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
genre fiction landmark from 1959.
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.
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.
the sixth day, he created Sherlock Holmes.
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.
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
dying earth gives birth to new fiction.
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.
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!"
bargain even at full price.
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'.
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':
to be extended.
"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
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
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.
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.
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.
a young man's appreciation.
history but old model.
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
While readers looking for a standard issue Cthulhu Mythos story need
not apply to stay with Ramsey Campbell in 'The
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
survival of Lovecraft's influence.
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.
afoot, Mary Russell!
study in multi-source pastiche.
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 '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.
eagerly awaited 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
Slight Trick of the Mind', we meet Sherlock Holmes
at the age of 93, shortly after the end of World War Two.
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.
slight trick of the writer.
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
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
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.