Agony Column Exclusive Commentary


Prizing the Derivatives
The Perfected Pastiche
The Agony Column for March 18, 2005
Commentary by Rick Kleffel
A genre fiction landmark from 1959.
Genre fiction as we know it today has barely been in existence for a hundred years. In fact, one hundred years ago, none of the genres that we know -- horror, science fiction, and mystery -- really existed at all. There were writers whose work would later be recognized as belonging to or even creating these genres -- Poe, Shelley, Doyle, Wells, Verne -- but the genres themselves did not exist. Literature however, and the novel in particular, were quite well established.

But as bookselling and publishing became profitable, the need to differentiate between types of books arose. And thus, genre fiction as we know it today was created -- not by writers, but by the marketing departments and booksellers. By subdividing the realm of fiction into easily identified genres, booksellers made it easier for fans of certain types of fiction to find what they were looking for. Here in the 21st century, it's easy to think that writing has always worked this way. But this weed has really only overrun the lawn in the last fifty or so years.

Within genres, certain writers seemed to single-handedly create -- or discover -- iconic subjects, or what I'll call tropes. There's no doubt that Arthur Conan Doyle quite specifically created Sherlock Holmes, a Victorian detective. And it's not disputed that Jack Vance created the Dying Earth, our world, millions of years in the future, in a time when science has become practically indistinguishable to the reader from sorcery. Robert A. Heinlein was the first writer to describe what he called "Power Armor", a spacesuit that acts as a space ship, allowing an individual human to be launched from an orbiting ship and sent into a battle on the planet below. H. P. Lovecraft indisputably created the being we all know as Cthulhu. And Jorge Luis Borgés created 'The Universal History of Infamy', a fictional non-history of figures real and unreal.

On the sixth day, he created Sherlock Holmes.
And so it might seem that each of these writers should be the only writer of worth who could write about these iconic characters, ideas or settings. Should any other writer try to do so, their work would be derivative. Pastiche.


Of course, in the world of literature, tropes were created hundreds of years ago, and when new generations of writers took them to hand, they were not dismissed as lesser. The romance novel. The novel of self-discovery. Nobody dismisses out of hand what Michael Chabon calls a "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory" story simply because they've been done quite well in the past. Each one is evaluated on its own merits.

Dismissing writers who used tropes that had been created by others would result in dismissing much of the great literature of the twentieth century. And though the genres are still quite young, it would be quite unwise to dismiss the literary value of writers working in pastiche and derivative fiction.

A dying earth gives birth to new fiction.
I came to this "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelation" as I finished reading Matthew Hughes' brilliant but highly derivative novel 'Black Brillion' hot on the heels of reading John Scalzi's Heinleinian-juvenile novel for adults 'Old Man's War'. And as I started thinking about the implications of two fine novels written specifically in the vein of another genre author, I began to roll back some of my previously held notions on the holiness of originality.

Those notions, deeply ingrained, told me that great writing, great art always had to be one-hundred percent original. Every thought, every phrase, every concept had to be fresh, newly minted by the inspired vision of an artiste. Any tinge of derivation, of un-originality could only dilute the experience of a written work. The true greats were not allowed to stand on the shoulders of giants, nor were they allowed to appropriate the characters, the ideas or the settings of the giants. Building from the ground up was required. If it was good enough for the giants, it was good enough for today's and tomorrow's writers as well.

But all it takes is a couple, well three, great novels to overturn that idea. Standing on the shoulders of Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Chabon's Holmes pastiche, 'The Final Solution', is powerful enough to make the most ardent Holmes fan tear up in joy, while Laurie R. King's 'The Game' is her latest excellent Holmes-with-a-wife mystery.

A bargain even at full price.
In fact, the giants were working at a distinct disadvantage, having no shoulders to stand upon. Readers presented with their work actually might not have known what to make of it. You might read Sherlock Holmes serialized in The Strand and think, "My that's a pleasant diversion. No, it's not Henry James but it is mildly entertaining." In retrospect, what those readers should have thought was, "Holy moly! This is a groundbreaking work! Imagine what future writers will be able to do with this idea, indeed, with this very character!"

But the 20-20 clarity of hindsight still rules our view today. Tor releases 'Black Brillion', and it gets some notice, but it is, after all, working territory first trod by Jack Vance. Hughes acknowledges this with a nod to the Jack Vance BBS at the beginning of his novel.

Tor also let slip the dogs of an 'Old Man's War' by John Scalzi with no more warning or marketing than they might accord to a Yet Another Young Adult novel. Scalzi likewise thanks Heinlein both at beginning and end, and well he should. But Heinlein himself should be thankful that his legacy is handled with a skill equal to his own.

In the firefly life of Night Shade's Ministry of Whimsy Imprint, under the careful guidance of Jeff VanderMeer, we first saw the flapping wings of Rhys Hughes Borgesian tribute, 'A New Universal History of Infamy', an amazingly worthwhile and faithful sequel to the original work, 'A Universal History of Infamy'.

Designed to be extended.
And while in 'The Overnight', Ramsey Campbell does, in fact finally achieve what the lamented Edna Stumpf once requested -- that he "wring the Lovecraft out of his typewriter" -- he creates no less than that described in the epigraph written by Algernon Blackwood and chosen by Lovecraft for, 'The Call of Cthulhu':

"Of such great powers or beings there may be conceivably a survival... a survival of a hugely remote period when... consciousness was manifested, perhaps, in shapes and forms long since withdrawn before the tide of advancing humanity... forms of which poetry and legend alone have caught a flying memory and called them gods, monsters, mythical beings of all sorts and kinds..."

A veritable army of writers manage to cleverly combine Lovecraft and Doyle in 'Shadows Over Baker Street', with Neil Gaiman winning the Best Short Story Hugo Award in 2004 for his contribution to the anthology, 'A Study in Emerald'. (Of course he tried to read that story at the 2002 Torcon, but was booted from the room due to time restrictions. "Damn pastiche, begone!" they might as well have said.)

Damn pastiche, begone? By any measure, the pastiche, the derivative appears to be a bastion these days of top-notch literary work. The works that started this thread of thought in my tiny brain were Tor's two recent releases, Matt Hughes' Black Brillion' and John Scalzi's 'Old Man's War'. I really enjoyed both works, and then sort of twigged to the fact they both were quite openly derivative works. 'Black Brillion', for example, begins with a dedication "To Mike Berro and all the gang on the Jack Vance bbs." His setting of Old Earth is clearly both a riff on and a tribute to Jack Vance's Dying Earth. The colorful characters and the mix of science and magic also speak directly to Jack Vance's iconic work.

Black brilliance.
But within the iconic backgrounds and forms, Hughes contributes all the things that make a great novel. His prose is wonderfully droll and constantly entertaining. Moreover, he mixes a lot of different influences into his Vancian homage. His story starts out as a very clever con-versus-con police procedural. He gets the grit, the conmen, the crabby top cop and the detail-obsessed young cop characters down perfectly, even though the mean streets they tread have a distinct otherworldly flavor. When he draws the noösphere into the action, he takes an entire book by Carl Jung on the collective unconscious and deftly turns it into a mesmerizing plot point. One could even claim that survivals such as those mentioned by Blackwood and appropriated by Lovecraft play an integral role in his resolution. Any savvy reader could easily play spot-the-influence and have a good time doing just that. But Hughes keeps things under such a tight rein with his powerful prose and intricately designed plot that there's little choice other than being enthralled by the book as a whole. And afterwards, the pleasing task of reflecting on all the exciting ingredients that make such pleasing whole. Forget the homage, the influences and derivations -- 'Black Brillion' is a wonderfully written, thought provoking novel no matter what the provenance.

And a young man's appreciation.
New history but old model.
The ore from which John Scalzi mines 'Old Man's War' is a quite a bit purer. Though he waits until the final acknowledgement to thank Robert A. Heinlein, Scalzi is canny enough to admit that by the time the reader gets there, the debts have become obvious. But if Scalzi's debts to Heinlein are obvious, so are his improvements. In 'Old Man's War' Scalzi manages the difficult feat of infusing the enthusiasm of a Heinlein juvenile novel into a book that speaks to the very real concerns of the elderly. He gets the best of both worlds - a zippy novel for adults that reads like a pithy novel for young adults. When the truly Heinleinian touches such as power armor make an appearance, the reader has the chance to experience pleasure on two levels -- that of the base plot, wherein the characters can surely make effective use of the tools -- but also in a meta-fictional fashion, because we recognize the fictional source of the tools. To see them effectively in the hands of Scalzi's grownups is a delight.

Perhaps one of the most unusual pastiches or tributes to hit the bookshelves recently was Rhys Hughes' 'A New Universal History of Infamy'. (Hmmm.... There is indeed a plethora of Hughes in this article -- perhaps there's something up with that name!) Borges' original work, 'A Universal History of Infamy' was conceived as a light entertainment, but became a literary landmark in South American literature. In it Borges spins off entertaining bits of history about infamous historical figures -- all of it false. He does so in a very unique format, a format that Rhys Hughes copies precisely and with equally entertaining results in 'A New Universal History of Infamy'. The brilliance of both these books makes them entertaining, hilarious and truly mind-boggling. And as you read Rhys Hughes derivative work, you might begin to feel as if you've tumbled on a whole new genre, not just a work and a follow-up. Hughes drills through to the essential elements that make Borges' work so powerful. He taps the same source of literary energy, and the results are exemplary -- and totally derivative, in the best sense.

A survival of Lovecraft's influence.
While readers looking for a standard issue Cthulhu Mythos story need not apply to stay with Ramsey Campbell in 'The Overnight', those who choose to experience Campbell's latest unsettling story will not be able to miss the signs. Campbell take a number of horror tropes -- the building erected on the wrong patch of ground, the motley crew of characters under assault in an enclosed space, the survival of beings from another time -- and processes them through what must have been an entertaining stint working at an outlet for an American chain bookstore. The result is a novel that builds from Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos ground down into dust and reconstituted without any of the original name-games that usually mark such fiction. Instead, Campbell concentrates on prose so finely turned every page yields a nugget of phrasing and nuance. His gallery of everymen-and-women is amazingly detailed. His sense of humor is as dry as the dust of the ages that have passed since the powers that reveal themselves walked the earth. From the atomized remains of Lovecraft's overwrought prose, Campbell creates an original novel of ancient terror reborn in the blandest suburban settings. You will feel the grit under your skin. afoot, Mary Russell!
A study in multi-source pastiche.
Laurie R. King's 'The Game' is the latest in her series of acclaimed Holmes pastiches, and like its predecessors it makes effective use of the great detective while creating an identity of its own. In this novel King's success is the result of craftily having created a character who could capture the interest of Sherlock Holmes. If Mary Russell can hold the restless attention of Sherlock Holmes, there's little surprise that she can keep the reader riveted as well.

But King does a lot more than keep up with the Great Detective. She also keeps up with Doyle's intricate narratives and the historical background that was just everyday reality for Doyle himself. But more than that, she infuses her writing with a sense of humor that captures the wit of Holmes as the character himself might have preferred. And although she's writing about Holmes and Russell, she incorporates elements of Doyle's other series character Professor Challenger. King's novels offer readers of Doyle's work an entertaining extension of more than just the Holmes stories.

One of the books that really brought out the power of derivative and pastiche fiction for this reader was Michael Chabon's 'The Final Solution'. From the get-go, Chabon's novella emphasizes one of the most interesting aspects of the pastiche, that is, the ability of this form to adapt to both the source material and the current practitioner. Chabon is one of our most highly regarded literary writers, but here he proves that one doesn't reach the rarified heights of literary stardom without down-to-earth writing chops. 'The Final Solution' is set in the midst of World War Two, in the final years of Holmes' life. Chabon hits each note perfectly; the structure of the novella, the crime itself, the evocation of Holmes and the evocation of his environment. However, his most brilliant touch is his ability to provide for the reader the same pleasures that Holmes himself experiences in solving a case, as the reader comes to realize aspects of 'The Final Solution' that Holmes will never see. Chabon manages to create purely cerebral pleasures that will authentically boggle the mind, and probably bring a tear to the eye of Holmes' most ardent supporters.

Carr's eagerly awaited pastiche.
Caleb Carr's 'The Alienist' is generally regarded as one of the most powerful evocations of Holmesian fiction that does not utilize the Great Man himself. Indeed, some critics suggested that Carr should have simply given in and written a Holmes pastiche. I was happy with Carr's creation as is, but I must admit that I'm looking forward to Carr's take on Holmes, 'The Italian Secretary' coming later this year from Carroll & Graf / Avalon Publishing. With 'The Italian Secretary', Carr appears to a take a cue from Laurie King, as Mycroft recruits Holmes and Watson to the aid of Queen Victoria in Scotland. The murder of two servants reaches to the heart of the royal household. But Holmes takes a very intriguing turn towards the supernatural when he suggests that ghosts may play a part in the recently committed murders. To this reader, that's a rather un-Holmes-like turn of events, and it suggests that there are plenty of layers in this shorter-than-'The Alienist' novel. But with Carr returning to his home territory, readers can look forward to him playing to his strengths in a tale that's perfectly suited to his storytelling skills, and yes, another demonstration of the power of the pastiche.

There must have been something in the air say, some what -- two, three years ago? You've got to keep the publishing lag in mind when making presumptions about the origins of novels, since what we're seeing this month was created long ago. But whatever it was, it must have been quite powerful. Otherwise, how to explain yet another super-desirable, super-literary novel featuring an aging Sherlock Holmes? In Mitch Cullin's 'A Slight Trick of the Mind', we meet Sherlock Holmes at the age of 93, shortly after the end of World War Two.

A slight trick of the writer.
Cullin brings his own unique background to this novel, and it's fascinating in itself. In 1984, USA Today ran a piece on the cover of their arts section about the ever-popular character. Featured in the piece was then 15-year old Mitch Cullin, who had discovered Holmes like me, by watching Basil Rathbone movies on television. By that time, he'd already written what the article describes as "an epic screenplay of Holmes' life". It most certainly wasn't the last thing he'd write about Holmes.

But it would take him a while to get back to the iconic character. In the interim, he's addressed adolescent angst in 'Whompyjawed', written academic satire in 'The Cosmology of Bing', collaborated with collage artist Peter I. Chang in 'UnderSurface', written a detective novel in verse titled 'Branches' and tackled Texas teenagers in 'Tideland'. 'Tideland' was recently adapted to film by Terry Gilliam, a sure indicator that this is a writer of interest to my readers, no matter what their chosen genre.

With 'A Slight Trick of the Mind', we find Holmes in 1947. He's just returned from Japan, where he found not only the restorative prickly ash, but also the horrific vistas of Hiroshima. His brilliance is now threatened by a faulty memory, but this does not stop him from trying to solve a case unearthed by his housekeeper's son.

Cullin brings years of Holmesian interest and a quiet, powerful prose style to this novel. In it, he undertakes the daunting task of humanizing Holmes, which is, of course, not an easy task. But he does so by unmanning him, by subtly, slowly severing Holmes from the faculties that gave him such power as a character. It's a fascinating experiment with an impeccable pedigree, and yet another reminder that derivative fiction may indeed claim the high ground.

All of this culminates, of course, in 'Shadows Over Baker Street', the brilliantly conceived anthology edited by John Pelan. While not every story is of the literary quality of Neil Gaiman's prize-winning 'A Study in Emerald', every story does effectively straddle the shoulders of two giants -- no easy feat. Moreover, not once will the reader feel anything less than amazed at the concept and execution of this anthology. What should be doubly derivative seems instead twice as original. In fact, you can re-invent the wheel -- and improve upon it.

So now I find myself open to whole new realms of fiction and looking at old titles with new eyes. Sure original is good, but it is not necessarily better. As ever, the ultimate worth of the book hinges on a number of factors, and a skilled writer can use any tool to create a great work of art. Even if that tool is part of another work of art.