Sick of the Apocalypse

I’ve written a little essay, cleverly titled (by the editor) “Apocalypse No” for Arc Magazine’s blog:

I’m sick of the Apocalypse. It’s a tired, worn-out trope and an excuse for lazy writing and I wish it would go away.


I’m currently writing a novel set 200 years from now and you know what? It’s hard. It occurs to me that someone writing a novel when the first steam locomotives were just appearing couldn’t possibly have imagined the chain of events that would lead to something like the Facebook phone — not even close. So how the hell can I create something convincing that far in our future? Wouldn’t it be easier to just drop an asteroid/global warming/zombie invasion/plague on everything and then write a novel about people struggling in a world gone to hell?

Read the rest at the Arc Tumblr.

Twentieth Century House Ebook

As an experiment, I’ve created a short ebook containing five speculative fiction stories published over the last decade or so. Titled Twentieth Century House after one of the stories in the collection, it’s available at the low, low price of $1.49. All the stories have been published before in magazines including the Canadian On Spec and Malahat Review, as well as the Tesseracts 11 anthology (edited by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boingand the Intel Tomorrow Project UK.

Disagreeing with Turow on the ‘Slow Death’ of Authors

Scott Turow, president of the Author’s Guild, has an op-ed at the New York Times bemoaning the “Slow Death of the American Author.” The issues he raises sound scary enough: resale of foreign editions of books, resale of ebooks, ebook piracy. Any of those could be bad for writers and publishers, and all of them together with a culture of free information on the Internet seem as if they’re a perfect storm that could reduce publishing to ashes. But really now: the death of authors?

I’m reminded of what Clay Shirky wrote about the newspaper business in 2009. “‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.”

Many found what Shirky wrote in 2009 frightening, and indeed we still haven’t figured out what will work. But it’s not like nobody is publishing newspapers, or news-like web publications. The world is lousy with them. Shirky wasn’t saying we were all doomed, just that the future has yet to be written, but it’s not going to look like the past.

Is book publishing broken? No, not yet. Whatever happens, I doubt there will be less books in the world. Almost 350,000 books were published in the US in 2011, an increase of 20,000 titles from the year before. Many of them were self-published; many e-books. The barriers of entry to publishing keep dropping lower and lower. But it’s very possible it may not be easy to make a comfortable living being a writer (was it ever, other than a for lucky few, though?).

In the New York Times piece, Turow writes: “Now many public libraries want to lend e-books, not simply to patrons who come in to download, but to anybody with a reading device, a library card and an Internet connection.” I’m not sure what we’re supposed to get from this, but imagine he’d written ‘books’ instead of ‘ebooks’ there. I fail to see how being able to borrow a book from home rather than from inside the library is such a bad thing.

And really, picking on libraries? Anyone who’s checked out an ebook online from their library knows there are many hurdles and complexities; enough that going to buy the book from Amazon is a welcome lesson in instant gratification.

This is the point where I think I get it – what bugged me about this op-ed. If Turow is irked by libraries making it possible to borrow e-books, is he just as antideluvian about everything else he’s worried about? From the people I know in writing and in publishing, I know there’s fear and confusion. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen. But I’m not sure what Turow thinks we should do about it, other than cling to the copyright rules that haven’t prevented the issues he’s worried about.

He finishes up: “Soviet-style repression is not necessary to diminish authors’ output and influence. Just devalue their copyrights.”

So it’s output and influence that depend on copyright? I’m not so sure. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that in every industry so far where artificial barriers of scarcity are imposed on things the Internet makes easier (copying, sharing music, etc), the barriers don’t hold for long. I still hope to publish my novels and make some money for the time and effort I’ve put into them. But who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll see a million books published in the US in a decade, almost all of them self-published e-books. It will be a different world, but I sincerely doubt authors will stop writing, or being read. I won’t. It just might be harder to become a Scott Turow. And maybe that’s not so bad.

Update: I’m not the only one (far from it) rubbed the wrong way by this. And I’m certainly not the most articulate or knowledgeable – TechDirt has a great, comprehensive piece on this, calling Turow “an absolute disaster as the Luddite-driven head of the Authors’ Guild,” and pointing out the myriad ways in which he’s wrong. Good stuff.

Small Accidents E-Book

It’s been a while, but Small Accidents, my first book, is now available as an E-book. It can be purchased from Amazon and as a DRM-free title through Kobo, for the remarkably low price of $2.99. Lawrence Hill called the book “exquisitely painful and eminently readable”, so there’s that… Get ’em while they’re hot!

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312

With 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson returned to his careful (and artful) conception of a future that is both believable and enthralling. I was a big fan of the book, and pleased to see it make the Hugo Award nomination list. The Atlantic has a great interview up with Kim today. He had a nice bit about the fiction in science fiction:

Science fiction can explore not just what might happen, but how it might feel, and what it might mean. This means that science fiction has to work as fiction to work at all, which means it must have characters the reader can move inside; the old notion that science fiction was only “about ideas” was not correct. It’s best when the fiction part of it is best.

I find in KSR’s best work a mixture of character and plot and sheer intellectual effort — the Mars trilogy had it, and 2312 has it too. His thinking on future models for economical and social justice, for instance, is very thought-provoking.

The idea that economic systems contain elements of their precursors and their successors is a version of Raymond Williams’s idea of the residual and emergent, in which aspects of the present have their deepest roots in the past and future. Naturally science fiction takes an interest in this, by projecting a future history, thus portraying both what is emerging now, and also what persists and will be in the future a residual.

The whole interview is well worth a read. Read the rest at The Atlantic.

Drone Strikes, Visualized

My new novel, tentatively titled “The Drone Room” deals with some of the ramifications of the new age of drone warfare. So I’m always curious when drone-related news pops up. This info-graphic, which I discovered through The Guardian, visualizes every US drone strike and every known victim from the drone attacks in Pakistan by the US and allies since 2004.



The past and future of publishing

An interesting article at Wired about the state of publishing right now, with attention to the growing power of (some) authors as e-books take a larger share of industry sales. What I found encouraging from this piece is their contention that e-books have increased the overall market for books (Amazon says that customers who buy a Kindle increase their book buying by a factor of five compared to their previous habits) and that major publishers, though definitely in transition and turmoil, are doing just fine financially.

Read the rest

And then to follow up on this, a sophisticated, fascinating piece from the Virginia Quarterly Review about the business of literature over the past few centuries. Some quotes:

“It is the Exceptionalists, the ones who claim the mantle of defender of the book, who undermine the book by claiming that it is a world unto itself, in need of special protection, that its fragility in the face of the behemoth or barbarian du jour (Amazon, the Internet, comic books, the novel, the printing press, illiteracy, literacy, to name but a handful of purported sources of cultural decline) requires insulation, like the skinny kid kept away from the schoolyard and its bullies.”

“Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism, they virtually began it. They are part of the fuel that drives it. The growth of the chain model in books offered the twentieth-century public the opportunity to decry the groceryfication of the bookstore, utterly belying the reality, as Striphas outlines in The Late Age of Print—by quoting Rachel Bowlby—that the bookstore is in fact the model for the supermarket”

“The publisher is an orchestrator in the world of book culture, not a machine for sorting manuscripts and supplying a small number of those manuscripts in improved and bound form to a large number of people via a retailer-based supply chain best suited for the distribution of cornflakes, not ideas.”

Read the rest

Update: Salon has a response to the Wired piece, saying “If print could talk, it would surely be telling the world, Mark Twain-style, that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated…E-books are definitely here to stay, but it seems that many, many readers — a threefold majority, in fact — still prefer print.”


Arc Science Fiction Contest

I was pleased to be selected as one of five finalists for the Arc Magazine (UK) 1.2 competition. My story “A Node in the Network” was a runner up, and is still available to read as a downloadable PDF file from the Arc page at the Intel UK Tomorrow Project website. They’re all interesting stories, and I was particularly taken with Ghost Girl”, by Rich Larson.