Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Report: Chill, by Elizabeth Bear

The sequel to Dust, in which the Jacob's ladder is now in flight and trying to repair itself. Unfortunately for the new captain and her companion AI, there are still the ghosts of old angels with which to contend and something insidious is taking over areas of the ship.

This was a slightly easier read, as I was now familiar with the setting, and it delivers on the promise of more of the same that one expects from a sequel. I'm looking forward to the next book, Grail, which has yet to be released.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Book Report: Dust, by Elizabeth Bear

I had some difficulty with this at the beginning, and it was entirely due to an orientation issue. The back promised a story of a generation ship in jeopardy, but the opening read more like a medieval fantasy complete with swords. It's the story of a servant girl who rescues a princess from captivity and tries to help her return home.

But that's not all it is.

The story does indeed take place on a generation ship, the Jacob's Ladder, marooned by some ancient accident in orbit around a black hole/red giant binary system about to go nova. The engines have been damaged and the ship's artificial intelligence splintered into a dozen different personalities ("Angels"), each vying to be the one to control that intelligence's eventual reintegration. "Magic" is the result of advanced nanotech which enables some fantastic capabilities in those who possess it. "Monsters" are evolved plants and animals or machines modified by AI and nanotech. The whole is presided over by the warring kingdoms of Rule and Engine, removed from their origins as Command and Engineering by hundreds of years.

The story is fascinating, and what seems a straight-forward "rescue the princess" fantasy twists itself into a story about love, loss, heroism and family in which the fate of the "world" really does lie in the balance.

Bear writes some beautiful passages, and mixes SF and Fantasy in a way that manages to remain loyal to both without devolving into "Star Wars" style melodrama. My only complaint here was that I had difficulty understanding the setting.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Book Report: Metatropolis, ed. by John Scalzi

I've been reading an interesting swath of books lately. Among the authors are Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, and John Scalzi... so when I discovered Metatropolis through Mr. Scalzi's web site and it became widely available through Tor, I decided to check it out.

Metatropolis is a collection of stories set in a shared future world where fossil fuels are near exhaustion and urban decay has begun to tip over into urban collapse. The collection focuses on the recreation or resurrection of cities, about what can be done with them when the infrastructure that made them possible begins to decay. It's an interesting and extremely thought-provoking read. I read this just after completing the Tales of Ibis, and Metatropolis does for green cities what Ibis did for A.I.: presents a vivid, compelling future where the logical extension of human drive and capabilities leads to some startling insights.

This, like Ibis before it, is thinking person's science fiction. It's not space opera. It's not fantasy with robots. It's a plausible exploration of societal evolution and its effect on the individuals caught up in it.

If I've made it sound dry, it isn't. Each story stands perfect by itself, with believable characters and gripping plots that make for a great read.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

*Addendum: Lake, Bear and Butcher are all represented by agent Jennifer Jackson. It seems we have similar taste in authors.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Time Marches On...

...and it's left footprints all over my face.

Whaddaya mean it's been 2 weeks since my last post? Impossible. It's only been... a couple of... days. Right? Days? Maybe a week, tops. Ten days at the outside.

Reader's Digest version of things going through my head:

November is National Adoption Month here in the True North. Adoption is a cause near to my heart. Think about it while I try to find time to compose a suitable missive.

James Frey is up to no good. Again. Why is a respected academic institution inviting a fraud to speak to its students anyway?

Nathan Bransford, a man whose endeavors in the blogosphere are directly responsible for my own efforts, abandoned agenting for a "real" job. I wish him well. I also wish I'd sent him a query just so I could have one of his rejections. I suspect they're going to become collector's items.

There's a "new" black hole in the sky. They're fascinating objects: little knots in space-time, pin pricks in the universe.

I've read some good books lately, so my Book Reports are behind too. While I'm collecting my thoughts about stuff, tell me:

1) What are you reading right now?
2) How many books do you read a year?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writers: Get Over Yourselves

One thing that concerns me a great deal in my perusal of author, agent and editor web sites is how often they focus on writing. Eg: this is a very good author blog in which she discusses how to write.

Now, I guess given the nature of those sites that's only to be expected. What bothers me is the overall feeling that I get from visitors to these sites that the universe is screaming, "The publishing industry isn't fair to writers! Why isn't publishing doing more to help writers? Rather than go with a publisher, I'm self publishing because that way I can actually get my book in print!"

When I get this impression, all I can do is shake my head and wish there were some way to help the purveyors of such thoughts get their heads on right. So here, possibly for future reference, possibly just to vent, is a verbal whack upside the brain-pan.

Get over yourself. It's not about you.

The explosive growth of the web has made it possible for everyone who wants to write words to publish those words to a world-wide audience.

I've managed to post something on average every week for the last 2 years. Assuming 500 words a post (very conservative), that's 113000 words. The effort has garnered me 20 followers. Followers are people who get notified by Google of a new post, provided they are signed in and bother to check, which they may or may not subsequently read. I average about 3 visitors a day. Most are google searchers who are looking for something else and who pause only long enough to say, "Nope, that's not it," before moving on. About 1 in 3 actually pauses long enough to read what's written here (and thank-you for that).

Writing has become such a common pursuit that we even have a month dedicated to producing it. But the broadcast of information is only one part of communication. The other part, the part that is currently being neglected in this cyber-oriented world of ours, is the reception.

Who's listening? Who's reading?

The answer is important. If everyone's writing and nobody's reading, then we have the equivalent of a room full of people yammering at the top of their lungs and wondering why nobody's paying attention.

I'd like to be more popular. I'd like to be Scalzi (note that he doesn't talk about writing very often). I'd also like to be rich, but that ain't happening either. And that's fine. I haven't put any real effort into attracting readers, and so the results are in line with my expectations.

I look at the web, and I see how easy they've made it for people to write, but I don't see where they've made it as easy for people to read. The closest we've got to a tool that makes things easy to read is a search engine, which is the equivalent of having someone go through the bookstore and tell you "These are all the books that contain the word 'asparagus.' Now go through them all until you find one you might like." The web really ain't user friendly. Why not? This essay puts it succinctly: "...far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them." People are willing to pay to put content up on servers. They're not willing to pay to read (access) it (except for adult content which... well, it's one more reason I think the species could use a good meteor). Writers are desperate for an audience and willing to pay to get their words out. That's why being a scam agent often pays better with less effort than being a real one.

Readers, however, are being woefully served by everyone except the publishing industry. Publishing, whatever complaints may be leveled against it, exists to make money off readers. As a result, publishing caters to the readers not to the writers. So you've written a fantastic novel of romance and tripe farming? Congratulations. Sorry the publishing world has rejected your book, but all their research tells them that buying a novel with detailed instructions for growing your own tripe is unlikely to pay off. Not enough people want to read it. Once a novel, or any book, comes out from a reputable publisher you can be sure of at least one thing: a large number of people believe that someone out there will be willing to pay to read it.

Publishing is a pull industry. They don't look at supply (for which I'm grateful). They look at demand. They study the market (readers) and try to figure out "What do these people want?" Oh, they get it wrong a lot, but they get it right often enough to be a viable (if ailing) industry. They've also figured out what readers don't want: Novels that are badly written, poorly plotted, predictable, dull... In other words, they don't want about 99% of what ends up in an agent or publisher's slush pile.

So: writers... before you complain about the commercial publishing industry, make sure you've spelled every word correctly and used standard grammar. Make sure you've written in paragraphs and scenes, that the book actually works, and then...

And then do a national book market study that shows how many people are interested enough to plunk down a minimum of $10 to read your book.

They're going to be giving up what (probably) is the equivalent of one or two paid working hours to own it instead of more food, clothing or luxury items, and then several more hours of personal time time to read it. Are you sure your humble collection of pages are worth that to enough of them to make the editing, publishing, packaging and marketing of those pages profitable?

If the answer to that is a resounding, "Yes!" and you've got the numbers to back it up, then complain away. I want to hear what you have to say.

Otherwise, please shut up.

Don't tell me how you want readers to read your book, because what you want doesn't matter.

All that matters to readers is what they want. All that matters to publishing is what readers want. I think it's okay for authors to want something else. Some want to inspire the world. Hurray! Some want to write a Work For the Ages. Go for it! Some want to make a living off their novels (not all desires are realistic). More power to you! Go forth and write to your highest and best ambition. But in the world of commercial publishing, don't expect any of that to interest anyone. You're not paying for the product, so the only say you have in what's produced is in what you offer for possible production.

Make it good. Make it readable. And regardless of what happens, don't ever forget:

Publishing: It's not about you.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Current Reading: Dust, by Elizabeth Bear

Inspirational Quote: "Boo!" -- Just About Everyone

In case you've missed it, the majority of the wester world has just finished celebrating All Hallow's Eve, also called "Hallowe'en." It's one of the holidays I've always found interesting because it's managed to survive into the current century without being co-opted by Christianity. It's a pagan anachronism that's had its teeth pulled (there is little true fear associated with it now, and macabre displays are just part of the fun), but it showcases cultural superstitions in an entertaining way.

I also like it because people give out chocolate, and personally I think we need more holidays where that happens.

In the true spirit of Hallowe'en, I should curse you, BUT that's just plain unfriendly. Instead, I hope you and yours enjoyed the night, and that subsequent stomach aches and dentist bills prove not too onerous to bear.

Oh, and also, here's a picture of the Guardians of the Kingdom. Cassandra's responsible for the little pumpkin, although her mother wielded the carving knife. The bigger pumpkin is mine, and it's supposed to be an owl. Really. You can almost see it. Apparently my artistry was not up to the challenge of rendering avian features in melon flesh. I shall try not to be crippled by my awareness of that shortcoming.