Steven Brust's unauthorized Firefly fanfic novel

Steven Brust, long one of my favorite fantasy writers, has posted the full text of a Firefly fan-fic novel he wrote. He talked to me about this book last year, saying that he just had to write it -- that it sat up in his head one day and demanded to be let out.

I have a theory about the cognitive basis for both fanfic and the arguments against it from some authors: as social animals, we have a lot of specialized systems for modelling and anticipating the actions and beliefs of others. The ability to predict whether another human is likely to kill you or mate with you is pro-survival.

I think that when we experience stories, we spin up that "person-simulator" we use on real people and use it to render out the people in the story. It's how we come to care about them, to empathize with them, to worry about the danger they find themselves in and to cheer them on as they strive to overcome adversity.

When you close the book -- or turn off the tube -- the simulator doesn't power down. Those modelled "people" go on living a life in your autonomous imaginative faculty, inhabiting the same numinous zone where the dead relations of whom you say, "Oh, if only great-aunt Foofaw were here, she'd just love this," the same zone as the characters in your life who are offstage but nevertheless "on your mind."

This is likewise true for authors. Just because the book is done, it doesn't mean that the simulator in which the characters have been playing out their lives switches off. The romantic tale of the author whose characters "just refused to go where he put them," is not just auctorial histrionics. Once you've realized the characters in your own mind, they acquire the same limited autonomy that your conceptions of real people enjoy.

So it's only natural that readers will haul off and write a story -- or even a whole novel -- about the characters whose adventures they enjoy. Those "people" have taken up residence in the minds of the audience and will continue to dance and caper without the further intervention of the author.

And it's likewise natural that authors will get shirty about this from time to time: they have copies of the characters dancing on their own stages, and those copies diverge from the copies in the fanficcers' heads.

That's the theory, anyway.

Back to Brust's novel, "My Own Kind of Freedom." By all accounts, it is fully rockin', something I find easy to credit, given Brust's masterful chops as one of the finest talents in the field today. And, of course, it's Creative Commons licensed. Pass it on.

He always smiled when Serenity first kissed atmo.

That was the moment that separated pilots; a sloppy entry cost fuel, a perfect entry saved fuel, and the difference could be the difference between a healthy profit and a disastrous loss. When you kissed atmo, it was all touch; suddenly the number of variables increased by an order of magnitude: the shape of the ship, the tilt of her nose, the attitude adjusters, speed, direction, the density and exact composition of the upper atmosphere–all of it.

Mal never noticed, of course; none of them noticed. They'd only notice if he did it badly; then he would, no doubt, get all sorts of looks and remarks. And it would cut into his profits as it would the rest of the crew's.


See also: Steven Brust's Dzur: witty and exciting heroic fantasy


  1. “For people who care about such things, the book was written in emacs on a box running Mandrake…”

    Wait, what?! Emacs?! That’s just wrong…

  2. Um… I can understand and appreciate if Mr. Brust wants to license his own original works under Creative Commons, but isn’t it a bit… presumptuous for him to do so with a derivative work whose characters and situations are protected by existing copyright?

  3. Fan fic. Why not just pitch it to Whedon and canonize the thing? It’s not like the property is being heavily serialized at this point, much to my chagrin. Sort of ruins the curve for all the obscure non/authors.

  4. @Jessant: You think it’s his penis that’s notable here, rather than the fact that he’s got, oh, nineteen books in print?

    Genuinely curious: are there women authors with comparable bibliographies who are also conspicuously writing fanfic? Enlighten me, please.

  5. Jessant, in case you didn’t know, Brust is a well known author with a large fan base, and he’s friends with some Boing Boing staff. I’m betting that’s why he got mentioned.

    But if you’d like to check what actual feminist female pro authors are doing fanfic wise that *has* been reported on Boing Boing, check out The post on Shadow Unit by Elizabeth Bear.

    I understand the impulse to rail against sexism, but Boing Boing is usually feminist friendly.

  6. Well, Mercedes Lackey for one says she writes fanfic (game-based) but the difference I see is that she hasn’t come out and said “Here’s a complete fanfic novel I wrote, enjoy!”

    If she did, I’d be very surprised if Cory didn’t note it here; I expect the reason he’s noting this, given his espoused values, is that it includes: 1) Very fine F&SF pro writer, 2) doing for-the-love fanfic, 3) under Creative Commons license.

    Besides, if you’ve never read any of Steve Brust’s books, you should, and now you can do it for no money. He’s a fantastic writer.

  7. The philosophical side of this issue is the notion of public domain, right? Is an idea that have become common, part of the concensus reality, free to use as we please?

  8. One question I find interesting in the whole copyright question is how, say, Tor Books would react if someone other than Steve Brust produced a Creative Commons fanfic novel based on Brust’s Drageara novels?

    I’m not sure if it’s presumptuous, because I’m not as educated on the issues as some people are here. But it does seem to me that if Steve Brust is doing something with Firefly that would not be OK for Joss (for example) to do with Vlad Taltos, that’s bad manners.

    As yourself, What Would Lady Teldra Do?

  9. #5 – yes, an unauthorized derivative work is owned by its creator, but the creator cannot enforce any rights under copyright without infringing the original copyright. Thus the CC license is most likely unenforceable.

    But no one seems to have noticed that Brust chose a BY-NC-ND license, which prohibits derivative works! Now that just don’t seem right.

  10. #5:” But no one seems to have noticed that Brust chose a BY-NC-ND license, which prohibits derivative works! Now that just don’t seem right.”

    Is it possible that the ND portion of the licence is connected with the fact that it’s unauthorised? Could SKZB be trying to prevent other people from getting into trouble over usage of copyrighted (presumably) characters etc?

  11. For those who don’t have the backstory, Pocket Books was supposed to be publishing Firefly novels and Brust was one of the authors they approached. The deal fell through because Joss was too busy to vet them like he wanted. Brust decided to just write the novel anyway, since as Cory said, it was in his head.

  12. Well, I’ve had a sequel to Chapterhouse Dune in my head for years, so can I put it up on a site so everyone can read it? I have to doubt so, but if the answer is YES I’ll start writing it.

  13. Jeff,

    Of course you can put it up on a site so everyone can read it.

    That is what the First Amendment is all about.

    There is some legal argument that Congress has the power to violate the First Amendment by extending copyright to derivative works, but that is just a bat shit crazy argument.

    Article 1, Section 8, powers of congress
    “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;”

    That whole First Amendment thing does and must trump the copyright power hidden in a laundry list of other powers.

  14. Milena (14), I think he’s trying to get permission after the fact, from Joss Whedon or Fox or whoever owns the characters. Probably Fox. He’d not stand a chance if the proposed license allowed commercial or derivative works — that would be asking Fox to stop guarding the henhouse, as it were.

  15. Rich, granted, I wouldn’t make money by putting out a free novel, but perhaps it would help generate ad revenue on the site and that could be argued as income derived by using someone else’s intellectual property without their permission. And I’m quite sure the Herbert estate is not going to give me permission do put out an un-authorized Dune book, since that Univese is still being milked by his son. My rights of free speech (in this case a work of fiction) are predecated on my respect for copyright law.

  16. @1, sensoz – I know what you mean. Once, I downloaded a pirate PDF of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, and I read all 500+ pages of that damn thing… then, 2 years later, I was discussing with my friend why I thought the series had gone downhill and I wouldn’t be reading it anymore, and I talked about how awful that book was, and he kept saying “Uh, dude, I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen in the book.”

    Anyway, loooooong novel short, I had accidentally read a full-length fanfic by a chinese guy who was showing off his (admittedly impressive) english Skillz. And the sheer length of the book disabled my internal “bullshit detector”…

    I’ve never been so humiliated. My friends mocked me about that for months.

  17. Well, regardless of opinions of this due to it being fanfic and all that, this is actually a rather well written book. I read it last week, and he captures the characters quite well.

    The lengthy Chinese phrases get a little tedious though.

  18. gorramn it! try and keep it down out there. sci-fi is runnin a ‘firefly’ marathon and your b.s. isn’t doing anyone a kindness.

  19. Finished it this weekend, and it’s definitely worth perusing. There’s some things I don’t think he quite got right (River, especially) but it reads as well as, or better than, most licensed novels.

  20. As a person who has been a writer for all my life, both published and non-, and who was horrified to discover she had spent several months writing a fanfic (oh, the shame) because the characters wouldn’t leave the brain, I agree with Cory’s explanation of why people write about other people’s characters.

    And here’s a question: why are Joan Aiken’s novels about Jane Austen characters legitimate literary works and fanfic based on TV characters not legitimate literary works? (Assuming that they’re well written.) I have the same biases, by the way, even though I wrote a Firefly fanfic — it’s somehow a little shameful to admit spending time in such a pursuit.

  21. Meh. I know it’s a short excerpt, but that didn’t warm me to it. ‘kissed atmo’? It reminds me of authors who invent useless neologisms for already established names for things (‘smokehale’ is all too common. ‘mofo'[mobile phone?!] – I’m looking at you Aldiss, of all people!).

  22. Good grief. My last comment looked like a nested loop. WTF am I doing griping about other people’s writing? I need to sober up & go to bed.

    @Knodi: That is the best ‘Piracy is bad kids, mmmm’kay?’ story I have ever heard. You SEE what downloading gets you? Eh? Eh? Public ridicule and no closure on your heroes, there’s your end you filthy freeloaders!

  23. Hey Cory, thanks for linking to Steve’s book.

    First off I want to let everyone know that I’ll be fixing the typos readers have sent in and updating the files on the website. With luck by Wednesday there should be a corrected version of the files on the site, as well as some new versions in other file formats including several for mobile devices.

    The origins of this novel are that Steve had heard that Firefly tie-in novels might be published. He was never approached by any publisher, but wrote the entire book ‘on spec’ because it just had to be written. When it became clear the Firefly tie-ins were never going to see the light of day and his agent had no luck getting the book in front of Joss, we encouraged Steve to post the book online for free under a CC license.

    I have seen other fanfic authors release their work under a CC, though I acknowledge it is unusual. Our reasoning was that a CC license makes it clear that sharing is encouraged as long as the book is left intact and that though it is free for noncommercial use, the writing still belongs to Steve and if someone were to officially publish it someday they’d have to pay him money, just like any other book he’s written.

    Steve doesn’t care if you write a sequel to this book, or other fanfic related to what happens here. That is a derivative work, but unfortunately there is no CC license which says ‘you can’t change this work but you can create something else based on it.’

    As for fanfic of Steve’s work, it exists and Steve is aware of it. He doesn’t feel he can “officially” condone fanfic for fear of losing rights to his own work, but he will happily look the other way when people write it.

  24. Jeff wrote “My rights of free speech (in this case a work of fiction) are predecated on my respect for copyright law. ”

    With respect, I think that is just wrong. Free speech comes first. Copyright law is a distant second to free speech.

    Our founding model of freedom in the US is that people have rights to free speech. Personally I think that there should be no restriction on derivative works. You don’t get to own a universe, sorry.

  25. Reply to Clifton #11:

    “Well, Mercedes Lackey for one says she writes fanfic (game-based) but the difference I see is that she hasn’t come out and said “Here’s a complete fanfic novel I wrote, enjoy!”


    She does have one and a half complete novels done, but they happen to be in podcast form. With Steve Libbey, she’s well into Book Two of the Secret World Chronicle, based in a metahuman-filled world. Those are here:

    I’m a City of Heroes player that’s had the privilege of interacting with Mercedes Lackey. Her fanfic grew out of roleplay in the CoH game, and her publisher isn’t messing with it because she is a ‘fantasy’ not ‘superhero’ writer. It mostly appears within her guild’s forums, here:

    Though one story was published by special arrangement in the fanfic section of the June 2005 CoH comic. Link to PDF download here:

    Enjoy. – Pteryxx

  26. Oh the not so subtle irony, isn’t Mal’s crew a bunch of space pirates anyway? I’m imagining Jane with a CC license somewhere indiscreet… I never would have rented back episodes of the show had I not started reading the amazing Firefly fic lit comic, created by some really talented artists who just wouldn’t let go… not to be missed highlights- “notes on the fridge” crew rants posted in the kitchen, and the occasional comics which are conveniently written in English and Czech.

  27. Doggo, there are two kinds of authors: those who continually fiddle with their hardware and software, and those who find a configuration they like and stick with it forever. Steve’s the latter sort. He writes all his novels in emacs.

    Xadrian (6), have you ever tried to pitch something to Joss Whedon? If it’s not something for which he’s already taking pitches, it’s nearly impossible to get it to him.

    Jessant (7), could you please pay more for your cynicism? The brand you’re using is a little hard on the nose. Also: have you ever heard of Naomi Novik?

    JJasper (8), in the interests of full disclosure, “Brust is … friends with some Boing Boing staff” isn’t the whole of the story. I’ve been Steve’s editor for years, and I read his Firefly novel not long after he wrote it. However, I had nothing to do with getting him written about on Boing Boing.

    Jack Fear (9): his current total is either 23 or 24 novels published, depending on your religious beliefs. In the Dragaeran continuum there are eleven Vlad Taltos novels (Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, Taltos, Phoenix, Athyra, Orca, Dragon, Issola, Dzur, and Jhegaala, the last of which is not generally available in print yet); five Khaavren Romances (The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After, plus The Viscount of Adrilankha which is composed of The Paths of the Dead, The Lord of Castle Black, and Sethra Lavode; and Brokedown Palace. The non-Dragaeran novels include To Reign in Hell, The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille, The Gypsy (with Megan Lindholm), Agyar, Freedom and Necessity (with Emma Bull), and now My Own Kind of Freedom.

    Jeff (16), nobody’s going to give you permission. There’s a slight chance they’ll prosecute you. What you won’t do is make money off it; but if you don’t care about that, you have a lot of latitude.

    Rich Gibson (17, 30), that’s ingenious, but it has no resemblance to the actual law.

    MissWhatSis (26), you may enjoy this weblog post, and the comments that follow it.

  28. The moderator said, “Jeff (16), nobody’s going to give you permission. There’s a slight chance they’ll prosecute you. What you won’t do is make money off it; but if you don’t care about that, you have a lot of latitude”

    They won’t prosecute me, they’ll sue me. So, it all boils down to money? Is that really how published work remains different than Free work? I could be a great writer, write an unauthorized Dune book, put it on the web for free and then what? If I’m a published writer am I going to be able to argue that the law is on my side? As soon as someone thinks you’re making money the rules change, right? I ask because I don’t really know.

  29. I love that person simulator theory. So, basically, a fanfic is a fork of the original program, er, story? ;-)

  30. Wonder why no one mentioned the “moral rights of the author” aspect? Or am I simply asking a question thats been hashed out here before?

  31. Cory, that model makes a tremendous amount of sense to me. And I think it ties into a lot of what can broadly be called spiritual experience, too – the brain gets to work making patterns out of unexpected experience.

  32. Jeff @ 34 – that’s basically how fanfiction works, yes. If someone wanting to write a novel set in the Dune universe does so and posts it freely available online, there’s almost no legal risk whatsoever. No case regarding fanfiction has ever come to court yet, so it exists in a legal grey area; as matters stand, it’s generally – depending on the author/creator/rights-holder of the specific canon – a ‘don’t make any money off it, and the rights holder won’t take any notice’ tacit deal. Many authors/creators benignly approve of fanfiction about their works; a few others specificially ask that fanfiction not be written about their work and are, by and large, respected; while a very, very few others have issued DMCA notices to fanwriters and succeeding in scouring fanfic of their work off the net – Anne Rice is the only one that specifically comes to mind in that instance, in the late 90s/early 00s, but no one she threatened ever came to court, as they complied with the take-down orders.

    So if you put your hypothetical unpublished Dune novel online for free, you wouldn’t make any material profit from it, beyond reviews and feedback, but the chances of you being sued for it are basically non-existant, given twenty-odd years of precedent.

    If you tried to make a profit from a fanfiction Dune novel, though – charging for page views, or selling e-book or hardcopy forms – not only would you then be highly likely to be sued, you’d have other fanfiction writers from across many fandoms baying for your blood and telling you that it’s simply not done, not legal, and endangers everyone’s fun hobby. If they found it before the lawyers/rights-holders did, they’d turn you in themselves.

  33. It’s also traditional to include a disclaimer saying you don’t own the borrowed setting, characters, etc. However, you shouldn’t fall into the error many fanfic writers make of disclaiming all rights to your own work. Your story, your additions to canon, and the words in which your story is told belong to you.

  34. I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. I really think he managed to capture not just the characters, but the feel of the show.

    It made me go back and re-watch the whole series. Good stuff.

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