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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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.

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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 Lord of the Rings, Happily Revisited

Posted by hyperpat on March 2, 2009

I re-watched the entire Lord of the Rings movie set Saturday and Sunday, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Now I know that there were some people who were highly upset with some of the liberties that Peter Jackson took with book, such as eliminating the section on the Scouring of the Shire, the Boromir/Faramir thing, the dropping of Tom Bombadil, etc, etc, etc. But regardless of these ‘infractions’, the end result is gorgeous, absorbing, and totally captures the feeling of the book. There are damned few movie adaptations of novels out there that can say that. I sincerely hope, with fingers crossed, that with this example in front of them, the people doing the movie version of The Hobbit won’t screw it up,

I’m also aware of some of the criticism that the book has received over the years, such as the class distinctions between Sam and Frodo, the obvious parallels (no matter how vigorously denied by Tolkien himself) between the industrialization of England and Saruman’s efforts with Isengard and the World War, the book’s simplification of what compromises good and evil, it’s long descriptive passages and side trips to some of the history from the First and Second Ages, it’s heavy borrowing from folk legends of Northern Europe, and quite a few other nit-picks. And in the end, that’s all the criticism amounts to, is nitpicks. It’s a great novel that succeeds of many levels; it’s a great ‘pure’ adventure story, it’s a finely honed commentary on some of the worst social evils of the twentieth (or any) century, it’s characters have deeper and deeper depths to them the more you look closely, and it appeals to nearly everyone’s sense of magical wonder.

I’m sure that eventually someone will write another fantasy work as good or better than this (one candidate for which is currently in progress but which may take quite a while to finish), but for the moment, this work still reigns supreme.

Posted in Book Reviews, Movies, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 4 Comments »

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 »

The Pessimistic Heinlein

Posted by hyperpat on August 7, 2008

I originally posted this as a comment over on tor.com in response to Jo Walton’s musings on why so many of Heinlein’s juveniles seem to have a dystopian world/society as their background. Looking it over, I decided it might make a good introduction to something I’ve been working on for some time, a fairly detailed look at all of his juvenile novels, which many consider to be his best work, although personally I think that several of his adult novels are better. There has been little critical work done on these juveniles, with perhaps the most prominent example being Joseph T. Major’s Heinlein’s Children: The Juveniles, which unfortunately is not very good as a work of criticism, but does collect in one place a very detailed synopsis of all of these works. Part of my own investigation into these works is to analyze just why these works are so readable, still work well today, and have inspired so many people to choose a career in the sciences. Part of that analysis is below: just what drives and motivates his characters? At least a partial answer is his background societies which have obvious things wrong with them, often very dystopian in nature, driving his characters to do something about it.

For Heinlein’s stories to work, he needed to have his protagonists feel dissatisfied with the way things currently were. This shows up in a lot more than just his juveniles. Even in one of his very early works, Beyond this Horizon, where the portrayed society is one that most people would consider to be a utopia (no hunger, work only if you really wanted to, everyone healthy – well, except for the control ‘naturals’), Hamilton is driven to action because he feels that there must be more to life than just existing, that being a dilettante was not the proper role for man.

Even one of the least dystopian juveniles, Have Space Suit – Will Travel, shows a dissatisfaction with people as sheep, content to just get by (reference his comments about the education system, his parents decision to leave the academic rat-race to raise their son as a role model for non-sheep, his father’s methods of dealing with society’s regimentation via how he files his taxes – and with only such short strokes, defining what was wrong with the fifties conformist culture).

So the various dystopian backgrounds of many of his novels become part of the driving force for his major characters, helping to define why they take the actions they do, while at the same time serving as a strong warning of just what will happen “…If This Goes On”.

Heinlein was definitely a fan of the ‘restless’ spirit, the pioneer, those who drive to change the world, and it wasn’t limited to just his juveniles, but within them he set an achievement bar for all his young readers to try and reach. And that’s the message that I think resonates with young readers, that they can achieve their dreams if they just work at it. It’s a timeless message that runs across all cultures and societies, and is probably why he’s still so enjoyable to read today.

Many times I’ve seen Heinlein portrayed as a pessimist, based largely on these dystopian backgrounds for so many of his works. I don’t think this is really true; rather, he was very much an optimist, as his characters continuously managed to do things to improve at least their own personal situation and often improving the world at large, regardless of how messed up that world was. And this trait is most visible in his juveniles.

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

The Default Reader Attitude

Posted by hyperpat on October 22, 2007

John Scalzi, over on his Whatever blog, comments again about his lack of racial markers for his characters in his novels, a certain ‘color-blindness’ that no one really paid attention to, until the point was made that the average American reader, faced with a lack of such markers, defaults these characters to ‘white’. At this point, John has indicated that he knew what color his characters were, but didn’t find this characteristic germane to his work, focusing more on the character’s social, economic, and educational background. With J. K. Rowling’s announcement last week that Dumbledore is gay, this has led to more comments about ‘out-of-novel’ announcements by the authors about their works, which has upset a few people who have had their conceptions about these works suddenly modified.

Which brings to mind several things:

1. Racial bias is, in the main, both unconscious and pernicious. As the song ‘You’ve Got to be Taught’ in the musical South Pacific indicates, it really starts at a very early age, as children absorb the attitudes (often never directly stated to the children) of their parents, and is reinforced by their peer groups and the general culture in which they grow up. And almost always, ‘different’ is equated with ‘not as good as I am’. This attitude is very difficult to eliminate once it is in place. As the American general culture is ‘white’ biased (and has been almost since Columbus’s time), this does mean that the default picture most have when reading about fictional characters is also ‘white’, absent any overt markers that the character is ‘other’. Does this then mean that authors have a responsibility to sprinkle their works with characters who are clearly marked as ‘other’, just to avoid reinforcing the concept that only ‘whites’ are deserving of being protagonists? Certainly not. Loading up a book with such racial (or sexual orientation) material, when it is not germane to plot or theme of the book, is a bad mistake, as it means that now people will be looking for why such characters were given such characteristics, and how closely they conform to the reader’s stereotype of how such people should act and talk, which merely deprives from the focus on what the book is really about, whatever that is. It is not the author’s responsibility to correct the reader’s mindset, it is the reader’s.

John goes into some detail about his high school years and the influence it had on his attitudes, where the school he attended was very racially heterogeneous, but quite homogenous in terms of wealth and class, to where he says that ‘people like him’ pretty much conform to that school structure. I’m not sure if that really holds, as the attitudes about such things seemed to be formed at a much earlier age than high school (not that I’m saying that his attitudes about this are anything other than what he describes – merely that they they were actually formed much earlier).

Nor can I say that my own attitudes are color-blind. I spent a great proportion of my very early years in England, Australia, and then schools in Michigan, West Virginia, and Ohio, and all of these places were very strongly ‘white’ both in composition and attitude (especially so at the time I was there). These formative years have influenced me – in general, I find (if I think about it all), that when reading the characters do default to ‘white’ in my head (so that it came as something of a shock when I discovered at the end of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers that Juan Rico was not white). And it is also somewhat ironic, as in investigating my genealogy I’ve found that I’m part American Indian, along with Irish, English, Scottish, French, and German (during the Civil War some lines in my family could not fight in the regular regiments, but had to fight with the ‘colored/mixed breed’ ones, as we had too great a proportion of Indian blood). But this is my problem as a reader; the authors should not be tasked with crusading for racial equality.

2. Political correctness is still running rampant throughout the discourse about many things in this country. While it may be of benefit to not use derogatory terms to describe any class of people, it has reached the point that no matter what you say, someone will take you task for being insensitive and Neanderthal for your statements. I mean, ‘height-challenged’ in place of ‘short’?! That’s taking it a little too far.

3. You take from a book what you see in it. It may not be what the author had in mind, but that’s actually immaterial. If the average reader’s vision is far different from what the author intended, it may indicate a failure on the author’s part to make clear what he was trying to say, but if the points of difference between author and reader’s view differ only in things that are not the main focus of the work, then the author should not be under any obligation to ‘correct’ that view, though he/she (more PCness) may wish to, as Rowling has done.

Posted in Politics, Writing | 2 Comments »

The Grapevine in Action

Posted by hyperpat on August 15, 2007

Apparently, some book, game, and CD publishers are finally getting hip to the fact that the online community of reviewers are a valuable resource, and that the reviews such people post are often  as good or even perhaps better than those written by ‘professional’ reviewers (though not always – there are quite a few pretty atrocious ones out there too). Evidence for this is a new program from Amazon, which they are calling ‘Vine Voices’, where those who are members of the program can get free advanced review copies of some works in return for writing honest, unbiased reviews of same – which is basically the same deal that professional reviewers have gotten for many years, and this program is obviously being supported by the publishers. I’ve signed up for this program, and ordered up as my first choice under this program a new book by Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road.

There have been at least a few instances of the book publishers using quotes from some of these ‘amateur’ reviews as back-0f-book blurbs, and there is now a fair amount of evidence that decent reviews on places like Amazon can have quite an influence on book sales. With many newspapers and magazines cutting down on the space they allocate for reviews, for many books online reviews may be the only recognition a book gets.

For a long time, many of the ‘professional’ reviewing set have denigrated these ‘amateur’ reviews as poorly written and/or ineffective. It looks like at least a few are waking up to fact that this is not true.

Posted in Book Reviews, Writing | 5 Comments »

Planning for the Future

Posted by hyperpat on July 2, 2007

I’m contemplating my upcoming birthday, when I’ll turn 59. Back when I was in my twenties, 50 seemed to be an impossibly long time away, and an age that I’d never reach. Now, it looks like I might actually reach retirement age, despite various medical problems and a lot aches, pains, and non-limberness. With such a milestone actually in sight, planning for it has moved center stage: just how much capital will I have at that point, what income will I have, where do I want to live, and perhaps most importantly, just what will I do when I don’t have to get up and go to work everyday.

Most of my free time right now is spent reading, watching TV or movies, bowling, or playing chess. These activities probably just won’t be enough to really keep me occupied when all my time is ‘free’, and the item that looks most likely to fill that extra time is real writing. Part of the problem I have right now trying to write is the lack of large blocks of uninterrupted time that I can devote to this, when I can concentrate on what I want to say, immerse myself in the logic of the story, and figure out all the myriad details, secure in the knowledge that I won’t have to put it aside to go figure out the latest hardware or software bug. Because when that does happen now, I find it very difficult to get back into the story’s ambiance and logic after the interruption. But to make this work will require some discipline, setting aside particular hours to ‘work’, and getting my wife to recognize that these hours are not the time to regale me with the latest family gossip. It also means that whenever possible, I should work till there is a clear closure to a least a part of the story.

Planning for the other aspects of retirement, most especially the monetary ones, makes me realize just why it is so difficult for young people to do any serious saving or planning for their retirement. When you are that age, retirement exists only in never-never land; the time-frame is just too far away to be ‘real’. This is one great service that Social Security does perform, as it’s basically an enforced savings plan. What would be better, though, is a plan that requires that a certain percentage of your income be set aside, unspendable, but that the individual could control how it is invested, and is actually owned by the individual (unlike the Social Security funds, which really go to pay current retirees, not put into any kind of savings, and which depend on a continuous stream of new, young workers to pay the benefits to those retiring – a rather dangerous form of a Ponzi scheme, given that demographics can change in unanticipated ways). While the last attempt at setting up something like this failed the Congressional test, it’s a concept that I hope will not go away, and will eventually be implemented, because, you know, retirement is just so far away, man, and I just can’t be bothered with something like that now.

Posted in Politics, Writing | 3 Comments »

The Pitfalls of Self-Publishing

Posted by hyperpat on June 25, 2007

The latest book I read reminded me very forcefully why self-publishing is frequently not a good idea. This particular book violated just about every rule there is for good writing:

1. Grammar: run-on and incomplete sentences, inappropriately placed commas, semi-colons, quotation marks, near-random improper capitalization, disagreement between subject and verb, use of the wrong homonym (‘there’ for ‘their’), spelling, verb tense-the list continues on and on. A lot of this would have been caught by any standard word processor, which obviously wasn’t used, and this really can’t be blamed on the typesetter, as there were just too many of the things (and even if it was, even a cursory proof-read should have caught and fixed most of this).

2. Lack of definition of precisely where in time a scene was. Apparently this author did not know how to indicate a break in the action or a shift in time, leading to many cases of reading two or three paragraphs before realizing that the focus had shifted to a time point several days after the preceding scene.

3. Chapter breaks not related to an actual conclusion of a particular scene. This sometimes led to ‘chapters’ as short as a half-page, and the succeeding chapter directly continuing the preceding artificially short chapter’s action. This also indicated a larger point: much of the work was not constructed in normal setup- conflict-resolution fashion, indicating the author did not have a good handle on where he wanted his story to go from one page to the next.

4. Introducing and then dropping large numbers of characters (sometimes by killing them off, sometimes merely by forgetting to ever mention them again). Now this isn’t much of problem for minor spear-carrying characters, but when this is done to major players, it becomes very hard to maintain any involvement or interest in the story.

5. Related to (4) is the introduction of entirely new major players late in the story, separated from the original cast by hundreds of years, without any handles given to the reader for how these new people relate to the earlier portion of the story.

6. Basic errors of fact, such as referring to the constant pi (spelled ‘pie’!) as a recurring decimal, something it decidedly is not, and this is by a character who is supposedly a mathematical prodigy.

7. Large info-dumps that interrupt the story flow (what there is of it).

Now why should I go into such detail about a bad book? Because, underneath all the problems,  I could see the elements of a good story, with a fairly well worked out future ‘history’, some interesting speculations about where science and technology may be heading, and a thematic message of current relevance. The self-publishing service that this author used has services that would have corrected most of the grammatical and formatting problems, and could probably have given the author some good advice about the other problems. Of course, these services cost a bit more than their basic no-frills package, which is pretty obviously all this author paid for.

Now self-publishing can work, but it requires that the author do a lot of due diligence on his story, not the least of which is having someone else read the thing before pushing it out into the wild world, if nothing else to catch simple mistakes that the author just can’t see because he’s too close to it.  But it should also be a very large red flag if the story has been submitted to and rejected by multiple traditional publishers that there just might be something seriously wrong with the manuscript. The author should think very long and very hard before deciding to go the self-publish route (at the very least, this is a big economic decision, where you have to pay out instead of getting money coming to you).  Said author should have some very big overriding factor to go this way (such as, say, the work is so cutting edge or controversial that no traditional publisher will touch it).  And he’d better be pretty sure that it is just some such factor that caused all the rejections, not that the book is poorly written. Because no amount of advertising or promotion will help a bad book, and once something bad is out there for all to see, it will leave an indelible impression, telling any prospective buyer of future works “Avoid! Avoid!”

If you decide you must go the self-publish route, at the very least work with a firm that has good editorial services. Use them. Long-established authors pay attention to what their editor tells them. You should too. The end result will be a better book, and the extra cost of those editorial services will eventually seem like a bargain.

Posted in Writing | 3 Comments »

The Place of Women in SF

Posted by hyperpat on June 18, 2007

There’s been a fair amount of flap over the scarcity of women authors on the current Hugo nominee list. I think this needs to be looked at with a larger perspective than just the presence or absence of women on such a list, as there has been a long history of reported ‘discrimination’ against women in this field. Such a perspective is offered by Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, which I just finished reading. Within this book, she traces the impact and portrayal of women from the earliest days of sf as a separate genre (basically from 1926 onward).

Now clearly, looking at the sf produced in those early days, and continuing up to somewhere around the fifties, there was often (not always, but the exceptions were rare) both an implied and an explicit ‘niche’ that women were supposed to occupy: that of homemaker, baby factory, damsel in distress, love interest, a person that was clueless about science, and definitely not ‘hero’ (or heroine) material. As such, they were not supposed to even be interested in sf, let alone be fans or writers of a field that many rather prominent fans felt was a ‘male only’ area. But regardless of the protestations by some of these folk, in letter columns or some rather snide editorializing, clearly there were female fans, even in the early days. But portrayal of women within the actual stories almost invariably fell into the niche described (or they were left out entirely as not being germane to the story). Stories that actually developed a true romance between the characters were often panned, and female protagonists were almost unheard of (except for a few works that explicitly tried to explore gender boundaries and roles, such as those that posited an all-female world). Some editors also had a definite bias against stories that had such a ‘love interest’, or worse, actively discriminated against women writers. This is not to say that women didn’t write sf in that period. The names of Leigh Brackett, Katherine Maclean, Carol Emshmiller, C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, Zenna Henderson, along with quite a few more, are still known (and respected) today.

But it wasn’t till the late sixties that women authors and more realistic portrayals of women within the stories became a driving force within the field, a period often referred to as the ‘feminist revolution’. Joanna Russ, Ursala K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Vonda McIntyre and of course James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon, along with many others, propelled women to prominence, both as recognized authors of great skill and for their portrayal of women within their stories that were not tied down by the patriarchal attitude that had been so prevalent. As evidence of the their new prominence, the Hugo nomination lists for the period of  1968-1980 shows 41 nominations for women out of a total of 245, vs 6 out of 118 for the period of 1959-1967. Since this initial explosion of nominations, the ratio has held fairly steady at about 1/5 of all nominations, though there does seem to be a little fall off recently to about 1/6. Whether this ratio is appropriate obviously depends on just how many women authors there are versus men, a number nobody seems to have a good handle on. But perhaps the greatest marker of this change was an item that Dr. Larbalestier didn’t mention – Andre Norton, who had been writing sf since the mid-thirties (though most of it came after 1948), had almost invariably used male protagonists for her works, but in mid-sixties she switched to using female ones. The very name she wrote under (along with her other names of Andrew North and Allen Weston) is an indication of the prevailing attitude in early sf, choosing a ‘male’ name rather than her given one.

But it should also be noted that sf does not live in a vacuum, but is strongly influenced by the general cultural attitudes in which its authors and fans live. A large amount of all sf has been written by American and British authors, and at least for the period of, say, 1900 to 1960, the American/British culture was strongly patriarchal. This general attitude of considering women to be at best second-class citizens actually has a history stretching back far earlier than this (just note that America’s founding fathers didn’t think women deserved to vote). Women have been discriminated against within the ‘mainstream’ publishing area – I even hear stories today that there are some editors who tell prospective women authors to stick to ‘romance’ stories, that they’re not good enough to write ‘literary’ fiction (regardless of how many examples there are to the contrary).

SF has, for most of its history, been considered by many to be a mainly a ‘guy’ oriented type of literature. Clearly, this is not totally true. SF, as a literature of ideas, often has focused on gadgets, gee-whiz technology, and has sometimes forgotten about the social impact of those gadgets. But the best writers have always considered not just the gadgetry, but what people do and act like in whatever scenario has been envisioned, and this most definitely includes women as active parts of that society. Our society today still doesn’t quite treat women as the equal of men (note the difference in salaries and entrance rates to the corporate boardroom), but neither is it the same society of eighty years ago, where the only proper place for women was as a homemaker. SF stories have, to some degree, recognized that change. Much of the time such stories are written by women, but there are more and more stories that treat women as equal partners in life’s game where you really can’t tell if the author was male or female, and that’s as it should be.

Women authors are getting recognition for their work, though perhaps not quite in the numbers that are totally appropriate. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a SF fan today that would say women don’t belong in the field.

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

The Elusive Allusion

Posted by hyperpat on May 18, 2007

I’ve been reading Samuel Delany’s About Writing for the last couple of days. In terms of sound and solid advice about how to write, it is (as is almost constant in his work), excellent. Seeing how this man can take a mundane paragraph or two and with some seemingly minor changes turn it into something that sings and grabs is both incredible and daunting, as he makes it look easy, even though he’s the first to say that doing this is difficult and a lot of hard work.

But he also makes mention of the large amount of allusions he buried in his story Atlantis: 1924. Now I’ve read and appreciated this work, even though I typically do not like works that use ‘experimental’ techniques. But from seeing his words about this work, its genesis, background, and what he was trying to do with it, I realize that when I read it, I missed a very large amount of what was going on, and in fact placed an interpretation on a certain character within it that Delany did not intend. Which brings to the fore the question of how to use allusion, when it’s appropriate, and the even larger question of what happens to a story when the reader doesn’t so happen to catch whatever allusions are being used.

Now for this particular story, Delany structured it in such a manner that the interpretation I came up with not only made sense, it made its climax fully as satisfying as the one he intended. Few writers can do this, and even Delany sometimes falls well short of this mark (there are large chunks of his Dhalgren that fall very flat for me). More common is, when the allusion is missed, the story loses its brilliance, its frission, sometimes it totally fails as a story. Allusion can add depth, color, veracity, and evoke a whole complex of emotions and thoughts that otherwise might take many pages to achieve, if it’s achievable at all, but it is a dangerous tool. If it’s used, then the story really needs to be structured such that it still holds together even if a discriminating and widely-read reader so happens to not notice the allusion.

There’s also a certain amount of gamesmanship in the usage of this tool. Too much of it, and especially if the allusions are to obscure works that no one but literary scholars are likely to be aware of , and it comes across as a form of name-dropping. Some of the works I’ve read by Rushdie seem to fall into this category, and I, as a reader, find it very off-putting.

So: use sparingly, and be prepared to have it missed.

Now, if I can just get my prose to sing half as well as Delany’s, I’ll consider myself blessed.

Posted in Books, Writing | Leave a Comment »

Decisions, Decisions

Posted by hyperpat on May 11, 2007

Writing fiction and non-fiction/essays/articles are two totally different things. About the only thing common to them is the fact that both need to have words impressed on paper (or computer screens).

When I approach writing an essay or something like this blog post, everything is straightforward. I know what I want to say, the facts are there (or at least googleable), organizing the material is something that happens in the back of my head without any great effort on my part, and I don’t need to expend great deal of time in figuring out exactly how I want to say whatever it is I’m talking about.

Not so with a fiction work. Every paragraph seems to require thinking about every tiny detail:

Character: does this sentence not only fit this particular person, does it add to the overall picture of who this person is? Am I really in this person’s head, and can I make it so that any reader can also get in his head?

Scene: Just how much of the environs should I describe? Many times I find that I have a picture in my head of just what the scene is, and it’s often remarkably detailed (from the grain in the oak paneling to the way the sunlight pools bright points along the table…). But if I try and put all that detail down on paper, it will simply overwhelm the story, so I’m forced to pick and choose just what and how much I describe. Which means I’m constantly making decisions with each sentence.

Dialog: This is probably my weakest point. It’s hard for me to ‘see’ conversations the way I do the scenery, even if the characters involved are real people to me. Right alongside of this are vocabulary choices – go with the polysyllable or the Anglo-Saxon four letter version? I know I have a strong tendency to use vocabulary and sentence constructions that are too esoteric or complex; I have to constantly watch my back to make sure these villains are not encroaching.

Background: Just when and how do I introduce all that backstory information – Little Jimmy was in a car accident at age three, and has never been comfortable in a car since – without interrupting the story flow and either totally losing the reader from lack of context or boring him to death with info he doesn’t care about?

Plot: This is usually not too bad. Before starting I usually have a fair idea of each major scene/happening, and where the thing will end up. I don’t normally do outlines, though I have for a couple stories. But there are times when I find my original story arc doesn’t fit how the characters are developing or the whole plot starts to seem trivial or contrived, at which point I’m in real trouble, and all too often I end up shelving the story, unfinished.

And the worst enemy of all: Procrastination. Every time I run into one of the above decision points, and find that I can’t make that decision right that instant, I all too frequently pack it up and wait for another day. Trouble is, that doesn’t get the decision made, it’s still waiting there for me whenever I come back to the story (if I ever do). And that simply doesn’t get the story written.

As someone once said, writing is the hardest non-work you’ll ever do.

Posted in Writing | 2 Comments »

International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day

Posted by hyperpat on April 23, 2007

For those of you wondering, this day got its name from a post by Howard V. Hendrix, current VP of the SFWA. Basically he complained that authors posting free stuff on the web were scabs, undercutting the market for authors actually trying to sell their work. John Scalzi, Jo Walton, and several other authors have not only derided this view of things, they declared today as the day for posting even more free things to read. Mr. Scalzi has posted the first half of a novel he wrote way back when (and never finished) – you can read his post about this and find the link to the novel here.

In the spirit of the day, I’ll direct you to some of my poetry, which is available here.

In today’s publishing world, getting the word out to the reading public is critical to the success of a work. There are an incredible number of new works being published every year, both online and the more traditional route. Most of these will sink without a trace without some form of publicity, and posting things on the web is at least one way to generate interest. In the future, everything might be published electronically, and the dead-tree format will be no more. If that happens, I’ll cry a bit, as I really like being able to curl up with a good book and see them ranked in my bookshelves, but I think such a change will also open up the publishing world to where more writers can get people to read their musings, even more so than has already happened with the advent of the web, and that’s not a bad thing.

Posted in Books, poetry, Politics, Writing | 2 Comments »