A prestigious Chinese science fiction magazine has apologized after publishing a literature prize submission piece it later discovered was a “full-text copy” of a short story by renowned American author Stephen King.
“Masterless” by design student Li Qingzhi appeared in the February issue of Science Fiction World, one of several submissions to be considered for China’s most prestigious science fiction prize, the Galaxy Award. However, in a social media post Tuesday, the magazine said “Masterless” had copied the plot of “Trucks,” a short story from King’s 1978 anthology “Night Shift.”
The original tale follows a group of strangers at a truck stop diner who must try to survive after trucks in the vicinity become possessed by an evil force and start killing all humans in sight. “Masterless” follows the same formula but is set at a highway rest area in China, and buses as well as trucks are responsible for the bloody chaos.
“We’ve canceled payment for this piece as well as its eligibility for the award,” read the statement from Science Fiction World. “This author and all of his submissions have been rejected.”
Online sleuths have since discovered that Li is a repeat offender: Not only were many of his previous works also accused of plagiarism, but several were found to have ripped off stories from the same anthology by King.
The cover and table of contents for the February 2021 issue of Science Fiction World, with the Stephen King knockoff story highlighted by Sixth Tone. From 科幻世界SFW on WeChat
Accusations of plagiarism in the arts — be they in TV dramas, online novels, or video games — frequently make headlines in China. In December, over 100 entertainment industry professionals signed a petition calling for two celebrity writer-directors to be blacklisted over years of plagiarism allegations. Weeks later, regulators pulled the most recent film by one of the two men from cinemas, a move some in the industry interpreted as a warning to would-be intellectual property thieves.
According to sci-fi author Chen Qiufan, plagiarism has been a nagging problem for the genre. Writers copy their peers because they see it as a shortcut to recognition, publication, and commercial success, he told Sixth Tone. In this case, the author’s plagiarism — though foolishly obvious in hindsight — still managed to get him published in a prestigious magazine, and in the running for the industry’s top prize.
The problem is hard to address because of the blurred lines dividing outright copying, drawing inspiration (as in fan fiction), and making use of what have by now become common storytelling tropes and archetypes, such as time travel, Chen said.
In Chinese, there’s even a neologism, ronggeng, for the practice of snatching plot elements and narrative devices from a broad range of sources — from popular films to Agatha Christie mysteries — then weaving them into one’s own dubiously original narrative.
“When you read it, it’s all very familiar — but you can’t put your finger on what comes from where,” Chen said. “This type (of intellectual property infringement) is far more likely to go undetected.”
Although it’s challenging to create entirely new works of sci-fi these days, writers should still try to draw on their own experiences, feelings, and worldviews to craft something original, Chen said.
“Everyone should start with the aim of creating their own story,” he said. “This intention is very important.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Olive/Getty Creative/People Visual)