Did We ALL Write a Book About Space Elevators? Why Unfortunate Coincidences Happen in Science Fiction

An author has an epiphany, spots a story idea nobody ever had before, writes it in the white heat of inspiration, sends it off and gets a cheque in the mail. All is as it should be. At least, that is, until they discover someone else had the exact same idea at exactly the same time. Or worse—the other person’s version saw print first.

One of the more remarkable examples of this type of unfortunate concurrence occurred in 1979. Working on opposite sides of the planet in an era long before everyone had email, Charles Sheffield and Arthur C. Clarke wrote novels about…well, let me just quote Mr. Clarke’s open letter, which was reprinted at the end of Sheffield’s book…

Early in 1979 I published a novel, The Fountains of Paradise, in which an engineer named Morgan, builder of the longest bridge in the world, tackles a far more ambitious project— an “orbital tower” extending from a point on the equator to geostationary orbit. Its purpose: to replace the noisy, polluting and energy-wasteful rocket by a far more efficient electric elevator system. The construction material is a crystalline carbon filter, and a key device in the plot is a machine named “Spider.”

A few months later another novel appeared in which an engineer named Merlin, builder of the longest bridge in the world, tackles a far more ambitious project— an “orbital tower,” etc. etc. The construction material is a crystalline silicon fiber, and a key device in the plot is a machine named “Spider”…

The situation would have been one very familiar to Clarke, because not only did Clarke, Jack Vance, and Poul Anderson publish stories about solar sailing within a few months of each other in the early 1960s, Clarke and Anderson even used the same title, “Sunjammer.”

For that matter, poor Sheffield ran into a similar situation a few years later when he discovered while conversing with Robert Forward that Sheffield and Forward had more or less simultaneously hit on the idea of using as a setting binary planets orbiting so closely their Roche lobes overlapped.

What’s going on here? Did some service in Schenectady screw up and send the same letter to all of their subscribers?

As Clarke firmly asserted in his open letter, it’s not plagiarism. It is not even the homogenizing effect of a large coterie of authors writing to one editor’s very specific and well-known set of preferences, AKA the John W. Campbell, Jr. Effect[1]. It’s something that must be a lot more frustrating from the perspective of authors: ideas whose time has come. Suddenly, authors decide to write about building orbital elevators[2]. Or about solar sails. Or about collections of super-powered misfits led by men in wheelchairs.

DC’s Doom Patrol first appeared in June 1963, three months before the debut of Marvel’s The X-Men

Sometimes, it’s clear what was behind a cluster of stories—new discoveries, theories, and information driving thought and conversation toward a common point of inspiration. Whether directly or indirectly, Stephen Hawking’s “Gravitationally collapsed objects of very low mass” inspired Niven, Sheffield, and Varley, among others—thus “The Hole Man”, “Killing Vector”, and “The Black Hole Passes.” The effects of light pressure on the Echo satellites of the early 1960s may well have played a role in inspiring Vance, Anderson, and Clarke to write about solar sailing. Enthusiasm about space colonies combined with nuclear war-related anxieties are probably behind John Varley’s Gaia trilogy and Joe Haldeman’s thematically similar Worlds series. It’s not all that surprising when authors swimming in the same cultural pool, who subscribe to the same magazines, manifest parallel thought processes.

A lot of the time, though, causality is very unclear, and remains a mystery. The idea of orbital elevators had been around for twenty years (not counting Tsiolkovsky), so what was so special about 1979 in particular that two authors would decide to make orbital elevators the centerpiece of their novels? I have no idea. Maybe it really is that service in Schenectady getting its lines crossed.

1: Which is why so many supposedly hard SF stories of a certain vintage feature awesome mind powers or reactionless drives. Those stories were inspired by the well-known scientific principle that the authors wanted to get a cheque from Campbell, and Campbell really liked stories that featured psionics and egregious violations of Newton’s Laws.

2: It’s very apt that space elevators should have been independently embraced by two different SF authors, because the basic concept of space elevators was invented on at least four separate occasions of which I am aware: Tsiolkovsky in 1895, Artsutanov in 1959, Isaacs, Vine, Bradner, and Bachus in 1966, and Pearson in 1975. Clarke acknowledges Artsutanov and Isaacs in his letter but adds “There have since been at least three other independent “inventions” of the idea.” His phrasing leads me to think he’s not counting Tsiolkovsky, perhaps because Tsiolkovsky’s version could not have worked. If he includes Pearson as one of the three, there are at least two more inventions of the orbital tower of which I am not aware.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.


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