The Derivative Society?

Once upon a time, banking and investment banking were far less complex than they are today, especially recently.  In ancient times, i.e., when I took basic economics more than fifty years ago, banks used the deposits of their customers to lend to other customers, paying less to their depositors than what they charged those to whom they made loans.  Their loans were limited by their deposits, and banks were required to retain a certain percentage of their assets in, if you will, real dollars.  Even investment banks had some fairly fixed rules, and in both cases what was classed as an asset had to be just that, generally either real property, something close to blue chip securities, municipal, state, or federal notes or bonds, or cash. With the creeping deregulatory legislation that reached its apex in the 1990s, almost anything could be, with appropriate laundering, otherwise known as derivative creation, be classed as someone’s asset.

And we all know where that led.

And for all the furor about derivatives, and the finger-pointing, something else, it seems to me, has gone largely unnoticed.  The fact is that our entire society, especially in the United States, has become obsessed with derivatives in so many ways.

What are McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Chili’s, and endless other restaurant chains, fast-food and otherwise, but derivatives.  What happened to unique local restaurants?  The ones with good inexpensive food often became chains, deriving their success from the original.  The others, except for a few handfuls, failed.  Every year it seems, another big name chef starts a restaurant franchise, hoping to derive success and profit from a hopefully original concept [which is becoming less and less the case].

Department stores used to be unique to each city.  I grew up in Denver, and we had Daniels & Fisher, with its special clock tower, the Denver Dry Goods [“The Denver”], and Neustaeder’s.  Then the May Company took over D&F, and before long all the department stores were generic. In Louisville, where my wife was raised, there were Bacon’s, Kaufmann’s, Byck’s, Selman’s, and Stewart’s. Not a single name remains.

Even Broadway, especially in musical theatre, has gone big for remakes and derivatives. Most of the new musicals appear to be remakes of movies, certainly derivative, or re-dos of older musicals. Every time there is a new twist on TV programming the derivatives proliferate.  How many different “Law and Order” versions are there?  Or CSI?  How many spin-offs from the “American Idol” concept?  How many “Reality TV” shows are there?  Derivative after derivative… and that proliferation seems to be increasing. Even “Snow White” has become a derivative property now.

In the field of fantasy and science fiction writing, the derivatives were a bit slower in taking off, although there were more than a few early attempts at derivatives based on Tolkien, but then… somewhere after Fred Saberhagen came up with an original derivative of the Dracula mythos, vampires hit the big-time, followed by werewolves, and more vampires, and then zombies.  Along the way, we’ve had steampunk, a derivative of a time that never was, fantasy derivatives based on Jane Austin, and more names than I could possibly list, and now, after the “Twilight” derivatives, we have a raft of others.

Now… I understand, possibly more than most, that all writing and literature derives from its predecessors, but there’s a huge difference between say, a work like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, which uses the ambiance of a Regency-type culture and setting in introducing a new kind of fantasy [which Kowal does] and a derivative rip-off such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Emma and the Werewolves.  When Roger Zelazny wrote Creatures of Light and Darkness or Lord of Light, he derived something new from the old myths.  In a sense, T.S. Eliot did the same in The Wasteland or Yeats in “No Second Troy.”  On the other hand, I don’t see that in John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which appears to me as a derivative capitalization on Star Trek nostalgia.

How about a bit more originality and a lot fewer “literary” derivatives?  Or have too many writers succumbed to the lure of fast bucks from cheap derivatives? Or have too many readers become too lazy to sort out the difference between rip-off and robbery whole-cloth derivatives and thoughtful new treatments of eternal human themes?


10 thoughts on “The Derivative Society?”

  1. rehcra says:

    I can’t really tackle the derivatives element of this but in a vague way this is the exact way I feel about fan fiction. If its bad it’s insulting to at least the potential fans and if it’s good you might as well have put in a little more effort and made it your own unique thing.

    That being said I really don’t have a problem with band wagon authors. Sometimes people just want to read a certain type of book they have enjoyed in the past. If its enjoyable to read it doesn’t have to be original just well written or written well enough to enjoy for that matter.

    And often times the people who read these books don’t read much else. In that way it can be like a gate way drug to bigger and better potential highs in bibliophilism.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    I don’t have a problem with good fan fiction that (a) remains faithful to the original characters and what’s known of the story “bible” (premises, principles, and technobabble consistency the story sticks to), while (b) introducing what creativity is possible for an uninvited participant in a shared universe.

    Sometimes I see that less as a lack of being willing to go the extra step to make it stand on its own, and more as an interest in taking a new look through a familiar landscape.

    Once in awhile, established (if perhaps junior at first, although not always) writers are actually glad to be invited to participate in a franchise of spin-off novels as with Star Trek or Star Wars. Some have been rather good. Odds are they’d had some of the idea (“love to see one with X in it”) for awhile…and it’s a predictable paycheck with not too much research, if it’s for a series that they’re somewhat familiar with.

    As with any franchise, if there’s effective quality control, the results will be at least consistently tolerable, and unlike restaurants with fixed menus and recipes, can occasionally stand out.

    I think a restaurant chain could also have similar flexibility by allowing local or regional specialties that passed review to be incorporated where feasible.

    In the 70’s, Larry Niven wrote short stories involving the consequences of a “transfer booth” technology – teleportation about as cheap as a telephone call. One prediction was flash crowds (which have happened merely with cell phones to let nearby people know instantly about some event). Another was a series of clubs all around the world, that were as identical as possible…so that wherever one went, say for a day’s business in a foreign land, there was a place where one could have a drink, meal, maybe some conversation, and feel as much at home as possible regardless of where they were.

    Chains serve a purpose, especially for fast food or other fairly generic goods…or when in a place where nothing else is familiar, and one doesn’t feel adventurous. Few may offer excellence, but at least one usually knows what to expect.

    Financial derivatives are a different story altogether. I’m not sure everything that could be characterized that way is a horrible risk (a market index fund should do ok over a long enough time span, being quite diverse), but some types are questionable; and reserves and collateral should mostly be something much solider.

  3. Tiffanie H. says:

    My husband and I went to visit Florida (Just missed the book signing by the way; really upset about that). As a California resident, and never having been to Florida, I was excited about seeing something new.
    Except… The moment we stepped off the plane and drove into the first town– All the stores were the same: Starbucks, Walmart, Ross, Coles etc. I was disappointed and a little disconcerted.
    Forget the bugs and the wet, flat, green. Why had we even bothered to leave California?
    We did manage to find an award-winning dry rub BBQ, a little shack-like place in southern Georgia. They said celebrities from New York fly down just to sample a rib sandwich. The food was incredible. Hopefully they don’t turn the place into a franchise.
    As far as regurgitating stories and ideas… you could compare an idea or story to a song that has been sung over the ages. A really good singer can make the song new and alive by ‘making it their own’. I believe it’s the same with stories, the author being the singer.

  4. Brian says:

    In terms of the shopping experience, it is increasingly a ‘cookie cutter’ world. Disappointing.

    In terms of music & literature, for example, I don’t see the question so easily answered. When a new genre or new style becomes popular I see two general responses. First, there are the musicians or writers who take it to heart and are talented enough to ‘make it their own’. They genuinely care about the music or stories they create and in so doing make a place for themselves within the new niche. The second are musicians or writers who are out to make a quick buck while the going is good. The first group have substance and depth and will usually have some staying power if they are adaptable. The second is superficial and disappear when popular attention moves on to the next new thing.

    The problem for the consumer is to “separate the wheat from the chaff”. That takes time and effort. Most consumers are either too lazy to take the time or they don’t have the time to do their due diligence; and the second group count on it. Eventually the genre gets over saturated and the consumer becomes cynical. My patience for vampires, zombies, dragons and that ilk ran out years ago–I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with the whole lot–and reject it all, for example. As a result, the first group suffers.

    I used to collect Star Trek books. I have about 140 of them. Of these, the 100 or so original novels appear to have been written by fans. The problem with determining good fan fiction from bad is that you have to read them. After reading a number of poorly written ones, I no longer felt I was getting my money’s worth and so I stopped collecting. That was close to 20 years ago. I bet some novels of good quality have been written since then, but I’ll never know.

    1. Tiffanie H. says:

      We have a really nice fireplace where many a book has perished. When it comes to separating the ‘wheat from the chaff’, I give every author whose book makes it into my hands a good 100 pages. If the story isn’t sound the thing gets chucked…
      Wheat in the cupboards. Some years are better than others.

      1. Brian says:

        The thought of pitching a book into the wood stove has appealed to me on occasion. But, I’ve never been able to do it. Instead, I’ve taken them to the used book store. So far they’ve taken the few I’ve brought in and I’ve walked out with something I’ve liked. I figure one person’s garbage is potentially another person’s treasure. At least that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

  5. Tim says:

    The fire gets my vote.

  6. Ryan Jackson says:

    Sadly the movie thing can be laid at the feet of the executives and then at the producers being afraid to put their neck out.

    A film critic named Bob Chipman explained this much better in one of his “The Big Picture” video articles on The Escapist, but I’m not currently able to go get the link.

    Basically everyone’s afraid to take a risk in hollywood. If a producer greenlights a movie and it tanks (and by tank I mean doesn’t hit high box office opening weekends, not rather or not it’s a monetary success overall) he or she will be before the board explain themselves.

    If their answer is “I thought it’d be a good movie and made a judgement call.” they’re going to be told their judgement stinks and chances are have trouble finding work.

    If their answer is “I don’t know what went wrong, all our studies showed (Product X) was popoular with the demographic we were going after, and everyone loves (Product X), so I don’t know why the movie didn’t do well. Then they’re more likely to be met with “True, it’s not your fault.” And hopefully get to keep working.

    Hence we have “Battleship” Which, while sort of involving ships, is more of an alien invasion ID4 style movie that really has no legitimate link to the boardgame. That’s why we’re getting a “Tonka” movie and “Candyland”. Why we get many many outright remakes instead of new spins on the same story, or even remakes of older stories (Fun fact, Romeo and Juliet remake does well, Remake of Tristan and Isolder… Not so much.)

    The sad part is, this lack of failure, desire to copy what’s already successful tends to lead to movies being made quickly and poorly when they had a lot of potential. Look at Green Lantern. The fact is, the movie was made because Harry Potter was done and the studio wanted to try and start setting up Justice League in film verse since Marvel’s work with the Avengers was doing so well. Of course they didn’t focus on GL as its own story and instead just tried to put it all together quick to justify sequals and the eventual cross-over film and it suffered badly.

  7. John B. says:

    Mentioning “Redshirts” is funny, because before I had gotten to that in the posting, I was thinking about how one of the problems the DIs have in “Old Man’s War” is getting the soldiers to take boot camp seriously, because they’ve seen all the old movies that have a tough Sergeant with a heart of gold.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    To paraphrase Bernard and Newton, “All of us stand on the shoulders of giants.” It is what we do with the old stuff that matters. Redshirts, IMNSHO, takes a new look at an old paradigm and asks ‘what would happen if…’

    And most DIs don’t have hearts of gold. They have hearts of brass: the better they train the FNGs, the better the FNGs are to save their (the DIs) butt later on (‘Enlightened self-interest’ anyone?).

    And derivatives are nothing new. Once something is done, everyone jumps on the wagon. Example: Columbus wasn’t the first European in the Americas – he was just the one with the best funding and returned to tell the tale widely. After that closed door was cracked open, it was thrown wide and here we are today.

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