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Cory Doctorow: Stability and Surveillance

In Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking 2014 economics blockbuster Capital in the 21st Century, the economist carefully documents the increasing wealth disparity around the globe, a phenomenon that has animated the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Pope Francis, and political activists around the world. Some of Piketty’s critics have tried to call his math into question, but on this front Piketty seems most sound. The data-set he worked from represents an astonishing work of scholarship, and the raw numbers are online for anyone to download, along with copious notes about the assumptions Piketty made in normalizing disparate data-sources in order to form a coherent narrative. Piketty is a quant’s quant, a man with a lot of extremely defensible numbers.

Then there’s the other criticism of Pik­etty: ‘‘So what?’’ So what if rich people are getting richer and poor people are getting poorer? As Boris Johnson, the Eton-educated mayor of London, quipped: ‘‘The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.’’ In other words, if capitalism is making the rich richer, it’s because they deserve it, a fact that can be demonstrated by how rich they are. If you’re a crumb at the bottom of the box, you must be a crumby sort of person.

Piketty addresses this criticism less explicitly, by oblique references to ‘‘social instability.’’ He frequently compares contemporary wealth disparity to that of the eve of World War I (cast as a kind of turf-war among the super-rich about who would pocket the ongoing wealth from the colonies, now that there were no more new territories to conquer) and to the time just before the French Revolution, a comparison that presumably sends shivers up the backs of his fellow French citizens, but probably seems a bit abstract to the book’s English-language audience.

Here’s what he’s saying, when you read between the lines: when the gap between the rich and the poor gets too big, the poor start building guillotines. It’s probably cheaper to redistribute some of your wealth, deserved or not, than to pay for all the guards you’ll need to keep your head affixed to your body.

In other words, a big gap between the rich and the poor destabilizes societies, and it’s hard to be really rich in a society that’s in chaos. Unless the people around you buy into the legitimacy of the system that made you rich, they will not be bothered by the spectacle of you having all your stuff taken away, and they may even help do it.

Historically, there have been two kinds of very stable societies: highly redistributive ones, like the Scandinavian countries (in which the gap between the rich and the poor is closed through taxation, laws that favor employees and tenants, and extensive social programs), and totalitarian ones, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, where, instead of redistributing a lot of money from the ruling elite to the rest of the people, the ruling elites spend somewhat less money on a huge coercive apparatus made up of soldiers, spies, police officers, snitches, propaganda, and surveillance, using all this to identify agitators fomenting political change, then neutralizing them through imprisonment, smear campaigns, exclusion from employment, exile, blackmail, torture, and murder.

Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute, uses the term ‘‘guard labor’’ to describe all the activities used to coerce social stability out of people who question a society’s legitimacy. In the absence of an ethical framework that says poverty and its associated suffering is wrong, a rational ruling elite should pursue a policy of using a combination of redistribution and guard labor to attain social stability. If a tiny minority of society are rich enough, and everyone else is poor enough, it will cost the rich minority more to hire guards to keep the starving masses out of their palaces than it would to feed and educate some of those people, creating a middle class, some social mobility, and the sense that the rich are rich because they’ve earned their station, and if you buy into the system, you might join them.

There are lots of examples of this, but my favorite is the tunnels that Jo­seph Williamson paid to have dug under Liverpool after WWI. Williamson was a local tycoon who understood that the return of armed shell-shocked tommies from the trenches of Europe into a city where no work awaited them was prob­ably going to be bad news for that city’s stability. So Williamson hived off a sizable fraction of his enormous fortune and paid veterans to honeycomb the ground under Liverpool with miles and miles of tunnels from nowhere to nowhere. Williamson reasoned – probably correctly – that it was cheaper to give these veterans a wage and the dignity of work than it would be to hire enough security to defend himself from a demobilized army who felt that the nation had turned its back on them.

Not all guard labor is overtly coercive. Some of it is persuasive. The post-Reagan boom in wealth disparity also coincided with massive media deregulation, both in terms of consolidation of ownership and in the extent and nature of public service pro­gramming obligations that came along with a broadcast license. The result was a huge economic and technological revolution in media, ending in the creation of the five vast media empires that own virtually all the music, movies, news broadcasting, print journalism, publishing, and cable/satellites in the world, and in many cases these companies also own the pipes – the telephone and cable wires.

This has made the conveyance of socially stabilizing messages more tractable than ever. Study after study has found the press to be sympathetic with the narrative of the deserving rich, equating taxation with theft, and hostile to labor and regulation. The rise of Fox News and its global counterpart, Sky News, as well as the collapse of the newspaper industry into the hands of a few companies that are largely owned by hedge funds and billionaires, means that messages questioning the legitimacy of great fortunes are thin on the ground.

The telecoms and media revolution of the late 20th century made guard labor cheaper, changing the balance between spending on redistribution and force to attain social stability. When guarding your fortune is cheaper, you can afford to piss off more people by getting richer instead of sharing with them.

The 21st century has been very kind to guard labor. In addition to great leaps and bounds in making military tools available to local police depart­ments, the 21st century has seen the rise of the Internet, and, thanks to loose regulation over telecoms and consolidation, the rise of a tiny number of Internet giants who are privy to every single action and transaction of practically everyone on Earth, all seven billion of us.

The massive Internet surveillance revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that governments – and the rich people who dominate policy circles in direct proportion with how much of the national wealth they command – have figured out that all they need to do to put the whole planet under surveillance is to subvert those Internet giants, either overtly (as when the spy agency GCHQ pays BT handsomely for letting it wiretap the fiber trunks that land on British shores) or covertly (as when the NSA secretly tapped the fiber links between the data centers used by companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook).

It’s hard to overstate just how efficient surveillance has become in the 21st century. Critics of mass Internet surveillance like to compare the NSA and its allied spy services to the Stasi, the secret police of the former East Germany, who were notorious for the pervasive and suffocating blanket of surveillance with which they smothered the country. But the Stasi were engaged in pre-Internet surveillance, and they were very expensive guard labor by modern standards.

In 1989, the last year of the Stasi’s operation, there were 16,111,000 people in East Germany, and 264,096 operatives of one kind or another in the pay of the Stasi, including 173,081 ‘‘unofficial informants’’ (snitches). That’s a ratio of one spy to every 60 people.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people work for the NSA – so much of its budget is black, and so many of its operations are carried out by its pri­vate enterprise partners, like Booz Allen, Edward Snowden’s former employer. But we do know how many Americans have security clearance (4.9 million), and how many of them have Top Secret clearance (1.4 million), and so we can be pretty sure that it’s less than 1.4 million people (because the people with Top Secret clearance also need to be apportioned to the CIA, FBI, DOD, etc.). In addi­tion, NSA surveillance is assisted by foreign spies, especially those in the other ‘‘five eyes’’ countries (Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand), but all of those spies will be a drop in the bucket compared to the US surveillance apparatus – the US alone accounts for a third of the world’s total military spending, and only two of the remaining five eyes countries (the UK and Australia) even appear on the top-fifteen list of military spenders.

Being generous, though, let’s say there’s 1.4 mil­lion NSA spies and associated staff, including in the five eyes – 1.4 million people to surveil seven billion humans, give or take a couple.

That’s a spy:subject ratio of 1:5000 – two orders of magnitude greater than the Stasi. The Stasi used an army to surveil a nation; the NSA uses a battalion to surveil a planet. Compared to the NSA, the Stasi were artisanal craftsmen.

And while it’s true that the US surveillance ap­paratus has grown mightily since the Reagan era – some agencies have had their budgets increased fourfold since the Berlin Wall fell – it certainly hasn’t grown a hundredfold. Even with the budgets obscured and shrouded in deception, it’s clear that the geometric rise in spying volume was accompa­nied by a merely linear increase in spying resource expenditure.

In other words, the cost of one of the crucial pieces of guard labor is in free-fall, and has been since the Internet started to take off.

Here’s where we get back to Piketty and social stability. Rich people need stability, at least enough to keep banks and commerce humming.

Wealth gaps destabilize society, and restabilizing society is a choice between the cost of lifting people out of poverty, or making sure you can head them off before they bust out the guillotines (or knock down the Berlin Wall).

When guard labor gets cheaper, the sustainable gap between the rich and the poor gets wider. A two order of magnitude drop in the price of separating the wolves from the sheep amongst the have-nots is a powerful argument against providing social programs, or labor laws, or tenants’ rights – sure, deprivation makes the population restless, but we can pinpoint whom to arrest, or discredit, or blackmail, or render, with incredible reliability for pennies. Let ’em eat social media.

This is bad news, because huge wealth disparity doesn’t just destabilize society due to poverty – it also destabilizes through corruption. In a society where lawmakers must raise tens of millions to take and hold office, the influence of the wealthy grows. This is pretty clear in autocratic regimes – you can go to jail in Thailand for criticizing the royals; exposing slave labor conditions in Qatar is likewise an offense.

But it’s also true in the USA. In April 2014, aca­demics from Princeton and Northwestern published ‘‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’’, in the journal Perspectives and Politics. It was a massive study of 20 years’ worth of policy battles in the US Congress and Administrative Branch, and it concluded that these policy outcomes favored the richest 10 percent of Americans nearly all of the time – policy outcomes that favored middle earners were so rare that they didn’t even register above the level of statistical noise.

In a society of extreme wealth gaps, the only policies that flourish have to have a business-model. They have to make someone outside of Congress or Parliament rich, so that a person can spend some of the money she’s taking home on influencing politi­cians to maintain and expand the policy.

There are probably some things that states do that can produce surplus capital for a few people and still do good, but there are other areas where this is certainly untrue. Education, for example – you can certainly run a school like a business, using ‘‘accountability’’ as your main metric, with standardized tests and attendance scores instead of the judgment of educators, or scholarly evidence about real learning.

Using this methodology, you can produce hand­some profits for companies that figure out how to improve standardized test scores and reduce absenteeism (for example, by cramming students for tests instead of giving them arts and physical education instruction, and by kicking out students who have problems with this regime, or whose per­sonal problems make them frequently absent from school). This will make your quarterly reports rise and rise in a way that will warm the heart of any Wall Street analyst, but good luck finding someone with any pedagogical credibility who will say that the kids are doing anything like ‘‘learning.’’

I’ll level with you: this freaks me out. The expan­sion of surveillance means that the natural checks and balances on inequality, already insufficient, have been shuffled around to favor true oligarchy. It’s yet another reason to get your friends using cryptographic tools, especially those that run on free and open source software. As I write this in January 2015, Obama, the New York Attorney General, and the head of the FBI have all called for bans on the civilian use of crypto, as has the UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Banning crypto is an ambitious project that’s unlikely to succeed – it combines all the dumbest aspects of the War on Some Drugs with the War on File Sharing – but that doesn’t mean that the move to make us all vulnerable to surveillance won’t do real damage.

Time is running out. It’s five minutes to midnight. Have you encrypted your hard drive yet?


Simon Ings: Hyperreal

Simon Ings was born July 1965 in Horndean, Hampshire, England. He attended King’s College in London, where he studied English. His first SF story was ‘‘Blessed Fields’’ (1989). Debut novel Hot Head (1992) and sequel Hotwire (1995) were cyberpunk, of sorts. Other works of SF include City of the Iron Fish (1994) and Headlong (1999). Painkillers (2000) is a thriller with some SF elements, while The Weight of Numbers (2006) and Dead Water (2011) are big, ambitious literary works. He returned to SF with Wolves (2014), about augmented reality. He also wrote non-fiction The Eye: A Natural History (2007). Ings edits Arc, the SF magazine produced by New Scientist, where he also works as a culture editor.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I work for New Scientist as their culture editor. I’m running around, going to openings and reading books and interviewing people and things like that. That’s me, really. No gigantic foreign adventures or anything, I’ve just been nose to the ground. No foreign legion service, sadly. Because I get out so infrequently, it means that when I do get out it tends to get written up in my science fiction. Basically me on my holidays is my entire science fiction output. And then I misuse notes, so if I have to write about Havana I take notes from Blackpool, and put them in Havana. Then everyone runs around going, ‘That’s an incredible vision of Havana! How futuristic it looks!’ I say, ‘Thank you, that’s my job. Leave your money at the door and go.’ ”

*

‘‘I made a very big deal about leaving science fiction. I just hated everyone. I hated the people I collaborated with. I hated my publisher. My publisher hated me. I was getting low sales. After a while of moaning and sitting under the beer tap grumbling, it suddenly dawned on me that I was being a screaming narcissist, because in SF, you’re a big fish in a small pond within seconds. You get talked up and your sales are tiny. Your actual fan base, your readership, is tiny. But you’re made to feel as if you’re the best thing since sliced bread. I think I was quite a weak character then. I never really had to grow up because I started writing young. I had success pretty quickly. I was being published before I was 25. Proper novels with proper publishers, which is nice. The assumption I suppose was, ‘Oh, he’s swanning off to be literary because he thinks he’s too good for us.’ What I was doing was the reverse: getting out of an environment where I was far too comfortable. I realized that I didn’t hate anyone: I hated myself as reflected by the genre. I didn’t want to be this formlessly promising twit. I just wanted some time on my own to do something odd, different, and away from that very tight community. It panned out. I was very happy to do that. It meant that I acquired a non-fiction career as well as developing a really odd novel style, which I can always come back to.”

*

“The reason all creative industries are full of people who are no good is because they have the calling, they have the passion, they have the love, and they have the good will – but they have no ability to realize they’re no good. It’s just not there. My ex is the agent for Lawrence Durrell’s estate. What’s interesting about Durrell is the amount he threw away. This was a man who could write for his country. He was extraordinarily prolific. But although his body of published work is quite extensive, it’s really tiny compared to what he churned out, and he was very good at throwing stuff away. Because it’s been his centenary, every squirrelly academic from every Midwestern college is saying, ‘There’s this lost Larry Durrell manuscript that we must publish!’ The house is full of bad Larry Durrell, and the agency and the estate are constantly turning down these academics. ‘He threw this away. The only reason he didn’t discard it in a bin is because he’s a writer and he might need that scene later. This is not for publication.’ That’s part of the writer’s job. They published an unpublished John Wyndham novel. There’s a reason why it was unpublished. It does him no service whatsoever, because that’s now part of his canon, which is ridiculous because he couldn’t make it work.”

*
“When I started Wolves, augmented reality seemed to be about taking things in and out of the picture plane and creating gamelike environments. By the time I finished Wolves, though all those things are still true and interesting, the whole conversation has moved into Google Glass, which is about taking your personal experience through time and selling it back to you as a commodity. That’s a completely different book. If you started the story talking about, ‘I wonder what Google is doing?’ you would be royally screwed because those guys turn on a penny. For the same reason, when I wrote Wolves, I took out every cultural signifier I could. There are recognizable places in there, but I don’t name them. The character names are not English, they’re pan-European. I reached for names that could work across Europe – names like ‘Anna’ that are culturally unspecific. ‘Conrad’ as well. When you do that, you get this weird shimmery discomfiting but hyperreal surface, which is something I absolutely adore. It doesn’t have a science fiction/fantasy quotient, but the political and geographical references have been rigorously stripped out. It’s not easy to do. You end up with something magical-feeling and odd. It is a literary novel, but it would be insane to sell it that way. It’s way better to say it’s a science fiction novel, knowing the science fiction readership is now so dispersed and so well read that they’ll get what you’re trying to do without difficulty, and will provide a larger readership and a larger conversation. It seemed perfectly natural to publish it as science fiction, even having sworn I’d never do that again. Time moves on and people move on. I want to reach science fiction readers now.”

*
“To be honest, the future of digital is print. The economics of small editions are fantastic. Print distribution isn’t going away, and people are waking up to the fact that there’s this fantastic engine running slightly on idle at the moment, because publishing is in a fairly difficult state. All of that warehousing and distribution is a network that must not be thrown away. Distribution is an interesting industry to be in – not easy, but interesting. The other thing is, people hate buying products that give them nothing to show for their purchase. You can’t give an e-book to your children. We’ve evolved to wander a fair number of miles a day, and within that acreage know pretty much where everything is. The idea that we can more effectively engage with the world via a screen that’s three inches by two…. It’s not even insane. It’s not clever enough to be insane. The most famous scientific put down is, ‘This isn’t even wrong.’ That’s just the best line. There is no right way of doing things, that’s the appalling thing. Arc is an exercise in servicing formats that die just as we release the magazine. We’ve tried to service everything. We’ve gone through so many ways of doing the magazine that seem daft now but seemed sensible at the time. There was a time when it seemed easy to address every e-reader and produce files for everyone. That day is really gone. The correct answer to someone who doesn’t own an iPad is, ‘Buy an iPad.’ It’s not okay to expect us to service your Breadfruit 3-9000.”


Kameron Hurley: The Privilege to Publish; the Power to Persevere

There are two very broad schools of thought when it comes to teaching new writers the ropes: one is the kinder, gentler ‘‘you’re a special, beautiful snowflake of win’’ school of teaching. Writing and publishing are difficult enough, the thought goes; exercises in bruised ego and disappointment. Why discourage so many up front when plenty will be discouraged later? We should nurture every tender new talent. They will be squashed soon enough, right?

The other track says: grind them down early. Be blisteringly honest. Dissuade them. Those who can be dissuaded early, this school of thought says, will be the first to fall when things get difficult. Why not give them a dose of reality up front, to weed them out before they go too far down a path that will only break their hearts?

What we don’t question is the business itself, and how we can transform it into one that celebrates and rewards a diversity of voices, instead of holding up the same dreary talent from the same dreary segments of the same dreary places year after year.

We don’t discuss the relative privilege of those we teach, of those who pursue writing, and how their success depends less on talent and more on the safety net they have in place and the raw grit they have to persevere in the face of continual rejection and failure. A novel advance doesn’t have to pay the bills if you have a trust fund, a well-paid spouse, ample savings from a prior job, or a family willing to support you while you plunk away in the apartment above the garage. The extraordinary low pay for entry level and even mid-career writers isn’t sustainable for many of us. You can’t eat on most book advances these days. If you’re lucky, you can buy a used car with one: a used car with 200,000 miles on it (which I did indeed do with a book advance not long ago).

Outside of the fiction and content-mill freelancing world, corporate copywriting pays far better, even if you manage more failures than successes. Marketing and advertising work holds value because it makes profit-driven companies a profound amount of money that’s easily tracked back to their efforts. Corporations recognize the power of words to drive people to action. Words and images have gotten people to wear deodorant daily, brush their teeth regularly, smoke cigarettes that kill them, wear seatbelts, and consume far too much of… well, just about everything. Hollywood writers, too, can demand higher rates, but that’s largely due to their efforts at organizing, not because production studios and investors are eager to have them know how much a good story is worth (hint: a lot; much more than many are getting paid, even now).

What keeps the rates for general fiction and online content mills low is that so many of us are so desperate for work, and so alone in the process of creating it, that we’re happy to write for traffic, for exposure, for a contributor’s copy, while the dragon that eats us plays in her pile of money – whether it’s a puddle or a mountain of it. Content drives the world. Stories inspire us to action. Stories tell us who we are, who we should be; they paint a picture of the future. We all know their inherent power. So why don’t we demand their real worth?

Sometimes I think it’s because the only ones of us left in this business are the writers with safety nets. The writers who have another way to eat, and have the privilege, yes, privilege, of persevering even in the face of constant rejection. I’ve been aware at every turn that I had advantages others didn’t: middle-class parents who didn’t insist I get a real career. A grandfather who paid for graduate school in a cheap foreign country. No children of my own, or parents or siblings I had to care for. Medical debt, yes, but not enough to bankrupt me. For every hardship I encountered, the reality is that I’m sitting here writing a column for a venue that a limited number of folks will ever write for.

That may not feel like much, but there are better writers than me. Smarter writers. I bought into the myth of talent, myself, when I was first starting out. But as I watched other writers fall by the wayside, I realized how complicated success truly was. I saw people quit due to medical disasters. I saw people quit because they had children. People who quit because their spouse or partner did not support them. I saw people quit because they could not justify a ‘‘hobby’’ that took up so much time and brought in so little income. Most often, though, I saw people quit because they simply lost hope. They did not have the confidence. They understood the odds, and accepted them.

Watching other writers fall made me wonder why people didn’t quit. Privilege helped: all of the advantages mentioned previously. Of those who were able to write at all, there were some who wrote a hit the first time out, neatly avoiding the worst of the slog to publication, the endless meandering rollercoaster ride toward earning an advance one could actually live on. Some simply loved the act of writing, and ignored the business; they had enough financial security that they didn’t have to be too concerned about the business part. But among everyone I’ve encountered during my decade in the business, what those who stuck with it had in common was a desire to succeed at it that trumped all else, a desire to hang on at the edge of the precipice by their fingertips, if need be, and to sacrifice hobbies, television watching, social vents, other careers, and even relationships to carve out more time to hone their craft. More often than not, they had formed connections with other writers, friendships through workshops or conventions or in virtual social spaces, that gave them the support they needed to survive when their grit ground out.

I wonder if it’s possible to create an art, a business, that’s more welcoming to the talented people we lose during the grind. I wonder if we can be honest about how difficult it is while also being supportive to those who struggle, instead of telling them to suck it up. The profession we’ve chosen is not easy – but nor is becoming a brain surgeon or a nuclear scientist or a marine biologist. We choose, and we work, and we hope we get lucky. We hope that life’s oftentimes tragic circumstances don’t waylay us on the journey there. We are lucky if we start three steps ahead of others, with money in the bank, a supportive family, good health. It costs us nothing, if we’re starting three steps ahead, not only to reach a hand out to help those behind, but to work toward building a world that reduces the distance so many have from the starting line.

I have seen the cultures that ‘‘just suck it up’’ companies build, and they are filled with the same cruel people, the same hungry, selfish faces. I don’t want to build a writing community like that, where only the biggest jerk on the island wins. We do people a disservice by pretending that the game isn’t rigged, and that selfish people don’t get ahead.

Maybe the best road, the best map to hand to someone breaking into the business, is to say, ‘‘Yes, this is hard. It’s full of horrible people, sometimes. You’re going to be rejected, and lonely, and feel great despair and outrage and sorrow. But if you stay here, if you stick with it, you can be part of building a better way through, of busting down a wall, yanking down some barbed wire, or just being the lifeline for a new writer who needs a sympathetic ear before she throws in the towel. If you survive the road that gets you here, you can help build a new road that others can travel more easily.’’

That’s the school of writing I want to teach. The hopeful but pragmatic one, where we’re all in this together, and the best is yet to come.


Lauren Beukes: Shining Girl

Lauren-Ann Beukes was born June 5, 1976 and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. She earned a MA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town, and spent a decade as a freelance journalist working in South Africa and the US. She has also worked as a writer and developer for children’s television.

She began publishing short fiction in 2004. Her debut novel Moxyland appeared in 2008, and was followed by Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Zoo City (2010), also a finalist for the World Fantasy and Crawford Awards. The Shining Girls (2013) won the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, the prestigious literary University of Johannesburg Prize, and the Strand Critic’s Choice Award for Best Mystery Novel. Her newest novel is Broken Monsters (2014). She also wrote non-fiction book Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past (2005) and has written comics and short fiction. She was a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2011.

Beukes lives in Cape Town, South Africa with her family.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘My parents were always very liberal. They weren’t part of the anti-apartheid struggle, but they were involved in their church in housing and feeding programs. I grew up with the fundamental understanding, which a lot of white South Africans didn’t have, that black people are people, too. I went to a private school, which meant there were black kids in my class. Government schools were completely segregated. It was a very strange time. We had ruthless censorship of the media. All the news stories you guys saw about apartheid were not what we saw. We were sheltered from the terrible things our government was doing. There were so many ridiculous things. For example, the South African apartheid government banned the book Black Beauty. Not because they had anything against horses, but because the words ‘black’ and ‘beauty’ can’t possibly fit together. It’s crazy – these dictatorial states that are just laughably bad.”

*

‘‘Both Moxyland and Zoo City are apartheid allegories. Moxyland is a neo-cooperate apart­heid. I was looking at how this terrible system might come into play again when, supposedly, we’ve learned better, and at how we’re controlled by our cell phones and convenience. With Zoo City, it’s looking at crime and how we talk about crime and criminals. It’s every South African din­ner party conversation, which inevitably turns into: ‘My friend’s place was broken into. My car was hijacked.’ It’s very painful, but it’s also very banal. We lose sight of what it means, and why people are committing crimes in the first place. I was also very interested in reconciliation. The Big Crocodile president died around the time I started working on the novel. He was a terrible man. He authorized third party violence to create political unrest and tried to tip the country into civil war with secret, CIA-level dealings, giving guns to one group and telling them to attack another to make it look like ‘those black people’ were out of control. He authorized the assassination hit squads and the torture camps and everything else. So he was a terrible man. He died, living in his swanky retirement village up the coast – and the ANC government threw him a state funeral. I couldn’t believe it. I was horrified. I was like, ‘This man is responsible for your friends’ deaths, for any num­ber of atrocities.’ They flew the flags at half mast above parliament. I thought, ‘This is insane, this is disgusting.’ Then I realized that it’s actually a gesture of incredible grace and reconciliation, to extend that level of honour to a man who doesn’t deserve it. I thought, ‘What’s wrong with me, that I can’t forgive and offer that gesture of reconcili­ation?’ That’s what Zoo City was trying to work out: how do you forgive, and can you reconcile?”

*

‘‘The Shining Girls is set in Chicago, where I lived during 2000-2001. I moved to New York for love, and it was a complete disaster. I had friends in Chicago, so I went and stayed with them and did some journalism.

‘‘I wanted to write a book about a time-travel­ling serial killer, but I didn’t want to do Bill and Ted’s Excellent Killing Spree Through Time. I wanted to look at the 20th century and how it shaped us. In South Africa that would have been an apartheid story, and that’s all it could have been, because that’s so overwhelming. How do you talk about other stuff? You have to address it. So I decided to set it in Chicago. In South Af­rica we like to think we do corruption and crime and segregation best, but Chicago’s pretty good at those things. …

“I wanted to write about ordinary people and show they had a huge role to play in the world. None of the shining girls was going to be the next president of the United States, or stop the financial crash, but they made a difference in their contexts. I wanted a Red, I wanted an abortionist, I wanted a showgirl (just because showgirls are great). I wanted one of them to be transgender, to show what it was like to be trans in the 1940s and 1950s. I was very inter­ested in Jim Crow laws. Segregation and justice is always a huge part of my work, coming from the South African perspective. …

“Actual serial killers are not diabolical Hannibal Lecters. They’re not super smart. Some of them can be charming and functional, but many of them are pathetic lonesome losers who feel powerless in the world. A lot of them have sexual impotence, but a lot of them just feel impotent in their lives. They don’t have any insight into what they do. If you hear interviews with serial killers in prison, they’re like, ‘I don’t know, I just felt like it. It got me off.’ There’s no deep meaning. Some of them were abused as kids. Some of them, some­thing happened where they were broken inside – maybe they didn’t get enough food and that affect­ed their brain development. We desperately want there to be a good reason for serial killers. We want their family to have been eaten by cannibals, and this, this is why they turned into diabolical monsters. But they’re not monsters, they’re just pathetic men; they’re vile opportunists.”

*

‘‘I’m always secretly writing about Johannes­burg. The Detroit of Broken Monsters is really Hillbrow MI. Chicago in The Shining Girls is really Johannesburg IL. But these things are uni­versal. Hillbrow as a neighbourhood is held up as an example of everything wrong with South Africa: the poverty and boarded-up buildings and refugees and crime. People say the same things about Detroit. It is a symbol of ‘‘everything wrong with this country’’. People still live there, though – they’re still mowing their lawns and raising their kids, and that’s what I wanted to get at. Detroit is this incredibly evocative city, and it is this terrible symbol. You go and there are abandoned lots with one house standing, and there are feral dogs, and broken-down factories, and junk. It’s evocative because it’s the ruins of our civilization. It’s not the Acropolis – it’s us.”


Spotlight on: David Pomerico, Editorial Director

David Pomerico joined Harper Voyager in Spring 2014 as editorial director, coming from Spectra, Del Rey, and, most recently, 47North, where he helped launch the imprint. He is focused on all things science fiction and fantasy and very excited to be heading up Harper Voyager US. He loses some nerd-cred with the fact he’s never seen Doctor Who, but he feels he makes up for it with his ultimate goal of becoming Spaceman Spiff.

You’ve recently joined Voyager. What’s your vision as an editor? Do you have a particular niche you hope to fill?

Well, as I stare at the computer more, my vision is getting worse and worse….

Oh, I think you mean something else.

Seriously, my vision is to help continue the great science fiction and fantasy tradition at Harper Voyager. Voyager has been doing such an amazing job in terms of fantasy, being the publisher of bestsellers like Kim Harrison, Richard Kadrey, Raymond Feist, and Robin Hobb. So I think one area that I’m really excited about is expanding our list a bit, specifically in terms of science fiction. I joined a Voyager list that had some great authors (and authors to be published) in that genre, such as James Smythe, Ian Douglas, Emmi Itaranta, Nick Cole, and Mel Odom, but it’s an area I specifically love, and wanted to see more of. I like the idea of having a balanced list – something for every kind of speculative reader – so being able to already add authors like Jay Allan, Elizabeth Bonesteel, and Warren Hammond on the sci-fi side (and Michael Fletcher and Sarah Beth Durst in fantasy), to name a few, will really help grow Voyager.

Before joining Voyager you were an editor at Amazon’s SF imprint, 47North. How did it differ from more traditional New York publishing houses, in terms of opportunities and challenges?

Probably the biggest difference is just the business model itself. At 47North, my job was mostly as an acquisitions editor, finding projects I thought would be a good fit for the imprint and then facilitating the production and sale of the books without always being the hands-on editor of the specific project. There was a focus on analyzing data and using that to get my authors’ books into the hands of the most readers – and there was something very satisfying about the way I was part of that process, constantly evaluating what was or wasn’t working, and adjusting accordingly to maximize a book’s potential.

Perhaps the biggest misconception in the industry, though, is that there is that big of a difference. Yes, I’m editing more. Yes, print is a larger component of the model at Voyager than at 47North. Yes, our ideas about marketing and publicity and distribution are different. But, overall, my job is very similar: find books that excite me, find authors that I’m excited to work with, and then connect those books with as many readers as possible.

One thing I’ll note that isn’t different: I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best teams in the business. And that passion for the genre and the books, and the commitment to my authors has definitely continued here at Voyager.

I’ll also note something else that isn’t different, and that’s that I’ve had a number of people ask about my various jobs in publishing. I always answer the same way: it’s unbelievable that someone pays me to read science fiction and fantasy!

What trends are you seeing in SF and fantasy? What are you (and other SF/F publishers) looking for now, and what are they sick of getting?

Trends are a tricky thing, since most of them started years before actually coming to fruition. That said, I think one of the biggest trends is the slowing down in the urban fantasy market. I think we’ve had enough time playing in these worlds to see publishers focusing on what we have, and taking less chances on new projects in the paranormal sub-genres. For Voyager, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim is an established character and brand, and we couldn’t be happier seeing his audience grow with each new book. That’s not to say, of course, that publishers are done with urban fantasy, just that we’re being more selective. A book like Caitlin Kittredge’s Black Dog (10/28/14) struck a chord with the team here, feeling fresh and different.

Too, trends often mean more of a shift in SF/F publishing, rather than a more binary situation. So, where urban fantasy seemed to take up much of the space formally occupied by horror, a ‘‘new’’ subgenre like dark contemporary fantasy is moving into UF’s space. For instance, a novel we’re really excited about is Alex Gordon’s debut, Gideon (1/6/15), which is in that in-between place of horror and supernatural suspense – and utterly amazing. And consider Sarah Remy’s Stonehill Downs (12/2/14), which has a touch of high fantasy mixed with police procedural, or Laura Bickle’s blend of modern Western and fantasy, Dark Alchemy (3/24/15). It’s that genre-bending which I think we’re seeing more of. And that’s what it comes down to for me when it comes to trends: sales are clearly important, but great story and great writing is always what we’re looking for first.

What particular problems does the publishing industry face now, and what new opportunities do you see?

I think the problems are pretty apparent, so I’d rather focus on the opportunities, because ultimately, that’s what excites me. The digital arena is clearly an area where many opportunities exist, and it’s a major reason we launched Voyager Impulse, our digital-first sci-fi and fantasy imprint, this past July. The idea of getting novels out quickly, with dynamic pricing – while still maintaining the physical editions through emerging print technologies – is a way for us to build Voyager authors in a new way. With the addition of the recently revamped HC.com and increasingly active social media allowing us to interact more directly with consumers, we’re moving away from the idea that publishing houses are removed from the readers.

I’m hoping, too, that these emerging print technologies (as mentioned above) will allow us to streamline the physical process, making it easier for bookstores to keep books in stock and take a chance on shelving our books. Print-on-demand quality, for example, has improved by leaps and bounds since I first started in the business. We’re truly at a point when it’s going to be impossible for a book to be ‘‘out of print’’!

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your work?

I’ve had a bit of a motto during my time in sci-fi and fantasy publishing: everyone is a fan of the genre… they just may not realize it yet. As you see other mediums – TV, movies, video games, comic books – explode with SF/F content, it’s apparent that these are the kinds of stories audiences are connecting with. Our job in publishing, then, is to help them make those connections. You liked Guardians of the Galaxy? Why not check out this space opera book? Like the show Game of Thrones? Have you tried this other author, who touches on similar themes but in a very different way? The fact is, there’s something for everyone (heck, the Chuck Wendig novel, Zer0es (8/18/15), is as much for fans of The Bourne Identity as it is for sci-fi readers)… and that’s so cool.

In addition to this opportunity, though, editors and publishers also need to lead. We’re the genre that’s supposed to speculate, to look forward, to spin metaphors into myths and create universal stories. We have to focus our sights on great, marketable projects, but also focus on diversity – on gender and race and politics and sexual orientation and language. My biggest challenge (I know – I said I wasn’t going to talk about challenges!) is pushing the genre forward while mitigating risks. A bit paradoxical, I realize, but not impossible. Publishing has always been about taking chances – even the most commercial submission can fail – and so I (and many of my other colleagues throughout the industry) are working hard to ensure we never fall into a paint-by-numbers situation. In other words, my goal at Voyager is to not just observe and react to the genre, but – ultimately – help move if forward.

Ambitious? Yes. Fun as hell? A big yes.


Robert Jackson Bennett: Subreality

Robert Jackson Bennett was born June 22, 1984 in Baton Rouge LA and lived all over the deep south before settling in Houston TX when he was ten. He attended college at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied English and Government.

Bennett’s debut novel Mr. Shivers (2010) won a Shirley Jackson Award, was a finalist for the Crawford Award, and earned him the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. The Company Man (2011) received a special citation in the Philip K. Dick Awards and won an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. The Troupe appeared in 2012, and was followed by Shirley Jackson Award-winner American Elsewhere (2013). After four standalone novels set in (versions of) the real world, he switched to writing secondary-world fantasy with City of Stairs (2014), first in a series. Sequel City of Blades is forthcoming.

He lives in Austin with his wife and son.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘With most books I write, what I have to do is think of a plot that’s going to get me to the shit I want to talk about, which is often the fear that you’re not experiencing the world the right way. What works in American Elsewhere that’s hard to pull off in my other books is that it’s got its own narra­tive voice where it can just stop and talk about things. There’s a part where the main character talks about a friend in school having to get new glasses, and her friend didn’t know her eyes were so poor, and she talks about why that was frightening. It’s a little bit harder in most books to pause that way and talk about stuff. When you get really invested in the character and less in the narrative voice, it’s harder to stop. It’s a long book. My wife started listening to the audiobook, and she was pretty pissed off. She said, ‘Four discs in, how many discs are there?’ ‘Eighteen.’ She’s like, ‘What the hell?’

‘‘The structure of American Elsewhere feels like a series of short stories that are connected. That was a lot of fun to write. I realized about four or five chapters in, ‘I’m hopping around a lot. Let’s just keep it up and see what happens.’ Suddenly what felt like a weakness seemed like it could be a strength. I could tell a short story about someone’s life, and have them seeing something but not understanding. This is a super pretentious thing to say, but one of the influences on the book was John Crowley’s Little, Big. That’s got a lot of short stories in it, small experiences in this world where you glimpse something from the side of your eye but you don’t really understand what’s happening. It’s got that slow build going on.”

*

‘‘I’ve always loved the Cold War and spy novels. I love the idea that there’s something fake and transient about those lives. These people are ghosts. They go from hotel room to hotel room. They exist in this interstitial realm in urban society. I found that really interesting, the idea that spies live in a sub­reality of our own. That’s something I’ve always had in my head, this idea of a bland little man at a desk in some hotel room waiting for a phone to ring. I found that fascinating. I started to think, if I was going to write a fantasy, how would I write it? I thought: a Cold War spy novel set in Lord of the Rings would be interesting. Who’s a mole, who’s turned, who knows what, what’s happening in this region, are there insurgents here, what’s the market like?”

*

‘‘I thought more about it and then I started inventing this history of a group of people who had gods and used them to create an empire. I tried to think about gods not as we do now, where you never see God doing anything, but rather a world where God is next door, fucking shit up. Basically, the gods are like nukes. If you have one of them, you’ve won before you ever get to the fighting stage. So imagine a culture that had these gods, and they held the whole world hostage with them, but then someone found out a way to kill the gods, and did so. There are a lot of fun ways to use god stuff. One of them was that the gods would create these miracles that would help everyday life, like a blessing that would flush the toilet, or other infrastructural features. Things like that. You could make this whole fabric of a way of life based on the gods making these little miracles. Once the gods are dead, all of it’s gone. If they made a building, it’s gone, and everybody who was in it is gone too. It’s a disaster called the Blink, and it happened when they killed this particular god who was the builder god. He made all of these changes to their reality that nobody knew about. …

‘‘The book starts when the former slave country sends a historian there to find out a little more about the gods as a mission of cultural understanding. Of course that’s not really what he’s up to, and he gets killed. What looks to be a low-level diplomat steps in to find out what happened but of course she’s a master spy. The books I drew a lot of inspiration from were the John le Carré novels about George Smiley. They were written in the 1960s and 1970s, when James Bond in a tuxedo was shooting people and having lots of sex. Le Carré, who was an actual spy, wrote about this short fat old man who likes to read German texts and feels more like a librarian. It was thrilling for me to read about that as a kid. Smiley’s not good with a gun. He’s good at reading and records. He reads lots of reports and puts the pieces together from that. I don’t think my spy ever holds a weapon in the book. People seem to really like City of Stairs. There are readers who’ve never read my stuff and are suddenly chomping at the bit to read this.’’


Spotlight on: An Owomoyela, Writer and Editor

An (pronounce it ‘‘On’’) Owomoyela is a neutrois author with a background in web development, linguistics, and weaving chain maille out of stainless steel fencing wire, whose fiction has appeared in a number of venues including Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and a handful of year’s bests. An’s interests range from pulsars and Cepheid variables to gender studies and nonstandard pronouns, with a plethora of stops in-between. An can be found online at an.owomoyela.net, and can be funded at patreon.com/an_owomoyela.

You write mythic and scientific fiction, but are best known for your inventive hard SF. Why does writing SF/fantasy in general, and hard SF in particular, appeal to you?

Part of it is history: I grew up on Star Trek, Redwall, and Fallout, and I’ve never grown out of those things. (Well, Brian Jacques passed away and I’m not that interested in Star Trek’s new direction, but I’m still enjoying the Fallout games.) So there’s a large component of ‘‘this is where I came from, and I owe these media a lot in terms of my own development.’’ But I think a larger part of speculative fiction’s appeal is that, no matter how far my mind wants to wander into hypotheticals or allegory, speculative fiction will accommodate that. Anything I can come up with, I can explore.

When it comes to hard SF, a lot of my interest is rooted in the fact that science is absolutely wonderful. Once you start catching glimpses of it, it’s hard not to let it capture your imagination and shake up your thinking patterns. I’ll frequently find articles that I have to share immediately with all my friends: try out ‘‘Scott and Scurvy’’ from Maciej Ceglowski’s blog Idle Words, on how the cure for scurvy was found, lost, and found again; or ‘‘Butter Pats and Battleships’’ on the Joe Pastry blog, about how a British inventor came up with a plan to make battleships out of ice and sawdust (and how this informs how we handle butter when making puff pastry and croissants); or ‘‘Things I Won’t Work With: Dioxygen Difluoride’’ on Derek Lowe’s blog In The Pipeline, concerning one of the most terrifying chemical compounds I’ve ever heard of. (That article also makes me want to adopt foof! as a curse word.)

So when I find bits of science that fascinate me, I start looking for ways to include them in my fiction. I still want to find a story that will let me fit in the transcendently eerie way Creole languages behave, and I’m toying with one that explores the fact that a majority of the mass in a tree comes not from soil nutrients or water, but from the carbon dioxide it takes in from the air. I’ve written stories about our bizarre and dysfunctional relationship to civic water supplies, and about human and computer understandings of patterns. For all that I like speculative fiction because it doesn’t confine my imaginings to the real world, I still believe that the real world has a wealth of wonder – and most of us barely scratch the surface.

You’ve got a background in computer science and linguistics. How do those influence your fiction?

I think, honestly, that they’re both symptomatic of a single underlying cause: I really love playing with systems. recently, I’ve started playing (on my own time) with how plot systems work, and how different mechanics produce different results. I’m not sure how much I’ve managed to learn, but trying to excavate what it is that makes a story work for me is always fun.

That affects the way in which I write. I have a very nonlinear style of composition; I’ll hop back and forth, write a bit of the middle, go write some setup, have a fantastic idea for the penultimate scene, and dart back and forth like the shuttle on a loom. This lets me come up with an idea for a third-act reveal and then jump back to the beginning to say, ‘‘Okay, I need some foreshadowing here,’’ or find an aspect of the ending and go back and add two precise thematic premonitions at strategic points. It’s organic, but also very systematic.

Of course, the fact that computer programming and linguistics are the systems I’ve played with the most does influence my fiction. I’m not a big fan of human-like AIs, for example, because humans and computers process things so differently, and computer ‘‘cognition’’ is so fantastically odd when viewed through the lens of human expectation – it’s much more interesting to me than artificial cognition which is functionally the same as human cognition.

And language is complex and amazing and something that, like intelligence, we don’t understand fully. One of these days, I’m going to find a plot and a cast of characters that will go along with my ‘‘language as a symbiotic, memetic organism’’ idea; until then, it exists in the back of my disconnected story seeds file.

Talk a bit about your work editing fiction for Strange Horizons. How did you get involved there, and what kind of stories do you look for?

I was still trying to crack Strange Horizons as a market when I got an invitation from the editorial team to apply for a position as editor. And that was a fantastic opportunity for me; I’d been thinking, for a while, that founding a magazine was a goal I wanted to work towards, and I’d never considered that editing an existing magazine was something within reach for me. I’m still a little flabbergasted when I think about it: people actually entrust me with this responsibility? But it’s been great fun.

There are a few things I always keep an eye out for, though a lot of the stories I’ve chosen have come from outside those areas of focus and just made me love them, regardless. And I wouldn’t trade that experience for a steady stream of only the things I’m looking for, so these examples shouldn’t be taken as prescriptive. But I always like seeing good xenofiction – nonhuman perspectives which are well rendered, well considered, and don’t reduce to cliché. I like seeing hard science fiction which maintains warmth and affection for its characters and the human condition. And I’m still holding out for a work of hyperfiction or interactive fiction which really lights me up.

It also always gives me a thrill to pick up a story from a new author, especially if we’re their first publication.

Any plans to write a novel?

I’ve written one, in fact! So now my plans include both writing novels and revising the one I’ve written. Coming from short stories, there’s still a lot I have to learn about novel structure, pacing, and scope – they’re all skills I haven’t internalized yet.

(I say this as though I have internalized how short-story mechanics work. Sometimes I wonder. It does feel like every time I start a new story, I go through an ‘‘Argh, how does writing work?’’ phase, but I’m given to believe that this is not all that uncommon among writers.)

What really interests me at the moment, though, is writing serials and works of episodic fiction, as well as writing stories of diverse lengths within expansive universes. The changing state of publishing means that a lot of interesting opportunities for storytelling are becoming more feasible, and a lot of those opportunities seem incredibly fun.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your work?

In the coming months, I hope to start playing a lot more with different distribution, funding, and interaction models. I have no intention of turning away from magazine submissions, but I want to explore platforms such as Patreon, activities such as prompt calls, and transformative-work-friendly copyleft paradigms through projects like my Shared Worlds stories. You can learn about some of these by poking around the web-original section of my website, and hopefully I’ll get significantly more information up about them soon.


Cory Doctorow: A New Deal for Copyright

Last November, I published a book-length essay about how copyright is failing to serve artists, and how it has come to present a clear and present danger to wider society. The book is called Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and it is composed of three snappy arguments (along with forewords by Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman) which I will summarize snappily, below:

1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, that lock isn’t there for your benefit.

The ‘‘digital rights management’’ (DRM) systems that stop you from installing unauthorized iPhone software or ripping a DVD to watch on your tablet are really bad at preventing piracy. For complex techni­cal reasons (explained in the book), they are always destined to fail, catastrophically, as soon as they make contact with the real world.

However, DRM law – nominally aimed at pre­venting nefarious digital lock-picking – has grossly distorted the market power of publishers (and labels and studios) when it comes to getting leverage on the tech companies that supply them with DRM, companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Adobe. That’s because the world’s DRM laws (the US one is the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act) say that it’s a crime to remove DRM, unless you’re the company that added it – when you sell with Apple’s DRM, you lock your customers inside Apple’s walled garden, and only Apple can let them out again (and the one time you can be pretty sure they won’t do that is when you’re having an argument with Apple about how much money each of you should be getting from each customer’s transactions).

If the DRM was really there to prevent piracy of your work, the com­pany wouldn’t object to you taking the DRM off the works when you felt it best. After all, it’s never piracy when the author or publisher permits someone to do something with their copyrighted work.

2. Being famous won’t make you rich, but no one will give you money unless they’ve heard of you.

Beyond Tim O’Reilly’s famous statement that ‘‘the problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity,’’ is another truth: that although there’s no one reliable way to turn fame into wealth, there is no way at all to turn obscurity into even modest sums.

Most things that most artists do will end up losing money, and it was ever thus. If we want to help artists succeed, one important way of doing that is to ensure that when their works do make money, that as much as possible lands in their pockets. And the way we do that is by giving them rules and systems that afford them leverage over their publishers (and labels, studios, etc.). As the number of big publishers has dwindled, down to five today, the terms being offered to authors have declined across the board – for example, today it’s nearly impossible to keep your e-book rights and sell them separately. Indeed, many publishers routinely demand worldwide rights, translation rights, audiobook rights, even graphic novel rights(!).

But some authors don’t have to give up all this. Either they’re indie authors who self-publish – a misnomer, because what they’re really doing is piecing together all the functions of a publisher from services all over the Internet, like PayPal, Google, Amazon, Lulu, etc. – or they’re authors whose self-publishing success has given them the leverage to get a better deal when they go mainstream. For example, Hugh Howey, the author of the indie bestseller Wool, was able to keep his e-book rights when he went into negotiation with Simon & Shuster (likely the only author this decade to have managed the trick) because he’d already shown that they needed him more than he needed them.

Even if we’re not going indie, everyone benefits from a thriving indie sector. It’s a kind of competitor of last resort to the Big Five, and the worst deal they can offer us has to be better than the best deal we think we can get for ourselves by following the indie authors out the publishers’ doors.

But the publishers (and, shamefully, authors’ groups) have declared war on these services. It’s thanks to the entertainment industry that starting a competitor to YouTube today involves not just some hard-drives and a garage, but a $200-300M ‘‘Content ID’’ system that can automatically detect infringing videos. Not that it actually works very well (as the TV and movie and music people are always reminding us), but that bar­rier to entry, an affordable nuisance to Google, is a show stopper for anyone scrappy and disruptive who’d keep Google on its toes and present an alternative to the deal it offers to rights holders.

The new boss is always the same as the old boss. YouTube recently unveiled a Spotify-like music streaming service, having done a deal with the Big Four labels on how the music for it would be licensed. Afterwards, YouTube quietly told all the indies that they would be forced to accept the terms the majors had negotiated, and the penalty for not accepting these terms would be permanent exile from YouTube, with no access to the service to promote their artists.

The more expensive it is to enter the ‘‘services to indies’’ sector, the less competition we’ll have there, and the more the ‘‘indie’’ channel will just replicate the terrible terms offered by the majors.

3. Information doesn’t want to be free.

I’ve never done anything in my activist career to help information realize its destiny, but we live in an information society, in which people want to be free, and they can’t be free so long as infor­mation technology is regulated as a particularly tricky video-on-demand service with a side of piracy.

When we raise the liability bar for services like YouTube, Face-book, PayPal, and WordPress, we mostly impact non-arts activities. By making it possible to remove anything from the Internet by asserting – without proof or penalty for misuse – that it infringes upon copyright, we pave the way for trivial, unaccountable censorship on a mass scale, as we’ve seen when the Church of Scientology, the King of Thailand, and UK neo-Nazis use copyright claims to censor their critics right off the net.

DRM only works if your computer is designed to disobey your orders (‘‘Please save this Netflix stream’’; ‘‘I can’t let you do that, Dave’’), to obey orders from remote parties, and to hide exactly how this is done (lest you drag HAL9000.EXE into the trash). The DMCA makes it a felony to weaken DRM, which includes explaining how it works, or disclosing bugs in the DRM system, because these can be leveraged to ‘‘jailbreak’’ your devices so they take orders from you, not a multinational corporation.

Practically, this means that it’s a felony to tell you about flaws in the supercomputer in your pocket, which is privy to all your conversations, knows who your friends are and where you go, has a camera and a mic that it can see and hear you through, and that you take into the bathroom and the bedroom. Increasingly, these computers – which are becoming woven into the very fabric of our living environments, and even entering our bodies as cochlear implants and pacemakers – are being taken over by creeps, cops, spies, and crooks to compromise their owners in hor­rific ways that make the most dystopian SF seem like a walk in the park.

So what is to be done?

There are two small policy interventions that would make a huge differ­ence to the balance of commercial power in the arts, while safeguarding human rights and civil liberties.

1. Reform DRM law.

It should never be a crime to:

* Report a vulnerability in a DRM;

* Remove DRM to accomplish a lawful purpose.

With this simple reform, DRM would no longer turn our devices into long-lived reservoirs of pathogens (because bugs could be reported as soon as they were discovered), and would no longer give the whip-hand over publishing to tech companies (because re­moving DRM to do something legal, like moving a book between two different readers, would be likewise legal).

2. Reform intermediary liability.

* The DMCA ‘‘safe harbor’’ should require submission of evidence that the identified works are indeed infringing;

* If you file a DMCA takedown notice that ma­terially misrepresents the facts as you know them or should have known them, you should be liable to stiff, exemplary statutory damages, with both the intermediary and the creator of the censored work having a cause of action against you, and with the courts having the power to award costs to the victims’ lawyers.

By ensuring a minimum standard of care for censorship demands, and penalties for abuse, the practice of carelessly sending millions of slop­pily compiled takedowns would be stopped dead (last year, Fox perjured itself and had copies of my novel Homeland removed from sites that were authorized to host them, because it couldn’t be bothered to distinguish my novel from its TV show). Likewise, penalties for abuse with a loser-pays system of fees would give the victims of malicious censorship attempts grounds for punishing the wrongdoers who make a mockery of out the copyright holder’s toolkit to silence their opponents.

But so long as we’re making a wish-list, here’s the big policy change that would make all this stuff much less fraught: STOP APPLYING COPYRIGHT TO ANYONE EXCEPT THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY.

Copyright laws were arrived at largely by codi­fying the practices of the entertainment industry into law, and because they were only triggered by making or handling copies of creative works, these rules only applied to the industry. When every copy of every book involves a printing press, then every copy of every book has been made by someone who’s using industrial machinery and is part of the industry.

Computers work by making copies, so reading a book now involves making copies, as does lend­ing, reselling, or giving away books. That does not make reading into an industrial activity.

Rather than changing the definition of whom copyright applied to, we’ve nonsensically declared that the 12-year-old making a Harry Potter fan site has to understand and follow the same rules that Universal uses to license rights for the Harry Potter theme park from Warner. But it’s obvious – totally, completely obvious – that the 12-year-old will never be able to follow those rules. First, because they are incredibly complicated, and second, because they require her to negotiate a license for all her art and excerpts and suchlike with Warner, and no one at Warner will negotiate with her, period.

If you have to understand the law to read a book, we have failed. If you have to enter into a contract – any contract, even a ‘‘good’’ contract – to read a book, we have failed.

These are cultural, not industrial activities. It’s insane to ask people to sign contracts to read books. Seriously, who actually thinks this is a good idea?

Maybe we do need rules for culture, and maybe we even need laws for culture, but they shouldn’t – and can’t – be the rules we designed for industry.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference be­tween culture and industry, but there are plenty of cases where it’s totally obvious. For those fuzzy cases in the middle, come up with some guidelines and let the courts apply them.

It’s a wildly imperfect system, but at the very least, it isn’t the grossly Kafkaesque idea that you should have to enter into a 22,000-word agreement with Apple, AT&T, and Random House audio in order to listen to a 15,000-word novella.


Michael Moorcock: Multiverses

Legendary author and editor Michael Moorcock turned 75 on December 18, 2014. In celebration of his lifetime of tremendous (and ongoing) contributions to SF and fantasy literature, Locus’s December issue gathers tributes and retrospectives on his life and work to date, as well as a look at what comes next. He has a new novel coming from Tor, plus reprints and new material from PM Press, and British publisher Gollancz is engaged in a major project to republish all of Moorcock’s genre fiction in new, definitive editions.

In addition to appreciations by Harlan Ellison, Alan Moore, Norman Spinrad, Iain Sinclair, Jeff VanderMeer, and the late Andrea Dworkin, the issue has an interview conducted with Moorcock last month by artist John Picacio, an overview of Moorcock’s life and work by scholar John Davey, an excerpt from Moorcock’s upcoming novel The Whispering Swarm (Tor) and an interview with Ramsey Kanaan of PM Press, which is publishing a great deal of Moorcock material.


Excerpts from the interview:

John Picacio: Let’s talk about your forthcoming novel The Whispering Swarm. From what I’ve gathered, creating this book was a long journey, especially considering how fast you’re used to working. As a visual guy, I see a grail on the cover and I’ve seen you note somewhere online that there is no grail in the story, so I’m even more intrigued now.

Michael Moorcock: One of the characters in The Whispering Swarm specifically says, ‘‘We’re not talking about the Holy Grail, you know.’’ It’s a different kind of cup. It’s shaped like a fish, sort of soaring up towards the surface of water – it’s called a Fish Chalice. In my mind it’s based a bit on Japanese stuff. The cover has absolutely nothing to do with what’s inside. They knew there was going to be a chalice in it, so they decided to make it a regular, chalice-shaped chalice. We’re hoping the paperback will have a more appropriate cover.

JP: What’s the book about?

MM: The book is partially autobiographical. That was the most painful part to write. Then there’s a fantasy element, which is the Alsatia, a part of London that is not seen by most Londoners, which has a historical origin. The Alsatia was called that because Alsace lies between France and Germany and is neither one place nor the other. The Alsatia in London is neither London nor is it not-London. It was a section between the Fleet River and the Thames, in that area anyway, by Blackfriars Bridge. It was given to the Carmelites in the 13th century, when they were expelled from Mount Carmel by a particularly zealous regime. You couldn’t have any monks living on Mount Carmel, so they all came over to England and France and were given land by princes who wanted to show off their piety. Those lands constituted the Abbey, however much land had been granted. It was part of a church, which meant it was also a sanctuary. Over time it became a thieves’ sanctuary. Such places have always existed to a degree in European cities, and even in New York and other places they’ve spontaneously developed. Usually in cities like that, for one reason or another, the land is not considered part of the city or indeed of the state. There’s one part of London that’s actually part of the Portuguese embassy, and that grew up into a thieves’ warren, too, over time – so Alsatia is a real place. It features a lot in highwayman fiction of the 19th century, because that’s where they all went to regroup. In reality, it ceased to exist in the 19th century, but in my story it’s still there, and still thriving pretty much as it might have done in the 18th century. Only you can’t see it.

The rest of the book is essentially historical fiction. It’s an attempt to rescue Charles the First from the block where he’s going to get his head cut off. That’s the political aspect of it, too, because I’m dealing with the English Revolution in terms of how it prefigured the American Revolution. I’m trying to talk about the American Revolution as well as the English Revolution. The same slogans were used in both revolutions: ‘‘Don’t tread on me’’ was used by the English revolutionaries; ‘‘No taxation without representation’’ was also used. You can tell it’s ideologically pretty much a direct continuation of that revolution in America, where it took hold. The English revolution went to America, and became successful. We lost it in England.

JP: I love it. You talked about how there’s an autobiographical element to this piece, and how there was some pain in developing that part. Do you want to go into that a bit?

MM: The autobiographical stuff was painful to write, partly because I deliberately set out to face my own ghosts, my own past. Partly because of the people who are still alive, such as my children, whose sensibilities I don’t want to offend, I couldn’t be as direct as I might have been about my first marriage, for instance, because to do so would have upset my children, and I would rather not do that. Their mother doesn’t talk about events very much, which means I can’t talk about those events, either, because then the kids would only be getting my story. It’s a very fine line I have to tread between remaining truthful and not giving my opinion too much about my first wife.

In this particular book I deal mainly with my life to around the age of 30. I deal to some extent with New Worlds and the writers around New Worlds, my early trips to the United States, the publishers, and the per­sonalities at the time, mostly using their real names. A few of them do not have their real names for obvious reasons – or I need them to be slightly fictionalised for purposes of plot or not to hurt feelings. It goes up to 1969 or 1970, something like that.

I am curious to find out how readers respond to this book, because it seems to me very different from anything else I’ve done before in long form.

*

JP: What’s the next book called?

MM: The Woods of Arcady. The title comes from Yeats, a rather elegiac poem about how the woods of Arcady are disappearing, essentially about how the old stories are disappearing from the world. Yeats was seeing it in a particular light, and I’m seeing it in a different light, but I’m using his poem. Yeats was mourning the death of Romantic Ireland, as he did in a number of poems: ‘‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone / it’s with O’Leary in the grave.’’ He was seeing Ireland becoming more realistic as it fought for independence, essentially – that’s what he was seeing. I might be looking at fantasy and wondering how far from its mythological roots generic fantasy has actually strayed. I’ve always been an advocate for remaining close to your literary and cultural roots. I’m talking about not so much the death of fantasy as the diluting of fantasy. I call it Xeroxing, where you’ve made too many Xeroxes and it’s fading to the point of invisibility, almost impossible to read. Generic fantasy now tends to feed off itself, the way science fiction did, the way genre almost inevitably does. I’m not saying this is true of everybody, but it is of most people who are writing generic fantasy or SF because they’re enthusiastic about somebody else’s books, rather than about, say, Indian mythology or African mythology or Norse mythology or Jacobean plays or narrative poetry or Regency gothics so that they understand the roots of the genre and so add real vibrancy to their work.

*

JP: Titan is about to release the first sequences of The Eternal Champion. That’s a great gateway for anyone who’s intimidated by the scope of your work. What’s the overall storyline?

MM: The Eternal Champion is someone who is reincarnated again and again through the multiverse having committed a great crime for which he is punished by serv­ing the Eternal Balance, either for Law or for Chaos, whichever needs the most help. We all know what a multiverse is these days. The great crime isn’t necessarily the crime I describe in the book. In a way he’s seeking forgiveness for what he did. It’s impossible. He can’t ever find forgiveness for what he did because it’s inevitable – what occurs, occurs. But he’s constantly reincarnated throughout different universes and different parts of the galaxy. Some stories are full-blooded adventure fantasy while in others the Champion can be a modern man and there’s no fantasy to speak of.

*

JP: I see a lot of fantasy authors credited as worldbuilders, and many cite you as a major influence on their work. I’ve heard you say you don’t do worldbuilding. What do you think is being missed in translation?

MM: I think the notion of worldbuilding is a failure of literary sophistication. Take the Romantic writers of the 19th century, particularly the Brontës. The Brontës loved the idea of depicting weather to suit moods – it’s called the pathetic fallacy, where you give inanimate things animate qualities. The point of that style of writing is that it used landscape and weather, all exteriors, to symbolize internal con­flict within the individual or within a small group of individuals. I only invent what’s necessary to explain the mood of a character. I haven’t thought about an imaginary world’s social security system; I don’t know the gross national product of Melniboné. If worldbuilding is a sophisticated working-out of how a world interacts in and of itself, I don’t really have any of that. People interact in my worlds. Weather systems interact. The weather system is always sup­posed to show what’s going on inside the character. That’s why I don’t see myself as a worldbuilder. The world unfolds in front of the character as the story develops. If the story doesn’t need it, it’s not there.

I’ve fought against this kind of anti-romantic rationalization most of my career. That’s why I don’t like Campbellian science fiction as such, because it has to present itself as a pseudo-realism to create a suspension of disbelief. I’m trying to do the op­posite. I’m trying to tell a good story without you having to believe it as ‘‘reality.’’ Cornelius in par­ticular depends on you NOT suspending your sense of disbelief! Most science fiction tries to rationalize something so you believe it as reality and frequently ruins the great visionary quality which inspired it. I’m describing reality, but it isn’t a construct. I’m not trying to convince you this is going to be real. I’m trying to convince you that these ideas have to be considered, that what’s going on in the world has to be thought about. The conscious life is all I’m advocating.


Spotlight On: Joe Monti

You’re launching a new SF imprint, Saga Press. What’s your vision? Do you have a mission statement, or a particular niche you hope to fill?

I’m working with editor Navah Wolfe on the imprint, so while I do not want to speak for her, I can say that Saga Press is taking the best practices of SF/F imprints, along with select general fiction imprints and children’s/YA publishing, and incorporating them into our business.

Personally, I always like backing a dark horse. I want to explore the challenges of the field and see if there is as much room to grow something in the in-between spaces as I think there may be. In my experience, so many of the greatest successes materialize out of that space that is a trend and taking it slant. My days as a buyer for B&N taught me pattern recognition. My time as an editor may well be spent looking for that one soft spot in the marketplace dragon that I can acquire with a black arrow, again and again.

I also feel fortunate to be here now, starting Saga, in these interesting times. There’s a movement towards change in whom and what we acquire and what our present readers want to see and whom we want to reach in the reading public. A gross generalization is that publishing largely sells fiction to women and teens – yet in SF/F I think there is a lot more to do in marketing outreach to these robust and welcoming readers. So I want to work on that and it’ll be reflected in my acquisitions. A full year in, and as far as frontlist goes – all of which are not announced – Navah and I have acquired parity in male-female authors. I am also very concerned with how our list reflects the demographics of the US and the world in terms of representation of people of color, and the LGBT community. There’s more work to be done, and continuing to be done, but on our first list of four titles, which is obviously too small a subset to extract data from, Navah and I have a wide range of authors and main characters represented. I’m very proud of that and am striving to have that continue to be reflected in my acquisitions going forward.

Before joining Saga, you were a literary agent. Why did you decide to switch from representing authors to publishing them?

You know what’s funny? I get called out now on thinking like an agent by editorial colleagues and agents! The honest answer is that this is my dream job. I really cared about and for my clients, and working with the Barry Goldblatt Agency; I was happy. But when I was 17, I thought, ‘Some day, I’d like to teach English Literature or be an editor.’ Then when I was 31/32, a handful of years on the job as a buyer, Harry Potter was still booming and some of my schemes for YA were panning out explosively well, I began to know enough about publishing and refined that thought to, ‘Some day I’d like to run an imprint.’ So I laid out a plan on how I thought I could get there with my skills and experiences, and started to try to make it happen. And the result was that I failed! My plan took right turns, jug handles (as we call them in New Jersey), full stops, and a u-turn, but then it happened. Anyone who has spoken to me about the industry for any length of time, especially when I get wonky, knows I often say ‘‘When I rule the world I’ll…’’, and here’s my chance to create something, whether it be Xanadu or some evil mad scientist’s lair under a volcano remains to be seen. Fortunately I have Navah’s and my publisher Justin Chanda’s help, not to mention a pair of sharpshooter designers in Michael McCartney and Mathew Kalamadias. So the follow-up statement to this being my dream job is that I now get to roll up my sleeves and try.

In addition to being an agent and editor, you’ve worked as a bookseller and in sales for a publisher, giving you an unusual industry-wide view. What particular challenges does the publishing industry face now, and what new opportunities do you see?

Call me Pollyanna, but I think the industry, including the small press and indie publishing divisions, is so very vibrant and some great works are emerging. Forcing the traditional side to be more savvy, and the indie side to be more professional, is an environment that I think can lead to great work. On the self-published side, I have acquired Linda Nagata’s brilliant The Red: First Light, the first in a trilogy of near-future military fiction that she originally published, as well as Cat Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which was published in a limited run of 750 print copies from the outstanding Subterranean Press. Both have racked up nominations as our industry is wise enough to acknowledge great works from a wide set of sources.

As far as other opportunities go, well, we won the war, so here come the boom years. By the war, I mean the perpetual forever war of science fiction and fantasy being respected as art and accepted by readers is over; some just don’t know it yet. The influence of SF/F is everywhere, in so many mediums that you can not deny it. The relatively recent success of Karen Joy Fowler, George R.R. Martin, Diana Galbaldon, Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern, David Mitchell, and the science fiction of Margaret Atwood are the spoils of this war; not to mention children’s and YA SF/F, which is as much a foundation for this victory. Where would we be without Tamora Pierce, let alone Le Guin and Rowling? What will the next level of SF/F be? What will the next generations of SF/F writers achieve? Maybe our massive bestseller written by a woman of color is coming in 2015. It’s enthralling to think and scheme about.

What trends are you seeing in SF and fantasy? What are you (and other SF/F publishers) looking for now, and what are they sick of getting?

I have been laying down the gauntlet that space opera is coming back in 2015 into 2016. From the success James S.A. Corey has had with The Expanse series, Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, John Scalzi’s dominance of all the things from his mainstream breakout in Redshirts to the television shows in development, for all three of these authors, you add a Star Wars movie every year for the next six years and the improbable success of the most space opera pulp film in decades in Guardians of the Galaxy, and you can argue that SF literature is behind the curve! Hand in hand, I think hard SF will also come around, and I’m eager for it, minus the misogyny please!

I also have never believed that Grimdark Fantasy was a real movement as much as a catch-all net that had a hole in it. Abercrombie’s brilliant – he’s our Quentin Tarantino – but this kind of fantasy never went out of fashion as writers like Glen Cook and, later, George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson, have been doing great work. What we were seeing was a more noir blend of fantasy with nuanced protagonists that were varying shades of grey. Kameron Hurley, Brent Weeks, and of course the stupendously wonderful Scott Lynch are other great recent successes from this movement. But I do think the attention to grimdark fantasy after GRRM’s success has neglected what was a tremendously successful movement, the return of epic fantasy that was just fun, or heroic. I’m speaking of writers like Patrick Rothfuss, Naomi Novik, N.K. Jemison, Brandon Sanderson, Trudi Canavan, Cassandra Clare, and so on. We’re paying attention to this now, and one of the most exciting things around the horizon is (Fanboy alert!) Tad Williams’s return to Osten Ard.

I also hope more socially oriented SF, like Doctorow’s Little Brother and of course, Paolo Bacigalupi’s forthcoming The Water Knife will be coming my way, as I like tilting at windmills.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your work?

Saga Press announced that we’ll be publishing our new titles DRM-free when we launch in 2015! I’m so very excited and pleased that Simon & Schuster is supporting Saga in this experiment. We’re following the good work of Baen, Tor, Small Beer, Angry Robot, and others as the second of the major publishers to do so, and it pleases me to know that our Saga Press e-book readers will be served well by us from the get go.

I am looking forward to sharing the joy I have for this literature with our readers.



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