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.