I was fairly irritated by this comment, alleging that I had “plagiarised” Dark Eden from an out-0f-print hundred-year-old Polish science fiction novel, never published in English, and which I’ve never heard of. If we’re going to bandy about unpleasant words like plagiarism, the word slander comes to mind!
A while back, someone sent me a slightly hostile tweet alleging that I’d lifted one of the main ideas in The Holy Machine, a female robot messiah, from the Fritz Lang film Metropolis. Now in this case I have seen the film, back in the 1980s when it came out with a new rock soundtrack. The only scenes I can now remember were the huge factory, and the city with its vast multi-level streams of traffic, but it’s entirely possible all the same that the idea of a robot messiah lodged somewhere in my brain and was one of the sources of Holy Machine.
But why the hostility? It seems to be based on a somewhat off-beam notion of how writers operate and what constitutes originality. We do not operate in a vacuum. As we cast about for ideas we draw on what is already in our brains. What alternative do we have? And what is in our brains includes countless images and ideas we have read about, or seen in movies, or been told about by friends. There is a scene in Dark Eden, for instance, where John Redlantern puts his hand on a long-lost ring. Would I have come up with this, if I hadn’t read The Hobbit? I very much doubt it.
But its more complicated than just Writer A has an idea, Writer B steals/borrows/uses it. A conscious influence on Holy Machine, as I’ve acknowledged before, was the movie the Stepford Wives (based on the novel by Ira Levin) which I saw in the seventies, in which a bunch of men preferred subservient robot simulacra to real women. That undoubtedly influenced the beginning of the Holy Machine, where the isolated and socially phobic George Simling chooses a robot sex toy, rather than take the (to him terrifying) risk of actually relating to another human being. But the Stepford wives is itself part of a tradition of stories going back to the Greek legend of Pygmalion (just as Tolkein’s accursed ring is an idea that goes back to the Norse story of Andvari’s ring), and this story surely persists because, in its essentials, it really happens, over and over again, in the real world: men trying to shape women into their image of women should be. In her book about her abduction and long captivity, for instance, Natascha Kampusch refers to the Pygmalion legend as a way of explaining what her captor was trying to do to her, but hers was just an extreme example of something that occurs all the time.
Sometimes ideas recur, in other words, not because one writer borrows from another, but because both writers are attempting to represent the same aspect of reality, much as certain shapes and structures recur independently in nature as a result of parallel evolution. Often it is impossible to know whether this is what has happened, or whether there has been a more direct influence. I genuinely don’t know, for instance, whether or not Metropolis had any direct influence on The Holy Machine.
* * *
When writing about Dark Eden, I’ve acknowledged several influences that I’m conscious of: in particular Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Aldiss’ Helliconia series, as well as a couple of things from Tolkein, and the green-on-black screen of an old Amstrad computer. When it comes to Mother of Eden, I’m less sure, but here are a few.
There is a scene during Starlight’s second crossing of Worldpool, which I am fairly sure was inspired by a moment in Jane Campion’s beautiful film, The Piano.
Certainly 3,096 Days by Natascha Kampusch (already mentioned) was an influence. Starlight is never a captive in quite the literal sense that Kampusch was, but she finds herself a captive nevertheless. I was really extraordinarily moved by Kampusch’s indomitable spirit, and I think this influenced my thinking about Starlight’s character, her determination to resist.
I’ve been very into Shakespeare’s history plays over the last couple of years, and have also read several books about Tudor and medieval history (these include Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, though in their case, I read them after completing the book, encouraged by the recent TV series). I know my exposure to these various sources influenced my thinking about power, dealing as they did with a period when to fall from power, or to challenge power unsuccessfully, was typically to invite your own death. (This is still the case, of course, in many countries today. North Korea and our great ally, Saudi Arabia, spring to mind.)
Tolkein was an influence too, and this time a conscious one, but in a funny inverted kind of way. Dark Eden had brought a powerful ring – Gela’s ring – into the picture, and in Mother of Eden that ring is much more prominent (Gela’s Ring was my original title for the book). But I’m not writing fantasy. There are two hostile camps in Mother of Eden, but neither is wholly good or wholly evil, and my ring has no inherent power, hard though this is to hold onto when you are actually in its presence:
But what was it? [Starlight asks herself at one point] What was I looking at? Didn’t you have to know what a thing was before you could really see it?…. I knew lots of stories about it like everyone did – it had been made on Earth, it had been found by John Redlantern, it had been snatched by Firehand from out of that pot of boiling water – but they were just stories, stories that had been wrapped round it, not the ring itself. So now I tried and tried, until my head ached, to push them from my mind and look at the ring itself.
It was just a thing. I could see that. Just a small small thing. When it was first made on Earth, no one could have known where it would go or what it would come to mean. But it was impossible to hold onto that, impossible to hold away the stories that had made this little object seem so big. In fact, so big had it become that it kept pulling more stories around itself, and growing bigger still…
4 thoughts on “Originality and origins”
For what it’s worth, I’ve seen the 1988 film adaptation of Jerzy Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe, directed by Andrzej Żuławski (grandson of the writer’s brother), and certainly in the film the world the astronauts are sent to has a sun and daylight. After the film, I fancied reading the book, but could find no version in English, either current or out-of-print, anywhere. I recommend the film, however. And it bears no resemblance to Dark Eden.
Yes, someone sent me a clip from the film, Ian, and it looked pretty spectacular.
I just finished reading Dark Eden and found it very enjoyable and have recommended to others . And now I find myself on your blog. I followed the link in line 1 of this posting to your putatative critic’s blog . And what a self-important and joyless place it is , from what I briefly sampled. This person needs to redirect their energies imho , but I’m sure you couldnt possibly comment. Best wishes for your new book.
Many thanks for these encouraging comments, Fred. I’m very pleased you enjoyed the book.