Science fiction is literature of ideas - it's just that sometimes, those ideas are lifted from elsewhere. Some of the genre's greatest creators have gotten ripped off, or been accused of plagiarism. Here's our list.
The Purple Cloud: In M.P. Shiel's 1901 science-fiction classic The Purple Cloud, a Scottish preacher warns that God doesn't want us to explore the North Pole, and will strike down anyone who tries. But an explorer named Jeffson doesn't listen, and somehow he unleashes a deadly purple cloud, which wipes out the entire human race, except for Jeffson and a hawt young woman. Shiel sent this masterpiece off to a publisher, William Blackwood And Sons - which rejected it, but then published a very similar novel under the title The End Of An Epoch, Being The Personal Narrative Of Adam Godwin, The Survivor, by A. Lincoln Green. In Green's book, a man named Adam goes to work for a microbiologist, Dr. Azrael Falk, who claims he can immunize the body against all diseases - but he's actually developing a super-baccilus that will kill everyone. Meanwhile, Adam's fiancee Evelyn is traveling to the North Pole with her father. When the super-germ gets released, only Adam (who's immunized) and Evelyn (who was in the North Pole during the epidemic) survive. (Do you see what he did there? Adam and Evelyn?) Shiel cried foul, but had no recourse. Luckily, the Purple Cloud got a more worthy copy years later, when Stephen King used it as a major inspiration for The Stand. (Unlike Green, King acknowledges borrowing from Purple.) And then, in turn, author Robert R. McCammon was accused of stealing from The Stand for his book Swan Song.
Phantoms: Two sisters, Dawn Pauline Dunn and Susan Hartzell, wrote a couple of books, The Crawling Dark and Demonic Color, under the name Pauline Dunn. Too bad both books - especially Crawling - stole huge chunks of prose, plus ideas, from Dean R. Koontz's novel Phantoms, about a whole town that disappears overnight. The publisher withdrew the book (although it's on Amazon for 40 cents) and Koontz forced them to take out a half-page ad in Publisher's Weekly apologizing.
Star Crash: Peter David recounts (via Scott Edelman) that he was working for a publishing house, Elsevier Nelson, which put out a novel called Star Crash by an unknown author. Turns out it was copied, word for word, from a 1960s novel by comics writer Gardner Fox.
We wound up getting back the entire advance from the plagiarist and sending it to Fox, along with any future royalties and a guarantee that the book would carry his name on it should it go back to press. DC put us directly in touch with Gardner. Considering the circumstances, he was extremely gentlemanly about it. His attitude was that it was found money for him; the book had been out of print for ages and all of a sudden it was generating new revenue for him.
Death In The Spirit House: Two writers, Ron Montana and Craig Strete, collaborated for a time, and then Montana later accused Strete of ripping off his novel, Death In The Spirit House. The case became a huge brou-ha-ha, with writers taking both sides, but author Sheldon Teitelbaum investigated and decided that it was more a misunderstanding than a case of out-and-out theft. (And Teitelbaum, who seems to have some history with Harlan Ellison, blamed Ellison for escalating the feud and hooking Montana up with his attorney.)
The "Rum Tum Tugger" fiasco: Writer Ann Melrose copied a Chet Williamson story, "To Feel Another's Woe," including large passages verbatim. She did change the story from first to third person, and her characters are auditioning for Cats instead of Streetcar Named Desire. Melrose had the nerve to send her re-engineered story off to editor Ellen Datlow - who had published the Williamson original, and immediately recognized the inferior copy.
Future Cop: Remember the classic TV series Future Cop, starring Ernest Borgnine as a human police officer who teams up with an android? Me neither. But Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova sued, saying it was too similar to their short story "Brillo," also about a human teaming up with an android cop. (Isn't that also awfully similar to Asimov's Caves Of Steel?) They won a "piffling" $285,000 settlement, according to Ansible, which added: "I am waiting keenly for Dr. Who or some such huge-budget production to plagiarize my own 'Sex Pirates and the Blood Asteroid.'"
Alien: Author A.E. Van Vogt sued 20th Century Fox, claiming the movie Alien ripped off his classic novel The Voyage Of The Space Beagle. Fox supposedly settled out of court.
The Unfriendly Ghost Writer: When people accused Lanaia Lee (aka Mary Kellis) of stealing wholesale from David Gemmell's book Dark Prince for her novel Of Atlantis, she stood by the originality of her work. At first. Then she blamed her agent, Cheryl Pillsbury, who had hooked her up with a ghostwriter, Christopher Hill. Hill "fixed up" Lee's novel, by patching it with some bits of Gemmell. Lee tried to play on people's sympathies, pointing out she was a stroke victim, and Pillsbury threatened her critics with "wiccan curses."
Beware Falling Suns: Cecelia Holland accused author William James of ripping off a few of her novels for his space-opera trilogy. It's not like he did anything obvious, like calling one of his novels Before The Sun Falls, when one of her books was called Until The Sun Falls. Oh wait. He did.
The Third Eye: A woman named Sophia Stewart accused Warner Bros. and a bunch of other people of ripping off her 1983 story, The Third Eye, for both The Terminator and The Matrix. She said she had provided it to studio people, and also sent it to the Wachowskis in response to a 1986 ad seeking science-fiction stories for them to turn into comic books. She also posted some Matrix-looking excerpts on her site:
It was reported in 2004 that Stewart had won her case, but apparently it was actually dismissed because she failed to show up for a hearing and had produced no evidence.
The Invisible Rip-off: Someone who has a bit more standing to accuse The Matrix of copying is Grant Morrison, author of comics series The Invisibles. Morrison told an interviewer that it's well known the Wachowskis gave copies of the Invisibles collections to their designers and told them to copy from them:
It's not some baffling 'coincidence' that so much of The Matrix is plot by plot, detail by detail, image by image, lifted from Invisibles so there shouldn't be much controversy. The Wachowskis nicked The Invisibles and everyone in the know is well aware of this fact but of course they're unlikely to come out and say it.
He added that the main problem with the two sequels was that the Wachowskis didn't steal enough from The Invisibles this time around.
There Can Be Only One: When a 12-year-old Quebecois girl, Marie-Pier Cote, wrote a novel, Laura L'immortelle, everyone greeted it as a precocious miracle. She got lots of attention in the news media - until someone uncovered that she hadn't written the book at all - she had plagiarized a Highlander fan fic. That's just embarrassing, on so many levels.
Terminator With A Glass Hand: Harlan Ellison sued James Cameron and the makers of Terminator, claiming the movie ripped off a couple of Outer Limits episodes he'd written: "Demon With A Glass Hand" and "Soldier." Cameron and producer Gale Ann Hurd, and put an ad in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Says Ellison's own website: "Ever since then, Cameron is said to go ballistic if Ellison's name is mentioned."
The Super-Lawsuits: As we detailed in this post, the Man Of Steel has been a tireless champion... of his own intellectual property. Fox Publications hired Will Eisner to create their own Superman, who was called Wonder Man. Eisner also created the Superman-ripoff Master Man for Fawcett. National Publications was energetic in pursuing all of these wannabe-Kryptonians in court.