Monday, 10 January 2011

On Thieving Bastards

Writers: What a bunch of thieving bastards. From Shakespeare to Dan Brown, they love nothing more than taking someone else’s idea and passing it off as their own work. It’s like candy to them, candy that until recently belonged to a baby.
And among these thieving bastards, you’ll find no one more thieving and bastardly than the writers of science fiction and fantasy. They just love to steal! One of the biggest franchises in the genre only exists because George Lucas couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon, so decided to blatantly rip it off instead, and the rest aren’t any better. Every alien invasion, time travel story, robot apocalypse, every scientist killed by his own creation, every group of hard as nails space marines in power armour, the truth is, if you’re a science fiction writer who is not blatantly and unashamedly ripping off the hundreds of other science fiction writers who came before you, you’re probably from the mid-to-late 19th century.
You didn't invent this George Lucas!
But even in this hive of scum and villainy that we call a genre, there is a group of kleptomaniacs that go beyond the pale. These are the writers that other writers should watch their wallets around. I’m talking of course, about the writers in the zombie apocalypse genre.
There are some in the genre that don’t even bother writing their own books. It’s not unknown for writers to simply cram the zombies into someone else’s existing book- even when it obviously isn’t needed and there’s no point in doing so and really, seriously, why would you do that?
As for the rest of them, every single piece of the work in the genre owes its existence to one film: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. And we’re not just talking about the zombies, we’re talking themes, plot structure, characters, individual scenes. Hell, due to a legal loophole some people just flat out remake the movie without buying the rights.
And George A. Romero, father of the genre, originator of everything we think of as a zombie (despite the fact the word “zombie” is never spoken in the film), he is in no position to complain, as he freely admits to stealing the “last survivors fighting off hordes of fleshing-eating, living-dead once-humans” idea off Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. (Although we have to assume Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood was another influence)
But then, Richard Matheson’s monsters were actually vampires, using rules ripped pretty much wholesale from Dracula, by Bram Stoker, who in turn happily pillaged centuries of European folklore and took the idea of an aristocratic vampire from John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which, fun fact, was written on the same summer holiday that Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein’s monster.
Phew. So, by now you probably understand the sheer level of the theft that exists in the zombie apocalypse genre, although writers like to dress it up with words like “influence” or “homage”, it all comes down to the moment of reading or watching something cool and deciding “That looks fun, I’ll have that.”
I know, because I am a writer (Plug Book Here) and right now I’m in the process of writing a story about a kind of zombie apocalypse. Over the years I’ve devoured all kinds of fiction set during the zombie apocalypse (not to mention a few other kinds of apocalypse) in books, movies, videogames and TV shows. Like all the other writers before me, if I see anything fun in these I’ll nick it and use it for my own purposes.
The question is, with a genre so enthusiastic about cannibalism in every sense, is there anything new to say? After all, most of these stories don’t use the premise of the zombie apocalypse- they follow exactly the same plot beats (SPOILERS: A bunch of people who don’t like each other hole up in a building and argue until they’re ripped apart by the undead).
That is my excuse for writing this blog. Every week I’m going to be taking a piece of post apocalyptic fiction, it could be a book, movie, TV show, it could be old, it could be brand new, and I’m going to see what’s new about it. What does this do that nobody else has done before, and sometimes, how does it change the way that we look at all the stuff that comes before it?
I’m not going to stick strictly to the Romero style zombie apocalypse. I’m going to be making the case that Rage infected people count as zombies, so suck it up, and even if there is nothing gore splattered, murderous and moving in hordes, I’ll be taking a look at anything where bedraggled survivors walk abandoned streets looking for shotgun ammo and tinned food.
Oh, and I am going to be sticking to writing about the things I love. This sucks if you are the Resident Evil movies or the third act of the I Am Legend movie, and I wish I could say I was sorry for that.
Tomorrow I’m going to kick off this blog properly, starting off with Night of the Living Dead. I’ll also be laying down the rules for a new drinking game.

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