09 May 2015

Speculating beyond the patriarchy

Is it good or bad that most fantasy still takes place in patriarchal societies? Not just fantasy, actually, but a fair amount science fiction as well. In a world where we've tried hard to grow beyond our roots in male-dominated and led societies, we still dream about worlds of oppression.

Of course, in the real world, we haven't made as much progress as one might hope. Some countries have equal protection laws in place, but many don't. Even the ones that do have difficulty in implementation, and society and culture have a long way yet to go. To the extent that our fantasies mirror reality, it's perfectly appropriate that imaginary characters face the same challenges that we do.

SFF (and to some extent all literature) plays several roles. It abstracts the essence of an issue from its messy details to provide a new way of looking at it, it poses new and interesting issues to stimulate our thinking, it offers successes we can only dream of in fact, and, of course, it provides a true escape from daily cares.

I read and write a fair amount of dark fiction, but I tend to enjoy most those stories that pose new problems or new solutions. I'm depressed by stories in which we face the same old problems as we do now. Yes, much fantasy is based on a standard medieval model. That doesn't mean we have to slavishly copy stereotyped medieval roles of strong men and delicate women. I like to think it's because I'm an optimist and idealist that I'm tired of reading these stories. Why not assume that men and women are equal? Why not make that the starting point? We can write perfectly good stories about female knights while acknowledging physiology. We can write space operas that don't assume existing stereotypes have somehow endured for another millennium.

All writers unintentionally incorporate biases invisible to them. There's a reason that stories perfectly suited to the 1930s seem dated now; people don't act and react the same way anymore. But for every story written from a current viewpoint, there seem to be just as many that simply ape the style and context of those dated works.

I'm sure there's an audience out there that thoroughly approves of 'man defends woman' stories - perhaps the same group that denies evolution and global warming. And there's a good argument for representative fiction - stories that reflect readers' everyday troubles, and give them hope for change. But it seems to me that SFF by nature includes a fair amount of aspirational fiction - here's what we could achieve if we put our minds to it - and that models the society we want to be.

Not everything has to be flowers and butterflies, of course. SFF has plenty of room for work that  challenges our preconceptions - The Gate to Women's Country, for example, long ago surprised and intrigued me by making me realize that there are people who genuinely think men and women should live apart. Sheri Tepper has written many excellent books exploring views of gender relations, and pointing out that we have a lot of room to grow.

Not all books, though, need to make the same tired assumptions. Why not steampunk in which women are equal? Why not lay out societies with better norms, that, instead of dwelling on flaws, encourage us to look at our own world in a different way, to see a female CEO and think "well, of course" instead of "wow, that's great"?

Again, I'm not suggesting that our speculative fiction ignore problems we really have, and have yet to resolve. But where our stories are not about those problems, their effects, their solutions, let's dream better, shall we?

02 May 2015

Sale! Sale! Sale! - on e-book pricing

Back before e-books, I bought paper books when I had the money to do it. Books were books, and paperbacks didn't go on sale. You paid the price on the back of the book, and that was it. Airports charged outrageous prices (except in Portland), and you could pick up very lightly used copies cheap at Powell's, but basically, the price was the price.

Then came Amazon, where I could often get books below cover price, even figuring in shipping. When shipping became largely free, that was even better, but still, I pretty much bought at whatever price Amazon offered.

Then came e-books. E-book prices, unlike paper, seem to be extraordinarily volatile. Or maybe it's just that now I have better tools to track with. E-book prices are also extraordinarily high. Maybe that's because I used to buy paperbacks. I'm not demanding a return to the $1.75 of my youth, but I do think that current prices are unreasonably high. What's stranger is that publishers tend to stick to flat pricing, so that vast George Martin tomes cost roughly the same as thinner Jasper Fforde books.

The effect of these high prices is that I've become a more price conscious consumer. That's made easier by the availability of price alert tools. I use eReaderIQ and Luzme, and I'm opportunistic. When a book I want drops below $3, I snap it up. But that also means that when it's not on sale, I likely won't buy it. Instead, I'll wait until it the price drops. At the very least, until it has been stable for some time. When I buy an e-book these days, I check to make sure I'm getting the best historical price. 

I don't need to have the latest and greatest. Even for books I really want, I can wait. Instead of splurging on the latest Robin Hobb, I can go back and read some H.G. Wells instead.

So far, this strategy is working well for me. I got most of Hobb's last Elderling series for about the price of one paperback, and was thrilled. If all e-books were priced that way, I'd be even more flooded with things to read. Conversely, when I do buy a book at full price, I'm pretty irritated to find it on sale later on (this happened recently with a Dave Duncan book).

In retail supermarket sales, manufacturer margins are tiny. Sales can be a good way to entice new customers to try your brand, but they're not a good way to keep them around. People start to expect sales, just as I now do for e-books, and that means lower profit for the manufacturer. 

On the whole, I don't think the sale concept is such a good one for e-books. I'd much rather have 'everyday low prices' than keep my eye open for sales - even with automated tools to help me do it.

What do you think? Are sales useful? Is current e-book pricing a successful model?

26 April 2015

The Dirt from George R. R. Martin [clickbait]

The real George R. R. Martin
The other day, the author of Game of Thrones delivered three yards of compost to my house. The man is a genius at providing a dark, rich, and complex substrate to fertilize the imagination.

It wasn't really George R. R. Martin, of course. But it was a man who could win an impersonation contest hands down. Black cap, glasses, long white beard, generous physique - it looked just like him. I even asked him how many times a day people commented on the resemblance. This being a rural, coastal area, the poor guy had no idea what I was talking about, who George Martin was, or what Game of Thrones was.

It's too bad; I had some questions about Laren Dorr.

14 January 2015

Shadow - graphic novel with Uwe Carow

As an author, I'm pretty text oriented. I'd love to be able to sketch or paint, but if I can't do it with words, it's just not going to happen. So I'm as surprised as anybody to say that I've just published a graphic novel. More accurately, I've written the text for a graphic novel, with the art thankfully provided by an actual artist - Uwe Carow.

Shadow started life as a concept. An online SFF magazine I was interested in said they'd be interested in hyperlinked stories, but didn't receive many. I started thinking about interesting ways to take advantage of hyperlinks (see some experiments in the Oddities section of the site). As these things do, my imagining quickly wandered, until I was thinking about story structures in general.

One of my structure ideas was to tell the negative of a story - to tell a story through absences, or through gaps, rather than positive description. When I actually sat down to try it out, the concept merged with another idea - telling the story of the peripheral characters that flit in and out of the margins of epic quest stories. It's always felt a little sad to me that these characters are left out.

In short, the story ended up as the story of an epic quest, but told through minor characters, after the fact. In the footsteps of the heroes, after they've done their hero-ing and someone else has to clean up.

A fellow writer, Zed Paul Draeco, suggested the "Shadow" story was image-rich and might do well with illustrations. I loved the idea, and started looking around. Pretty soon, I ran across German artist Uwe Carow, and a book he'd done with Red Bug Books - Der Fänger - a version of the Pied Piper story.

Uwe took the idea and ran with it, turning the story from a short story with illustrations to a full-fledged graphic novel. He turned out image after great image, always true to the story and always with his own take on the action. A dark story became darker.

I enjoyed writing this, and working with Uwe while he turned words into visions. He and Red Bug Books also did the hard work of turning our concept into an actual book, with the help of Katrin Bongard for the cover, and Lukas Horn for the lettering. Shadow has come a long way from concept and story to substantial graphic novel. I hope you like it.

27 October 2014

Migration day on the Oregon Coast

It must be a rule of aero/hydrodynamics that the bodies most ungainly on land be the sleekest in air and water. The same thought has probably struck every person who's ever seen a pelican fly. I spent an hour or so this morning watching a lot of them, and it's one of the most beautiful sights you can see. Big, silly beak always tucked into the chin, floppy feet, and yet when a pelican gets in the air, it's sleek, effortless gliding machine.

We had a rare day of sunshine here on the coast, after a week or so of our usual constant rain and drizzle. By "sunshine", I mean the occasional flash of blue sky behind the clouds, and generally dry. In the mid-morning, the tide was out, the beach was flat, and the water was calm. There was an occasional gull flying by. A nice day at the beach - a great day, for October.

I sat for a while in a lonely spot, just to enjoy the world, and watch for seals. At first, it seemed quiet, with just a few gulls around, but then a cormorant flew within a few meters, just at the edge of the water. Soon after, a flocklet of pelicans, skimming over the water, rising and falling effortlessly. Then more of the ubiquitous geese we get stopping by the wetlands. Some murres. Then a pod of six or seven glossy seals, gliding out of the water and back in a fleeting, all-natural, chain stitch of brown fur and muscle. All headed south. Pretty soon, in fact, it seemed like every wild creature on the coast was headed south. The longer I sat, the more I saw, realizing that in addition to the dozens of passing birds, there were literally hundreds in flocks resting out past the breakers. Everywhere I looked, there were birds. And every three or four minutes, another pod of seals would stitch past.

Ain't nature grand?

Armed only with analog binoculars and a cell phone, I didn't take much in the way of photos, so you'll just have to take my word for today's nature bonanza. As compensation, though, I offer a selection from a walk in the nature reserve on Cascade Head a while back. Trees, cool, and a startling headland meadow with across the water from a little islet covered with pelicans. I was too startled to do more than glow with pleasure at a brief close trail encounter with a coyote before he turned tail and ran, apparently just as startled as me.

Cascade head meadow panorama

The colors nature likes

Salt, water, rock

Pelicans in their awkward form

16 May 2014

Why Do E-book Re-issues Have Lousy Covers?

I've largely switched to e-books now, buying paper only to continue series I started on paper. I find e-books so convenient that I'm even re-purchasing some paper books as e-books, when the price is right. That usually means <$2 for books I really liked. (Amazon's pilot Matchbook program should have led to a lot of this, but it seems not many publishers signed up.)

Most recently, I bought a batch of Jonathan Carroll books, a batch of Sheri Tepper (still at $.99, by the way), and a couple of Robin Hobbs (one old, one new). The Carroll books were from a 'new' publisher (Open Road Media), and all had colorful covers that someone put time into. Both Hobb books had minimalist covers - title, author, monochrome background. That sounds fine, but in fact they're hard to tell apart at first glance. The Tepper books not only had near identical covers, they were bad covers - they look like something Harper Collins whipped up as a placeholder before making the initial re-issue pitch to a sub-sub-manager. I'm amazed they made it into the actual e-books. I've seen some similar poor choices from other publishers.

I understand that publishers may not own the electronic rights to the original art. They may not want to spend the money on new art. I read the books on a small grayscale Nook, which loses a lot of the beauty of large color covers. And I'm pleased that the books are re-issued at all. Nonetheless, I think the poor 'art' a serious mistake 

Covers, for good or evil, do sell books. More important, they contribute to the image we have of books. When I was younger, I formed an feeling about Del Rey Books that was inextricably linked with Darrell Sweet's colorful, friendly, very slightly cartoonish covers. When I picked one up, I knew immediately that a) the cover was a reasonably accurate representation of some part of the book, b) that the writing was going to be reasonably good, and c) how the publisher was trying to categorize the story. All without even reading the author or title. When I think about those Del Rey books, the covers come to mind first, and they're a key to my memory of the content.

Bad covers can have the opposite effect, but they usually don't. But I'm usually not put off by a bad cover. I ignore it and move on to the actual text, and the covers don't enter my memory much at all. (To give an example from music - Black Sabbath's horrible Born Again cover.)

What does stop me, however, is a cover that clearly doesn't care - one that's minimalist not for art's sake, but because no one could be bothered to take the time. (Again from music, Merle Haggard's 1994 and 1996 covers.) We all know that the cover can draw a reader in. If even the publisher doesn't make the effort, why should I as a reader?

Publishers seem to feel they can get away with this, and in some ways they can - when I buy a Sheri Tepper reissue from Amazon, it doesn't show the crappy e-book cover. Instead, it shows the original, attractive paperback artwork. It's only when I've downloaded the book and opened it that I find I've been cheated.

That's a serious error. First, of course, making your reader feel cheated is not a good way to bring him back for more. Much as I associated Del Rey with Darrell Sweet covers, I now associate Harper Collins e-books with 'We don't give a damn' covers. Second, though, is that I, and many others, rely on covers in sorting and managing our books, and in choosing something to read. No matter how much I like Sheri Tepper's books, when I'm choosing my next book, those high-school-intern e-covers hint "Not as good as you remember. Maybe later." That's hugely unfair to Tepper, whose books are in fact as good as I remember.

This is a problem that's not hard to overcome mentally, but I have over a thousand unread books on my Nook, several dozen of which are in the 'read me now' portion of my brain. Any little thing helps make that choice easier - even when I know it's unfair.I solve the problem by editing in the original cover and tossing the crappy ones, but I resent the time and effort.

So, with all that, this is my wake up call to publishers: Take your reissues seriously. Because if you don't, we won't.

What are some of your favorite and least-favorite e-book covers?

01 March 2014


After two years waiting for Google Sites to activate its built-in comments feature for site visitors, I've given up. I haven't gone far, however. I've shifted the site to a Blogger platform. I hope that will allow for a little more interaction with visitors without too many drawbacks.

So far, in fact, all looks good. There will be a little tweaking over the next few days that will no doubt affect the site's look, and the gadgets available. Mainly, though, I look forward to finally being able to hear from you!