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Curiosity Update

by Chris McMahon

I thought it would be good to give an update on what Curiosity has been up to since it landed on Mars.

Well – Curiosity has given its first musical performance.

A few days ago it beamed back ‘Reach for the Stars’ by will.i.am from Mars to Earth. The first time in recorded history that a song has been beamed back to Earth from another planet. (Of course there was that time the sentient dinosaur-astronauts of Pangea beamed back ‘How Lovely Are Your Fangs’ the popular Saurian love song from their colony around Tau Ceti. Those bad vibrations upset the orbit of a rather large asteroid, but let’s not talk about that.)

Of course will.i.am – a well-known advocate for science and technology education – was stoked. At the NASA event he said, ‘Today is about inspiring young people to lead a life without limits placed on their potential and to pursue collaboration between humanity and technology through STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics] education. I know my purpose is to inspire young people, because they will keep inspiring me back.’

Meanwhile Curiosity starts its Martian day by playing some tunes selected by mission personnel through its own speakers. I can only imagine the furious water-cooler competitions to get their favourite tunes on the Martian boombox. You can check out the playlist here (along with a great image of Mt Sharp). Not surprisingly, the list includes the Star Wars theme, nifty songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Wake Up Little Suzie’ & Beach Boys ‘I Get Around’. Being an old Queen fan, I was thrilled to see ‘Killer Queen’ on the list.

So far Curiosity has sent back some stunning images of Mt Sharp, as well as flexed its arm in preparation for other tasks. Here are some images taken from the rover’s 34mm and 100mm mast cameras. Awesome.

What would be your all-time pick for Curiosity’s playlist?

Making it Fly

Everyone here has read something that just plods along and doesn’t seem to go anywhere or do anything. The ‘fortunate’ among us have read pieces that should be exciting – they should be riveting, edge-of-the-seat reading – but they’re not. They trudge.

I’ve certainly gone “What?” when I see these – they’re plentiful in fanfiction, mostly because fanfic contains everything from the sublime to the gor-blimey as it were, and in typical fashion, the vast majority of leans to the latter (yes, the same applies to traditionally published items as well as self-published and small and independent presses). Since I’ve been on something of an Overlord fanfic binge lately, that’s where I’ve been seeing the range of interesting.

I’m not going to claim I never committed this particular sin, either. I can guarantee I have. What matters is why it happens and how to fix it.

Part the first of course is why it happens. This, believe it or not, is the easy bit. It’s not pacing. It’s not how big the stakes are (unless you’re talking vampire-killing phallic symbols, in which case there’s no hope and you might as well go to the sparkly side where they’re really pervy). It’s whether the piece gives you a reason to care what happens.

Simple, right?

Wrong.

For starters, one person’s drag-you-in-and-sink-claws-into-your-heart exciting is someone else’s ho-hum (of course, if everyone falls asleep when you hand them your precious to read, you have a problem). You’re never going to catch everyone, even if you’re baiting the hook with gold.

Then there’s the simple fact that it’s not easy to write anything that appeals to other people. The usual flaws I see in fanfic are either too much of the wrong information, or not enough of any information.

Not enough of anything usually happens first – all writers start out rather fuzzy on the notion of what to put in there and usually what ends up on the page is like the Cliff’s Notes version of what’s in their heads (and let’s face it, that’s not exactly exciting). This is when the epic, world-changing (and sometimes world-destroying) battle is over in half a page, most of it antiseptic overview. Yes, I have done this, and no, you can’t see it. I’m pretty certain I euthanized most of that a long time ago, and I’m not chasing through my archival files to find what survived.

The next phase usually ends up being too much of the wrong information. Here, that epic, world-changing battle would be wrapped in the best part of a chapter on the finer details of everyone’s armor, including what color it was. Yes, I’ve done this too. A slight variation would include all the technical specs of said armor, and of all the assorted weaponry in use. You know, so-and-so had a chestplate of unobtainium with gold filigree, and an unobtainium sword, and his bodyguards all had compound bows with fifty arrows apiece and and and and…. You get the idea. (Yes. Guilty. Everyone does it, okay. Shush.)

The thing that gets missed, at least until the writer matures a bit (which does not mean ‘gets older’, by the way) is what makes this battle so epic for the characters. If it’s your lead character’s last stand against the Big Bad, we know the stakes. If you’ve given us reason enough to care for the lead even a little bit, we’re going to be interested in what happens.

The Big Bad needs to have a stake, too. The epic last stand against the all-powerful Evil doesn’t work too well when the all-powerful Evil can just wave a hand and wipe out the other side (you do that battle at the start, to establish how difficult it’s going to be to take down the Big Bad).

The Overlord games do this part remarkably well. In Overlord (the original), the protagonist is facing a much more powerful wizard who not only set him up to fail from the start, he’s by implication going to steal the protagonist’s body and everything the player’s spent the game building. In the expansion, Raising Hell, the protagonist can’t even fight the Big Bad directly – and the Big Bad is a God who’s planning to kill the protagonist so he can finally escape the Overlord universe’s version of Hell (where his former wife – yes, a Goddess – banished him after she caught him playing a bit more than footsie with one of his worshipers). In Overlord 2, it’s win or be annihilated along with everything else with any kind of magic. Within the frame of the game world, they’re epic battles with massive stakes for the player character.

In written fiction, of course, you don’t have the easy visual cues or the immersiveness of a game world. We’re primarily visual critters, biologically speaking, with hearing taking second place. A game that has involving visuals and good sound will give the illusion that you’re there and effectively remove the externals of manipulating the game controls. In a book, the externals that go away are the awareness of words on the page and turning said pages, whether you’re holding a physical book or reading with a computer, ebook reader, smartphone, or whatever. Writers do have to work a bit harder to make this happen because we don’t have the quick and easy shortcut of graphics on a screen.

So what do we do? My primary tool is close and focused point of view. If I want my readers on the edge of their seats and crossing their legs rather than put that book down to take a much-needed bathroom break, I work from so deep into the character’s perspective that I’m not showing anything they didn’t see, hear, or otherwise notice. Then I drop that character so deep into the brown material meeting rotating blades that they don’t have room for anything except action and reaction. They’re moving, they’re responding to everything around them, but it’s all very choppy and disconnected, and they don’t think about anything because they’re too busy just staying alive.

Then I hurt the character. I drive them into pure reflex by throwing impossible odds at them and letting them almost fail before they find the key to survival (which can be as simple as pure pig-headed stubborn). For an example of it done perfectly, I’d suggest the Koom Valley sequence of Thud!, or the river sequence in Snuff (Yes, of course I’m citing Pratchett). If Pratchett isn’t your thing, look at the chase from Flinders Island in Dave’s Cuttlefish.

Sarah’s technique is a little different – she tends to have a two-pronged climax, with the inner one being the more action-oriented and the outer being more of a psychological thing – but the psychological/emotional sequence is the one that resolves the underlying danger. I’m not good enough to swing something like that, so I don’t even try.

If there’s more than one character involved, put them all at the same level of risk, and drive them all to their limits. And focus on what’s going on on the inside. It’s much more satisfying to everyone when your hero overcomes having assorted important bits broken, cut off, bleeding or crushed and wins on pig-headed can’t be having with that. Then passes out. Describe the pain. Use short words (trust me, short words really do make a piece feel like it’s moving fast), short sentences, and short paragraphs. Save the lyrical descriptions for when the hero romances the love interest, or when you’re taking a break to admire the scenery.

And don’t be afraid to get a bit purply or overdone. Half the time what you think is excessive isn’t going to register with most readers, and the rest… well, that’s what betas and editing are for.

Fresh and Hot

Fresh stories.  Freshly written.  Come get them while they’re fresh…

When I was a kid you’d literally wake up in the more urban areas (not thank heavens, the village) to the yells of various food vendors.  The sun would barely be looking out of a still-darkish sky, when bread vendors, pastry vendors, vegetable vendors and everyone else would be roaming around screaming their heads off.  It was all “fresh and hot this” “cold and tasty that.”

The screaming in the village started at around noon.  We were small enough that everyone knew who had what kind of vegetables just maturing that time, and so there was no point hawking.  People would go – quietly – to their neighbor who had a bumper crop of carrots and enter upon a mutually agreeable arrangement, sometimes in exchange for a few eggs “because I hear those hens of yours are laying like crazy.”  (I did mention at some point that until I went to middle school, in the next village over, I thought money was a wholly superfluous affectation and couldn’t understand why some people were so attached to it, right?  Of course most of the stuff bought and sold in the village WAS for money– the big stuff: rents paid, an account run on the general store for food, clothes – but all I ever saw as I followed my grandmother around – she was the most entertaining person of my acquaintance – was this sort of “accommodation dealing”  that involved a chicken for an arrangement to provide milk for a month, or a bag of onions for a basket of pears.)  The stores provided what little the village didn’t grow or make for itself, and everyone knew where those were too.  Bread was a gentlemanly thing, quietly arranged, paid a week in advance and delivered before people woke up.

I still miss that and more than once have wondered if there would be a market for that sort of service.  (There probably would be in NYC or somewhere similar, and probably not in this type of economy.)  People made their… bread subscription, then hung a bag at their back door (I imagine here there would need to be locking delivery boxes, particularly in the big cities.)  These bags, needless to say immediately became a matter of competition among village matrons, so they were fantastically embroidered, adorned with lace, spotless and starched.  Into that bag went whatever your daily order was: six rolls, two pastries and four sweet rolls, say.  (Ours was usually only ten plain rolls.  Mom didn’t believe in fancy, though she might buy me a sweet roll when she went grocery shopping on Saturday.)  So when you woke and groped your way downstairs, you would collect the bread from the door while coffee was brewing.  It was usually still warm and crusty-crackling.  Yes, I missed it when I moved here.  (Though it’s no longer done that way in Portugal, because they too would need lock boxes and even so, trust me, someone would steal the box.)

Anyway, so the only people who yelled like banshees were the fishwives, who usually got to the village around noon, having stopped at the other villages on the way from the seaside (by bus.  Picture that.)  Oh, there was also the oil and olive seller, but he came only once a week.  Also prone to shrieking their (irregular) visits down main street were: the pot and pan mender, the rag dealer (mostly buyer) and the elastics and lace woman (for some reason, and proving I had to be a writer, or they’d lock me up in the madhouse, because the poor lady had one leg shorter than the other and walked funny, at age three or so, I decided her legs were made of elastic and she ate children.  I was utterly convinced she used her elastic legs to reach upward into second floor windows and steal sleeping children from their beds for a snack.  I still can’t think of that poor creature without shuddering.  Of course, my loving family catching on to my fear, used the poor elastic seller as a boogey man to keep me under control.)

Anyway, the point of this – if you’re not quite catching on – is that in commerce reduced to its elementary form, people had to hawk their own wares – UNLESS they did something established, in an established place, in which case people knew where to find them.  You wouldn’t catch the pharmacist roaming the streets screaming.  You wouldn’t catch even the local dairy farmer going around yelling “Exceptionally fine cheeses.”

Now, if these people – not the apothecary – had booths in one of the local fairs around the village – and many of them had – there they would yell.  The way the fairs are, many of them have permanent infrastructure, anything ranging from stalls to tiny buildings, usually made of stone, and with iron gates (the buildings.)  This infrastructure belongs to the fair, and the vendors lease a spot.  Buildings are more expensive than a stone table, and a stone table covered with a awning of course more expensive than a mere stone table.

The fair takes place once a week, and usually is arranged in “sections.”  If you’re a clothes seller you’re put with the clothes sellers, not the fish mongers.  If you’re a meat seller, you’re also in a section.  (BTW and because I’m long-winded, some of the infrastructure was built by Roman Emperors.  Some by medieval kings, and the more modern dates from the nineteenth century.)

Anyway, the sedate village sellers who wouldn’t dream of screaming their wares, do scream like nobody’s business when they’re in the fair.  “Juicy Oranges, the sweetest” might get someone to come to you instead of the guy next door who waxes his oranges so they shine.

I hear there was a time that writers were more like the staid sellers and farmers in the village.  They wrote their books; they handed them in.  It was the job of the publisher to tell people how great your books were and to put them in the place where people expected to find books.  I also hear – and this is probably rumor – that at one time all publishers were more like Baen: they had a slant into the market, a view they pushed, something that made them unique.  The reader related to the publisher and appreciated the publisher’s seal of approval which, in turn, made it possible to buy anything from the publisher, sight unseen.  After you read a few by an author you might look for an author, TOO but up till then it was “I trust this publisher, so I’ll buy this month’s books.”

I say I hear these things, because I’ve never experienced them, and what is reported of the field is often unreliable self-mythologizing.

But I do know that it wasn’t normal, until at least the nineties for writers to have to sell themselves to the extent they do now.  I think part of what ate the individuality of the publishers was the fact that the people they hired all went to the same schools and all lived within ten square miles of each other.  A “collective point of view” was established that it wasn’t considered decent to buck, and all of them agreed on what was “good” – which left only Baen out of the circle j– of love, and only because Jim Baen was a stubborn cuss… er, had a very strong personality.  Otherwise, it would have gone the way of the others.

Then next hit the small number of distributors, the concentrating of the bookstores into chains, and next thing you know, every author was those vendors in the stalls at the local fair.

Even if you’re a Baen author and what you’re selling is, in point of fact, Japanese pears, how are you going to even be seen, in the middle of all the orange vendors.  And for that matter, how are people going to know they might like Japanese pears if no one else sells them and they’ve never tried them.  (And to an extent, this explains – but doesn’t justify – big publishers’ obsession with books just like the last book.  You might be producing twilight clones, but at least people know what that is, how to ask for it, and might decide they want one.  If what you’re selling is unique, you first have to convince people to take a bite.)

So, if you’re a writer, say, like me, who could be called unique (mostly because the other things you COULD call me are probably obscene and not safe for a family blog) what in heck can you do but cross the metaphorical streets of the literary village yelling “Fresh hot fiction, come and get it while it’s fresh.”

That is actually possibly worse (though better too – more on that later) in the global market place indie publishing has opened for us.  So many offerings.  And why would people buy it, if they don’t know it exists?

Trust me, if people don’t know your books are there, they won’t buy them, no matter how good they are.  For the years I worked for traditional publishing, grinding out sometimes six books a year which – none of them – made it to bookstore shelves, or at least no bookstores near me, and which – OFTEN – got accidentally left out of the publisher’s own catalogue, I learned this dictum well.

So you have to self promote.  And there are ways to do it.  What are those ways?  This is one of the most frequently asked questions by newbies.

First, as with writing, what I’ve found is this: use the medium that works for you.  I am long-winded and odd, so this blog seems to work for me, as do blog tours when a book is ready for release.  Facebook too, to an extent.  I never got Twitter which seems to require your living more online than I’m willing to do.  But this is personality.  If you feel Twitter is your thing do it.  If your easiest publicity is via pintrest, use it.  If you’re personable, have a winning smile and enjoy the company of others and – this is important – if you live in the Eastern part of the country where there’s a con every weekend in driving distance, then the con circuit might be for you.  If your book is about quilting, you might consider getting a booth at craft fairs.

But all of that is to our purposes nothing.  More important is to remember two things: to whom are you selling?  And what are you selling?

In the old days when you had to sell to publishers or never get in at all, it paid to affect the sort of personality they were taught to admire: intellectual with a touch of the bohemian and something mysterious about you.  It also helped to be visually appealing (though you could get around that by being SPECTACULARLY unappealing there triggering the “must prove I’m not prejudiced” reaction) and by blowing your own horn.  I know at least one “major” author who climbed very quickly via telling every publisher at every con how wonderful he was.  He was telling everyone he was the next best thing in writing before he sold a single pro story.  Because publishers were fundamentally insecure and unable to tell what was good (there are reasons for that, but it’s long and not here) they believed him.  Success.

I watched this tactic in a sort of awe, because well…  It worked.  And yet, it was so weird and so against all my early training in behavior, that I would need to not be myself to use it.

But it worked, because what the publishers were buying was not the writing but the writer as a marketable product, which is what they believed in.  Books were, after all, fungible, so they wanted a writer they could trot out and tell people was wonderful.  How much easier to do that when the author himself believes he’s the second coming of Charles Dickens?

Nowadays… well…  It might very well still work.  There are people still getting in the old route.  I suspect though those are mostly you know, old college roommates and second cousins and other people personally KNOWN to the publisher.

For the rest of us they seem to be looking at how you sell indie.  (And if you’re smart, you’re looking at how you sell indie, too, and comparing it to what the traditionals offer.)  Or, if you’ve gotten in at a low or midlist level, the publisher is looking at your numbers.

How do you increase those?  Well… you hawk the book.  The method you use is your own.  It might even be youtubes of your cat dancing with the book, for all I care.

Remember, though, it’s the book you’re selling – not yourself.  Telling the world how wonderful you are seems to provoke in most people a sort of recoil and a doubt.  I know a local writer whom con organizers call ‘the rudest man on Earth” – he’s not.  He’s trying to self promote and is completely clueless.  So instead of telling people about his book, about his subject and how wonderful it is, he behaves as if he were selling to an old style publisher, and acts like he’s an a’tist and tells everyone how wonderful HE is – which when people are looking at micro-press books and pays in copies publications fails to have much impact.  (It also, as he gets desperate, acquires a tinny, off-key tone that makes the whole thing worse.)

The readers don’t think books are fungible, and readers care about THE BOOK, not you.  (Of course, when you have a blog, it’s hard not to talk about yourself, but do try not to make it just a series of boasts, okay?  Write about the interesting stuff around you.  There must be SOMETHING. [ Hey, if I blog long enough I’ll find something interesting about me, too])

This I can do.  As a writer, my life is usually circumscribed to the desk, though I have wildly exciting grocery trips and kid-related stuff.  HOWEVER as a writer, I think up interesting worlds and read interesting stuff to setup those worlds, and spend a lot of time analyzing society and the world.  So, you see, I have stuff to talk about that relates (at least sideways and backwards) to my books.  And I’ve found talking about THOSE with lots of enthusiasm works.  It certainly works far better than walking down the village street shouting “Buy me, I’m hot.”  (Well, we didn’t have THOSE in the village.  Too small for that.  Besides, the two ladies willing to… never mind.)

As for those who are totally indie and in the global market place: if your marketplace is big enough, even hawking won’t do.  You can do a minimal and get people buying one or two books and then word of mouth might take off.  You can even get books to blog reviews, and that sometimes helps.

But ultimately, in a big enough market place, what seems to work is to have the big shop.  People who are strangers are more likely to see the big establishment or the stall with the colorful cover.  How do you do that?  Well… mostly by having a lot of merchandise out.  That way, if someone stumbles on you and buys one, they’ll come back and buy all the others: hundreds of books, perhaps, if you have that many out.  (And keep in mind a short story is a “book” in this market.)

All the ones I know making a living in this manner put out a lot of books on a regular schedule.  I only have a few so far.  But I’m writing more.

And meanwhile, because I’m also on the traditional market place, I’ll continue the yelling, “Good, Fresh Fiction, hot and … er… fresh.  Buy it here.  We don’t wax our characters.”

To pay or not to pay — for reviews that is

Last week’s post about the Fifty Shades of Grey books and the success they’ve had sort of rolls right into at least part of today’s post. As I pointed out last week, I’m firmly convinced one of the main reasons those books have had the success they have is because of the push they received. Part of that push came from reviews. And that is the main focus of today’s post.

First of all, I want to give a hat-tip to Taylor Lunsford for pointing me to this article. She’d seen references to it on twitter and wanted to know if I’d seen it.

Book reviews have been around for as long as there have been books. I can remember when they made up a large part of the Arts section of the Sunday paper. The New York Times Book Review used to be the size of a daily newspaper. Libraries and schools, as well as bookstores, rely on Kirkus and Publishers Weekly for reviews to determine what books to buy. Reviews from bloggers and readers have become the life’s blood for indie authors and small presses. So it really is no surprise that someone came up with a system to get these same indie authors to pay for reviews to get them better placement on Amazon and other online stores.

What gets me is how everyone seems so up in arms about this, acting as if this hasn’t been the norm for publishing for years. Paid reviews have been around just about as long as reviews have been. Sure there are free reviews and reviewers out there. But to get into Kirkus, etc., do you really think they just pluck books out of the air to review? Not if you’re an indie. Here is a link to the pertinent page from the Kirkus site. It costs $425 for a review (more if you want to fast track it) of 250 – 350 words. Oh, note that once the review is ready, you’ll be notified and can preview it. At that time, you can decide whether to “keep it private” or put it up on the Kirkus website. If you choose to put it up, “we will also distribute it to our licensees, including Google, BN.com, Ingram, Baker & Taylor and more. On top of that, our editors will consider it for publication in Kirkus Reviews magazine, which is read by librarians, booksellers, publishers, agents, journalists and entertainment executives. Your review may also be selected to be featured in our email newsletter, which is distributed to more than 50,000 industry professionals and consumers.”

Publishers Weekly, which you’d think would recognize the growing importance of the indie movement in e-books, allows for quarterly reviews of indie books in a special publication call PW Select. To be considered for inclusion in this quarterly publication, you first have to register. For the standard PW Select, your upfront money is $149. If you want the PW Select Plus (which includes Vook), it is $199. the difference? The second option is designed to get you to publish through PW’s Vook platform. So they are getting you coming and going. Not only are they having you pay for the possibility of having your book reviewed in their QUARTERLY supplement the focuses only on indie books, but they are also trying to get you to pay to publish through their VOOK line. And, unlike Kirkus that will do the review and let you choose if you want it to go public or not, your money does NOT guarantee a review with PW.

And yet folks were up in arms to find out that someone was making it easier for indies to game the system that legacy publishers have been gaming for years. Do I agree with everything Todd Rutherford was doing? No. But then I don’t particularly agree with paid reviews. But for folks to act like this hasn’t been going on for, well, ever, blows me away.

The reality of the situation is that books, whether they are published through the traditional route or indie published, need reviews. Reviews are the word of mouth means of promoting our books. The percentage of readers who post reviews is abysmal. So it is no surprise there are enterprising folks out there selling their services as reviewers. It is nothing new. I repeat: it is nothing new. But this outrage just shows the double standard that still exists between indie/small press and traditional publishing. Maybe I’d take the outrage more seriously if it included condemning the old standards for charging for their reviews as well.

Of course, many of those condemning Rutherford and those like him also point to the Bowker report about the price of e-books not rising under the agency pricing model as evidence the Department of Justice is wrong in claiming prices will rise under the agency model. As noted before, the Bowker report doesn’t take into account the fact that there was a larger proportion of indie/small press e-books published during the reporting period than there were e-books published by those named in the DoJ’s price fixing suit. Nor does it note that these e0-books are traditionally priced lower than legacy published e-books. Guess what, guys, if you have more books published by authors and publishers not following the agency model and their prices are lower than agency model e-books — often substantially lower — e-books prices will appear to be lower overall. It’s math, so simple even I can do it.

Finally, I can’t close out today without a warning for authors. If you have a beef with your editor or publisher and don’t want it to get back to them, don’t talk about it on your blog. I woke up this morning to the sight of a so-called fan of several authors I happen to like and admire reporting back to their editor/publisher on that publisher’s site what the authors had said in their blogs. Even though this so-called fan didn’t name the authors, enough information was given, including a direct quote from one, that a simple google search would turn up the names without any trouble. In this case, the authors were complaining, rightly so, about slow payments and other issues that are rife throughout the industry right now. But what this so-called fan didn’t think about was the trouble they could be causing these authors. Sure, the authors ought to be thinking long and hard about what they put online because this is what happens.

As for the so-called fan who reported all this back to the publisher, they might not have thought about what sort of trouble they could be causing for the authors. Or maybe they were just upset with comments from other posters on the site who weren’t appreciative of their earlier comments and this was an attempt to prove up what they’d been saying. Either way, harm may have been done to the authors and, honestly, to the editor/publisher because this so-called fan doesn’t know the whole story.

Okay, guess I’m crankier than I thought. Time to stagger off to find more coffee.

Forgotten jewels

Our bit of stress over the last few weeks has left me burned out and a bit battered. On the good news, we were JUST in time – the polyp was malignant, but not the stalk. So, saved in the nickers of time, thanks to Australia’s screening programme.

Chris’s post on Harry Harrison got me thinking about the sf/fantasy novels I’ve loved…. that no-one else seems to know. Books I think deserved to do far better. Books like William Burkett’s Sleeping Planet (which I am sure would be panned by Kirkus – seeing as the hero is white anglo-saxon male hunter, and humans beat the hell out of the Llarans by sheer gutsy cleverness.). I thought I’d toss up a few and you could add a few. Paula Volsky’s Curse of the Witch Queen (which I suspect is YA by modern definitions) which has a delightful cast of weird characters, including the professor who grows intelligent and carnivorous squashes, and gypsy types who are nothing more than thieves – and who get their come-uppance. Stanley G Weinbaum’s Martian Oddessey – with the really alien Tweel – and some of the most fascinating ideas on alien life I’ve seen. Michael Scott Rohan and Alan Scott, A Spell of Empire – the Horns of Tartarus – is absolutely brilliant alternate history meets fantasy meets satire (yes, it was an inspirational force).

Your turn :-).

Farewell Harry Harrison

by Chris McMahon

I could not let another week go by without posting a small tribute to Harry Harrison, who passed away on 15th August 2012. He is the latest of the recent SF greats to leave us, and he sure will be missed.

He was enormously talented and versatile, yet unpretentious in his style. He sort of got you by stealth.

Born Henry Maxwell Dempsey, March 1925, he changed his name when he was around 30 yrs to Harry Max Harrison (his father had earlier changed his own surname).

I had not realised his original contributions to the SF field were as an illustrator, and that he had worked as a writer on the Flash Gordon newspaper strip in the 1950s and 1960s.

His book Make Room! Make Room! was the basis for classic SF film Soylent Green. Now that was a cool film.

Harrison’s work had a huge impact on me as a young SF reader. Like most things, I came to his work fairly late, discovering the enormous fun of the Stainless Steel Rat books as a university student.

Later I loved his West of Eden series. These were books that really ignited my imagination and at the time ranked with Brain Aldiss’ Helliconia series as real mind-openers for what SF could achieve.

Being a diehard Heroic Fantasy fan, perhaps the book that I love most of all is the Hammer and the Cross. Beautifully written and perfectly cast in terms of setting. Reading it, you really felt like you were back there in Britain, trying to avoid the clutches of the Vikings and the dreaded Blood Eagle.

So it’s back to you – what did Harry Harrison’s work mean to you? What were your favourite Harry Harrison books?

The Adoption Curve

So, it having been yet another hellacious work week (don’t ask. I doubt I could tell you without turning the air blue and breaking any number of rules about good behavior. Besides, I’ll get them…), I’m sitting browsing idly and wondering what in heck to write about when this shows up on Facebook (thanks to Jeff Faria for posting it. I might have had to ramble aimlessly without this).

“This” being a neat chart showing technology adoption rates from 1920 through 1999. I’d love to see what the curve is like now…

And of course, I want to see a few more technologies listed.

Still, the ones that are covered are pretty interesting. Since the chart stops at 1999, the iPod and its clones don’t make it on. Neither do the smart phones, tablets, PDAs and eBook readers.

But – and the thing that stood out for me – with precious few exceptions every technology that’s going to stick around for a while saturates fast. TV started to take off in 1949. Within 10 years, more than 80% of American households had one. From 1923 to 1933 AM radio got into 70% of households. VCR (remember that?) went from maybe 5% to 0ver 80% between 1983 and 1993. Many of the newer technologies are getting to around 50% of homes within ten years of their first appearance despite there being so much more competition. The tracking starts with only one technology: telephones (phones are, interestingly enough, the big anomaly with a slow adoption curve and never getting saturated the way TV has). AM Radio shows up a couple of years later, then it’s nearly 25 years before the next entrant: TV in 1947. From then until 1980, all of three new major technologies got added: Color TV, FM Radio, and Cable TV. I’m not sure why cassette tapes didn’t make it into the listing, or vinyl records – or home stereo systems. Those all fall into that general time frame (at least I remember them being pretty much ubiquitous before 1980).

Then from 1980 on, the pace of tech exploded. In the next years a ridiculous amount of tech made its first appearance: VCR (now heading for genteel retirement), answering machines, cable TV, cordless phones, CD players, cell phones, camcorders, stereo TVs. It was a ridiculously fertile decade for home entertainment technology. The 90s introduced pagers, the internet (which is a category all to itself), and satellite TV. And of course (this lot is from my memory) the “noughties” saw MP3 players, smart phones, PDAs (introduced in the late 1990s, but never really took hold and now a dying breed), the first tablets, eink ebook readers and a bunch of other things.
What does this mean for writers? With ebook sales more than doubling each year for the past few, it says that ebooks are on the steep side of the adoption curve. They might not have saturated yet (which I figure is somewhere in the 80% range – where most average folks have them and only those in isolated areas and those who fight a new technology until they have no choice don’t use them), but they’re well on the way. The list of devices someone can use to read an ebook has to be getting close to saturation now, too. Where I work, most people have multiple ebook-reading devices: smart phones, tablets, laptops, and dedicated readers. Usually they can they can go online to tweet about whatever they’re doing without blinking – earlier today I was working on a problem with someone who had the latest iPad and was using it to remotely log into his laptop, which he used to go over some configuration things with me.
That’s right. The latest generation tablets will effortlessly handle a remote session on a full PC. Or Mac. Or whatever. Add that to cloud storage (for the not-geeky, that’s keeping a copy somewhere in the internet at large, which you synchronize across all your gadgets), and the writer need never be away from the current work in progress – or the research. Or the fancy mapmaking tool that lives on your home PC (although you might need to make a call to your nearest and dearest to turn it on if there’s been a power outage while you’ve been off gallivanting around). We are in the middle of the world’s largest and most comprehensive library all the time. (Of course, there’s always those who’ll vandalize the books or “edit” them to fit some hobby horse or other, but a smart person knows how to cross-reference and figure out what someone is trying to prove).

Of course, we’re also in the middle of the world’s largest distraction, as anyone who’s spent hours fiddling around on the internet knows very well. Managing that is possibly the biggest challenge writers face, not least because it includes pushy *ahem* eager fans who often don’t get that writing is work. After all, it’s kind of difficult to do the publicizing and marketing thing if you don’t ever get to writing anything. Not impossible: just look at politics. But difficult.

As for the future, well, barring disaster I think we’re going to see a lot more rapid technological changes. 3D printers (known to the SF world as fabricators or replicators – although the current versions aren’t quite that sophisticated) are rapidly approaching the point where they’ll be everyday items complete with the massive disruption that will come when anyone with one can make basic everyday equipment like plates, bowls, replacement parts, glasses and the like). Handheld computing devices are getting smarter and more powerful all the time, and always-available high speed connections are becoming the norm. I suspect that at least some of today’s ‘standards’ won’t last: cable TV mega-chains are fading in the face of internet TV and their on-demand services. Many people (me included) are avoiding broadcast and paper news in favor of a selection of sites that I browse daily. The only reason I’m not having my preferred items delivered to my inbox is I don’t like the interfaces available so far.

Landlines are going away. When everyone has a cell, why have a landline for telemarketers to harass you? We haven’t had a landline in… 8 years now, and we don’t miss it. When we initially dropped the landline hardly anyone went all cell. Now it’s the norm.

GPS-enabled everything is another change that’s if not on the way, already here. Heck you can buy watch-sized GPS systems optimized for city walking – or optimized for hiking. It won’t be long before a basic GPS system comes with practically everything, possibly with a discreet panic button that will ping the emergency systems with your location. Which of course brings some interesting questions about privacy into the mix.

Regardless, it’s going to be an interesting ride, and to judge by all those adoption curves, whatever happens is going to happen pretty bloody quickly. Me, I’ll be trying to surf the tsunami of change.