Thanks for the Memory: or, How to Write an Homage

Over the years, SF has had its fair share of homages. Many of these don’t take the obvious route of directly referencing previous stories, but year after year authors have taken new slants on old stories. This dialog within the SF community has much to do with why it has remained fresh for so many years; with so many people not only referencing classic works but also bringing fresh and original ideas to the table, the field has a practically limitless lifespan. These homages can be films, such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), which was an homage (though more of a straight lift than a clever homage) to the old pulp comics of the 30s and 40s.

An homage is not necessarily just a new take on an old story, where the plot remains much the same as the previous version; Sky Captain was a very direct, pointed reference to the old comics. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2002) took the idea of having different gods who each controlled some aspect of everyday life and Gaiman extended it into the present era, creating gods of computers and the internet.

Writing a clever and original homage is very difficult. Many times what may have attempted to be an homage merely turns out to be a tired rehash of old material. Recently, The Matrix trilogy was released, and many SF fans noticed immediately that the Wachowski brothers had lifted many ideas from William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer. Harlan Ellison sued James Cameron over The Terminator, stating that Cameron had (unknowingly) lifted ideas directly from Ellison’s The Outer Limits scripts, “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand.” He won the case, and his name was later added to the credits of the first film. One must always be cautious when approaching the idea of crafting an homage to something else, lest the original author get the idea that this “homage” is an attempt to steal intellectual property. (In many cases, either the writer is knowingly ripping a previous work off, or is ignorant enough of the field in which he works that he is reinventing ideas.) Michael Moore’s latest film, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), touched a nerve with Ray Bradbury, whose title Fahrenheit 451 (1953) was being referenced – despite the fact that the two works were entirely different.

On the issue of plagiarism, Isaac Asimov wrote, “Naturally, this essay was written because Shawna McCarthy [then editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine] had accepted and published a story which was recognized by a number of readers to be a plagiarism (though not a word-for-word one). I carefully refrained from naming the story or author (though we will never buy a story from him again). When a reader wrote to us indignantly that this response was insufficient, I had to explain that it would be tricky to prove plagiarism in court, and that there might well be a countersuit for libel. Life can be hard, I’m afraid.” [1]

So, now I think I’ve defined what a bad homage is; copying directly from the source material. What exactly is a good homage, then, and how does one do it? How much work do you have to put into it in order that people can see you as being immensely clever and invite you out to parties and the girls will swoon for you and you’ll get multi-million dollar film deals?

Well, put simply: lots of work. Lots and lots.

Returning to Asimov’s essay, he had more to say on the subject:

“…when I am writing a story, I must be conscious that there have been other stories dealing with similar ideas or similar characters or similar events, and I must take every effort to dilute that similarity. Once when I wrote a story called ‘Each an Explorer,’ I never for a moment forgot John Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’ and spent more time trying to avoid his story than trying to write my own. In the same way, when I wrote ‘Lest we Remember’ […] I had to steer a mile wide of [Daniel] Keyes’ ‘Flowers for Algernon.’ It’s part of the game.” [1]

But – what exactly is Thanks for the Memory referencing? How is it an homage?

Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that Thanks for the Memory is a very clever homage to the Stanley Kubrick/Arthur C. Clarke film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Among other things.) Or, rather, it’s a very good story with subtle 2001 tones underneath the surface.

A brief history of 2001: Arthur C. Clarke was contacted by Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly said that he wanted to make, “the proverbial good science-fiction movie.” Clarke suggested that “The Sentinel” (1948) would make a good premise for the film. (“The Sentinel” deals only with the brief section of the film that takes place on the moon, but it was enough to get the project in production.)

On the surface, however, the two plots are not entirely similar. One has to do with the ultimate rebirth of mankind as it reaches its manifest destiny in the stars, and the other has to do with a love affair gone bad. That’s not to put down Thanks for the Memory in any way, though. If we’re going to find any sort of deep significance to this theory of mine, one must dig deeper. So, dig away I shall.

We’ve got to put things in perspective first, though; this isn’t an over-the-top homage to 2001, so it has to first establish itself as a separate entity. Take a look at the opening scene: Rimmer’s deathday celebration. For a viewer who has not seen any previous episodes, this immediately gives the show a unique edge over most other sitcoms. It establishes this as an era where such strange happenings as “deathday celebrations” are commonplace. Grant Naylor doesn’t overdo this, though; there are no banners proclaiming this as “THE FUTURE.” There aren’t any introductions by Holly that say, “Here in the future, we celebrate people’s deaths every year. Because we live in the future, see. It’s futuristic, innit?” The only thing in the way of an introduction is Holly’s statement about finding a planet with a breathable atmosphere.

This story begins by showing the crew attempt to have some sort of camaraderie towards one another; it establishes Rimmer as a dead man; and, since it is SF, it establishes this as a place and time where someone can be dead and still enjoy the spanner-shaped cake afterwards. (A hologrammatic version of that cake, anyway.)

The audience is then springboarded – via some drunk humor – into a discussion about life on board ship. And then, out of nowhere, comes: Yvonne McGruder.

RIMMER: Yvonne McGruder. A single, brief liason with the ship’s female boxing champion. March the sixteenth, seven thirty one PM to seven forty three PM.
LISTER: Please.
RIMMER: Twelve minutes.
LISTER: Please!
RIMMER: And that includes the time it took to eat the pizza.
LISTER: Please, Rimmer!
RIMMER: In my entire life I have spent more time being sick.

From this exchange, what exactly are we seeing? Are we seeing the downward spiral of a drunken man, telling all of his humiliating secrets? Well…yes. But it’s a lot more than just that. Take Lister’s response to Rimmer’s story. I don’t want to get too much into the Lister/Rimmer relationship, but I think this scene demonstrates their relationship excellently – Lister is clearly aware of Rimmer’s emotional state, for lack of a more patronizing phrase.

So, what with a Deathday celebration, the Yvonne McGruder story, and Lister’s subsequent donation of the memory of Lise Yates to Rimmer’s memory, what does all this have to do with 2001? Well, I admit that it’s a very subtle homage indeed, and some may argue that it’s not really an homage as such, but to prove my point as best I can, take this into consideration: on the moonbus to the site of the monolith on the Moon, Dr. Floyd and his colleagues find that the monolith was “deliberately buried.” Now listen to this transcript from Thanks for the Memory:

RIMMER: So, a surfboard-foot sized monster came aboard, did a jigsaw, drained our memories and broke a couple of legs. So what? “Forgive and forget,” that’s what I say.
LISTER: This I don’t believe! It’s a gravestone. “To the memory of the memory of Lise Yates.”
RIMMER: Who’s Lise Yates?
LISTER: You’re not going to believe this, but I used to go out with a girl called Lise Yates. It’s only shallow. The black box is buried in the grave. [He picks it up.]

Both the black box and the monolith were deliberately buried; none of the crew members know who buried it, or why; both of these objects are the source of much confusion to the crew members. (This scene may have also been referenced in Back to Reality, where Rimmer stays aboard to give the rest of the crew instructions. That’s neither here nor there, however.)

The fact is that there are too many references/allusions to 2001 in Thanks for the Memory for it to be coincidental. But what exactly makes this particular episode stand out as being an homage to 2001, when Queeg has Holly’s sign-off song, a reference to “A Bicycle Built for Two,” as sung by HAL 9000? Well, this, frankly:

RIMMER: Look, you’re not thinking alien. That’s what aliens are: alien. They do alien things. Things that are…alien. Maybe this is the way they communicate.
CAT: By breaking legs?
LISTER: And doing jigsaws?
RIMMER: Why should they “speak” the way we do? They’re aliens.
LISTER: Okay, professor, what does it mean?
RIMMER: Maybe, maybe… Okay. Breaking your leg hurts like hell, Okay? “Hell.” They do it below the knee, “low.” “Hell-low,” get it? They do it twice – twice, “two.” “Hello two.” And jigsaw must mean “you.” “Hello to you.”

In 2001, the alien beings communicate with Dave Bowman though his surroundings and through bizarre symbolic elements around him: the monolith, the scene at the end where Bowman is in the room alone and where some unknown force attempts to communicate with him. Okay, so the comparison isn’t entirely perfect, but I find it very entertaining to find links between SF works, and I think that the comparisons are enough to warrant some form of investigation.

CAT: What are you doing with that?
LISTER: I’m recording my memory.
CAT: Your entire memory?
LISTER: Yeah, everything. Everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve learnt, my entire knowledge. Right, that’s it. [Takes off helmet.] I’m going to give Rimmer a love affair. I’m going to take eight months out of my memory and I’m going to paste it into his. So everything that’s happened to me he’s going to think happened to him.
CAT: You’re going to give him one of your old girlfriends?
LISTER: I’m going to give him Lise Yates.

Oh, background info, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Either in its current form or as a setup for later on in the episode, this scene: a) gives us an idea of what Lister’s past was like; 2) shows us what Lister was like in his youth; i) what he’s like now; 8) what Rimmer was like then; y) what Rimmer is like now; ted) what his past was like; and jozxyqk) it demonstrates the relationship between the two wonderfully. Infodumping is one of the most important – and delicate- subjects to handle. Permit me:

“[An infodump is a] large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Info-dumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures. Info-dumps are also known as ‘expository lumps.’ The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as ‘kuttnering,’ after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked unobtrusively into the story’s basic structure, this is known as ‘heinleining.'”[2]

This bit of information about Lise Yates is crucial to the story – it is also handled extremely well, and indeed handled in the only real way that infodumping can be done and still not look like an infodump. When we’re introduced to her, Grant Naylor is showing us what Lister is doing. And we don’t even know about this memory transfer until practically halfway through the episode.

LISTER: Come on, Rimmer, you’ve experienced love. It made you more confident, more secure.
RIMMER: It didn’t happen. I never even met her.
LISTER: It did happen. I mean, you fell in love with her in a way I never did. She’s yours now and nothing can take her away from you.
RIMMER: That time she stuck her tongue down my ear. It wasn’t my ear at all — it was your ear. The woman I loved most in the whole world had her tongue down your ear. The most romantic thing I’ve ever had down my ear is a Johnson’s baby bud.

And the story comes full circle. Take a look: The episode starts with Rimmer’s deathday celebration and his subsequent depression over it; Lister wanted to help him with his problem. The episode ends with Rimmer showing Lister just what he had lost by not treating Lise right. Both Lister and Rimmer have grown at the end of the story.

In the end, though, does the homage have anything to do with the story itself? It depends. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s absolutely essential, but it brings an additional layer to the story that is certainly not unwelcome. As I said before, it is precisely this self-referencing within the genre that keeps it fresh. It doesn’t really matter if Thanks for the Memory is an homage or not. In the end, it’s a good story, and that’s the point of any piece of fiction.

Works Cited

1. Asimov, Isaac. “Plagiarism.” Asimov’s Galaxy: Reflections on Science Fiction. Doubleday, 1989.
2. Sterling, Bruce, Lewis Shiner. Turkey City Lexicon. Second Edition.

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