Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Writing: No original idea, just original execution?

I swear, absolutely up and down, that I did not read James Tiptree Jr's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" until after I wrote my latest 'masterpiece'.

If anyone really wanted to query my motives behind writing "Twixt", I'm sure they could point to my current reading list, which includes Tiptree's "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever". I started dipping into this fantastic anthology in the last month, but I only read "Houston" last night.

I finished writing "Twixt" last week.

To say I was momentarily devastated is an understatement.

"Houston" is a feminist SF masterpiece, telling the post-apocalyptic, post-plague story of a female only society, with themes of androgyny, bodily autonomy, rape, and how patriarchal norms hurt men too.

"Twixt" is a feminist SF (not-masterpiece, far from it) story, telling the post-apocalyptic, post-plague story of a female only society, with themes of androgeny, bodily autonomy, rape, and how women are not some great Borg Collective Monster Hive Mind.

While the themes and science bear a striking, entirely unintentional resemblance, I wouldn't dare, or hope, to emulate the sheer brilliance of Tiptree.

The merits of the story, then, stand on its execution.

The first difference between our stories is the narrator. Tiptree chose a 'beta male', struggling not only with male identity but also his place amongst a completely female society. I went with originally non-gendering my protagonist, for very good reason - they have a secret, which is the main driver of the story.

Secondly, Tiptree's "Houston" was published in 1976. Since then there has been advances in feminism and science. I am Third Wave, therefore I have the privilege of thirty five more years of women fighting for their civil rights behind me. As much as I thought "Houston" was sheer brilliance (it must've been a hell of a gut punch to originally read in the 70s!), there were smatterings of gender essentialism - ie: war and violence completely disappeared when men ceased to exist; women are more communicative; women have a less hierarchical community structure - which are more rigorously challenged today, and which I attempt to deal with in my piece.

The yearning in the piece makes me wish Alice Sheldon was alive today to see how far we've come, even since 1987 (the year of her death).

In regards to the science, Tiptree's hard science is just awesome in "Houston", and much of it still stands today. While my science is soft (really soft!), my story benefits from assumptions surrounding thirty five years of advances in genetics (cloning), artificial insemination, and sperm/egg storage. Even if I don't know, or infer, much about these topics in my story, the general knowledge that a reader has of these subjects will infer much. In my world, and the world of my story, these are a given. You can read my story confident that a passing reference to artificial insemination and sperm storage is a technology being used to save the human race, whereas the extrapolations from Tiptree's "Houston", based on current or burgeoning technology in 1976, not so much - she finds other technological ways around the population problem.

Also, "Houston" extrapolates a 100% mortality rate amongst males, and since there has been advances in identifying sex beyond the XX and XY binary, plus moves forward in deconstructing gender binary, there is plenty room to re-visit this style of feminist post-apocalyptic tale.

Retellings of stories are a way to update said story with current social or scientific changes, or vogues in storytelling. Just think how religion informed folklore influenced Goethe, who informed Southey, who spoke to Byron, who influenced Polidori, who was updated by James Malcolm Rymer, who gave on to Bram Stoker, who influenced a generation of cinema vampires (hello Bela Lugosi), who spoke to Richard Matheson, who subsequently informed Marilyn Ross, which gave roots to Anne Rice/Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, which even now is influencing Stephanie Meyer/Charlaine Harris. And so it goes, with everyone in between. The tendrils of a story spread wide, especially when retold using cultural variations.

Am I writing all this as a way to justify continuing with and submitting my story? Absolutely. Am I prepared for the comparisons to Tiptree's "Houston"? Yes. I am an honest person - I would never steal an idea or plot. I would never engage in plagiarism. That this has occurred is sheer coincidence.

Obviously I believe in some of the same politics and activism as Sheldon did, and it just goes to show that great minds think alike. Though I have eons to go before I even pretend at being as great as Tiptree.

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