Did Sheckley beget Adams?

12 03 2013

Yesterday was, as some of you may have noticed, Douglas Adams’ 62nd birthday. The Guardian newspaper chose this anniversary to publish an opinion piece on DNA’s place in the pantheon of comic SF writers. As is generally the case with newspaper opinion copy, it could be counted on to provoke a wide range of responses from its audience, and since the article features a comments section, many of these responses were available for public consumption.

One of these responses got me thinking. A commenter suggested that Adams took most of his ideas from the work of Robert Sheckley.

Now the question of whether DNA plagiarised Sheckley is not one that I am best placed to answer. I haven’t read all of Adams (I’m familiar with the first five Hitchhiker’s books, and with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency), nor all of Sheckley (Dimension of Miracles; Dramocles; and several of his serious SF novels). But I have to say, if pressed to answer the question ‘who did Sheckley’s writings most obviously influence?’, it wouldn’t be Adams I’d think of. (You think the idea of the ritualised-mortal-combat-game-as-reality-show, so recently popularised via The Hunger Games, originated with King’s The Running Man? Think again … Sheckley had at least two stories on the subject, one of them a novel, at least a decade before King was even out of the blocks.)

What saddened me about the commenter’s post, and the obvious bitterness with which it seemed to be expressed, was the implied suggestion that nothing could be worthwhile if not wholly original. Because the problem is that there is very little fiction that could be said to be wholly original. Virtually every word written today–every worthwhile word, that is–owes a debt to what’s gone before, because there’s no more autocoprophagous* beast than Literature. Complaining that it should be otherwise is as unproductive and as just plain wrong as the scorn poured on the Harry Potter books by Twilight fans claiming that Meyer’s was the first ever use of werewolves in popular fiction.

Look, it can be fun to play spot-the-influence. Hogwart’s is Roke recast. The Death Star is Mount Doom, ray-shielded. Coruscant is Trantor, with more chrome and neon. Dumbledore is Obi-Wan Kenobi is Gandalf is, well, Merlin. (Not the new teenaged Merlin, though. The old guy.) Portals, Stargates, that freaky black monolith on Iapetus, Gregory Digby’s wardrobe, the rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland–same same but different. But does it matter?

If it’s plagiarism, yes, certainly it matters. Conscious appropriation of another’s work as one’s own is a big deal; a serious transgression; an inexcusable act. But there’s a gulf between plagiarism and mere influence; and all writers have influences. Steal someone’s work, someone’s words, and use them as your own: that’s a low act, and it impoverishes literature. It breaks the faith with those who matter most, the readers, aside from any ill it does to the words’ true originator. But use someone’s work as inspiration, as a means to create something quite separate and genuinely new, and that can be a good thing, but it must be done without unreasonably drawing on the earlier work. Extrapolate from the work of several others–a genre–and the result can be very worthwhile, can even be wonderful.

Is it wrong, now, to write of time travel, since Wells (The Time Machine) and Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) tied up that territory between them? Was Kim Stanley Robinson poaching on Burroughs’ turf, in setting a series of books on Mars? Should Larry Niven be granted a patent on the use of black holes in SF? Has Jasper Fforde written enough that he should now be locked up and the key thrown away?

In a word: no. Because the world of fiction would be immeasurably poorer without influence.

The idea of influence is something I’ve had to tangle with repeatedly, in trying to tell my stories. ‘Single Handed’ has recourse to–and openly credits–Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics; ‘Fomalhaut 451’ and ‘The Man Who …’ reference Bradbury and Heinlein (and the spaceship name in the latter story, Brontornis III, is another reference again). At least two of my stories can be seen as not-so-subtle digs at Star Trek, though still, I hope, from a somewhat affectionate viewpoint. Other stories have referenced blends of Star Wars with the Hitchhiker’s canon, and Star Trek with Lord of the Rings–in ways that don’t, I think, count as ‘fan fiction’ because in those stories it’s the existence of the (Star Wars / Hitchhiker’s / Trek / LOTR) literature with which I’ve concerned myself, rather than a borrowing of characters, scenarios, or plot arcs. You can judge for yourself in the Trek / LOTR case, here … and yes, to forestall anyone’s need to comment, I’m now aware that the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons might have beaten me to this. There is nothing new under the sun.

So: influence is something which is important to me. And, while I make it plain that I am not in any way stating that my own writing has enriched the world of literature in any useful capacity, I do firmly believe that influence helps grease the creative wheels of writing. Writers learn from experience, from observation, and from reading, and it’s only natural to expect a little leakage, a little backwash. One of the things which most powerfully brought this home to me was first watching the movie Spirited Away several years ago: if you haven’t previously been exposed to anime or manga (and, at the time, I hadn’t), it seems incredibly foreign and strange, the same sort of cultural unfamiliarity I encountered four decades ago with Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. It’s very hard to find anything written by an English-speaking author that carries the same sense of difference, the same quality of otherness, which Spirited Away and the Moomin canon evoke for me, and I think a large part of this is a measure of the common cultural baggage that tends to be brought to anything written in English. Dickens, Twain, Salinger, Carroll, Orwell, Harper Lee, Asimov, Bradbury, Lovecraft and a whole crowd of other antecedents: if you write in English, you probably won’t incorporate all of those as influences, but the odds are, some of them will have touched you, and it’ll show. (And yes, some of these may also count as influences on non-English writers, via translation. It’s likely, though, that the influence is generally diluted for other tongues, just as Dumas and Hugo, for example, would be generally less of an influence on English writers than on Francophones. Verne, among SF writers in particular, probably has a broader range of influence …  But here I risk wandering off on a tangent, so I’ll resist the temptation to sidetrack myself further.)

Did Adams plagiarise Sheckley? No, I don’t think so. The works which would appear to be the closest parallels are Dimension of Miracles and the Hitchhiker’s series: I read Sheckley’s novel (several years after first encountering HHGG) on the recommendation of a flatmate who identified it as a probable influence on Adams’ work, and so I was attuned for similarities between the two during my reading of Dimension. I don’t remember thinking that the one was a knock-off, in any sense, of the other. I was more struck by the differences. Sheckley’s work was the more zany, the more offbeat, with a different flavour of humour, and the storylines were, broadly and in most important details, quite different. One could probably safely say that Sheckley’s and Adams’ work were cut from quite similar cloth, but not from the same bolt; nor had they fashioned the same type of garment from the material. Yes, there could well be influence at work: but that, I suggest, is no bad thing.

It’s not compulsory to choose, only one or the other. You can have both. If you enjoy Douglas Adams’ humour, you’ll very possibly enjoy Sheckley’s as well. And that of a hundred or more other authors who have, in various capacities, imported humour and a love of the absurd into their SF. Some of those will also have been influences on Adams and / or Sheckley, some will have been influenced by them. Some are just fellow travellers.

That’s the great thing about influence. Just because someone tries something, it doesn’t mean that someone else can’t justifiably try something similar, and get a result different enough to be freshly enjoyable. It’s not a zero-sum game.

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* (I paid a hundred dollars for a new dictionary a few weeks back. Can you tell?)

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