic. The book concerns humans being transported to a dimension of magic, and yes, I am sure this has been done before. I am also pretty sure that tens of millions of humans being transported with their weapons to a dimension of magic has never been done. Yes, tanks against dragons has been done before (Dragon Wars), badly. Modern MBTs can hit another tank across kilometers of distance while both vehicles are moving at a good clip. Don’t see how they miss large dinosaur like creatures advancing in a straight line at a crawl only a couple of blocks away, but in some works that’s exactly what they do. So I am again pretty sure that my treatment is original. Is it totally original, like everything sprung from my imagination fully formed with no outside influence? No, and I challenge anyone to do something like that. For the rest of us, we’ll just continue to beg, borrow and steal to come up with something new.