Some time ago it was announced that Eoin Colfer was going to continue the Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. I had an immediate, gut-level reaction that made me pause. I realized that it was the same reaction I have any time that I hear that another writer is going to continue a now-deceased or otherwise incapacitated writer’s series, or set a book in the same universe with the same characters that made the original writer famous, well-loved, or extremely profitable to his or her publisher. It doesn’t even have to be a series I know and love, like HHGTTG. Even if I’ve never read that writer before, my reaction is always the same:
“No, s/he isn’t.”
So far as I’m concerned, it really is that simple. At this point I want to emphasize that I have nothing against Eoin Colfer. I’m not against any working writer finding a decent gig. It’s also not about how good the writer assuming the mantle is. It’s not about whether s/he has the blessings of the estate. It’s not even whether or not the original writer wanted the series continued and recommended the new writer for the job. I don’t care about any of those things because, to me, they are completely irrelevant. Eoin Colfer can’t write a HHGTTG book because he’s not Douglas Adams. Douglas Adams was the creator and writer of the HHGTTG series, and now he’s gone, so there won’t be any more. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. So long and thanks for all the fish.
Does that sound dogmatic? Oh, just a tad. I am naturally suspicious of dogma in all its insidious forms, and this is no exception. Yet, try as I might, I can’t shake this conviction. Creating a fictional world is not like “Steam Engine Time,” as in “When the time is right for the steam engine, someone will create it.” There’s truth to that beyond mysticism. It simply means that all the ducks are in a row: steel-working and milling technology equal to the task, people technically skilled enough to see how that technology could be used. The existence of a real and immediate need. Put all the pieces of the puzzle in place, and someone will invent the steam engine. Actually, if you look at the history of it, several people invented the steam engine, it was only a question of who would make the best one and who would get the credit. Inevitable. But, unlike the steam engine, HHGTTG was never inevitable. If there had been no Douglas Adams, there would have been no HHGTTG. Ever. It belongs to Douglas Adams, period, on a level even deeper than the “moral rights” clause in the Berne Copyright Convention. No one else could have created it, no one else can capture the essence of what it was. CopyAdams’s style and copyAdams’s themes and you might get a decent pastiche. A literary hommage, at best. A derivative work (in the descriptive, not pejorative, sense). But nothing I’m ever going to be interested in. It may sell well and make everyone involved a ton of money. But it’s not HHGTTG.
This applies to fan fiction set in another prose writer’s universe too, and brings home my instinctive dislike for fan fiction. And yes, confession time–I do dislike it. Always have. I understand the impulse to play in someone’s else’s sandbox and this is not meant as an indictment. I know there are a lot of you out there who started in fan fiction and still write it and take great joy in that. I’m not here to finger-wag like some pickle-faced puritan. This isn’t even about the copyright issue, for in this particular instance I don’t care. This isn’t about whether it’s done for fun or profit, again, I don’t care about that, either. This is about me, self-centered sod that I am, and my own understanding of the creative act. Working example: a few years ago there was a Fritz Leiber tribute anthology being put together. Fritz Leiber is one of my most favorite writers, ever, and I was excited. I thought, “Wow. I can write a Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story!” All on spec, but I plunged right in.
And did a complete belly-flop. I managed three pages, and they really, really stunk. And no matter what I did to them, or how many other false starts I made, the stench did not diminish. If anything, it got worse. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. I was blowing my chance! I knew I could write far, far better than that. Only…I couldn’t. Not then, and not on this. It’s only now, years later, that I realize that I blew it because a part of me understood then what my enthusiasm didn’t want to hear–I was doing something that, on a fundamental level, I didn’t believe in. And it showed. I’m not Fritz Leiber, and Fafhrd and the Mouser don’t belong to me. I couldn’t make myself pretend that they did.
But what about comics? Movies? Tv? Shared World anthologies? Well, what about them? Apples and oranges. All those things are collaborative mediums, and have been from the git-go. They have to be, in some cases by definition. There are artists who write and draw their own comics, and there are at least as many where the duties are segregated. Sometimes they own what they do, sometimes they don’t, but different game, different rules.
And speaking of rules, this one’s mine. I don’t claim that it does or should apply to anyone else. But it applies to me. In, as they say, spades. And it’s just as well. I’m too busy figuring out what my own work is and should be to try and do someone else’s. And I plan to keep it that way. I don’t really have a choice.