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Fiction and fact: forged from the same DNA

Last year, this Freshly Pressed post described the fear of reality catching up with imagination as I wrote my near-future novel So Long, Shakespeare – a comedy thriller that throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and Star Wars-style space opera.

Well, this week, another couple of news stories emerged which have a weird affinity with events depicted in my novel.

First, it was noted on TheForce.Net that Random House are preparing a Trade Paperback for publication in August which – well, throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and Star Wars. The blurb for Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars goes as follows:

“May the verse be with you! Inspired by one of the greatest creative minds in the English language—and William Shakespeare—here is an officially licensed retelling of George Lucas’s epic Star Wars in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon. The saga of a wise (Jedi) knight and an evil (Sith) lord, of a beautiful princess held captive and a young hero coming of age, Star Wars abounds with all the valor and villainy of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars will astound and edify learners and masters alike. Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.”

Yesterday, meanwhile, there was extensive coverage of developments in DNA storage. As reported in Nature, scientists at the Hinxton European Bioinformatics Institute have succeeded in accurately encoding and storing vast amounts of data in microscopic double-helix form. Among their literary guinea pigs were the Sonnets of one William Shakespeare – leading to the creation of a single speck of DNA which, quite literally, contains every one of Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets.

An amazing thought, and one which put me in mind of the following passage from Chapter 4 of my novel:

“Though he didn’t understand a single detail of the formula, which just listed a load of different chemical agents and the quantities required, Joe was still wowed by what he was holding. Here, amazingly, was Shakespeare’s genius, reduced to a chemical recipe.”

Of course, neither of the two real-world parallels matches exactly with my story. In the excerpt above, the concoction Joe is about to swallow represents not Shakespeare’s creations but Shakespeare himself; and what he goes on to create is not Star Wars but a vaguely similar kind of space epic. And yet, in an odd way, both these real-life developments are almost truer to the spirit of my novel than the novel itself.

How so? Well, let me put it this way. In developing my story, I found myself exploring two major ‘what ifs’: ‘What if Shakespeare’s genius could be harnessed in DNA-form?’ and ‘What if Shakespeare were to write a Star Wars-style blockbuster?’ And ever since finishing the book, I’ve felt that my answer to those two imponderables – inventing the ‘genetic muse’, thereby enabling Shakespeare’s creativity to be channelled into a sci-fi screenplay – was a fairly obvious, almost literal way of handling things; but equally, the only real means of responding to what were strictly hypothetical questions.

How wrong I was. For not only has reality now successfully given birth to both seemingly impossible scenarios, it’s achieved the feat by taking them even more at face value than I did – trick answers, if you like, to sincere questions. The DNA scientists have addressed the first  by overlooking Shakespeare-the-creator, and taking his ‘genius’ to mean the works themselves; and Ian Doescher has achieved the second by simply re-writing Star Wars in the manner of Shakespeare.

Real life, eh? Not just stranger than fiction but slipperier, too.

If Shakespeare were alive today…

In my last post on the gestation of So Long, Shakespeare, I recounted the search for a fictitious solution to the seemingly unanswerable Shakespeare authorship conundrum. Inexorably, I arrived at the idea of using Shakespeare’s DNA to bring him back from the dead. Someone, somewhere, would devise a genetic means of transferring one person’s creativity into the body and mind of another. In so doing, they would discover – or at least, so it would seem – that the ‘man from Stratford’ was indeed an impostor.

The question was: who would achieve this world-changing feat, and why?

One option, clearly, was to make the cloning of Shakespeare’s DNA exclusively a question of authorship attribution – something designed to prove the point once and for all. But since my whole conceit was about disruption – shaking up the existing foundations of the authorship debate on all sides – this felt a little obvious. Instead, I wondered what would happen if the DNA resuscitation occurred for other reasons, in a totally different environment, and the associated authorship discovery were made entirely by accident? Wouldn’t that shake things up a treat?

I began thinking who else might want to harness Shakespeare’s talent, if such a thing were possible – and the answers came cascading in. Foremost in my mind was memory of that perennial debate: What would Shakespeare be doing if he were alive today?

The most popular answer is also the one to which I subscribe: namely, that he’d be in Hollywood, or at least big budget TV, writing for the masses, rather than a theatregoing minority. The stage, after all, was the mass culture of Shakespeare’s time. Like the great baroque composers, our latter-day perception of him as belonging to ‘high culture’ is not only precious but anomalous. First and foremost, he wrote not to enlighten but to make a living. The profound, life-enriching power of his plays was secondary to the requirement of entertaining as many people as could be attracted to watch them. Given which, it’s no surprise that many of his dramas explore precisely the same themes as the grandest Hollywood blockbusters – history, family and romance. The affinity, in many ways, is absolute.

But even if I hadn’t agreed with all this, Shakespeare-in-Tinseltown was still an irresistible fit. Here was a setting where talent talks, meaning the demand for his manifestly incomparable services would be automatic and unthinking. Moreover, it was a world where the financial firepower and hubristic imagination required to engineer such extraordinary genetic magic was readily available. In every sense, it was a credible scenario: Hollywood mogul tries to harness Shakespeare’s writing power for profit and artistic gain – only to discover, inadvertently and inconveniently, that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays. His next step, quite naturally, would be to round up the DNA of the alternative candidates – which would require the assistance, in some form, of the established authorship fraternity. Soon enough, a fascinating mix would be coming to the boil, and we’d be well on our way to changing the flagship face of western culture.

There was just one big choice left to make. What kind of films would my mogul be making – and why would he feel the need to enlist Shakespeare’s help?

It was at that point that the two dominant Hollywood franchises of the time fused in my mind: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

Death Star Globe

Hat-tip to Framescourer (framescourer.blogspot.com) for this Episode 7/So Long, Shakespeare-inspired piece of fan-art.

George Lucas’s original trilogy had given me some of the happiest moments of my childhood, and I didn’t think the prequel series was that bad. The design was glorious, the storyline wasn’t bad, and John Williams’s music was as powerful as ever. The problem, purely and simply, was with the prosaic, lifeless and entirely earthbound dialogue. That, and the impact it had on the acting.

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson’s epic re-telling of J R R Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga was ticking every box, dialogue included, such that, by the time Return of the King came around, the popular demand for Oscar recognition was met by precisely that.

So I set to wondering: what if there were a sci-fi auteur, whose films were terrifically successful but who harboured an over-riding yet unfulfilled ambition to have his populist achievements recognised by his establishment peers with victory at the Oscars? And what if the barrier to achieving this wasn’t, in fact, the snobbery of the elite, but the quality of his screenplays’ dialogue? Wouldn’t such a man be more than a little keen for some help with his writing? Wouldn’t he just love to have someone of Shakespeare’s calibre come to his aid, and help him attain his dream?

The answer, quite obviously, was yes – and so, indeed, it was to be.

Bard to the future

One of the weird things about writing a novel set in the near-future was watching real life catch up with the imagined world of my story. It’s probably not a problem for more outlandish visions, but since So Long, Shakespeare depicts a future just one or two steps advanced from where we are now, there was always a slight fear that reality might overtake fiction if I didn’t get a move on.

The two most susceptible strands of my plot related to the discovery that artistic creativity is a genetic absolute. As yet, of course, there is nothing but speculation as to the possibility of this, or indeed its potential implications. In my novel, however, the discovery happens pretty much at the start, before being dramatically addressed in two ways. There’s the mathematical angle, whereby a stubborn Stratfordian accidentally uncovers the numerical manifestation of the creative gene at work – a constant which occurs throughout every writer’s oeuvre, which he dubs the ‘Muse Ratio’. And then there’s the more direct approach, whereby an acclaimed geneticist not only discovers the creative gene but deduces how to transfer it from one human being to another.

In the end, by treating the ‘creative gene’ as a given, I created a firewall which prevented any present-day developments from overlapping too closely with the events of my book. Instead, those news stories which did resonate – for example Brian Vickers’ 2009 Pl@giarism analysis on the likely authorship of Edward III – spurred me on. A degree of realism, after all, was exactly what I was aiming for; as long as it didn’t make my central premise redundant, I was more than happy to embrace it.

Now the book is out in the big wide world, I can relax at last. Henceforward, whatever truths are discovered about the nature of creativity need not concern me. My story is of its time. Even if its predictions are shown to be way off the mark, it will still have merit as a historical artefact, to be filed alongside hoverboards and Judgement Day as remnants of imagined futures that never came to pass.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I no longer experience that creeping dread when a news story touches on ideas explored in my novel. Quite the contrary. When yesterday I heard of David Reid’s report on the BBC’s ‘Click’ programme about computer programmes that replicate the styles, and arguably even souls, of great artists, I was only too happy to track down the link, take a look for myself, and simply savour the possibilities of what it had to say.

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