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Ayn Rand and the Gold Standard

Posted by hyperpat on December 22, 2013

This is the first in a series of posts that will look at the philosophical points Rand presented in Atlas Shrugged. I picked on this particular item to tackle first because its probably the easiest to debunk, and it’s an item that I flagged as invalid even on my first reading of this book back in 1965, when the US was still nominally on the gold standard.

Rand makes several references throughout the book that gold is the only ‘true’ money, that anything printed by a government is essentially valueless as governments can always print more bills, essentially creating value from nothing. But she is making a very basic logical error, that just because gold has been used for many centuries by many cultures as a yardstick of value, that gold has an intrinsic real value. This is obviously false. If you are standing naked on an iceberg, which would you rather have: a nice warm parka or a pound of gold? If you answer this by choosing gold, then I’m afraid you’ll not be around for very long.

Gold’s value is relative to what use it can be put to. Clearly it won’t directly help in a survival situation, and gold has very few everyday uses other than for jewelry and electronics. But if there was an Inuit standing on the other side of that iceberg who had an extra coat that he would be willing to give you in exchange for that pound of gold (because he likes how it looks, and he’s not freezing!), now that gold has some real value. This illustrates that the value of any gold you have is dependent on what other people are willing to exchange for it.

So why has gold been used as a currency standard by so many for so long? Gold has several properties that make it useful (but not essential) for this purpose. It doesn’t corrode (do you really want that money you stuffed under your mattress to turn into crumbling powder a year from now?), it’s not flammable and resists acids quite well, it’s quite malleable and easy to strike into coins that are easy to carry, it is relative rare and takes a fair amount of effort to find, extract and refine (if your money was based on, say, timber logs, then everyone could go chop down their backyard tree and presto! they have more money – except, when everyone does this, no one would want more timber logs) . It’s this last property that Rand seized on – governments can’t just create a new ton of gold whenever they want; the supply is limited and not likely to grow substantially in any human-life time frame.

But gold is not money! Money is merely a medium of exchange, a human invention to allow for the exchange of goods between various parties without the hassle of barter – my bushel of wheat for Joe’s ounce of salt, that I will then use to trade for Jimmy’s rabbit – barter as a system is unwieldy and does not scale with increasing population densities. Anything can be used as such a medium, from cowrie shells to, yes, salt (they’ve both been used as such). All that is required for something to serve as money is that all the parties in a society will accept the item as a marker of value, and the same people have pretty much the same appreciation of what the value of one unit of that marker is.

So what will change people’s valuation of the worth of that marker? Like almost anything else, the value of a currency is dependent on supply and demand. If a government prints more and more markers, supply goes up, but the value of each marker will only thereby go down if there is not an equal increase in demand. What causes the demand to increase? Production of more goods, things that have intrinsic value (food, clothing, housing, etc), and more people. If the supply of markers was totally static, population increase alone would eventually increase the value of the markers (only so many to go around!), so governments (or whoever is controlling the supply) do need to make more markers available over time. How many to make is not clear cut; clearly if way too many are made, you end up with the hyperinflation of post WWI Germany; too few can lead to a brake on growth and recessions.

But forcing a government to limit its marker supply to the amount of gold it has in its treasury (as Rand basically advocates) is idiotic. Money is a tool, and like any tool needs to be used correctly. Using gold as a basis for a currency does impose some limits that would help curb irresponsible spending, but the real answer is for the government to act in a responsible manner at all times – and if it doesn’t, it’s time for a new government, which will almost automatically occur if hyperinflation sets in.

The ultimate value of any currency is dependent on the people who use it having confidence that everyone else will accept it, will be willing to trade things of value for it. Here the Tea Party has some valid points. They are insisting that the US government limit its spending and have a concrete plan for how to pay for the things the government is funding. Both of these items are likely to increase everyone’s confidence in the long-term viability of the dollar. But adamant, no compromise allowed, stances on these issues to the point where the government must shut down does just the opposite, and can do real harm to our economy and everyone’s standard of living.

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Posted in Books, Economics, General | 1 Comment »

Atlas Shrugged as a Novel

Posted by hyperpat on December 19, 2013

Got to wondering about just what makes the Tea Party members tick after their disgraceful showing in the government shutdown debacle, so I decided to re-read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which many Tea Partiers will list, if not as their Bible, at least as their inspiration.

WARNING: There are major plot spoilers below. If you haven’t read this book yet, and don’t know what happens within it, stop reading here!

Now this is a massive tome, clocking in at near 500,000 words, and is basically Ms. Rand’s magnum opus, laying out in detail (very detailed!) her philosophy of life. I first read it when I was about 18, along with her other novels and some of her non-fiction works like The Virtues of Selfishness. Many of her points registered very well with my younger self, though even then I could see some problems with parts of her stated positions.

This post will try and tackle the merit of the book as a novel, without (as much as possible) delving into the philosophy; later posts will tackle that aspect. Now this book has, in various reader polls, been highly touted as one of the best in American literature in the 20th century, so one might expect to see a truly impressive work that delves deep into what makes people act the way the do and provides great illumination into the mysteries of life. Unfortunately this is very much not the case.

First is how Ms. Rand depicts her characters. Every character who stands on the ‘good’ side is depicted as standing straight, with forceful demeanor, with great pride in both body and mental outlook. Every character on the ‘bad’ side slouches, won’t look other people in the eye, and has either confused or poor images of themselves. This is not a realistic depiction of people in real life, but rather the type of characterization typical of melodramas. In real life you can find heroic characters who are fat and slovenly, and lowlifes who look great and have both charisma and strong positive interactive traits with other people. The constant depiction of all the characters in this manner eventually becomes quite annoying.

Then there is the aspect of her major characters on the ‘good’ side all knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives at a very early age (like 12), and who actually follow through with those initial choices. Again, not realistic. On top of this, the three major characters all work their way up through their occupation of choice, starting at the very bottom of their industries, even though they did not have to, while those characters on the ‘bad’ side either directly inherit their positions or obtain them from friends in high places. Then too, her ‘good’ characters are always superbly competent at whatever task they try and tackle, while the opposition is portrayed as remarkably incompetent and incapable of making any decision of any import. Even her minor characters follow this template, this either-or construct of being very competent at what they do or totally incompetent, not capable of doing anything constructively. This black-and-white depiction of people is more suited to an allegory than a novel about real people in a real world.

The portrayed sexual relationships of her characters are also far removed from reality. Each of them, just at the sight of someone of the opposite sex who embodies Rand’s ‘perfect’ traits, falls immediately in love with same. And if someone comes along who is even a better match for what Rand considers ideal, well, the love allegiance immediately switches to this new person, with hardly a guilty glance backward to the prior lover. Also noteworthy is that same-sex relationships are carefully not touched upon, even though there is a stated strong bond between those who respect each other. And it’s a very white world that is depicted; people of color don’t seem to be part of it, or if they do show up, it is in very minor roles.

So why do so many readers so closely identify with her protagonists, who find these characters intriguing and very much worth emulating? I think the answer to this lies in the fact that they are presented as out-and-out heroes, a thing that has become very uncommon in American literature from about the mid-20th century onward, replaced by Joe everyman, the man in the street, the psychotic, the down-and-outers, the milquetoasts and just-get-by people (as a prime example of this, and a very good one, see Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman). There is an element in most people that needs someone to look up to, someone who is much better than they are, that they can imagine themselves as possibly having some of the same traits, and Rand’s heroes certainly fit this need. Then too, Rand’s heroes actually change the world by their actions, overcoming obstacle after obstacle, and fighting a seemingly never ending battle against the forces of obvious evil. This, I think, produces the same kind of attraction that something like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings does; everyone has at least a small fantasy of being able to change things for the better.

Let’s look at the setting for this work. It imagines an America that is slowly falling apart, where industrial production of goods and services keeps falling, and company after company is failing. It is an America that is very much dependent on the railroads for essential transportation of most resources and products, which will probably strike a modern reader as a little odd. Here I have to give Ms. Rand a little slack, because at the time she starting writing this work (1946), this dependency was actually true. Like many authors trying to predict a near future world, she did not foresee certain advances such as the rise of the airlines as cargo carriers and the interstates with 18-wheel semis that made her depicted world somewhat anachronistic. And it is still true that the railroads do carry the lion’s share of natural resources and bulk items around the country, although their passenger business has declined radically. Where this becomes important is exactly in the passenger area; the ability of people to get from place to place quickly hinges in this novel almost solely on the railroads, a great odds with the world as it is today.

Also highly visible in this setting is the role of government in commerce, in taxation, in the setting of rules that companies, unions, and the working man must abide by, a stifling, omnipresent octopus invading every aspect of American life. Some may claim that this intrusion of government into everyday life has gotten far worse than what prevailed at the time this work was written, that there has been a steady erosion of individual freedom to do as they wish, but many of these things are at least intended to help the individual avoid catastrophic risks (think airport security checks). Within the confines of this work, Rand sees the government as the ultimate looter, taking from all those who are productive and giving some to those who are only looking for handouts while lining their own pockets. I will cover this aspect in greater detail in the posts on the philosophy of the book.

In terms of plot, the first two-thirds of this work mainly follows Dagny Taggert, Vice President of of the largest railroad company in America, and Hank Reardon, a self-made man who has invented a new metal considerably better than steel and who has built a large company of foundries and forges, becoming one of the preeminent suppliers of this basic construction material. Each faces opposition, Dagny from her brother James, who as President of the company takes all the credit for her successes, and is the one with so-important ‘connections’ with Washington, even though he himself never seems capable of making a decision or have an idea of his own, and Hank from his wife, who doesn’t understand his obsession with making the best structural metal in the world, who wants him to be her slave, who feels entitled to everything he does, without any effort on her part.

Both Dagny and Hank, in order to perform their job, are dependent on the products of other companies (iron, copper, coal, oil, railroad switches, diesel engines, etc). The best companies that can supply these things are headed by forceful, decisive, and forward looking people, people of the same mold and mindset as Dagny and Hank themselves. But mysteriously, one by one these company heads are disappearing, ‘retiring’, even though they have very vocally and publicly declared they would never do such a thing, that their companies were their lives. As these people disappear, their companies are taken over by incompetents, and can no longer be depended on to supply the things Hank and Dagny need. The government’s reaction to this problem in the supply chain is to declare an economic emergency that freezes pay and profits and makes it a crime to leave a job, and intellectual property must be ceded to the government for proper ‘use by all’. Seemingly as a sidelight to this, Francisco D’Ancona, head of the largest and oldest copper mining company in the world, is portrayed as a wastrel, a party-hound, out to destroy his own company, even though he is clearly highly intelligent, competent, and keeps making statements that are in direct opposition to this image.

These elements do make for a fair amount of suspense (who is making all these people disappear, and why?), and much of the middle section of the book focuses on Dagny’s search for the “Destroyer”, all the while battling the increasing problems of continuing to make her railroad operate properly. However, I have a serious problem with Rand’s assumption that companies need to have super-competent and driven people in charge in order to function, and that therefore the removal of these people would cause an economic crisis. First, there are simply too many companies producing all manner of goods, in a very complicated interweave of interdependencies and with a large amount of redundancy, for the demise of merely a few companies to seriously impact the economy. Second, many companies function quite well without having a hotshot in charge – sometimes a cautious, risk-averse company head is exactly what’s needed to keep the company producing its goods on time and on budget.

And this is the prime assumption underlying the plot – that a strike by a few main ‘producers’ of the world will eventually bring the entire world economy to its knees and force a realignment of the social order. Clearly this assumption does not have a good basis in the real world, so when this is revealed as the basis behind all the disappearances, it makes the reader feel like he has been cheated somewhat, that the entire framework of the novel as a novel is based on something that is not real.

Dialog within this work seems to go on forever, as character after character spouts multi-page discourses on morality, sex, economics, the goal of science, what constitutes ethical behavior, the value of money and the gold standard, looters and moochers, and every other part of what constitutes Rand’s philosophy. This all culminates in a 60 page (!) speech by John Galt, the person who instigated the strike. Once again, normal people do not speak like this, and the repeated statements of various parts of this philosophy become quite wearisome by the end of this work.

Given all the above, I find it remarkable that this novel is not only still read today, but is immensely popular. As a novel, this work is blatantly bad. It only really has two points going for it: its portrayal of real heroes, and a presented philosophy that seems to resonate with many people who don’t look at its underpinnings too closely.

I’ll look at those underpinnings in later posts.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

2010 Hugo Award Nominees and download packet

Posted by hyperpat on May 7, 2010

The new nominee list has been out for awhile, but now Aussiecon has put together a very nice download package that is available to any member of the con (either attending or just supporting). This package includes all the novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, related works, etc that are on the list, which works out to a rather impressive amount of verbiage. An Aussiecon supporting membership cost $70 Australian (about $64 US), and there is simply no way you could assemble all the material in this package for anything close to that price. Aussiecon membership can be purchased online here. Especially for things like the short stories, it is difficult for an individual to obtain copies of all of these works, as they have been published in a wide variety of sources, of which some are fairly obscure. Of course, the intention of this is allow con members to make informed choices for the Hugo awards; it does not obviate the need to support the authors of this material with real purchases that they get royalty monies for.

The novel nominees are diverse, and of those I’ve read so far, well deserving of being on this ballot:

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Tor)
The City & The City by China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
Wake by Robert J. Sawyer (Ace; Penguin; Gollancz; Analog)
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

So far, my choice is The Windup Girl, but final decisions will have to wait till I’ve read all of these. As Hugo voting closes on July 31, I need to get cracking (and so do you if you haven’t been doing your homework!).

Posted in Books, Hugo Awards, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 5 Comments »

Religion and Science Fiction

Posted by hyperpat on November 10, 2009

Religion seems to be endemic to the human condition. Every culture around the world and throughout recorded history (and probably much further back than that) seems to have some belief in a higher power, even though, to date, there has been zero directly observable and possible to confirm evidence for such. So it is no surprise that science fiction has occasionally delved into this area of the human condition. What is surprising is just how few sf works have really looked deeply at it, and even more surprising that of those that have done so, almost all are excellent works.

There are many, many sf works that paint very detailed pictures of future societies, but in most of these religion, if mentioned at all, is relegated to the side-bar, not front and center. Perhaps this has been due to a reluctance by some of the authors to tackle such a deeply controversial subject, while others may have felt that it was not germane to the story they were telling, and still others may have felt that religion would eventually end up in the dust-bin of history as a failed concept, or antithetical to the basic rules of science that science fiction has as its base. But as science fiction uses precisely this ability to depict future, different societies as mirrors for our current society and its problems, books that ignore the great influence that religion has on the great majority of people are, to some extent, missing the boat.

Happily, those books that do tackle religion head-on almost invariably seem to have something very cogent to say about it. There are those books that look closely at the disturbance to established religious dogma that meeting up with other intelligent species would cause, both from a personal and societal viewpoint. In this category would be things like James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Grass by Sherri S. Tepper, and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.

Then there are those that look at religion as a force that helps shape a society and its rules for living, morality and ethics. Here we have the great A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Dune by Frank Herbert (Maub’dib and the Fremen Jihad have much to say about just how powerful a force religion can be), Soldier, Ask Not by Gordon Dickson, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (a very unusual look at a non-Christian belief system), and Anathem by Neal Stephenson.

But perhaps the most important category are those books that are sharp satires on established religions. Here we have Davy by Edgar Pangborn (the Holy Murcan Church is the lynch-pin of this imagined future world, and comes in for some heavy satirical commentary), Towing Jehovah by James Morrow, Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert Heinlein (so sharp an attack on Christianity, using the exact words of the Bible, that this book was denounced by several religious groups), To Reign in Hell by Stephen Brust, and of course the elephant in the room, the book that not only tore gaping holes in some practices by certain established religions but invented a new religion so believable it led to the establishment of a new church based on it, Heinlein’s Stranger in Strange Land. Whether this book really did grow out of a bet between Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard over who could create the best ‘invented’ religion (I don’t include Hubbard’s writings on and the establishment of Dianetics and Scientology as science fiction, but more as a deliberate attempt to con the connable, and which has unfortunately, to my mind, been all too successful), or was merely the outgrowth of things Heinlein wanted to say for many years and only slowly found his way to crafting this work, it still reigns supreme as one of the best books science fiction has ever produced.

Regardless of your own religious beliefs, reading the books I’ve listed here should be a journey of exploration. While many of these books are scathing in their attacks on certain aspects of religion, at the same time I think they can reinforce a person’s confidence in his own belief systems, by forcing the reader to examine exactly why he believes as he does, and thereby giving him a better foundation for that belief. And it should be a great journey as every book I’ve listed has either been nominated for or received the Hugo Award, a marker of just how well these books are written.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Hugo Awards, religion, science fiction, SF | 3 Comments »

Big Brother and Stupid Monkeys

Posted by hyperpat on October 29, 2009

It would seem that the monkeys who dominate executive boardrooms are incapable of thinking rationally. The latest case in point is a patent awarded to Amazon that specifies a method of computer substitution of one or more synonyms into electronically distributed text that will allow the later detection of unauthorized copies of that text (text of patent is here) .

Now I can almost understand the logic behind Amazon looking at doing something like this, as their site allows users to ‘Look Inside the Book’ and read a couple pages of the book, a feature that many users like as it is similar to a book reader’s normal method of book selection in a book store, where the reader can browse through the potential purchase to see if he really likes it. The trouble is, such a feature allows for multiple automated requests for excerpts, looking at different points of the book, and it then becomes possible to stitch these requests together to get the entire contents of the book – for free. And which could then be distributed far and wide across the net, with no income going to either Amazon or the author. Obviously this is even easier with ebooks, where the entire text is already available electronically.

But the idea behind the usefulness of this patent is that you can make synonym substitutions that do not alter the meaning of the text in any meaningful way, i.e., the reader will never know the difference. This is dumb and stupid on its face. “It was a dark and stormy night” might become “It was a caliginous and raving night” or “It was an obscure and disorderly night” – not exactly conveying what the original does. Authors, I think, would be very upset if their precious text is altered in this fashion, and would more than likely cry ‘foul’ and sue for copyright infringement, as clearly this method alters the text slightly and then attempts to sell for profit the end result, which at least would normally be considered plagiarism. And there really is no need to actually alter the text this way as there are plenty of other ways to uniquely digitally watermark text, say by changing kerning, spacing, pitch, or font for only certain words or sentences, that will not alter the meaning the of the text (with some caveats that some poetry depends on some of these characteristics – how it looks on a page – to achieve its effect).

Somewhere along the line, company execs need to get hip to the fact that the best way to stop piracy, whether it be books, songs, or movies, is not to add ‘security’ (whether it be DRM codes, ‘watermarking’, or whatever other method they might come up with) to the product, but to make the product cheap enough that it doesn’t make sense to go to the effort of illegally copying it.

But there is also a notable and frightening feature of this patent in that it specifically mentions that the requestor of the digital information can be uniquely identified and tracked. Now I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like the idea of anybody being able to determine what I’m reading. If the government starts doing this, then what’s to stop Orwell’s 1984 from coming true? Because once some authority can do something like this, it is a very short step from such monitoring to arresting the poor slob who has the temerity to read something that says nasty things about said authority.

Posted in Books, General, Writing | Leave a Comment »

Science Fiction, The Undead Genre

Posted by hyperpat on August 26, 2009

Probably somewhere around 1930, someone was stating that science fiction was dying, that all the story lines had already been mined for whatever treasure they might contain, and science was overtaking all the good ideas. They’re still saying exactly the same things today. Is there any more cause to believe these doomsayers now than way back when? Let’s examine the issues:

1. Print magazine sales numbers are down. And not just down, but way down. And the number of magazines devoted to SF has tailed downward since the mid-fifties. Surely this is an indication of a moribund and comatose field? I would argue, however, that to some degree this decline is a product of SF being too successful (see also my prior post on the death of the sf short story). Back in the fifties SF was almost totally a ghetto, written and consumed by a very insular group that had almost no contact with the larger literary world. Then came the New Wave, a few SF authors hitting the best-seller lists, a smattering of critical analysis of the field that didn’t totally dismiss it as fantasy for little boys, a few mainstream authors who gingerly put their toes into speculative waters, and the ghetto walls started to crumble. At the same time, real, visible scientific and technological advances and a couple of spectacular movies were making the general public aware that that crazy Buck Rogers stuff wasn’t totally crazy. From the sixties through the late eighties, this broadening trend continued. A few colleges started to offer SF as a course in literature. Science fiction has become at least somewhat ‘respectable’, or at the very least not easily dismissed as just ‘adolescent male fantasy’ . Nowadays a writer has far more potential markets for his science fiction writing than just those magazines that specialize in the form.

2. Science marches on, and stories that dealt with simple rockets to the moon have obviously been overtaken by such advances. This is a congenital hazard to writing stories in this field – regardless of what scientific concept is the driving force for a story, at some point in the future it’s entirely possible that new scientific theories and actual technological gadgets based on those theories may make the story obsolete, old hat, or worse, shown to be impossible. But people forget (especially those who claim that SF is running out of ideas) that SF is not just about possible new nifty gadgets, but rather about how humans live and react and form societies based on such gadgets (or the gadgets’ long term effects, such as all the A-bombs in the world being set off), and that viewpoint, which is outside of what can be achieved via mundane fiction, will never lose its impact or relevance. Which is why it’s still possible to read and enjoy something like Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A corollary to the continuing advancement of science is that new concepts and theories appear, such as string theory or quantum entanglement, which can become fodder for new SF stories based on same. As long as science doesn’t run out of new things to discover, or the engineers can no longer design new gadgets that impact how people live, science fiction writers will have new things to incorporate into their stories.

3. There are only a limited number of human-centric plots (I think it was Heinlein who boiled it down to just three actually different plots), regardless of what genre it is being written in. SF, however, has a greater range than common mundane fiction, allowing for plots that deal with man (or alien) vs universe as their conflict point, rather than just man-vs-man. But within that limited number, there is room for an infinite amount of shading and subtlety. This applies just as much to sf as to mundane fiction; clearly, there will always be room for a ‘new’ story.

4. Some writers and publishers are scrupulously trying to avoid the label ‘science fiction’. Partially this is due to the still not-totally-respectable odor associated with that label in literary circles, and partially due to the general reading public’s impression (still, even after thirty years of acknowledgment that there is some mature value to things written within the genre) that it’s ‘kids stuff’. There’s also a fear by many potential readers of just not being able to understand the concepts and science in today’s works, a fear which is at least partially justifiable, as there are certainly some (but also certainly not all) sf works today that call for far more understanding and knowledge of modern science than the average man in the street has. However, whether works by such writers are labeled sf or not by either themselves or their publishers, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t actually sf. Cormac Macarthy’s The Road is definitely sf, regardless of how academics or the general public view it. Perhaps, however, it does mean that sf, as a distinct, easily separable and identifiable genre of writing, is disappearing, becoming more and more incorporated into the general field of just ‘fiction’, another tool for certain types of story ideas to be used whenever appropriate.

Science fiction is not dying. It has matured some; it has become more ‘literary’, its minimum standards have improved drastically, its markets have broadened and become less easily identifiable. None of these are bad things.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 5 Comments »

The Demise of the SF Short Story?

Posted by hyperpat on August 13, 2009

There’s been quite a bit of moaning and groaning in the SF world that the SF short story is dead, supported by the fact that SF magazine subscription and newsstand sales have been falling, falling, falling… While the decline in sales figures are very real (as an example, Analog had sales over 100,000 copies in 1984, it now sports just about 30,000 in sales), does it really indicate a decline in readership for short SF, or is it merely an indicator of something else?

Once upon a time, I used to subscribe to all the SF mags: Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, Analog, F&SF, Amazing, Fantastic, etc. When these issues arrived, they got devoured in short order. How did I get started on these things? By seeing them on the magazine racks and checkout counters at just about every grocery and convenience store, where their often garish (and often much maligned) covers really stood out from the rest of the material on those same racks. Which indicates the first point: people won’t get involved with these mags unless they know they are there, that they are positioned and designed to attract the casual browser. How long has it been since I’ve seen one of these mags at such places? Years. Distribution and display space is certainly one item that is causing the decline in their readership. What would it take to attract the casual reader today? In lieu of suddenly being able to place the magazines everywhere due to some miracle change in distribution methods, perhaps something like a YouTube presence or ads placed on Amazon or some of the most popular blogs – not cheap, but somehow these mags have to make their presence known.

How many SF mags do I subscribe to today? Zero. Why? Almost all my current SF reading today is novels, with only a rare (and usually single-author) anthology in the mix. The reason for this is something that Analog’s AnLab highlighted a long time ago, namely that longer pieces are typically more popular due to the fact that there is room to fully develop characters and environments. The SF short story is an extremely difficult form to do well, due to the inherent needs of SF to build entire worlds that the mainstream story can just take as background givens. In testament to this, I can rattle off literally a hundred excellent and highly memorable SF novels, stories that I can remember quite clearly even though I read them forty years ago, but I would be hard pressed to name more than 10 short stories that have had a similar impact. The difficulty in writing a great sf short story also leads to one of the complaints I hear today, that these stories keep treading the same old ground and the only people reading them are a graying and declining in numbers group of people. I don’t really agree with this; a look at the Hugo nominees in short fiction categories shows there’s still vitality here, but as has always been true, memorable short stories are a rarer beast than memorable novel-length ones.

Although having the SF mags run serials was always controversial with some segments of their readership, they were often a great draw to go get the next issue, and at one time the best novels were being initially published this way (Herbert’s Dune, for example). My impression is that there have been fewer serials receiving a Hugo nod in the last ten years or so, which may be due to several factors: limited space in only a few mags, more available ways for authors to market/publish the books from self-publishing to online distribution, more traditional publishers accepting first-novel works without prior magazine exposure, etc. Here is one area where online publication can help, as there aren’t any space/page limitations to be worked around to fit a novel into the magazine, which was (is) one of the constant objections the print magazines see from readers to serials, as they just take up too much space and crowd out a larger number of shorter works.

Which brings up the cost issue. The mag’s prices today are nearly equal to what you pay for a full paperback book. And the price needs to be that high to pay the authors, editors, illustrators, and printing costs. Online publication, instead of the dead-tree format, at least eliminates the printing costs, and allows for more flexible pricing/bundling – the online music model of price per song/story or price per album/entire magazine might make sense here. To make this work, though, would require probably several years of investment to grow the online version and get current readers of the hardcopy format to switch over.

There are new models appearing. Tor.com is one such, kind of a cross between a blog and an online magazine type format, with lots of comments, articles, and even artwork, with the occasional short story, and just recently, a serial novel. Quite noticeable is that its scope is much broader than traditional SF mags, including things like comics, anime, SF convention news, and links to other sites and happenings in the SF world, along with its own sales cart for books and such that are offered by Tor and related companies. Also noticeable is that the site has something new every day, something the print mags simply can’t do, and this may be key in keeping readership in the wide world of the internet – day old news is just so not there. I haven’t seen any readership or page hit counts for this site, but just from the sheer number of comments it gets on a daily basis indicates it has a fair following. So far, I haven’t seen any advertising from anyone outside of Tor itself, nor do they charge anything for access to the site. Which brings to fore the question of how financially viable this model is for anyone else that doesn’t have the deep pockets of a major book publisher to sustain them. Still, it, along with several other online SF magazines, shows that the market for short SF fiction still exists, there are still readers of this type of material. The fact that there are quite a few of these online mags, many started within the last few years, may in fact be a contributing factor in the decline of the print magazine, as more and more people get their SF fix from their computer, not the newsstand rack.

I’m afraid that the SF print-format magazine really is a dying animal, with almost no hope of saving it in that format. If these publications wish to survive at all, they really must embrace the web, and not in just a trivial manner. But the SF short story is not. Actually, there may be more short pieces appearing today that anytime earlier, but the market is far more fragmented. It used to be that probably 90% of all short SF was published initially in the print mags. I doubt if that figure today is more than 30%.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 1 Comment »

People Do Judge a Book by its Cover

Posted by hyperpat on August 12, 2009

There’s been quite a dust-up over the cover art originally chosen for the American ARC edition of Justine Larbaliester’s new book Liar, which portrayed a white girl with long hair, when the actual person inside the book is bi-racial with nappy hair. So much of one that Bloomsbury, the publisher, has now made the decision to change the cover for the hardback release, scheduled for late September. I’m happy to say that the new cover is both appropriate and quite stylish. The cover, along with Justine’s comments about it, can be viewed here.

The reason for the original cover? Unfortunately, it was apparently a marketing decision that felt that a cover with a black person on it just would not sell as well. Now marketing folks should be focused on the color green (as in money), but, as Justine herself says here, this is neolithic besides being racist thinking, fed by bookseller’s impressions with little hard apples-to-apples comparison data to back it up. Plus it showed just how little power an author really has in terms of how their work will be promoted.

The cover art for this book is important. I think the book itself is pretty damned good (see my review), and if it doesn’t get the promotion it deserves, it will be a shame. Because there aren’t many speculative fiction works that have protagonists that are people of color, and covers with white faces will probably not attract (and may actively discourage) young people of color from picking up this book, and discovering a marvelous person who has severe problems with who and what she is and how she eventually comes to grips with those problems. Not bad lessons for any young person of any color, nor for that matter any adult reading this (and they should!).

While I applaud Bloomsbury’s decision to change the cover, it makes me sad to think that this whole fiasco ever had to happen in the first place.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 2 Comments »

The 2009 Hugo Awards

Posted by hyperpat on August 10, 2009

The final list:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury UK)

Best Novella
‘‘The Erdmann Nexus’’ by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)

Best Novelette
‘‘Shoggoths in Bloom’’ by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)

Best Short Story
‘‘Exhalation’’ by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)

Best Related Book
Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 by John
Scalzi (Subterranean Press)

Best Graphic Story
Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones
Written by Kaja & Phil Foglio, art by Phil Foglio, colors by Cheyenne
Wright (Airship Entertainment)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
WALL-E Andrew Stanton & Pete Docter, story; Andrew Stanton & Jim
Reardon, screenplay; Andrew Stanton, director (Pixar/Walt Disney)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Joss Whedon, & Zack Whedon, & Jed
Whedon, & Maurissa Tancharoen, writers; Joss Whedon, director (Mutant
Enemy)

Best Editor, Short Form
Ellen Datlow

Best Editor, Long Form
David G. Hartwell

Best Professional Artist
Donato Giancola

Best Semiprozine
Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal

Best Fan Writer
Cheryl Morgan

Best Fanzine
Electric Velocipede edited by John Klima

Best Fan Artist
Frank Wu

I was somewhat disappointed that Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother did not win in the Novel category, as to my way of thinking it was clearly better than Gaiman’s effort – but Gaiman has that aura of win to him every time he’s on the ballot. Little Brother did manage to come in second, overtaking Neal Stephenson’s Anathem in the second round of vote counting. (Full voting results are available here).

Wall-E taking the Dramatic Presentation was almost a given; it’s only serious competition was The Dark Knight, and the voting reflected that. Why the Academy Awards couldn’t recognize this movie as the best of the year, well, I’ve expounded on that earlier.

And unlike last year, where almost all my picks ended up winning, the only ones that made it this year were Scalzi’s Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, Cheryl Morgan as best fan writer (long overdue) and Wall-E. Most of my picks ended up at the very bottom of the voting lists.

There has been a fair amount of yack-yack out in the blogosphere that this year’s list of nominee’s, especially in the Novel category, were all a bunch of mediocre, standard fare, popular but not significant, or that somehow the Hugos are all a conspiracy by the SMOF’s to keep the best (read: their choice) works off the nominee list. With this I must violently disagree. First as to the quality of those that did get on the list: Little Brother is possibly the best YA novel to appear in the field in the last 20 years, and touches on social and political themes that are both important and highly relevant to today’s world. Anathem is cutting edge experimental, and a difficult, mind-bending read, which should put paid to the concept that such books are not recognized as significant by the average SF fan. Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale shows just what clear, unadulterated space opera can be, with great characterization and not cluttered up with a hundred pages of esoteric scientific theory.

Yes, I would have liked to see Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World or Le Guin’s Levinia make the short list, but the ones that did make it are certainly reasonable. People need to remember that the best literature must be readable and entertaining; those that have these qualities will normally rise to the top of any popularly voted award (as opposed to those awards given out by jury selection). And for those that didn’t like how this year’s nominee’s and winners worked out, I highly suggest they quit whining and become members of next year’s World SF Con, and send in their own nominations and votes. I note that there were 1074 voting ballots sent in this year, more than in past years, but still not anywhere like the number it could be if those who care about these awards would get off their duffs and vote.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Hugo Awards, Movies, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | Leave a Comment »

The 2009 Hugo Nominee Download Packet

Posted by hyperpat on April 21, 2009

Like last year, the World Science Fiction Convention is making available a package of nearly all of the Hugo nominated works available for download. This is due to the efforts of many people, most especially John Scalzi, who have done a lot of grunt work to obtain the author and publisher permissions and getting these works into a format that can be easily downloaded and read. The purpose of this is to have a group of informed Hugo voters.  The items included in this package are:

Best Novel

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen; HarperVoyager UK)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury UK)
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (Tor)
Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK)

Best Novella

“The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
“The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008)
“True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
“Truth” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)

Best Novelette

“Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Jan 2008)
“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
“Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel (F&SF Jan 2008)
“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)

Best Short Story

“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Jul 2008)
“Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick (Baen’s Universe Oct 2008)
“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal ( The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two)
“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang ( Eclipse Two)
“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Feb 2008)

Best Related Book

Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan University Press)
What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications) (Extract only)
Your Hate Mail Will be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 by John Scalzi (Subterranean Press)

Best Graphic Story

Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic Story and art by Howard Tayler (The Tayler Corporation)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

METAtropolis by John Scalzi, ed. Written by: Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell and Karl Schroeder (Audible Inc) (instructions for download)

Best Semiprozine

Clarkesworld Magazine edited by Neil Clarke, Nick Mamatas & Sean Wallace
Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal – Year in Review

Best Fanzine

Argentus edited by Steven H Silver
The Drink Tank edited by Chris Garcia
Electric Velocipede edited by John Klima
File 770 edited by Mike Glyer

Best Professional Artist — Art samples by:

John Picacio

Best Fan Writer – Writing samples by:

Chris Garcia
John Hertz
Cheryl Morgan
Steven H Silver

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer – Novels and/or writing samples by:

Aliette de Bodard
David Anthony Durham
Felix Gilman
Tony Pi
Gord Sellar

As is obvious from the above list, this is a lot of reading material. And the fact that they’re all Hugo nominees means that the quality level of this material is absurdly high. So how do you get this goody package? Simple. Become a member (either supporting or attending) of Anticipation, the 67th World SF Convention being held in Montreal, Canada on August 6-10.

Joining is $195 US/$250 CAD for attending membership (which means you plan on coming to Anticipation this August) or $50 US/$55 CAD for a supporting membership (which allows you to vote for the Hugos). When you join you will receive information on how to download the Hugo Voters Packet.

Now you might think this is an awful lot to pay, but consider: the retail value of the included items in this download packet alone are worth more than the cost of an attending membership. In addition, joining gives you the right (and to my way of thinking) the responsibility of voting for what you think is best of all of these works. Many years, the number of people who actually vote for the Hugos, sf’s most distinguished prize, is distressingly small (much smaller than the number of people who are members of that year’s convention, and a terribly small number compared to the number of sf fans). One of the excuses commonly given is that people didn’t feel qualified to vote because they hadn’t read all the nominees. Besides the fact that you don’t have to have read everything to vote – if you think some work is good enough for the Hugo, then vote for it! – this download package will give you the opportunity to get, all in one place, all the material you’ll need to make that informed decision. Besides all of this, membership will give you the right to nominate works for next year’s Hugos, and vote on potential sites for where the next WSFC will be held. And of course, if you actually attend, you’ll be treated to a truly great party amongst a group of people who share your passion for science fiction.

I’ll check back in later with what I think is the best of the nominees, but don’t wait for me. Join, get this package, read, and make up your own mind. You’ll thank yourself for doing so.

Posted in Books, Hugo Awards, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | Leave a Comment »

The Creative Schedule

Posted by hyperpat on February 26, 2009

There’s been a little flap lately over just what an author owes his readers, if anything, especially as it pertains to the time between books in a series. It started with George R. R. Martin’s post to his detractors who are moaning about when Dance With Dragons (the next volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series) will be published, which in turn has occasioned comment by Charles Stross and John Scalzi.

Now to my way of thinking, once an author embarks on a story that’s too large to fit in one volume, he does at least have an implied obligation to those whose purchase the first volume to eventually finish the story. However, and this is a big qualifier, when he does so is strictly up to the author. As Scalzi points out, if the author rushes the job to get that next volume out, the quality will suffer, and those who were eagerly awaiting this next installment in the story are going to be disappointed and unhappy. Alternatively, if the author takes so long to get that next installment out that everyone has totally forgotten the earlier parts of the story, this will not bode well for either his sales or for keeping his fan base (here specifically I’m thinking of things like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series – 20 year gaps are not conducive to maintaining interest).

As Stross points out, there are basically two kinds of extended stories: those that basically have multiple complete stories all based in the same universe, perhaps with same characters, perhaps not (Norton’s Witch World set is a good example of this type), but certainly each volume can pretty much be read independently of the rest of the series; and those where it is really just one long extended story, where you really must read from volume 1 to volume n in order to grasp the entire story (and here Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire certainly qualifies). Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

The first type has the distinct advantage of the reader being able to get full satisfaction from any single volume, and where his expectation level is that he would like to see more stories set in this world, but he won’t feel abandoned if those volumes never appear or only show up many years later. However, the requirement to tell a complete story in one volume limits its scope and does not allow for as complex a world or depth of character building as the second type.

The second type is a great challenge to the author and potentially can be a mesmerizing story that completely immerses its readers in a fully realized world – the canvas is large, with plenty of room to properly develop all the ins and outs of the story, where complex multiple sub-plots can intertwine, characters can change at realistic paces, and be given enough room to become living, breathing people. Its disadvantage is that it is complex, takes a long time write, with always the possibility that other life happenings will eventually interfere with its timely completion, or simply that the author loses motivation to finish it, with other ideas and projects coming to seem more interesting. And it generates an expectation in its readers that more of the story will be forthcoming real soon now. Authors really should consider this factor before embarking on such a project (though I know that sometimes a story just grows, and becomes far longer than what was originally intended). Once he decides he really wants to write this story, he really should do his best to finish it as soon as is possible while still maintaining his own standards of excellence. This is really the author’s only obligation: to do his best.

Those who moan and whine and send nasty emails to the author demanding that the next volume be delivered right now are not helping. In fact, besides being rude and crass, such badgering of authors may end up causing the target author to just abandon the project. Fans who act like this should be beaten over the head with a politeness stick. Creative works are not like cars, producible on a set schedule, and fans really need to get hip to that fact.

I’ll certainly get Dance with Dragons and read it with enjoyment, whenever it makes its appearance. The series so far is both captivating and excellent, and has all the hallmarks of eventually becoming one of the great fantasy stories ever told. If it takes Martin another three years to get this next volume right to his satisfaction, so be it.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 3 Comments »

2008 Hugo Winners

Posted by hyperpat on August 11, 2008

Well, the results are in. And for the first time in a very long time, my choices were pretty much the ones that won – I mean, this just never happens! The Winners:

Best Novel – The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

Best Novella – All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis

Best Novelette – The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

Best Short Story – Tideline by Elizabeth Bear

Best Fan Writer – John Scalzi

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – Stardust

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – Doctor Who, “Blink”

Best Related Work – Brave New Words, The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher

Best Editor, Long Form – David G. Hartwell

Best Editor, Short Form – Gordon van Gelder

Best Semi-Prozine – Locus

Best Fanzine – File 770

Of the Fiction awards, these are all my #1 choices except for the Best Novelette, where my #1 was The Cambist and Lord Iron by David Abraham. The Ted Chiang story was my #2 choice. Stardust was also my #1 for best movie. Best Fan Writer went to my #1, John Scalzi, though I imagine this will kick up a little fuss, as he’s so much of a professional besides writing about everything under the sun in very fannish fashion. And he indicates over on his site that his entry in the novel category The Last Colony lost by just nine votes. I haven’t seen the complete breakout of all the voting yet – but this kind of indicates that voting in this category was extremely close. About the only category that wasn’t even close to my choice was the Best Drama, Short Form, as I just don’t see what all the fuss is about in the Doctor Who series.

It’s very rare that my taste corresponds so closely to the general sf fan’s. Many years I’ve been left wondering just how in the heck anyone could have voted for the obviously much poorer piece of work that won instead of my own choice. And it’s also nice to see that sf fans, this year at least, didn’t turn up their noses at a work by someone who is not an integral part of the sf community, Michael Chabon, and gave their votes based on its perceived quality.

All in all, it was a very good year for sf (apologies to Frank Sinatra).

________________________

Update:

I’ve now gotten a look at the complete voting results (available here). The best novel voting went like this:

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union 195 195 231 292 332

The Last Colony 158 158 170 219 323

Rollback 152 152 163 186

Halting State 115 115 148

Brasyl 110 110

No Award 15

After eliminating the ‘No Award’ ballots, in the second round YPU pick up the most votes (i.e, of those who had Brasyl as their number 1 choice, the greatest plurality of them had YPU as their #2 choice). This is not surprising; YPU and Brasyl are probably the two most ‘literary’ works here, and those who like that ‘literary’ style in one are likely to like it in the other. What is a little surprising is that Halting State picked up the next greatest number of votes in this round, as it’s probably the ‘geekiest’ work here.

Round three is also something of a surprise, with YPU picking up 63 votes and being the clear #2 choice of those who picked Halting State as their #1. By this point The Last Colony is badly trailing YPU. But the last round is perhaps the biggest surprise, as The Last Colony picks up 104 votes vs YPUs 40 – clearly those who liked Rollback had a clear preference of Last Colony over YPU.

So the final total with YPU and Last Colony separated by only nine votes is perhaps a little misleading – YPU clearly led throughout the various voting rounds.

That’s this year. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Scalzi’s latest, Zoe’s Tale (no, I haven’t read it yet, this is based strictly on how well I know he writes and the few clues he’s let slip over on his site about it), makes next year’s ballot, and probably stands an excellent chance of winning, absent any other blockbuster being published in the next five months (which just might already be out – Doctorow’s Little Brother). His fan base just seems to keep growing.

Posted in Books, Hugo Awards, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 1 Comment »

My Final Impressions of the 2008 Hugo Nominees

Posted by hyperpat on June 9, 2008

I sent in my votes for the 2008 Hugos this last Friday, as I finally managed to read all the entries in the fiction categories. In my prior post about the nominees, I indicated that Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union had my vote, and after reading the other two entries in the novel category, I find it still held the #1 position in my mind, though Robert Sawyer’s Rollback came very close. Rollback is a very quiet book; there are no explosions or great ahas! – instead it is very much a character driven book, showing just how much our mind-set is influenced by the condition of our bodies and our expectations of what actions are appropriate for a person of n years of age. Very well done.

The other novel nominee that I hadn’t read before my last post was Brasyl, Ian McDonald’s entry. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed in this work, not so much because of the heavy use of Portuguese words and phrases throughout (though this didn’t help, even with the included appendix of definitions, as it constantly interrupted my reading flow to go look up the words), but because of the basic scientific idea behind it, dealing with an infinite set of quantum analogues of our world and how this should/could/does impact individual’s world view and actions, which I found to be all too fuzzy with too little rationale behind those trying to control the entire continuum. I found the best part of this his detailing of the historical period of the mid-1700’s exploration/exploitation of Brazil by the church and rapacious merchants, and his portrait of a Jesuit priest was quite engaging.

So my final list for novels looks like this:

1. Michael Chabon The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

2. Robert J. Sawyer Rollback

3. John Scalzi The Last Colony

4. Charles Stross Halting State

5. Ian McDonald Brasyl

In the short fiction categories, I found a few standouts: Connie Willis’ All Seated on the Ground, a novella with her patented brand of satire coupled with an interesting idea, in the Novelette category David Abrahm’s The Cambist and Lord Iron, another somewhat tongue-in-cheek story with a nice commentary on just what ‘value’ is, and in the Short Story category Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline, a very quiet, post-apocalyptic story about what is important to remember. The rest of the entries were usually average-to-good, but these three definitely met my expectations of works worthy of a Hugo.

Posted in Books, Hugo Awards, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Big Brother is Alive and Well

Posted by hyperpat on May 27, 2008

I just finished reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother over the weekend. As a book, I thought it was great, harkening back to some of the best YA books of the fifties (my review is posted here). But the book paints a very disturbing picture of the current political climate, most especially the concept that the government has the right to monitor everything you do or say, as empowered by the Patriot Act.

Now perhaps the scenario painted in this book goes a little too far, but it points out a very real danger that the US might fall into becoming a police state as bad as that of the Stalinist regime merely because people are frightening by the possibility of a terrorist attack, and want something done about it. The trouble is, the methods used to fight this terrorist possibility are effectively exactly what the terrorists want: a nation so in fear that it will give up the item that so distinguishes the US from other government models, as embodied most directly and plainly in the 1st Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Patriot Act give specific powers to various agencies to monitor things like email, phone calls, credit card charges, and even what library books you’ve checked out, merely by presenting a ‘National Security Letter’ to the holder of the information, without recourse to a warrant. Now at the very least, this violates the 4th Amendment provision against ‘unreasonable search and seizure’, and at least one judge has ruled against this practice on 1st Amendment grounds (7 Sept 2007):

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in New York said the FBI’s use of secret “national security letters” to demand such data violates the First Amendment and constitutional provisions on the separation of powers, because the FBI can impose indefinite gag orders on the companies and the courts have little opportunity to review the letters.

Freedom of speech has also been curtailed by the Digital Millennium Act of 1998, which specifically criminalizes publishing information that might lead to ways to ‘unlock’ DRM codes on copyrighted materials. This provision is highly relevant to whether or not John Q. Public can do anything to prevent the government from snooping on his emails or other net postings, as it attempts to suffocate publication of research work on truly secure cryptography. With the Patriot Act authorizing such snooping, and this act attempting to limit the average person’s access to technology that would prevent such snooping, effectively your entire on-line history becomes available to the government whenever they decide they want to look at it.

Now Americans are used to having a certain amount of privacy in their lives, and take it as a given that this is a right that is protected from government abuses. However, the Constitution itself does not enumerate this as a ‘right’, and can only be inferred from the 4th Amendment’s provision against unreasonable search and seizure. Unless our courts remain vigilant, this ‘right’ will disappear, all in the name of providing better security against a threat that has to date killed fewer Americans than lightning strikes. You may say that you have nothing to hide, and government monitoring won’t bother you, but think about just how much information about you might be derived just from from your net activities, and think about whether you really want Big Brother knowing all of it.

It’s time to really dismantle the Patriot Act, and not just by the mild reforms that were passed in 2006. In its place perhaps we need to pass a new Amendment to the Constitution, one that specifically enumerates the right to privacy and just when and under what justifications and oversights the government can invade it.

Posted in Books, Politics, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

The Hidden SF Treasure Box

Posted by hyperpat on May 14, 2008

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately about a trend in science fiction that has become quite pronounced in the last few years, namely, the near moribund adult sf market and the strong surge in YA sf, as practiced by the likes of Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Garth Nix, and recent entries by the likes of Cory Doctorow.  At least some of this has been driven by the fantastic success of the Harry Potter books and movies, which phenomenon has certainly had an influence on young people looking for more of the same. Which at least helps explain why the YA field has enjoyed good sales numbers, but does nothing to explain why adult SF has not enjoyed similar growth – after all, the young teens who cut their teeth on the first Harry Potter book are now in their twenties, and could reasonably be expected to have graduated to more ‘adult’ fare.

But what makes this dichotomy even more puzzling is the fact that YA today is not the YA over-the-hill types like myself grew up with, the Heinleins, Nortons, Asimovs (Paul French), etc. The most obvious difference is that during the day these writers were publishing their ‘YA’ material, any reference to sex was an absolute no-no. Heinlein’s run-ins with his editor at Scribners about this subject are now legendary, and his methods of getting around her very puritanical attitudes are somewhat hilarious – “Raising John Thomases” in The Star Beast, the title of Tunnel in the Sky  (TITS),  as well as being ingenious. Even back then, the authors writing material for teens were well aware that teens knew what sex was and had very normal concerns and issues about the subject that they wanted to see addressed, but the rules of the day were that sex was an off-limits subject, not ‘appropriate’ material for teens to be reading about, which certainly frustrated the writers.

Nowadays, the subject is not off-limits, though there are still concerns about being too graphic. Most of the better writers in this field today do inject something about it in their works, as after all, teens do think about sex, and presenting characters where this is not even a little part of their lives is highly unrealistic. In some cases, they do much more than indicate that sex exists, but explore in detail the concerns and problems teens face in this area.

But given this new freedom to present teens as more complete, real people, it starts to beggar the question of just what the difference is between YA and adult sf. And for the life of me, I can’t see any difference except YA books have young protagonists, and most often the problems they face involve some aspect of growing up to be mature adults. Vocabulary, situations, scientific detail, concepts, and portrayed societies are seemingly identical between many YA and adult sf books. Except, perhaps, that most YA sf is more accessible and/or relevant to the average reader than a lot of current ‘hard’ sf.

But for whatever reason, YA material is selling better than adult sf, and it is attracting some very competent writers. Those adult sf readers who turn up their noses at such books are, IMO, missing a lot of decent reading, and need to develop the habit of browsing the YA shelves in the bookstores, as most bookstores do not double-shelve in both the YA and SF areas. Perhaps it is just this separation in shelving that might be part of the reason for the disparity in sales and why those reading YA don’t seem to be graduating to the adult section later in life, as they’ve never formed the habit of looking in the SF section, just as the adults quit browsing the YA section a long time ago.

Good writing is good writing, and there’s a lot of it in the YA section. Go give it a look.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 3 Comments »

Literary Markers

Posted by hyperpat on May 8, 2008

Just how is a consensus opinion about the quality of any particular book formed? And what impact does that opinion have on the book’s sales?

First I think we should look at the intended audience. Most books are not written to try and appeal to everyone. This is obviously true in terms of ‘genre’ books, but it is also true of those written as ‘mainstream literary’ works – the audience for this type of book is just as limited. Often there is very little crossover between books that appeal to, say, an SF fan, and one that targets potential Pulitzer prizes. ‘Best Sellers’, by definition, appeal to a larger proportion of readers than other books, but they still won’t appeal to everyone.

But within its target audience, each book eventually gathers some form of opinion about just how good (or bad) it is. How? It used to be that the word about new books was disseminated via a very limited communication method, reviews in newspapers, magazines, and journals by professional reviewers. Often libraries would base their purchase decisions on those reviews. Only after the book had been out for some time would there be any feedback from Mr. Average Reader by way of word of mouth to their friends and co-workers, and which books Mr. Average Reader looked at was at least partially influenced by those same professional reviews or by the book’s availability at the library. This made it quite difficult for new authors who didn’t immediately wow the professional reviewers to get much notice (or sales), unless their publisher really pushed to market the book (not something most publishers did with unknowns). On this basis, it’s quite probable that books were published in years gone by that deserved a wide audience, but never got a chance. Of those that did get noticed, it would often take years for a book that only received initial lukewarm reviews to start to gather a reputation for being something that should be put on everyone’s reading list. Within all of this, literary awards played a significant role. Books that won Pulitizers or Booker awards were almost guaranteed best-seller status, and a lot of attention from literary scholars. Winning one those awards, though, was then (and is now) something of a crapshoot, as the judges for these awards are a small number of people, each of whom has their own biases, likes, and dislikes. What appeals to this limited group of people may or may not appeal to a larger audience, giving these awards a somewhat limited utility as a guide to Mr. Average Reader – but because they are award winners, that reader is much more likely to give the book a try. More significant, though, is winning such an award gives the book a ‘marker’ about its quality. And it is the accumulation of such markers that eventually define its literary reputation.

Today there is something called an internet, and it is changing just how books accumulate such markers. First is the fact that critical reviews are no longer the property of professional reviewers only. Amateurs can not only write their own reviews, from their perspective, but have them prominently displayed for all the world to see on sites like Amazon. While many people still rely on professional reviews for determining what they’ll read next, these on-line reviews are gathering more and more credence as viable ‘markers’ of a book’s quality. And, while some of these amateur reviews are truly amateurish and provide little help to Mr. Average Reader, a great many of them are at least equal to the quality of those written by professionals, with the added benefits of having viewpoints different from those of the professional critic and not even potentially influenced by the effect of cash payments for the review.

Now most of these amateur reviewers are inspired to write reviews mainly for those things they read and liked (and the self-choice factor means they probably pick more books of the type they will probably like in the first place). But there are also a significant number who are just as inspired by books they hated, and the reviews they write about these books are often of great value to the prospective buyer/reader of same, giving very cogent and specific reasons for what they felt was wrong with the book. If there are enough of these negative reviews, it will eventually push the book into the trashbin of literary history, even if the literary academic world thinks it’s great. Literary greatness is not measured solely by its credit ‘markers’: its awards, the in-depth analyses it gets, its acceptance by the academic world, etc, but must also, somewhere along the line, impress enough ‘average readers’ that it has special qualities, that it is worth the time to read, understand, and enjoy, before it can really join the pantheon of ‘classic literature’.

Clearly, today’s publishing market has changed. While aggressive advertising campaigns can still push a book onto the best-seller lists, at least temporarily, the long-term sales outlook for a book is much more likely to be dependent on feedback from the readers than was true in earlier times. And its reputation for being a solid, worthwhile book, rather than a forgettable piece of fluff, is also getting more than a little of its assessment from those same everyday readers. The chances of a really good book that is not aggressively marketed (or marketed at all) getting noticed and achieving decent sales have improved as word-of-mouth via these on-line reviews travels faster and to a far larger potential audience than what was achievable via local reading groups and letters to editors.

Publishers are just beginning to realize the power of these ‘amateur’ reviews. Literary academics have so far ignored them, but they may not be able to much longer. It’s a more democratic world out there, with more freedom to publish via print-on-demand and other such vehicles, and more and more a book’s reputation is being established by a consensus of all of its readers, not just those who make a living critiquing books.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Writing | Leave a Comment »

Venturing into the Big, Wide World

Posted by hyperpat on May 7, 2008

My son, as part of a school project for his class in government, had to attend a city council meeting last night. His comment about this three hour meeting: “I don’t speak politic”. He found much of the discussion totally opaque, and about as interesting as watching mud drying. This is not too surprising for a couple of reasons: local politics, even in a large city, most often deals with minuscule issues, normally of interest only to those directly affected, and discussions about same are almost necessarily couched in bureaucratese, a totally mind-numbing language seemingly designed expressly to obfuscate just what is being discussed and confuse any normal person. Heated interesting arguments and world-changing consequences are just not part of this picture.

Of more interest is the fact that the school course has such projects at all. And the city council is only one part of what my son has to do – he also is required to put some time in actually working for a political party office (of his choice – anywhere from Democrats to GreenPeace). And of course do a write up of his experiences and what he learned from them. These outings into the real world will at least provide him with a much better picture of what government is all about and how it really works than I got from school.

Back when I was his age (an incredibly long time ago), the classes I took in U. S. government and civics were pure lectures, and almost totally divorced from any current events or the practicalities of the political world. Now these classes gave me a good grounding in the Constitution and my civil rights and responsibilities, but they did not provide any type of picture of why or how I should get involved in politics. The high schools of my day pretty much left this up to the colleges and real-life experience after graduation, when suddenly the effect of a change in, say, zoning laws could have a real and very visible impact on your daily life, and made you realize that all these talking heads spouting esoteric mumble-mumble were important.

This is one change in modern education that I think is worthwhile. More practical, real-life things are very helpful in making the kids realize that what the teachers are trying to instill in them is useful – especially as far too many schools have discontinued the classes in shop, home economics, auto mechanics, and other such classes that used to provide at least a small taste of reality. Robert Heinlein, in Tunnel in the Sky, proposed a much harsher taste of reality, a school course in survival, where the final exam was to be dropped into some unknown land and forced to really survive for some time period. It’s doubtful this would ever become a reality, with its real risk of fatalities, and parents simply wouldn’t be willing to take that risk. Though in today’s world, their kids sometimes enlist in the military very shortly after graduation and are really placed in harm’s way – but most people wouldn’t be able to see the equivalency of these risks.

The real world is neither safe nor comfortable, and young people do need to learn how to navigate its reefs and shoals. Schools that don’t provide at least a small taste of what the big, wide world is all about are doing their students no favors.

Posted in Books, Daily Happenings, Politics | 2 Comments »

Predicting the Future

Posted by hyperpat on April 17, 2008

Besides all of its other great qualities as a novel, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, written almost 50 years ago, had one great technological prediction, that of powered armor suits for the poor foot soldier. These suits, in addition to greatly multiplying the effective physical strength of the soldier and provide at least some protection against stray bullets, also had weapon racks for carrying and launching some really heavy-duty firepower, head’s-up displays of the tactical situation, and multiple comm-link channels to allow the soldier to stay in constant communication with his buddies and the higher ups. Now, at least part of that prediction is coming true. Under contract for the U. S. Army, the first prototype exoskeletons, unimaginatively named the XOS, that can help increase the soldier’s effective physical strength have been developed.

There’s obviously still a long way to go before reaching anything close to Heinlein’s vision, but it’s at least a start.

So how did Heinlein come up with such a prediction in the first place? Basically I think he looked at what a foot soldier really needed to aid the soldier in his mission, and designed his suit around those requirements, not paying any attention to the then current state of technology or how it would be possible to physically implement such a gadget, other than some hand-waving about negative feedback systems. He did much the same thing in The Door Into Summer, where he predicted the invention of robots specifically designed to do household chores, which has also become partially real, with the introduction of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

Which is probably not a bad way to come up with a new gadget in the real world. Figure out what you need, then worry about the implementation details. But it works really well in the world of science fiction, as all those pesky implementation details can be ignored.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 1 Comment »

2008 Hugo Nominations

Posted by hyperpat on March 21, 2008

The nominations are now officially out (somewhat earlier than planned due to someone posting them on the net before they were supposed to). Of greatest interest to me, as usual, are the nominations for best novel. Once again, there are no women represented in this category, although there are several in the other categories. There will probably be some more flack about this, which I believe is really irrelevant (see my post on the 2007 nominations  The Place of Women in SF ). Of far more importance is just what the quality level is of those that are nominated. I’m happy to say that of those I’ve read so far (Scalzi’s Last Colony, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and Stross’s Halting State), the quality level is quite high. So far, Chabon’s work has my vote, as a truly original alternative history work with some good characterization and a cultural outlook not often seen in sf, closely followed by Scalzi’s work. Stross’s work is not quite to my taste, though still original and well written, with perhaps a little too much emphasis on heavy-duty computing possibilities. So far, anyway, of what I’ve read, all deserve to be on this nomination list (unlike some years where I’ve really wondered just how the heck that particular work made the list). I’ll report later when I’ve had a chance to read the other two nominees.

Also of interest is the fact that Mr. Scalzi, for the second year in row, has been nominated as Best Fan Writer. I expect more flack about this, seeing that some people don’t think professional writers should be eligible for this category, but given the tremendous amount of writing he does over on his blog about all kinds of subjects relating to the sf field and his constant promotion of newer writers and new good works within the field, to my mind at least he certainly is filling the function good ‘fan’ writers are supposed to.

Also of interest is the nomination in the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) category of Battlestar Galactica’s “Razor” episode. As this is one of the better episodes in a series that has had consistently high quality, it certainly has my vote. In the Long Form category, Niel Gaiman’s Stardust is the best as far as I’m concerned. I was disappointed in the Golden Compass, and the obligatory Harry Potter entry was just plain poor.

Overall, though, it looks like it was a good year for quality sf.

Posted in Books, Hugo Awards, Movies, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

Regulating the Net: A Bad Idea

Posted by hyperpat on August 31, 2007

The busybodies are at it again. Once more the clarion call to regulate the net is heard across the planet. Now they want YouTube to take down any videos showing extreme or callously violent actions. Now this idea has a little bit of merit: portrayals of violence may be more destructive and influential on young minds than all the pornographic material that’s just as readily accessible on the net. But, once again, the whole concept of censorship of the net is not only impossible in a technical sense (without emasculating the net to where it no longer qualifies for the name), it flies in the face of what the net is all about: the free interchange of thoughts, ideas, and images, whether they be good, bad, indifferent, or offensive to many. The net is perhaps the ultimate form of free speech, as anyone with access to a computer can post just about anything they want.

As soon as one group of people obtain the power to decide what can be printed, published, or posted, on that day the road to dictatorship is paved. When you can limit what information people can see or hear, you have the ability to control their minds. The Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 is a fine example of just how controlling the information flow is tantamount to controlling the actions of the populace.

Rating and warning labels about the content of something are all well and good, as they can provide the prospective reader/viewer with advance information so he/she can better determine if he really wants to look at that particular item. And they provide parents with the ability to selectively control what their children can access – this is one form of dictatorship that is required for proper nurturing of young minds. But this level of control must remain at the family level, not something mandated or restricted by government, and government should never be in the business of telling a company that they must restrict what can be published on their site, other than those items that actually violate established laws, such as copyright violations.

But it seems that some people just can’t get away from trying to mandate things  for others, for ‘their own good’.

Posted in Books, Politics | 1 Comment »