E-mail this morning (actually late last night, whilst I was asleep) wondering why, regarding Agent to the Stars, I hadn’t credited William Tenn’s short story “Betelgeuse Bridge” as an inspiration. Agent to the Stars, as most of you know, is about a movie agent who gets the job of trying to introduce a slimy but friendly race of aliens to the human race; “Betelgeuse Bridge” is about a PR exec who has more or less the same gig, with aliens who are also slimy (they’re snails).
The answer as to why I didn’t credit Tenn’s story is simple enough: I hadn’t read it and I had no idea it existed — indeed, I had no idea it existed until this morning, when the e-mail in question had me trundling off to Google Books to see if there was an excerpt of the story there that I could look at (there was, but not enough that I could read to the end — now I need to get an anthology it’s in, of which there are several). From the portion I read, there are definitely similarities, although, if I may say so, from what I can see, my aliens seem like nicer people.
Be that as it may, the seeming coincidence here is just that: Coincidence. Agent came out of my own experience working as a film critic and journalist in the early 90s and was written in 1997, and I’m vaguely ashamed to admit my first awareness of Tenn came in 2004, when he was a Guest of Honor at Noreascon4, that year’s Worldcon. It’s possible I read some Tenn before then, but if I did, I don’t remember, and from what (admittedly little) Tenn I have read since 2004, I can say I think I would remember, because he really is my kind of writer. As it is, it appears he and I ended up having more or less the same story idea, 46 years apart.
Things like this will happen from time to time. Indeed, it’s happened to me before — many critics and readers assumed that Old Man’s War was either partly inspired by or a reaction to The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and I received incredulous stares and sometimes outright disbelief when I noted that I hadn’t read Joe’s book before I wrote mine. And, well, what can I say. There are gaps in my reading (in the case of Joe, I’ve since made up for lost time and in fact wrote an introduction to the latest edition of The Forever War).
I’m not entirely surprised that a story with a set-up similar to Agent exists; science fiction has been around for a long time and the idea that aliens might need a marketing strategy is a pretty attractive one. It’s more surprising there aren’t more stories with the same general topic, actually. I’m looking forward to reading all of “Betelgeuse Bridge” and seeing how it ends up. I can’t say it was an inspiration for Agent, but I can say that what I’ve read of the story is likely to inspire me to read more William Tenn.