The Firstest Or The Bestest Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-01-17 13:00:00 No comments

A conversation with a friend turned up the following gem of an insight: It doesn't matter who did something first; it matters who does something best.

My original version of this insight revolved around information technology. Xerox PARC may have invented many of the things we associate with modern GUIs, but it was Apple that made them into a consumer product by way of the Macintosh.

But this applies to most everything else as well, creative work included. If you have a Great Idea for a story, and someone else has a Great Idea for a story, your implementation of that idea is always going to be different from his, even if they look superficially similar. You're always going to emphasize the things that are important to you, and draw different conclusions. To that end, doing it "best" may be more about doing it your way, and for your reasons.

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I've recently been talking about Strange Days, a movie that was a big source of inspiration for my most recent writing project (Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned). Years before, another movie came out that had a similar premise: Douglas Trumbull's Brainstorm. Both of them revolved around the same idea — a device that can record and play back sensory input — but they take them in radically different directions. Brainstorm is part "muddled Nasty Government yarn" (as Cinefantastique put it) and part treatment of the Motif of Harmful Sensation, as the plot revolves around a tape made by someone at the moment of her death. Despite the spiritual implications of the latter idea, the story is very much in the vein of Golden Age SF — in the sense that it's more than a little square.

Strange Days is more cyberpunk than Golden Age, with the tech in question having been developed by the feds (Nasty Government, again!) as a substitute for the body wire, but it's now a fixture in the underground, where "clips" of everything from armed robberies to sexual trysts are bought, sold, made, and stolen on the black market. It deals with the tech on both a personal and social level, and while it sometimes settles a little too readily for using it as the MacGuffin in what amounts to a noir/thriller plot, it's still quite a rush. And while its view of humanity as a whole is jaundiced, it holds out hope for individuals to rise above the muck.

Which of the two is better, though, is not something that lends itself to an objective answer. Here's my take, for what it's worth. Brainstorm was an adventurous piece of work for its time; its biggest problems are not really conceptual, but matters of story logic and planning. Some of that was exacerbated by Natalie Wood's death partway through production (although Trumbull maintained that there were only four scenes that needed to be shot, none crucial, and that they were able to pave over the missing pieces with judicious editing). But Strange Days's explicitly political and street-level approach has aged better; it feels less square and predictable, even if its one big SF conceit is more the match that touches off the fuse than the fuse itself.

One other thing in this vein I mean to check out eventually is the Netflix series Sense8, which takes a slightly different spin on the idea. There is no device. Instead, some phenomenon has caused different people around the globe to have their senses and emotions linked. It's an even more efficient way to focus on the political and social implications of the idea; you can cut right to the characters and save the "how does it work and why?" for later. And again, it's a means towards a different kind of story. The Wachowskis wanted to use the core concept for their own ends, and by all accounts they did so brilliantly.

Nobody should ever be shy about using an idea that has already made the rounds, for fear of it seeming stale. The trick is to bring whatever you are, whatever you see, to the problem at hand, and by doing so make it a new idea.

Tags: Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned Brainstorm Strange Days creativity writers writing