The (writing) life after death

August 31st, 2006

Yet another voice from the grave — someone found the outline and some notes for a novel Heinlein never wrote, and now Spider Robinson has written it.   For all I know, VARIABLE STAR might be a really good book, but I’ll wager that the publisher wasn’t thinking about its quality when they set the project in motion.   Lately there have been a number of these “dead writer speaks” projects, such as the new “Sanditon” and the pseudo-Sayers THRONES, POWERS, AND DOMINATIONS.  

 To me, these are different from the continuations of classic series, such as Sherwood’s Oz books, which are going to be much much better than the originals, or the “Endless Dune” series, which at least aren’t any worse than the orginal sequels were.  When someone creates a world, like Oz or Dune, one can make a case for setting new stories within it, assuming the author agrees — or his/her heirs do.   I have no doubt that Baum would agree, because he was a deeply commercial writer who wrote Oz to entertain others and make himself money.    Herbert — I dunno.

But this “new” Heinlein was meant to be a stand-alone, as was SANDITON.  Austen had ambitions for her work well beyond the entertainment level.  Sayers’ work deepened with every Peter Wimsey she wrote, but TPD is not a deep book.   I see these as a different kind of publisher-driven projects.  I don’t like them, for reasons that might be irrational.   I do know that I’m going to leave instructions to my literary executor to burn all my papers and wipe my hard disk when I die.   (Kevin, take note!)   I don’t want my name on any book that I haven’t had the chance to edit, revise, and polish to my (probably low anyway) standards.

How do others feel about this?

29 Responses to “The (writing) life after death”

  1. kateelliotton 31 Aug 2006 at 7:43 pm

    I think you should give your papers to a library and leave strict instructions that there is to be no continuation of any unfinished material. Someday some graduate student may want to write a paper on the peculiar meanderings of your mind.

  2. David Louis Edelmanon 31 Aug 2006 at 8:14 pm

    I suppose at least the publisher is giving Spider co-author credit on the book and coming clean about its origin. I’m not quite sure the publisher of L. Ron Hubbard’s posthumous 10-volume Mission Earth series has been so forthcoming.

    As for the Dune books — I’m very cynical about them, but mostly because of the poor quality. I read the first three prequels and found them pretty atrocious. (My full review here.) But again, nobody’s trying to fool us into anything. As long as nobody tries to label the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson Dune books canon, they can go ahead and write until their fingers turn blue.

  3. Mitch Wagneron 31 Aug 2006 at 8:36 pm

    I think that good art can come from just about any motivation — even a publisher just looking to score a few more bucks from the fans of an author who’s been dead 18 years.

    However, I don’t think that good art can come from Spider Robinson. :)

  4. Sherwood Smithon 31 Aug 2006 at 10:04 pm

    L. Frank Baum apparently (from what I’ve been told) wanted his Oz to be carried on; so I never felt that it was trespassing to do Oz stories. of course I grew up reading the canon forty, only fourteen of which were written by him.

    My stuff…I dunno how I feel about that.

  5. Theoon 31 Aug 2006 at 10:15 pm

    Just finished “Hunters of Dune.” Couldn’t agree you with more David: the quality (believe it or not) of Hunters was worse than the prequels. The book even included a couple of basic editing gaffs: “hundreds” on page become “thousands” three pages later. And the plot is laughable (I won’t provide support of this statement because I don’t want to be a spolier).

    Just brings home the point that publishing is a business. Dune books sell regardless of the quality of prose or the creativity of the authors. It will (sadly) outsell just about any book Tor might take on in its stead. Foundation, Oz, etc. books sell as well. No doubt the Heinlein/Robinson book will sell, too.

  6. Lois Tiltonon 31 Aug 2006 at 11:04 pm

    Ghouls, feeding on the dead instead of nurturing the living.

  7. Harry Connollyon 31 Aug 2006 at 11:34 pm

    I think it would be a shame for a writer to destroy their own papers.

  8. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 01 Sep 2006 at 1:13 am


    I’m with Kate on what should be done with your papers–give them to a library, likely the Eaton Collection, and let graduate students study them. If, in a hundred years or whatever the copyrights are extended to to keep Mickey Mouse in unfunny unlife, there is anyone who wants to do a sequel, mine a set of notes or what-have-you, everyone will get to do it.

    It also depends on what folk intend. I’ve always been a big John Bellairs fan. I enjoyed his novels and I liked his last novels that were finished posthumously by Brad Strickland, who I remember from GEnie. Then this was followed by a few novels in the same series (he had several of them) for which he’d left the notes and outlines. These were good too. Brad has continued to write more in the series, with the estate’s approval, and I have to say I’ve enjoyed these books as well.

    It’s kind of a complicated business. My personal take is that if the dead author’s name is in larger type than the author doing the adaptation or continuation, there’s something wrong, but if it’s something along the lines of “Based on an Idea by Robert Heinlein,” there’s nothing wrong with it. After all, it’s standard in Hollywood to pitch a story and sell an outline which someone else writes and someone else rewrites, then actors interpret, editors edit, and finally someone else novelizes.

  9. Don Meadon 01 Sep 2006 at 9:09 am

    My editor called and he wants me to burn my papers and delete my hard drive…today.


  10. Katharine Kerron 01 Sep 2006 at 6:53 pm

    Well, if anyone wants my early papers they need to come and get them soon. Howard keeps threatening to clean the boxes containing them out of the basement and into a dumpster. :-)

    I still haven’t gone through the boxes of stuff that Jo Clayton’s friends brought me. Her papers are in there, but so are a lot of other things, like kitchen stuff and clothes, and masses of dust, or so they said, as well. They’re all safe in my office. I won’t let Howard dump those. :-)

    The one rational problem I see with works like the pseudo-Heinlein is what it says about publishers. They’re unwilling to spend money developing new authors, and they simply won’t do it until they’re desperate enough — it’s easier to resuurect some half-baked project of the past than spend half the money developing and marketing a new voice.

  11. kateelliotton 01 Sep 2006 at 8:42 pm

    like all those remakes of old movies. feh.

  12. Katharine Kerron 01 Sep 2006 at 8:58 pm

    Kate, exactly like that! Feh, indeed.

  13. Madeleine Robinson 02 Sep 2006 at 2:01 am

    I cannot imagine anyone wanting my papers. Hell, I don’t want my papers (I have to go through my desk. I really have to. Ick). But my will stipulates a literary executor (since he’s a writer and has a far better idea of markets and rights and stuff than my family does) and he and I have had several talks about what we don’t want done with our work (I’m his executor right back. If we both get killed in the same meteor strike the whole issue is moot.)

    I understand the wanting more from an author from whom there will be no more, I really do. But I have yet to see a “completion” work–Sanditon or Thrones, Dominations (or its sequel) that worked for me.

    I feel weirdly divided about world-sequels written by someone other than the author. Some (like Laurie King’s lovely Holmes-Russell books) I love a lot. Others (I’m thinking of several recent books in which, for example, Elizabeth and Darcy, post-marriage, solve crimes!) work not at all for me.

    I will say a thing about publishers, which is: one Robert Jordan (or one “completed” Heinlein) lines the coffers sufficiently so that they can afford to buy first novels or books by mid-listers. Certainly an almost-sure-thing is a bright n’ shiny to a publisher (so few things are sure things, and I remember a couple that looked to be so and turned out to be emphatically not) and pretty irresistable.

  14. Katharine Kerron 02 Sep 2006 at 2:36 am

    one Robert Jordan (or one “completed” Heinlein) lines the coffers sufficiently so that they can afford to buy first novels or books by mid-listers.

    But do they?

    Elizabeth and Darcy become detectives? Good grief and may the gods spare us!

  15. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 02 Sep 2006 at 2:46 am

    Not only do Elizabeth and Darcy become detectives, but the join the cast of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen II, along with Natty Bumpo, Dr. Heidegger, and the now somewhat elderly Johnny Tremain. I understand they have to fight the clockwork legions of Dr. Coppelius from Hoffman’s “The Sandman.”

  16. Katharine Kerron 02 Sep 2006 at 2:59 am

    Gott in Himmel!!!

  17. David Louis Edelmanon 02 Sep 2006 at 5:21 pm

    Anybody else here read Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (semi-sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz)? Apparently Walter Miller got frustrated with his inability to finish it, handed it over 85% done to his publisher with some notes about how he wanted it to end, and then shot himself on his front lawn.

    Another interesting case: the film A.I. Many people detest this film, though personally I think it’s a (flawed) masterpiece. But the point is that Stanley Kubrick had the whole thing meticulously storyboarded out before his death, and then Spielberg came and actually filmed the thing.

    Two special cases, to be sure. But perhaps Heinlein (and Herbert and others) would have wanted someone to go in and finish their unfinished works, rather than let them linger in a desk drawer or in some special library collection.

  18. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 02 Sep 2006 at 11:52 pm

    Well, I think A.I. is a perfectly excellent film so long as you bob the final scenelet with the omnipotent/retarded aliens who tack on a not-quite happy ending they pulled out of their skinny grey asses. It’s obvious where Kubrick’s film ends and Speilberg’s epilogue begins.

    It’s not the worst thing in the world that an atrocious adaptation is done of a work. Consider, oh, TLoTR and the two Rankin Bass animations on either side of the Ralph Bakshi. Do we really need orcs singing “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way”? And does anyone mind that there were those now that we have the Peter Jackson version?

    There’s also a chance that good art can come from bad from good as well. Consider Red Sonja, added I think in the 80s to the Conan mythos because of a need for an iconic redhead in a chainmail bikini. This made for, as I understand, a regretable movie, but there is also a really good score by Ennio Morricone which I just got a copy of today.

  19. kateelliotton 03 Sep 2006 at 12:07 am

    Dave, wow, I had never heard that Miller story. That adds an entirely new element to Terry Bisson finishing it (it was Bisson, wasn’t it?). I think if an author makes it clear (or has time to make clear) that they want someone else to finish something left undone, that’s one thing.

    But I can’t imagine that JS Bach (the master) wanted anyone to mess around with his unfinished fugue(s). Not that he didn’t already have a prodigious output.

    I have a trunk novel that I wrote when I was 19/20, and it is so mediocre (not unreasonably so given my age) that my boyfriend (now my husband) when we were first dating read it and STILL despite being in the first flush of dating felt obliged to say that it probably wasn’t publishable.

    I have since pulled a couple of elements out of the book and used them in Spirit Gate. But, boy, I would not want that novel published now or later, although since it’s a good/evil wish fulfillment tale, for all I know it would sell better than my other stuff as long as the language is cleaned up. Though it is trite in many ways.

  20. kateelliotton 03 Sep 2006 at 12:08 am

    Kevin, I understand the desire to adapt a written story to the screen, even if the filmmakers do a crappy job of it. It’s a shift of media. It’s the remakes of mediocre movies or tv shows that I can’t fathom as anything but laziness and lack of creativity on the part of Hollywood producers.

  21. David Louis Edelmanon 03 Sep 2006 at 12:58 am

    Kevin: Ah, see, this is where I disagree with the rest of the world (the rest of the universe, perhaps) about the merits of A.I. That ending sequence with the robots (not aliens, a common misconception) is very Kubrick. It’s got elements of a Spielbergian happy ending, but is also a bone-chillingly cynical statement about human futility so dark that it boggles the mind. But enough about A.I. for now — I need to watch it again and blog about it soon.

    I must also admit a soft spot for the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit. Not because it was particularly good, but because it was my first exposure to Tolkien.

    Kate: Yes, it was Bisson who finished the Leibowitz book. It’s a strange story. Apparently, Miller called 911 and reported that there was a dead man on his front lawn. Then he set up a chair on his front lawn and killed himself. Very creepy. Even more creepy when you read the last part of Canticle, which contains an extremely Catholic and extremely effective argument against suicide.

  22. Madeleine Robinson 03 Sep 2006 at 2:06 am


    during the time I was working at Tor there was clearly a relationship between having money and buying books. I can’t speak to other publishers.

    And I have read the Elizabeth/Darcy book. It was dreadful–the author got about a chapter and a half in and forgot what all the characters had been like in the source text. Worse, the diction of the faux-Austen voice became unbearably arch and clumsy. Made Thrones, Dominations sound, um, canonical.

  23. Katharine Kerron 03 Sep 2006 at 6:49 pm

    Tor and DAW do develop new authors. Robert Jordan has inadvertently financed a number of careers. :-) I was thinking, as usual in my bitter way, about the big corporate houses.

  24. Darcyon 03 Sep 2006 at 10:04 pm

    Kit, I hope you don’t destroy all of your papers. I can see destroying outlines and/or new story ideas, but everything?? The Library Technician in me says: EEEEKKK!

    I still haven’t gone through the boxes of stuff that Jo Clayton’s friends brought me.

    Y’know, once I finish grad school you could probably ship those boxes of Jo’s (and your own, for that matter) to me. I’m not going to know what to do with all that extra time – a project like organizing papers would be just lovely.

    I remember packing Jo’s stuff up. Lots of people, little time, zero chance to be organized… And, yes, lots of dust – Jo hadn’t been home for a long time when we packed her things.

  25. Katharine Kerron 04 Sep 2006 at 5:04 am

    Darcy, if you weren’t allergic to cats I’d gladly finance a trip down here for you. But you couldn’t stay here without misery, alas — even if you had the time, of course. My papers are full of cat hair, too, no doubt.

    One of these days I WILL get to it all this stuff.

  26. Sara Lipowitzon 05 Sep 2006 at 5:45 pm

    The “dead writer” novel is close kin to a trend I think is almost as bad: the strip-mining of a good series to generate new stories, almost all of which are inferior to the originals. The worst example of this I can think of is “All the Weyrs of Pern,” in which Anne McCaffrey’s dragonriders stumble over a 3,000-year-old plot point that proceeds to solve every problem for them, then “dies” melodramatically on the last few pages, perhaps worn out by its successful campaign to stamp every bit of wonder out of the storyline.

    Far from being an isolated work, “All the Weyrs of Pern” heralded a stream of Pern novels that extracted every last jot of every bit of backstory underpinning the series, until the whole thing subsided into a sinkhole. Sometimes the more you find out about a world, the less it means.

    And now her son is taking up where McCaffrey left off, so Pern can go on and one, like one of those cartoon strips that stopped being funny back in 1959, Blondie or Beetle Bailey or something.

  27. Katharine Kerron 05 Sep 2006 at 6:13 pm

    I love it! We can now talk about the “Beetle Bailey” syndrome when we discuss these endless series. Like a good label should, it makes the premise clear.

  28. Sara Lipowitzon 05 Sep 2006 at 11:18 pm

    Thank you! But maybe it should be called “Hi and Lois” syndrome instead. I just looked it up, and the original creator of Beetle Bailey is still working on it today. Who knew?

  29. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 06 Sep 2006 at 1:09 pm

    I’ve personally never understood the point of Beetle Bailey, except possibly to posit an alternate universe where the military never is at or ever has gone to war.

    I don’t have much trouble with endless series, since someone is always reading and enjoying them, and as a kid, I remember finding The Wishing Horse of Oz, one of the Ruth Plumly Thompson Ozbooks that was far better written than a lot of the Baum books, at least so far as the plotting went.

    As for Pern, I read the two main trilogies in high school and junior high and still have Moretta on my shelf, but never got around to getting back to it. I know Todd McCaffery from cons but have yet to read any of his books, mostly because I’m not in a Pern frame of mind at the moment and also because, once I discovered fandom, the Pern fans were just a bit too cutesy for my tastes. Just never had a dragon fetish.

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