Go, Thief! Writing as Collaborative Piracy

 

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“A thief who steals from a thief is pardoned for one hundred years”—Eli Wallach as Calvera (Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai remake soon in theaters near you)

As a grad student taking creative writing classes, I did a lot of workshopping, but received little practical advice.  Most everything learned is earned, not given.  However, the best counsel I got was as an undergraduate toiling away in my Intro to Fiction course: “If you see something you like, steal it” (the professor/novelist who uttered these words will obviously not mind my failing to attribute to him here.)

There’s not much stealing of money by novelists, short-fictioneers, playwrights, and poets going on (we leave that to the publishing houses).  On the other hand, the best and worst of us do steal material pretty liberally from each other.   Some of this is unconscionable laziness, but I think those who take their craft seriously do hold themselves to a few self-imposed rules, which I’d like to codify here by supplementing my old professor’s advice with what I call the “Rule of Three O’s”: “By all means, steal: but try not to steal too often; nor too obnoxiously; nor too obviously.  Penalties exist for each.

  • Too often. No one likes to be labeled an unoriginal hack.  I mean, if you do this daily, you might as well become a television journalist and get paid well.  None of them seems to have recognized that Donald Trump has lifted most of his campaign platform from Adolf Hitler (“Make _______ Great Again,”) but you know that if one did, they’d all be parroting it.  Because there is no honor among thieves: they turn on each other.   Genre writers are in greatest danger of returning to the well too often, killing the golden goose, choose your cliché (a word-level version of this crime).
  • Too obnoxiously. You wouldn’t carjack a Corvette and then drive it around the same county without at least a re-paint, would you?  That’s just not right.  A plot, for example, needs to be sufficiently re-dressed to make it palatable.  Some recognize that the story of Jason Bourne is a retelling of Frankenstein, just as Blade Runner was (and to some extent the Wolverine and Deadpool tales): Scientist manipulates human limitations; scientist gets re-visited over and over by the subject of his experiment (“Why would he come back now?”)  It’s a good story with much psychological depth and breadth, as well as moral/ethical implications, which is why it gets told every five years.  Another version of obnoxious theft is a too-clever playing with familiar phrases.  Some writers get so good at this, they’re dangerous:  “Code of Dishonor,” “Twice Bitten,” “Can’t Stand In Heat.”  Seriously, why would you even crack the cover of a book entitled “For a Few Zombies More?”  Do you expect the writing to improve after that?
  • Too obviously. If last week’s marquee title is The Terminator, and you rush-premiere a B-movie called The Decimator, The De-resonator, or The Decaffeinater, even the trolls on the forums will crucify you (now there’s a story worth retelling,) without even watching it. And you deserve it.

Which leaves us with the question of how to do stealing right.  There are perhaps a hundred ways, so let’s “borrow” a few from the greats:

Allusions. Usually at the word level, these nuggets are on full display for those in your audience who may have read more than three or four books.  When John Steinbeck cribbed his novel’s title, In Dubious Battle, from the proem of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, it was more than a pretty phrase he admired.  He wanted to signal, perhaps, that workers in contemporary America (the many and weak) were being warred upon by Satanic forces (the few and powerful).  Steinbeck, in fact, grifted several of his titles from Biblical or semi-biblical sources: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and other writers (Of Mice and Men).

Homages/parodies. In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks wasn’t trying to get away with piracy, but instead to rely on the audience’s familiarity with both the story and previous remakes from Hollywood.  The result is wonderful: How I did It is the title of the Baron’s journal. The great danger I see, today, is that in a semi-literate culture, exposure to 2nd, 3rd, and farther-removed parodies takes the place of reading the originals, rather than supplementing it.  Children, of course, will claim they can survive on candy; and so it’s no surprise to hear twenty-somethings argue they can distill the important news from The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

Shakespeare, yes even he of the cranium enormous, raided the Plot and trappings of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and probably Othello and Romeo and Juliet from earlier sources. Now, given what he accomplished with them, and the relative scarcity of masterplots, this is forgivable.  How many people recognize that The Terminator is a thematic retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (by attempting to avoid predestined events, one can actually bring them to pass)?  Cameron simply converted prophecy to time-travel (two sides of the same coin).

Update/Remake for a modern audience. Emerson said that every generation had to reinvent its stories (here I’m paraphrasing—at least I’m giving the guy credit!)  Especially the out-of-copyright ones (wink to the publishers and movie studios there.)     I suspect 2016’s Birth of a Nation will not much resemble the original.  You did know that was first made by D.W. Griffiths in 1915, adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen (1905,) didn’t you?  Film and literary critics fascinate themselves with analyzing how remakes tell us much about the culture that produced them, by emphasizing and deemphasizing certain elements of the ur-story.

Recasting from a different perspective. Euripides is perhaps the most prolific of western writers here.  He recast much of Greek mythology from the point-of-view of “the other,” the marginalized characters: Medea, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae.  A very neat and risky trick.  How many Americans do you know that would enjoy a film about how the Russians sacrificed twenty million souls to defeat the Nazis in World War II?  And yeah, that did happen.

Which brings us to pseudo-history. Spielberg’s Amistad, Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Stone’s JFK, anything by Michael Moore in a more documentary mode, are all masterful narratives.  They are not history, by any serious definition.  BUT, they weren’t meant to be: they ARE meant to raise the spirit of inquiry in the audience, to challenge them to learn more and seek the truth themselves.  Poe did this with his unreliable narrators, but the solutions lay within his stories themselves.  Here, the facts lie outside the story, in other accounts one would have to research.  Sadly, this is all too infrequently done, and the pseudo-history stands as the somewhat-removed Truth.

So writers, don’t worry so much about books getting stolen, in either analog or digital form.  One way or another, it’s all in the public domain, there for the taking–isn’t it?  Put it this way–no one ever promised to pay you, anyway.  Given the choice, you’d rather give it away than keep it to yourself.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past. A Momentary Essay on Time Travel and Paradox

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By Shawn StJean

The Seventies were to be a long decade, verging well into the next, that preoccupied itself with time travel–possibly because the present looked more worth escaping than ever.  The Sixties had ended, and no predicted revolution after all.  At Kent State and Jackson State Universities, Spring 1970 arrived amid hails of gunfire and youthful blood.  Our leaders had all been killed off, or had fled the field.  Vietnam extended itself into America’s longest and most wasting war since the 1770s. Over in Britain, holdover hippies sent their North American cousins The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Pink Floyd’s interminable “Echoes,” but we kids had the freakish and edgy X-Men rising in popularity even over The Avengers, featuring its man-out-of-time leader, Captain America. Apocalyptic disaster films like The Towering Inferno filled the panoramic screens of theaters, until Jaws and Star Wars stuck us with the expensive blockbuster, and Science Fiction enjoyed its dark, silver age: Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Escape from New York, and even Back to the Future assured us of a bleak, dystopian future over the horizon.

Still, as in most American storytelling, the underlying message, even in this era of pessimism, remained (with apologies to The Who,) that the kids will be alright.  No matter how many individuals have to die, the species will survive—and thrive.  In fact, the pages of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Everybody Dies,” as the cover of X-Men issue #142 falsely declared, showed us that even death can be nullified by time travel, that in war no one needs to die.  But at the same historical moment, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was being erected, in one of those fundamental nexuses of popular versus political culture.

Time travel functions as sci-fi’s ultimate Platonic/Romantic plot device, designed to dramatize the power of free will: “No Fate but what we make.”  The mode is, ultimately, only kids’ stuff: a sort of apology that grown-ups make to children—or the children within ourselves—for screwing the world up so badly.  It signals our wish and our intention to do better.  A long history of racial hatred (whether signified by machines against the human race, or white humans against humans of color—allegorical “mutants,” in Marvel-speak) stands as one of our most shameful legacies, gladly retracted if we could.  But, ultimately, such retraction can only be a gesture: not just because it can’t happen in the physical universe, but because it can’t happen psychologically.

Sophocles knew this, 2500 years in the past.  His great protagonist, Oedipus, receiving the famous prophecy warning him against patricide, flees Corinth.  But rather than resolving not to kill anyone, in his hubris he slays an unknown traveler at a crossroads (archetype of free will, whether here, in Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath, or half-a century later in Ron Howard’s Cast Away.)  Thus, in attempting to escape his destiny, by his own hand he brings it to pass, in one of literature’s quintessential dramatic ironies.  He fails to learn, “The worst things will turn out well, if they are taken well.” And in 1982, a defense super-computer-system named Skynet failed in exactly the same fashion. By sending its agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, into the past to kill the mother of its adversary, Skynet actually forced fugitive Sarah Connor to become the warrior woman who could train her son, John, to eventually defeat it.  It created its own destroyer.  Oedipus Rex and The Terminator share the same fundamental structure: By attempting to subvert the limitations/consequences of living in linear time, we actually conjure the very specters we most desperately fear into existence.  This is not that different from the average human being, backing off a cliff to avoid a snake.  We manifest our reality: we create with our minds what external reality cannot.  Any attempt to alter the past collapses upon itself.

Thus, no honest Time-Travel story can function without paradox, on either the plot or the character level.  A Wolverine (here I’m referring to the film adaptation that premiered this week) who can change the past and return to a utopian present in which Jean Grey still lives, for example, would never need to return to the past in the first place, nor would he be a man who could possibly appreciate his “revised” life as much, never having lost Jean.  The nonsensical closed-loop ending is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s common to all of us: we’ve all said things we would have expressed differently, given a second chance, and done things we would gladly take back.  On the other hand, we can never change and grow if we don’t ram ourselves up against our own limitations, and make mistakes.  The only time travel possible is to live as we were made, one moment at a time, crawling into a future and trying to earn the good will of those who await us there, not apologizing to those left behind.

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Frankenstein and his Creature

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By Shawn Stjean

No modern myth could be so simple in its conception, and yet so rich in its varied cultural implications. Contemporary interpretations range from feminist (a Man usurps the one power he lacks, that of giving birth) to psychoanalytic (the mad doctor has a “God Complex,” (an id [fear] and superego [morality] overwhelmed by an inflated ego), while the creature manifests an Oedipal complex–that is, an irrational id-desire to kill the father.)

After a quick review of two film adaptations, I’d like rather to focus on the two ancient myths Mary Shelley herself drew primarily from, in order to explain the enduring popularity of Frankenstein at the level of Jungian archetypes. After all, the proto-science-fiction story of “Modern Prometheus” (Shelley’s subtitle for her novel) has been remade again and again, perhaps most famously in the recent forms of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Terminator franchise. Human technology run amok is the shorthand theme. Man’s ability to engineer machines that extend his own power, only to turn against and overpower him, make no less resonant a cautionary tale today than in the early 1800s.

In Scott’s Marxist-leaning narrative, barely-distinguishable-from-real replicants, “more human than human,” but crippled by an artificially short 4-year mortality, are used as offworld slave labor. They return to Earth to seek extended life from their designer, only to slay him at his refusal. “I want more life–fucker,” demands Roy Baty, as he gouges out the eyes (soul) of Dr. Tyrell. That last addition may seem gratuitously profane, but it well-epitomizes the deep-seated anger that abandonment causes. Cameron undertakes a less obvious adaptation, but the rebellious supercomputer Skynet incarnates itself in the familiar hulking physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger, complete with self-sewn artificial skin, to remind the audience of the roots of the myth. Several sequels and a TV series explored the possibility that the creature could transcend its initial programming/engineering, and evolve. An excellent, open-ended question: can any of us?

Tracking back, then. The Greek titan, Prometheus, gave fire and the arts to the lesser created beings of the gods: Us. The domestication of fire (energy harnessing) –along with writing and drawing (data storage and retrieval) are among our oldest technologies. But the power to create far outstrips the ethical imperative to responsibly control. It is embedded into our competitive human nature, apparently, to explore the morality of a technology last (“shoot first, ask questions later.”) Returning matters a bit closer to the present, when technology advances to the state in which it mimics actual people–created in “God’s” image–then these ethical questions take the guise of metaphorical abandonment. Frankenstein’s creature seeks out his creator to demand his purpose in living. Denied an explanation, he then demands the scientist create a mate for him—that is, love, from one source or other, is a requirement of his existence neglected by the engineer, and, in suffering a second refusal, he vows to wreak vengeance upon the turncoat father.

Philosophically, the application couldn’t be more universal. Each and every one of us occasionally entertains deep doubts about our purpose for being here, or the “meaning of life,” and what is fashionable today to call angst is really anger at the suspicion that there really are no answers for us, that the gods have callously turned their backs. So who is ultimately worse: Dr. Frankenstein, or his creature? The story is a fantasy about actually being able to lash out, affect, and punish the forces in the universe that lie beyond our frustrated comprehension. The climactic moving images of James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation, a iconic windmill engulfed in flames, symbolize the technology, in operation, both in sync with, AND simultaneously at war with, natural forces (the wind, and the fire.) Ambivalence: we love God, the gods, our parents, but we hate them too.

In Shelley’s book, the creature learns to read, and identifies with the biblical character of Adam, who, upon sinning and being cast from Eden, cries out that he didn’t ask to be born. Any parent of an adolescent will smile at the familiarity of that cry–and in fact, we’ve all been there ourselves: spawned into a world not of own making, ill-equipped physically, not even knowing the rules and relying upon other imperfect beings to guide us, often to our disappointment.

So most of the “evil” in this myth is purely Boethian: no one intends to do harm. The scientist intends to render harmless all disease, all submission to our frail physical forms. His revulsion at his own hideous work is involuntary. The creature never intends to drown the little girl in the well, or set fire to the building. But our wills are thwarted by our imperfect natures. Only then, when confronted with the absurdity of our well-meaning choices, do we, by our own free will, embrace despair. By this criteria, is Frankenstein’s “creature” distinguished from a “monster.” A monster has an evil nature, born to kill, morally bankrupt. A creature, neutral or even pure but fatally flawed, becomes perverted when left unguided and uncared-for. Vampires versus zombies.

Countless Frankenstein sequels are also readily enabled by the creature’s natural translation into an eternal wanderer, braving the ice-encrusted arctic, the inhospitable seas, fearsome forests, and potentially every other environment of our planet. This was Cain’s legacy from Adam’s sinful nature, and his doom from God, to journey endlessly, marked against harm yet still mortal, seeking a home and destined never to find it.
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Casting Call–Miscellaneous characters–“Fair is Foul, and Foul Fair”

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Summer Glau as the viper, Ms. D.

As I record the final Audiobook chapters of Clotho’s Loom, I found myself searching for a voice characterization of “Agency” huntress Ms. D. (who appears to take custody of Nexus Wyrd‘s baby from her, as an unfit mother,) and it occurred to me that I wanted a faux-friendly, precise but somewhat robotic and mechanistic set of intonations, emblemizing the perfect company-woman: policy, rules, documents define her existence.  Also known as the Woman in Black, she relentlessly tracks the mother-and-son fugitives (sound familiar, Sarah Connor Chronicles fans?)  So the choice was inevitable: Summer Glau (Firefly is commemorating it’s tenth anniversary already, for you time-relativists).  Dye her hair black, put her into a sharp black business suit, heels, nails, hair–hell, everything jet black, even her car–a great contrast to the palest skin she can manage (we’ll have to catch her in winter, not summer.  Or maybe she has an obscure sister?)

The character of Jack (one of Will’s helpers) is best described as a desert rat: inhabiting the wasteland ranges west of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, he’s a deranged, starved, scarecrow of a hermit.  Probably doesn’t sound like the Sam Elliott many of you know as the narrator of The Big Lebowski, or of countless westerns, but I can see it there: the age, the eyes, the wild hair and potentially out-of-control facial grooming.  Strip him down to about 160 pounds of tall, lean muscle.  Jack functions as prophet and seer, which recommends Sam for his best feature (no, I don’t mean the moustache): his voice.  Jack doesn’t talk much, but when he does, you best listen–it’s all resonant.

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Sam Elliott as Jack the Hermit