By Stephen A. Benjamin
How many times have writers been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” If we all had the proverbial nickel for each . . . Every time I give some nebulous and unsatisfying answer to the cocktail party query, I wonder if I should have something more cogent in my reply, and when I think about it, I do know where my ideas come from.
Agents, publishers, readers all look for originality when selecting novels to sell or read. As authors, we hope that we have come up with something new. But what does that really mean? When I think about the truly original concepts and stories I have read over the years, surprisingly they are not as many as I anticipated.
In the science fiction and fantasy genres, names like Heinlein, Asimov, Blish, Zelazny, and Niven come to mind. They were greats in their field, not only because of their superb writing skills, but because of their fertile imaginations and originality.
I realize that my own ideas are very much based in the works of the writers who came before me, and I cannot easily separate my imagination from what I have read and experienced. As a colleague said, “We are the sum of our experience.” I will use my science fiction novel, The Galactic Circle Veterinary Service, as an example. The main character, Dr. Cy Berger, was “born” in my mind over forty years ago when I reread Rostand’s classic, Cyrano de Bergerac. The idea of rewriting Cyrano set in the future intrigued me. Before you cry, “But Cyrano has been done umpteen times in literature and film,” hear me out. That idea in itself was not enough. Cyrano had some wonderful traits that I could use, but I needed more. My character became an empath—someone who could read emotions—but that ability made him ill. Empathy is not original in itself (recall Deanna Troi of Star Trek), but with Cyrano’s characteristics and Cy’s negative reaction to empathic perception, a more intriguing protagonist grew. Now Cy needed a calling. Enter George R. R. Martin with his Tuf Voyaging, a novel featuring a space eco-ark captained by Haviland Tuf who saved species and worlds from ecological disaster as he traversed the stars.
My background as a veterinarian made it natural for my character to follow in those footsteps, offering medical services to alien races across the galaxy (the old “write what you know” maxim). James Herriott’s memoirs, All Things Great and Small, of his veterinary practice in Great Britain, including the unique behaviors of animals and the idiosyncrasies of animal owners, was a source of inspiration, as well. Now I had my basic character with some traits very old, some quite new, and what he would do, but still not enough.
Then I read Michael Chabon’s wonderful The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. With my Jewish heritage, I saw how to set my story on a Jewish home world, one subjected to a fundamentalist Judaic tyranny to add some depth. Now my protagonist had antagonists. Though I had my star-hopping veterinarian fighting to free his home world from oppression, what happened while he hopped? He met and offered critical medical services to a variety of alien life-forms, and made allies of them to help him in his battle. Alien life-forms are always a good place for originality in science fiction, and I had some in the story, like a sentient jungle with its nine-mouthed, ambulatory plant predator, the hydra. But I also used dragons and werewolves.
Hold it! Aren’t those fantasy, not science fiction, and overdone in book and film? They are science fiction when you have a science-based genetic explanation for them in your universe. They are unique when you have a veterinarian who must treat epidemics of gout in dragons and mange in werewolves. When you dissect it, there are many aspects of my novel that are not totally new. Even the medicine Berger practices is extrapolation based on what we know about biomedical science today—no short cuts like the hand-held electronic cure-all of Star Trek. Some of the influences for the novel were overt, as I mentioned, but how many more ideas in my writing were subconsciously derived from others? I couldn’t tell you.
My ideas grew from seeds planted in my mind by previous writers, yet when they reached full growth, the resulting garden had bushes and trees unlike any other. I don’t think admitting to being influenced by others’ ideas diminish a writer’s work; I think they enhance it. I think of it as honoring great writers of the past. Now, when asked “the question” again, the inquirer had better grab a drink and a chair. They may get a longer answer than they anticipated.
Stephen A. Benjamin is a veterinarian and Professor Emeritus in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. In publishing numerous scientific research papers over his career, he longed to allow his scientific speculations freer rein by carrying them into the science fiction realm. His novel, The Galactic Circle Veterinary Service, was a Colorado Gold speculative fiction finalist, and was published in November 2014 by TWB Press, Lakewood, CO. A member of RMFW, he lives in Fort Collins, CO. Links Facebook: Stephen Benjamin Website: www.stephenabenjamin.com