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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Publishing, Baseball, and Market Inefficiency

[This article contains baseball references, but knowledge of the game is not required to enjoy it.  I wrote it last year and sat on it for months, trying to make it more sensible.  I don't think I succeeded. Screw it, it's my blog I'll ramble if I want to.  I guess with last Friday's article I'm startig a bit of a series about 'State of Genre Fiction' or something like that... whatever.  Enjoy, I hope.]

The Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing world is a lot like professional baseball.  I first started reading seriously as an 11 year old middle school student.  Somewhere along the way I picked up Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time and recognized the little flame on the bottom of each book and three little letters beneath it... T - O - R.  It didn't take me long to realize that Tor Books are the New York Yankees of SFF.  Since then I've learned that Jordan's series was the equivalent of Barry Bonds (or Christiano Renaldo for European readers) -- a singular force capable of propelling his publisher into the black.

Those days are gone.  Jordan has passed away, and even while he was alive his release schedules were intermittent at best and terminally delayed at worst.  In today's marketplace maybe only George R.R. Martin, who's on a five year release plan himself, seems capable of this kind of strength.  To respond, the Big-6 publishers have embraced the model vetted for the last hundred years by the big market pro sports teams - buy proven commodities and use them until their knees turn arthritic.

A trend that demonstrates this is the glut of thief and/or assassin based low-fantasy novels.  Just look at the 2011 line-up:

Shadow's Lure by Jon Sprunk (Pyr)
Farlander and Stands a Shadow by Col Buchanon (Tor)
Shadow Chaser by Alexey Pehov (Tor)
A Den of Thieves, A Thief in the Night, and Honor Among Thieves by David Chandler (Voyager)
Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick (Ace)
Theft of Swords and Rise of Empire by Michael J. Sullivan (Orbit)
The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit)
Low Town by Daniel Polansky (Doubleday)

That's at least one title from all the major U.S. houses with the exception of Spectra who has Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves due out this year.  Along with Republic of Thieves are these expected 2012 titles:

Shadow's Master by Jon Sprunk (Pyr)
Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell (Pyr)
Heir of Novron by Michael J. Sullivan (Orbit)
Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (Orbit)
The Outcast Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit)
Shadow Blizzard by Alexey Pehov (Tor)
Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle (Angry Robot)
Giant Thief by David Tallerman (Angry Robot)

I'm sure I've missed a handful from both last year and this, and I haven't even touched on some of the previous works like Brent Weeks' Night Angel Trilogy or Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn that continue to sell very well.  I suspect this 'trend' has a lot do with the massive success of Lynch's work and publishers gravitating toward a type of book they know will sell.  Some of them are quite good, some are decidedly not.  Most of them aren't really all that similar to each other, but that isn't really the point -- they all look similar.  I could certainly do the same exercise for vampire novels, or zombie novels, or dystopian novels and the results would be similar.  With limited acquisition budgets and shrinking shelf space (Borders), is there any question why more of these are making it to the shelves?

The Big-6 buy novels that have proven market success.  It's really that simple.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not necessarily criticizing them.  With a flagging economy, a dozen different forms of media available to consumers free of charge, not mentioning the gads of self published work available on-line for free, it's understandable that these for profit entities are going to be, well.... for profit.  But, there's a danger in that.  If the industry is just trying put butts in the seats, it runs the risk of stagnating.  Just like the New York Yankees, who from 1982-1994, despite a tremendously inflated payroll, never made the playoffs.

The Yankees have a lot of money, so even in the worst of times they're able to buy enough talent to keep their head above water (Big-6).  Still, a successful sports franchise (or publishing house, or any other business) requires new blood to stay fresh.  They have to promote young players from the minor leagues.  They draft these players or acquire them from other teams by trade, but without cheap young talent they'll end up marginalized as high priced stars age gracelessly.

Teams like the Oakland Athletics or the Tampa Bay Rays survive by investing wisely.  They front load money on young talent, hoping they pay off.  Most fail, but the ones that succeed easily cover the sunk costs of those who've fallen by the wayside.  More pointedly they apply the Moneyball (now a major motion picture) philosophy articulated in Michael Lewis's book of the same name: survive by exploiting the inefficiencies in a marketplace dominated by those who make decisions based on past outcomes.  In publishing terms these teams are Night Shade Books (NSB) and Angry Robot (AR).

Pyr and Baen might also fit in that grouping, but I've heard Lou Anders, Hugo Award Winning Editor for Pyr, say that their brand is 'quality'.  I find that both accurate, and incredibly savvy.  If I went to the Big-6 and asked about their brand, I suspect in an honest moment they'd say something like 'marketable'.  Baen has a very clear brand built around military SF.  NSB and AR have become the brand for new and unique voices.  These two have found the inefficiency in the marketplace. The Moneyball if you will.  They're exploiting risk.  Risk the Big-6 aren't willing - or more accurately don't have to - absorb.

Unfortunately, this is where my comparison falls apart.  Novel writing is an art form.  It's not just about winning (selling) or losing (not selling), but also about producing significance.  In publishing, what's more important: producing books readers should buy or producing content readers will buy?  Looking at the smaller houses I'm seeing large numbers of titles from the former with a belief that it will drive the latter.  Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot) is such a pastiche that I don't even know what to call it.  Kameron Hurley's God's War (NSB) also fits that lack of a marketing window.  Thomas World by Richard Cox (NSB) is such trippy novels I'm not sure who read it (other than me).  NSB alone brought 15 new authors to print last year all of which have provided new and vibrant voices to the genre.

In a new world of eBooks, blogs, and self publishing, where the reader has an infinity of choice a keystroke away, the notion of brand is going to become more and more prevalent.  When I see those letters on a book's spine, as a reader I'll know what I'm getting.  When I want to see a game full of names I know, with history and reputation, I'm going to Yankee Stadium.  I'll watch Derek Jeter trot out to shortstop for 1000th time and remember the first time I saw him as a 19 year old fresh faced kid.  But if I want to be bowled over, see something I've never seen before, I'm going to head to Tampa.  They're pushing the envelope -that's their brand.

I have no doubt that in the years ahead the Big-6 will find many of these smaller press authors in their catalogs.  At the end of the day small markets develop talent only to lose them to bigger contracts, but without these feeder systems the larger markets will stagnate.  Just imagine for a moment though what could be if the Big-6 committed to risk, driving the market not just responding to it.  Putting resources behind not just books that can sell, but books that should be read.  In the sports world, that's called a dynasty.  I guess for all the small and medium presses I'll keep my fingers crossed that doesn't happen.

[Before the comments get going, yes I realize the Big-6 do take risks on unknown authors.  That's not the point I'm making.  The point is they don't take many, if any, risks on things that have a questionable market.  Also, keep in mind this is a piece meant to provoke discussion, not to demagogue an issue that ultimately I am only tangentially informed on.]

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Tooth and Nail - Jennifer Safrey

Contrary to the article that graced this blog last week, I have been known to choose a book to read (or not read) based on genre. Usually I do it to avoid things I know I won't like, as opposed to trending toward things I know I will. For example, I hate paranormal romance and dislike most urban fantasies (because they masquerade as paranormal romance). Over the weekend, I made a choice to read an Urban Fantasy book specifically because I realized I should practice what I preach. With that in mind I read Jennifer Safrey's novel Tooth and Nail, from Night Shade Books.

Gemma Cross's boyfriend is running for congress. She used to be a professional pollster, but now she's retired to support her boyfriend's ambition. To keep herself busy she's rededicated herself to boxing, a childhood love and lifetime hobby.  Her life is perfect, until a magnetic young woman shows up at her gym offering her the job of a lifetime.  See, Gemma is half faerie - specifically half tooth faerie. Get it? Tooth and Nail.  As a hybrid of fae and human, Gemma is destined to defend the Olde Way, the memory of an idyllic life that pre-dates humankind. To bring back the Olde Way, the fae collect innocence, which is -- not surprisingly -- encapsulated in the baby teeth of children.  Someone is threatening that process, and Gemma is the only person who can stop it.

Before I go any further let me be clear, this is an utterly ridiculous premise. How ridiculous? Like John Travolta insisting he's straight, ridiculous. Ok, maybe not that bad. But, Tooth and Nail is about the tooth faerie saving the world, an idea I thought put aside for good after the movie starring the Rock. Unlike the movie, I'm pretty sure Safrey isn't going for tongue in cheek comedy (unless I'm really dense), instead opting for a serious take on (I feel silly even saying it) the mystical being that replaces teeth with small change. Some readers just won't be able to get past that, and I wouldn't hold that against anyone. That said, and believe me this is hard to say, I really enjoyed it.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much I read it in one sitting.

Perhaps I was predisposed to like Safrey's novel. Set in Washington DC, in the midst of a Virginia Congressional election, the book moves through a lot of my circles.  Even a boxing gym in Chinatown, where one actually exists, is rendered with a touch of familiarity. Safrey deftly captures the paranoia of a political race, and the mindset of most candidates as they have their life picked apart. There's even a blogger called the D.C. Digger.  Trust me when I say, there are plenty of those in the real world. Added to this perfect (for me) milieu, are dynamic and effective characters, a distinct lack of overt romance, and a well designed plot, making Tooth and Nail everything I want from my urban fantasy (that I almost never read).

The novel focuses on three primary points in Gemma's character that ultimately drive the narrative. First, that Gemma isn't some trophy wife, who will sit on the sidelines while her man makes laws.  Second, being a tooth fairy isn't exactly what she had in mind.  Third, filling that role is a lot more than she bargained for, jeopardizing her life, her boyfriend's career, and the way she relates to the world at large.  To the first point, I think a lot of the novel's success is predicated on Gemma being a real woman with... AGENCY. I've been waiting to use that term ever since Liz Bourke wrote her review of Theft of Swords.

Gemma doesn't wait around for men to solve her problems. She isn't overly beautiful, or stereotypical in any way that I've come to recognize females in fantasy novels. Sure, she gets weak in the knees at the sight of a set of six-pack abs, but that comes across more realistic than gratuitous and for an urban fantasy novel, Tooth and Nail spends very little time developing romantic tension.  Safrey instead develops tension by challenging her characters and their mores, asking them to exist in real space, not some contrived romantic or supernatural boondoggle. That's not to say there aren't some contrived scenes (there are several), but they are the exception as opposed to the rule.

For those who read this blog regularly and/or converse with me on Twitter, I'm sure this review is somewhat staggering. Tooth and Nail is radically divorced from what I typical read or enjoy. Tying it back to my article from Friday, that's the beauty of reading without preconceptions. The truth is there are good urban fantasies and paranormal romances, just as there are epic fantasies and space operas. It's unfortunate that I'll read very few because of how they're defined by the marketplace.

I'm glad to have read Jennifer Safrey's newest novel and I'd love to hear from anyone out there with ideas for novels I might enjoy off my beaten path.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Importance of Genre in Reader Expectations

Beaulieu, Cole, Pape, and Ahmed. Photo by Patrick Wolohan
At Epic Confusion last weekend, I sat in on a panel about genre-blending.  It was moderated by Myke Cole, but included authors Bradley Beaulieu, Scott Lynch, Saladin Ahmed, and Cindy Spencer Pape.  Cole, after a little talk about how each of the panelists' novels were genre blending in some way, posed the question -- what significance, if any, does genre have to a writer/publisher outside marketing?  The panel mostly agreed that it had none -- nor should it.  That got me thinking.  Value or not, genre and marketability have a tremendous amount to do with which novels editors buy, and even more with how they're presented to the marketplace.

On an earlier panel, author Kameron Hurley (God's War, Infidel, and the forthcoming Rapture) commented that several large publishing houses passed on her novel because they just didn't know how to market it.  Was it science fiction? Fantasy? Having read the novel, I can see where these houses were coming from.  What Hurley wrote is unique.  It's got flavors of gritty fantasy, but there's nothing remotely 'fantastic' about the world or plot.  Even the magic system seems more like biotech than wizardry.  Neither is it science fiction.  None of her 'speculations' have even the tiniest connection to actual science.  The fact is, God's War was lucky to see the light of day.  Night Shade Books took a chance on it.  Because it doesn't have a genre, it's a veritable boondoggle of marketing.

So how does that impact the reader?  That's a harder question to answer, and to do so I have to ask two more.
  1. How are genres marketed to readers?  
  2. And is the reader harmed by their own predisposition to spend money only on those things they know they'll enjoy?
To the first question, genres are marketed to readers primarily via cover design.  Perhaps, in the modern electronic world, genre has become a search term in and of itself, but even in cyber-shelf-space I find myself attracted to titles based on their covers.  Let's say I love literary fantasy.  Give me something with beautiful prose, some deep undercurrents, and I'm sold.  In that case, Glen Duncan's, The Last Werewolf, cover says all that right things, where Karen MacInerney's Leader of the Pack... doesn't.   Unfortunately, it seems the only time we get a cover like Duncan's is when a publisher is trying to target crossing over into the 'mainstream' (cue ominous music).

The fall-out of that is that covers will (most often) reflect those aspects of the novel that target a genre demographic.  Case in point, Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon and Myke Cole's Shadow Ops: Control Point, two novels due out in February.  Both covers are done in a cartoonish style that calls to mind kinetic action, promise of violence, and tangible magic.  They offer nothing to suggest that beneath the surface Ahmed and Cole actually pose weighty questions to their readers.  They're being marketed to the so-called 'fan boy'.

At the risk of being overly illustrative, I'd point out another interesting cover conundrum.  Bradley Beaulieu's debut novel, Winds of Khalakovo, was presented with a beautiful artistic rendition of an airship listing in a mountain pass.  The sequel, Straights of Galahesh, features a character driven illustration of the novel's protagonist leaping from an airship into the open air.  It suggests action and excitement, but does nothing to communicate true tone of the novel so well captured by the previous volume.  Will the new style sell more books?  I'm almost sure.  Does it send the right signals to the reader?  I'm not convinced, and therein lies the answer to my second questions.  Do genres harm readers?  The answer: you're damn right.

Genres create a false paradigm.  One that presumes that every book is like another, when in fact they are all unique.  Does Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves call to mind Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora?  Yes, but the truth is they bear little resemblance to one another.  Yet for the next twenty years they'll be spoken of in the same breath, bear covers that communicate their similarities, and few who don't like one will ever read the other.  And why?  Because marketing demands they be akin.  Forget the fact that they sound nothing alike and are built of entirely different foundations.  As far as an a publisher is concerned, a thief is a thief and that's the reader to target.

For Ahmed and Cole that means fan boy.  What I lament is that those same readers will never find Jo Walton's Among Others or Paula Brandon's The Traitor's Daughter, all because they are presented in such a way that make readers pause and say, 'that doesn't look like it's for me.'  Sound familiar?  That's the same thing every literary critic has said for the last fifty years when they walk by the Science Fiction & Fantasy section.  In allowing genres to persist, largely due to marketing concerns, I believe genre publishers are limiting themselves.  For every reader gained by producing something that fits a genre niche, another is lost who would never try such a thing.

What's worse, is that once an author finds a market it becomes almost impossible for them to do something else.  Their agents and editors want more of what sells, not necessarily more of what they want to write.  Writing is an artform as much as it's a business, and reading should be as much an appreciation of the art as it is an escape.  Genres retard that process.  It provides a path of least resistance to readers when it comes to choosing their next novel, allowing the publisher to continually target the same types of novel again and again.

Look, I get it.  It's a publisher's job to sell books.  They have to make a value judgement on each novel and find a box for it.  Meanwhile, readers will spend their hard earned money on titles they are sure to like.  It is a self fulfilling prophecy, but not one I have to like.

Do I?

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strata - Bradley P. Beaulieu and Stephen Gaskell

I was a big fan of Bradley Beaulieu's debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo.  It's an incredibly nuanced epic fantasy set in a Cyrillic-esque second world (full review).  When I found out that Beaulieu was trying his hand at a science fiction novella, I was intrigued.  My curiosity was further piqued when I discovered he was working with Stephen Gaskell, as the merging of styles always interests me.

In the twenty-second century, Earth's oil and gas reserves have been spent.  Vast solar mining platforms circle the upper atmosphere of the sun, drawing power lines up from the interior to be sent back to Earth.  For the platforms' teeming masses, life is hard.  Most dream of a return Earthside, but a two-way ticket wasn't part of deal.

Set against the backdrop of this dystopian reality, Strata begins with a race.  Skimmers jockey for position along the sun's convection zone, dodging the plasma plumes that shoot into space.  Kawe is the best pilot on the platform.  He's only a few races away from winning the cup, and with it his freedom.  But, he has no intention of winning -- a Movement is afoot to overthrow the corrupt regime.  Kawe's friend and handler, Smith Pouslon, doesn't want to hear it.  He once tried to make a difference, and now he'll do anything to make sure his protege doesn't throw his life away.

The novel is written from the limited third person in two distinct points of view -- Kawe and Pouslon  -- and focuses on Kawe's attempts at revolution and Pouslon's desire to stop him.  While I presume each author wrote one of the points of view, the end product reads in voice that is neither Beaulieu or Gaskell.  The prose is polished, but also communicates a rawness that lends itself well to the cramped and hard life on the platforms.  Unfortunately, the short format never allows for the authors to provide much detail about the world they've created.  As a result, the race scenes, adrenaline fueled though they are, come across a tad muddled, not dissimilar to the criticisms I levied against Beaulieu's airship scenes in Winds of Khalakovo.  Instead, the focus is entirely on the novella's two protagonists, and from that perspective it's a rousing success.

One thing I couldn't get out of my mind reading Strata was the fact that Beaulieu is from Wisconsin.  Some may remember the discussions that dominated the state last year, when Governor Scott Walker tried to break the state employees labor union.  Not to get political, but I can't help but wonder if some of the inspiration for the novella stems from that debate.  The corporation that runs the platform oppresses its workers, selling them a bill of goods on Earth, only to revoke that contract once they find themselves stranded and without legal recourse.  While the structure of the argument is tangential at best, it seems clear that the authors are at the very least demonstrating the importance of worker protections.

Like all good speculative fiction, Strata is as much about now as it is about the future and Beaulieu and Gaskell do a tremendous job of making that connection.  Clocking in around 70 pages, and priced at $0.99 in all eFormats, I can't imagine many better (or inexpensive) ways to spend two hours.  Maybe if enough people buy Strata, the authors can be convinced to expand to a novel length -- there's certainly enough substance here to make the jump.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Desert Spear - Peter V. Brett

Some have said that The Desert Spear has all the same components (good and bad) from The Warded Man, only more.  I think that's an apt description.  In the second installment of the Demon Cycle, Peter V. Brett expands the scope of his story, spending more time on his pseudo Islamic/Samurai culture (Krasnians) and offering the demon's point of view for the first time.  He brings new characters into the fold and expands the reader's understanding of his magic system and world.  Despite some persistent problems that return from the first novel, Desert Spear is a delightful read that calls to mind the great epic fantasies of years gone by.

The novel begins through the point of view of Jardir, the Krasnian leader so vilified in Warded Man.  Structured much like the first novel, Brett jumps through different points in time to tell the story of Jardir's childhood and rise to power without losing track of his holy war of unification against the north.  Later, Arlen, Leesha, Rojer, and a new point of view character, Renna, reconnect to the story as they struggle to confront the encroachment of the Krasnian army.

If that brief summary lacks in plot movement, it's because there isn't a ton.  Desert Spear is a middle book in the tradition of Empire Strikes Back.  In order for the war between Krasnia and the north (and humanity and demon-kind) to happen, Brett needs to get all his chess pieces in the proper place.  It requires him to show Jardir's motivations, setting him up as the foil to Arlen.  Two Deliverers on a different end of the same continuum -- one representing a universal world view and a united front, the other an ideal of self-sufficiency and independence.

Critics might think by looking inside Jardir's head, Brett is trying to justify his deplorable actions or even worse, further bastardize non-western points of view.  I think it's more to provide an understanding of Jardir's motives.  I've heard Brett speak a few times, and he's said that his novels are in many ways an expression of the fear he witnessed on September 11.  A New Yorker in the city that day, he watched as some ran toward the towers, others ran away, and others froze, unable to do either.  If the demons and humanity in Brett's world are that paradigm writ large, then I can't help but wonder if Jardir is an embodiment of both those who attacked America that day and the nation's reaction to that threat.

That's not to say that Brett is in anyway condoning Al-Qaeda or the war on terror -- I suspect he doesn't much care for either -- but I found the early parts of the novel, and every scene with Jardir there after, an exercise in cultural understanding.  As incompatible as the Krasnian way of life is to Arlen and Leesha, their's is equally as foreign to Jardir.  Brett seems to be speaking to those differences and through Jardir he reaches a hand out to bridge the cultural gap that only willful understanding can span.  Could Brett be wondering aloud that, 'if we could see through each other's eyes would this violence seem so necessary?'  In that dialogue, Desert Spear is a far more powerful novel than its predecessor.  A better novel though?  I can't go that far.

Brett's a big deal in the
German land.
What Desert Spear gives in thematic oomph, it gives back nearly as much in terms of pacing and character.  The early sections with Jardir drag as Brett covers some of the same ground witnessed at the end of Warded Man.  Likewise, returning to a childhood story feels like starting over after growing up with Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer in the first book.  Leesha gives me particular pause as her character has yet to feel real to me two books into the series.  I would call her actions unsupported by her character, but I can't because I don't find her remotely believable in the first place.  Arlen, Rojer, and Renna all feel much more authentic, but the first two stagnate throughout the novel as they wait for the plot (Jardir) to catch up to them.

That paragraph is awful critical, which is perhaps unfair.  None of my quibbles impacted my enjoyment of the novel beyond a raised eyebrow or three.  Brett's action sequences and dialogue continue to impress me, and I never lack for a crystal clear picture of his characters and setting.  Additionally, the tighter narrative and thematic focus (i.e. - not foaming at the mouth with unnecessary digressions) continue to elevate it, doing nothing to dispel my assertions that the Demon Cycle may one day be considered on par with The Wheel of Time and other fantasy icons.

I devoured The Desert Spear, compelled to know more about Peter V. Brett's world.  Why do demons plague the night?  Who is the true Deliverer?  Are the wards more than they seem?  I dare anyone to read it and not demand those answers.  To anyone who enjoyed The Warded Man, this second novel will provide more to love.  A third installment, The Daylight War, is due to be released in 2013.  I'll be at the front of the line to see what happens next.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Epic Confusion - A Better Recap Post than Everyone Else

Last weekend was somewhat surreal.  I'm not much of a fan boy, but I love books, and story telling, and intellectual masturbation.  And ConFusion was the embodiment of those three things.  I had personal conversations with a number of authors, met some of my fellow bloggers, and learned a lot listening to panels.  I drank beer, watched in awe as some women (and men dressed as women) walked around nearly naked (who maybe should have reconsidered), and felt a tiny bit out of my element.  What follows is a small sample of my crazy experiences.  Enjoy.


  • I had the opportunity to observe some of the biggest name authors in the business play a game of AD&D.  An homage to the game of old, they played 1st Edition rules with the The Keep on the Borderlands module.  Debut novelists Saladin Ahmed and Myke Cole DM'ed the game providing dynamic arrow thunks and armor pings throughout the game.  Ahmed especially may have a future in Audio book narration if the whole writing thing doesn't work out (it will).
Seven players total, including authors Elizabeth Bear, Jim C. Hines, Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Peter Brett, Brent Weeks, and the indefatigable Jay Lake/Scott Lynch gnomish alagamation of death and destruction (read: color spray bot), made up a party of all non-human, non-good, non-sensical adventurers under the Sam Sykes definition.  With character names like D'ude (Hines), Darq Shadeuax (Abercrombie), and Master Lambernath (Rothfuss), the players blended perfectly the light hearted tradition of AD&D with a respect for the material and the integrity of the game. 
I expect a longer and more detailed write-up of this game will appear on another site at some point with extensive video evidence.  I taped around 3 hours of video that's now in the possession of THE AUTHORS.  When that happens, I'll post a link here.  Let me just say, there was a LOT of friendly fire. 
  • I spoke with Robin Hobb for like an hour.  What a nice woman, and an absolute fountain of knowledge about writing and publishing.  She attended panels she wasn't sitting on and chimed in with well thought out questions and comments.  Her assistant also tweeted me at some point to let me know that her boss was wearing her sweater.  This isn't relevant, but I found it hilarious.
  • Joe Abercrombie personally wished me luck with my blog.  He did it in a British accent though, so it's hard to be sure how sincere he was being.  I assume I'll be getting a weekly guest post from him.  Abercrombie didn't read from Red Country at the Con, instead going with The Heroes.  I was bummed, but again blown away by his writing -- his reading partner, Robin Hobb, seemed likewise enthralled.  It could have been his reading skills, which, along with John Scalzi, were the best at the Con.
  • Speaking of Scalzi, he read the prologue to Red Shirts.  Fucking awesome and laugh out loud funny.  That is all that needs to be said.  Scalzi also treated the audience to his rendition of women reacting to China Miéville in person.  Lots of screaming and cooing.
  • Brent Weeks is incredibly good with his fans.  That's not to say that the other authors aren't good with their's, but I just happened to be near Weeks several times when he really gave of his time.  He gets high marks from me for that... seriously.  He was the only panel participant to bring his laptop to the table.  I'm not sure if he had a few active e-bay auctions going, or was extra prepared.  Since he always came off really smart, I'll go with the latter.
    Photo by Myke Cole
  • I had two REGULAR cokes at this Con.  If you don't know, I'm a bit of a health nut and drinking non-diet soda is not a frequent occurrence.
  • Doug Hulick, author of Among Thieves, is 6'7 and dwarfed me.  I'm a large man.  We sat next to each other a few times during panels and our knees touched.  I think our relationship is stronger for that.  I did learn that for those of us eagerly awaiting the sequel to Among Thieves, it will be a little delayed.  Stay tuned on that front.
  • I met Patrick, from the YetiStomper blog.  He admitted a fear of meeting me in case I was a hulking hose beast of freaky nerd.  I'm not saying I'm not those things, but he seemed to take meeting me in stride.  His wife was also very nice, and patient during our discussions of the finer points of subgenre classification.  I'll point out that Patrick is far less a Yeti and more of a raging red panda.  That doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?
  • There are some frightening costumes at masquerades.  I'm not going  to go into detail, but... use your imagination... and you won't get close to wackier ones.
  • Peter Brett and Patrick Rothfuss finish each others' sentences.  It's adorable.
  •  Myke Cole moderated a panel where Rothfuss talked about a concept of 'daytime logic' versus 'nighttime logic'.  It was fairly mind blowing in how he related the paradigm to what fantasy taps into for the reader.  I wish I had recorded it.  Sorry.  It would be awesome if he did a blog post summarizing it.
  • While I'm on the topic of Myke Cole, he prefers beer with fruit in it.  Lots of buzz about his book Control Point at the Con too -- along with Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon.  I'm sure that had something to do with the fact they're both out in the next two weeks, but they're also REALLY good.
  • I had a great talk with Tobias Buckell about his new novel Arctic Rising.  I'll be posting a review of the novel, and a write-up of my conversation with him, very soon.  We talked a ton about environmental and technology, but also dug into his thoughts on publishing and cultural bias in the industry.
Can you find me?
Photo by Al Bogdan
  • Most of all, I seriously cannot express enough what a great experience the Con was.  From the organizers, to the other fans, to the authors, it was a totally inclusive experience.  Thanks to everyone that made that happen.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Interview with Hitchers author Will McIntosh

Hitchers was my first exposure to Will McIntosh.  And it was very rewarding.  Somehow I missed his debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, last year.  And I'm terrible about keeping up on short fiction, so his 2009 Hugo Award winning short story, Bridesicles, is largely unknown to me.  Turns out it was just recently optioned for a feature film.  He's also signed a book deal with Orbit to write a novel based on it.  In any case, given how much I enjoyed Hitchers, and rumors have McIntosh in possession of a completed baseball themed fantasy manuscript, I felt compelled to chat with him.

I thought it was pretty interesting -- I hope you agree!  Hitchers is available for sale tomorrow in hardcover and in eFormat February 1.


Justin: I haven't read Soft Apocalypse.   I read almost all of Night Shade's 2011 debuts, but missed yours for some reason.  It's why I made such a point of reading Hitchers right away.  They don't seem very much alike.  What led you from dystopia apocalypse to what is really a supernatural horror thriller novel?

McIntosh: And my third novel won’t be much like either of them!  It’s probably not a great strategy for building a career, but these were just the ideas that grabbed me.   I just trying to write the very best novel I can each time I begin one, and if my best idea at the time is a supernatural horror thriller, then, by god that’s what I’m going to write.  That being said, now that I have an agent, I don’t start any new project without getting his opinion first.   I’m guessing if I went to him and said, “Seth, I have this idea for a high fantasy mystery novel!” he’d gently steer me away from that at this point.

Justin: Hitchers seems to be about a few things.  To a lesser degree, cartoons, and what they can do from a cultural perspective.  And then to a larger degree the connections between people and death.   I understand you have a passion for cartooning, are you also into death?

McIntosh: Yes, I’m a big fan of cartooning.  My dad and I collect original comic art together--I’ve got a Bloom County original right here on the wall in front of me.  I've never thought of myself as big fan of death in the same way, but I guess I need to revisit that.  Right now I’m working on my next novel, Bridesicle, and it’s about love, death, and loving the dead. So yes, I guess I am into death.

Justin: Who did the cartoons in the novel? How much input in them did you have?

McIntosh: An artist named Scott Brundage did them – aren’t they terrific? The people at Night Shade commissioned him to draw them. I wrote the dialogue, described the scene, and described what the characters should look like to some extent. I was especially impressed with his ability to depict a robot werewolf doll.

Justin: The "grandpa" figure (Tom Darby) in Hitchers is a real son of a bitch.  I'm not sure I've ever read a character I disliked more -- Sauron... maybe.  Please tell me you didn't source a relative for him.

McIntosh: That’s my late grandfather. Note that I dedicated Hitchers to my grandparents – that’s the reason. Now to be fair, I made Grandpa in the book much worse than my grandfather was in real life, but that’s who he’s based on. Some of the lines (“You’re nothing but a sissy!”), and the joke about the yolk of an egg are vintage lines my family will immediately recognize. My mom gave me her blessing to use him in the role. Grandpa was a tough guy, tough as nails, an Irish immigrant who worked loading trucks for a supermarket, night shift, for forty years.

Justin: Well, don't I feel like a jerk now.  Let's move on.  Anthrax attack is a big plot device in the novel.  At some point you made a choice for it to be domestic terrorists pissed off about their own lives. You could have gone with the fundamental extremists or a host of other directions. Were you consciously avoiding the political tug and pull that would have resulted in that choice?

McIntosh: Yes. I didn’t want this story to be about the attack, it was about thousands of dead souls inhabiting the living. I needed a vehicle to get it started. If terrorists or a foreign government was responsible for killing half a million people, I can’t just drop that thread, so now I have to divert focus from where I want it to be to tie up that loose end.

Justin: Your Hugo winning story, Bridesicles, talks about hitchers. Is it related to the novel in any way? How does that reconcile with the fact you just sold a novelization of the short to Orbit?

McIntosh: It’s an unfortunate coincidence. Hitchers was originally titled Deadland, but the editors at Night Shade thought that sounded too much like a zombie apocalypse novel. They were right, of course. So, we needed a new title, and the one everyone liked best was Hitchers. For the Bridesicle novel, I’ll change the term from “hitchers” to something else to avoid confusion. Hmm, maybe I’ll use some crucial term from my short story, Defenders

Justin: Your new deal with Orbit is for two books, the second being based on story you just mentioned, Defenders. I assume it isn't written yet, but is that going to be more of classic SF book?

McIntosh: Yes, so it will be nothing like Soft Apocalypse, Hitchers, or Bridesicle! It’s based on a short story that came out this year in Lightspeed. The human race creates millions of huge, intelligent super-warriors to defeat alien invaders, but has no idea how to deal with them after the invaders are defeated.

Justin: This is a tricky one, so I apologize.  We're seeing a lot authors starting with a Night Shade, Angry Robot, or Pyr, then moving to the big-six for subsequent novels. How's that process been?  Why the move?

McIntosh: I love the people at Night Shade. They’ve been kind and supportive and enthusiastic, and it was a really, really tough decision. The people at Orbit have been just as awesome. I think I’ll leave it at that.

Justin: Word on the street says you wrote a "baseball fantasy." As a die-hard fan of America's game, I have to know more. Enlighten me! Please!

McIntosh: Yeah, it’s right here on my hard drive!  After writing a baseball fantasy (the title is Wild), I discovered that baseball novels are not exactly in high demand.  I was still seeking an agent when I wrote it, and I think one of the four thousand agents I queried asked to look at a partial.  I ended up contacting Rick xxx, an SF writer who also wrote a couple of baseball novels (his father was a major league ballplayer), and Rick told me it was fine to have baseball in your novel, but don’t write a novel about baseball.  Too late – I should have asked him before writing Wild.  I don’t get it -- there are some very successful baseball fantasy novels out there, like Shoeless Joe, The Natural, Brittle Innings, If I Never Get Back, and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and I just love all of them. I don’t know why baseball novels don’t get more love.   For the record, here’s what Wild is about:
Strange things are happening to young pitcher Jason Cutty’s team, and he appears to be responsible. One player cries every time he sets foot on the field. Another can’t reach base no matter how hard he hits the ball. The infield floods on sunny days. What did Cutty do to potentially cause these events? The answer involves the first openly-gay player in major league history, a beanball, the top of the Statue of Liberty (the very top, where the torch is, not the wimpy crown-top where the tourists go), and a long-dead baseball legend.
Justin:  Hell, sign me up!  You listening publishers?  Hey, Night Shade, you want another Will McIntosh title?  Anyway, when can expect your novels from Orbit? Keep in mind we only have 11 months left until the end of the world.

McIntosh: I’m delivering Bridesicle next fall, so hopefully Bridesicle in 2013, Defenders in 2014, but it will depend on Orbit’s schedule.

Justin: Awesome, can't wait.  Thanks for joining me!

McIntosh: Anytime.  Now for god's sake, go read Soft Apocalypse!

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Review of the Kindle Fire

Not a picture of my
own Fire. I swear.
You are... my fire!  The one desire!  Believe when I say, I want it that way!  When I unwrapped my Kindle Fire on Christmas, that iconic Backstreet Boys song popped into my head.  I wondered if the device would live up to those words... would the Fire be 'nothin' but a heartache'?  The answer is no.  The Fire is not a heartache or a mistake.  Let me tell you why.

On first look, the Fire looks small and feels heavier than its looks belie, an electronic fruit cake if you will.  I thought the extra weight would be annoying, but like a nice pen, the weight gives it a sense of biblio-tangibility (made-up word!) that I often missed with my original Kindle.  Turn the device on (fully charged, by the way), and you'll be instantly greeted with vibrant colors and screen resolution that compares favorably to the iPad.  Unfortunately, that comparison falls apart pretty fast.

Where the iPad excels, with Apple's knack for intuitive and rock solid operating systems, the Fire falls a bit flat. The interface divides the 'home' screen into four regions -- settings across the top, categorical menu items below that, media carousel next, and favorites at the bottom.    The category menu is divided into 'content streams'  -- Apps, Docs, Web, Apps, Video, Music, etc.  Below the horizontal selection menu is what the Fire calls your carousel.  The carousel functions like a 'Recently Used' drop down menu with all the items you've interacted with, most recent on top.  It's a handy function for someone who bounces between different types of media, but frequently causes hiccups in the system that freeze the carousel, forcing you to enter into the deeper submenus anyway.  Below the carousel is a favorites section where the user can create a series of shortcuts to their favorite apps and media.  These work fine and function just like the app icons on an iDevice.

The rough edges in the OS, are reflected in many of apps.  Although running on an android platform, many of the apps available through the Fire app store are at best beta versions.  Even the ones that work well, seem clunky compared to their iDoppelganger.  Add in the fact that bringing in non-Amazon content can be difficult, those looking for a do-it-all small tablet should look elsewhere.

However, I'm not so sure Amazon had any intention of competing in that market.  The Fire is a media delivery system and from that perspective it's tremendous.  eReading on the Fire is a pleasure.  The page turns never lag, and the addition of the touch screen to look-up words, highlight passages, and take notes augments the reading experience from the previous generations of Kindle.  For current Kindle users the back lit screen will provide freedom from reading lights, but be aware that outdoor will become difficult as glare is a real issue.

From a video and music angle, the Fire also lands high marks.  The Amazon storefront works great to acquire content, and the Fire players do everything you want them to.  Be aware though that given the limited storage capacity on the device, downloading and storing media is difficult.  Sure, the Cloud provides a way to store it, but on a plane or a long car ride you'll have to make choices about what to bring with you.  Likewise, Amazon Prime has been billed as a big value added for the Fire.  In many ways the purchase price of $199 is somewhat inaccurate as to truly take advantage of the device it's almost necessary to pay the $79/year Prime membership.  Except, that 'advantage' is stunted.  While a ton of free media is available, it is only free to stream, not to download, making Prime useless when traveling.

Calibre is a powerful tool for eReaders
For those coming from an Apple or Nook platform and heavily invested in their media libraries, the transition to Amazon is going to be labor intensive at best and impossible for those without some technical savvy.  I'm not a big music listener, or video watcher, so for me the only difficulty lay in my non-Kindle books.  Calibre solved most of those problems, but it's not a completely simple process to strip DRM and convert to MOBI, something to consider for someone who reads in multiple formats.

Technically, the Fire lacks a few features that would have gone a long way toward making it more user friendly.  The first is tactile volume control.  Small enough to fit in a coat pocket, the Fire is absolutely a device that can be used to walk around and listen to, but volume control is impossible without opening the device, entering the settings menu, and touching the slider.  Second, the battery life isn't anything to write home about.  I'm forced to plug mine in every night without fail (side note: it charges fast).  And third, the external speaker sucks, so much so that cooking eggs is enough to drown it out.  Am I whining?  Probably.

Complaints aside, the Fire is an excellent reading device, a solid portal into Amazon's content stores, and a poor man's iPad.  I'm sure Amazon is happy with that arrangement and likely what they set out to build.  I've been eReading since 2008.  I own the original Kindle, a Kindle Dx, and a Kindle 2nd Generation.  I own an iPad and iPad2, and I've used all the major eReading apps at one time or another.  I've read over 200 books electronically and I've never had a better reading experience than I have on the Fire.  Am I disappointed it won't completely replace my iPad?  Maybe a little.  But, with some work on the OS and improved user driven app support, Apple may have a real competition on their hands.  And wouldn't a little market competition be nice?

Side note and rant:  The biggest problem with the iPad vs. Fire vs. Nook vs. Kobo vs. Whatever is the format war and DRM stubbornness.  As long as we continue to be forced into purchasing closed devices that lock us into formats, DRM, and content portals, we aren't masters of our own entertainment.  That needs to change and I hope that by bringing more competitive devices to market we'll start to see a shift to single format, no-DRM, open systems.  A guy can dream, right?


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Epic Confusion - I'm So There

GoH, Patrick Rothfuss
On Friday, I'm hopping a flight to Detroit, Michigan.  Why you ask?  I'll be attending Epic Confusion, an annual science fiction and fantasy convention held just outside Motor City.  Programming starts Friday evening and goes through to about 3 PM on Sunday.  The program covers all kinds of topics, but mainly SF literature, movies and TV.  Patrick Rothfuss is the Guest of Honor and Jim C. Hines is the Toastmaster, isn't that nice?

It also turns out that Joe Abercrombie, Peter Brett, Brent Weeks, and Robin Hobb are attending as guests of Subterranean Press.  You can see why I'm getting a little excited about the event.  I fear sounding like Vince from Slapchop, but wait... there's more.  Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, John Scalzi, Saladin Ahmed, Douglas Hulick, Myke Cole, Bradley Beaulieu, Kameron Hurley, Howard Andrew Jones, and, a bunch of authors I don't really know much about, are also attending.

I don't know about you, but that sounds like one kick ass line-up to me.  So what are my plans at the con?  Well, first of all I'm going to attend a lot of panels.  And then I'm going to spend a lot of time at the bar.  I hope to meet a bunch of the people listed above, buy them a drink, and ask for a look at their next manuscript.  That always works, right?  I'm also planning to live-blog/tweet the event as much as I can.  I'll be posting which panels and reading I'm at, and if there's an opportunity to ask questions, I'll be asking you all for suggestions.

Also... word on the street is that Peter Brett, Myke Cole, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and Saldin Ahmed are putting together a AD&D game Friday night.  I'm going to do my best to get a peek at that.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, if there's anyone on that list of authors you think I should spend some extra time trying to interview or glean some information from, let me know in the comments and I'll see what I can do.


The Troupe - Robert Jackson Bennett

I admit, prior to reading The Troupe, I had no idea what vaudeville was all about.  I had an idea in my head, based on implied fuzzy cultural memory, but it's not something I'd ever taken a moment to actually look into.  According to the arbiter of truthiness, Wikipedia, vaudeville is:
...a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s.  Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill.  Types of acts included popular and classical musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies.
Having read The Night Circus and paged through Mechanique, two circus themed novels from 2011, I classified Bennett's novel in my mind as another entrant in this newly popularized subgenre.  Vaudville isn't the same as a circus, but I was expecting a similar type of novel where the setting is as much a character as the people that populate it.  Troupe shattered those notions.  Plot and character driven, set against a vaudville background, Bennett's novel calls to mind the stylings of Neil Gaiman and lives up to the comparison.

Sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville to find Heironomo Silenus, the man he suspects to be his father.  As he chases down Silenus's troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are unique even for vaudeville and strange happenings follow in their wake.  It's not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe isn't simply touring, and Silenus is hiding a secret as old as time itself.  Told in a tight third person voice, Troupe follows George through his experience as a vaudeville act, a lost young man searching for direction, and a chess piece in an endless metaphysical war.  Not surprisingly, the novel is divided into three parts that roughly correspond to each of those story arcs, although none are entirely resolved until the final pages.

While I opine for more vaudeville, a place Bennett abandons far earlier in the novel than I was ready for him to, The Troupe is another tremendous success for this Shirley Jackson Award winner and Philip K. Dick Award nominated author.  His prose is consistently excellent, making great use of dialogue and description that paint a haunting picture of his vaudevillian troupe, with George often acting a cipher for their complexities.

In many ways Troupe is a difficult book to talk about.  It's a beautiful novel that resonates as a mystery, historical look-in, thriller, and family drama.  Yet all of it feels somehow understated -- spoken in hushed tones and cloaked in shadow.  All of this lends an immense amount of gravitas to the somewhat ridiculous premise of a vaudeville troupe as keepers of an existential secret.  But, like a sepia photograph manipulated in photoshop, Bennett adds his dashes of color, bringing things to the foreground for brilliant moments all the more intense for the contrasted palette behind it.

The most significant of these moments occurs when Bennett moves his tale from a supernatural thriller that asks big questions, to the intimate personal journey of George's coming of age and his relationship to his father.  A new dad himself, Bennett takes a hard look at the interactions of parent and child in an illuminating and oftentimes heart wrenching way.  As the father of a two-year old little girl, I couldn't stop the emotional response at the novel's closing moments, leaving me breathless and in awe of Bennett's ability to distill the most familiar of themes from the abstract.

Earlier in this review I compared the novel to something Neil Gaiman might write, and I believe the comparison is apt.  I saw notes of American Gods and Neverwhere throughout, in the themes of gods and men, and the hidden worlds behind the curtain of reality.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Either way, I suggest reading it to find out.  I dare a parent to finish it without a few tear stained pages.

Robert Jackson Bennett can be found Twitter and on his blog.  To find out more about The Troupe visit this very cool book website.  The Troupe comes to stores February 21.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Interview with Faith author John Love

Toward the end of last year I read and reviewed a space opera debut from Night Shade Books -- Faith by John Love.  The basic premise is that 300 years ago an unidentified ship visited the Sakhran Empire and left it devastated.  One Sakhran recognized the ship for what She was and wrote the Book of Srahr.  When they read it, the Sakhran's turned away from each other, sending their Empire into a slow but irreversible decline.  They called Her, Faith.  Now She's back, threatening the human Commonwealth and the only thing standing in Her way is the Charles Manson.

I found the novel captivating and I felt compelled to chat with the author a bit about what he was trying to accomplish.  Check it out!  You can find out more about John Love on his website.

Justin: The thumbprint of Moby Dick is all over Faith.  There are also a lot of of other influences, some of which I saw and others I'm sure I didn't.  What made you want to bring those influences into a classic SF setting?

Love: In my bio notes for Nightshade I said that science fiction books are among the first I can remember reading, and they’ll probably be among the last.  I love the genre, in all its forms.  Whenever I have an idea for a book, SF is the automatic default option for expressing it.  The genre gives more freedom to make philosophical or political points – and it makes for a good read.  I’m currently writing a second novel, and again I turned automatically to SF as the best medium for saying what I want.  It will be a kind of political thriller, but with strange edges.  I set it in the future (about fifty years from now) so I can play with ideas about how politics, economics, technology, culture and religion could develop by then.

Moby Dick is a great novel on so many levels: a literary work, a page-turner, an examination of character, even a social commentary.  It was a huge influence, but not the only one.  Faith was pitched as a mixture of some of the elements of Moby Dick and Kafka.  Kafka’s elements are as important as Melville’s in the book; and there are other things as well.

Can I quote from a post I did for Nightshade, in the Night Bazaar website?
“If Faith has any political resonances, they’re at best oblique. But I hope it has some other resonances. About identity and free will: what makes us what we are, and what makes us what we do. About love and friendship: what forces bring us together, or keep us apart, and why we don’t recognise them. And about the absence of simple good and evil: the complexities which make each of them part of each other.”
Those are some of the other things I wanted to put in the book.

Justin: In my review, I point out a kind of commentary on the Gene Roddenberry concept of SF. I felt like you referenced it in the way you structured the Charles Manson, the deep characters on the bridge, and the faceless crew beyond it.  Was that conscious or am I seeing things?

Love: Not really consciously. The only time I can remember thinking of possible Star Trek parallels, while I was writing Faith, was when it occurred to me that some of the main characters on the Bridge of the Charles Manson had functions similar to those on the Bridge of the Enterprise: Pilot, Engineering, Weapons, Communications. And also that there was a Bridge. I considered trying to alter these things, but decided it would be too artificial. A warship like the Charles Manson would naturally have them. Also, the Charles Manson’s function, and the characters of those on the Bridge, were very different. The Charles Manson’s smaller size, cramped interior and almost totally absent crew were further differences. On the Enterprise there are frequent scenes of the main characters walking through wide corridors with other crew members, socialising in the canteen and holodeck, chatting in the elevator and so on. The Charles Manson doesn’t do any of that.

I can’t absolutely discount your suggestion of a possible dark satire of the Enterprise, but it wasn’t a conscious intention.

Justin: I got a bit of chuckle out Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame playing Ahab in a Moby Dick film. Is it possible that film germinated Faith?

Love: I’d like to say yes because it’s such a nice sideways leap, but I’ve never seen that film. I’ve always thought that the 1956 movie, with Gregory Peck as Ahab, is the definitive version. I’ve never really wanted to see any others.

Patrick Stewart’s a great actor, though. He was wonderful as Jean-Luc Picard, and I’ve seen him on stage in London in Shakespearean roles and in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But his Moby Dick movie wasn’t on my radar.

Justin: I've already heard some rumblings from the hard SF fans that your physics are fuzzy.  It seems like these complaints crop up time and again when it comes to SF stories.  When you set out to write this kind of book, how much time did you spend trying to get that stuff right?

Love: Science isn’t entirely out of my background. I went to Keele University in the English Midlands. At the time I was there (it’s changed now) the degree course lasted four years, not three, and Keele required every degree to cover a mix of subjects from the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences. My main subjects were English Literature and Politics, and my subsidiary subjects included Chemistry and Geology. So science wasn’t my major area, but it wasn’t absent either.

In a way I hope my physics are fuzzy. There are three good reasons for my not wanting to go into exhaustive detail on the physics:
  1. I’m not a physicist: I couldn’t do it properly
  2. It would be obsolete in a few years
  3. It would clog up the narrative
  4. The way I’d do it, it would be boring.
Four good reasons. I’m not a mathematician, either.

But again, here’s the wonder of the SF genre. If you have thoughts about how subjects will develop (not just science or technology, but politics or religion or virtually anything you’re interested in enough to have contemplated where it might be going) then an SF setting gives you the freedom to explore and play with those thoughts. It’s not impossible in other genres, but it’s more possible in SF.

So I don’t have a specialist scientific background, but I know enough about it to have contemplated where it might be going. I did science subjects as subsidiary parts of my degree, and over the years I’ve read some of the standard texts: Einstein, Hawking, Planck, Heisenberg, Newton (honestly! I made myself read all 500-plus pages of the Principia Mathematica). I’m an interested lay person or non-science person – interested enough to want to use my thoughts on it to illuminate a work of fiction, but cautious enough not to want to make it the reason for that work of fiction. It’s there for the book, but the book isn’t there for it.

Justin: You set out to write some pretty despicable people. More and more, we're starting to see the kinds of characters in both SF and fantasy. Why do you think this might be?

Love: I didn’t set out, right from the start, to write some despicable characters. They sort of grew out of the demands of the story as I was writing.

I set out to describe a battle between two apparently invincible opponents.  Two ships, one of human origin and one unknown, locked together in a battle so immense that it almost tears space-time around it: Irresistible Force meets Irresistible Force. For the “human” ship, the people inside it had to be seriously unusual to make them a serious match for the unknown ship which had defeated every other opponent. When I started thinking about how they might become so unusual, it took me down this path: back stories of social or political or sexual deviance, unusually gifted people who are also Outsiders, in the Albert Camus sense. That led me on to some other things which helped thicken the consistency of the book’s universe: how these people were identified and recruited, how their ships were built and named, how the regular military regarded them, how the rest of humanity regarded them, and so on.

I can only speak for my book, of course. Those characters are there because the story demanded them.

Justin: They certainly felt authentic to me. Did you much research into psychological disorders to write these kinds of characters?

Love: I did some reading (I wouldn’t call it research) on psychological conditions while I was writing the book, not before – because, as I said just now, their characters kind of grew out of the demands of the story. I enjoyed creating them, because they seemed to strike sparks off each other. I’d expected it to be difficult to represent them, but the natural chemistry between them made it less difficult. At times I felt they were writing their own dialogue!

Justin: Faith, I think, reflects a deep seeded interest in philosophy and metaphysics. While I recognize the presence of it in the novel, it's not a strong suit of mine. Is there a particular philosopher that you reference in the novel that might provide your readers with some more context?

Like science subjects, philosophy formed a subsidiary part of my University degree (it was a subset of one of my two main subjects, Politics). Also, like science subjects, it was something I continued reading after University.

I wanted Faith to have a philosophical dimension as well as action sequences.  The philosophical dimension was something I wanted as a looming sense of menace.  I didn’t have any particular philosopher in mind, but with hindsight maybe I was thinking of Marx’s economic forces or Darwin’s Natural Selection: an overarching, faceless force, but morally enigmatic.  I tried to avoid a simple clash of good and evil.

Like the characters on the Bridge, I wanted the philosophy and action sequences to be increasingly strange – to strike sparks off each other, and illuminate each other in the process.

Justin: Do you have a book deal in place in the UK yet?

Love: Not yet, but I’m hoping the book will do well enough Over There to attract some interest Over Here.  I’d love to see someone reading it on a train, or browsing it in a bookshop’s SF department.  We British tend not to speak to each other unless we’re introduced, but I’d find it impossible not to start a conversation!

Justin: Thanks for joining me John!

Love: Thank you too, Justin – for your review, for your interest in the book, and for seeing so much of what I wanted it to say.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Throne of the Crescent Moon - Saladin Ahmed

A few weeks back I heavily criticized a debut sword and sorcery novel for lacking character, plot, and... well... substance.  When I did that, I opened myself up to the criticism that a sword and sorcery novel lacks those things on purpose.  They're all about fun and adventure.  I knew that was wrong, but didn't have a way to prove it.  I do now.  Saladin Ahmed's sword and sorcery novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is a superficial adventure novel at first glance.  It also possesses tremendous heart and soul.  Not soul in a Biblical sense, although there's some of that too; I mean soul like Barry Gordy.  Every note in Ahmed's debut comes from an authentic place, a cultural awareness not unlike Motown in the 1960's.

From a plot standpoint, Throne is about a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the subversive Falcon Prince.  In the midst of a brewing rebellion, a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.  The 60-year old Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, is the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat and his young assistant Raseed bas Raseed, is a holy warrior whose swordsmanship is matched only by his devotion to God.  When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince's brewing revolution are connected, they find themselves in a race to save the life of the tyrannical Khalif.

Told through a surprising number of points of view (I count six off the top of my head), Throne is a quintessential sword and sorcery novel.  The characters are world weary, cynical, and fatally flawed.  They're common by birth, possessing a strength of will that is decidedly not.  Adoulla and Raseed are more heroic in nature than the traditional self-centered characters of Howard or Moorcock, but the in-the-moment, personal conflict, is very much in their image.  At the novel's conclusion I'd never once been surprised by the directions Ahmed chose to take.  What did surprise me, is that I didn't care in the least.  The characters, and the method and content of their interactions, are just that good.

When I say method, I am referring to Ahmed's prose and command of dialoge.  Throne reads like the debut novel of someone who spent years honing his craft.  Given the recognition that Ahmed has garnered for his short fiction, with both Hugo and Nebula Award nominations, I guess that's exactly what he's done.  Accessible is a term that's thrown around like a pejorative when it comes to literature, and some may levy that criticism here.  To me, it demonstrates a confidence in his craft.  He does not rely on verbosity to communicate his setting or his character's affectations, rather he uses their unique voices, providing ample beauty in construction of the whole, not the parts that constitute it.

Content is a slightly more murky discussion.  Ahmed uses his two primary characters to set up paradigms of extremism versus moderation, and cynicism versus optimism (among other things).   Adoulla, the old and skeptical realist, and Raseed, the young and energetic idealist, square off again and again in didactic discussions of their world view.  It should be noted here that Ahmed is an Arab-American and a Muslim.  As a White-American (which perhaps ironically includes those of Middle Eastern heritage) and a non-religious person, I read much of this interaction as a commentary on the disagreement in the Muslim world between fundamental and moderate Islam.  I can only imagine that a Muslim might read it more like a rebuke of the lack of respect toward Islam in the United States.  To others, it might be either, and both.  There lies the beauty of Ahmed's novel.

Another character, Zamia, a tribeswoman from outside the 'civilized' city, begins a similar discussion of old and new, tradition and progress.  Raseed is Adoulla's foil, but Zamia's counterpart is the setting itself -- the city of Dhamsawaat.  Drawing heavily from his heritage, Ahmed paints a world that would sit nicely in the Fertile Crescent.  Marketplaces and street vendors, methods of greeting and social mores, quotations from scripture and religious traditions, will all call to mind pictures of various Middle Eastern cultures, but also of a fully realized world that belongs to Ahmed alone.

Zamia, in her dedication to tribal ways, comes to all of this fresh.  Isolated and uncultured, she begins the process that many are forced to undergo in the developing world as familial and tribal affiliations are slowly eroded.  Far on the back-burner in Ahmed's narrative, it's an interesting thematic aside, and something that would bear further exploration in future novels.

As I began this review, I questioned whether I should mention Ahmed's background at all.  What does the fact he's a Muslim have to do with the quality of his novel?  The answer is nothing, and everything.  This is an unexceptional sword and sorcery story, but it is an unexceptional sword and sorcery story with an exceptional point of view.  It is Ahmed's point of view, Barry Gordy's 'soul', that makes Throne special; and it is his background that creates it as much as his talent as a writer.

Before too many reviews percolate out there, I want to put something to rest.  Throne is 288-pages long.  It's one of the shortest hardbacks I've held.  Ahmed does not have the market power of Brandon Sanderson, who put out a similar length novel last year (Alloy of Law).  Some might say that a 288-page novel isn't worth $25.  Trust me when I say, there's more in Ahmed's 288-pages than in many of his 600-page peers.

In case it hasn't been clear thus far, I loved this novel.  Saladin Ahmed joins a growing group of writers in genre fiction like Lauren Beukes, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Tobias Buckell, Paolo Bacigalupi, and others, who redefine what the genre writer looks like, and more importantly what they sound like.  Consider Throne of the Crescent Moon among the books that I insist you read.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is due out in stores on February 7.  You can find the author in Twitter or on his website.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

The Kitschies - An Interview

This is an interview with Jared Shurin and Anne Perry of Pornokitsch on the subject of their award ‘The Kitschy’.  Sponsored by The Kraken Rum, The Kitschies are an annual awards for those books which best elevate the tone of genre literature.  They celebrate progressive, intelligent and entertaining works -- the books that do the science fiction and fantasy community proud.  Head over to their site to see the recently announced shortlists for the Red Tentacle (Best Novel), Golden Tentacle (Best Debut), and Inky Tentacle (Best Cover).

Shurin and Perry agreed to join me for an interview to give some insight into the award, their processes, and what they see for it in the future.  It's an interesting look inside what is becoming one of the more relevant awards in the genre discussion.



Justin: I’m going to do this in pink. You don’t mind right? (I've elected to publish the interview sans color coding, you're welcome)

Anne: Only if I can answer in mustard.

Jared: I actually feel ill reading the two of you.

Anne: By the way, Jared’s answering in phthalo blue. It’s a real color, I swear.

Justin: I wonder if there’s squid black. If not, maybe something to explore in future Kitschie marketing.  On that note, what the hell were you thinking when you decided to do an award that requires a boatload of reading in a few months and only four people to weed through it all?

Shurin: I don’t think - even optimistically - we expected to get 150 (152!) books. That’s over twice the submissions from last year. Fortunately, we were up to speed with many of the books already, and had been doing our reading throughout the year.

We thought that a 31 December cut-off date for submissions would serve as a de facto deadline of early December, especially with the holidays. But to get us a little more breathing room (and minimise the last-minute submissions), we’ll be bringing that forward next year. 1 December. For real. No extensions.

You know, I’ve never really figured out if our singular is Kitschy or Kitschie. Anne?

Justin: I’ll ask the questions around here Shurin. Anne?

Perry: I like Kitschy. Also, and more to the point of the original question, Jared and I are lucky to be fast readers. Well, I’m fast. Jared is, like, woooosh. Y’know. The Flash. He is super quick.

Justin: Ok, so 152 books. I read around 90 last year, and my peak would be around 120. And you’re talking about a 152 in a few months (even accounting for your yearly reading, there’s no way you weren’t at least 50 books behind). How did you divide up the workload?

Shurin: If you think about it, all four of us had been reading very different books throughout the year, so there weren’t that many books that came completely out of the blue. Generally speaking, the process was to divvy them out and report back, but, in practice, it wasn’t so tidy. Our master document of notes and chatter got swamped by everyone’s daily updates. Nearly every book was reviewed by at least two judges. And once the whittling down began, we all started reading everything.

I’m not going to lie. It was a lot of reading. Anne and I have been pretty antisocial since mid-November. But there are certainly worse problems than having to read a lot of great fiction.

Perry: What he said. Though there are a few I’m looking forward to rereading more at a more leisurely pace.

Justin: So what was the gamut of things that were submitted?  Any problem areas?

Shurin: The criteria (“contains an element of the speculative or fantastic”) opens a pretty broad umbrella. As well as science fiction and fantasy, we were also prodding publishers to send horror, YA, magical realism and paranormal romance. Any sub-genre or sub-sub-genre will do - unless a book was completely devoid of the unreal, it qualified.

That said, we had a half-dozen submissions as “debuts” that, well, weren’t. And, on our side, our rambling description of what was and wasn’t eligible for the Inky Tentacle (cover art) didn’t do anyone any favors. Next year we’ll be much more clear on the requirements for both categories.

Perry: A few books were submitted as genre without any real claim to the classification beyond “written by an author who usually writes genre novels.”

Justin: How has it been meshing the different tastes of your judges?

Shurin: Theoretically, the use of criteria (“intelligent, progressive, entertaining”) means that it isn’t a matter of personal taste, etc. etc. But that’s why we have a judging panel - so we get different perspectives. For both the art and the “text” panels, we’re staffed up with very outgoing people with wildly different artistic and literary backgrounds. And no one who’s afraid to stand up for his or her beliefs.

Perry: Everyone had a particular favorite that didn’t make the final cut - in every category. What a wonderful thing to be disappointed about: there are simply too many good books out there to whittle down to a list of five! (Without a little bloodshed, that is.)

Shurin: The final 48 hours of Red Tentacle shortlisting was certainly tense - we were supposed to send embargoed shortlists to media on Wednesday morning, and Thursday afternoon we were still yelling at one another. We eventually settled the matter with rigorous intellectual debate. That’s a nice way of saying that it got really shouty. It was a huge amount of fun.

Justin: Shouty. Great. We’re relying on literary discretion from someone who uses the word... shouty. So let’s get into the nitty gritty. Most of us blogger types do awards, or best of lists. I do the Juice Boxes, Speculative Scotsman does the Scotties, Mad Hatter does the Hatties... you get the drift. What made you and Anne want to take things to the next step and make a REAL award?

Shurin: Shouty is good languaging. You’ve mentioned three of the lists that I really rate as well. The blog awards have a lot of influence already. They’re out first, they’re well-written and well-thought and they reflect the viewpoint of the most involved segment of genre readers.

Our goal was always to come up with a prize that helps the winner as much as possible. Expanding our judging panel increases its respectability for other critics. Getting publishers and media shouting about it helps the commercial impact. Having an awards ceremony at SFX3 makes consumers more interested. And having a cash prize means that the authors take it more seriously as well. Basically, anything we could do to make The Kitschies as credible as possible with all potential audiences.

Justin: What's the goal in the long term?

Shurin: For the future... We’re keen to follow the Arthur C. Clarke Award model and be year-round advocates for genre literature, and not just an annual event. Our mission is to “elevate the tone”, after all. The Kraken are keen on this as well, as physical events are their speciality (and allow people to interact with their tasty, tasty rum). We’ve tried a few different formats this year but the most successful was the evening at Blackwell’s. We’re already planning the next one.

Oh, and we’d like to get a Wikipedia page at some point, but we can’t build our own, because that’s against wikiethics or something. Hint hint hint.

Justin: Speaking of the Clarke Award, does Lauren Beukes do all Kitschy meetings with her award sitting on the table to point to when someone disagrees with her?

Shurin: She prefers to do her gesturing with her Red Tentacle, from last year’s win. Which should soon to be joined by her Hugo, if the WorldCon voters get it right. And, of course, the collection of pretty letters you get from being on a half dozen short & long-lists (both literary and SF). Plus her collection of smoked thumbs, gleaned from everyone that’s ever dared disagree with her in the past.

Joking, of course. Lauren’s amazing, and threw herself into the project with terrifying enthusiasm. Working with her has been one of the highlights of 2011, 2012 and, pretty much ever. (Please don’t take my other thumb!)

Justin: How did you get The Kraken involved? Did you pitch to them?

Shurin: The Kraken was such an obvious fit with us - the quirkiness, the charm, the tentacles, and the upstarty-newness of it all - that we didn’t even think about anyone else. We got in touch and they responded immediately, so clearly they saw it too. They’ve been amazing throughout the process. Both the people and the rum. 

Justin: Have you adopted an octopus?

Shurin: Three of them. We’ve named them “Entertaining”, “Intelligent” and “Progressive”. People don’t realise that our “criteria” involves smearing the books in fish oil and seeing which ones are eaten first.

Perry: This works with cats, too. Late in the Red Tentacle shortlist process we started joking that we’d leave the candidates on the floor, at equal distances from each other, and see which ones the cats fell asleep on. It never quite came to that.

Justin: Any surprises in all this?

Shurin: One thing we found disappointing - shocking, even - was that only about 20% of the total submissions were from female authors (or co-authors). We’re an award that’s open to all genres of science fiction and fantasy (including horror, young adult and paranormal romance - three areas better represented by female authors), we’re looking for non-traditional work and, for that matter, most of our judges (3 of 4 text, 3 of 5 art) are female. I’d hate to think we don’t seem welcoming. Worse yet, 20% may be an accurate reflection of the make-up of genre literature as a whole.

Perry: We made a point of making the award as small-press-friendly as possible, hoping to encourage submissions from those authors and publishers who aren’t usually represented on the awards circuit. We were a little disappointed not to get more small press submissions, though we did get a few, and some self-published authors. We’d definitely like to see more from both categories in the coming years.

Shurin: It is also worth mentioning that, at the 11th hour, we had to recuse ourselves from judging two books. That was probably the hardest decision of all. Anne and I are very close to Sophia McDougall and Savage City. Lauren Beukes with Sarah and Louis (S.L. Grey) of The Mall. We all really loved both these books, but as a new award, we didn’t want anything soured by accusations of favoritism. It sucks, as we can’t recommend these two books highly enough. Everyone should go read them and nominate them for the Hugo, BSFA, BFS, Tiptree and Stoker.

Justin: Did you accept novels only, or did single author collections qualify? I’m thinking of my favorite book of the year, After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh. If not, is that something you’d consider in the future? Do you have any plans to add a short fiction category?

Shurin: I’m glad to see that After the Apocalypse has already been announced as a Philip K. Dick Award finalist. See? Bloggers - faster than awards and setting the trends.

We just added cover art this year, but that’s (fortunately) not something that requires any extra reading time. It would be great to extend to short fiction (or entire anthologies), but we’d need to add a new category. And a new panel of judges.

Justin: I notice all the books shortlisted were either stand alone novels, or first books in a series. Were any second installments submitted? How would you have handled that?

Shurin: They were (and third and fourth and fifth and even a few sixths and one seventh, I believe) - we like a long series in genre. We appraised each book on its own, individual, merit. In many cases, we had to make sure that the judges reading a series book came from a variety of exposures - some had read the previous book(s), some hadn’t.

It was tough as there were some incredibly strong sequels this year - including three, Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes and Maurice Broaddus’ King’s Justice that followed on directly from previous finalists or winners.

Justin: Thanks for joining me. I don’t agree with all your short listed titles, but I’m thrilled to see more progressive genre works featured.

Shurin: Thank you! And we look forward to the inevitable debate - that’s the best part of the whole thing. (That and the rum.)