Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Seek Out New Life And New Civilizations...

....And new ways of doing things.

One of the greatest challenges of writing science fiction is freely giving away what could be a great invention. I'm not talking about the book, but about inventions. Imagine if Isaac Asimov had patented and trademarked robots.

It was Asimov who first used the word "robot", wasn't it?

I've invented a few things in my time. There was a tabard with multiple pockets that could be worn, but the primary purpose of it was over-the-passenger-seat storage. I offered it to the old GM in 1984, (but it was not accepted) and so I gave it away and it was shown in The Ladies Car at a British motor show.

However, inventions made of fabric were too easily pirated. Hah! Moreover, one can only trademark or patent a name if there is also a product or the imminent prospect of a product. One cannot (TM) an idea.

In my first novel, FORCED MATE, I thought that my concept of a futuristic toilet that performed urinalysis was original. It might or might not have been in 1993 when I wrote the first draft. Within a few years, the Japanese had unveiled such a toilet.

I also had jet racing in my backstory, long before the Star Wars prequels came out, but IMHO, jet racing is so obvious that I imagine dozens of sf authors had jet racing.

What have I invented lately? I'm not telling.

Under the pressure to write faster, I predict that some sf writers will become more derivative. I certainly did in KNIGHT'S FORK with the mithril-like material used to make the heroine's impregnable chastity belt.

The trouble with patenting an idea is that a lot of people might come up with the same idea independently and simultaneously. One cannot police thought. One should not. If one tried, we'd have a Big Brother world... a world like the police station in Slumdog Millionaire... where the cheapest and most convenient way to find out how someone knows something is to torture them.

What a lot of jobs there would be, if ideas could be patented! Think of all the government jobs that would be needed at copyright offices and patent offices. Think of all the litigation. Think of all the enforcement work. Horrible!

No employer could say the futuristic equivalent of "You're Fired!" without paying royalties to the futuristic equivalent of Donald Trump. Would they have to add proper attribution? Would it be all right to say "You Are Fired"? How about "Thou Art Fired"? Maybe we could say it like Yoda, "Fired, you are!"

Seriously, though, the SF writer should consider what we'd do amuse ourselves and to earn a living in an alternate or future world. In Jack Vance's "Demon Princes" worlds, one was not aware of copyright infringing pirates. Newspapers were printed on paper. Obviously that won't do. Modern pirates feel entitled to free entertainment... it is so reminiscent of ancient Rome! They challenge us to find new ways to monetize our creative works, and to go along with content being ripped off.

Maybe there's a contrarian way to grow potatoes, or to ferment the water I used a few days ago to cook rice (which has now turned into a sort of jelly) and make ricewater tofu. I could sell my "invention" to a major food company, and hold off on giving away my novel until ricewater tofu comes to a store near you. Some advertisements are already mini-stories. Some people watch the Superbowl for the adverts. Why not 100-virtual-page advertisements?

It wouldn't be science fiction, would it?


  1. "The trouble with patenting an idea is that a lot of people might come up with the same idea independently and simultaneously."

    Hey, if it could happen to Johannes Gutenberg and the Wright Brothers, it can happen to anyone.

  2. The word robot was introduced to the public by Czech writer Karel ńĆapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), published in 1920
    If you want to learn more about robots, here is a free ebook:

  3. Many years ago, I frequently lamented that nobody sold disposable training pants, so the garment could be cut off the toddler's bottom and thrown away. Have you ever tried to remove a messy pair of training pants by pulling them down over the kid's legs? It seems deeply unfair that Pull-Ups weren't invented until after our youngest was too old to need them. And I wish I'd tried to market the idea to some diaper company when I first thought of it.

    I almost wrote ET several years before the movie came out. That is, I started a story about a kid who found a funny-looking little alien in the back yard, hid him in the bedroom closet, and fed him strawberry yogurt (rather than M&Ms or Reese's Pieces). My premise was inspired by the E. Nesbit novel about the Psammead.

    Some ideas just seem to float in the ether getting ready to be grabbed.