One night in 1999 I got a phone call from my old friend and co-author David Allen.
“Hey,” he said. “Have you seen that new movie, The Matrix?”
“No,” I replied. “I haven’t seen it. Is it good?”
“Don’t see it,” David warned me. “It’s going to break your heart.”
I did see it.
It broke my heart.
It’s been twelve years since that night. My college-aged kid tells friends that The Matrix was forbidden in our home (It was.) Close friends can tell you horror stories of the occasions when, usually after having more than my share of drinks, I broke down and told them the Matrix story. They never want to hear it again, and when I reach for that third drink people scatter just in case.
If you’re a writer, maybe you have a similar tale.
In 1993, my friend David Allen and I collaborated on a science fiction novel. Well, it was 48,000 words, and to some people (in the 90s, anyhow) that was in the murky land between novel and novella.
Remember those days?
The voice of Tom Selleck (Magnum, PI himself) came through our television sets, telling us that one magical day we could watch the movie we want the minute we want; we would be able to borrow books from a thousand miles away, carry our medical history on a plastic card, and buy concert tickets from a cash machine—and AT&T was the company that would bring it to us.
Our new Vice-President Al Gore told us that there would soon be a worldwide information superhighway, in part because of legislation he proposed and helped pass as a Senator (or, from a different perspective, Al Gore invented the internet tubes.)
At the University of Illinois, researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications introduced MOSAIC—the first worldwide web browser (I could never have guessed at the time that fifteen years later I would be working part-time at NCSA doing something called “digital history.”)
And in 1993, my friend David Allen and I were inspired by all those things to write a book, which we finished in early 1994. We tried to imagine where a worldwide web and virtual reality might take us. We incorporated elements from many of our favorite authors, from the writers of Doctor Who and Chris Claremont’s run on the X-men comics, to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. There were definitely elements of William Gibson and cyberpunk. By far our biggest influence, and the one to whom our novel was an homage, was Phillip K. Dick. Dick’s stories often centered on an everyman protagonist who discovers that nothing is what it seemed; that reality is purely subjective (many of Dick’s works have been translated to the movie screen: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Impostor… perhaps you detect a theme.)
Here’s a teaser for that book, All That We See or Seem:
Will Shaw wanted a better life. A parenting license, maybe a physical upgrade for his wife. But he has a nasty habit of asking too many questions, an infamous radical brother, and a directive from the Committee of Programmers to report to The Marches—where reality and sanity blur, and which few return from. Shaw discovers the government’s shocking secrets, but it is Robert Jenkins, the agent assigned to watch over him, who must face the consequences. Both men learn that nothing in their world is what they thought it was.
We never got anywhere with the book. We submitted it everywhere –really, everywhere, at least every place listed in Writer’s Digest’s Novel and Short Story Writer’s Guide. I have a stack of (mostly) polite rejections; the most common complaint, when one was specified, was length. We set the manuscript aside, planning to re-visit and expand it later. And of course, life got in the way. I sold a western short story, to Louis L’Amour Western Magazine, and got sort of wrapped up in westerns and historical fiction. I wrote a 140,000 word Civil War epic. I didn’t think much about that old manuscript, or the several other science fiction projects I had started (and sometimes finished.) Which is a shame, because when I finally did revisit it years later I found it had aged well.
And then came The Matrix. It was kind of a similar plot. Well, no, that’s not exactly true. It was an extremely similar plot, down to some fairly minute details (although radically different in many ways, as well.) Now, I’m not saying the Wachowsky Brothers ripped off our idea—heck, unless one of them was an assistant editor or slush-puppy at a publishing house or sci-fi magazine in ’94 and ’95, there’s no earthly way they could ever have seen it. And in reality (no pun intended), our work (like theirs) was not exactly the most original idea in the world; I think it is very likely they drew on the same antecedents, and the same 90s zeitgeist, that we did.
What it did mean was… any hope we had of getting a publisher to take on our long-languishing project died an agonizing death. Any casual reader picking it up would say “Huh. This is oh-so-familiar… what a cheap rip-off of The Matrix.”
In science fiction, the idea is the thing. To tell the truth, I stuck with westerns for a long time after that. It doesn’t matter how many other people have written about Custer or Wyatt Earp, you can still find new ways to approach the material. Dave stopped writing for awhile, and only picked it back up in recent years.
But you know what? I think our story was better; at the very least, it can stand on its own.
The publishing world has gone through some rapid, crazy changes in the last couple of years. I have been re-releasing all my old stuff as ebooks, or in paper through createspace. So have most of my writer friends –it is possible, not only to read new stuff, but to find books you haven’t seen since the 70s or 80s for today’s ereaders. So David and I have decided that the time has come to unleash our bastard child on the world. It’s available now on smashwords, where 40% of it is previewable, and amazon. Check it out here:
Give it a try, if you like sci fi. Tell me what you think.