Mailvox: on derivative forms

Lgrin asks a superficially reasonable question: Why is Heinlein derived bad and Lewis (or Hodgson) Derived good?

However, for all that it looks reasonable on its face, the question is not an apt one. The reason one derivation is dismissed as mediocre while another is hailed as a masterpiece is not a question of the differing values of the source from which the author obtained his inspiration. The term “to derive” has a fairly broad meaning: “to trace from a source or origin.” Most works are derivative in some sense, but those specific senses can be entirely different. Consider a few of my own works:

  1. REBEL MOON is not derived from THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS even though everyone assumes it was. I didn’t read the latter until years after writing the former. But a reasonable reader would conclude that it was an imitation (and an inferior one) based on the obvious similarities.
  2. THE WORLD IN SHADOW is derived from the Colombine shootings.
  3. SUMMA ELVETICA: A CASUISTRY OF THE ELVISH CONTROVERSY is derived from St. Thomas Aquinas’s SUMMA THEOLOGICA. It’s literally arranged in the same basic structure as each of Aquinas’s arguments.
  4. A THRONE OF BONES is derived from A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, but it is a negative derivation, in much the same way Philip Pullman’s books were derived from CS Lewis’s.
  5. “The Last Testament of Henry Halleck” is derived from the literary style of H.P. Lovecraft. “The Deported” is a much better derivation from the style of Guy de Maupassant.
  6. QUANTUM MORTIS: A MIND PROGRAMMED is derived from Jean and Jeff Sutton’s THE PROGRAMMED MAN in the same material manner as the famous Jane Austen Zombie remix. As is “The Logfile”, which is a rewritten, updated derivative of Guy de Maupassant’s “Diary of a Madman”.

Those are six different forms of derivation, all by the same author. Apparent, Thematic, Structural, Contrarian, Stylistic, and Material. So, to simply say X is derived from Y says nothing about the quality of X.

Now, Scalzi has publicly discussed his purpose in writing his Heinlein-derivative OLD MAN’S WAR. Even if we take into account – as we must – that he is a confirmed liar whose every public word is calculated in order to help him sell or excuse himself, it’s still useful grist for the mill. This was his characteristically deceitful sales pitch sent to Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

Hi, there. I’m John Scalzi, who writes the “Whatever” online column.(1)

Over the last three weeks, I’ve serialized a science fiction novel I’ve written on my site. Having completed it, I’ve added an afterwards called “Lessons From Heinlein,” in which I discuss how RAH’s style of writing holds some important lessons for would-be writers, specifically relating to character development (I am an actual published author(2) and science fiction writer, so I don’t feel too hinky about dispensing writing advice). The link is here: Some of the afterward necessarily relates to Old Man’s War, which is the novel I’ve serialized, but the comments about Heinlein are general enough in the matter of writing to be of interest even to those who have not read the novel.

Please note that this isn’t a backdoor attempt to get you to read the novel itself; had I wanted you to read it in your official capacity, I would have done the old-fashioned route of printing out the manuscript and shipping it off to your slush pile (being a former editor myself, I do appreciate when people follow submission guidelines).(3) I simply thought the afterward might be in itself of interest to you and the Electrolite readership.

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and prosperous 2003.

So, what can we determine about the specific forms of derivation with regards to OLD MAN’S WAR? They are Apparent, Thematic, Structural, and Stylistic. It is also an Apparent derivative of Joe Haldeman’s THE FOREVER WAR, but this is not in fact the case. Now let’s look at two of John C. Wright’s works, including the recently published ONE BRIGHT STAR TO GUIDE THEM, which most of the early reviewers consider to be (quite rightly in my opinion) a masterpiece.

  • AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND:  Apparent. And a seventh form of derivation, which is something less than Material, so we shall describe it as Elemental. Wright uses specific pieces of Hodgson’s world without actually making use of his text. And that’s it. None of the other five apply
  • ONE BRIGHT STAR TO GUIDE THEM: Apparent, Thematic (partial, as he uses Lewis’s themes to set up his own), and Elemental.

So that’s what ultimately distinguishes the Hodgson/Lewis derivations Wright is utilizing versus Scalzi’s Heinlein derivation. Wright is taking identifiable elements from pre-existing works and creating something new and bigger from them. Scalzi is simply imitating pre-existing works and creating something smaller as a result.

It is said that good poets borrow and great ones steal. But regardless, what separates the good writer from the mediocre in this regard is that he utilizes his literary references to create something new rather than something that rehashes in an inferior manner what has already been done before, and done better. What ultimately matters with regards to a literary derivation is this: is the derivative work a dumbed-down version of the original, or does it improve upon or otherwise add to it? Is it a new masterpiece that could conceivably have been painted by the original artist or is it just a traced color-by-numbers imitation?

Wright’s Hodgson-derivative is justly considered awesome because it surpasses the well-regarded THE NIGHT LAND. His Lewis-derivative will be considered a masterpiece because it expands upon THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA in a manner worthy of Lewis. Scalzi’s Heinlein-derivative novel is not considered mediocre because it is derived from the novels of the SF grandmaster, but because it is a pale and inferior shadow of its predecessors.

(1) I find it amusing that even here, Scalzi is exaggerating. “The “Whatever” online column”? It’s a blog.

(2) “an actual published author” And yet he somehow won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer for OLD MAN’S WAR two years later. A neat trick, n’est ce pas?

(3) Sure it wasn’t. How many more of these helpful and very important lessons did he send to Tor editors, or anyone else, in the subsequent eleven years.