Edward Elmer Smith is a (contemporarily) mostly completely unknown science-fiction writer, his claim to fame being over 200 short-ish stories and novellas published in the iconic Sci-Fi magazines of the 1915s and 20s, namely IF Worlds of Science Fiction and Amazing Stories. Among them, a series of Skylark stories following the adventures of an idealistic young hero who goes head-to-head with a mercantile and money-grabbing antagonist/co-hero in space. 

You’ve never heard of him, right? I thought so.  

The two go on an uncontrolled flight at faster-than-light, met up with the Mardonale empire, and effectively cement the “Space Opera” in sci-fi. The stories were so popular that E.E. “Doc” Smith was able to take his publications from 1915 to 1920 and publish them into a popular (pulp) novel of the time. 

By book two, the protagonist, one Richard “Dick” Seaton, is on the run from people hunting him from the first book, takes time to attempt to master the “Zone of Force”, and eventually helps to repel an invasion of a planet with the help of a previously unseen native population of said planet. The hero captures an enemy pilot, and it is revealed that the attacking empire wish to bring the entire galaxy under their control.  

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skylark_DuQuesne#/media/File:SkylarkDuquesne.jpg

In book three, the hero, discovers that the “Zone of Force” is part of a “sixth order”, and begins developing technologies to create weapons and to map the universe for travel.  

Eventually, Seaton fends off the invading forces of Chlorans, a race of psionic aliens who used their powers for mind-control, suggestion, and to improve their fighting abilities. Chlorans are described “as a cancer”, amoeba-shaped cell-like beings bent on enslaving and exploiting humanity. Eventually, the Chlorans are wiped out using technology that destroys their suns and their worlds. While undeniably harsh in a publication written just after the end of WWII, it has conveniently been mostly forgotten by history. (Smith’s worldbuilding, worldviews, and depiction of politics and political agendas were ripe with fascism, which was a common issue in sci-fi at the time.)  

Smith’s daughter would later go on to write several works in his name, publishing them after his death as his work. Amongst these, a hero with psionic powers and the ability to telepathically communicate, a “Dark knight” villain with a glowing whip sword, and a planetoid sized iron sphere capable of destroying planets. It’s not called the death star, no, really, it’s not.  

But, if you’re recalling other names, like Skywalker, gungans, the Force, and midichlorians right about now, you wouldn’t be the first. The epic space-opera-to-end-all-space-operas of the 1970s known as Star Wars is as derivative as any other work. Right down to its usage of Nazi Germany as a plot device, albeit in a more socially acceptable manner than Smith.  

Let’s try another.  

Most people who like Sci-Fi are happy with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Sci-fi exploration of racism and what it means to be human by Phillip K. Dick, which was translated into film as “Blade Runner”. Most of humanity has left for colonies in space, tended by androids – where they live lives of relative luxury. Those who stay behind live in relative squalor, fighting to get by in a degrading environment but too afraid or unable to make the jump to space. The 1968 novel follows the course of a bounty hunter as he eliminates several rogue androids after they’ve murdered a human being – bumping into his conscience and his inability to view women as people along the way. The hero uses an encephalographic device to detect emotional responses, allowing him to discriminate between humans and androids – but he increasingly loses faith in the scanner in the face of new, more human-like androids – leading him to question his humanity and the lack of humanity in the Androids he kills.  

Just 15 years earlier, prolific storyteller (but not very good writer) (Yes, I know, the line to fight me is around the back) Isaac Asimov published The Caves of Steel. In the novel, most of humanity has fled to the stars, colonizing space with the help of human-like robots. People who stay behind live on earth in squalor, mostly underground, and in terror of leaving their planet or their homes. Humans also live in fear of the human-like robots, so, when a robot comes to earth – a group of humans conspire to destroy it. A human is murdered instead (by accident) but the death is pinned on the robot and the city commissioner is hired to track the robot kill it. Using an encephalographic scanner, the commissioner is able to determine who is human and who is not, while the robot learns more about humans and begins to question its place and what it means to be human and to be robot.  

I could keep going, but I won’t, for the sake of your time (and mine). The truth remains that most if not all of the popular storytelling and media of our time is derivative. And, well, most of just about anything is derivative.  

That’s also not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just about how humans tell stories. Which, eventually, is also about how we use language, how we learn, and how we create knowledge.  

Nowhere is that more obvious than in casual glances at the word for Mother in just about any language you can think of. I won’t bother to write out the examples.  

When you create something you take things you know (which other people created) and add to them. And that’s always been how people work.  

It might also be pretty obvious if you look at each of these examples of what are completely different languages:  

(West Saxon) Fisc flōd āhōf on firgenberig. 

Wearþ gāsric(?) grorn þǣr hē on grēot geswam

Hranes bān. 

(Old English) Sitte ge, sīgewīf,   sīgað tō eorðan, [a] 
næfre ge wilde   tō wuda fleogan, [b] 
beō ge swā gemindige,   mīnes gōdes, [c] 
swā bið manna gehwilc,   metes and ēðeles 

(This one is very cute:  

For a Swarm of Bees: 

Settle down, victory-women, sink to earth, 
never be wild and fly to the woods. 
Be as mindful of my welfare, 
as is each man of border and of home)  

Still, these are so similar that historians write entire books on the merits of differentiating them and on how to tell them apart.  

One of the most interesting is a fragment found in a manuscript from Rochester, Kent, found in 1932.  

Hebban olla uogala nestas hagunnan hinase hi(c) (e)nda thu uuat unbidan uue nu 

Loosely translated: All the birds but you and I have started nesting; what are we waiting for?  

 The text could easily be Old Dutch, Old English, Old Friesian, Old Saxion, or even Old Frankish. It’s Old Dutch, but the only tell is that the fragment uses a third person plural, hebban, which was not present in English or Frisian, and which German used a different case for. Yet, that’s also still contested.   

English derivatives also don’t just stop there, they’re in every part of language we use.  

  • Motion: moving/a change of position 
  • Locomotion: the act of motion  
  • Emotion: a movement of the mind  

Humans build thought and knowledge in derivative ways. That’s so much the case that we have researchers theorizing that the act of writing, of keeping notes, of sharing knowledge has become as much a part of human cognition as a spider’s web is part of spider cognition. It is necessary for us to have something on which to build in order for us to learn and think at the level which we do. Without the ability to record our thoughts, we cannot build on them with anywhere near the same level of extensiveness.  

Never mind the Beatles claiming that their system of quality control was never writing anything down, if they remembered it, it was good enough to keep, this is pure nonsense: writing things down allows a next generation to build on our ideas.  

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants 

Most tellingly, that’s also something that humanity has recognized for most of recorded history.  

Source

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a metaphor first recorded pre-500 AD, and since copied by great thinkers, engraved into church windows, and espoused by teachers the world over.  

E.g., “I have used the progress of those before me to make the progress I have made” and that’s what being human is all about. So, derivative is good. Just as no one questions whether Star Wars is better than Skylark or whether Dick’s multi-dimensional characters and deep emotional and existential explorations are better than Asimov’s flat characterization but albeit brilliant conceptualization, no one should question that building on top of storytelling can be a good thing.  

Of course, there are limits. You have to create/do/make something new with your derivative work. When Star Wars released its first new episode in 10 years, The Force Awakens, the result was a highly derivative work that could be labelled as little more than fan service. It added nothing to the series and has little value for anyone looking to rewatch it. Sue me. Or well, don’t, looking at my gas bill, I can’t afford a lawsuit.  

Someone’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my husband(‘s sister) 

On the other hand, leaving the example of sci-fi for a moment, other works have pulled off pure derivativeness with brilliance.  

Take, “Crimson Peak”, the 2015 film by Guillermo del Toro – which perfectly capitulated on the gothic romance, with a near paint by the numbers plot following the script and scripture of the gothic novel: 

  • A beautiful woman is estranged from society in some way but reliant or has a dependent  
  • She has no friends except for one (1) male who is thoroughly friend-zoned (also he’s kind and sweet and hot and stuff)  
  • She is absconded into a whirlwind romance  
  • Her lone male friend is devastated that she shan’t be marrying him despite his long-term secret affection and care for her/her dependent  
  • Meanwhile, her dependent/reliant dies 
  • She marries the romance and is taken away to his manor/castle/remote house  
  • Under mysterious circumstances, she is attacked, begins to get sick, or to experience terrors  
  • This turns out to be her husband, who is trying to kill her to (pick one or many, it matters not) 
  1. Inherit her money  
  1. Hide some great evil  
  1. Blame her for some hideous deed 
  1. Abscond with another woman  
  • The lone male friend mysteriously appears and saves the day 

Del Toro captures this in every single stage, except, the husband’s sister is attempting the murder, the heroine saves the day, and the friend-zoned male shows up too late to do anything at all. Effectively, creating a feminist version in which the female can be victim, hero, and villain — within the scope of a formerly sexist trope designed to titillate female fantasies of rescue and romance, while simultaneously demonizing the seductive male, with the intent of allowing the female reader to court danger without giving up a safety net of a male provider. Taking that storyline and creating a pure derivative that is both scornful and mocking of the original while appreciating the original for what it is – and lifting that schematic into something new and more palatable to a modern age is brilliant. And, that’s what derivation should be about.  

That’s also why the usage of tropes and plot devices don’t make stories boring and predictable, they allow us to use building blocks that the consumer is familiar with to increase their understanding of the story, to add more depth, and to shift focus to the parts of the story that we want to tell. After all, why would I want to figure out how to build a wheel when I could be spending my time and attention on woodcarving or embroidery, or, you know, writing.  

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