Excellence in “Borrowed” or “Original” Novels?

No author writes anything, even the most “original” fantasy or far-future ultra-high novel, without borrowing from somewhere. To begin with, language, the very medium in which novels are written, contains cultural artifacts and meanings. Given human history, a wide range of religious and political structures have been tried, and history tends to suggest which work and which do not. Tools of all sorts are cultural artifacts, and so on.

So, in my mind, all authors borrow, either from their own culture or from other cultures and times, and the only real question is whether an author borrows tiny pieces and rearranges them into something that seems completely “original” or whether he or she loots some culture or another, or even two or three, and files off the serial numbers, so to speak.

There have been well-written works of fantasy and science fiction created from relatively small amounts of tiny borrowings and a greater amount of originality, and there have been well-written works based on whole-scale borrowing or “cultural appropriation” [which appears to be the current negative terminology when an author borrows from a culture which is seen as not being his or hers].

Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light borrows heavily from Hindu religion and mythology, and his Creatures of Light and Darkness borrows from Egyptian mythology. Tolkien drew from the Volsunga Saga and the Elder Edda. More recently, R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War draws heavily from Chinese history, and she admits that one scene is essentially a fantasy copy of the Rape of Nanking.

In a contrast, Iain Banks’s far-future Culture series [beginning with Consider Phlebas and ending with The Hydrogen Sonata] portrays an incredibly different galactic society combining AIs of different levels, aliens, and humans with enhanced capabilities and different governments and social structures. My own Haze offers a very different governmental and social system as well, as does my novel Adiamante.

On the other hand, more than a few novels, which will go unnamed, are essentially shameless copies of history or of other authors’ works. In this, by the way, I’m not talking about alternate history novels, because the point there is to show some sort of contrast, to indicate what might have happened and why.

All of this raises two questions, possibly unanswerable, except by each reader for himself or herself, and these are:

(1) At what point does an author’s “borrowing” turn a novel into a copy of sorts?
(2) Are novels that don’t borrow wholesale or in large chunks inherently better?

In some ways, the questions are almost academic, but they’re questions I’ve pondered for some time.

3 thoughts on “Excellence in “Borrowed” or “Original” Novels?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    If borrowing in storytelling is acknowledged and well serves a purpose (such as an outsider’s view of ourselves, hopefully not partisan per se; or a safe way of criticizing those that it’s truly not safe to criticize directly), and is at least creatively chosen, not overused, and well executed, I don’t have a problem with that; it could point out that past boring studies weren’t without utility, at the very least; and likely more.

    But I’d expect the choice of what to borrow to pull its own weight and not be lazy or faddish or disrespectful of the original, and everything else to be well done and creative in detail at least. Whether with originality or conscious borrowing, do something challenging, well, and with a point to it that is illuminating without being propaganda or syrupy allegory.

    In my view, if a story had other significant faults, borrowing would just compound them.

    There are retellings (for example King Arthur or Robin Hood, of those of just familiar western European tradition) that arguably improve on their sources, at least in accessibility and elegance; and works in shared universes that, if adding new ideas and characters to the familiar, can be worth the price tag. But I’d expect them to be what someone works on while they’re struggling with something else, not what they do all the time. The familiar is comforting, but a steady diet of comforting lacks challenge.

  2. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Let me try to answer by recasting the debate. It seems to me that both fantasy and science fiction impose a modern (typically US/British) sensibility on cultures and histories/myths that are not. This should create challenges for the writer: to use these tensions to provide insights based on the differences. What I object to is not so much faithfulness to that culture/history/myth as failure to use our different viewpoint to provide insights about ourselves and those cultures, or at least ourselves and them as individuals.

    Seen in this light, I would argue that the degree to which an author “borrows” from a culture rather than attempting a much greater degree of “originality” matters less than what the author does with that borrowing. So herewith my answers to your questions:

    (1) The borrowing you describe seems to be very like the concept of plagiarism in writing. Therefore, let’s apply the same standard: If a culture/history/myths is simply copied in whole or in part, without adequate understanding or evocation of the tensions between our viewpoint and theirs, then it’s the cultural equivalent of plagiarism. And, of course, the dividing line between plagiarism and original work can often be hard to draw.

    (2) Better in what terms? In terms of originality, yes. In terms of insights gained through better understanding of “the real world” of the past or present, it depends. The main criterion here seems to be a combination of our familiarity with a culture/history/set of myths and the author’s ability to go beyond a small/simplistic part of that ethos.

    For example, CJ Cherryh’s anthropological training allows her to apply cultures unfamiliar to us to futuristic or fantasy settings, with extraordinary results. I would argue that this is equal to, if not better than, much of fantasy/science fiction that creates highly original worlds. On the other hand, I personally find a Haze infinitely better than yet another “vampires in NYC” sequel.

    I’d add one more thought: in both fantasy and science fiction, there is authorial and reader tension about just how far different a world is from our own. But what is interesting to me is the degree to which copying from a culture/history diminishes that tension. It’s a matter of choice: do I as an author plunk down my modern culture in the midst of a far future one and desperately try to make the two seem seamless (“if this goes on …”)? Or do I use a culture different from my own, but just as internally consistent, and to some extent familiar to the reader, to make the future seem more exotic but also less of a stretch (“what if?”)

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Another tension is that accuracy is sometimes not appreciated, perhaps not even salable.

      “Huckleberry Finn” or even “To Kill a Mockingbird”, although both were in the context of their times sympathetic to blacks, are in far less classrooms than they once were, lest the use of language and circumstances typical to the times offend modern sensibilities.

      Extend the concept. And more. I gather that e.g. in the original Star Trek series they had to have made-up names and alien language screened to try and avoid inadvertently sounding like anything offensive in an actual language, at least any one that a viewer was likely to spot. That’s back in the 60’s that one had to be that careful, how much sillier must we be today? 🙂

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