Jake Kerr shamelessly scalzies G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.
So, my new novel is about a future Earth where the population escapes the polluted and dying planet by logging into linked virtual reality servers. They take on roles as fantasy characters, live in former time periods, cruise the Tinder server—all in an effort to get away from the sad world where they live. A mysterious group wants to destroy the virtual reality network to force the citizens to wake up and force the corporations and governments to clean up environment. Their belief is that the planet was purposefully polluted to move people to the corporation-controlled virtual reality operating system. Our hero infiltrates the supreme council of this group and finds that her life is constantly in danger as she moves from secret meetings to administration buildings and virtual reality fantasy servers where she is a level 73 mage. Along the way, everyone betrays everyone else and nothing is what it seems.
That is the description of Thursday, and based solely on that you would never know that it is an adaptation of G. K. Chesterton’s classic The Man Who Was Thursday. And therein lies the following tale.
I first read The Man Who Was Thursday in college, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels. The humor. The plot twists. The intrigue. I was entirely enthralled. Michael Moorcock called it one of the top 100 fantasies of all time, and it’s a seminal novel in the thriller genre, with its series of chases and pursuits. It’s an amazing book with one significant problem—it’s very dated.
The humor references have little cultural meaning to many readers today. The surrealist/spiritual metaphors and allegories are highly specific and jarring for many. And the expositional and philosophical prose is far out of fashion. To make matters worse, the frightening bad guys are anarchists, a group that provides little sense of dread today.
It always struck me that this extraordinary novel deserved to be updated in some form or fashion so that a new generation of readers could enjoy Chesterton’s genius. The more I thought of it over the years, the more I considered doing it myself. Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? I thought. Well, I found out when I took on the project last year….
Chesterton’s background was decidedly religious and based on the secular, frightening, and chaotic anarchist forces in 1908. My background was of a modern world dying from neglect, with virtual reality the way the population escaped this dismal reality. The world is even described as “IRL” and the IRL spaces where people live are delineated as “inside” and “outside.” Making all this work required me to add some scenes and change some of the ways that the characters interacted. For example, the opening scene in my book doesn’t exist in The Man Who Was Thursday.
At its heart, The Man Who Was Thursday is steeped in Catholic symbols and Christian messages, and this is where I am most curious about how the book will be received. I’m an atheist and removed all of those pieces from the novel. Yet I’m convinced that I’ve kept the spirit of the novel enough that if you are religious or a Chesterton fan, you will still see those things there, just not as overtly as Chesterton made them. Christian speaker and author Matt Mikalatos addresses this in the book’s afterword.
Now, there is nothing wrong with retelling an old tale. The Brothers Grimm did a bang-up job of it, as did Shakespeare and Tanith Lee. I’ve done it myself, as QUANTUM MORTIS: A Mind Programmed is a rework of Jeff and Jean Sutton’s The Programmed Man, a childhood favorite of mine that I must have re-read at least six or seven times.
The first big difference is that even the biggest fans of the Sutton work like QM:AMP even better than TPM. That is simply not true of Scalzi’s various ripoffs; literally no one likes any of his books better than the original sources from which he borrowed and/or stole. Why do TPM fans like QM-AMP? Because I removed absolutely nothing that was significant or essential from the original novel. I started with the utmost respect for what was there, excised as little as I felt that I possibly could, and focused on expanding from the original. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that I am a better writer than Sutton.
Scalzi is not better than Heinlein, Dick, Piper, or Asimov. Dan Brown is not better than Umberto Eco. Terry Brooks is not better than JRR Tolkien. I haven’t read Jake Kerr, but there is virtually no chance he is a better writer, or a better observer of the human condition, than G.K. Chesterton. Their imitations, homages, or ripoffs, as you prefer, are almost guaranteed to suffer by comparison with the original.
Writer’s Lesson #1: follow Shakespeare’s lead, not Scalzi’s. Use lesser writers as source material, not those who are markedly better than you are. It’s rather like a band releasing a cover song. If you try to record and release a Beatles’ song, or a Metallica song, you’re most likely just going to look stupid while pissing off their fans.
The second difference is that you absolutely should not make any changes the core structure or the philosophical heart of the story. Subversion is not homage. To polish some clunky prose, add additional detail or story, or breathe life into previously cardboard characters is one thing, to rework everything to suit your personal prejudices is something altogether different. This scalzification of a classic is not only unbelievably stupid, but tone-deaf, and tends to demonstrate how it is that moral-blind atheists so reliably create ugly mediocrities, even when they begin with solid source material.
You shouldn’t record and release a cover of “Sweet Home Alabama”. But if you insist on doing so anyhow, you definitely shouldn’t change the state of reference to Massachusetts or San Francisco.
In the meantime, WE. ARE. AMUSED. You see, this is a screenshot of the Also Viewed list for The Collapsing Empire. Tor and McRapey are desperately trying to ignore it, so it will be interesting to see how long their self-discipline lasts. If you haven’t preordered THE CORRODING EMPIRE yet, you really should join in the fun. Let’s face it, you’ll want to be able to say that no only were you there, but you made it happen.