Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why Bother?

At least two people who've read only the brief description of the novel I'll be writing for National Novel Writing Month have asked me why I'd bother writing about boy geniuses and giant robots.

I find this approach simultaneously amusing and frustrating.  The idea that seems to be operating here is that in order to tell a new story, all of the characters have to be of a variety no one else has ever thought of before.  As if such a thing were even possible.

Entire forests have been expended in pursuit of young wizard's apprentices and orphans, yet that didn't stop JK Rowling.  She knew that even though she was walking in the footsteps of everyone from Charles Dickens to Craig Shaw Gardner, her book would be different because she wrote it.  And thank God she did too -- Harry Potter almost single-handedly reawakened the sleeping giant of midgrade and young adult fiction.

Because she wasn't afraid to take a comfortable idea -- the boy wizard -- and say something new with it.  In many ways, she rewrote David Copperfield for a post-Tolkien world.  She took almost word-for-word the  grafted on a lot of ideas that were floating around at the time and synthesized them into something that felt new even though nothing really new happened in those books.

I don't remember the last time I read anything that was literally unprecedented.  The Odyssey, maybe.  And Joseph Campbell assures us that Homer's epic mostly feels original simply because it's far enough in the dark and hoary past that we just don't know where Homer got his ideas.  While that's no excuse for not attempting do to something new, the best anyone (Homer included) can really hope for is to look at something with fresh eyes.

Which puts me in mind of something I read the other day...
"While the optimist tells you the glass is half-full, the hipster tells you they knew about the glass before you and it's not cool anymore." -Anonymous

The quote was unattributed when it crossed my desk, so I'm not sure who came up with it, but I find it very telling.

Tom Swift was the iconic boy genius.  Over a hundred books have featured the character over the years and almost every writer I admire from Asimov to Douglas Adams have pointed to young Master Swift as an inspiration. Talk about territory that's been thoroughly explored.  But just as Star Wars didn't signal the end of spaceships and laser guns (quite the opposite, actually) Tom Swift didn't bankrupt the storytelling power of the young genius. Walking that same ground has come have Encyclopedia Brown, The Mad Scientist's Club, Artemis Fowl IIHermione Granger, Veronica Mars and Agatha Heterodyne.  My personal favorites among many, many others.

And while my young genius may be informed by all of those and more, and may have come out of a childhood spent absorbing the adventures of Tom Swift and Encyclopedia Brown, he's not going to be either.  Nor will he be any of the other young geniuses featured in the stories I've absorbed during my stay on this odd little planet.  It goes back to what I've said a thousand times about why ideas can't be copyrighted -- because if you and I set out to write a book from the same idea, the two books would not even remotely resemble one another.

Don't get me wrong, there are many stories that have been told a thousand times and characters that need a rest. Our culture likes to dry up a well before we move on to drilling the next one.  I'm personally rather sick of stories about vampires, werewolves and zombies, but that doesn't mean there's nothing new to say with those characters.

It may or may not be true that there's nothing new under the sun.  The greatest stories ever told all came from somewhere, but that didn't keep those writing them from licking the tip of their pen and getting to work writing them.

Howard Carter is a deliberate homage to the science fiction of the past and the unrealized promises concocted to brighten up The World of Tomorrow.  Promises written so deeply into our culture that everyone periodically gazes skyward and dreams wistfully of a jet pack or flying car.  (A phenomenon that is directly proportional to the amount of ground traffic around you.)  Even his name was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's iconic character John Carter.  But this isn't an Edgar Rice Burroughs story, it's a Scott Perkins story.  And in some ways, it's going to be a story that looks at the 21st century we have and contrasts it with the 21st century we were promised.  (Yes, that's been done before too and I still don't care.)

There is a fine line between creating a pastiche and paying homage.  And don't think I'm not looking down at the wreckage of those who slipped and fell before me. The danger is half the fun.
- Scott

Howard Carter Saves the Earth is my next novel, to be written in public by posting chapters as they are finished.  Subscribe to my Facebook page and/or follow me on Twitter to receive updates, links and free short stories.  You can also read "Tractors Aren't Supposed to Do That", a prologue posted here last Tuesday.

SideNote: I was delighted to discover recently that the earliest adventures of TOM SWIFT are out of copyright and available as free downloads via Project Gutenberg.  Just enter "Tom Swift" into the title search. Of course, all of these books predate modern sensibilities, so the usual caveats apply.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).