It has been the droll observation of several that in writing Fuzzy Nation, what I’ve really done is write H. Beam Piper fan fiction.
My thought on that: Well, it is fiction, I am a fan, and I did write for my own amusement in a universe for which I didn’t have clearance in at the time — so, overall, yep, looks like fanfic to me, too, or at least some species of it, as I understand fanfic to be. Whether my subsequently getting clearance for the work makes it something other/different than fanfic is something I leave to others with a better knowledge base on the subject, but I suspect it just makes it fanfic authorized after the fact.
So, to the extent that people are saying “Hey! You wrote fanfic!” my response is “I suppose I did. And I had fun doing it.”
So, that Super Secret Thing That I Cannot Tell You About? I can tell you about it now. It’s a novel, and it’s called Fuzzy Nation, and it’s a reboot of the Hugo-nominated 1962 science fiction novel Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper.
And now, your questions:
Uh, “reboot”? Don’t you mean a sequel?
Nope, I mean a reboot, as in, I took the original plot and characters of Little Fuzzy and wrote an entirely new story from and with them. The novel doesn’t follow on from the events of Little Fuzzy; it’s a new interpretation of that first story and a break from the continuity that H. Beam Piper established in Little Fuzzy and its sequels.
Why did you do this?
Because as far as I know it’s never been done before. Science fiction TV and movie series are rebooted all the time — see Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek for recent examples of this — but I can’t think of a significant, original universe in science fiction literature in which this has been done, at least, not by someone who is not the original author. So I thought, hey, this seems like it could be a fun thing to do. So I did it.
Why Little Fuzzy?
Because I am a huge fan of the original novel and of H. Beam Piper’s work. It’s a good story and he’s a very good story teller; Little Fuzzy wasn’t nominated for a Hugo on accident, you know. And while the original novel is still, as they say, a “cracking good tale,” I thought there was an opportunity to revisit the story and put a new spin on it to make it approachable to people who had not read the original or did not know about Piper, and also to give fans of the original the fun of seeing some old friends in new settings.
While Fuzzy Nation is a “reboot” of Little Fuzzy, the idea behind it is not to replace the original, but to celebrate it and hopefully draw new readers to it and to other work by Piper. I hope that when people get done with Fuzzy Nation they’ll pick up Little Fuzzy, and compare and contrast the two approaches to the same story.
How can you do this? Aren’t there copyright issues involved?
Little Fuzzy itself is in the public domain, but its sequels are still under copyright. While it might have been technically possible to write Fuzzy Nation without the permission of the Piper estate, because of the status of the sequels there were enough (forgive the pun) fuzzy legal areas that I didn’t want to have to deal with them. Beyond this, because Fuzzy Nation is in many ways meant to be a tribute to Little Fuzzy and to Piper himself, I wanted the blessing, so to speak, of the Piper estate.
So, after I wrote Fuzzy Nation, my super-invaluable and incredibly awesome agent Ethan Ellenberg approached the rights holders to the Piper estate and started talking to them about it. The discussions took, well, a long time. But we reached agreement on it, and I’m happy to say Fuzzy Nation is an authorized work.
Wait. You said you asked for permission only after you wrote Fuzzy Nation?
Well, because I originally wrote it for fun. I was doing it mostly to see what a version of Little Fuzzy by me would be like. And when I was done, I thought, well, that’s not too bad, I wonder if I can do something with it? And that’s when Ethan started talking to folks.
What if you had asked for permission and the answer was “no”?
Well, then I guess Fuzzy Nation would be The Super Secret Project That You Will Never Ever Find Out About. But, you know, look. Sometimes you do things not for any particular profit motive, but because it interests you, and you enjoy it, and you have a good time with it, and it’s good for your outlook on life. I decided to write Fuzzy Nation right after I had a particularly contentious and annoying negotiation for a completely different Super Secret Project That You Will Never Ever Find Out About, and I needed to do something to sort of cleanse my palate, as it were. Fuzzy Nation was it. And you know what? I had a ball with it, and it reset my attitude and made writing fun once more. If it never saw the light of day, it still would have been worth writing for that alone.
So you had another Super Secret Project That You Couldn’t Tell Us About?
How many of those do you have going, anyway?
Quite obviously, I can’t tell you.
Fair enough. So when can we read Fuzzy Nation?
After it’s published!
And when will that be?
No idea. Because I was writing it on my own time, it’s not on any particular publisher’s schedule. It’s not even been sold yet. Ethan will start shopping it around now.
You mean to say you’re telling us you’ve written a novel but we can’t read it yet, and you don’t know when we can?
Randy Cohen, who writes the “Ethicist” column at the New York Times, caused a minor fracas this week when he told someone who had purchased a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s Under the Dome and then also downloaded a pirated electronic copy for travel purposes, that they were ethically in the clear for the illegal download. Cohen’s reasoning is, hey, the guy paid for the thing, and because he paid for it once, he should have the right to enjoy it in whatever format he likes. Therefore the download, while illegal, was not unethical.
Personally I think Cohen is pretty much correct. Speaking for myself (and only for myself), when I put out a book and you buy it for yourself in whatever format you choose to buy it in, the transactional aspect of our relationship is, to my mind, fulfilled. You bought the book once and I got paid once; after that if you get the book in some other format for your own personal use, and I don’t get paid a second time, eh, that’s life.
So, as examples: If you bought the paperback copy of one of my books and then liked it so much that you pick up a cheap remaindered hardcover edition for archival purposes, great. If you buy a hardcover copy, lose track of it, and then pick up a used paperback copy for re-reading, groovy. If you buy a trade paperback edition of one of my books and then happen to find a free electronic version of the same book, which you then download onto your cell phone for travel purposes, that seems reasonable to me.
Now, in each case, if you decided to pay me or any author a second time, I wouldn’t complain — indeed, please do! Athena’s college fund thanks you. And it’s what I do; for example I recently paid for and downloaded an authorized electronic copy of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station because I wanted to read it again and my trade paper copy is currently in a box in my basement. I didn’t want to bother to dig it out, I didn’t want to have to troll the underside of Teh Internets for a pirate copy, I can afford the $6.39 authorized copy cost, and I like paying authors. Likewise I usually buy new editions of books I’ve lost or displaced, again because I can afford it and because philosophically I am inclined to do so.
I pay the authors more than once, because I can and I think I should. However, I also put such actions in the ethical category of “morally praiseworthy but not morally obligatory” — that is, I believe my transactional responsibility to the author was fulfilled the first time I paid her. Additional payments to the author are optional, and indeed are sometimes transactionally difficult. If a book is out of print I may have no choice but to buy a used physical copy, for which an author gets nothing, or acquire an unauthorized electronic edition, which again gives nothing to the author.
The moral issue with unauthorized/pirated electronic copies of works has to do with the fact that a) they were put out online by people who didn’t have permission to do so, and b) that it makes it easy for people who haven’t paid for the work and have no intention of paying for it to acquire it and share it with other people who also have no intention of paying for it. These are separate moral issues than the issue of whether someone who has paid full freight for an author’s work should feel bad about acquiring a second copy of the work for personal use without additional financial benefit to the author.
To be very clear, I think the person who puts an unauthorized edition of a work of mine online is ethically and legally wrong to do so; that guy is ripping me off. I don’t take kindly to it and neither do my publishers, who have lots of lawyers. Please don’t post my work online without permission, and please don’t share unauthorized copies with others. I thank you in advance for your sterling morals in this area.
But if that work is out there online, and the guy who just bought an authorized version — thus paying me and the people who worked on the book — downloads it for his personal use, am I going to be pissed at him? No, I don’t really have the time or inclination. Maybe it would have beenmarginally more ethical for the fellow to have, say, scanned in each individual page and OCR’d it himself, thus making the personal copy he’s allowed to make under law, rather than looking for it online. And maybe I’d ask him how it was he got so knowledgeable in the ways of the dirty, dirty undernet, where pure and innocent books are exposed to bad people, and suggest to him that he get his computer checked for viruses. But at the end of the day, he did pay me, and paid my publisher.
(That said, I do think there are limits to this. For example, I think an audio book and a text book are two separate things, because a significant part of the audio book is the performance of the reader, an aspect that is not there in the original book. Likewise buying a book doesn’t give you a free pass to torrent the movie version of the book; alternately, having bought a Halo video game doesn’t give you a moral green light to snarf down a Halo novel. Etc.)
If I had my way about these things, I’d be doing with books what movie companies are now doing with DVDs and blu-rays, which is to bundle a legal electronic copy of the work in with the hardcover release. There are distribution issues with doing something like this (unlike physical movie media, books are typically sold unsealed) but these aren’t unsolvable; I think in a later post I’ll talk about this in more detail.
But the point to make here is that these days, people are deciding that when they buy a book or a movie or a piece of music, they’re buying the content, not the format. As a writer I don’t have a philosophical problem with this, since I write content, not format, even if publishers want that content to fit a particular format. And as a consumer, I think there’s a certain point at which you get to say “you know what, I’ve paid for this already, and I’m done paying any more for it.” Both of these are why I say that if you’ve paid me once for a book I’ve written and what you’ve enjoyed, we’re good. Pay me again if you like; I won’t complain. But once is enough.
Over at Filmcritic.com today I’m asked who film’s most successful science fiction writer might be. The answer comes in two flavors: The most successful recent writer (as in, the last 50 years) and all time. The answer to at least one of these may annoy purists! Go on over and feel free to kvetch in the comments there.