The Big Idea: Jake Kerr
Posted on March 13, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 11 Comments
It’s Thursday! No, not the date (it’s still Monday, sorry about that), but the novel, written by Jake Kerr. And in it, Kerr attempts an update on a classic, if dated, fantasy novel. How hard could it be, right? Well…
So, my new novel is about a future Earth where the population escapes the polluted and dying planet by logging into linked virtual reality servers. They take on roles as fantasy characters, live in former time periods, cruise the Tinder server—all in an effort to get away from the sad world where they live. A mysterious group wants to destroy the virtual reality network to force the citizens to wake up and force the corporations and governments to clean up environment. Their belief is that the planet was purposefully polluted to move people to the corporation-controlled virtual reality operating system. Our hero infiltrates the supreme council of this group and finds that her life is constantly in danger as she moves from secret meetings to administration buildings and virtual reality fantasy servers where she is a level 73 mage. Along the way, everyone betrays everyone else and nothing is what it seems.
That is the description of Thursday, and based solely on that you would never know that it is an adaptation of G. K. Chesterton’s classic The Man Who Was Thursday. And therein lies the following tale.
I first read The Man Who Was Thursday in college, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels. The humor. The plot twists. The intrigue. I was entirely enthralled. Michael Moorcock called it one of the top 100 fantasies of all time, and it’s a seminal novel in the thriller genre, with its series of chases and pursuits. It’s an amazing book with one significant problem—it’s very dated.
The humor references have little cultural meaning to many readers today. The surrealist/spiritual metaphors and allegories are highly specific and jarring for many. And the expositional and philosophical prose is far out of fashion. To make matters worse, the frightening bad guys are anarchists, a group that provides little sense of dread today.
It always struck me that this extraordinary novel deserved to be updated in some form or fashion so that a new generation of readers could enjoy Chesterton’s genius. The more I thought of it over the years, the more I considered doing it myself. Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? I thought. Well, I found out when I took on the project last year.
Updating the story wasn’t the hard part. With its surreal nature and the themes of deception and truth, I immediately knew that I wanted to use some kind of virtual reality framework. I’m also a huge fan of Philip K. Dick, and two of his common themes are favorites of mine: What is reality? And what does it mean to be human?
Specifically, I thought of another favorite novel of mine—Dick’s Time Out of Joint, a fifties era paperback that centers on the protagonist living in a world that isn’t what it seems. Taking The Man Who was Thursday and moving it to a virtual reality setting where it’s hard to tell what is real and who is who they say they are while adding AIs who may or may not be considered human seemed like a perfect way to update Chesterton’s tale.
Easy, right? I even mirrored the scenes and chapters.
There was only one problem: It didn’t work.
My first draft was awful. I had stayed too true to Chesterton’s dialogue, and it sounded quaint and anachronistic. I had stripped out nearly all the exposition, and that left threadbare scenes. I had followed the plot so closely that some of the scenes that made sense in 1908 were absurd in a virtual reality setting.
What I thought would be easy was suddenly looking like a formidable challenge.
My friend Matt Mikalatos (who wrote the afterword) basically said I had written “too G. K. Chesterton and not enough Jake Kerr.”
While I grumbled about the hard work ahead of me, the more important concern was that the more I changed, the less I was staying true to the original novel. Yet if I didn’t make significant changes, many of the problematic things I wanted to fix would remain.
I’ve written homages before (namely “The Old Equations” and its thematic tip of the hat to “The Cold Equations”), but this was an adaptation. I needed to keep the connection to the original source alive and clear.
So I waded in with what I hoped was a scalpel and not a machete.
I knew I had to keep the plot, including the sparse and thin scenes without the exposition. I also wanted to mirror the chapter structure to make it feel as close to Chesterton’s novel as possible. Beyond that, however, I realized I had to make significant changes.
I had originally intended to have fun and keep as much of Chesterton’s dialogue as possible and overlay it on the SF setting. I loved the idea, but it just didn’t work. So the first thing I did was re-do practically every line of dialogue. I worked hard to keep some, but only if it made sense. After I finished, I had a much more readable and contemporary-sounding novel. While I didn’t keep the words themselves, I worked hard to keep the spirit of the them.
Now Chesterton’s plot is fantastic and truly one of the best of all time, with twists that build on twists. The trouble was that it is limited by 1908 technology, with trains and pistols and slow travel on horseback. I ended up dramatically changing some scenes, including a tense race against the clock. Chesterton based the scene on the arrival of a train. I had it based on a server pending a maintenance lockdown.
As I noted earlier, Chesterton filled a lot of scenes with expositional philosophical musing. While perfect for his novel, it simply doesn’t work in a contemporary SF novel. So I had to actually flesh out a lot of scenes with action that are only described or mentioned in passing by Chesterton. This happens in the opening chapter when Gabby Simm meets Lucian. For Chesterton it was a philosophical meeting of poets. I added a scene-specific goal for Lucian with Gabby narrating with snark.
I also couldn’t ignore the opposite point-of-view of updating a book—the demands of contemporary genre conventions. You can’t simply adapt a book to a new setting, you need to apply the setting to the book. For example, much of my book is set on a fantasy virtual reality server like Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online. How could I set a thriller in such a setting without having a virtual reality fantasy battle, complete with a castle, spells, NPC warriors, traps, and unique magical items? I made the battle fit within Chesterton’s plot, but it is new and gives the book the contemporary feel it requires.
The final piece was the biggest challenge for me. Chesterton’s background was decidedly religious and based on the secular, frightening, and chaotic anarchist forces in 1908. My background was of a modern world dying from neglect, with virtual reality the way the population escaped this dismal reality. The world is even described as “IRL” and the IRL spaces where people live are delineated as “inside” and “outside.” Making all this work required me to add some scenes and change some of the ways that the characters interacted. For example, the opening scene in my book doesn’t exist in The Man Who Was Thursday.
At its heart, The Man Who Was Thursday is steeped in Catholic symbols and Christian messages, and this is where I am most curious about how the book will be received. I’m an atheist and removed all of those pieces from the novel. Yet I’m convinced that I’ve kept the spirit of the novel enough that if you are religious or a Chesterton fan, you will still see those things there, just not as overtly as Chesterton made them. Christian speaker and author Matt Mikalatos addresses this in the book’s afterword.
Earlier I wrote: Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? The answer turned out to be very hard. I’m not exaggerating in saying that each chapter of Thursday took about as long to write as two chapters in a book that I would create from my own imagination. It was, in no uncertain terms, a significant time commitment. I do believe it was worth it, however. Even if readers hate my book, maybe the spark will be there for them to search for Chesterton. I wouldn’t mind that at all.
Thursday: Amazon|Barnes & Noble
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter. Visit him on Facebook.
The Man Who Was Thursday is a favorite of mine, despite the heavy dose of theology (something I can’t say of C.C. Lewis). Curious to see how this one works out. Updatings — or homages — sometimes do (Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld), sometimes don’t (Revenge, by Stephen Fry).
Aargh. C.S. Lewis.
It’s $0.99 on Kindle now. I’ve loved the Chesterton book for many years (it’s one that I actually do reread periodically) and I’m eager to get into this version of the story.
Less than €1,- in Europe through Amazon. Criminal – but yes, I bought it. The Devil does have the best/cheapest tunes.
I’ll pass and go with an author who has an original idea no matter how misguided, sorry Jake. I will check with my local library and check your book out if they have it in but if you are rewriting an old white dude’s book as a younger white dude, then no doubt, you’ll have a following )maybe the puppies) but not at my end on this blurb. It might just be a marketing thing but can’t see any women I know flocking for this one (We’re still trying to get KN Jemisin into our local library – not your fault obviously).
Bollocks autocorrect, NK Jemisin
As a Jack Vance fan, I’m an aficionado of quaint and antique language. If there’s one thing I hate it is contemporary dialog in inappropriate scenarios. So, I gotta say, or at least WILL say, the elimination of same is no selling point for me.
Elaborate language is more fun. The Spencer books, with Spencer’s ironic circumlocutions contrasted with Hawk’s terse observations, now, THAT’S some fun dialog.
I understand your not wanting to read yet another white dude. I’m a white dude and fully endorse not reading me until someone’s read Octavia Butler or Nora or many others. It’s probably worth noting, however, that I made the protagonist a young Black woman, and she’s right there on the cover. So I’m pretty certain the puppies would see my adaptation as an insult in dishonoring the original. Such is what it is.
I also totally agree with your assessment of an original idea being the most exciting kind of writing. This book was a grind. In hindsight, I would have preferred to write about Naomi’s and Tommy’s adventures in book 3 of my fantasy series, but I’m still glad I did it. On the other hand, I do think that for the reader all books are new when they’re read for the first time. In this case you can point to the original or mine for that “new read.” I like to think both bring unique qualities, but, really, I wouldn’t have written mine if I didn’t think there weren’t contemporary issues with the original, which I outline above. So my hope is that my book reads as exciting and fresh.
Which brings up an interesting question to me:
Is it ever worthwhile to update a dated, yet excellent, book for wider appreciation? I struggled with that question. In this case, the reasoning was entirely personal: I loved The Man Who Was Thursday and yet saw its flaws that I felt I could do a service to contemporary readers and Chesterton, himself. It is not for me to judge whether I was successful at that. But I tried.
I enthusiastically agree, Eric, which is pretty clear in the above essay. But while contemporary dialog is horrible in inappropriate scenarios, the reverse is also true. A discourse on Goethe and contemporary 19th century drawing rooms feels completely inappropriate in a setting of a server where people are trying to figure out what will stop the bad guys–a spell or NPC barbarians.
So, in a sense, you can’t update a book to a radically new setting without updating the language. Otherwise it sounds as false as setting a book in 1938 and having the teen boy say “This sucks!”
Never entirely grokked the Chesterton (read it twice), so I’m interested to see if this helps.
I’m a white dude who’s read way too many white dudes, so I enthusiastically agree that people should read Octavia Butler, Nora Jamison, or any number of other writers before me. That said, I did change the protagonist to a young Black woman, and her picture is right there on the cover, so I’m fairly certain the puppies will hate my book for betraying the essence of the original. Such is what it is.
As a writer, I can tell you that writing an adaptation is exactly what you describe, lacking in original ideas. It is a grind having to work within those limitations, but you do your best to bring a freshness to it. I do believe that for readers that when they read something for the first time, it is new to them, and the originality of the writing exists outside of the original volume of the adaptation (unless they read the original, of course). So what may seem as covering old ground to some will be fresh and new to others. This is obviously true of books that mine similar tropes and themes, of course. So I guess the real answer is in the execution of the writing.
But the above really made me think of the whole concept of adaptations. Are they ever worthwhile?
I don’t really know the answer to that. I obviously thought so for personal reasons… I honestly feel that The Man Who Was Thursday is a brilliant book at its core, and I also feel the it has become a book that is getting farther and farther away from what contemporary readers will accept in terms of how it is written. I wanted to address that in some way. I guess we can just let books die or end up being subjects to college classes and tiny populations of enthusiasts.
My hope was that I could take that core and let it live in a new way. I don’t know. Maybe I’m misguided, idealistic, or blinded by my own sense of what I can achieve.
But I tried.
Thank you so much for your comments. A dialogue over something like this is important, I think.