Cosmic Coincidences

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.

43 Comments on “Cosmic Coincidences”

  1. Oh, my God. At the very least, you need to read “Child’s Play”, “Brooklyn Project” , “Betelgeuse Bridge” and “Lisbon Cubed”.

  2. Karen Wester Newton:

    It’s certainly true that if you limit yourself only to things no one’s written on before, you won’t have that much to write about.

  3. When I worked for a small roleplaying magazine in the late 80’s, we got two submissions a week apart. They were adventures for D&D and both had the exact same premise and shared many other traits. What was weirder was the two writers lived on two different continents and had never even heard of each other.

    We called it “Coincidental Creation”. We tried to get the two to agree to merging their works and publishing them as co-authors. Neither would budge so we ended up not publishing either of them.

    Still weirds me out to this day.

  4. Kind of a Darwin-Wallace moment, then, Chris?
    (Hmm. VOYAGE TO MUTANT ARCHIPELAGO is a great adventure, but don’t you think it’s a bit close to LOST ON ORANGUTAN ISLAND?)

  5. Happened to me this morning. A friend described an awesome new book she had read. “Gah! I wrote that story years ago,” I said. I had never published the story, so it was impossible for the author to have stolen from me, but it was identical in theme and in many details to the book. We shrugged. It happens.

  6. I used to tell bed time stories that I made up off the cuff. One of my stories was similar in trend to Agent but the reverse. An alien arrived on earth to evaluate earth for being introduced to their civilization. However, like TV shows we had to be auditioned for our entertainment value. Because we would become a sort of reality TV to the alien race.
    By the way, we were considered too childish and they already had too much in that vein, so we didn’t get the part.

  7. I’m glad to see that, at least in this instance, nobody from Tenn’s estate tried to sue Scalzi for “copyright infringement” or “theft of intellectual property” or somesuch. We live in such a litigious society that I’ve heard several stories over the years of allegedly “professional” musicians, for example, suing bands/performers who were just starting out because a song the “professionals” wrote thirty years ago sounds suspiciously like the melody of a song the newbies wrote. Apparently it’s an utterly foreign concept to the “professionals” that, when you only have an eight-note scale, at some point somebody’s bound to independently write a song whose melody sounds a lot like yours. So it’s nice to see that, at least in this case, everybody’s willing to accept that as a given and move on.

  8. That’s why they talk about infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters writing Shakespeare instead of Stephen King. Shakespeare isn’t going to sue.

  9. Eh, I have a partially abandoned story (which I will probably return to) because the setup is: Kid gets raised in a graveyard by inhabitants of a graveyard. (Which for those who can’t figure it out, is AFAIK, the premise for Gaiman’s Graveyard Book.) I started writing it aeons ago and the set-up was loosely based on an event from my childhood wherein my mother accidentally left me in the Salt Lake City Mausoleum at the tender age of five or so for a hair-raising forty-five minutes. But I stopped working on it when I heard about the Graveyard Book coming out, and I still haven’t been able to bring myself to read the copy of GB that I bought. I really should because then I could see how my plot and characters are different and get back to writing my poor abandoned story.

  10. I envy you not having read much Tenn – I read Betelgeuse Bridge and Child’s Play in old anthologies we had in the house as a kid, and they sent me on a decades long search for the rest of his stuff. NESFA has published all of it in two volumes, and a third of his critical writing. Get the lot – well worth it

  11. PixelFish@13 Didn’t I see Neil Gaiman tweet to you to go ahead and write your book? Go ahead and write your book! Cause it sounded like a fun idea different from Gaiman’s.

  12. I do believe that Alfred Bester had a short story with some similarities but also several differences…I think the title may have been “What Have I Done?” It appeared in one of the Year’s Best anthologies, which is the only reason I’ve read it.

    While yours isn’t a case, there are several famous instances of having what is called Cryptomnesia…where an individual reads something, and then years later writes something similar without realizing they’re doing it. Including Nietzsche, Nabokov, and Helen Keller. Clearly accidental in all three cases.

  13. Oops. The author was Mark Clifton. Appeared in the 1952 Best of. Should have done the google search before hitting send.

  14. @Anarra: If Neil Gaiman tweeted at me, I missed it. (alas) But I do plan on writing it eventually. :)

  15. io9 just had a write up yesterday of all the different books people say J.K. Rowling stole from to make Harry Potter, but it really just boiled down to these being common themes within the genre.

  16. Independent creation is a defense against copyright infringement and it the case of professional authors it is a relatively strong defense (because authors usually retain their project notes and materials – evidence of the independent creation). I believe another trope-ish example is Fistfuls of Dollars producer Sergio Leone’s use of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo plot lines. (Both movies were great, if you ask me, but Kurosawa was adamant that Leone had wrongly used his movie.)

  17. Apparently Ridley Scott has been sitting on the movie option of The Forever War for a long time. I saw Joe Haldeman complain about it on his forums. I think that could be made into a very successful movie.

  18. Clarke and Sheffield wrote novels about space elevators simultaneously, independently and on the far side of the planet from each other. They not only used the idea of the first space elevator being built but their protagonists shared many traits in common, enough that Clarke wrote an intro for the Sheffield explaining that sometimes these things happen.

    Clarke and Niven both used neutron stars as props in stories within months of each other and poor Sheffield discovered that Robert Forward had independently hit on the same idea of close-orbiting worlds that Sheffield was planning to use.

    That said, a person who has not read all or at least most of Tenn’s SF can barely be said to have lived at all. Happily, NESFA is there for you people:

    Immodest Proposals: The Complete SF of William Tenn, Volume 1

    Here Comes Civilization: The Complete SF of William Tenn, Volume 2

    Dancing Naked: The Unexpurgated William Tenn, Volume 3

  19. Clarke also wrote “The Longest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told” a recursive story about recurring story ideas, in this case of authors who plagiarize stuff not yet written. And incorrectly identifies the story cited as by H.G. Wells, when “The Anticipator” was actually by Morley Roberts.

  20. @#11 I believe William Tenn was still alive when Agent to the Stars was writen. He died earlier this year. In fact, he and John Scalzi could have even discussed this with him at Confluence last year. William Tenn lived in Pittsburgh, PA and was mundanely known as Phil Klass. I was privileged to have been able to listen to him tell stories at local events.

  21. Have never heard of William Tenn so will promptly rectify. Thank you James @ 24 for providing the titles of his “greatest hits” collections. Mr Scalzi- when I read ATTS my thought was you’d recently read Needle by Hal Clement and had been inspired.

  22. @WasabiCracker: I think the Leone/Kurosawa case is one where Kurosawa actually had a decent point. Leone had seen Yojimbo and blatantly modeled his movie off it without crediting Kurosawa. That’s not independent creation like Scalzi and others are talking about here.

  23. @Protocoach: Maybe. Many probably agree, some might not. That instance is often floated for debate in academia. My understanding is that courts look for more than circumstantial evidence (which relies on an inference) because in most cases it’s not a stretch for an defending author to “have read” a particular book, for a defending movie producer to “have seen” a particular movie, or for a defending musician to “have heard” a particular song – that’s their business. In Kurosawa’s case, he would have met with little success in U.S. courts (as mentioned above the idea-expression dichotomy has been around since 1879 – Baker v. Seldon, 101 U.S. 99 (1879)), and international copyright was practically non-existent at the time.

    I suppose the Lucas haters would love to hear that he used to refer to Kurosawa’s work as inspiring aspects of Star Wars.

    Have a great weekend folks.

  24. Thank you James @ 24 for providing the titles of his “greatest hits” collections.

    You’re welcome. Sadly, it’s more of a “complete works”, although the quality is high; Tenn was not a prolific author.

  25. Had this happen to me some years ago. I read a news article about how something like 90% of married couples keep a major secret from one another (not like “I bought something expensive on the credit card” but major-major as in “I was married once before”). I mentioned it to my wife and she confessed “You got me. I’m a spy.”

    I thought that was a good idea, so I sat down and started a story about a couple who were both spies but didn’t know that the other one was a spy. I got about eight chapters in when I saw the first trailers for Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

    Haven’t touched it since.

  26. I asked Neil Gaiman to write the intro to my second Starchild graphic novel in part as a response to the pile of mail I got accusing me of ‘stealing’ the characters Oberon and Titania from The Sandman.

  27. I’d always loved Phil’s fiction (“On Venus Have We Got a Rabbi,” “Winthrop Was Stubborn,”), but his non-fiction is surprisingly good and was uncollected until I edited Dancing Naked for NESFA Press.

    And talk about your “odd coincidences” – a long article he wrote back in the mid-’60s (“Mr. Evesdropper” also published as “The Bugmaster”) has strong overtones to Coppola’s The Conversation, a great movie that came out in 1974.

    My favorite non-fiction piece of his was “Constantinople” (collected in Dancing Naked, but he also let me publish it at his Website). It’s a charming story about his parents.

  28. William Tenn’s excellent book Of Men And Monsters, a novel about humanity as vermin, also “anticipated” Robert Chilson’s enjoyable Men Like Rats.

  29. I am so sorry that you have missed your chance to listen to William Tenn/Phill Klass reading his story “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi,” out loud. Sure, you can — and should — still read it; you can still read it out loud and do the voices.

    But you can no longer listen to William Tenn read it out loud to you.

  30. Hmmm…. I felt that Old Man’s War plumbed different depths than The Forever War (both excellent books, by the way). The only similarities I saw were superficial, in as far as they both involved war. Maybe I’m too shallow to see.

  31. I used to work for a consulting firm which dealt with inventions – we would help people who had a little gadget they had invented put together a provisional patent, some engineering drawings, and some material for them to use in presenting it to manufacturers. I saw a lot of inventor’s ideas while I worked there, some of them over and over, from people who had absolutely no contact with each other. They spontaneously came up with the same kind of gadget – and I always thought it was because they were thinking along the same lines to solve a very real problem. (OK, sometimes a pretty minor problem!) But they would come up with pretty much the same solution for it. Human minds will run pretty much along the same track …
    When I am doing research for one of my own historicals, I studiously avoid reading any fictional treatment of an event or a place that I am starting to write about. I stick to non-fiction, and to original accounts – when I am struck by an incident, or a character or an ideal that I simply have to incorporate, I want to be absolutely sure in my own mind that I haven’t been influenced by another writers’ fictional take.

  32. It seems that sometimes the same Muse is whispering in multiple ears. Planting multiple seeds. Is it to make sure the idea gets out somehow? Because certainly more folks get the same idea and never actually manage to write the story or build the machine. But perhaps the Muse also likes to see the subtleties of each creation much like a parent loves each child.

    Certainly similar happenings, needs in our world, spark multiple same ideas.

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