Friday, December 26, 2014

The Intestinal Fortitude of the Independents

I'm happy to see that The Interview is showing after all, thanks to the courage of the owners and managers of our independent theaters. When the big chains refused to take the risk of showing it in the face of threats by North Korea's tyrant Kim Jong-Un and his tame hackers, these brave men and women stood up and insisted that Sony provide them with copies to show.

And with that bolstering their courage, Sony also decided to release The Interview online, which means that anybody with an adequate Internet connection can watch it, even in the absence of an independent theater showing it.

As of yet I haven't had a chance to watch it. But I'm going get it done, just to show that pudgy little two-bit dictator that I'm not scared of his threats.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The New Cowardice

Back in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie over the novel The Satanic Verses, I made a point of getting a copy of it and actually reading the whole thing through. It wasn't the sort of thing that I would normally read, and quite honestly I found a good bit of it tedious, but I was disgusted by the notion of a religious leader calling for the death of a writer (personally I think it's for the unflattering roman a clef portrayal of Khomeini himself, and that the disrespect to Mohammed issue is a convenient cover).

Recently, when the news came out that North Korea was trying to suppress The Interview through  cyberterrorism, I thought I was going to need to sit through a showing of it, just to show my support for intellectual freedom. But it looks like I won't even get the opportunity. Sony has caved completely and shelved the movie indefinitely, rather than even risk the chance that the pudgy little dictator of a two-bit tyranny actually can carry through on his threats of violence against theaters showing it.

What a long way we've fallen in just twenty-five years.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

When They Don't Know Their Own History

I've written before of the problems that happen when writers don't read the foundational works of their own genre in reference to the breathless praise being heaped upon certain recent works by reviewers who seem to never have read Ursula K LeGuin's award-winning The Left Hand of Darkness. But that's not the only area in which it's becoming abundantly clear that the new generation of writers are failing to read the works of the great masters of the genre, and as a result are re-inventing the wheel and making fools of themselves in the process of chattering about how wonderfully forward-thinking they are.

Take for instance the current push to write post-colonial narratives. As I was re-reading David Brin's Sundiver to get a review up, I realized that here we have a post-colonial narrative. It's a world in which humanity went blithely out to the stars, fully expecting to carry out the taming-of-the-west narrative that had been replayed In Space in so many science fiction stories -- and then thumping their noses hard against the discovery that the galaxy is occupied by a civilization of incredible antiquity, that even seemingly empty planets are in fact owned, and the penalties for trespass on fallow planets can be horrific. And it was published in 1980, before most of the current crop of Bright Young Things were born, or at least before most of them were doing much reading of grown-up books that are all words and no pictures.

And he's not even the first classic science fiction writer to posit a future in which humanity doesn't get to just go taking over every planet that takes their fancy. All the way back in the 1950's, Robert A. Heinlein was writing Red Planet, in which humanity has a presence on the Red Planet -- but it is very clearly at the sufferance of the ancient indigenous sapient Martians. And when crooked bureaucrats forget that, the Martian Old Ones are quite ready to kick every last human off the planet and kill those who won't evacuate.

I wonder what they'd say if you pointed these little facts out to them. Wiggle and squirm and try to find reasons that those books Don't Count -- because they're written by white males, because the indigenous populations aren't marginalized and weaker, whatever? I'd like to think that maybe someone out there would have the courage to actually read those books and appreciate them in the context of the time in which they were written -- but that would require work, not to mention an actual historical perspective, when it seems a lot of the current crop of Bright Young Things are adamantly presentist and don't want to hear it pointed out to them.

Which is a pity, really. Yes, old science fiction can be Zeerusty to the point of embarrassment at times -- but it can also be chock full of sense of wonder, not to mention ideas some people would claim have been absent from science fiction until just now.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Million Open Doors

One of the most exciting things about the digital publishing revolution is the sheer variety of publishing possibilities that are opening up for writers and readers alike. Science fiction has long imagined that the future would change the book, but it tended to be part of the "furniture" of the future world, background rather than the focus of the story. A character may read a "filmbook" or the like, but its mechanics are glossed over. It's just there to provide a sense that We're Not In Kansas Any More, rather than a serious extrapolation of the future of publishing.

When digital publishing first became a practical reality as a result of the growing popularity of the personal computer, the first forays were simultaneously excited and hesitant. Excited because it was seen as the realization of generations of science fiction readers' dreams. Hesitant because of the enormous uncertainty about how to translate the experience of the printed page into digital format.

Some of the problems were simply the immaturity of the technology. Physical media such as floppy disks and CD-ROM's required distribution networks, which imposed their own limitations, especially since there was no easy way to piggyback onto existing print book distribution. But even as more people gained access to the Internet and distribution of the intellectual good no longer required the movement of a physical object, problems remained. Concerns about digital piracy tended to be the most publicized, and led to a great number of counterproductive digital rights management schemes that effectively punished the legitimate user for the possible crimes that might be committed with the technology. But the real problem was that most people didn't want to read for pleasure on a computer screen. They wanted something they could carry with them and read during random bits of time here and there, something for which even the lightest laptop was too bulky and awkward.

Various companies produced dedicated e-book readers, but all of them were bulky and expensive, and their proprietary formats meant that you could only buy books from the company's bookstore, and if the company went out of business, you had an expensive, useless brick. Sure, you could keep reading and re-reading the books you had loaded on it until the device stopped working, but you couldn't get anything new for it. As a result, people were reluctant to buy these devices, ensuring they would fail in the market.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, several changes converged to finally realize the possibility of the e-book: Baen offering DRM-free e-books through their Webscriptions system, creating the Kindle e-book reader that wasn't entirely tied to their bookstore, Apple producing the iPad and iPhone (which opened the way for Google to offer the Android OS for other companies to produce tablet computers and smartphones). Suddenly readers had the possibility of an easily portable and relatively seamless reading experience, which made it easy to move from the familiar old paperback to digital format not just because of the cool factor, but because of utility considerations.

As a result, we have not only conventional e-books that are effectively digital versions of paper books, but also a wide variety of other formats. For short formats, publishers have been experimenting with e-zines ever since the Web really took off. Serialization is another distribution model that has come back into fashion through digital media.

Such a wide variety of possibilities can be overwhelming, but it can also be liberating. A writer who doesn't find success in one model of fiction distribution can try a different one. If serialization proves disheartening when readership dribbles off to nothing after the first several chapters, publishing whole novels via Kindle Direct or some other e-book publisher may reach a greater audience. Similarly, a reader who prefers bite-sized reading can find a wide variety of short-form and serialized novel formats, while a reader who wants the substance of a book can download full e-books onto a reader.

And it's quite probable that we're only seeing the beginning of the digital publishing revolution. The futures imagined by even the most innovative and imaginative writers may actually prove short of the mark, for the simple reason that they had to write a world comprehensible to their contemporary readers.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On the Boundaries of Criticism

Recently there has been an enormous amount of discussion about an individual who blogged and wrote under a variety of names, the most well-known being Requires Only That You Hate (sometimes shortened to Requires Hate or ROTYH). This individual's characteristic book reviewing style was not only sharp and incisive in observation about observed flaws of the works in question, but harsh and even brutal in comments directed to the authors themselves. In some cases this individual make remarks to the effect that the author in question should experience various horrific forms of bodily harm, including acid attacks and being raped by dogs.

This individual typically focusing a particular wrath upon works that were perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise containing unacceptable bigotries. And these were not necessarily the obvious -- many of the criticisms were focused on offenses such as exoticization, in which the Other is portrayed as interesting and exciting simply for being other, or cultural appropriation, which was originally used to refer to people taking the traditional stories of impoverished communities and repackaging them for profit without any sort of consideration to the peoples from whom those intellectual properties originally came, but grew to become effectively a catch-all term for almost any writing of other cultures by white authors. But they all had the common trait of vicious language, often shocking in its level of cruelty and vulgarity.

One may ask why this individual's critical style should only have become an issue recently, when this individual has been writing for years, almost a decade. Part of it is a desire not to appear thin-skinned or unable to take criticism -- it is generally considered very bad form for an author to take exception to a review, except in matters of verifiable factual matters. But the biggest part of it, the part that kept even third parties from stepping up and saying that Requires Hate's most egregious personal language toward authors crossed the line to unacceptable, was the fear that one would look racist, or at least appear to be an apologist for bigotry, by attempting to speak against the excesses of RH's suggestions that horrible things ought to happen to authors whose works were to be condemned. Thus it was only when another author revealed that RH had also been targeting minority authors that it became acceptable to object to RH's conduct, and then only in very careful terms.

There are two big issues in this discussion that are in danger of becoming the Elephant in the Middle of the Living Room if political considerations are given primacy. First is the question of Acceptable Targets -- should some people be considered fair game simply by their membership in certain identity groups, in particular Straight White Male? Or should the discussion of a work be entirely on its merits, and the author entirely upon his or her actions?

And the second is how far is too far in writing a harsh critique. Are there limits on what is appropriate in a review, and is there a point at which one has Gone Too Far? Should the work be treated as something separate from the author, or does it necessarily reflect flaws in the moral character of its creator that may have been carefully kept from that individual's personal behavior?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Waiting for the Saucer to Come

Although online serialization has shown to be a very promising  way for aspiring and established authors to present a novel, it is not without its downsides. One is the possibility that a serial may stall or founder altogether. This problem can arise for a number of reasons.

Most obviously, the author may have a personal crisis or emergency that makes it impossible to write further chapters, or if they are written, to get them posted. Most writers are doing it in their spare time after job and family obligations, so it's completely possible that a sudden increase in the time demands of some other responsibility leaves nothing left for writing, and the serial is left hanging until things settle down.

Other authors may become discouraged when they do not see much interest in their serial and decide to pursue some other interest. Even when an author loves the fictional world and characters, it can be hard to keep going when nobody seems to be reading it. The doubts begin to assail the mind -- what if it really is crap? What if everybody thinks it stupid? What if the few readers who have been following it were just friends and family members reading to be polite? And thus the energy and enthusiasm drain away and it becomes harder and harder to tackle the next chapter.

It's also possible that the author may have encountered the dreaded writer's block and be unable to proceed with the serial. This can happen when the author has not planned the overall structure of the story in advance, and thus comes to the point of having no idea of what comes next. Alternatively, authors sometimes write themselves into a corner, cutting off options they'll later need to exercise and leaving their characters with nowhere to go.

Whatever the cause may be, as readers most of us know only that a long time has gone by since the last chapter went up. At first it doesn't seem to be that much of a problem, but after a while we look through our bookmark list and try to think just when the last chapter of that one went up, and wonder whether any  more will ever come out.

One serial that I'd been enjoying earlier this year but hasn't had any new chapters posted in several months is Frank Nemecek's Roswell Chronicles. It's the story of a family with a secret, and the people who want to steal that secret for nefarious purposes.

Most of us probably have some awareness of the role of Roswell, New Mexico in UFO lore, since the basic outlines of it have entered popular culture through movies and television. We know something crashed out there, and government agencies moved quickly to deal with it -- so the story goes that it was in fact a spacecraft from another world, crewed by intelligent beings like yet unlike Terrestrial humanity.

In Nemecek's take on the story, the protagonists are guarding a family secret -- a notebook by their ancestor, who was in fact one of the pilots of that crashed craft and who stayed behind to raise a family (presumably the aliens are in fact another branch of humanity who left Earth for some reason to settle among the stars ages ago, and now have returned), and who retained knowledge about materials the US government returned to the aliens as part of some kind of deal.

However, another group has found out about that hidden diary and is trying to steal it. So we have several ugly confrontations -- and then we come to Chapter 15, in which Carlos and Sean have decided to deal with some trouble when the next paycheck comes, and there the story stops. Now that JukePop Serials no longer makes public the date at which the author last updated a serial, it's hard to say exactly how long it's been, but I'm fairly sure it's been several months, and I'd really like to know what happens next.

Given that there are many possible reasons why a serial has stalled, and I haven't heard any public pronouncements from the author, I'd rather not speculate. It does have 75 +votes, which is an average of five +votes per chapter -- not bad, but not extraordinarily good either. So it's possible that the writer has become discouraged, especially if he's also been dealing with other obstacles that have made it difficult to get the next chapter written.

So please take a look at it, and if you read through to the end and want to see more, click that link on the final page that says to let the author know you'd like to see more. It's not a guarantee, but it's always possible that knowing people are eagerly awaiting the next installment will be just the encouragement the author needs to get the creative juices flowing again.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

When at First You Don't Succeed

One thing I really enjoy is watching writers grow. I am far quicker to forgive a failed first story or novel than a clunker by an established author, especially if the beginning writer then follows that problematic first work with pieces that show learning and development.

Recently, I blogged about my frustration with serious structural problems in Pierre Comtois's short story "Alan Shepard's Golf Ball." It had so much promise that I felt really frustrated to see it fall short of the mark.

Thus I was happy to discover that his latest science fiction story, The Future that Used to Be. It has much of the same flavor of nostalgia for the futures imagined by classic science fiction such as the early short stories of Robert A. Heinlein, but this time the setting is firmly here on Earth, in American suburbia.

Joey Ixbee is hanging out at a friend's place, watching classic science fiction movies, specifically an alien invasion story. They're watching it on an old-fashioned CRT TV, the kind that doesn't go dark instantly when you turn it off, but instead leaves a little glowing dot in the middle of the screen for a moment before the electron guns cool down entirely. The kind of TV I spent many hours watching when I was a child.

And the friend's mom shoos both of them outside, where they get to play unsupervised -- yet another suggestion that their TV isn't an older model they're still using because it still runs, but that the story is in fact set some decades in the past, when CRT's were still current technology, when most TV's still had vacuum tubes for all the electronics and transistors were still new and rare. No wonder the kids can play around the neighborhood until it's time to head home for supper, if it's set in a time before fear of kidnapping led to a severe restriction on children's freedom to roam and play outside adult-organized activities.

When Joey gets home, his parents have news -- they are expecting a visitor, and want the kids to be on their best behavior. And then we discover that Joey's family aren't ordinary suburban Americans -- they're in fact refugees from another world, one which is more advanced than our own, and which is troubled, such that his parents decided to come to Earth, to the US. They are literally aliens -- Joey was just old enough to remember a little of the technology they used, the flying cars, the crystal dome house, the total-immersion entertainment cap. But Earth has become home for him, so he's not exactly happy about having a family member from the old world, one who may not share their attitudes about coming to Earth and America.

The rest of the story is about how Joey deals with the  prospect of a visitor from a world he left behind, and how bringing back the old memories affects his relationship with his Earth-native friend, who has no idea he is anything but the all-American kid he appears to be. And the ending does suggest that there could be more to the story, although it works as an ending where it is.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

When Writers Don't Read the Foundational Works of Their Genre

I was going to write a review of a completed serial over at JukePop Serials, but Kate Paulk put up an article at Mad Genius Club on the peril of ignorance of the roots of the genre that is just too wonderful to resist reblogging and commenting upon.

Over at According To Hoyt today (linky), Sarah has quite a bit to say about the sterility of what the Social Justicy Glittery Hoo Haas call “proper” creative/artistic/literary pursuits. She’s right. More than that, she knows the emptiness of the kind of ideologies that have to lock people inside neatly labeled little boxes to “protect” them from the big bad world outside (hint: if merely being exposed to something else is enough to turn someone against your faith (or ideology or whatever the hell you want to call it), your thingummy belief whatsis sucks.

One of the side-effects of the sterility and mental walls is breathtaking ignorance from people who should – in theory at least (wonderful place, theory. Everything works the way it’s supposed to) – know what the freaking hell they’re talking about. And that in turn leads to the kind of nonsense that I, being a charter member of the Evil League of Evil (but not the Beautiful Evil Space Princess – that’s Sarah’s job) am obliged to poke fun at.

As a bookseller, I've really noticed over the past several years the complete loss of interest in the classic authors of science fiction. We used to take large numbers of books by classic sf authors such as Asimov, Clarke, and Pohl when we went to science fiction conventions. Now I've pretty well pulled all of those authors from the boxes of books we take to conventions, for the simple reason that they don't sell.

And if people don't read the works of earlier generations of writers, that means they don't know the history of their genre. And since science fiction is a genre of ideas, they don't know the history of the ideas being explored in current fiction -- which is particularly bad when an idea is being touted as new and fresh and challenging and breaking the boundaries (as if Harlan Ellison never published Dangerous Visions how many decades ago?)

The most obvious one is the current excitement about "non-binary gender," written with such breathless excitement that it's clear these people have never read The Left Hand of Darkness. And even before Ursula K. LeGuin came to prominence, other writers had been creating aliens with non-binary genders. However, most of them were not nearly so close to human as LeGuin's Gethens. The Ullerians of H. Beam Piper's Uller Uprising were reptilian, and the entities in James White's Sector General stories which had a dozen or more "sexes" (which seemed to function more like the reproductive classes found among fungi) were so alien as to approach Starfish Alien status, more like the Elder Things in H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

But that's just one of the most prominent ones, touted by certain people for political reasons. There are also technological elements in recent novels which are being touted as new and innovative, but in fact have their roots in far earlier stories.  A lot of things being written about AI right now are really new takes on topics that were dealt with way back in the 1940's and 1950's. Computer technology has advanced to the point where there's a lot less handwavium (Asimov's positronic brains being a perfect example that have been replaced by references to quantum computing in more recent works), but a lot of the same assumptions are still there, and aren't really being examined, even as we live in a world where people carry around more computing power in their phones than existed in the whole world when Asimov started writing his Susan Calvin stories.

Yes, some of the old classics of science fiction can feel a little stodgy, for the simple reason that they were written for an earlier generation and have accumulated a lot of Zeerust in areas where technology either progressed far faster than imagined (computers, thanks to integrated circuits and photolithography) or far slower (space travel in particular, for various reasons). But it's important to at least know them well enough to not look stupid to someone who grew up on them.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Miles and Miles -- Or Maybe Not

The digital publishing revolution has created an enormous range of new markets for writers, and potential sources for readers to get their daily fix of the eyeball drug known as reading. Freed of the inelasticities of print-on-paper publishing, writers no longer are forced to compete for a limited number of slots, and as a result, even those platforms that do have some level of editorial gatekeeping often shift to a model in which they accept all the stories that appeal to them, rather than only a set number that appeal most.

This shift means that stories that probably would've been turned away for lack of broad appeal can get published, and thus can find those readers to whom they strongly appeal. However, it also can mean that stories that probably shouldn't have been published, or weren't quite ready for publication,  can get published simply because there's plenty of room. These aren't necessarily bad stories, although some of them are badly written. But many of them just needed a little more thought, a little more attention to asking the next question and following through instead of taking the easy way out. And in some ways a promising but badly executed story is more frustrating to read than an outright clunker.

Take for instance Alan Shepard's Golf Ball by Pierre Comtois. It starts out strong, with our protagonist finding a golf ball lying in the moondust of the baseball diamond outside the lunar settlement where he and his family live. (We can argue about how realistic it is to imagine kids suiting up to play baseball on the lunar surface, but it looks to me like nostalgia for the futures imagined in Heinlein's early short stories, or the best of the 1950's recycled In Space). At first he's not all that interested in it, because he'd rather be playing his future version of MMORPG's with his friends, but when his father finds the golf ball and asks some questions, it piques his curiosity enough to do some research.

He locates a video clip of Alan Shepard's famous golf shots at the close of the second Apollo 14 EVA, and is curious enough to actually read an account of Shepard's life and career in those early days of space travel. Inspired by Shepard's story but disappointed that he is long deceased, our protagonist decides that some bit of Shepard's spirit must live on in his descendants, and resolves to meet them and give the golf ball to them.

Here's where the story falls apart. It looks like we're going to be treated to a grand quest that will end in a meeting with a stranger who will become a friend, or maybe even a reconciliation with a difficult rival. But no, it just so happens that our protagonist's family are the last known descendants of Alan Shepard -- but nobody's ever bothered to mention that personal connection with one of space travel's founding fathers. Instead of a grand finale, we get a cop-out, and end up feeling let down rather than delighted.

Which makes me feel sad, because there was so much promise in that story that could've been brought out with a little more thought instead of taking the easy way out in the haste to get the story finished.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On Taking Yourself Too Seriously

I had planned a very serious review of a story with a very serious problem, but things turned out to be a little more complicated than anticipated. And then I saw a delightful article over at Sarah Hoyt's Mad Genius Club about the Human Wave or Superversive movement and dark stories.

I admit, I do tend to write dark stories as well. I've written stories in three different Lovecraft Mythos anthologies -- but while the first one is about a man being driven mad by his encounter with the eldritch (with horrific consequences for an entire era), in the other two the protagonists' ends have a strong element of self-sacrifice for the greater good. And even the story I wrote for the Potter's Field anthology is more of a cautionary tale about where we could end up if certain trends go to their endpoints and turn violent.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Language, Time and the Reader

I'd planned for today's post to be yet another review of a serialized novel at JukePop Serials. But then I saw a particularly interesting article over at Mad Genius Club, Sarah Hoyt's writing blog. So I've decided to delay my review of C. Rye's Sibling Moons to a later date, and we'll have a little change of pace.

Cedar Sanderson takes us through a Fantastic Journey Through Time, examining the language used in some of her favorite fantasy works, from the Red Fairy Book, which was published at the close of the nineteenth century, through one of Jim Butcher's most recent novels. A span of a little over a century, not nearly enough for language to change to the point of being incomprehensible, but certainly enough that, even with  mass literacy, stylistic changes become noticeable.

The most obvious change is the move from a more formal and scholarly level of diction toward a more conversational style. The earliest examples have a bookish feel to them, a sense of an elevated phraseology even with the occasional contraction or other construction generally stigmatized in formal writing. It's not just what is often called a timeless style -- instead, the prose seems almost deliberately constructed to create a sense of antiquity, of the story having been transmitted from the distant past.

By the time we come to JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, we see a shift in tone away from that effort to imitate the (sometimes ponderous) diction of the classics of Greece and Rome, and toward a more contemporary tone. Not yet casual or breezy, but almost the sense of a father sitting by the fire and telling the story to a circle of wide-eyed children. Maybe a Victorian or Edwardian father, but still a recognizably modern one telling a story in a contemporary voice rather than one intended to hearken back to older forms of storytelling.

With Robert A. Heinlein's Glory Road the transformation is complete. Our hero's speech is casual, down-home and unpretentious, even when addressing the princess. And he's genre-savvy, referring to Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional Mars -- not to mention his suggestion that the princess might be wearing a cave-woman outfit of fake fur made by a chemical company.

The last two novels Cedar mentions are notable for being crossovers with other genres. In the Discworld series Terry Pratchett isn't just writing fantasy, but humorous fantasy. Instead of the larger-than-life characters of epic fantasy, we have absurd characters who elicit a chuckle by their antics. In this bit of dialog we have several standard fairy tale tropes, but all back-to-front and turned on their heads, to the point it becomes ridiculous.

Similarly, in the Henry Dresden novels Jim Butcher is writing urban fantasy, a subgenre in which magic intrudes into a contemporary setting to create a world in which wonder takes on a modern industrial sensibility rather than that of the pre-scientific world we see in epic and heroic fantasy. Furthermore, we have the elements of detective fiction, and specifically the hardboiled detective. The presentation of Maeve could be any femme fatale from any of a dozen hardboiled detective novels by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or the like.

And thus we have, at the conclusion of this look backward, the question of whether it is obligatory for a contemporary writer to use contemporary language, especially when retelling classic stories. And then I think of Vera Nazarian, a contemporary fantasist whose immigrant background resulted in her having relatively little exposure to contemporary literature, instead growing up immersed in classical fairy tales and mythology of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, a very different literary tradition from that familiar to most readers. As a result, her English prose has a richness and intricacy that often strikes readers accustomed to minimalist transparent prose as  heavy, even overworked. Because so many of the gatekeepers of traditional publishing have been educated in the minimalist mainstream, Ms. Nazarian has struggled for the better part of three decades just to get published, and only with the emergence of indie e-publishing has she finally been able to come into her own as a writer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

That Sinking Feeling

Unlike Kevin Boyer's Dread Lord Bob, which is still a work in progress, Joel Huan's Over Mount Fuji has been completed.

It began with the disappearance of a flight of F-18 Hornets near the south end of the island nation of Japan. Fishermen in the area reported strange streaks of light in the sky, and the US Navy never found any wreckage. Soon the usual rumors of UFO's and secret super-weapons were being tossed about.

Then the seismic activity began. The Japanese archipelago is part of the Ring of Fire, the area of volcanoes and subduction zones all around the edge of the Pacific Plate, where it grinds against the continental plates of North and South America, Asia, and Australia. As a result, there have always been earthquakes in Japan, but these go far beyond the usual.

Wilhelm Wulfstien, a controversial scholar, has come to the conclusion that the legends of dragons and other monsters are not just zoomorphic personifications of natural phenomena, but actual entities that have significant power over natural events. To prove his beliefs, he has developed a sophisticated new submersible vehicle capable of descending into the deep oceanic trenches near Japan and investigate what may be hidden within them, and how it relates to the strange visions survivors of the most recent earthquakes have been experiencing.

Eileen O'Neill has been struggling with a sense of foreboding ever since the death of her vulcanologist husband during a research trip. She joins forces with Wulfstien and several other people to make the daring descent into the depths, even as the situation in Japan rapidly disintegrates as a result of a synergy between the physical damage and the growing obsession of the Japanese people with the "sinking syndrome," the belief that the Home Islands are about to disappear beneath the waves forever.

What they find beneath the sea will change their notions of civilization forever. But it may not matter, if civilization unravels before they can record their findings.

This is disaster story, and its grim ending may not be for all readers.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

One Good Man

About a year ago an editor at a major publishing house spoke at some length against portal fantasy (the subgenre of fantasy in which a character from a fictional version of the Primary World travels to a magical world, has adventures there, and at the end of the story returns to their own world), claiming that it generally didn't have strong enough stakes to carry the story. This pronouncement led to considerable debate on several online fora, with various people offering titles of successful portal fantasies both classic and recent, from Narnia and Thomas Covenant to Harry Potter and Spirited Away.

Although I was busy at the time with other projects and didn't have time to contribute to the discussion, it made me think of how many portal fantasies I'd read when I was younger, and that yes, a big part of the appeal of them was the element of "you too might get to travel to a wonderful magical world and have Adventures." And remembering some of the ones I'd read in those days made me realize how long it had been since I'd read any.

Even more, I noticed how the real thrust of the discussion was the way in which the current fiction markets did not welcome portal fantasy, or several other genres that involved characters going "too far" from the fields we know. The unspoken subtext was pretty clearly, "write it if you must, to get it out of your system, but be ready to put it in the dresser drawer and move on to something more publishable."

And of course the assumption was that traditional publishing and its gatekeepers were the Only Game In Town -- an assumption that is rapidly being smashed to pieces by the rapid growth of indie publishing. Even just a few years ago, self-publishing a novel was still pretty much an admission that it was unpublishable, and you were a loser as a writer. But within the last few years it has really taken off, to the point that several newcomers have rocketed into success that most traditionally-published writers would envy.

Indie publishing has meant the traditional gatekeepers no longer have the power to say that an entire subgenre is declasse or beyond the pale. If you the writer believe in your story, you can find a platform to publish it on and if readers find it and are interested in it, you will get read. And you'll have real metrics of your writerly success, rather than the often-questionable sales figures of the major publishers with their reserves for returns and the like.

Right  now one of the top serials on JukePop Serials is Kevin Boyer's Dread Lord Bob. With over 2000 +votes, it appears on the first page of stories sorted by most +votes.

Dread Lord Bob is the story of Robert Goodman, an ordinary teenager in Kansas who goes to the library one day, intending to study but ending up messing around, when a mysterious stranger appears to him, giving him a strange glowing orb and claiming to be his steward in some mysterious realm. Bob is skeptical, and Harrak's talk of power, wealth and beautiful women only makes him more dubious. But then Harrak tells him "your people need you" in a tone of such urgency that Bob can no longer refuse. Off he goes to a world where the moon is a huge many-colored disk hanging fixed in the sky and the sun creeps so slowly that a single day is a week of Earth time. (Readers familiar with astronomy will soon realize that the "moon" is in fact a gas giant planet similar to Jupiter and the world to which Harrak has brought Bob is in fact a habitable moon).

Almost from the beginning Bob is struggling to sort out the world on which he's landed and the people he's supposed to lead. It doesn't help that he feels like his so-called adviser is holding out on him, not telling him things he needs to know. Harrak claims he's never lied -- but again and again his answers to Bob's questions are so full of presuppositions that they confuse as much as inform.

Just as he's beginning to get his bearings, the promised day is up and back Bob goes to his familiar life on Earth, with all its conflicts between the football team and his own baseball buddies, and the roses and thorns of the dating scene. And of course the tension at home between his parents and his efforts to shield his younger sister from them.

And then the call comes again, and back he goes to that world of goblins, hobgoblins and elves, of war with the Empire and the peril of the Bound. Since this is a serial still in progress, it appears that he's going to have at least a few more trips back and forth between worlds before the story is resolved.

One of the things I've really enjoyed in this novel is the element of moral struggle, and particularly the ethics of power. Unlike JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and rather like Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son, it has a strong element of learning to use extraordinary powers in godly ways, for godly purposes. Bob Goodman is older than young Alvin Miller, his character stronger and more fully formed, but he still notes with considerable discomfort the rush that comes with exercising the power of the Dread Lord. Yet he is also aware that he is operating in a world where evil has a real and powerful presence, where whole communities of the people he's sworn to protect are being destroyed in a war he barely understands.

I also find it fascinating to see the underpinnings of science in the worldbuidling. Not only does it take place on an exomoon (a moon of a planet in another star system), but there are also repeated hints that the magic has a technological base that may well involve sophisticated computers and energy weapons, all of which are viewed entirely in magical terms by the locals. For readers who find regular fantasy magic uncomfortably close to occultism, the technological element may make the story more palatable.

And there is the wonderful characterization, right down to the interaction between various minor characters. Some readers may find it challenging to keep track of so many characters, but in a story of this scope (apparently we're not quite to the halfway point of the projected complete novel) the cast is going to be big.

Full disclosure: Kevin is my brother, and the person who introduced me to publishing on JukePop Serials. If you feel this affects my judgment of his work, you are free to discount it accordingly.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Return of the Serial

As electronic publishing is moving toward maturity, it has gone through many changes. The earliest attempts at electronic publishing were digital files on floppy disks or CD's, with the work remaining firmly wedded to the artifact. Needless to say, problems with distribution meant that they didn't succeed overly well.

As the Internet began to become well-nigh universal, the first experiments with completely non-physical books began, awkwardly at first. There were all sorts of concerns about copying, leading to cumbersome digital rights management schemes that in effect punished legitimate purchasers for the misdeeds of a small minority of dishonest people. And many people still found it unpleasant to read for pleasure on a computer screen.

Then came the Kindle, with its paper-like screen that didn't have the problems people associated with reading on a computer. It connected wirelessly to the Internet, so that readers could acquire books wherever and whenever they wished. Purchasing a book became as easy as tapping a few buttons.

But the Kindle was still in many ways an enclosed garden, where users could only go to the places decreed they might. The tech savvy might be able to jump the walls and wander at will about the Internet, but the average user would not be so eager to risk voiding the device's warranty by unauthorized alteration.

That changed with the rise of the smartphone and the tablet computer. Suddenly people had a computer in the palm of the hand, a device that could be taken anywhere and which could do almost anything a regular laptop or desktop machine could do. As a result, a number of new e-publishing platforms have began experimenting with forms beyond the typical model of the novel, the anthology, and the magazine, translated from print into digital format.

Among those formats is the serialized novel. During the Nineteenth Century serialization was a very popular option for both writers and publishers, since it enabled the release of small portions of a longer work on a regular basis over a period of time. Writers liked it because they didn't have to have an entire novel written before they could start publishing it and get some reader responses. Publishers liked it because they didn't have to commit to publishing the entire novel before they had a reasonable assurance of success. A serial that turned out to be a dog could be dumped, or at least wrapped up with a hasty ending.

And readers liked them. The growing literacy of the working classes meant a large population of people who were beginning to read for pleasure, but couldn't come up with the money to buy an entire hardbound novel. However, they could afford the weekly or monthly periodicals in which these novels were serialized, and were soon learning to eagerly await each installment as it came out. Charles Dickens often published his most famous novels in serial format, and one of them was so popular on both sides of the Atlantic that people were literally waiting at the docks in New York, Boston and Philadelphia for the ships bringing the latest installment.

During the twentieth century serialization began to fall out of favor. Part of  it may have been the association with cheesy contrived cliffhangers, many of which involved playing stupid tricks on the audience (this was especially true in the cinematic serials). But at least part of it was an economic shift, such that people became more able to afford to buy the entire novel as a single volume.

Recently the serialized novel is coming back on the Internet. Several well-known novelists have serialized upcoming novels on their blogs, keeping interest high by dribbling out one chapter after another. However, the average beginning writer is apt to see little success from that method, for the simple reason that when you're an unknown, your blog isn't likely to get much traffic, and you end up posting to an empty room.

But if you could provide a central location where people could come to find serialized novels, similar to the old "penny dreadful" broadsheets of Victorian England and Gilded Age America, might serialization be a way for unknown writers to get their start? Instead of needing a complete novel in hand (with all the attendant problems of maintaining focus and momentum through to the finish), you would only need to have that first chapter in acceptable shape to begin presenting your novel to an audience.

This is the philosophy behind JukePop Serials. Authors write their serials at their own pace, and after their original chapter is accepted, they can put subsequent chapters up without needing further editorial permission. For the most part the stories are free to read, but many authors set up a "support the author" button, similar to the street musician's open guitar case. Support the arts on a personal basis, giving as much as you feel moved to give.

But the real metric of success at JukePop Serials is the +vote. This is an audience response metric -- as the readers complete each chapter, they have the option of rendering a vote in favor of that chapter. As serials accumulate +votes, they move upward in the rankings. Some of the most popular serials have thousands of +votes, since people who enjoy a serial will spread the word and soon the buzz becomes self-sustaining.

JukePop is only a few years old, and at this point it's impossible to say whether it will produce a lasting paradigm for serialized novel publication, or if it will end up like so many companies of the earliest days of e-publishing, whose names are now forgotten by everybody except those few early adopters who fondly remember novels they can no longer access on unsupported equipment.

Friday, October 3, 2014

And So It Begins

Sometimes life imitates art just a little to closely for comfort. When I first heard about the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone, I immediately flashed to Orson Scott Card's Hidden Empire. For various reasons he used a fictional virus he called the nictovirus rather than actual Ebola in his novel, but the story proved all too prophetic, right down to the stigmatization of survivors by people who don't understand how these people are now immune to reinfection and can safely nurse others through the disease.

Card's novel ends with the United States still free of the fictional nictovirus, although it's strongly suggested that the (as of yet unpublished) third volume would be dealing with the fatal slip that allows America's Patient Zero through the border. Here in the Primary World that particular Rubicon has now been crossed with the diagnosis of one Eric Duncan, a Liberian who'd come to visit American family. Already there are accusations of major errors in the handling of Mr. Duncan's case, particularly given he tried to get medical treatment when he first became ill but was sent away with antibiotics, and only when he developed major symptoms did the medical establishment finally pay attention, by which point he may have infected a hundred people, including the EMT's who transported him.

And we've had the usual angry frightened voices calling for extreme measures, whether sealing off the entire African continent and leaving millions of people to die or running off to the hills to hide. Many of them don't understand basic concepts such as the difference between contagious and infectious, two words that are often used colloquially as if they were interchangeable but which in fact have very different technical meanings (contagious refers to the speed with which a disease moves through the population, while infectious refers to the number of bacteria or viral particles which are needed for an exposure to result in infection).  As a result, they have no real idea of how to assess the risk of becoming infected, and thus call for measures that are useless at best and quite possibly counterproductive.

Worse, many people no longer trust the government to respond appropriately and effectively. The CDC has recently been plagued by scandals related to the handling of infectious materials, including anthrax spores  And many people have come to perceive the Obama Administration as being about as competent as that of the fictional President Warrick in John Ringo's The Last Centurion -- that is, one you can trust to not just fumble the response to a crisis, but do so in a way that actively makes the situation worse -- even as we're being told again and again that we don't need to worry, that the biggest reason for the severity of the Ebola outbreak in Africa is the extreme poverty and lack of resources of the affected countries, that even in Nigeria a somewhat more wealthy society has been able to marshal a response which has contained and stopped an emergent outbreak that resulted from a traveler from Liberia bringing Ebola into the country.

I would like to think that things will go as smoothly as they did in Tom Clancey's Executive Orders, in which the Ebola outbreak wasn't just a traveler from a region of Africa where it was active, but the result of deliberate terrorism. However, given the state of our country right now, I'm uneasily aware of how quickly it could look more like The Last Centurion.

So don't panic, but be prepared. Have the basics available at home that you'd want for any disaster that could strand you for several days -- food, water, basic medicines and toiletries, the ability to cook and keep yourself warm, etc. Know your neighbors, and be prepared to help as needed, but don't put yourself in needless risk just to be a hero.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Rebel Yell Echoes in R'lyeh

When we think of the Lovecraft Mythos, we usually think of brooding New England towns whose inbred inhabitants dabble in dire arts and breed with inhuman monstrosities from the deeps. But even Lovecraft himself occasionally mentioned other regions of the country. For instance, in "The Call of Cthulhu" he mentioned a cult of Cthulhu-worshipers somewhere in the bayous of Louisiana. But they were few and far between, and the chilly New England character remained the primary color of his writing.

However, as the Lovecraft Mythos has slip-slid into the public domain and become a common set of cultural references, we've seen a lot of stories set in a wide variety of places. Lovecraft tended to concentrate on New England settings because he was himself from Rhode Island, but other authors often choose settings with which they are more familiar.

In "Southern Fried Cthulhu," Steve Poling gives us a vision of what might happen if one of Lovecraft's Old Ones decided to try its tricks on a contemporary community somewhere in northern Alabama. Good ol' boys aren't as easy to take down as those standoffish Yankees.