15 April 2009

Adrienne Martini reviews Adam Roberts

from Locus Magazine, April 2009

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (Gollancz 978-0-575-08356-1, £18.99, 336pp, hc) January 2009.

To answer the most obvious question first, "yellow blue tibia" is the English phrase that sounds like the Russian words for "I love you." By the end of Adam Roberts's Yellow Blue Tibia, it all makes sense. Or, at least, the title does.

The basic conceit of Yellow Blue Tibia is that it is the diary of Soviet science fiction writer Konstantin Skvorecky, who was part of a panel of writers gathered by Stalin in 1946 in order to invent a new enemy for the country now that they were certain to be victorious against the American menace. Rather than search for a terrestrial antagonist, Stalin wants these writers to invent an extraterrestrial terror, which they do, crafting radiation-based beasties who intend to kill us all.

As abruptly as the writers were gathered, they are dismissed. Forty years pass. Skvorecky whiles away the time by getting married, drinking heavily and setting himself on fire. Somehow, he survives. One day, he runs into another writer from that 1946 meeting. Ivan Frenkel is now working for the KGB, it seems, and intimates to Skvorecky that their alien story might actually be true.

What follows is a Philip K. Dickish romp through the Russian countryside. Skvorecky hooks up with Saltykov, a cab driver whose behaviors read as belonging on the autistic spectrum, and with Dora Norman, a very large American Scientologist who may hold the secret of the coming invasion. The Chernobyl explosion is involved, as are Russian thugs and the secret police.

Skvorecky is never certain of his role in the mayhem nor does he know who can be believed. To make matters more interesting, time itself behaves strangely. "Time runs forward. Or it runs backward. One of the two. But it must do one of those things, and there cannot be a third thing it does," Skvorecky muses, as a third thing appears to happen.

Taken in terms of plot, Yellow Blue Tibia is a thrill ride, if only because of Roberts's wit and snappy pacing. Skvorecky's mix of bitterness and heart makes him an engaging character. The mystery of what is actually going on is a pleasure to noodle around with while you read. Roberts, who has twice previously been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, is a confident writer who appears to be having buckets of fun telling this story.

But what moves Yellow Blue Tibia from a well-told yarn into a layered novel worthy of more than one read is Roberts's commentary on the state of the genre and of its writers. Nuggets about the field abound. Like this observation about SF readers, uttered by the doctor who patches Skvorecky up after a run-in at the nuclear plant:

"Science fiction is for adolescent boys and people who make models of aircraft from plastic and glue. I am a mature woman, which is to say, the opposite of a science fiction fan."

Roberts also opines about the emotional depth of the genre's writers:

"A realist writer might break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancée; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of the commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not produce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?"

After dismissing the average SF writer's ability to feel, Roberts spends the rest of Yellow Blue Tibia inserting evocative scenes that prove this idea false. Rather than read as harsh critiques, these asides are aimed directly at the core audience for his books so that they can also thumb their noses in the stereotypes' general direction.

Yellow Blue Tibia doesn't immediately make me want to say "yellow blue tibia" to it, if only because the ending doesn't quite feel like one. While it would be a disappointment if this twisty narrative had a simple resolution, it does require one that clears up a little more of the ambiguity. Still, Yellow Blue Tibia has a lot going for it, even if you don't fall in love.

Read more! This is one of two dozen book reviews from the April 2009 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated.

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Richard Matheson

from Locus Magazine, February 2009

He Is Legend, Christopher Conlon, ed. (Gauntlet Press 978-1-887-368-10-0, $60.00, 525pp, hc) February 2009.

Anthologies that pay tribute to a writer and his contribution to the genre are nothing new in the horror field. They extend back at least as far as Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969), the start of a cottage industry of anthologies honoring the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and have included since then volumes paying their respects to Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Ray Bradbury, and Ramsey Campbell. If the glut of tribute anthologies impending for the 2009 Poe bicentennial are any indication, the form has a healthy future limited only by some special commemorative event or anniversary.

And, of course, by the renown of the honoree. Of all the writers alive today who are recognized for their horror writing, Richard Matheson, the celebratory subject of He Is Legend, certainly deserves the attention a book of this sort confers. In the more than 50 years he has been publishing he has produced an impressive number of stories, novels, and scripts for film and television that are acknowledged as landmarks of the genre. To the extent that Stephen King has acknowledged Matheson as the single most important influence on his own writing, you could say that contemporary horror publishing is one huge tribute volume to Matheson's impact on the field.

The 16 writers who contributed new stories to this volume all chose a specific work of Matheson's as their inspiration or touchstone. In doing so, they raise questions prompted by problems inherent in any tribute anthology: How do (even, "How dare") you write a variation on a well-respected story and not invite negative comparison? Why would writers who have their own styles and ideas want to work with those of another writer? How do you craft a credible story in the spirit of a truly original writer's work without suggesting that his writing is easily pastiched?

Some, but not all, of the contributions to He Is Legend avoid having to answer these questions by being solidly conceived stories that stand independent of their inspirations. Stephen King & Joe Hill lead off with "Throttle", a collaboration "inspired by," without being heavily indebted to, Matheson's suspense classic "Duel". Whereas Matheson's story pitted a lone car driver against an anonymous semi-hauler in a road-rage extravaganza that assumed the dimensions of the existential struggle of the individual to survive in a hostile universe, King & Hill go for different stakes. Yes, there's a marauding tractor trailer in this one that picks off members of a motorcycle gang on a desolate stretch of desert highway, but the real struggle in this story is a Freudian face-off between father and son riders imagined as only it could be by — well, by father and son writers. Though the story depends a little too heavily on coincidence for its climax, it's notable for a tough and sinewy prose style that comes closer than any other contribution to approximating the streamlined, no-frills prose that makes Matheson's best stories taut and suspenseful masterpieces of minimalist concision.

Of the several writers who use a Matheson novel as a springboard, Nancy Collins, who chose Hell House, pulls off a well-told prequel, "Return to Hell House", that Matheson himself has set up: readers of his novel will remember that Ben Fischer, one of the psychic investigators who endures the nightmares of the haunted Belasco mansion, is the sole survivor of an earlier investigation of the house. Collins imagines Ben's nightmarish ordeal there as a teenage spirit medium in a way that is consistent with Matheson's story, if a bit more sexually explicit. Indeed, a number of stories in this volume were clearly written in less inhibited times than were Matheson's originals, which makes the tension and terror of Matheson achieved in lieu of shock effects all the more impressive.

Joe R. Lansdale, in "Quarry", and William F. Nolan, in "Zachry Revisited", write sequels to Matheson stories (respectively, "Prey" — the memorably televised story of a fetish doll possessed by the relentless spirit of a Zuni warrior — and "Children of Noah" — in which a couple are trapped in a small American town full of cannibals) that work serviceably because they are essentially dedicated rewrites of the originals. By contrast, Matheson's son Richard Christian Matheson and Whitley Streiber contribute solid weird stories — "Venturi" and "Cloud Splitter", respectively — that seem so tenuously connected to their inspirations that even diehard Matheson fans would likely not spot the influence.

Most of the remaining contributions are hobbled by flaws one expects of stories written too slavishly (if respectfully) in homage to another writer's work. Several depend too heavily on the reader's familiarity with their inspiration, or hastily digest the plot of Matheson's original in awkward expository chunks. The worst provide back-story rationales for events in Matheson's originals, as though heedless that the power of those stories lies in their simple unspoken suggestion that events in the Matheson universe conspire naturally, and without any elaborate design, to menace their protagonists. The best that can be said of these efforts is that they prove no one can write a Richard Matheson story like Richard Matheson.

He Is Legend also features an intelligent and informed introduction by Ramsey Campbell, jacket art and abundant illustrations by Harry O. Morris, and the script Matheson wrote with Charles Beaumont for the adaptation of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife before it was revised for the film released in 1962 as Burn, Witch, Burn. Readers are sure to have their dislikes of the contents, but its safe to say this is the kind of comprehensive package most writers would love to be honored by.

Read more! This is one of two dozen book reviews from the February 2009 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated.

22 March 2009

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Ursula K. Le Guin

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, October 2008

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (Walker, 288pp, hc) 1969. Cover by Jack Gaughan. (Ace 978-0-441-00731-8, $13.95, 320pp, pb) 2008. (Orbit 978-1-857-23074-1, £6.99, 256pp, pb) 1981.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin (Scribner, 186pp, hc) 1971. Cover by Carl Berkowitz.(Scribner 978-1-416-55696-1, $15.00, 192pp, pb) 2008. (Gollancz 978-1-857-98951-5, £6.99, 192pp, pb) 2001.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harper & Row, 342pp, hc) 1974. Cover by Fred Winkowski. (HarperPerennial 978-0-060-51275-0, $13.95, 400pp, tp) 2003. (Gollancz 978-0-575-07903-8, £7.99, 352pp, pb) 1999.

Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harper & Row 0-06-015456-X, 525pp, pb) 1985. (University of California Press 978-0-520-22735-4, $21.95, 525pp, pb) 2001.

On a recent trip to the US, I found myself looking at a display of Ursula K. Le Guin titles, and found myself thinking how weird the covers were. The Ace edition of The Left Hand of Darkness features a blue-white snowy landscape, the horizon low in the image, a similarly coloured sky above it. The Scribner edition of The Lathe of Heaven has a flat yellow plain, a low horizon, and a perfect blue sky pocked with the occasional cloud. The HarperPerennial edition of The Dispossessed has a slightly wrinkled sandy plain, a low horizon, and a pale blue-grey sky. These three covers — from three different publishers — all seem to be sending the same message: these are books of the abstract, that make you raise your eyes to some metaphysical heaven. Which is, I suppose, a part of Le Guin, but it's very far from the whole. She always starts with the concrete. Take this, for example, from the first chapter of The Left Hand of Darkness (1969):

The king and the mason kneel, high between the river and the sun, on their bit of planking. Taking the trowel, the king begins to mortar the long joints of the keystone. He does not dab at it and give the trowel back to the mason, but sets to work methodically. The cement he uses is a pinkish colour different from the rest of the mortarwork and after five or ten minutes of watching the king-bee work I ask the person on my left, "Are your keystones always set in a red cement?" For the same color is plain around the keystone of each arch of the Old Bridge, that soars beautifully over the river upstream from the arch.

Wiping sweat from his dark forehead, the man — man I must say, having said he and his — the man answers, "Very-long-ago a keystone was always set in a mortar of ground bones mixed with blood. Human bones, human blood. Without the bloodbond the arch would fall, you see. We use the blood of animals, these days."

The narrator is a man named Genly Ai, a human emissary from the "Ekumen" of known worlds to this planet called Winter. The "man" who replies to him about the blood is one of Winter's natives, the Gethenians, called Estraven. The reason for my quotation-marks, and Genly Ai's hesitation about saying man, stem from the novel's central premise. Gethenians normally present as androgynous, but for a couple of days each month are in "kemmer" — that is, they become either male or female.

That begs a question, though: why does Genly Ai refer to a neuter creature as "he" as a default? Joanna Russ, among others, has criticised the novel on these grounds. I tend to think now that this is a marker of Genly Ai coming from a society where "he" is the default — from, in other words, a patriarchal society. The "he," in other words, is revealing about his world rather than Estraven's — which, at this point, he comprehends only dimly.

The book traces a slow process of discovery — of Winter and its inhabitants. In that respect, in that it's about finding out, it's a perfectly science-fictional work. (The later Ace edition carries a provocative introduction by Le Guin, in which she administers a few well-judged kicks to the idea of sf as narrowly extrapolative or predictive.) We find out, for instance, via Chapter 7 how and why the Gethenian biology was created. This chapter is an ethnologist's report on the planet — what would, in other circumstances, be considered an "infodump." But Le Guin is so thoughtful a writer, the implications of her thought-experiments so thoroughly and deeply felt, that you find yourself wanting to hear this information, even if it is couched in as dry a form as this. The same could be said of her approach to symbols, to making the story mean as much as it can. The extract I quoted earlier, about the keystone being set in mortar made from blood, carries a freight of meaning about this Gethenian society. That they've made the transition from using human to animal blood suggests that they're a step away — but only a step — from primitive savagery. It's a caution, to us and to Genly Ai. In another writer's hands, the obviousness of this symbolism, the sense that we're being told what meaning to take from the text, would be preachy and clunking. But Le Guin gets away with it, I think for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the primitive nature of the society is indeed borne out, as we find out in Chapter 3, when Genly has a memorable interview with the mad King of Karhide. Secondly, a ceremonial of the kind described is a place where this kind of symbolism — the blood mortar — might plausibly happen.

The main thread in The Left Hand of Darkness follows Estraven's disgrace and exile from Karhide, and Genly Ai's odyssey across the planet. Their lives eventually become entangled, as well as continuing to be embattled by external forces. A final setpiece, as the two of them cross a great ice-sheet as they try to return to Karhide, serves as a vivid externalisation of their personal situation. It would be easy to praise The Left Hand of Darkness in ways that made its virtues seem static: the society and world it depicts are astonishingly vivid, and still raise potent questions about how we experience gender, among other things, here and now. But the abiding impression it leaves, more than in any other Le Guin work, is of the tug of the story and the extremity of the pressure driving it. It's not the sort of pressure that drives many SF novels: worlds are not in peril, universes not about to be un-knit. In many respects, it's a "small" story. But, even if the reader hasn't been exiled from anywhere, the threats this invokes are easy to empathise with: the loss of home, the threat of the state being against you, working out what love means for you. It is — if you'll pardon the phrase — the most human of great sf novels.

- - -

The Lathe of Heaven, which followed in 1971, is a very different book. For a start, it's not set in the Ekumen universe. It also, at least on first reading, has a great deal in common with the work of Philip K. Dick.

Like Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), the novel takes epigraphs and some of its structure from oriental philosophy, in this case the work of Chang Tse. Their emphasis on the illusory nature of the world cues us to expect what the novel brings. The protagonist, George Orr, lives in a near-future SF world and has problems sleeping. He is seeing a psychiatrist, William Haber, and his dreams rapidly become the focus of their attention. But they rapidly progress from thinking of them in the terms we're used to — as "anxiety-dreams" or whatever. It becomes increasingly clear that through the Haber-mediated technique of "effective dreaming," Orr's dreams can reshape the world.

So Orr and Haber have at their disposal a power, and part of the burden of The Lathe of Heaven is what happens when a power is exploited. Moving beyond merely benign "thought-experiments," the sort of premises that might fuel an sf novel, their wishes become increasingly self-centred and damaging. So the novel is partly a critique of Haber in particular and the values he represents. But it also becomes a strange and alienating experience in its own right, especially towards the end:

By the power of will, which is indeed great when exercised in the right way at the right time, George Orr found beneath his feet the hard marble of the steps up to the HURAD Tower. He walked forward, while his eyes informed him that he walked on mist, on mud, on decayed corpses, on innumerable tiny toads. It was very cold, yet there was a smell of hot metal and burning hair or flesh. He crossed the lobby; gold letters from the aphorism around the dome leapt about him momentarily, MANKIND M N A A A. The A's tried to trip his feet. He stepped onto a moving walkway though it was not visible to him; he stepped onto the helical escalator and rode it up into nothing, supporting it continuously by the firmness of his will. He did not even shut his eyes.

In a passage like that, the resemblances to Dick are clear, especially to the drug-filled visions of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). But Le Guin's work differs in a number of ways. Firstly, by concentrating on a relatively small group of characters, rather than Dick's typical multiple viewpoints, the book has a focus — in particular, a moral focus — that's quite distinctive. Secondly, the setting of the novel within the frame of a scientific investigation raises questions in ways that Dick's books didn't. Even a work like Time Out of Joint (1959), whose ostensible subject is an experiment of a kind, focuses more on the experimenter's inner life than, as here, the process of the experiment. Le Guin is clearly far more interested in the ethics of the scientific process than Dick was.

It's not surprising if The Lathe of Heaven hasn't achieved the recognition or the place in collective memory of Le Guin's other works. It's not set in the familiar arena of the Ekumen, and it's a more disturbing and unstable book than many of her others. It's also, despite what I said above about its moral critique, not a work from which "lessons" or "themes" are easily extractible; it's far more irreducibly strange. But it's all the better for that.

- - -

Le Guin returned to the Ekumen with The Dispossessed (1974), which like The Left Hand of Darkness won both Hugo and Nebula Awards. One of its governing images is a double-planet system — to be more exact, a planet and its large moon. The planet is called Urras, the moon Anarres. Urras has a capitalist society whose values and mores are very familiar. Some time ago, there was an anarchist revolution on Urras, and those of the revolutionaries who wished were allowed to colonise Anarres and create the society they wished. This is the "Ambiguous Utopia" of the subtitle that the book carries in some editions. The origins of this world are explored in "The Day Before the Revolution", a story from 1974 collected in Le Guin's fine short fiction retrospective The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975).

The main plot of the book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist, on both worlds. He is attempting to develop a "Principle of Simultaneity" which will, eventually, enable the creation of instantaneous communication via an "Ansible" and, ultimately the galaxy-spanning Ekumen of books such as Left Hand, which lies later in the internal chronology. Originally from Anarres, he keeps running into the saying "True journey is return," and this is a helpful way of understanding his path which is structured around alternating chapters set on the two worlds.

Inevitably, the center of the book — certainly the feature to which many discussions return — is the depiction of utopia. Perhaps the crucial feature of Anarres is that it is poor in resources. (The moon, being smaller, has a thinner atmosphere and less evolved indigenous creatures.) So it is a society for which scarcity is a fact of life. The "complex organicism" that results is thoroughly explored, both through showing and telling. The resulting society, in which communal living is at the heart of human meaning, is enormously convincing and detailed. Any number of issues, like the practicality of the original revolutionaries' desire for a completely decentralised world, are thought through in fascinating detail.

The depiction of this world is all the more pointed because of the contrast with Urras, and the use of Shevek's viewpoint to explore both. Added to that is the clarity and simplicity of the language Le Guin uses — one of her great strengths — as in this speech that Shevek gives to a crowd on Urras:

I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made two hundred years ago in this city — the promise kept. We have kept it, on Anarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charities, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much of anything else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands.

That image, of empty hands, recurs throughout the book: another instance of Le Guin's authorial control showing in the disposition of symbols. And Shevek's speech is really addressed not to Urras but to us, just as Anarres is an implicit challenge to readers: could you imagine being able to live in a world like this?

There is far more to say about The Dispossessed than I have space to here — about, for instance, how language shapes culture, about the role of violence in society (and SF). It's no exaggeration to say that dissertations have been written on the subject. But I wouldn't want to make Le Guin seem like an author who is dry or dull. You may find that she refuses some of the pleasures of the genre — explosions, space battles, cosmic perspectives, and the like — but the central premise of her work is that we have to be more adult than science fiction often allows. We have to work out how best to live with our fellow humans and the environments that gave birth to us, and working out how to do that is an adult task.

- - -

This is also evident in a much later book, Always Coming Home (1985), which in a sense marks an endpoint of the utopian line of thought started in The Dispossessed. I say "book" rather than "novel" because, although a portion of it is taken up with the story of a woman named Stone Telling, far more is taken up with a description of the society she inhabits. This is the culture of the Kesh, who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." It's conveyed through the Kesh's poems, accounts of their marriage laws, clothing, literature, dances, number systems, and so on. (Some versions of the book — though not the one I own — came with a tape cassette of Kesh songs.) This approach also represents a continuity with The Left Hand of Darkness, where the story of Genly Ai and Estraven is frequently broken up with stories from Gethenian culture. The central insight, that cultures understand themselves by the stories they tell themselves, is very convincingly put over. But Always Coming Home goes so much further than either of the two earlier books down this road, as well as giving so many other tools to understand the culture, that one finds it easier to question its assumptions.

Like Anarres, the Kesh society is one not founded on the kinds of abundance we're used to. The world has many fewer inhabitants, and although they have access to various items of technology, the main impression conveyed is of closeness to nature, to animals in particular, and to one's geographical home. Travel is both costly and discouraged — in the chapter on medicine, for instance, we're told that sexually transmitted diseases are not endemic in the Kesh valley, but are known and called "foreigners' misery". Life expectancy is much shorter than we might expect in 2008, but the book's central argument is that that might be a price worth paying.

In the end, all the apparatus of Always Coming Home — and the story of Stone Telling — adds up to an advocacy, perhaps the most comprehensive in science fiction. It's a book that refuses narrative pleasures, that doesn't "resolve" or "make sense" in the closing pages, I think because it wants to suggest that certain axioms we might hold about, say, the satisfaction we get from textual closure are part of the larger picture that it wants us to question. I have to say, for myself, that Always Coming Home's advocacy is one I can't bring myself to agree with. Le Guin avoids the trap of sentimentalising the details of Kesh life in many individual ways, by making clear for instance that nature is dangerous as well as beautiful. But somehow the whole enterprise strikes me as wishful thinking — as needing to wish away, in particular, many of the other 6,691,999,999 people on the planet and their desire to (presumably) keep living, to have families, and to prosper in safety. The question of the morality of this bit of Malthusianism is explicitly addressed on pages 147-8. But maybe my hesitation is a judgment on me rather than Le Guin or the book: why, for instance, do I say that "wishful thinking" is a pejorative, or seem to accept our present overpopulation and its dire consequences? Maybe a reading of the book as literal advocacy is too narrow, and one should understand it as an advocacy of certain values rather than a specific endpoint. Maybe — like Le Guin's other books — this is intended as much as anything as a provocation. You argue with it, you argue with yourself, you don't ever stop.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and became editor of Foundation at the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of eight regular Locus reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of new books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

03 March 2009

Cory Doctorow: In Praise of the Sales Force

from Locus Magazine, March 2009

Hardly a day goes by that I don't get an e-mail from someone who's ready to reinvent publishing using the Internet, and the ideas are often good ones, but they lack a key element: a sales force. That is, a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are on a first-name basis with every single bookstore owner/buyer in the country, people who lay down a lot of shoe-leather as they slog from one shop to the next, clutching a case filled with advance reader copies, cover-flats, and catalogs. When I worked in bookstores, we had exceptional local reps, like Eric, the Bantam guy who knew that I was exactly the right clerk to give an advance copy of Snow Crash to if he wanted to ensure a big order and lots of hand-selling when the book came in (He also made sure that I got ARCs of every Kathe Koja and Ian McDonald novel — Eric, if you're reading this, thanks!).

This matters. This is the kind of longitudinal, deep, expensive expertise that gets books onto shelves, into the minds of the clerks, onto the recommended tables at the front of the store. It's labor-intensive and highly specialized, and without it, your book's sales only come from people who've already heard of it (through word of mouth, advertising, a review, etc.) and who are either motivated enough to order it direct, or lucky enough to chance on a copy on a shelf at a store that ordered it based on reputation or sales literature alone, without any hand-holding or cajoling.

The best definition I've heard of "publishing" comes from my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who says, "publishing is making a work public." That is, identifying a work and an audience, and taking whatever steps are necessary to get the two together (you'll note that by this definition, Google is a fantastic publisher). Publishing is not printing, or marketing, or editorial, or copy-editing, or typesetting. It may comprise some or all of these things, but you could have the world's best-edited, most beautiful, well-bound book in the world, and without a strategy for getting it into the hands of readers, all it's good for is insulating the attic. (This is the unfortunate discovery made by many customers of vanity publishers.)

Today, many of the key functions that we think of as publishing are actually done by outsource firms, consultants, and freelancers. It's a rare publisher that runs its own printing presses. "Consulting editors" (freelancers) outnumber salaried staff at some houses, and every house has a few kicking around. Many copyeditors and typesetters have long worked on a freelance basis, flitting from publisher to publisher, getting paid by the page. PR departments are not adverse to hiring specialist consultants or to tapping into a nationwide network of local freelance media reps who act as shepherds and crying shoulders for touring authors. Art departments commission paintings from freelancers, art students, promising designers, and all manner of creatives, expanding the aesthetic range of the house beyond a few in-house illustrators.

So, if big publishers can hire all these people to work for them, can't writers, co-ops, and scrappy indies? Just as the record industry is delaminating into a bunch of boutique outfits that offer a-la-carte services to musicians (for example, the concert promoter that's taken over Madonna's career), it's entirely plausible that publishers could offer a comparable model to their authors. On the other hard, the record industry is accustomed to charging musicians for the services they provide, deducting such costs as breakage, studio time, and producers from bands' royalties, so musicians, as a class, have a better sense of what these services cost and how much they're worth.

It's easy to imagine a web-based discount printer, web-based copyeditors and proofreaders (the Distributed Proofreader Project, which cleans up the typos in the public domain books in Project Gutenberg, is a proof-of-concept here), web-based marketing and advertising firms ("web-based" may be redundant here — are there any marketers and advertising agencies left who aren't primarily Internet-based?), web-based PR (ditto), and even web-based editors who serve as book-doctor, rabbi, producer, confessor, and exalted doler-out-of-blessings, gracing a book with their imprimatur, a la Oprah.

The mid-21st-century writer, then, might hire a "producer" (or agent, or manager) to source all these things and tie them together, negotiating a split or upfront payment (either the producer fronting money to the writer or the writer fronting money to the producer) or some combination thereof. And that writer would sell some books: with the right PR and marketing, you can inspire a hell of a lot of people to go to Amazon (or some other direct retailer — possibly one that will cut the writer-producer team in for a bigger slice of the pie) and part with their money. All the pieces necessary are already extant, thanks to the drive to outsource in mainstream publishing houses that want to run lean and mean. And they'll take your money just as readily as they'll take Rupert Murdoch's or Disney/Hyperion's.

This vision has captured the imagination of many of my fellow techno-utopians: a stake through the heart of the Big, Lumbering Entertainment Dinosaurs Who Put Short-Sighted Profits Ahead of Art. And there's plenty of short-term thinking in the recent history of publishing and the rise of the mega-publishers. There are plenty of "little" publishers out there, dotted around the country, figuring out how to fill in the gaps that the big guys won't stoop to conquer: short story collections, quirky titles, books of essays, art books, experimental titles, and anthologies. These are often fabulous books with somewhat respectable numbers, but they lag the majors in one key area: physical distribution.

For though it's easy to find an outsource firm that'll get your books from Warehouse (A) to Store (B), it's a lot harder to find the cost-effective firm that will convince Store (B) to order the book from You (C). That's shoe-leather business, the slow, messy human-factor business of getting to know thousands of key people around the country, people who will introduce your book to readers who haven't heard of you and don't know why they should be reading you (good bookselling is fractal: the sales rep knows what the clerk will like, and the clerk knows what the reader will like). Even better, the right salespeople will carry your books to non-bookstore venues where people who come from the vast majority of non-readers might discover you and reading in the same transaction.

There are plenty of distributors who might take a scrappy individual writer under their wings. These aren't particularly Internet-ified businesses, and as the catastrophic bankruptcies in indie distribution in 2007 showed us, these outfits aren't necessarily well managed (or even honest). Getting in bed with a distributor is no guarantee that their sales-force will pay you any attention — it may be that your distributor's entire contribution to your sales effort is a thumbnail of the book cover and paragraph of sell-copy in the quarterly catalog.

Here, then, is the major challenge and opportunity of networked, author-driven, revolutionary publishing for this century: how do you turn the Internet into a machine for introducing books to physical, real-world stores? How do you use the Internet to introduce books to online stores that don't specialize in books, like ThinkGeek?

I don't have the answer. But it probably won't involve convincing customers to pester stores with hosannas about your book — clerks and buyers don't have infinite time, and having every book individually promoted by impromptu pitchmen who turn up unannounced just doesn't scale. Nor can it involve sending the writer around to every store: first, because that won't leave any time to write, and second, because writers are usually too emotionally involved in their books to admit that, yes, this store is not going to sell more than two copies no matter how many they order.

It will also need scalable accounting. Every new supplier account on a retailer's list adds bookkeeping overhead.

Finally, it will need to do more than the current sales force does. It will have to open doors to new, non-traditional book-sales venues, from the corner store to the local cafe, so that it captures a new generation of readers and feeds them back to the specialist retailers. It's a tall order, but if it were easy, someone would have done it already.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.

07 January 2009

Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction

from Locus Magazine, January 2009

We know that our readers are distracted and sometimes even overwhelmed by the myriad distractions that lie one click away on the Internet, but of course writers face the same glorious problem: the delirious world of information and communication and community that lurks behind your screen, one alt-tab away from your word-processor.

The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn't help my writing. This advice was wrong creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally, but I know where the writer who doled it out was coming from. Every now and again, when I see a new website, game, or service, I sense the tug of an attention black hole: a time-sink that is just waiting to fill my every discretionary moment with distraction. As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.

But the Internet has been very good to me. It's informed my creativity and aesthetics, it's benefited me professionally and personally, and for every moment it steals, it gives back a hundred delights. I'd no sooner give it up than I'd give up fiction or any other pleasurable vice.

I think I've managed to balance things out through a few simple techniques that I've been refining for years. I still sometimes feel frazzled and info-whelmed, but that's rare. Most of the time, I'm on top of my workload and my muse. Here's how I do it:

  • Short, regular work schedule

    When I'm working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I'm working on it. It's not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it's entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there's always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn't become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day's page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you've already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

  • Leave yourself a rough edge

    When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you're in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you're in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day's knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the "hint." Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it's hard to build on a smooth edge.

  • Don't research

    Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite." "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to your attention.

  • Don't be ceremonious

    Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. Forget candles, music, silence, a good chair, a cigarette, or putting the kids to sleep. It's nice to have all your physical needs met before you write, but if you convince yourself that you can only write in a perfect world, you compound the problem of finding 20 free minutes with the problem of finding the right environment at the same time. When the time is available, just put fingers to keyboard and write. You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes.

  • Kill your word-processor

    Word, Google Office and OpenOffice all come with a bewildering array of typesetting and automation settings that you can play with forever. Forget it. All that stuff is distraction, and the last thing you want is your tool second-guessing you, "correcting" your spelling, criticizing your sentence structure, and so on. The programmers who wrote your word processor type all day long, every day, and they have the power to buy or acquire any tool they can imagine for entering text into a computer. They don't write their software with Word. They use a text-editor, like vi, Emacs, TextPad, BBEdit, Gedit, or any of a host of editors. These are some of the most venerable, reliable, powerful tools in the history of software (since they're at the core of all other software) and they have almost no distracting features — but they do have powerful search-and-replace functions. Best of all, the humble .txt file can be read by practically every application on your computer, can be pasted directly into an email, and can't transmit a virus.

  • Realtime communications tools are deadly

    The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention. Anything that leaps up on your screen to announce something new, occupies your attention. The more you can train your friends and family to use email, message boards, and similar technologies that allow you to save up your conversation for planned sessions instead of demanding your attention right now helps you carve out your 20 minutes. By all means, schedule a chat — voice, text, or video — when it's needed, but leaving your IM running is like sitting down to work after hanging a giant "DISTRACT ME" sign over your desk, one that shines brightly enough to be seen by the entire world.

I don't claim to have invented these techniques, but they're the ones that have made the 21st century a good one for me.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.

06 November 2008

Cory Doctorow: Why I Copyfight

from Locus Magazine, November 2008

Why does all this copyright reform stuff matter, anyway? What's at stake?


Until a very short time ago, copyright was an industrial regulation. If you fell under copyright's domain, it meant that you were using a piece of extraordinary industrial apparatus — a printing press, a motion-picture camera, a record press. The cost of this apparatus was significant, so adding a couple hundred bucks for the services of a skilled copyright attorney to the deal wasn't much of a hardship. It merely tacked a couple percentage points of overhead onto the cost of doing business.

When non-industrial entities (e.g., people, schools, church groups, etc.) interacted with copyrighted works, they did things that copyright law didn't have anything to say about: they read books, they listened to music, they sang around the piano or went to the movies. They discussed this stuff. They sang it in the shower. Retold it (with variations) to the kids at bedtime. Quoted it. Painted murals for the kids' room based on it.

Then came the early days of the copyfight: the analog period, when VCRs, double-cassette-decks, photocopiers, and other proto-copying technology came along. Now it was possible to do things that rose to the realm of copyright's regulated activities (copying, performing, displaying, adapting) with stuff lying around the house. Dealer rooms at cons sometimes sported crudely bound fanfic "novels," teenagers courted each other with mix tapes, you could bring some HBO over to the neighbors' on VHS cassette and have a movie party.

And yet, there was comparatively little danger in this process. Although these activities were of dubious legality (certainly, the big rightsholder groups considered them technological suitcase nukes, comparing the VCR to the Boston Strangler and promising that "home taping is killing music"), the cost of enforcement was very high. Publishers and record labels and studios couldn't watch what you did at home and work and parties and cons, not without an expensive network of paid snitches whose salaries would exceed any losses they were experiencing.

Enter the Internet and the personal computer. These two technologies represent a perfect storm for bringing ordinary peoples' ordinary activity into the realm of copyright: every household has the apparatus to commit mass acts of infringement (the PC) and those infringements take place over a public conduit (the Internet) that can be cheaply monitored, allowing for low-cost enforcement against ordinary people by the thousand.

What's more, Internet transactions are more apt to commit a copyright offense than their offline equivalents. That's because every transaction on the Internet involves copies. The Internet is a system for efficiently making copies between computers. Whereas a conversation in your kitchen involves mere perturbations of air by noise, the same conversation on the net involves making thousands of copies. Every time you press a key, the keypress is copied several times on your computer, then copied into your modem, then copied onto a series of routers, thence (often) to a server, which may make hundreds of copies both ephemeral and long-term, and then to the other party(ies) to the conversation, where dozens more copies might be made.

Copyright law valorizes copying as a rare and noteworthy event. On the Internet, copying is automatic, massive, instantaneous, free, and constant. Clip a Dilbert cartoon and stick it on your office door and you're not violating copyright. Take a picture of your office door and put it on your homepage so that the same co-workers can see it, and you've violated copyright law, and since copyright law treats copying as such a rarified activity, it assesses penalties that run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars for each act of infringement.

There's a word for all the stuff we do with creative works — all the conversing, retelling, singing, acting out, drawing, and thinking: we call it culture.

Culture's old. It's older than copyright.

The existence of culture is why copyright is valuable. The fact that we have a bottomless appetite for songs to sing together, for stories to share, for art to see and add to our visual vocabulary is the reason that people will pay money for these things.

Let me say that again: the reason copyright exists is because culture creates a market for creative works. If there was no market for creative works, there'd be no reason to care about copyright.

Content isn't king: culture is. The reason we go to the movies is to have something to talk about. If I sent you to a desert island and told you to choose between your records and your friends, you'd be a sociopath if you chose the music.

Culture's imperative is to share information: culture is shared information. Science fiction readers know this: the guy across from you on the subway with a gaudy SF novel in his hands is part of your group. You two have almost certainly read some of the same books, you've got some shared cultural referents, some things to talk about.

When you hear a song you love, you play it for the people in your tribe. When you read a book you love, you shove it into the hands of your friends to encourage them to read it too. When you see a great show, you get your friends to watch it too — or you seek out the people who've already watched it and strike up a conversation with them.

So the natural inclination of anyone who is struck by a piece of creative work is to share it. And since "sharing" on the Internet is the same as "copying," this puts you square in copyright's crosshairs. Everyone copies. Dan Glickman, the ex-Congressman who now heads up the Motion Picture Association of America (as pure a copyright maximalist as you could hope to meet) admitted to copying Kirby Dick's documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (a scorching critique of the MPAA's rating system) but excused it because the copy was "in [his] vault." To pretend that you do not copy is to adopt the twisted hypocrisy of the Victorians who swore that they never, ever masturbated. Everyone knows that they themselves are lying, and a large number of us know that everyone else is lying too.

But copyright's problem is that most of the copyists cheerfully admit that they copy. The majority of American Internet users engage in infringing file-sharing. If file-sharing were stamped out tomorrow, they'd swap the same files — and more — by trading hard drives, or thumb drives, or memory cards (and more data would change hands, albeit more slowly).

Copyists either know that they infringe but don't care, or they believe that the law can't possibly criminalize what they're doing and assume that it punishes more egregious forms of copying, such as selling pirate DVDs in the street. In fact, copyright law penalizes selling DVDs at a much lower level than sharing the same movies over the Internet for free, and the risk of buying one of these DVDs is much lower (thanks to the high costs of enforcement against people making transactions in the real world) than the risk of downloading them online.

Indeed, copyists are busily building an elaborate ethos of what can and can't be shared, and with whom, and under what circumstances. They join private sharing circles, argue norms among themselves, and in word and deed create a plethora of "para-copyrights" that reflect a cultural understanding of what they're meant to be doing.

The tragedy is that these para-copyrights have almost nothing in common with actual copyright law. No matter how hard you adhere to them, you're probably breaking the law — so if you're in making anime music videos (videos for pop music made by cleverly splicing together clips of anime movies — google for "amv" to see examples), you can abide by all the rules of your group about not showing them to outsiders and only using certain sources for music and video, but you're still committing millions of dollars' worth of infringement every time you sit down to your keyboard.

It's not surprising that para-copyright and copyright don't have much to say to one another. After all, copyright regulates what giant companies do with each other. Para-copyright regulates what individuals do with each other in a cultural settings. Why be surprised that these rulesets are so disjointed?

It's entirely possible that there's a detente to be reached between the copyists and the copyright holders: a set of rules that only try to encompass "culture" and not "industry." But the only way to bring copyists to the table is to stop insisting that all unauthorized copying is theft and a crime and wrong. People who know that copying is simple, good, and beneficial hear that and assume that you're either talking nonsense or that you're talking about someone else.

Because if copying on the Internet were ended tomorrow, it would be the end of culture on the Internet too. YouTube would vanish without its storehouse of infringing clips; LiveJournal would be dead without all those interesting little user-icons and those fascinating pastebombs from books, news-stories and blogs; Flickr would dry up and blow away without all those photos of copyrighted, trademarked and otherwise protected objects, works, and scenes.

These conversations are why we want the things we're conversing about. Fanfic is written by people who love books. YouTube clips are made by people who want you to watch the shows they're taken from and discuss them. LJ icons demonstrate affinity for works.

If culture loses the copyright wars, the reason for copyright dies with it.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.

27 September 2008

Locus Magazine's Paul Witcover reviews Cecelia Holland

from Locus Magazine, September 2008

Varanger, Cecelia Holland (Forge 978-0-7653-0558-9, $24.95, 304pp, hc) April 2008. Cover by Glenn Harrington

The prolific historical novelist Cecelia Holland continues her quintet of meticulously researched, vividly imagined, action-packed novels exploring the Viking impact on tenth-century Northern Europe and North America in Varanger. While the first three novels in this fantasy-tinged series (The Soul Thief, The Witches' Kitchen, and The Serpent Dreamer) focused on the larger-than-life figure of Corban Loosestrife, a Viking renegade fated (or cursed) to lose everything he holds dear while cutting a bloody swathe through the old world and the new, Varanger (the word signifies both a place and a people) shifts to his son, Conn Corbansson, and his nephew, Raef, who have remained in Norway after Corban's return to Vinland (events recounted in the previous two volumes). Although there is a lengthy and complicated backstory to this novel, which takes place fifteen or more years after the events of The Soul Thief, Varanger is not strictly speaking a sequel to its predecessors, and in any case Holland drops enough information about what's come before to make it perfectly readable as a standalone... though anyone who does so is apt to find themselves so smitten by this author's muscular prose and rare empathic talents that they will want to read everything by her they can get their hands on.

While The Serpent Dreamer set its course across the Atlantic Ocean and even farther to the west, Varanger moves east — from Norway to Kiev, and from Kiev to the edge of the Black Sea and the fringes of the Byzantine Empire. One wonders if, in the final volume, Holland will circumnavigate the globe.

The book opens with Conn and Raef wintering in the bleak river town of Holmgard, where they remain in the employ of a fellow Varanger, a merchant and raider called Thorfinn. Conn and Raef bear a certain renown for conspicuous bravery during and after a fierce sea battle at Hjorunga Bay, where the Norsemen won a crushing victory against the invading Danes — the side that Conn and Raef had the bad luck to be fighting for. This aspect of the novel intersects glancingly with the Jomsvikinga Saga, a 12th-century Icelandic poem of unknown authorship that promiscuously mingles history and legend, just one of the source materials that Holland has expertly plundered to give her tenth-century world a pitch-perfect ring of authenticity.

Thorfinn owes allegiance to Holmsgard's ruler, Dobrynya, who himself owes allegiance to the Knyaz, or king, of the Rus, a young man named Voldymyr whose seat of power is the city of Kiev, and who dreams of allying himself with the distant Byzantine Empire — which has so far ignored his entreaties. When Dobrynya travels to Kiev, Thorfinn and his band accompany him, and Conn and Raef find themselves caught up in a scheme by Dobrynya and Voldymyr to sail down the Dnieper River in old Viking longboats, take the rich Black Sea city of Chersonese, and thus gain the attention — and hopefully, with the city as a bargaining chip, the support — of the great empire.

Holland is a skillful stylist and plotter. Her battle scenes are especially fine, the action related with precision but also capturing the headlong confusion of fast, brutal combat. And her depictions of the clash of cultures between Varanger, Rus, and Byzantine, as well as between pagans, Christians, and Muslims, are thought-provoking and convincing. But it's as a psychologist that she really shines. Her ability to create characters that seem true to their time and place yet are fully accessible to the sensibilities of a modern reader is nothing short of uncanny.

She lavishes these talents on Conn and Raef. The two young cousins, bound by history, family, and brotherly love, are very different. Conn is a natural leader, unusually strong and clever, with impulsive instincts that draw the admiration of men and women alike, but which can also lead him astray. Raef is a bit otherworldly, touched with supernatural abilities seemingly inherited from his mother; he can glimpse the future, perhaps even manipulate it to some extent, but he finds this ability deeply disturbing and distrusts it. Nevertheless, he can't always resist or ignore it. Despite this ability, or because of it, Raef is an exceptionally rational person, possessed of a fierce and hungry intelligence, and as such often tempers Conn's impulsivity; Conn, to his credit, recognizes Raef's worth and is smart enough to bow to his wisdom when it matters. The cousins shine against the savage backdrop of their surroundings like uncut diamonds in a seam of coal; they belong to their world and time yet also offer a heartrending glimpse of what lies beyond that dark age. Their exceptional natures are recognized by all — rewarded by some and resented by others. From these raw materials, Holland has crafted a riveting, deeply moving novel as exceptional, and as true to life, as her two heroes.

Read more! This is one of twenty book reviews from the September 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated.

Locus Magazine's Gary K. Wolfe reviews Neal Stephenson

from Locus Magazine, September 2008

Anathem, Neal Stephenson (William Morrow 978-0-06-147409-5, $29.95, 936pp, hc) September 2008.

Some 150 pages into Neal Stephenson's Anathem, the young narrator Fraa Erasmus (known as Raz), accused of having fraternized too closely with visiting Inquisitors in his monastic redoubt, is subjected to what he views as an unfair and extreme punishment — reading five chapters of a massive and incomprehensible tome called simply the Book, whose sole purpose is "to punish its readers." "There was no point at all to the Book, which is what made it an especially dreaded form of penance," we are told, filled with "writings that almost but did not quite make sense," and over the past 3,690 years only three students had finished it, "and all of them were profoundly insane."

These are not necessarily the thoughts you'd want to put in the mind of someone who's only a sixth of the way through your own 900-page novel, which up to this point has consisted largely of elaborate descriptions of architecture, clocks, geometric puzzles on cake-cutting, and a recapitulation of much of Western philosophy and science using an alternate invented terminology. But Stephenson is nothing if not shrewd, and in context the episode becomes a kind of self-reflexive joke, and one which, like many of the more tedious or self-indulgently didactic passages in the first half of the novel, eventually fits neatly into a clever and intricate pattern of meaning which emerges late in the story. And that story, which doesn't fully begin to take shape until nearly halfway through the novel, is indeed the full-bore SF tale which Stephenson readers have been anticipating, or perhaps more than they've been anticipating, since it plunges right into the rhetoric of old-style space opera, with spacesuited raids on a "Heavy Intercosmic Urnudan Space Bunker," weapons named Everything Killer and World Burner, hairbreadth escapes from ice crevasses, and a rotating ball-shaped escape valve that would delight an Indiana Jones production designer. There are truly ingenious reversals and unexpected narrative branchings, and, amid all the chaotic action, the background sound of all those earlier hints and portents clicking loudly into place. The novel's long conclusion, in a word, is thoroughly enjoyable, and the manner in which it unpacks the real nature of Stephenson's created world is sometimes brilliant, but getting there isn't quite half the fun.

Stephenson sets his narrative on a world called Arbre, where thousands of years earlier the scientific and philosophical community had isolated itself from the materialistic "saecular" world in monastic cloisters called "maths," which open their gates to the outside society for only ten days every year (or every ten, 100, or 1,000 years, depending on the rules of the particular math). The 18-year-old narrator, Raz, is an "avout" who was "collected" during one of these periods ten years earlier, and like any good young SF hero (going all the way back to Hugh Hoyland in Heinlein's "Universe" or Alvin in Clarke's The City and the Stars) he's a good deal more curious and adventurous than he's supposed to be, and his mentor Orolo, a bit rebellious himself, seems to encourage this. As with his Baroque Cycle novels, Stephenson modernizes his rather arcane setting by having Raz and his friends talk and act just like contemporary teenagers; when Raz learns he's been assigned the Book, for example, his responses are "This is crazy" and "You have got to be kidding!" and later a character even says, "What do you think you're doing, holding hands with my girl?" There's also a fair sprinkling of Stephenson's trademark humor, and some bits are outright hilarious. In sharp contrast to this is the elaborate terminology of Raz's world, which consists largely of slight alterations in familiar terms ("fraa" instead of "fra" and "suur" instead of "soeur" for male and female initiates, for example; "saunt" for both savant and saint; or the obvious "bulshytt") or completely invented terms for figures, ideas, and inventions which we are clearly meant to recognize ("Protas" instead of Plato, "Gardan's Steelyard" instead of Occam's razor, "Saunt Bucker's basket" instead of Faraday cage, "praxis" for technology, "polycosmic interpretation of quantum theorics" for many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, "syntactic device" for computer, "reticulum" for the Internet, etc.), or a few which are disarmingly the same as in our world ("nuclear winter"). There are scores of such terms, and Stephenson's much-needed glossary runs on for some 20 pages by itself. At first, it looks like the most elaborate game of calling a rabbit a smeerp ever put on paper.

But the reasons for this invented terminology, and for its similarities to our own, become apparent late in the novel, even if for the first few hundred pages it can make for slow going, particularly when coupled with the leisurely pace of the opening chapters; for a while it's as though we're reading a version of Eco's The Name of the Rose as reconceived by Roger Penrose or Douglas Hofstadter, and Stephenson's way of conceiving an alternate world is closer to Nabokov's Ada than to Harry Turtledove. If the Baroque Cycle detailed historical efforts to unpack "the system of the world" (as his concluding title had it), here he almost seems to be inverting the process — constructing a world to match a system. (He virtually says as much in his acknowledgments, describing the book as "a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth's past and present.") At his most ambitious he invites us to reexamine the entirety of mainstream Western philosophy through the prism of an invented world (and, while there's an undeniable undergraduate charm to this, one has to wonder if a portion of Stephenson's enthusiastic readership will soon be crediting him with inventing many of the ideas he recapitulates in this fabulous syntopicon), but in the meantime we're waiting for something to get going.

It comes as a literal breath of fresh air when Raz and his friend Jesry finally get out to explore the "extramuros" — the outside world — and we learn that this world has its own versions of shopping malls, illegal migrant workers, Internet conspiracy theorists, sports stadiums, speculative fiction, and YouTube videos ("speelycaptors"). It's an even greater relief, for SF seekers at least, when a mysterious alien spacecraft appears in orbit, leading to the unprecedented release of dozens of avouts (including one Yoda-like figure, Fraa Jad, who had been living in a part of the math which only interacts with the outer world every thousand years) in order to help the secular world confront this new threat. (At times he even talks like Yoda; when Raz, in a moment of despair during the final space adventure, asks Jad to "take me back," he responds "There is no taking, and there is no back.... Only going, and forward.")

Throughout the novel, there are enough mentions of alternate timestreams and "polycosms" to give us a hint of how the SF scenario will play out, and it plays out quite cleverly (though some of its big revelations might seem less stunning if we encountered them in an Alastair Reynolds or Greg Bear novel with less luggage), but what really gives momentum to the second half of the novel is Stephenson's sparkling talent for sequences of flat-out adventure. In the Baroque Cycle, these adventures were largely given over to the scenes involving Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, which alternated with the intellectual history bits involving Newton, Leibniz, and the invention of modern science. Here he's chosen a different structure, laying out scores of ideas in a form that abstracts them from our own history and effectively shifting both the adventures and the vaulting SFnal revelations (involving not only alternate timestreams but alternate time rates) toward the end of the book. For readers willing to sit through alternate-philosophy seminars as prerequisites for intellectual space opera, or readers who may be hypnotized by the elegance of these classic ideas as Stephenson re-imagines them, Anathem will more than repay the demands it makes, and will almost certainly become the topic of endless online seminars of its own. For others, it may become one of those classic philosophical fictions more browsed than read, more admired than engaged. In either case, its brilliance is undeniable, and for those who love world-wallowing there's even an accompanying CD (at least in the advance copies) of "Music from the World of Anathem", scored for voices alone (apparently by David Stutz). It's weird, but like the novel it turns out a lot more satisfying than you might at first suspect, and it does exactly what it sets out to do.

Read more! This is one of twenty book reviews from the September 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated.

04 September 2008

Cory Doctorow: Macropayments

from Locus Magazine, September 2008

Two columns back, in "Think Like a Dandelion," I talked about the reproductive strategies employed in species where reproduction is cheap, like dandelions. Unlike humans, dandelions don’t worry about the disposition of each of their children — they only want to be sure that every opportunity for success is fulfilled, that every crack in every sidewalk has a dandelion growing out of it. It’s a damned successful strategy, for dandelions at least. You’d be hard pressed to find a lawn, no matter how carefully tended and how thoroughly poisoned, that doesn’t have a dandelion or two sprouting on it.

To concretize the metaphor: I don’t care about making sure that everyone who gets a copy of my books pays me for them — what I care about is ensuring that the everyone who would pay me decent money for a book has the opportunity to do so. I don’t want to hold 13-year-olds by the ankles and shake them until their allowance falls out of their pockets, but I do want to be sure that when their parents are thinking about a gift for them, the first thing that springs to mind is my latest $20-$25 hardcover.

This is a marked departure from the traditional wisdom of selling creative works online, which is generally about "micropayments," a hoary science-fictional notion that captured the imaginations of dotcom marketers in the 1990s: the idea is that one can sell goods to even the flintiest of customers just by dropping the cost low enough — charging a tenth of a cent to read a single blog-post or to look at three photos. In micros’ heyday, the theory was that once new computer-driven efficiency made credit-card processing cheap enough, it would be possible to pull this off, either by aggregating the charges before processing them or by inventing new payment-processing systems that could efficiently run tiny charges in realtime without keeling over under the weight of the transaction charges. Once that system is in place, we just need to fiddle around with pricing and sizing until we find the magic sweet-spot where people an be coaxed into parting with enough dough to make a difference to the seller without the dough being enough to actually register as an expense on their internal balance sheet.

Micros have not had much success in the wild. Sure, there are the tiny pay-per-click markets of Google’s AdWords program, but the real action in AdWords is in the popular terms ("asbestos," or "travel" or even "sex") where the auction market for AdWords drives the cost per click up into the macropayment realm — for example, ambulance chasers have been known to bid up the price-per-click on "asbestos" to $100. In general, the cost of figuring out whether you want to pay a sum (what Clay Shirky calls the "mental transaction cost") remains high, no matter how small the monetary cost and no matter how efficient the system is. The web’s strength is in how adventurous it encourages us to be in what we click on — that’s how we get exposed to such a breadth of material online. Adding even a tiny cost to a link brings the cost of being adventurous from zero to non-zero, a step-change that requires enough thought that the overwhelming majority shrug and find a cheaper link to follow. The web isn’t short of links.

What’s more, collecting payments directly from your audience confers a cost on creators as well, one that’s a little harder to pin down, but goes a little something like this:

When you take money directly from someone, they become your customer, a relationship that’s fundamentally different from the "writer-reader" relationship that you get when the reader is the publisher’s customer. In the traditional relationship, a publisher serves as a commercial intermediary between the writer and the reader in the same way that a newspaper’s circulation and advertising department serve as intermediaries between advertisers/readers and reporters. It’s not that reporters get to ignore the needs of circulation and advertising — but they’re not beholden advertisers and subscribers; their first duty is to make the best news they can, not to please advertisers or subscribers.

Likewise, a writer’s first job is to write the best book she can (and likewise, it’s not that she can ignore the commercial demands of the market, but they should not be her first job). The publisher’s first job is to care about the market. The publisher is in charge of presenting the book in a way that accurately represents its contents, so if a reader takes it home and is disappointed with what he gets out of it, his beef is with the publisher, who has failed to adequately convey the nature of the material between the covers. The writer didn’t write the wrong book — the publisher sold it wrong.

This all changes once the reader is the writer’s customer: suddenly, the reader starts to treat the writer as the publisher (and rightly so, if the writer is taking money directly from the reader) and to make demands about the kind of books she writes. At best, this is faintly helpful but kind of painful. At worst, it’s a torrent of contradictory, entitled "advice" that often amounts to, "Can’t you just write more like the last one?"

The problem gets even worse when the reader is buying a digital book — a download. In this case, it’s hard to argue that the bits have any intrinsic value. If the reader doesn’t like the bits he bought from you, all he’s got to show for it is some non-empty sectors on a hard-drive — he lacks even the basic consolation of owning a physical object that represents an incremental manufacturing and shipping cost. You "sold" the reader some electrical impulses delivered over the network, and if it wasn’t what the reader was looking for, you’re going to have a hard time arguing that those zeros and ones are themselves useful or valuable apart from the aesthetic response they evoked.

In an ideal world, people without a lot of discretionary income are given the electronic edition (which costs [nearly] nothing to distribute) for free. They act like the breezes that loft the dandelion seeds — they go around, telling people about the book and its merits. In this regard, they’re better than random breezes, for they undertake a directed distribution of the book, seeking to bring it to the attention of people who are likely to have a positive response to it.

Once the book lands in the hands of someone who does have discretionary income, that person is given a multitude of opportunities to engage in a commercial transaction with the writer and her publisher. These range from buying the book (which has many positive externalities, such as improving the book’s sales record and hence increasing the writer’s next advance and other stores’ orders of her books) to buying limited editions, memorabilia, tickets to a lecture or reading, etc. The sort of consummations each writer chooses are idiosyncratic and specific to that writer’s work and audience — but where there is a spectrum of macropayments ranging from $5 to $25,000, there is a range of possibilities of enrichment to the author. For example, the last Nine Inch Nails release, Ghosts I-IV, was distributed in a variety of packages starting with free downloads, paid downloads at $0.99 each, a $10 CD, a $75 deluxe edition and a $300 "ultra deluxe" edition. The $300 unit sold out its 2,500 copy production run in a few days, grossing approximately $750,000 for the band.

For writers, it’s easy to see how a paperback, hardcover, deluxe leather hardcover, signed deluxe hardcover, etc., can fill some of these price-points, all the way up to the traditional writerly gigs of "writer in residence" or "arts grant recipient." Ideally, the majority of these products are produced by publishers (who bear the risks of overproduction and deal with fulfillment logistics) or can be produced in small runs or on-demand (signatures, for example). Note that where the writer is directly selling to her audience, she runs the risk of getting into one of those sticky vendor-customer relationships, so these sales should be limited to those where the profit justifies the risk — for example, it might be better to give away public appearances (rather than charging a measly $50 for them) in order to increase the possibility of landing a four- or five-figure corporate in-house gig. If someone is going to treat you like a vendor, you should at least be handsomely rewarded.

Taking someone’s money is expensive. It incurs transaction and bookkeeping costs and it incurs emotional and social costs. Micropayments have historically focused on eliminating the cash overheads while ignoring the intangible costs. For a writer whose career might span decades and involve hundreds of thousands of readers, these costs cannot be ignored.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.