Not Exactly Plagiarism
by Rob Carr
Every fan, every reporter, and every drunk at a cocktail party will ask a science fiction writer the same question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Barry Longyear got so frustrated with the question, he started telling people that he orders them from some place in Schenectady. He tells all about that in his book “It Came from Schenectady.” Now you know where the title came from.
My source of ideas doesn’t come from Schenectady. I won’t tell you exactly where I get mine. But I will tell you the story. If I thought for one second you’d believe me, I wouldn’t dare. But you won’t. You’ll remember this as a cute little story and get a laugh out of it. Tall tales that claim to be true are a classic sub-genre in science fiction anyway. I know what you’ll think. Literally.
Of course, I’ll change a few details. There’s an entire fan industry devoted to tracking down Callahan’s Bar. Come to think of it, I'll change a lot of details…
Ten years ago, I wasn’t making it as an author. I had a few small articles published in various magazines. Most were 250-word pieces used as sidebars for the main article. I had to keep track of all the query letters in a database. Two boxes of index cards contained ideas for articles. There were scraps of paper and post-it notes around the house with more ideas. If the ideas were good enough, I’d write them up on one of those index cards.
I was sitting there at the computer, in desperation considering writing for some crap web site pushing hokum, when the e-mail came. The e-mail program flagged it as spam. I read it anyhow. “Maybe the spammer needs a writer,” I thought.
I wasn’t far off the mark.
Do you want to be published? Reply to this e-mail and I will ensure you get published. When you make a sale, simply send me 5% of your earnings. Send me your address to Oroborus Enterprises to begin.
The spammer definitely needed a writer. I’d seen better letters from Nigeria asking me to help smuggle a dead dictator’s money out of the country. But this was a new scam. What was he up to? For some reason, I was certain the author was male. I don’t know why.
The spammer claimed no money was required up-front. Perhaps I could investigate and write an expose on it. Being a writer, I had a bad tendency to look at everything and ask “Can I write about this?” In talking with others, I learned this is an occupational hazard.
I hesitated. Was there some catch I wasn’t seeing? I set up a Yahoo! e-mail under a fake name and replied to the spam. Even if I didn’t get an article out of it, there’s some entertainment value to stringing along scammers. I gave him my rented mailbox address instead of my home address. I fired off the e-mail and went for some coffee.
When I came back, my e-mail program announced it had more mail. I checked and found another message from the spammer I just replied to. He thanked me for trusting him and said my first article was on the way.
My heart jumped. He wasn’t a spammer. He was targeting individuals. I’d replied using a different name and e-mail, and yet he knew it was me. I thought he was sending out hundreds of these e-mails. If he only sent out one, then the person responding would have to be the one he sent it to. The fake name and e-mail hadn’t fooled him. What had I gotten myself into? I didn’t need to finish my coffee. I was wide awake and more than a little worried. To calm down, I went for a walk. On the walk, I decided to call the police. The guy e-mailing me must be some sort of stalker. Unfortunately, I left my cell phone at home, or I’d have called the police during the walk.
After a half-hour walk, I was back home. On the way into the house, I picked up the mail There was a 9 by 11 manila envelope in among the bills. The return address was “Oroborus Enterprsies. He was stalking me. This came to my home address, not the rented mailbox. But how could he have replied so quickly? I went inside and tossed the rest of the mail on the table and opened the brown envelope.
Inside were torn out pages from Analog magazine, stapled together. Analog’s a science fiction and science fact magazine that’s been around for quite a while. I devoured it as a child, and my garage had hundreds of issues, just in case. The date, though, was odd – it was eleven months later. The story had my name on it.
Whatever this scam was, the scammer was going to a lot of work to pull it off.
I went over to my Lazy-Boy chair and sat down to read the story. Two things hit me. One, the story was good. It wasn’t worthy of a Nebula Award, but the idea was original and the story’s focus laser-sharp. That was the first thing that hit me.
The second was that the story was in my writing style.
As an author, I know my writing. There are phrases that I tend to overuse. Sometimes, I use them too much and I have to go back and replace the overused phrases. My sentences tend to be complex, and this story read like I had gone back through and broken the overly-long sentences up. I also tend to use semi-colons a bit too much; so did this story.
I had written this. But I hadn’t written the story. I’d remember writing such a story. I could have written this, but I would have had to work hard to write it, taking up a lot of time. I’d have bounced around euphorically having written that story. No way would I have forgotten writing it. The basic concept for the story was even in one of my index card files, although in a much cruder form.
Whatever the scam was, the scammer was good. He was frighteningly good.
As I went to read the last page, there was an annoying post-it note with instructions:
Retype this article and submit it to Analog for publication. It will be published. When you get paid, send a check to me made out to Oroborus Enterprises.
The house echo rang in my ears as I wandered about, holding the article in my hand. Should I submit it? Was it plagiarism? In the back of my mind, the fact that it was Analog nagged at me. This was an incredible chance. As a pre-teen, I dreamt of getting something published in Analog. I’d never tried. The fear of being rejected kept me from even writing stories that might be submitted. All my published and professional work was about things that meant nothing to me. I couldn’t be hurt if I didn’t care.
I checked the submission guidelines in the Writer’s Market on my desk. Analog took new writers. The web site submission guides said they preferred complete manuscripts on paper, standard double space printing. There were a few other instructions: name and address on the first page and so on.
I spent all night typing the manuscript. I made a few small changes in wording to improve the story, but essentially the manuscript remained the same. Proofreading took a while more. I didn’t trust the word processor to catch every mistake. I read the entire story backward, word by word. The afternoon the day after I got the manuscript in the mail, my version was in the hands of the Post Office.
At first, I couldn’t stop thinking about the manuscript. A few days later, though, something distracted me. An old client had asked me to clean up an online help manual. The work paid well enough, although there was too much of it and too much time pressure.
About a month later, I got a shock in the mail. There were bills and two large envelopes. I ripped open the one I recognized. It was the SASE I’d sent Analog. They’d accepted the manuscript. Stanley Schmidt himself autographed my original manuscript, congratulating me on my first SF sale. Analog paid on acceptance; the check would be arriving shortly. The other manila envelope had three future articles I would publish: one for Analog, one for F&SF, and one for Time magazine.
When the check arrived, I wrote out a check to Oroborus Enterprises and sent it to my mysterious “source.” I even felt so good, I rounded up to the next nearest dollar. Hey, I’m a writer. Living hand to mouth, the change was an extravagant tip.
The Time magazine article was tricky. NASA would cut one of the basic science missions next month. I made some discreet contacts at Time, asking about how to submit such an article. I retyped the article, proofread, and worried over it. The day before NASA would announce the cut, I sent the article via e-mail with a “cover letter” explaining that I anticipated NASA would cut this particular program out of budget concerns. A phone call from Time’s science editor the next day informed me that my insight into NASA’s decision was one of the reasons he decided to use my article.
The envelopes arrived regularly in the mail now. As they did, I discovered something. All my changes were for naught. The editors would make editorial “corrections” to my pieces that would result in them being published identically to the “originals” I received in the envelopes. I realized that editing them didn’t matter. I quit trying to improve the articles. In fact, I quit proofreading. The manuscripts were always used by the publishers, but there were red comments on sloppy mistakes.
I had all the work I could handle transcribing the articles. Perhaps I should have worried that I was making a fantastic career as a fraud. The envelopes came with fewer stories and came less often. When they stopped coming, I didn’t notice for three days. I didn’t worry for a week.
After two weeks of no manila envelopes in the mail, I became concerned. Was this some kind of drug-like thing where the victim was hooked and then the price was upped? All the initial fears came back. I wondered if I would be blackmailed. After all this time, would I find out what the catch was, the catch I forgot about?
After a month, I broke down and e-mailed my spammer-benefactor. Why had the articles stopped? I’d paid promptly the 5% that was asked of me. The e-mail reply came back almost instantaneously: “Here is my address. Please visit me tomorrow.”
The address was forty miles away. I’d have to make a day of the trip. What had I gotten myself into? Was I in any danger? Yet somehow, I had to go. Now was my chance to find out the story behind this bizarre setup. Was there a writer factory? Were these articles the product of a computer that imitated human writers? Curiosity got the better of me.
Just to be sure, I sent letters to friends describing where I was going. If something happened to me, everyone would know where to start looking.
The trip out was a beautiful fall day. The scenery flared with colors. I almost forgot my worries. But the directions led me to an old factory. Looking around, I found the entrance and knocked.
If I had answered the door, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Instead, it was this small man, about 5’6”, with thinning hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and the beginning of an old age hump. “Come in, come in! I’m glad to finally meet you!” His voice was stronger than he was, and deeper than one would expect for such a small man.
“My name is Al. I’m the one who has been writing you. Can I get you anything?” He started walking into the building, and I followed.
“Could you tell me what’s going on?”
“Of course, of course. But if you want a Coke, grab one from the refrigerator over there.” We passed a small lunch room, and there was a almond-colored refrigerator freezer just visible through the door.
“I don’t need one.”
“I offered.” Al’s voice sounded just a bit frustrated as he said that. At least, that’s how I remember it.
“Are you the only one here?” I looked in the next room; it appeared to be a state of the art mailroom, with stacks of the 9 by 12 manila envelopes.
“The only one. I can handle everything by myself.”
I didn’t hear anyone, and I started to relax. I easily outweighed Al, and though it had been years since my last Tae Kwon Do class, I had no doubt I could take him. Still, I wanted to test Al. “I was worried that this was some part of a scam.”
“Well, it might be, but it’s a legitimate scam, which is why you’ve stopped getting envelopes.” Al opened one of a set of double doors, leading into a large central room. The room appeared exceptionally clean. Several computer servers were visible to the right. To the left was what could best be described as a collision between an Open MRI machine, a Radio Shack store, and a plumber’s nightmare. “Meet the time machine.”
I laughed. Al stood there and stared, his look saying “Any moment, you’ll catch on and realize I’m not joking.”
“A…” I thought of the dates on all the articles I’d received.
“…time…” The articles were torn pages from actual magazines, exactly as the article would eventually appear.
“…machine.” Oroborus Enterprises. Oroborus was the snake eating its own tail. That was obvious.
“Oh.” Suddenly, I was lightheaded. "Oh." I fell backwards into a chair. Al had waited until I was right in front of the chair to tell me. I wasn’t the first person he’d had to explain this to, was I? Not by a long shot.
Al smiled. “Can you figure it out?”
I could. I didn’t want to figure it out, though. “Uh…you send the magazines back in time.” I closed my eyes to make the room stay still. “You…um… you send them out to your clients.” The nausea passed. “Your clients transcribe them.” I remembered that I’d forgotten about breathing. “They’re published.”
“Very good! You figured it out faster than most — faster even than the ones who write time travel stories.”
“But who writes the articles…the stories. Do you? Does a computer?”
“You write them, of course.”
“No. No, you see, I didn’t write them. I just retyped them. I never wrote those articles.”
Al suddenly looked disappointed with me. “Did you read them as you retyped them?”
“How could I not?”
“Did you recognize the style?” His voice was slow, like he was using the Socratic method on a child.
“Yes, it was mine.”
“What happened when you stopped trying so hard?”
“What do you mean? I never tried hard. I just retyped what you sent.”
Al shook his head. “No, you stopped trying. With the first story for Analog, did you rewrite it?”
“A little. I tried to improve it. Fat lot of good it did. The version that appeared in the published magazine exactly matched the copy you sent me.”
“See, I told you. You stopped trying. Everyone does after a while.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I couldn’t see where Al was going with this.
“You stopped trying to be a better writer, so your writing got worse. Eventually no one wanted to buy what you were writing. There was nothing to send back in time for you to submit.”
“But I didn’t write anything!”
“Yes you did. You wrote all of those stories, all of those articles.”
“But I never wrote them. They just came from the future.”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
“Oh.” I had to stop saying "Oh" so much. After all, I am a writer.
Al stood there.
I sat there.
I asked him for a Coke. He really had been through all this before. He disappeared for a moment, and I looked around the room. I’d always pictured time machines smaller and neater. This mess filled the entire room. Al came back and I downed the Coke in a single gulp. The burp that followed was both necessary and a mistake. My brain still wasn't quite online. Al laughed.
Getting to my feet, I looked Al straight in the eyes.” So one day, you decide to build a time machine and plans start appearing in your mailbox?”
“Don’t be silly.”
I sighed. At least there was one less causality paradox. Grandfathers the world over must be breathing a sigh of relief, the fear that their children’s children would murder them most horribly draining from the collective unconscious.
“The pieces of the machine started showing up in my living room.”
Oh hell. Grandpas everywhere must be clutching their chests in pain. “No, wait. I’ve read Kip Thorne’s book. I’ve even read Frank Tipler’s “Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation. Time machines can not send anything back to before they were first switched on.”
“Time machines based on General Relativity’s wormholes and distortions also develop nasty feedback and explode violently. This machine doesn’t bend space-time. It cuts it and sews it back together.”
“I’m guessing it doesn’t explode often?”
“Not at all.” Al smiled. It’s quite well behaved, at least for something so ill-behaved.”
“What do you mean "ill behaved?” I tried to remember if Cerenkov radiation would damage DNA.
“You have to be able to write the articles for the articles to appear. There are other limitations. For example, promise me that you won’t pay me for any article that appears now from the time machine.”
“Ok.” What, oh what could possibly go wrong with that promise?
Over to the left, the air twisted…some direction. My eyes hurt to watch it. Some papers appeared, and fell to the table. There were a lot of papers on the table.
Al was shocked. He ran over and scooped them up. “This can’t be. I don’t understand…” His voice trailed off.
I took the pages from his hand. It was another Analog story, a novelette. I hadn’t “written” this well in months. “Don’t worry, this is fantastic. I’ll pay you.”
Al broke up laughing. I missed the joke.
“You promised to not pay me for the story. If you didn’t pay me, I wouldn’t send it back in time for you. The story would never appear.” Al chuckled some more. “But your sense of morality is such that you would have to pay me for it.”
I got the Bizarro World logic. “The past has to match the future.”
“How could it be otherwise?. According to General Relativity, the future has already happened for someone, somewhere. The past, the future, and the present all have to match. They have to shake hands and agree on what always is.”
My face dropped as he said this. This answer killed a hope growing somewhere in my subconscious.
“No, we can’t warn anyone about 9/11. I don’t know why. I put it in the machine and nothing happens. It never travels into the past. I gave up trying years ago.”
“You can’t fix it. You can’t fix anything.” My words were a statement, not a question.
“Well, it’s not that bad. About half of my traffic is on global warming.”
“How does it turn out?”
“I think we win. But it’s a near thing. I think it gets very ugly for a while. We only succeed because we don’t give up trying.”
“Like me with my writing. All the rewriting I did didn’t make a difference but it does make a difference.”
Al had a smile and a head nod that almost hit paternalistic, but not quite. “Do you understand now?”
“I think I do. Even with technology to help me, I have to keep striving, keep trying to better myself.”
“And keep trying to better the planet. It’s the only chance we have.”
“Ho-kay. That’s preachy.” We both laughed. “One question.”
“I doubt it.” Al had done this many, many times before, hadn’t he?
“Ok, how about ‘next question?’ Am I stuck writing? Is that all I can do?”
“You know the answer to that already. That’s not a question, but a request for validation. Sorry. I don’t even validate parking. Want to see how the time machine works?”
Of course I did, but surprisingly, it didn’t mean much. I was thinking instead about what I wanted to do with my life. I could do whatever I wanted. Sure, there were apparent limits. There were more limits, bizarre ones that I would learn in the years ahead. But despite the limits, I could do whatever I wanted. Even with the most labor-saving device anyone could ever hope for, I could only have something if I was willing to work for it.
Of course, you won’t believe any of this. Time machines are just science fiction writer’s tools for asking “What if.” They’re wish fulfillment. Time machines don’t really exist, and this is just some kind of post-modern attempt to mess with your head.
I don’t blame you for thinking that way. Even I wake up from time to time and question my own sanity. There are times when the work is too hard and too painful to bear. But when I remember what can be accomplished, I am certain it’s worth the effort. Even if time machines aren’t real.
By the way, my first book comes out next month. I get to do the author signing at the local Borders. You have no idea how much work went into writing that book…even if I didn't write it.
© 2006 by Rob Carr
This story originally posted at UnSpace, March 3rd, 2006.
Reprinted with permission.
Rob Carr is a rocket scientist, an astronomer, an arachaeoastronomer, a marathoner, a cook, a photographer, a keyboard player, a guitarist, a quantum physicist, a keeper of parrots, an amateur radio operator, a reader of science fiction, and a "Jack of All Trades." But those are some hobbies, not who he is. To find out more, read this at his blog, UnSpace.
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