Excellence in “Borrowed” or “Original” Novels?

Excellence in “Borrowed” or “Original” Novels? by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

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 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, 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.

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