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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 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 – 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?


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,, 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.

On Our Way To The Future

My younger son came to me and told me he wanted to write an article about how much the internet had improved life.  Before he explained what he meant, I formed a picture in my mind.  It wasn’t what he meant.  His article, if he writes it, I shall submit to one of the more political sites.  This article is the one that formed in my mind, and it touches on things that I have mentioned in passing in other blogs, but which – frankly – deserve a mention of their own.

When I was little – and when you were little, probably too, if you’re any older than thirty and perhaps if you’re any older than twenty – when I dreamed of the future it had a Jetsonish tinge.  Not that I ever thought the Jetsons were really science fiction – as with most TV science fiction none of us who read the stuff took it seriously, we just “liked” it because it at least introduced some of the ideas to “normal” people.  (Unfortunately it introduced some very odd ideas too.  One had to go around explaining to everyone that no, this stuff we read was not about discovering strange new worlds and seducing the aliens in them.  Oh and that, almost certainly, there would be more to aliens than a different forehead.)

On the other hand, and even though in a way we knew it wouldn’t be true (at least by my childhood it was obvious things weren’t moving in that direction where I lived.  I wasn’t sure about America.  I mean, everyone knows the future comes from America and maybe in America they had all this stuff) we tended to dream of flying cars, housekeeping robots, three hour work days and machines that did almost anything.

I suppose if my personal addiction had been to romances and I’d imagined true love coming the way I imagined the future coming, I wouldn’t have known it when I fell in love – or I would have found it very hard to navigate a relationship that would be different from the dream of love in books.  Fortunately I read stuff like Simak, who portrayed love in a rather realistic way.

But it meant I didn’t recognize the future when it came.  And I’m not alone in that.  In tons of panels, and even the man on the street, you find kind of a disconsolate, drippy grief that we don’t have flying cars, we don’t have trips to Mars, we don’t have any of that.  We’re in fact – we say – living in the twenty first century as though it were the twentieth.

Don’t get me wrong, I want all that and the tourism to the moon.  With extra robot-served ice cream at that.

But even before my kid came to me, I’d been thinking back at the things we do have, and how fast they’ve spread.  It is only that they spread in such an insidious way, in little, non-flashy things that allows us to say that we live just as people did in the twentieth century.

Take cell phones, possibly the only thing that was – more or less.  People tended to go more for the video phone. – anticipated.  Just a little thing, right?  Now you can take a phone with you wherever you go.  Big whoop.  And inconvenient to boot.  I mean, your boss can find you everywhere.

Only go read any of the mid twentieth century mysteries and you’ll understand how much our life has changed in the what – fifteen? – years since cell phones have been pocket-sized, affordable and reach everywhere in the nation.  Most of those mysteries would never work now.  Girl alone and car breaks down?  No problem.  Dial triple A.  Stumbled on a body?  Don’t spend hours walking around in circles looking for someone to report it to and make yourself the primary suspect.  Get that cell phone out of your pocket, you ninny and call the police already.

Other things make that last scenario of finding a body then spending hours walking or driving, looking for the law, even more unlikely.  What are you doing in an unknown area without a GPS?  Okay, so maybe you’re a hiker, but even most hiking trails are on GPS these days.

Then add in the internet.

When we first moved to the Denver area, when we took the kids to Denver for a weekend, we had a routine which we had used whenever we went to a new city.  First, get a map.  Then go to the phone book and look up stuff you want to do.  Museums.  Amusement parks.  Restaurants.  Map out the route.  Then you can go.  And of course you might get there and find the place is closed or that something that was called La Haute Cuisine is ironically named.

This got a little better by the end of the nineties for restaurants and most of the museums there were places you could call on your cell phone that would give you reviews right there by phone, and often directions too.

But even to people like us who always buy older technology (cheaper) it is much easier now.  While we use an el-cheapo cell phone that is so not smart it probably never passed elementary school, we always take at least one computer (or at least the tablet) on vacation.  And before we go I google those days in that place, to see if there are any festivals, museum free days or other special events we don’t want to miss.  I also do broad searches for the sort of place we like – like Greek diners.  Usually we have stuff mapped out before we leave the house, but if things fall through, we have a laptop to look up more, and a GPS to take us there.

Simple stuff?  Oh, sure.  But it also means when a genuine emergency happens, like when Robert was having an asymptomatic ear infection that went explosively symptomatic while we were in Denver, we wouldn’t have to drive around in circles and call the very few people we then knew trying to find an emergicare to take him to while he was in pain.  (Of course, now we know Denver as well as our neighborhood, but imagine any strange town.)

But again, the “convenience” of this dwarves the other changes the internet has brought about.

Guys, I spent two years not sending anything out because what I wrote was novels, they were too expensive to mail and I simply didn’t have the money.  To an extent, this influenced my decision to learn to write short stories, which are not natural to me, because I could that way maximize my investment in postage by maybe getting a story in front of someone who would read it.

Forget Indie exists for a while – hard to, right, and yet it’s newer than tomorrow – if I were now where I was twenty years ago, I could sent those novels electronic to at least three houses and most agents.  And given how fast I could write, I could keep sending them.

While on how fast I could/can write.  I don’t think any of you whippersnappers have any idea how isolated writers – and other odd people – were in the bad old days.  I do.  Being a writer was, by nature, an alienating thing.  People would be very puzzled by what you did.  The standard questions – still heard, no longer as resented – if you were a woman were always “do you write children’s books”?  And by that they meant picture books, or “Do you write romance?”  I wasn’t so lucky.  Nine times out of ten the first question of anyone so privileged as to have heard my accent was to go “What language do you write in?”

This might seem like I’m being picky and in a way I am, of course, but here’s the thing: it made you feel AWFULLY alone.  I remember how happy I was when I moved to Colorado and found out that there was a writers conference downtown and also the experience of attending that very first conference and being among other writers.  The first writers’ group I joined not only had people of different genres, but had fiction and non fiction writers thrown together, as if that were really helpful.  We, sf strangers, got weird comments on our stuff such as the immortal “Are you sure this is science fiction?  It’s not a thing like Star Trek.”

Just being able to get online and access friends, acquaintances and sometimes total strangers who also write, and ask how to do something, or how something works, or just being able to joke with friends.

Oh, it’s nothing, you’ll say, and besides it’s a distraction.  Sure.  Of course it is.  But I’ve always been the sort of person who has friends halfway across the world.  Being able to call them was something that happened once a month if that and cost a fortune.  Right now, my best writing buddies are halfway across the country or halfway across the world, and yet we can contact each other several times a day and if I write something I’m not sure of I can run it by them in seconds.  (Okay a little more for long stuff, since they have lives.)

I’ve also found that I can dispense with half of the “just in case” books.  You know the “just in cases” – a walking map of NYC; a guide to automobiles in the mid twentieth century; books on how to treat various odd ailments; books on the native plants and animals of various lands.  Half the books I picked up at library sales were “just in case I need to.”  Most never got used, of course.  Now?  Well, if I need it there’s a net for that.

And that’s just in writing, and I haven’t exhausted all improvements and everything that’s easier – I just want to move on to the rest of life.

Do you know how much I would have given, when I had small kids and couldn’t leave the house whenever I wanted to, to be able to get on the net and in seconds – not the half an hour or so it took to deal with catalogues and all – order stuff I needed which would be at my door in two days?  Yeah, I think I bought books from Amazon on the day it opened up for business, but I couldn’t order a mop, then, or bread, or…

Do you know how much I would have given when I was broke and depressed for the chance to read free books?  I did have them, sort of – the rejects in front of the local used bookstore – but they were mostly gothic romances or very, very odd college text books.
Just that takes the sting off what I found the worst of poverty.

And then there’s videos – which I grant you I get through Prime Amazon Membership, but even that it’s not very expensive when you consider.  I don’t watch TV very often and movies less than that, but if I want to they’re there.  What’s more, they’re there not in whatever is available in my area, but in whatever I WANT at that moment.  Do I want to watch a mystery?  There’s a mystery series.  Period drama? It’s there.  SF?  It’s there.  It’s like having a near infinite video library in your living room.  And if you are willing to pay, the library is very close to infinite.

These things seem small but they’re not – they’re creating a more connected, more informed and yes, more diverse world – diverse in the way that counts, where your news and entertainment aren’t being channeled through some gatekeeper’s preferences.

And we’re not using the half of it.  People who scream we need to move closer to our places of employment, or use trains to save gas are living in the early twentieth century.  First of all – please, read up – the new tech has revealed new deposits of obtainable oil, so that Colorado and Israel can rival Saudi Arabia as oil producers.  Second – why on Earth do most people have to go in to work, other than outmoded habit.  Most people in white collar jobs can easily work remote from home.  They can work from anywhere in the world.

No, of course this isn’t happening.  There is resistence to it, a suspicion that people won’t self-motivate or… something.  But then the same thing was true of ebooks for years, till the barrier broke.  By the time it broke, most people assumed it wouldn’t.  And if people were really serious about saving gas or cutting emissions or whatever that IS what they’d be pushing: telecommuting.  You known none of these politicians care about what they say they are trying to save, because if they did they would be cutting down on regulations against working from home and giving companies incentives to have a remote workforce.  Instead, they’re building trains and tightening regulations – which I grant you has better opportunity for graft.

In the same way as ebooks, I suspect when the barrier against working from home falls down it will move with catastrophic speed.  It will be a good thing and very fast.  The very fast will make life interesting.  No?  Well, where you live right now is predicated by where jobs are.  This in turn supports local infrastructure, house prices, etc.  Now imagine you can life in Podunk and work in NYC.  Think what that will do to house values, salaries, social life and the price of drapes.  Yeah – when that hits it will make what’s happening to publishing and will soon happen to education look like a storm in a teacup.

The future is now and, by and large, the future is better than the past.  But to take advantage of it we need to open our eyes and move past things like screaming about how we need more public transportation.  We need to stop applying old solutions to new problems.  In the seventies it seemed to me tons of people were nostalgic for the thirties.  The same people seem to still be nostalgic for the thirties, now with a tinge of the seventies.

But the way forward is forward, not towards some imagined misty-rosy past that never existed.

The future is now.  It’s time to grow up and enjoy it.

Fifty Shades of Yawn

All right, I’ll admit it. I finally gave into curiosity and read those books. You know what books I’m talking about. The books the media and publishing have been pushing as the next greatest thing around. The “mommy porn” books. Yep, that’s right. Despite having already read the sample of the first book in the series and determining that I’d have rejected it if it had come across my desk at NRP, I read the Fifty Shades of Grey books. I may never recover the brain cells that committed suicide as a result.

Fair warning upfront. I’m not a prude. I have read, and enjoyed, books with with explicit sex, including bondage and domination. As with violence or anything else, if the sex advances the plot, go for it. But, for the love of all that is holy, write it well.

My problem with the books isn’t necessarily the sex. For one thing, there really isn’t that much in the series, whether it is plain vanilla sex or bondage and domination sex. I’ve read more in mainstream romance novels than in these three books.

No, my problem with the series, especially with the first book, is the writing and characters. The writing could have been fixed with a good editor and copy editor. The first book, on the technical side, really did read like it was nothing more than a slightly expanded screenplay. I never felt pulled into the story because, even though it is written in first person, I never felt like I was connecting with the narrator, Anastasia Steele. It was too much of Ana just telling us what she saw and thought and not enough of actually being in the story. Now, I don’t want or need to know every thought of a character, but there has to be some connection with the narrator to keep me from skipping forward — or throwing the book down never to be read again.

Yes, the second and third book are technically better written. But that isn’t saying much because the technique doesn’t make up for other issues I had with the books.

Okay, gather round and listen closely, if you are writing a book, no matter what the genre, do not make your main characters too stupid to live. Yes, I’ve had a character accused of that but, compared to Ana Steele, she was a Nobel Prize Winner, a genius among geniuses.

If you have the Fifty books in your TBR and don’t want spoilers, skip this part.

Ana Steele is about to graduate from college when her roommate asks her to fill in at an interview with the very, very rich Christian Grey for the college paper. Said roommate is ill and has to have someone fill in because she worked soooooo hard to get the interview. Now, Ana isn’t part of the newspaper staff. She isn’t a journalism major. No, she isn’t some prodigy in the journalistic world. She wants to be a book editor. But, because her bestest friend in the whole world asks her to do this, she does.

And she literally falls into Grey’s office. The interview goes on, including asking if Grey is gay (yes, that is one of the questions the dear roommate has prepped for Ana to ask). Afterwards, still not understanding why she is sooooooo drawn to the mysterious Mr. Grey, Ana returns home, turns over her tapes of the interview and agrees they should have had photos taken. So, yes, there will be another meeting.

So far, nothing really out of the romance genre norm. Right?

The creepy — and “are you really this dumb?” — comes later. Grey, it turns out is a dom. And he’s a dom who wants Ana. He insinuates himself into her life, running to her rescue when she drinks too much one night and a guy friend pushes just a bit too hard. Poor guy, he really has it bad for Ana but she just looks at him like a brother. Believe me, Ana would have been much better off going with Jose. But then we wouldn’t have had our “mommy porn”.

Within a week or so, Grey has not only insinuated himself into our heroine’s life, but admitted to her he has certain “tastes” and, having teased her until she just has to have him, presents her with first a non-disclosure agreement and then a contract that lays out exactly what he can and will do to her as well as her responsibilities to him as his “sub”.

Oh, did I mention she’s a virgin? A fairly inexperienced one?

Now, this is where my tablet almost went against the wall. First, you have this obscenely rich young man presenting a woman he hardly knows with not only the non-disclosure agreement but sub contract. He’s already done a thorough background check into her so he knows that if she were to tell anyone about the contract or anything they might do later, she has nothing he can go after. So that’s no real protection for him. (What we don’t know at this point is he also takes photos of his subs in what can best be called embarrassing positions to insure they don’t reveal what is done.) So, we known Mr. Grey is kinky at best and despite being rich and all isn’t real bright.

Ana, on the other hand, who has already basically accused him of stalking her and of being controlling — duh — and who is stunned by the contract, albeit a bit intrigued, doesn’t go running into the night. She doesn’t think about how this might not be a real good idea. Oh no, that wouldn’t make a “good” book. She signs the non-disclosure agreement but wants to negotiate the sub contract. She doesn’t like the exercise clause and a few others.

Yep, that’s right. She doesn’t have many objections to the actual sex clauses but is objecting to being told she needs to exercise a certain number of times a week.


No, don’t tell me she’s curious. Don’t tell me maybe she fantasized about being tied up. This isn’t something the author tells us, at least not enough for it to have stuck in my mind.

In a period of less than a month — if I remember correctly, the first book takes place in less than two weeks, but I may be wrong. I swear reading it killed brain cells — Ana goes from virgin to mistress to leaving Christian because he hurt her. No, she doesn’t sign the contract and that both pisses him off and intrigues him. She is the first of his women to have stood up to him like this.

Okay, if this was all that bothered me about the book, I could see how folks would like it. However, it isn’t. Christian isn’t someone I’d want my daughter seeing. No, it has nothing to do with the bondage and domination. I know folks who get off on that. It’s not the pain bit. That doesn’t turn me on but to each his own, as long as both partners agree. What is the deal breaker with me where he’s concerned is the fact that he is, at best, bipolar. At worst, the way he’s portrayed in the first book, he’s totally nuts and a danger to not only Ana but to himself. His mood swings are like watching a tennis match on fast forward. He has no empathy for anyone around him. He exhibits textbook stalker behavior, made worse by too much money and power.

But we, the reader, are supposed to understand that there is something good to him. He’s damaged — DUH. The problem is that we don’t know how or why. There is no reason for us to have empathy with him. He’s nothing more than a spoiled brat.

Oh, but Ana is supposed to save him.

Give me a break.

Fifty Shades of Grey suffers because it isn’t well edited and it doesn’t give the reader information that is needed to build a rapport with Grey and, sorry, but Ana really is too dumb to survive. It is also a classic case of showing what a push and some well-placed media coverage can do for book sales. And now, this is the latest “greatest thing” and publishers are paying for books that are nothing more than pale versions of a book that was a pale version of yet another book. Even if they rush the books out, readers will have moved on to something else.

Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels aren’t even erotica. Not in my book at least. The sex doesn’t happen all that often. It isn’t that “hot”. Hell, I’ve read more erotic scenes in mysteries. We won’t even talk about what you can find in online fanfic sites.

I will admit that technique-wise, the second and third books of the series are better written. But, again, the too dumb to live bit continues. For a man who has more money than he knows what to do with, who is paranoid enough about anything happening to Ana — including her possibly stubbing her toe — he and his security staff completely overlook the fact there is a second stalker out there. Oh yeah, during one of the books, they are bothered by one of his former subs who is, shall we say, less than mentally stable.

And then there is his former dominant — yep, you read that right. Good ole Christian was a sub — who is not happy that her former boy toy (he was fifteen when she got her claws into him) now has himself a woman he wants to settle down with. Oh, and did I tell you, she’s a family friend. With those kinds of friends, who needs enemies? Seriously. She is a friend to his parents, who had no idea their good friend was not only sleeping with their teenaged son, but tying him up, whipping him, and more.

Then there’s the other stalker. The one Christian doesn’t find out about until it is almost too late. The one everyone should have clued in on at once and whose connection to the family could have been found out easily by someone with his connections and money. But, gee, it wasn’t. Of course, I guess that would have killed book three then.

Oh yeah, we don’t really start getting clues about just how screwed up Christian’s childhood and life have been until book two. Something we should have been seeing in book one if we are to understand he’s not just some spoiled, overly rich psycho.

My issue, as you can see, is one of logic. Or perhaps I should say the complete lack of logic, in this series. I’m used to suspending belief and reality in many of the books I read, especially romances. But c’mon, there has to be some tie with reality for me to keep reading.

I applaud the author and publisher for making sure the second and third books were technically better written. However, now that the buzz is wearing off and the more realistic reviews are coming in, please take them to heart and think about them. Most of all, this is NOT mommy porn. This isn’t even erotica. Hell, folks, if you want books with more sex, even though they might not have the bondage in them, pick up just about anything by Roberts or her ilk.

I just hope the brain cells that committed suicide as I read these books really didn’t and have just been hiding, making sure I am not going to read the books a second time. I don’t have that many to spare.

Gender and the pendulum

Yes, I do realize Kate has probably sprayed her keyboard with coffee reading the title.

Blame it on the fact that my focus is still somewhat disturbed, but we hope by tomorrow… But let’s look at other matters. Now on a list I belong to, one of the long time fantasy authors said that as her numbers were bad with one publisher… and now with a second, she was going to have to consider a pseudonym in order to sell. Now this has happened to a lot authors, and in some cases the the pseudonym has stormed the market and done well (Robin Hobb for example). But the question raised was what the effect of the gender of the pseudonym would have.

And thick and fast the comments came that using initials or a gender-neutral name (some of which, I must admit, depend on your culture of origin. For me, Tracy Hickman had to be female. Not that it worried me, but some of the folk telling me that their name was ‘gender neutral’ just made me laugh) would overcome bias against women writers.

The clincher of course was that Alice B. Sheldon had had to call herself James Tiptree Jnr to get into sf… in 1967. The trivial fact that Zenna Henderson succeeded in doing rather well, with her own name and not hiding her gender, in sf… in 1952, is somehow never mentioned.

There are misogynists out there. Men who would never read a book by a woman author. They exist, the way that Neo-Nazis exist. Let’s look at the probabilities of their numbers, and think about what effect those numbers could have.

Now: IF these nasty misogynists are there in anything but very small numbers, destroying a female writer’s chances of success, unless she disguises herself as JK…Bloggs. Or Hilary… Bloggs (it really is a male name in places)… then 1) books by males will dominate the fiction lists. 2) Only books by women in deep disguise, under male pseudonyms or gender neutral or initials will succeed, or at least these will be there on the popular lists in huge numbers.

I wasn’t feeling too much like writing this morning, so I did the figures. I used Amazon for the data pool and used their search engine for the sort. It’s of mediocre quality. I looked up any name I was in doubt over the gender of. As this an assumption about trad publishing, I confined my search to P-books only, and from traditional publishers. As the point what is happening in future, not what happened in 1967, I set ‘new release’ as a filter.

Looking at fiction the ‘most popular’ in the top 100 new releases…

40% were male. 60% were female

Refining this to Fantasy and Science Fiction… (and I only did the top 60, I ran out of patience)

31% were male. 69% were female. If I had excluded game tie-in and movie tie-ins the figure would have been lower still. Of those: 1 male used initials, 2 females did (both in Paranormal Romance), and one female had a name that I had to look up see what the gender was. (In other words, either very few women use the ‘initial’ strategy, or it’s very unsuccessful). In all cases clicking on the name brought up a profile showing the gender. There is no gender hiding in this sample.)

The ‘sf’ filter is rubbish and gave me almost entirely female written fantasy. Curiously the top 10 had 4 covers of naked male torso (sometimes with a partial head), and 1 (Laurell K Hamilton) – recumbent female partially clothed. When it comes to the frequent ‘objectifying the human body’ protests I think the pot has called the kettle black a lot.

Refining the filter to ‘Fantasy’ gave 25% male. 75% female. One male used initials, 3 females did (two of the same ones in the sf/fantasy search, all Paranormal Romance) Once again, no gender hiding.

I’d have liked to break it down into further sub-categories, the search engine just isn’t up to it. However, it would seem that the figures do not confirm the perceived wisdom. Rather: if your book fails, it might be you, or it might your publisher… but actually it’s not ‘those bad men’ sabotaging your career. I know this is hard to accept, and they’re so convenient, and less likely to take it out on you than your publisher, but that’s the breaks. There is no need to change your gender in your new pseudonym. It won’t help. Actually, if anything, they suggest that a female pseudonym for male and female writers might be in order. Of course there could never ever possibly be any female readers who could possibly be misandrous… Why at least 50% of all Romance titles are by men… aren’t they?

The trouble with all these things is they do start with a Tiptree/Sheldon point. There is a real problem. Whether you’re talking about education or books or representation on TOC, excluding people shrinks the pie. And it always ends up provoking the same reaction in the end: Someone shoves the pendulum the other way. (Such as in this University situation in the UK, which I believe has parallels in the US). Inevitably it’s a case of ‘we’ve got to rob Peter to pay Pauline, and then later when demands get too strident to ignore we’ll have to rob Pauline’s daughter Petronella to pay Peter’s son Paul. Because it’s a multi-generational thing, taking a decade before changes start having effect. And the changes are slow to spread but gather momentum. And by the time they do… you have silly folk like that Psychology Professor (and plenty in publishing and among authors) in denial of where the pendulum momentum will take it… in ten years time. And in ten (or twenty) years time they finally acknowledge it’s a problem, and start shoving hard the other way. Only it takes a long time for the momentum to damp, and another thirty years to lose the old cohort. And so… they push harder. Actually what they should do is start putting on brakes as soon as the direction changes, because, seriously this see-saw is counterproductive. We just need to grow the pie. We can. And hell, I really don’t care what the gender of the author is… so long as the story is good. I found typing with my personal calliope totally impractical and I have been told by several women that not a bit of good came of sitting on the keyboard either. Someone’s sex ought to make no difference, and that means unless the results are hovering around 50% there has to be a reason, and it probably comes down to idiocy a lot of the time.

However one other interesting thing did come out of the stats. And that was that the top 30 were all well built-up authors, regardless of of gender. Even the book that plainly has huge ideological support and push from its publishers (it’s a Dan Browne clone) has an author with some prior (and other kindle) publications. All of the other successful authors I looked at… have between 10 and 50 books under their own name. The old idea that you had to let an author build an audience… appears proven. Pseudonyms are a choice forced on authors, and can work for a reboot… but it’s starting afresh. Plainly they work best if you can take/keep some of your following. I think that’s even more true now, in an Indie e-book era.

Oh and I’m looking for a US first reader for the next Bolg, please?

I’m hunting typos and ‘that doesn’t make sense to American readers’ help.