Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Coincidences That Kill

Recently I had a chance to enter a short-story into a contest sponsored by NASA. The contest was to commemorate the moon landing of 1969, as well as the planned return trip to the moon in the near future. Problem is, I found out about the contest 2 weeks before the deadline, and I knew only the basic facts about our neighbor satellite. So not only did I have to do my research, I had to write and polish a short 5k-long story in under 14 days.

The first coincidence came a week before I received word of this contest. I had purchased The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, considered by some to be Robert A. Heinlein's best work. It certainly has been a perennial favorite of most "best of" sci-fi lists since the book's initial publication. Since I first got into sci-fi at the age of 14, I had been playing catch-up to all the classics in the field, and this was one I'd been meaning to read for almost as long. But once I decided to write a story about the moon, I knew I had to put off reading Heinlein's classic until I at least wrote the rough draft. You see, I didn't want the book--which takes place on the moon--to influence my writing style at all.

Having written the story (and ultimately deciding against submitting it to the contest), I'm now half-way through reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I'm absolutely dumbfounded by how much of the book I "ripped off" inadvertently. I was at first angry, because there's no way I'll ever be able to explain such blatant similarities between the novel and my short. And the fact that my protagonists even mentions the novel in an off-hand manner probably doesn't help my case none. But I swear on a stack of holy Bibles, I did *not* write this story with any fore knowledge of Heinlein's novel. For whatever that's worth.

Over time, however, that initial anger and worry has given away to bemusement. I mean, my story is definitely nowhere near the level of sophistication or mastery of Heinlein's writing. So in that way, it's very much unlike his novel. But also, since I doubt the story will ever see the light of day beyond a couple of my close friends, I'm not really in danger of having the plagiarism police come kicking down my door any time soon. So who's to be the wiser?

Still, the similarities are sometimes eerie. I don't know how to explain how so many similar plot elements from TMIAHM ended up in my tale. I really can't. My friend, T, has offered the theory that, since I did research on the moon, there really is only but so many ways a writer can take that same info and spin it into a narrative. Since Heinlein knew most of the same "facts" about the moon as what I was able to dig up, perhaps it's only to be expected that there would be similarities. However, I countered with specific examples that I say are just *too* neatly coincidental.

Case in point:

  • The protagonist of TMIAHM is a handyman/technician. My protagonist is a handyman/technician.
  • The plot of TMIAHM consists of the lunar colonists revolting against Earth. My story is about an officer attempting to stop such a revolution from beginning.
  • In TMIAHM, the colonists are called "loonies." In my story, they are called "moonies."
  • In TMIAHM, the great nations of Earth have banded together to form the Federated Nations. In my story, the nations of Earth have unified to form the Federated Nations (no joke).
  • In TMIAHM, the protagonist heads "Earthside" to India. In my story, my protagonist is from India -- and I use the term "Earthside," too!
  • In TMIAHM, the linchpin of the revolt and the further economy of the free colonists is a space catapult for exporting goods from the moon. In my story, the linchpin of the terrorists attempts at sabotage is the space elevator, which the colonists use to import and export their goods from ships harbored in orbit.

As you can see, some of these "coincidences" are tenuous enough to not be worth mentioning. But taken as a whole, together with those elements that are uncannily similar (the professions of the protagonists, and the "Federated Nations" part in particular), there's no way anyone's going to believe me that I didn't read TMIAHM at some point before writing my story. Maybe I read it back when I was a teenager and forgot about it?

And I say without a doubt I never read that novel until after I had already finished writing my story. My only theory is that, since Heinlein's novel has been out since the 60s, it's possible that a lot of the sci-fi I've read was itself influenced from the novel, and that somehow that influence transferred to me during my reading of these works. But I think that's too much of a stretch. I don't buy that explanation.

So, unfortunately, although I actually *like* this moon story I've written, I won't be submitting it anywhere. I'll never be able to explain away the similarities. And even if an editor believed me, it wouldn't erase the fact that my story is too derivative of a well-known, cherished novel written by one of the fields most respected Grand Masters.

So, you see, sometimes it's the coincidences which can kill a story.

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