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I recently read the Blood on the Stars series by Jay Allan and really enjoyed the idea of a post-Golden Age human civilization that has splintered into factions and is now at war with itself.

I really want to explore this theme further (rediscovering old technology, how did the collapse come about etc) in my own book, but I'm afraid of borrowing too closely until it basically becomes stealing his concept, or perhaps worse, fan fiction.

To be clear the only element I want to keep is the theme of a post-apocalyptic space-faring human civilization: virtually everything else will change.

How do I know where the line is between inspiration and plagiarism?

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Don't steal the plot, Don't steal their made-up words or made-up references, don't steal their (imaginative) tech, don't steal their characters or their unique combination of characteristics that make those characters particularly compelling.

Yes, you can presume there is some sort of interstellar engine, either near instantaneous (days or weeks of travel vs centuries), or with some tech that allows long term food, water and life in a relatively limited space. You can presume some means of interstellar communication that doesn't require years.

I haven't read Blood on the Stars, but call that your "reference work" to make this general: Don't duplicate anything in your reference work if you cannot find it in at least one other work by another author before your reference work was published. Otherwise, you risk stealing something original to the author of the reference work, and whether you get sued for that or not, it is a mark against you. If he uses "subspace" or "hyperspace" or "wormholes", well, so have many others, including Star Trek. Feel free.

But if the author invented some kind of engine or transport device you never heard of before and you can't find it with a search engine (except for things mentioning your reference work or author or devoted to them, like a fansite): Invent your own. If the story doesn't work without it: I personally wouldn't write it; at that level I'd feel like it was plagiarism.

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    While "subspace" and "hyperspace" are common sci-fi terms, "wormholes" belong firmly in theoretical physics. Scientific terms are ipso facto terms that can be used by anyone. – Galastel Jun 20 '18 at 16:43
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    @Galastel True enough. They remain speculative, however; there is no proof wormholes exist or must exist. The issue arises due to the divisions by zero that plague Einstein's general theory of relativity, which are precisely what makes it currently irreconcilable with quantum theory; and most physicists believe the G.T.o.R. is the theory needing revision. Just sayin'. Like the "ether" as a medium for light waves to travel through, wormholes may still be a fiction. But you are right, like "black holes" they can be used by anyone. – Amadeus Jun 20 '18 at 16:53
  • Awesome, thank you so much for the thoughts. Id say there were three main elements that have made it across from Allans series to mine, namely: i) a post collapse spacefaring human civilisation; ii) that's at war with itself; and iii) a golden age superweapon the heroes must destroy. All three of the elements appear separately in other works, but rarely all three together. The plot, the actual worldbuilding fluff, characterisation and the writing style are all very different from a diverse number of influences, but I'm worried about using all three of those elements together in the same story – jwil408 Jun 21 '18 at 0:35
  • The golden-age superweapon would be my concern, that pretty much defines the whole plot, so you are just copying Allan. I don't see how two plots in effectively the same setting that both require the defeat of an ancient superweapon can be "very different". – Amadeus Jun 21 '18 at 1:59
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    Legally I'd think you safe, but the "copied Allan" perception will hinge on whether you use enough of the same major elements, and 3 major points may trigger the tilt. Do they have to be at war? Or, I agree Ancient tech has to be in this (else setting useless), but what if the Ancient tech was not exactly a weapon? Perhaps an AI, a super-strategist, discovered and in use by a dictatorial gangster that seemingly arose overnight. Heroes don't even know he's using ancient tech; just trying to stop him. He doesn't know the AI is using him to re-wage and win the collapse war. – Amadeus Jun 21 '18 at 10:24
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I haven't read "Blood on the Stars", but I don't think the details of that story matter here, so I'll plunge ahead.

Maybe I should distinguish the legal issue of copyright from the artistic issue of "your story is a rip-off of this other story".

Copyright protects exact words (or pictures or music or whatever). As long as you don't copy somebody else's book word for word, or copy non-trivial sections of it, you're not violating copyright.

The rip-off charge is vaguer. It's not a crime to steal another writers ideas. It's just poor form.

Don't have characters with the same name, or who are so obviously similar that anyone who has read this book and yours would say, "Why, that sounds like ..." Like if I was using Star Trek for inspiration, I certainly would not have a character in my story named "James Kirk". Nor would I have a character described as a pointed-ear alien whose race prides itself on its logic. But don't get totally paranoid here. Lots of sci-fi stories have brave young adventurers, mad scientists, beautiful princesses who need to be rescued, etc. If you start saying, "Oh no, I have a character whose smart and brave and this other story has a character whose smart and brave. Will people think I'm copying?", you'll never succeed in writing anything.

Don't have made-up places with the same name or obviously similar. Exceptions of the place name is derived from a real place. Like having a planet named "Altair IV", well, Altair is a real star and the idea of numbering the planets of a star is pretty standard. Though if you copy several such place names from the same story, that will look bad. Mix it up.

You can freely steel a basic idea, like "civilization has collapsed and people are trying to rebuild". No one will think less of you for that. Writers do it all the time. It becomes an issue when the idea you steal is too specific. Like, "rebels fighting a galactic empire" has been done a thousand times, feel free to explore that idea in your own way. But "rebels who get their power from a mysterious force that pervades the universe, and two young rebels turns out to be the son and daughter of the man who is the power behind the emperor, and another rebel is a hot shot adventurer and smuggler, and ..." etc, and at some point it becomes too obvious a rip-off.

In general, you can borrow any real science. No sane writer supposes that he owns the idea of cloning just because he wrote a story about it. Even if he was the first person to write a story about it. Some ideas have been used so often in science fiction that no one will think twice if you borrow them, like "hyperspace drive" and intelligent aliens. I wouldn't say to never borrow another writers fictional technology, but the more specific it is, the more cautious I would be. Like "energy weapons": sure. "Light sabers": probably no.

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There are many examples of stories set in a post-apocalyptic space-faring human civilisation, with different takes on the idea. Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, even the computer game Mass Effect - Andromeda fall under this broad description, and yet are completely different stories.

In terms of worldbuilding, your way to making your own story is to make a different world incorporating the framework you describe. You talk of rediscovering old technologies: what technologies? How does their rediscovery affect the story and the world? The collapse - how did it come about? What are its lasting effects?

But more important: make the characters your own. And with the characters - a different plot, different story beats, different goals, and thus a different resolution. Consider how many stories are set in our real world, how many stories are set in any given time and place in RL. Their setting might be the same, but the stories are very different. It's the characters that make them different: who they are, what happens to them, what they try to achieve and whether they succeed.

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Fan fiction is fiction about characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work rather than by its creator.

Therefore, so long as you steer away from using the same characters (or people who would be recognisable as those characters in terms of their appearance, characteristics, behaviour and/or predispositions) then you should be fine. Similarly, try not to set your stories in places that have the same name or description as those in the Blood on the Stars (BotS) series.

I guess too that, with this being Science Fiction (with attendant made-up/future technologies), you should also take care not to make your tech too similar to that/those in the BotS series.

Sounds to me like you have a interesting plan in the offing. Judging by your stated intentions, you should have no problem distinguishing your post-Golden Age human civilization from that created by Jay Allan.

Good luck with your project.

  • See also Is fan fiction publishable? (And the entire fan-fiction tag, if you're so inclined.) – a CVn Jun 21 '18 at 12:47
  • Should this be a comment on the Q rather than the A, @Michael? – robertcday Jun 21 '18 at 12:55
  • I don't think it should go on the question per se. The question isn't really asking about writing fan fiction; but your answer brings up that angle (and it may very well be a valid one, so this is not a criticism against your answer). – a CVn Jun 21 '18 at 12:57
  • @Michael - the question (rephrased) could be read as 'How do I know where the line is between exploring a theme and fan fiction?' Hence why I thought your comment was suitable for the Q (no criticism implied). But I'm equally happy that you chose to put it here. ;) – robertcday Jun 21 '18 at 13:02
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One answer is to broaden your source base; for purely sci-fi settings consider the later books in Wil McCarthy's Queendom of Sol series, watch the original Star Wars trilogy with an eye to what they've lost compared to the prequels, look at the Eclipse Phase, and to some extent also Shadowrun, RPG and read as much of the 40K history fluff text as you can stomach. I'd suggest going to some fantasy material as well, David Gemmell's Sipstrassi and Drenai cyles, both deal with the rise and fall and rise and fall of societies and civilisations. Also sample the Post Apocalypse genre, Day of the Triffids (get the UK published version if you can) and S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire for a start, to look at how things fall apart.

If you borrow shallowly from a broad set of material your work doesn't look like any particular material even when it closely follows established themes.

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    No list of post-golden-age galactic civilisations would be complete without the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. It's literally the premise that the Galactic Empire collapsed and dealing with the process of maintaining civilisation and rebuilding to something new is what the series is all about. – Ruadhan2300 Jun 21 '18 at 11:50
  • @Ruadhan2300 Yeah I've never had much luck reading Azimov, I rank his writing with Tolkien for (un)readability. – Ash Jun 24 '18 at 10:11
  • It depends on the book I think, some of it is super-dense stuff like Tolkien or Frank Herbert, some of it is more casual. The Lucky Starr series of books (while a bit dated) are great fun, and I always found the robot books were page-turners too. Foundation was a bit densely written though. – Ruadhan2300 Jun 25 '18 at 8:33
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"a post-Golden Age human civilization that has splintered into factions and is now at war with itself" This could be interpreted as Europe for several hundred years after the fall of Roman empire. It wouldn't surprise me if Jay Allan and other authors of similar works used real history as their starting point. George RR Martin is but one famous example of using real history to inspire fantasy fiction. So I'd suggest reading some dark ages history with that context in mind. You can "borrow" from history all you want, so many others have.

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In your situation, i would first think about how this so called golden age was and how it came to be. Then, follow the logical consequences to see how it would break down. Then, with the scenario set, I would choose where in this universe I would place my plot, my main character? Is he the Emperor trying to herd cats? Is he a barbarian carving a star kingdom from the ruins of civilization? Is he just trying to survive as the world around him crumbles?

Also, the parts of the universe rots at different speeds. In a region it could be Mad Max IN SPACE. In a neighbour region could be 1984 and in another civilization could still be like it was in the golden age.

  • Thats a really interesting idea which has a lot of meat for worldbuilding. I was originally thinking of the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR but I wonder whether i could include elements of that too. – jwil408 Jun 21 '18 at 23:07
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Identify the parts of the premise that interest you the most, and then change the other details.

I don't mean small details - I mean big, sweeping changes.

For example: Ender's Game is about a young boy being prepared to lead a war against an alien attacker that humanity fought off a few generations prior. I find the idea of training a perfect general through manipulation and deception intriguing, so I decide to a story about it. Only in my story, the humans lost the war, and have spent the last half century enslaved to the aliens. The protagonist is still a human genius being trained for a war, but this war is a revolution.

That's a big enough change that if I explore the ramifications my world should diverge significantly from Ender's Game. But that's not enough, because the shared part of the premise is character based, so I need to do something to differentiate the main characters. They still needs to be a genius for my premise to work, but there are other things I can change. For starters, let's make her a girl. And... hmm... she really, really hates the aliens.

As an added bonus, let's make sure that the aliens are not an insect hivemind. Those are overdone anyways.

That gives me enough of a foundation that I should be able to tell a new and unique story based on the premise that Ender's Game inspired. I'll still have to be vigilant, of course. In particular I'll want to avoid a twist ending similar to the one that story used. But I've changed the initial ingredients enough that the divergence should happen naturally from here on out.

I can't help you with your own premise, unfortunately. You're the only one who can decide what you want to keep and what you want to change. But I hope that my example gives you some ideas.

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