Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Defending Tanya Grotter



It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan of Tanya Grotter. In the US, anyway. (Man, do I want one of those Russian comic books....) Those few of us who read Russian and love fantasy obviously have a long row to hoe. One of those few emailed me the other day. His comment on the whole case was "It's about money, not justice." I'm afraid he's right.



However, I suspect more every day that Rowling and her people have never read the book. Clearly the Russian Harry Potter publishers, Rosmen, sicced somebody else's lawyers on Tanya in a vain strike at a new popular fantasy series. Maybe they read the book first, maybe they just acted out of paranoia. Either way, Yemets was cleared of plagiarism in Russia because the judge could read the books. But the fallout from their actions, sadly, is now hurting Dutch fans.



Very few people have come to visit me here. Eheu, the invisibility! I have gotten replies on other sites -- and my comments deleted. You know, I have _never_ gotten my comments deleted before. Since I didn't include any profanity, vulgarity or flaming, I guess I'm just being oppressed. ;) Interestingly, they seem to think that sites not in the Netherlands are bound, by a Dutch injunction against a specific Dutch publishing company, not to mention the merest possibility of an English translation. I think there's a few too many drug arrests around here for us to be under Dutch jurisdiction, eh?



People have been asking about Yemets' statements, in re: the Russian court case, that his books were not parodies, and in re: the Dutch one that they are. First off, he's never said that the second, third and fourth books in the series are parodies of anything; they are completely off in their own Potter-less universe. (This is only hearsay, but I've heard it from several series readers, so I think it's a reasonable assumption.) Second, 'parody' in fact has slightly different meanings under Russian and Dutch law. A Russian thinks of a 'parody' as a one-to-one, sustained joke, like those found in Mad Magazine or Bored of the Rings. In these terms, Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass is not a 'parody' but a 'contrafactum', and 'contrafakt' was the word the Russian publishers used in their press release. It was translated into English as 'parody', and Yemets was apparently not told -- or disagreed with the translation, as linguists like him often will. For the Dutch, however, the first Tanya book is best described as a parody, and Yemets did so.



One good recent example of this literary form is award-winning sf writer Pat Murphy's contrafactum There and Back Again. Her publishers didn't have to scrawl all over the cover, "This is a PARODY of Tolkien. Please don't sue us, Tolkien Estate!" Nooooo, because the Tolkien Estate has a basic understanding of the difference between riff and ripoff. They didn't freak out about a space colony whose inhabitants just happen to look like hobbits, and seven clones and a technomage who just happen to need a burglar. Of course not. The parody was there, including some rather snarky comments-by-inference about Tolkien; and the nifty independent piece of world-building that just happened to leave room for similar events was also there. No harm done. (And they took this attitude despite the obligatory sex, drugs and tattoos you'd expect from a cyberpunk sf writer.) As Gerald Jonas said in The New York Times Book Review, "...The fun ... is to see what Murphy has taken from Tolkien's original ... what she has ignored, and how she has transformed her borrowings."



(Btw, however, I think you'd do best to ignore the frame story about it being "written" by her alternate persona, Max Merriwell. She totally fails to sound like a old geezer man writing a book and just writes like Pat Murphy writing contrafactums. Perhaps this conceit works better in the other volumes, but I think it's just the fear someone will notice she's having fun and demand she turn in her overpolitical-liberal credentials.)



Terry Pratchett has included a lot of Tolkien-derived humor in his books. He doesn't get sued. Nor does the estate sue the author of every fantasy series set in a world torn by war between good and evil, with questing parties composed of wizard, elf, dwarf, really short guy/s, woods-wily swordsman, cityboy swordsman, and/or a Lost Heir. Nooooo, because that would be silly.



Also, nobody has accused Pat Murphy of plagiarism or being too stupid to make things up for herself. She's been celebrated for her cleverness in pulling it off. She's also been criticized for being too clever or not quite clever enough in how she did it, as was Sharon Shinn for her recent Jane Eyre-in-space novel, Jenna Starborn. It isn't the idea, folks. Nobody can copyright ideas. It's what you do with them that counts.



So I don't think I'm foolish or blind for defending Tanya Grotter. I know the difference between what's original and what's not, and I know it takes more than reading the back cover of a book to figure that out. It's certainly not the sort of thing I'd trust a lawyer with a list of similarities to determine. They might have you believe that watching just Forbidden Planet would let you pass a test on The Tempest, and I don't think Robby the Robot would agree.

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