Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Traditionally the used book store has been a dusty little place of shelves crammed tight with books, generally off the beaten path and quite unlike the new book store with its bright lights and carefully arranged shelves of pristine copies. But with the advent of the online bookstore, the distinction between sellers of new and used books has blurred.'s Marketplace program enables used-book sellers to sell right on the same page as the new books Amazon itself is selling, thus allowing used books to compete directly with new ones.

As a result, there has been increasing concern that the sales of used books are depriving authors of their rightful royalties. After all, if a person can surf onto Amazon's webpage and find the same title that is sold brand new by Amazon itself sold instead for half or a quarter that price by a used-book seller, it would seem obvious that people would be likely to buy the cheaper one. Thus an organization called Novelists, Inc. has begun pressuring lawmakers to require used book sellers to remit royalties on each book sold, or at least books published in the last two years.

Paul Biba of TeleRead has suggested that requiring used-book dealers to pay royalties could have surprising consequences, including making books even less available to the poorest decile of the population, for whom used books and other inexpensive reading options, including libraries, are often the only way to obtain books at all.

In fact, I would suggest that he has not gone far enough in his discussion of the unintended consequences. In fact, it's very likely that the necessary overhead in recordkeeping could actually kill the secondary market for books altogether. Most used-book dealers operate on very narrow margins, often on a mom-and-pop basis. The sellers aren't getting rich, and often are barely scraping by. And that's just sellers who specialize in books. The generalist secondhand store will decide to no longer carry books at all, even those that are well beyond the two-year limit, for the simple reason that ensuring that nothing recent slips in by mistake is too much of a hassle. Thrift stores such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army will also find it impossible to justify such overhead, and will decline to accept book donations, thus hitting the poor twice -- by eliminating a source of very low-cost books and by the loss of the revenue those sales generate that are then applied to various good works.

In a world where royalties must be collected on (recent) used books, only the largest used-book dealerships and a few specialist collectible bookstores would be able to stay in business. Otherwise, the only venues at which used books would be found would be garage sales, which generally fly under the regulatory radar altogether. Most books that are no longer wanted by their owners would most likely go straight to the trash, needlessly burdening landfills and resulting in further resource destruction as trees have to be pulped to produce new copies. Worse, many old and out-of-print books would become even more difficult to find, making it even more likely that their authors become forgotten altogether.

Which means that what is intended to help authors get more money will instead result in many authors losing out altogether.

Correction The actual article is by Chris Meadows -- Paul Biba is the overall site owner, who has various guest writers posting as well.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Can We Move To the Adventure Part?

Recently I've been reading John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor's Claws that Catch, and I've been feeling rather frustrated with it. Already I'm at the hundred-page point and we still haven't gotten into space. To me, it seems like there's way too much "housekeeping" stuff going on and it's getting in the way of moving on to the real story.

I'm also finding that I'm unsettled by one major character's bubbly new wife. Not so much that she's happy to be supporting her husband's career -- there really are some people who are happiest when facilitating someone else's success -- but that it is presented as though it were the only valid model for a married woman. We never see any examples of a dual-career couple or one in which the man supports his wife's career. Thus there seems to be an unspoken message that this is the way women ought to arrange their lives, rather than just what worked for one person.

When I consider some of the other books that John Ringo has written recently, it almost seems as though he thinks that we are soon going to be facing some kind of social upheaval that will lead us to fall back onto the traditional hierarchical family in which the adult male is the most important person and everyone else is expected to defer to him and work to support his success, even to the despite of themselves. To be true, there is a rationale behind this sort of arrangement -- the adult male body generates higher levels of testosterone, which translates into greater upper body strength. And frequently in belt-buckle-to-backbone situations that additional muscular strength can translate into an important survival edge for the entire group, which means that it is important to keep it at its peak.

However, it can be rough on the people inside those bodies, for the simple fact that we are individuals, not widgets stamped out in a factory all alike. As roles become increasingly rigid and prescriptive, people who do not fit neatly into them come under increasing pressure, often disproportionate to the actual need to have everyone fitting tightly into their assigned roles. The role becomes an end unto itself, rather than a means to the end.

In the long run, emergency arrangements have a nasty habit of surviving the emergency. For instance, long after the Great Depression was over, my grandmother continued to carefully save and reuse little squares of aluminum foil. The habit had become ingrained in those tight years, and even after she had adequate money, she continued to do so.

When we go from the scale of individual habits to that of social expectations, things can get even worse. Making a virtue of necessity often ends up with the virtue surviving long after the necessity has gone away. This is especially true if it should become enshrined in tradition and given moral force. For instance, the feudal privileges granted the nobility in Europe made sense in the chaotic century or two immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire made sense, because it freed up their time and energy to protect the people who needed to spend all their time and energy producing the food that would keep everybody alive. But by the time society changed such that those arrangements were no longer necessary, they had become so customary that questioning them was met with intense hostility. To suggest that the nobility should pay taxes upon their wealth was seen as an affront, a diminishment of the dignity of their elevated standing in society. Thus many of these privileges survived well into the modern era, to the point that they were actually a drain upon society instead of helping to support it.

And quite honestly, there is in John Ringo's portrayals of gender relation a certain hint of the nobleman annoyed at those "uppity" commoners questioning traditional feudal privileges and duties.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Book Reviewer Link-Up Meme

From Grasping for the Wind, a list of active sf/fantasy book reviewers. If you don't see your blog, follow the link to get yours added.

7 Foot Shelves
The Accidental Bard
A Boy Goes on a Journey
A Dribble Of Ink
A Hoyden's Look at Literature
Adventures in Reading
The Agony Column
Andromeda Spaceways
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Ask Daphne
Australia Specfic in Focus
Author 2 Author
Barbara Martin
Bees (and Books) on the Knob
Bibliophile Stalker
The Billion Light-year Bookshelf
Bitten by Books
The Black Library Blog
Blog, Jvstin Style
Blood of the Muse
The Book Bind
The Book Smugglers
The Book Swede
Breeni Books
Cheaper Ironies [pro columnist]
Cheryl's Musings
Critical Mass
The Crotchety Old Fan
Damien G. Walter
Danger Gal
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Darque Reviews
Dave Brendon's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
Dear Author
The Deckled Edge
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
The Discriminating Fangirl
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
Eve's Alexandria
Fantastic Reviews
Fantastic Reviews Blog
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Cafe
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' Blog
Feminist SF - The Blog!
The Fix
The Foghorn Review
Frances Writes
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
Fruitless Recursion
The Galaxy Express
The Gamer Rat
Genre Reviews
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
The Green Man Review
Highlander's Book Reviews
The Hub Magazine
Hyperpat's Hyper Day
Ink and Keys
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Lair of the Undead Rat
League of Reluctant Adults
Literary Escapism
Michele Lee's Book Love
The Mistress of Ancient Revelry
MIT Science Fiction Society
Monster Librarian
More Words, Deeper Hole
Mostly Harmless Books
My Favourite Books
Neth Space
The New Book Review
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Outside of a Dog
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Piaw's Blog
Post-Weird Thoughts
Publisher's Weekly
Reading the Leaves
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Reviewer X
The Road Not Taken
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
Robots and Vamps
Sandstorm Reviews
Sci Fi Wire
Sci-Fi Fan Letter
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
The Sequential Rat
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SF Diplomat
SF Gospel
SF Revu
SF Signal
SF Site
SFF World's Book Reviews
Silver Reviews
The Specusphere
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Speculative Fiction
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Speculative Horizons
Spiral Galaxy Reviews
Spontaneous Derivation
Sporadic Book Reviews
Stella Matutina
The Sudden Curve
The Sword Review
Tangent Online
Tehani Wessely
Temple Library Reviews [also a publisher]
True Science Fiction
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
The Wertzone
With Intent to Commit Horror
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The World in a Satin Bag
Young Adult Science Fiction

Foreign Language (other than English)

Cititor SF [Romanian, but with English Translation] [French]

Foundation of Krantas [Chinese (traditional)]

The SF Commonwealth Office in Taiwan [Chinese (traditional) with some English essays]

Yenchin's Lair [Chinese (traditional)]

Fernando Trevisan [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Human 2.0 [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Life and Times of a Talkative Bookworm [Brazilian, Porteguese]

Ponto De Convergencia [Brazilian, Portuguese]

pós-estranho [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Fantasy Seiten [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Buch [German, Deustche]

Literaturschock [German, Deustche]

Welt der fantasy [German, Deustche]

Bibliotheka Phantastika [German, Deustche]

SF Basar [German, Deustche]

Phantastick News [German, Deustche]

X-zine [German, Deustche]

Buchwum [German, Deustche]

Phantastick Couch [German, Deustche]

Wetterspitze [German, Deustche]

Fantasy News [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Faszination [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Guide [German, Deustche]

Zwergen Reich [German, Deustche]

Fiction Fantasy [German, Deustche]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

First Contact as You've Never Seen It

Michael Z. Williamson has announced that he will begin regular snippeting of his new novel Contact with Chaos on his topic at Baen's Bar, Mike's Madhouse.

I've seen a few early-draft snippets of Contact with Chaos, and it looks to be setting several cherished tropes of the first-contact story on their ears. Not to mention that he's showing a dark side of the Freehold of Grainne, to which he introduced readers in his debut novel, Freehold. Since it's clear in his earlier works that he deeply admires the ideals of the society he has portrayed (minimal government, self-reliance and the development of community on the personal level rather than as a top-down mandate, etc), it takes a considerable amount of artistic courage to show it as having flawed people who can use its strengths in flawed ways, and let the consequences of those flaws play out in a logical manner.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Part that Is Original Is Not Good, and the Part that is Good Is Not Original

As I have been reading The Alton Gift by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross, I have been growing increasingly disappointed with it. This has been frustrating because I really do want to enjoy it. Darkover has long been one of my favorite series, ever since I found a battered copy of Stormqueen! at my tiny hometown library when I was a teen and was immediately sucked into the chilly world that seemed like a feudal society but possessed these odd telepathic powers that made them seem futuristic. Over the next several years I hunted down and devoured every one of the books.

As I read The Alton Gift, I keep having my mind jarred by things that feel out of place. Several times I have come across terms that were used in ways that didn't quite feel right, which made me want to hunt up all the old Darkover books and re-read them to see whether my memory was failing me after so many years. And then there were scenes that didn't feel like Darkover at all, but more like some other fantasy world interpolated into Darkover.

Now that I am not quite halfway through the novel, I'm realizing that there's a consistent pattern to my dislikes: the sections that ought to feel the most like classic Darkover instead feel like the old books were chopped up and bits pasted in rather badly without any real understanding of what they were about, while the sections in which it appears that Ms. Ross was attempting to take Darkover in new directions do not feel like they even belong on Darkover at all.

I've noticed this happening in the most recent books of several long-running series. For instance, I have the latest two Pern books on my shelf right now, but my attempts to read them have repeatedly ground to a halt because I simply cannot seem to get into them. And I loved the original six Pern books, and even some of the subsequent ones. But somewhere after All the Weyrs of Pern some of the old spark of Pern seemed to gutter out, and the subsequent books felt more like efforts to squeeze additional money out of an old idea than anything new and fresh. Although Anne McCaffrey's son Todd seems to have tried to take the storyline in a new direction with his three books, they are rapidly feeling less and less like the real Pern.

And of course one of the most notorious in my mind is the endless series of prequels and sequels to Dune that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have been churning out of late. Even under Frank Herbert's own hand the later books in the series had shown a decline compared to the vivid worldbuilding of the original. When I read the prequel series, it felt like fanfic that happened to be authorized by the estate. Now I like fanfic, especially the sort that knows that it's fanfic and revels in the sense of playing cheerfully in someone else's universe. However, the very pompous "this is the real stuff" message that was larded all over the Dune prequel series really turned me off.

Even when the original creator is still alive and active in the creation, it's not proof against the problem: I still remember watching the first Star Wars prequel and recognizing one scene after another as rehashes of successful scenes from the original trilogy. By the time I was done watching it, I was glad I waited to see it on video and hadn't wasted my money going to a first-run theater. And George Lucas, the guiding genius of the original Star Wars trilogy, is not only alive and well, but still the one creating the prequel trilogy.

However, length of run is no automatic prompter of decline. Some authors seem to be able to maintain the creative spark through a large number of volumes. For instance, David Weber has written over a dozen books in his Honor Harrington series, yet each new one simultaneously takes the story in new directions and continues to feel like the authentic Honorverse. His collaborations with Eric Flint, exploring the war against the genetic slavers of Mesa who were originally almost a toss-off bit of background color, are every bit as compelling as the mainline Honor series, and don't feel like something awkwardly grafted onto the Honorverse.

Yet once the slide into trouble begins for a series, there seems to be no recovering. Which raises the question of whether there really does come a time when it's best to allow a series to die a natural death -- and whether a publisher will allow it to do so as long as the books, however bad, continue to generate money from fans who just keep hoping that maybe this one will be like the ones they remembered from the days when the series was still alive and vibrant.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Websites and Blogs

Elizabeth Moon has announced in her newsgroup that she has two new websites with associated blogs.

The first is dedicated to her near future novel The Speed of Dark, which deals with a revolutionary new treatment for autism and the prices of becoming "normal."

The second is dedicated to her Paksenarrion universe, which has a new series coming out shortly. The original Paksenarrion trilogy, beginning with Sheepfarmer's Daughter (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 1), launched Elizabeth Moon's writing career, so it's good to see her returning to that world.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Norilana Books in Peril!

Norilana Books, the small specialty press which has published such gems as Sherwood Smith's Senrid and A Stranger To Command, is in serious danger.

It is a one-woman production, owned and operated by Vera Nazarian, an immigrant who came here from the old Soviet Union in the depths of the Cold War. After years of struggling to support her aging parents on multiple low-paying jobs and struggling with a crushing debt load (the result of having been defrauded when she was young and inexperienced, and believing that it was her fault because she was, in her own words, "just a dumb immigrant"), her health finally became so poor she could no longer go to an office each day. Determined not to become a public charge, she founded Norilana Books so she could work from home, which also enabled her to give round-the-clock care to her parents as their health deteriorated.

However, businesses take a certain amount of lead time to become profitable, and in that time Vera's personal financial situation worsened dramatically. Her father passed away after a lengthy (and expensive) illness, and her mother went through another illness which required her total attention for several months she desperately needed to build her business. Then she had several major and expensive problems with her house, some of which have not been completely resolved and pose continuing risk to the health of her and her mother.

Now her situation has become critical, and she is in danger of losing her house if she cannot come up with over ten thousand dollars to pay her mortgage, since her forbearance has ended prematurely. Although Norilana Books itself is in sufficiently sound condition that it can continue operations, how can Vera continue to produce books if she and her mother have been tossed out on the street?

A number of her friends have set up a site, Help Vera, on which they are taking donations and auctioning various collectible items in order to raise enough money that Vera will be able to have some leverage in negotiating with her mortgage holder. Every dollar we can raise will make it more likely that they will actually be willing to work with her rather than simply grabbing the house and tossing her out on her ear to fend for herself.

Update: The fundraiser has succeeded far beyond our hopes. We already have enough money to pay the arrearage on Vera's mortgage, and there are still donations and auction payments in the pipeline. The additional money will be used to help Vera get a lawyer to get her mortgage rewritten to standard terms (as opposed to the onerous sub-prime mortgage she currently has), to get her sewer line fixed before it becomes a catastrophe, to deal with medical expenses for her and her mother, and start building a cushion against future misfortunes.

This upwelling of grassroots support really restores my faith in humanity. It's so good to know that people can pull together to help someone who's fallen upon hard times.

Now the best thing we can do to help her maintain long-term solvency is to buy some of her books, and encourage others to do so as well. So go to Norilana Books, take a look through the catalog, and see if there's something that you'd like to get, either for yourself or as a gift for a friend. And pass the word: link it from your Website, blog about it, bookmark it in social bookmarking websites like Digg!, StumbleUpon, Furl, etc. Every link we create will help raise the prominence of her Website and her company, and thus its profitability.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sartorias-deles News

Sherwood Smith has reported on the Athanarel community on LiveJournal that she has finished CJ's second notebook. It looks like Norilana Books will be putting it out as another Christmas surprise, much as Over the Sea: CJ's First Notebook came out at the Christmas season last year.

And if that isn't enough to sate your hunger for Sartorias-deles, Samhain Books is finally going to be putting out The Trouble with Kings in hardcopy. It's a paperback rather than a hardcover, but if you've wanted something more substantial than the e-book, now's the time to pick it up.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sign of the Times

and it's not a good one, either.

According to GalleyCat, Houghton Mifflin, one of the biggest New York publishers, has stopped acquiring new manuscripts. This is supposed to be a temporary measure, but it is still unnerving in these uncertain economic times.

We can only hope that the publishing industry as a whole will be able to weather this storm and come out stronger in the end.

Friday, November 7, 2008

It Doesn't Work Because It Hasn't Really Been Tried

Today is the 91st anniversary of the Great October Revolution (which occurred on October 25, 1917 in the Julian Calendar, which Russia was still using at the time). It ushered in a time of high hopes and utopian dreams that were based upon a system doomed to fail for the simple reason that it runs counter to the fundamentals of human nature.

However, at the same time we live in the midst of millions of successful communistic societies -- ask any exterminator about the resilience of an ant or termite colony. And not all of these are harmful pests, for many familiar fruits and vegetables depend upon bees to pollinate them.

The eusocial insects' societies work because of their reproductive strategy, in which there is only one reproductive, while the others are sterile children or siblings of the current reproductive. As a result, kin selection leads them all to pull together when a society in which all are reproductives would pull apart.

The phenomenon of kin selection also helps explain why what Marx called "primitive communism" can actually work -- the societies involved are small enough that the community is effectively coterminous with the kin group. Since everybody is family, there is a strong incentive to help one another out without worrying about one's own benefit accrued -- a benefit to a close relative is essentially a benefit to one's own posterity.

As a result, science fiction writers have often tried to imagine a society where different reproductive strategies enable communism to actually work on a large scale for intelligent beings. For instance Eric Flint, an avowed Trotskyist in his politics, populated the world of Mother of Demons with the owoc and gukuy, eusocial mollusks who are just beginning to develop cities and a roughly Bronze Age civilization.

But the possibility of eusocial strategies doesn't have to be limited to weird aliens in a universe that includes the ability to modify human beings at will. The Borg of Star Trek have used cybernetic technology to turn themselves into a hive society with a single Queen who seems to serve as much as a controlling brain as a mother of all living. Less grotesquely but still rather disturbing, the First Family of Patrick Tilley's Cloud Warrior and its various sequels are portrayed as being the genetic source of mass of the populace of the Amtrak Federation, who are apparently sterile.

And Charles Stross in his fascinating, almost surrealistic Missile Gap
suggests that the Communists, faced with the enmity of eusocial insectoid races, may well have resorted to transhumanism to realize their own ideals in one or more iterations of human history found on the giant disk.

Friday, September 12, 2008

More Aldenata News

Julie Cochrane, John Ringo's co-author on the Cally trilogy, has started posting snippets of the forthcoming novel Honor of the Clan in Monster Tracks, her topic on Baen's Bar.

It looks like this one is going to directly follow on the previous one, Sister Time, and like it will be delving more deeply into the workings of Indowy and Darhel societies, and just how alien they are to humans, not just in the matter of customs, but in the hardwired reactions at an instinctive level.

Fourth Part of Kratman Interview Now Up!

Blackfive has posted the fourth installment of his interview with Col. Tom Kratman, author of Caliphate and several other important military science fiction books published by Baen.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Part Three of the Kratman Interview Now UP!

Blackfive has posted the third part of his interview with Col. Tom Kratman, author of Caliphate.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Second Part of the Kratman Intervew Now Available!

The second part of Blackfive's interview with Col. Tom Kratman, author of Caliphate and several other books published by Baen Books, has been uploaded today.

(This time it begins with a really cool title card, and then goes to the interview. Very nice effect).

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

New Interview with Col. Tom Kratman

Here's your chance to meet Col. Tom Kratman, author of Caliphate.

The audio on the interview is a little rough, but listen carefully and you can get some very interesting insights on the man behind the book.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shevraeth in Marloven

That was Sherwood Smith's working title for the prequel to Crown Duel
when she was originally sharing an early draft on the Athanarel LiveJournal community. But publisher Vera Nazarian of Norilana Books wanted a more intriguing title for the published version of the book.

And A Stranger to Command fits the bill, with its word play that underlines how Vidanric is simultaneously utterly inexperienced in the arts of command and an outsider to the harsh military culture of Marloven Hess and the rank to which he will soon be elevated.

Because the sounds of the Remalnan language are so different from the harsher ones of Marloven, no one at the famous Marloven cavalry academy can pronounce any of Vidanric's names. Instead they mistake the name of his estate, Shevraeth, for a surname and it becomes his appellation while he is a student there. This shift of names helps underline the sense of his movement into and subsequently out of an alien milleu. And alien it is, so much so that he is initially tormented by an intense sense of homesickness in spite of the danger posed by the wicked king from whose reach his parents had sought to remove him.

But as time goes by, Shevraeth becomes increasingly acclimated to this place he initially found shockingly barbaric. In time he even absorbs some of the harsh Marloven ethos as his own as he accepts a position of authority over the youngest boys, and with it the rod used to deliver the beatings known as "breezes."

Shevraeth's process of acculturation into Marloven society reminded me of another character's acculturation into a semi-barbaric equestrian society, namely that of the Jewish intellectual Kiril Lyutov into that of the Cossacks in Isaak Babel's Red Cavalry. However, there are many differences between the two books, the most significant being that A Stranger to Command is YA, while Red Cavalry is most definitely a work for adults (not to say that a certain kind of adolescent is apt to find Babel's portrayals of sex and violence enthralling). Thus it is not surprising that Sartorias-deles (the setting of A Stranger to Command is a world in which rape has been not merely memetically discouraged, but memetically erased, to the point the people no longer even have a concept of forcible sex. Thus the barbarities Shevraeth witnesses during his sojourn among the Marlovens are confined to harsh corporal punishments and the general brutality of military training.

Still, like Lyutov he finds a certain measure of triumph in learning military skills sufficiently well that he is able to blend into the general background instead of constantly being the center of attention as a foreigner. And it is the striking sense of two very different cultures being so fully developed that is the real strength of this book.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Stranger to Command Is Out!

A Stranger to Command, the prequel to Sherwood Smith's much-loved Crown Duel, is out from small-press publisher Norilana Books.

It all began as a throwaway line in Crown Duel about Shevraeth having gained his phenomenal skill at arms as a result of several years of study at the famous military academy of Marloven Hess. A fan asked about it, and Sherwood Smith obliged with a few chapters of story, originally posted at her Website under the title "Shevraeth in Marloven Hess." But as it grew, it became clear this was not a casual outtake, but a real work in progress.

Now at last it is available to be read in its entirity. As always, Smith provides a rich and deeply-realized look into a setting that is no mere collection of sets to be sent back to Central Stores when the story is over, but a full round world that exists for itself. A world with layered millenia of history, in which the threads of alliance and enmity may have surprising consequences generations later.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Stranger in Our Skies

One of the longstanding tropes of science fiction, going back at least to Robert A. Heinlein's Universe, is the giant slowship that forgets its culture and history in the course of the centuries-long journey across the depths of space between stars. However, Eric Flint and David Freer have taken a new view on this hoary old concept with their new novel Slow Train to Arcturus.

Rather than make a one-time journey to a single destination, Flint and Freer postulate that a slowship would find acceleration so precious that it should not be wasted at the end of the voyage. Instead, the main ship would continue to travel indefinitely, while individual habitats would be detached from it, slowed and permitted to be captured by potentially life-bearing stars. There the colonists would have the option of living in their habitats indefinitely if the star's system had no habitable planets, and will have access to the wealth of the system's sub-planetary bodies for space-based industry.

Or at least that was the theory when the Slow Train was sent from Earth sometime in the twenty-second century. It was supposed to simultaneously give a number of separatist groups a new frontier to which to escape and get some of humanity's eggs out of the single basket of the Sol system. But things relatively go as planned.

But Krentz and his colleagues from Miran don't know any of this when their astronomers detect the strange vessel moving into their system's space. They only know that this is an artifact, and that it was not built by any civilization of theirs. Naturally, they are both concerned and curious, so off they go in a spaceship of their own to rendezvous with this stranger and find out what is going on.

But things go disastrously wrong when they make their initial contact with a habitat that turns out to be violently xenophobic. Suddenly Krentz is thrust onto his own resources and into even stranger habitats.

Thus Flint and Freer also delve into another longstanding trope, one that science fiction shares with several other genres: namely, the adventure in the alien society or lost civilization. But the unique nature of the Slow Train makes it possible to visit not one but many such societies in rapid succession.

Some the reader will recognize immediately as commentaries upon certain present-day societies, such as a certain notorious dictator with the bouffant hairdo and the shades. Others seem to be the realization of the fantasies of certain more extreme elements of our own society. But amidst all the humor of cultural misunderstanding and sly cultural commentary, including a very recognizable geek inventor who had the misfortune to be born in a technophobic society, there is a very real consideration of just how well such a scheme would work long-term.

For as it turns out, every one of the habitats we meet is experiencing severe difficulties maintaining the technologies that are essential to their long-term survival. Some, such as the Neo-Nazi group we first meet, seem to have given up altogether and devolved into a war of the all against the all. Others, such as the Matriarchial Republic of Diana which provides ample opportunity for trenchant commentary on relations between the genders, are making an effort to maintain their habitat but are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up the knowledge base, and in particular a population of people with the necessary skill sets to repair the more complex machinery.

Thus, without ever harping openly upon it, Flint and Freer raise yet another age-old question of science fiction -- how large of a population base does one need in order to maintain a technological civilization? And how long can a small group, even one that set out with more than adequate supplies for a long voyage, keep complex systems working when it is not possible to replicate the system of interlocking technologies that originally created them?

Which of course brings us to yet another familiar old trope of science fiction -- the colonial world that reverts to earlier stages of technological development, perhaps even losing civilization altogether and forgetting that it did not originate on the world upon which it now finds itself, or even that it is living on a spherical world spinning in space around its sun, rather than a flat world with a bowl of sky in which hang bright lamps that light and go out as day follows night.

However, Flint and Freer have managed to weave all these ideas together and infuse them with a freshness that is at least partly the result of the alien viewpoint of Krentz, through whose eyes we first see humanity's greatest technological achievement, not as a triumph, but as an intruder not entirely welcome into the skies of a people who assume that of course every organism that reproduces sexually will start as a male, then transform into a female upon full maturity.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Harry Potter -- One Year Later

How the time has flown -- already it's been a year since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hit the shelves. It was a time of particular excitement because it was going to be the very last one, the final time for Harry Potter fans the world round to gather in eager anticipation of a brand new volume in the adventures of the boy wizard. The last time for big themed parties at libraries and bookstores, and generally the last time that we would reach this fevered pitch of anticipation, because after this there would be no more.

Now, a year later, a certain amount of the excitement has worn off and we can begin to look back at the Harry Potter phenomenon with a degree of perspective and ask just what was its significance. Some things are obvious, such as the record-breaking sales statistics that catapaulted a relatively obscure single mother into the ranks of the world's richest women. Others are more debatable, particularly when one begins to move into questions of quality and literary merit.

There can be no question about the Harry Potter books being engaging, for they were books that children read willingly, even begged to be able to read. Children who had previously regarded reading as an onerous chore had come to look upon the Harry Potter books with eager anticipation, and upon acquiring them would even read them multiple times to capture every nuance of the often intricate plotting. The Harry Potter books also crossed generations in a way seldom seen for children's literature, with adults reading with the same eagerness as their younger counterparts. Although some grown-ups were chary of being seen to read a children's book and would take off the dust jacket of the hardcover or wrap paper around the paperback to hide it, a surprising number of adults proudly showed off their choice of reading matter.

The Harry Potter books also broke new ground in terms of the substance of children's books. It had previously been regarded as a given that children would not read large books, and many authors had to deal with longer books being broken into multiple parts to keep them within what were regarded as hard limits on length. But when Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire weighed in at nearly twice the usual length for a children's book and young people still devoured it by the crateload, publishers began to re-evaluate their assumptions.

The Harry Potter books also broke new ground by allowing the storylines to grow with the characters. Many children's fantasy series feature relatively static characters who face the same sorts of challenges in book after book. Even if the characters' achievements and losses from earlier books carry through into later ones, the types of problems they face generally remain at the same age level. By contrast, Harry Potter and his friends face ever escalating problems in each book, delving into steadily deeper issues of good and evil. In the first few books, the dichotomy is simple enough to almost seem simplistic -- Voldemort is evil because he's evil, and that's that. Harry being downtrodden and suddenly discovering that he's a star is treated as pretty much a plot device, and left at that.

But by the fourth book, we begin to move into more complicated territory, in which Rowling begins to plumb the nature of love and loyalty, themes that will run throughout the remainder of the series and prove to be the foundations of the most powerful magic of all. Even the character of Voldemort becomes more complex and nuanced, and we begin to see more human motivations for his fall into depravity, moving him beyond the menace that is a menace because it's a menace.

However, we may question whether we are seeing a lasting phenomenon. Will we continue to see new children take up the Harry Potter books with the same eagerness now that there are no further volumes to whet our appetite and encourage us to re-read the earlier ones in order to be ready to catch all the subtleties of the latest installment?

Skeptical critics have pointed out that the Harry Potter books really don't break that much new ground in terms of storytelling, and that much of their storytelling is merely the artful rearranging of standard tropes. Yet the tropes are often so common for the simple fact that they speak to deep and basic things within us, with the resonance of the familiar. And truth be told, many of the greats of literature have made their place in the canon by works that are in fact derivative of various precursors now remembered only by specialists. For instance, every educated person in the Western world knows Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, yet only a few dedicated scholars recall such authors as Arthur Brooke, William Painter or Matteo Bandello, all of whom wrote earlier versions of the doomed couple's romance. Shakespeare's genius lay in changing the theme and impact of his story, taking what had previously been a condemnation of youthful refusal to listen to the advice of elders and turned it into a story of the redemptive power of young love.

In the final reckoning we will only know whether the Harry Potter books have lasting literary merit when they have lasted. Which means we need to wait a few decades and see if new generations of children take up the series with the same delight, or if they come to regard it as a stodgy old thing only their parents and grandparents would want to read.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

King's Shield is Out!

Yes, it's official: The King's Shield the third in Sherwood Smith's Inda series, is available.

It is also definite that there will indeed be a fourth book in the Inda series, and its title is going to be Treason's Shore. Barring unexpected delays, it should be coming out during the summer of 2009.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Warrior Wisewoman Is Out!

Warrior Wisewoman, the first in a new anthology series intended to be a science fiction companion to the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series that was originally begun by the late great Marion Zimmer Bradley, is out at last.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Crown Duel Prequel Now Official!

Norilana Books has formally announced the acquisition of the prequel to Sherwood Smith's Crown Duel.

Remember, you saw it here. Bookmark the Billion Light-year Bookshelf to keep getting the inside news on upcoming science fiction and fantasy books.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Good News on the Anthology Front!

In a world where short fiction is rapidly becoming an endangered species, I've got news that Norilana Books is getting ready for two more anthologies.

First, the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthologies that Marion Zimmer Bradley began over two decades ago will be continuing with Sword and Sorceress 23. Yet again it will be edited by Elizabeth Waters, longtime secretary to MZB, and probably one of the people who knew her mind best. We can be sure of a star-studded table of contents in this volume.

Second, Deborah J. Ross will be doing a second volume of Lace and Blade, her anthology of romantic fantasy that came out this past Valentine's day. It appears that the first volume was a sufficient success that it will become an annual event.

Friday, March 7, 2008

New Sherwood Smith

A Posse of Princesses is out. It belongs in the same world as Wren to the Rescue and its sequels, rather than to Sartorias-deles as do the Inda books.

However, it appears that another Sartorias-deles novel will be coming out from Norilana Press this summer. Sherwood has decided Norilana is the best bet for the prequel to Crown Duel (Firebird). Its working title was Shevraeth in Marloven Hess, and there are mentions of it under that title on the Web. However, it appears a new title is in the works, in the interest of pulling in people who aren't already fans of the Sartorias-deles universe.

Monday, February 25, 2008

If You Want to Send a Message...

...use Western Union.

That was the old saying that Marion Zimmer Bradley used to use on her rejection slips if she considered a story to be overshadowed by a heavy-handed Message from the author.

I was thinking of that this weekend as I was watching Waterworld. When the principal villains were first referred to as the Smokers, I thought it meant they smoked their prey out of their refuges or some such.

And then we actually see them, and there they've got cigarettes hanging from their mouths. Now I've got no great use for tobacco, and was very glad when Indianapolis went smoke-free in public places. But it was just a little too heavy-handed, a little clearly obvious -- especially when combined with other imagery of the villains as being part of a certain anti-environmentalist mindset.

I think it could've worked, had it been handled more lightly. There are many things that can be done humorously that would fall flat in serious drama. But I do not get the feeling that the Smokers were being played for laughs, letting the message slip in as the audience is laughing.

Monday, February 18, 2008

For Every Gain There Is a Loss

One of the marks of good fiction is the ability to acknowledge the complexity of the human condition, that all is not simple black-and-white, that heroes have their shortcomings and villains have their good points. It is always easy to write stories of fine heroes flung against villains of the vilest sort, but in that direction lies Mary Sue (or Marty Stu), the utterly spotless protagonist whom everybody just adores, save for the villains, whose villainy is confirmed by their implacable hatred.

When I originally read Eric Flint's 1632 , I was concerned that some of the characterization seemed rather simplistic. Mike Stearns and his friends were all so good and democratic and hardworking, the mercenaries were bloodthirsty killers, and even John Simpson, the out-of-town businessman, seemed to be more a straw-man opposition for Mike to defeat than a real contrary voice.

Thus I was very happy to read the sequel, 1633, and see the beginnings of a richer tapestry. The praise of the virtue of hard work and of the people who do it remained, but painted in a richer palette of shades of gray. John Simpson goes from being a straw-man city-slicker CEO stereotype set up to be knocked down and becomes a complex, three-dimensional person who cares for those under him and who is hurt by the breach with his son.

And the development of complexity continues in Ring of Fire II
with Jonathan Cresswell-Jones' "Malungu Seed." Here we see the story of a man who nearly became the first black Jesuit, and his desperate mission to bring to the world a treasure more precious than silver or gold. And as Dr. James Nichols struggles to save his life, it becomes an opportunity to consider how changing the world so that many of the scourges that plagued it, and in particular the slave trade and race-based slavery, will also eliminate some very fine things, including the development of whole genres of art and music.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Last Centurion News

John Ringo has created a website for his upcoming novel The Last Centurion. You can find it at

Like the novel, it's written in the first person. However, it appears to take up after the conclusion of the novel, which may or may not constitute a spoiler. In particular, I'm eagerly looking for hints on whether the novel ends with devolutionary spiral to collapse, or with hints of a renaissance to come. The mentions of telephone lines and Internet do seem to suggest that the post-disaster world will not be a reversion to pre-Industrial society.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Renewing an Old Acquaintence

Years ago, when I was an art student, one of my assignments for art history was to watch Artemisia, a movie about the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. So imagine my surprise as I was perusing the latest installment in Eric Flint's 1632-verse, Ring of Fire II, to find her as a major character in Jay Robinson's "Trials."

The opening scene of this story is one of the more grimly vivid scenes in the movie -- Artemisia's interrogation by torture during the rape trial of her former tutor. Although I had almost forgotten watching the movie almost a decade ago, as soon as I read that paragraph, it all came flashing back and I was immediately sucked straight into the story.

And it's an interesting story of many twists and turns that will be appreciated by anyone who enjoys courtroom drama. There is even a bit that is either sheer coincidence or a slight in-joke for Harry Potter fans.

Friday, February 8, 2008

On the Problems of Long Series

One of the problems of a very long series can be the extended period of time that passes between the publication of the first book and later books. As a result, even dedicated readers of the series may have difficulty remembering details of earlier books when they encounter elements of a current one that depend upon those events.

I'm discovering that in reading the latest books in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner universe, I really want to be able to go back and re-read the entire series in rapid succession. I originally read the first three books over a decade ago, and while I remember the general plot of those volumes, there are details that I'd really like to remember better.

For instance, I'm trying to recall exactly how the atevi cultural principle of kabiu was presented in those early volumes. I'm remembering it as being primarily in terms of food taboos, and in particular the prohibition on the domestication of animals for slaughter or the eating of game and some other foods out of their proper season. However, as the series has progressed, it has come to have a more general sense of propriety in one's actions, and even covers such things as the arrangement of furniture in a room according to the status of its occupants. I'm not sure if the hints were present in the earlier volumes, or this is a development as Cherryh takes the reader deeper into atevi culture.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Not Exactly an Outtake

Fans of Sherwood Smith will want to keep an eye out for the new anthology Lace and Blade, which is edited by Deborah Ross and published by Norilana Books. Sherwood's story comes from her novel Antiphony, set late in the history of the same universe as Inda. However, when she rewrote it to work as a short story, disconnecting the various tendrils of story that extended to other parts of the novel instead resulted in it shifting to what she describes as "the next universe over."

Saturday, February 2, 2008

New Stories of Bren and the Atevi

It appears that C. J. Cherryh will be writing a fourth trilogy in Foreigner: universe. The first volume is tentatively entitled Conspirator, although no firm publication date has been set.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More Posleen Novels

It appears that Cally's War and Sister Time are going to be a trilogy. According to information posted on Baen's Bar, the tentative title for the third collaboration between John Ringo and Julie Cochrane will be The Honor of the Clan.

After the trilogy is completed, John is going to be returning to the Mike O'Neal story arc with another three novels. These were contracted shortly after the death of Baen Publishing founder Jim Baen, as part of a package of deals intended to reassure readers that the company would survive the man who created it. However, they have been on hold while other projects were completed.

In addition, Tom Kratman has been snippeting a novel tentatively entitled The Tuloriad (yes, it's a deliberate Classical reference), which helps draw the links between the Posleen of the War and the Tular Posleenar who were mentioned in The Hero. He's done some pretty radical speculation about the history of the Posleen and the Aldenata, and it's possible that John will veto significant portions of the novel, but what I've seen looks promising.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Disaster Ringo Style

John Ringo originally earned his chops with the Legacy of the Aldenata, a military science fiction series of the invasion of Earth by seemingly unstoppable cannibalistic alien hordes. Now he takes up yet another familiar trope of post-apocalyptic science fiction, namely the plague that ravages civilization. The Last Centurion is a first for Ringo in that it is written in first-person POV, half memoir and half socio-political commentary, as the protagonist reflects upon the catastrophic combination of an avian flu mutated to spread by casual human contact and sudden climate change.

I've been singularly impressed by the snippets John has been posting on Baen's Bar. Normally a blatant political message in a work of fiction gets my back up something fierce. But the first-person narrator's voice is so intense it carries me right over my normal objections. I feel like I'm sitting right there with this guy, maybe at a bar or in the con suite of some convention, listening to him tell his story.

I'm really looking forward to seeing how this novel ends. As a historian, I can see two possible conclusion, based upon historical models. The most obvious is a devolutionary spiral and permanent collapse back to an early-industrial or even pre-industrial culture. History is littered with examples of civilizations that came apart under the pressures of a major plague combined with climate change that shifted the growing season for key crops -- the most obvious from the title is the Roman Empire (yes, one of the current theories is that an early outbreak of bubonic plague combined with a series of cold winters caused by a caldera supervolcano eruption did the Western Empire in -- see Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization by David Keys).

However, the long-term effects of a plague can also be major progress in a civilization, as witness the Black Death. In the late Middle Ages Europe was caught in a high-end trap, in which increases in agricultural production immediately went to increases in population rather than economic growth. The sudden reduction of the population as a result of the plague freed both labor and capital for growth. Labor, which had previously been so cheap it had to be bound to the manor by extra-economic means, now came into sufficient demand that peasants and craftsmen could strike a much better bargain for their work. Similarly, the sudden death of a substantial portion of the wealthy elite meant the survivors had a surplus that could be invested in long-term ventures such as art and the various crafts. The result was the Renaissance, and ultimately the modern world.

The key factor in the Last Centurion's future will probably be energy. Given that we have already used up most of the easily accessible deposits of coal and oil, if human culture falls below the ability to extract those vital resources, it will probably be stuck for good. However, if the ability to manage large-scale energy utilization is retained, and even expanded through the development of additional nuclear power plants, it's quite possible that the grandchildren of the survivors will enjoy a world that's actually better.

Given John Ringo's known dislike for a certain kind of fuzzy-minded liberalism that opposes nuclear energy among other things, there are reasons to be hopeful for the long-term future of the fictional world he has created.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Back to Pax

Elizabeth Moon has announced on her Sff newsgroup that she will be writing another novel in the same universe as her The Deed of Paksenarrion. However, it appears that she's going to be dealing with a different part of that world, one that was only mentioned in passing in the original novel. Her extensive discussion of the nature of human culture promises a very interesting, many-layered work.