The Science Fiction Gateway

Paul Raven @ 21-07-2011

For those of you not so deeply plugged in to the sf lit and fandom circuits of the intertubes, I’ll act as a repeater station for a signal worth passing on: venerable UK sf imprint Gollancz has announced its SFGateway project, which will integrate a growing backlist of classic sf titles in ebook formats with the also-forthcoming online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Here’s the main meat from the press release, which you can read in full if you so wish:

Gollancz, the SF and Fantasy imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, announces the launch of the world’s largest digital SFF library, the SF Gateway, which will make thousands of out-of-print titles by classic genre authors available as eBooks.

Building on the remarkable success of Gollancz’s Masterworks series, the SF Gateway will launch this Autumn with more than a thousand titles by close to a hundred authors. It will build to 3,000 titles by the end of 2012, and 5,000 or more by 2014. Gollancz’s Digital Publisher Darren Nash, who joined the company in September 2010 to spearhead the project said, “The Masterworks series has been extraordinarily successful in republishing one or two key titles by a wide range of authors, but most of those authors had long careers in which they wrote dozens of novels which had fallen out of print. It seemed to us that eBooks would offer the ideal way to make them available again. This realization was the starting point for the SF Gateway.” Wherever possible, the SF Gateway will offer the complete backlist of the authors included.

The SF Gateway will be closely integrated with the recently announced new online edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which provides an independent and definitive reference source of information on the authors and books included. Direct links between the Encyclopedia and the Gateway will provide easy access to eBook editions, for sale through all major online retailers.

The Gateway site will also act as a major community hub and social network for SF readers across the world, allowing them to interact with each other and recommend titles and authors. The site is planned to include forums, blogs, regular promotions, and is envisaged to become the natural home on the net for anyone with an interest in classic SFF.

All of a sudden, I’m genuinely interested in buying an ebook reader. (Or at least a device with ebook-reading capabilities; I suspect the standalone ebook reader will be an exemplary illustration of Chairman Bruce’s concept of “obsolete before plateau”, killed off by convergence in the tablet market, folded in as one more function for your general purpose portable computing/connectivity platform.)

I’m quite impressed at how well Gollancz have kept this on the downlow for so long, too, especially given all the folk in the [aca]fandom circuit (myself included) carping loudly about publishers failing to embrace new platforms and technologies. The sheer joined-up-ness of this project (and the decision to base it all on pure HTML5, with no flash-in-the-pan walled-garden proprietary app crapola) is ambitious and forward-looking; I’m sure there’ll be some minor snags here and there, but I get the sense that this has been thought through very carefully, and that a certain allowance for tweaking and flex has been built in.

And to see that vast (and apparently set-to-grow) backlist of out-of-print titles brought back into availability is a thing of wonder. Ladies and gentlemen of Gollancz, and everyone else who has been involved: I salute you.


#whalerape and the undeath of the author: separating the art from the artist

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

It’s a perennial problem: artists and writers, just like everyone else, can be appalling buttheads with deeply unpleasant ideas and attitudes. But do those attitudes poison their creations by association?

It’s all down to personal responses, of course. Here’s a post at ThisRecording that takes a look at the misogyny, racism and antiSemitism of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl; I was raised on Dahl’s books and loved them dearly, and I’m pretty sure my mother and my aunt – the main vectors by which Dahl’s output arrived in my world – would be just as appalled by Dahl-the-man as I am after reading that piece. But because I knew the work before I knew the man (and possibly because the work was edited to remove some of the more unpleasant subtexts), I find myself still able to draw a line between the two… though I suspect were I to re-read Dahl now, in light of the above, I’d be looking out for clues and signs of his sublimated nastiness. It’s hard to read with clean-slate innocence with that sort of knowledge hanging at the back of your brain.

Interestingly, though, this doesn’t seem to work the other way. Regular readers will know of my antipathy to archbigot and homophobe Orson Scott Card. I discovered Card’s reputation before ever reading any of his books, and as a result have read none of them (though I have read a few short stories since, which seemed only to confirm my opinions). And speaking of Mormons, habitués of the genre fandom Twittersphere may have noticed the #whalerape hashtag over the weekend, as a bunch of people (re)read this year’s Nebula winning novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. As the body and comments of the Locus Roundtable blog post about it demonstrate, opinions differ wildly as to its merits (or lack thereof), and the point of fracture seems to be along lines of attitude to religious missionary work in general, and Mormon proselytising in particular. Having seen the running commentary – not to mention discovering that Stone’s attitudes to homosexuality are in the same retrograde camp as Card’s – I’m finding myself deeply prejudiced against the guy’s work.

To be clear, I don’t think this sort of prejudice is dependent on the nature of the offence caused: I imagine that a conservative reader might be just as shocked and put off an artist by finding out they were a closet Troskyite, for instance. But I do wonder if the problem isn’t exacerbated by the new-found publicness (?) of the artist lifestyle. With writers in particular, the old model – communicating with your public primarily through one’s work, and the occasional public appearance or bit of journalism if one were of sufficient stature to get the gigs – has given way to a much more performative presence: the author as celebrity, as pundit. It’s never been easier to find out what the most minor of authors thinks about sports, politics or other ethical quandaries… though, to be fair, the same applies to people in all walks of life. We’re all celebrities now; it’s merely a matter of audience magnitude.

This all ties in with my ongoing fascination with what literature critics call the intentional fallacy, which suggests you can only judge a text on its own merits; critiquing a text on the basis of knowledge about the author’s philosophies and actions beyond those admitted of in the text itself is an act of biography rather than criticism. Part of me finds the poststructuralist undertones of the intentional fallacy appealing – the author is dead, and we can find whatever meanings we like in every text! – but I’m increasingly convinced that, as noble and high-minded a critical ideal as it may be, it simply isn’t compatible with the world we now live in. Call it “the undeath of the author”, maybe; they may not be alive within the text itself, but something of them shambles around outside its perimeter fences. Perhaps in the post-war years it was easy to assume a text could be hermetically sealed off from the world in which it was created and in which it will be read; in the hyperlinked and searchable world we now live in, the outer membrane of every text has become permeable to a lesser or greater degree – no firewall is completely hack-proof, right? – and one of the first and easiest conflations to make is that of the author’s publicly-held opinions and the meaning of their text.

All of which may seem like academic noodling (guilty as charged), but I think there’s a real issue here, too. In light of recent discussions about the comparative invisibility of women or people of colour in anthology TOCs, best-of-the-genre lists and prize nominations, this difficulty in separating art from artist becomes a more problematic thing, and damages the credibility of editors or anthologists who claim to be colour-, creed- or gender-blind when reading submissions. To flip the issue around (and demostrate the prejudices do point both ways): say I was editing an anthology, and an Eric James Stone story came over the submissions transom; I like to think I’d read it and give it as fair a chance to succeed on its own merits as anyone else’s, but I can’t in all honesty say I’d truly manage to do so. And that’s an example of a conscious prejudice, one of which I am aware and can – to a lesser or greater extent – work to minimise; what about the subconscious culturally-encoded prejudices against women, LGBTQ people and people of colour, the ones that we almost all believe we don’t have, but which we almost all do have?

(I fully count myself among that “almost all”, by the way; I’m not entirely sure I believe any of us can entirely free ourselves from culturally-encoded prejudices, but we can at least work to mitigate them once we’ve become aware of them, a process which becomes – albeit very gradually – easier over time. Much as in AA’s twelve-step program, the first step is to admit that you have a problem; that’s also the hardest step of all.)

As is probably plain (and certainly in keeping with local tradition) I don’t have any answers to this dilemma; I’m just throwing out a collection of ideas to see what other folk think about them. So, whatcha got, huh?


Zen and the Art of Literary Gatekeeping

Paul Raven @ 04-04-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, here’s a very interesting post-and-comment-thread combo at Self-Publishing Review. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the aforementioned comment thread, which contains (gasp!) spirited disagreement conducted with a rare degree of civility, but the big central point is one I’ve danced around a few times before: when the barriers to publication are negligible, will definitions of quality shift considerably by comparison to the old “gatekeepered” model? Or, more simply: when anyone can get their book in front of potential readers, will we find that “good writing” doesn’t actually matter to a lot of the audience? Because that’s what appears to be happening on the wild frontiers of the ebook boondocks right now…

From the original post itself:

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

If mainstream publishing is really hurting for money, it would make sense for them to get into the ebook-only/print on demand business. Devote some resources towards basic editorial and cover design, some press, and see which books take hold. Right now, word of mouth is more powerful than reviews – a lot of people find books just browsing the Kindle store, rather than reading press about a book, and there is a lot of profit to be made on slush pile books that appeal to a huge number of people. It’s possible that eventually people feel burned by bad, cheap books and stop buying them – but, again, the majority of the reviews on many fast-selling self-published books are positive.

The (currently) final comment makes an important counter-argument, though:

This is an interesting and provocative article, but one that also completely misses the point. Yes, some quite poorly-written self-published books are selling in minor quantities (from a few hundred to a few thousand) in Kindle form. Why? Because they’re priced at around a dollar, whereas even the cheapest commercial Kindle titles sell for four times that amount and upwards.

Commercial publishers simply aren’t interested in selling a few thousand ebooks for a dollar apiece: they want to sell tens of thousands of copies, in both paper and ebook form, for between five and ten dollars apiece. To suggest that they could make a few extra quid by starting up self-publishing ebook sidelines is like advising a Michelin-starred restaurant to open a serving hatch late at night offering kebabs to drunks wandering the streets. Not only it is it not what they’re set up to do, but it would also very quickly cheapen their brand.

As mentioned before (by me, and by many far smarter folk from whom I’ve wholesale stolen the riff), gatekeeping is all over; curation is the new game, but the rules have yet to be written. The argument above, though, pretty much crystallises the root source of panic in the big publishing houses: all they’ve ever had to show their superiority to vanity presses and one-man-bands was their insistence on selecting for “quality” – though it should go without saying that “quality” is defined differently from one boardroom or editorial office to another. But all of a sudden, there are hints that “quality” may not matter to the biggest slice of the market pie… and when your entire philosophy of business is anchored solidly to that notion by a chain of centuries-old tradition, well, you’re going to struggle to swim with the tide.

Personally, I think it’s too early to say definitively that “quality writing” is a dead scene; the market is too new, too chaotic, and the metrics currently used to assess the market’s assessment of “quality” are utterly subjective – I really don’t place any faith in Amazon reader reviews whatsoever, for instance; an effective crowdsourced curatorial system will be much harder to game, and perforce deal with a much smaller slice of the total market (niche verticals, long tails, blah blah blah). But of course, Chairman Bruce has a long-game grenade to throw into the punchbowl:

The unseen literary player here is machine translation. It’s getting “better” fast, and we may soon be in a world where on-demand machine-translated texts become major literary influences. The real web-semantic breakthrough would be a machine-assisted ability to painlessly read texts outside one’s own language. At that point we’ll have entered an unheard-of state of linguistic globalized electro-pidgin.

[…]

It’s not that the slushpile is profitable; it’s that there is no longer an analog dam against which the slush can pile.

If the dam is gone, then the would-be curator must discover a new method for catching fish. Trying to work the whole river would be madness… but finding a little pool or slow-flowing channel to focus on might reward you with fish of consistent species and health.


Science fiction’s cultural cringe; the ideal of “ideas”

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2011

From Jared of Pornokitsch:

Science fiction (and by this, I mean science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, whatever… dragons seem just as keen to jump on this bandwagon as the starships) is no more or less about “ideas” than any other type of fiction. This isn’t staking a claim, it is chucking fence posts into the ocean. I might be bored shitless reading Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath, but I’m not going to argue they didn’t have ideas in them.

Clearly, those two make for a hyperbolic extreme, but flipping through the titles that clog up the top 50, they aren’t suffering fora lack of ideas. If a non-sf author chooses to ruminate about the minutae of a courtroom, the machinations of family life or the shenanigans of Cold War hardmen, that may not be our particular choice of in-flight reading, but their books still have ideas. There’s speculation involved. Imagination. An author making things up. The “literature of ideas”? That’s just fiction.

[…]

“The literature of ideas” is also an inherently poisonous aspiration. When I hear Peter Hamilton and Clive Thompson praise the “literature of ideas”, it puts world-building on a pedestal. It is wonderful that we have a genre that can hypothesize about AIDS on the Moon or explore identity problems in a world without eyes, but the roadsides of sf are littered with great ideas. Having a compelling idea is just one part of the puzzle, no more important than any of the other pieces (and often, much less so) . Setting a book on Venus doesn’t give it permission to have paper-thin characters. And the mere existence of dragons doesn’t preclude the presence of plot.

Our literature has enough ideas, it is time to work on how they’re expressed. If there is something unique and magical about sf, it may be that no other genre seems to be as consistently forgiving of poor characterisation and predictable plotting. Like comics, sf has consistently maintained a desperate relevance by feverishly plinking the same, narrow, adolescent band over and over and over again. “The literature of escapism” is a more accurate, if back-handed, definition of sf’s current state. For the genre that has given us timeless characters, brilliant stories and great ideas, that’s simply not good enough.

Your thoughts? Personally I don’t see escapism as a necessarily bad value for any literature to possess (though I’m very leery of consolatory escapism – Baen Books, I’m looking at you), but I think you could argue successfully that there is an urge within science fiction wherein the thing being escaped from is the very future it claims to engage with.


Science, science fiction and the real world: some perspectives

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2010

OK, here are three interesting essays about science fiction and its relationship to reality we inhabit. I’ve got a lot of other stuff cluttering up my brain today, so I’ll leave it to you lot to do your own synthesis…

First of all, Roz Kaveney at The Guardian:

One problem with being a long-term reader of science fiction and fantasy is that you get blase about science itself because you have seen it all before. My sense of wonder was overloaded by the time I was 16; I am never going to get that rush again. Even major breakthroughs make me go ‘Whatever!’.

[…]

Another part of the problem is that we do, in fact, live in a world that is a collage of a lot of sci fi tropes – but, as the writer Neil Gaiman’s Second Law tells us: “All scientifically possible technology and social change predicted in science fiction will come to pass, but none of it will work properly.” It’s amazing that we have tiny mobile phones with which we can send photographs of masturbating walruses to our friends on the other side of the world, but less fabulous that you lose signal in a five-yard patch on the Hackney Road just as someone is telling you something important. One of the reasons why Dick and Ballard speak to our condition so well is that they saw the future and it was pretty rubbish.

Secondly, Damien Walter, also at The Guardian:

Looking at the television screen, and the surrounding mediasphere, it seems difficult to deny that much of what might once have been real has been displaced by fiction. Fictional conflicts stand at the heart of dramas that help us ignore the truth. Coke and Pepsi have been fighting it out for decades, but if one ever won would we notice that both are just fizzy brown water with sugar in? The neocons are going to save us from the Taliban – or is it the other way round … Every day it’s getting harder to tell one group of religious fundamentalists from another. Kate and Pete and Brad and Jen are in and out of love – but how’s your own marriage doing? The ConDem coalition is squaring off against old New Labour. No one believes this is representative democracy for a second but, gosh darn it, the theatre is so good we just can’t help watching, even while the real power is snatched by corporate actors behind the scenes.

[…]

For the last few centuries the realist novel has done little more than find ever more obsessive ways to reflect back at us the comforting fictions we accept as reality, making the contemporary literary novelist merely a second idiot, retelling the tale the first idiot already told. Realist fiction’s unquestioning acceptance of modern life makes it difficult for the contemporary literary novel to find anything resembling the truth when it tackles issues of poverty, race, gender, politics, society or philosophy. The easy cop-out of post-modernist relativism beckons.

If the outer world is flooded with fictions, then perhaps Ballard is right when he claims that “the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads”. Maybe our inner world of dreams and imagination offers not merely escape, but our best way of finding truth in the confusing fictional landscape of modern reality.

And thirdly, Athena Andreadis, not at The Guardian:

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow.  I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

What are you thinking?


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