I've got to stop doing this, Pamela thought when her phone beeped her awake at 6 am. Or at least stop doing it on weeknights. I'm thirty-seven — I don't have the energy to live on four hours' sleep any more.
She reached under the unfamiliar pillow to grab her phone and stifle the alarm, before it disturbed whoever slept beside her. Then she slid out of bed and slunk into the bathroom to pee. She checked her phone to see whereabouts in London she'd ended up, and summoned a cab with the taxi app.
This is a near-future story about an anti-discrimination gadget:
Pamela's workplace was a glass-fronted office block, one of many towers clustered like skyscraper icons in a PowerPoint chart showing the battle for market share. She donned her Equalisers on arrival, as she had done every day during the trial period. The glasses altered her vision; the frames generated nerve-induction input for her ears and nose. The Equalisers transformed what she saw, heard, and smelled.
When she walked into the lobby, the receptionist and the roving security guard appeared as purple humanoid shapes, with no personal characteristics such as hairstyle or skin colour. Each avatar's chest displayed a job title and employee number. The default identifiers didn't include names, because names might hint at gender or ethnicity. The Equalisers eliminated such distinctions.
"Good morning," said the receptionist, sounding as robotic as a speech synthesiser reading from a dictionary. All traces of pitch and accent had been removed.
I posted the first draft of this story to my online critique group Critters in 2013. Several critiquers pointed out that my story had a similar premise to Ken Liu's story "Real Faces" (F&SF, July/August 2012): his story was also about an anti-discrimination gadget, used in an employment context, which suppressed people's appearances.
Given the vast number of stories published every year, some repetition of ideas is inevitable. Since no author can possibly read everything that's published, and even the author's critique group will collectively only read a small fraction, it's possible that many instances of repetition go unnoticed: an author writes and submits a story without realising that it's a rehash. Ignorance is bliss!
But when you're specifically told that your story idea has been done before, very recently by a high-profile author in a major magazine, this information is hard to ignore. I was disappointed to hear it. I hadn't seen Liu's story beforehand; if I'd known about it, I might not have written my own version.
However, having already invested the effort of writing a draft, I was reluctant to abandon my story. I read Ken Liu's tale, to investigate how close it was to mine. Despite my annoyance, I found it interesting from a craftsmanship perspective to see how another author had approached the same basic idea.
One difference lay in the gadget itself: in his story, people wore a mask-type gizmo; whereas in mine, people wore a glasses-type gizmo. The difference lies in where the anti-discrimination filter is applied: upon the person who's looking (my story), or upon the person who's being looked at (Liu's story). It's a subtle distinction, but it does create different plot dynamics.
Another difference lay in the fact that Liu's story was set entirely in the workplace, whereas my story had two plotlines: one in the workplace, and one in the protagonist's personal life.
Nevertheless, these were small differences in what was clearly a very similar premise. Was this a problem? Was my story unsaleable? Would it look too derivative?
There's no copyright in ideas. In the background notes for my story "After the Atrocity", I discuss how science-fictional tropes are widely used by many authors: "The SF genre has been described as an ongoing conversation. An author writes a story about a particular idea, and then another writer responds with a story that extends the idea, or takes it in a different direction, or reverses it completely...."
However, widely-used tropes tend to be basic building blocks that can be assembled to construct very different stories. The more specific an idea is, the harder it is to justify rehashing it.
Ultimately, it's a judgement call. I decided that I did want to proceed with my story, but I made a few tweaks. The original draft was 7,000 words long; I cut this to 5,000 words, slimming down the workplace aspect, thereby leaving the protagonist's personal life as the main storyline. I added some material about how the Equalisers operated, differentiating them further from the masks in Liu's story.
And I waited a little while before submitting my story, to reduce the risk of the earlier piece being fresh in the minds of editors and readers. "The Equalisers" ended up being published in 2018, six years after "Real Faces".
Perhaps other authors will subsequently publish their own versions of the premise; indeed, perhaps they already have and I'm just unaware of them. How many stories does it take for an idea to become a trope?