Cloned Ideas in Sci-Fi

When I was sixteen, I wrote a sci-fi short story and sent it off to the American SF magazine Asimov. I never heard of it again.

The story posited a future in which human-beings had become so idle that they’d de-evolved the use of their legs and had now to rely upon being transported on what were in effect robotic floating chairs, whilst being looked after by a variety of other robots; – the plot being, one of these robots went insane and (no doubt, at that time of my development) killed everyone in sight.

Then … earlier this year I found myself happily sitting watching the sacchrine-encrusted but basically quite enjoyable Pixar entertainment, Wall-E, when halfway through, just after the eponymous Wall-E reached the human ark, I suddenly leapt into the air and denounced to nobody, who was watching it with me, that these Hollywood scoundrels had stolen my idea.

Not, of course, that I believed it for a minute – though I did spend a far while fantastising about the chain of events that might have led to parts of my long-lost manuscripts ended up filmed as this prize-winning animation. – No, it seemed to me more plausible that perhaps my idea had never really been so original as at the time I’d imagined; that, even if it had never been written about before – which I considered highly unlikely – it wouldn’t exactly have been strange if someone else had come up with the same thing later. (Aldous Huxley comes to mind: – he was always on about technological labour-saving devices for the leisure class).

So I have read, in the last few years, maybe 8 books that might be called science fiction – and again and again there are cross-overs / recycled ideas. For instance, the difference between robot and human minds: – this single idea appears in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Lem’s More Tales of Pirx and Capek’s R.U.R. That’s 3 out of the 8 books I’ve read! Gene Wolfe in The Fifth Head of Cerberus (early 70s) has a character growing up on an insignificant desert planet, whose parents are murdered, called John Sandwalker. (And oh yes, the robot programmed with the cleaning fetish in Wall-E – undoubtably, I thought, the best character in the film – you can find also in Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, which reminded me too of some of the early scenes in Alien; while, as I’ve mentioned before, Capek’s R.U.R. seemed reminiscent of anything from Terminator to Night of the Living Dead.)

So, I’m not certain it’s originality in sci-fi that may be of any concern; perhaps it’s the use you put those ideas to – the imagination you bring to them. (It’s certainly not the prose style, anyway).


2 thoughts on “Cloned Ideas in Sci-Fi

  1. John Sandwalker! Outrageous, I hadn’t heard that before.

    Do you think the repetition of ideas & themes is due to some inherent quality of the genre, or is it due to perhaps to the rigourous enforcement of genre rules and expectations by a conservative readership?

    Of course, the SF zealot (we all know who I mean) is at pains to pose the exact same questions about the straw-man “lit fic” genre that has been created for SFers to battle against.

  2. I imagined Sci-Fi suffers from the same problems as any other genre: most of its works are mediocre and derivative; most of its readers are conversative and want things that are mediocre and derivative. Hence why it’s difficult for an outsider to get any foothold, since the chances are the first things he encounters won’t be at all impressive.

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