Friday, April 9, 2010

Rebooting the Classics

Recently, John Scalzi announced that he has written a “rebooted” version of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. Now, I have a decent amount of faith in Scalzi. I’ve only read Old Man’s War by him, but it was quite good, and I’ve read a slightly ridiculous amount of Whatever over the past few weeks. I don’t think that Scalzi is going to start producing hackwork any time soon, but Scalzi isn’t the whole field, and, as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies proved, unique ideas stay unique for roughly as long as it takes for the first reader to pick up a copy. Anyone who can’t see the potential for ludicrous amounts of derivate dross in these reworkings is mind bogglingly optimistic, but what actual impact is this likely to have on the genre?

Let’s stick with the Spliced fiction (ala Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) for a bit, as it’s quite similar to this new (potential) phenomenon. Neth recently posted some musings on his blog, and I think he raises most of the important points. It’s a fun concept, sure, but is it actually worthwhile? I can’t give you a definitive answer, and I’d be lying if I said I was well read in the new fad. I do, however, think that it’s something that could have potential…but, in order to reach that potential, they’ll need to do more than just mash two things together. As it is, for the most part, Spliced fiction is taking an old idea, leaving it entirely unchanged, and then sticking on some flashy disco lights to obscure the fact that you haven’t done shit in the way of actual innovation. Entertaining, sure, but not exactly groundbreaking. If any of these new authors want lasting success, they’re going to have to create something more than a comic idea. It’s the same as with Science Fiction. You can’t just say “my book has a spaceship,” and expect it to sell. You have to do something with the spaceship, and so far I remain unconvinced that anyone’s actually done anything with the spaceship in all these Spliced stories.

I have a bit more faith in the merit of near future Rebooted fiction. This type of thing is relatively unheard of in fiction, but is commonplace just about everywhere else. One of the most obvious comparisons is the tribute song. The vast majority of tribute songs are simply a note for note reproduction of the original, generating the same feelings if well done, but not adding anything. The players of these songs, however, aren’t trying to add anything with their covers. It is, in general, more to show an artistic debt than anything else. This kind of cover is analogous to the fan fiction that’s always existed. Entertaining, and a good building block for other things, but not noteworthy – nor likely to ever really impact the field –on its own.

The second kind of tribute, however, is a totally different ballpark. This is the kind of cover in which the covering band doesn’t just replay the song, but reinvents it. Excellent examples of this include Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower and Judas Priest’s cover of Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust. These covers are not so much a regurgitation of the original idea but a reenvisioning of it through a new perspective. If this concept was extended to fiction, as Scalzi seems to intend, I see no problem with it at all.

So, why have neither of those styles of tributes ever caught on with fiction? Well, alright, there have been a few examples, but all of them have been on the fringe of Scalzi’s Rebooting and nothing closer. The most obvious of those, at least to me, is the continuation of the works of Robert E. Howard and HP Lovecraft after the authors’ death. The difference there is that those stories are extensions of the authors’ work, not revisions of it [see comments for an expansion on this by Taraniach]. Moving away from exceptions, the reason that these revisions have never done much in fiction is that their main cause is gone. In video games and movies, fields where this kind of thing is common, the primary reason is technology. You may debate the degree, but it’s impossible to say that graphics and the like do not impact the experience at all. Newer gamers, say the people who started on an Xbox, are going to have a damn hard time going back and playing older games, regardless of their quality. As a result, revisionists get their chance to shine every few years as they raid the graves of past giants for a new audience.

In books, however, there’s nothing like technology to necessitate revision. Yes, language changes, but not to the degree that you’re going to need to translate The Hobbit anytime soon. What does this mean? Well, barring a few oddballs, I’m hoping that the majority of these Reboots will be done out of a love for the original work, and a belief that it can be altered in some way, rather than because seventeen, or two hundred and six, years have passed.

Overall, the reason that I’m confident the market won’t be flooded with revisions is, in part, what I just mentioned. I don’t think it’s going to be all that much of a cash cow, because there’s very little reason for a reader to pick up a newly written copy of A Red Badge of Courage over the original. People have proven that they have absolutely no problem paying again and again for something that’s just like Tolkien, but I have a hard time believing that they’ll pay the same amount for something that is Tolkien. Or perhaps I’m just being a bit of an optimist here.


  1. "The most obvious of those, at least to me, is the continuation of the works of Robert E. Howard and HP Lovecraft after the authors’ death. The difference there is that those stories are extensions of the authors’ work, not revisions of it."

    In Howard's case, there were indeed some revisions. Most of the time it was the completion of fragments which involved alterations to the existing pieces, though L Sprague de Camp would sometimes change grammar or words in completed stories too.

    The most infamous case is "The Black Stranger," a Conan story which wasn't published in its original form until 1987. De Camp took this story, added a sorcerer & monster, and completely rewrote the last chapter in order to fit it into his own chronology, inserting his own original creations and ideas.

    Still, "The Black Stranger" is currently in print in a number of volumes by different publishers while "The Treasure of Tranicos" is languishing in out-of-print limbo, so in the long run, the revisions have been consigned to the past and the original works triumphed.

  2. That's true. I knew a little about the Howard revisions, though not the extent. My feelings on the difference are that, as you said, the fans have pretty much unanimously supported Howard's original work over any alterations. That being said, thank you for pointing that out. I'll amend the article slightly to point to your comment.