My aversion to versions

I am in the midst of rewriting my epic squirrel fantasy novel Beasts of New York for next year’s onpaper publication, and I have decidedly mixed emotions about the process.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not because I have cut 15,000 hard-written words, and added 5,000 more, and given our squirrel protagonist more of a character arc, and explained the story-behind-the-story that I had previously left implicit. That’s what my editor told me to do, and I long ago swore, after seeing too many writers I admired laid low late in their careers by an excess of you-can’t-edit-me! hubris, that I would do my best to faithfully follow my editors’ advice.

No, what makes me feel uneasy is that there will now be two disparate versions of this book out in the wild. It’s been available online for some time. Even if I wanted to unrelease the online version, which I don’t, I can’t: it’s out there under an irrevocable Creative Commons license, and has already been downloaded some 10,000 times. But after the paper version is published—and I’m looking forward to it, it’s gonna be great—when people think or talk or write about the book, which version will they be talking about? Will they even know that there is more than one?

The problem, of course, is that there is no longer any such thing as “the book.” There will be two. And this happens more than you might expect. There are explicitly versioned books, to begin with, especially in SF. Heinlein too trumpeted rewriting to editorial order, and then released the (inferior) uncut version of Stranger in a Strange Land. King released the (inferior) uncut version of The Stand. David Gerrold rewrote When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One and published it as “Release 2.0”; Rudy Rucker did the same with The Hacker and the Ants. I expect there are many other examples.

But there are plenty of books that vary depending on where and when you bought them, too. Harlequin is currently rereleasing a series of classic pulp paperbacks … and “decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership.” The original American version of A Clockwork Orange was famously published without the final chapter present in the British version (and it was the American version that Kubrick read and adapted.) The American, British, and Canadian versions of my own Invisible Armies are subtly different, and my own notion of the book—the “author’s cut”—is a combination of all three … in other words, a version that does not actually physically exist.

I guess on some gut level I feel a book is supposed to be unique, steadfast, and constant, the Only Fixed Point around which its world of thought and discussion revolves. When your memory fails you, or a point is in dispute, you can always return to the book itself for clarity. The whole Foucault-deconstructionist approach (which is, to grossly oversimplify, that it’s the relationship between reader and text that matters, not the text, and that every such relationship is different) has always seemed impressively silly to me. While theoretically true, in practice, if you sampled everyone who has ever read Pride and Prejudice, very few would claim that it is a book about the pursuit of a great white whale.

But what if we discovered, in Jane Austen’s long-lost basement, many different versions of Pride and Prejudice? What if one of them began “Call me Ishmael”? What happens when Geoff Ryman writes 253, a book that is literally different for every reader? The Only Fixed Point reels and disintegrates, and what we thought was solid earth becomes an ice floe.

In some ways I’m quite glad there are two versions of my squirrel book. I like knowing that the extraneous-to-the-plot-but-still-really-fun scenes deleted from the onpaper version are still out there for anyone to read. But the part of me that likes certitude, and wants the literary universe to be fixed and known and comprehensible, still chants, to a soundtrack of Queen, “There can be only one!”

Perhaps tomorrow I will come back and edit this post until it is unrecognizable.


Jon Evans is the author of several international thrillers, including Dark Places and Invisible Armies, and the forthcoming Vertigo graphic novel The Executor. He also occasionally pretends to be a swashbuckling international journalist. His epic fantasy novel Beasts of New York is freely available online under a Creative Commons license.

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