Are we already living in the technological singularity?

news has been turning into science fiction for a while now. TVs that watch the watcher, growing tiny kidneys, 3D printing, the car of tomorrow, Amazon’s fleet of delivery drones – so many news stories now “sound like science fiction” that the term returns 1,290,000 search results on Google.

The pace of technological innovation is accelerating so quickly that it’s possible to perform this test in reverse. Google an imaginary idea from science fiction and you’ll almost certainly find scientists researching the possibility. Warp drive? The Multiverse? A space elevator to the stars? Maybe I can formulate this as Walter’s law – “Any idea described in sci-fi will on a long enough timescale be made real by science.”

Read more @ The Guardian

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The improvised word leaves space for you

Improvisation is a powerful part of art. Dancers, musicians and actors – those things we name the performing arts – all learn to improvise as part of their craft. Their work is temporal and transient. Once the move or note is performed it is gone forever.  A recording of Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue is only a representation. To experience the real thing you need to see the artist live.

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned and ran a jazz bar before he began to write. Murakami’s books have an improvised feel, and it’s something he often touches on when interviewed. 1Q84 – Murakami’s recent three volume novel – has the structure of a thriller. There’s an assassination, a private detective, a stake out. But it’s a thriller written by Murakami (who happens to also make it a homage to Marcel Proust) so like no other thriller ever written.

Eleanor Catton is my favourite new writer for a long time. We need many more people in this world willing to say that creation is divine. In this interview for The Guardian she talks about the process of writing The Luminaries. It’s a mystery, that Catton made up scene by scene, by asking at each point what a reader might enjoy reading. That’s the heart of improvisation – being open to what comes in the moment.

Improvising doesn’t mean just making up anything. Neither is it an excuse for poor quality art. To improvise you need great expertise. You need to have internalised the structures of your art to such an extent that you can work them without conscious thought. That’s hard. It takes time and practice but also immense openness and trust. Because yes, you might fail.

When you plan, what is it you want? And which part of you wants it? Planning is an intellectual exercise. It pleases your mind to plan things out, because then your mind can be satisfied that everything is going to go as planned. Your mind doesn’t like uncertainty. It doesn’t like the possibility of failure. But without that possibility, there is no chance of success. You have to be wary of your minds motives. “I have to pay the rent this month” isn’t a thought that is going to help you create, however true it may be.

This isn’t an entry in the debate between outlining vs. not outlining a book. I don’t care, whichever is better for you. But be aware that both can be done either from grace or from fear. A fearful outline will try and fill in all the space that your imagination needs to improvise in. A graceful outline will focus much more on establishing narrative dynamics than plotting. Refusing to outline can be it’s own kind of fear, rejecting the mind’s technical knowledge, without which the imagination can create nothing tangible. “I don’t need to learn anything to be creative” is one of the first barriers hopeful creators will need to get over.

The beauty of improvisation in any creative act is that it allows us to experience the world as YOU see it. Write a thriller, that’s a great structure. But write YOUR thriller. Write a space opera or an epic fantasy, there are rich images and symbols in there to explore, but make them yours. That’s a scary thing to do. We might all see what an oddball you are! But for everything person who turns away, you’ll find many other who love you for being yourself.

A Nebula award shortlist that makes me feel good about SF

The Nebula award shortlists have just been announced by the Science Fiction Writers of America. And they are excellent. Focusing on Best Novel…

  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review)
  • Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
  • Hild, Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
  • A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
  • The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Harper)

This contains three of my favourite books of the year by authors Neil Gaiman, Nicola Griffith and Helene Wecker.  The Golem and The Jinni in particular is a wonderful, wonderful novel that I cannot recommend highly enough. Go and read it!

Quick thought experiment. Apply the common (and deeply flawed) definition of “Hard SF” that many of the field’s awards have fallen in to the trap of applying.  It’s likely that Wecker, Samatar, Griffith and Gaiman would be excluded, and the award would be far less rich and less representative of the best the SF field has to offer.

The SFWA has been at the centre of numerous difficult stories this year. But it’s worth noting that the organisation taken as a whole is standing right at the forefront of diversity of all kinds in science fiction and deserves wide recognition and applause for that.

See the full Nebula award nominees here.

Welcome to viral book selling

UPDATE:  sadly Baboon Fart Story reached #9 on the narrower >General bestseller list, selling a mere 21 copies before being pulled by amazon. But still an interesting example of a book catching some viral publicity.

Today a book called Baboon Fart Story climbed to #9 on the Amazon bestseller list. The book featured the word “fart” over and over again and a cover featuring a baboon drinking its own pee. This “book” began its life as a rhetorical device in a blog post, an example to demonstrate that anyone can put any book on Amazon they like. Some bloke took the idea seriously and made it real. And, low and behold, as such things are want to do, it caught a wave of viral publicity and sold some copies.

At which point Amazon took it down. Disproving the original idea that Amazon will sell any old shit. But demonstrating a much more interesting truth.

There’s been much talk about the Amazon ebook marketplace this week. Primarily because of Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” report. With some scraped data from Amazon, Howey publicised what is already a pretty well documented fact. A relatively large number of writers are making quite large sums of money, almost overnight, by selling their indie published ebooks direct to readers. There has been wailing and gnashing of teeth, focused on whether Howey’s stats are correct. All of which neatly avoids actually asking what the hell is happening over in the jungles of indie ebook publishing.

What’s happening is that the dynamics of viral publicity and marketing which rule on video sites like YouTube, and on “news” sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, are arriving in the world of book selling. The books selling on Amazon aren’t quite the same books selling in bookshops. Oh, the big bestsellers like George R R Martin are there. But alongside Game of Thrones are books like The Atlantis Gene by A G Riddle. You know what you’re getting with The Atlantis Gene. Because everyone has heard of Atlantis. It doesn’t matter that the book reads like it’s been written by a twelve year old who has never read a book. Because most readers aren’t going to read it. They’re just buying something for a few quid that happens to look interesting. Crazy cat videos don’t have Hollywood production values either. It doesn’t matter, their viral marketability does not rest in their high quality.

There are two ways of looking at this viral quality that the Amazon ebook marketplace brings to book selling. One is that it undermines quality and the hard work of talented writers. Well, I guess that is true to an extent. But. The other is that writers now have a fairly solid digital marketplace where they can make money. IF they understand, and are willing to work with, the dynamics of that marketplace. So it’s not the right place to launch your intense literary masterpiece. But it might be the right place to bang out some cheesy but fun action oriented fantasy novellas and make a bit of money selling them to help fund your serious work.

Are you doubting this is possible? Remember, today a book with a peeing baboon on the cover made it big. If you’re a talented writer, why not use your talents to exploit a rich marketplace like this? Why not experiment with new kinds of story that engage the kind of casual but numerous readers the Kindle store attracts? Perhaps the question isn’t “does this undermine quality”, but do you have the chops to make quality writing that works in this space? Thought of as that kind of challenge, the reason so many writers are excited about ebooks becomes clear.

You are not going to improve the world

Human beings are largely engaged in wasting enormous amounts of psychic energy in attempting to do things that are quite impossible. All sensible people therefore begin in life with two fundamental suppositions. You are not going to improve the world. And you are not going to improve your self. You are just what you are. And once you have accepted that situation, you have an enormous amount of energy available to do things that can be done. And everybody else looking at you from an external point of you will say “My god, how much so-and-so has improved!”

Alan Watts in discussion on the veil of thought. Listen to the full talk.

Self-publishing: is it killing the mainstream?

Brenna Aubrey self-published her debut romance novel At Any Price on the Amazon Kindle on 9 December 2013. One month later At Any Price had netted a total profit of £16,588. Aubrey’s success is far from unique – 2013 was a breakout year for “indie authors” led by the phenomenal success of Hugh Howey. But Aubrey is among the first in a wave of authors to do what, until very recently, would have been unthinkable; turn down a $120,000 (£72,000) deal from one of the big five publishing houses and decide to do their job herself.

Read more Self-publishing: is it killing the mainstream? | Books | theguardian.com.

The Principle of Digital Abundance – thoughts on author earnings

Hugh Howey has caused a brand new stir in the writing and publishing world with the Author Earnings report. If you don’t know, Howey is one of the most significant breakout “indie authors” of recent years. Now he’s disrupting the industry in a much more direct way with Author Earnings. Both Amazon and the Big 5 publishers are obscure about ebook sales. Author Earnings jumps through a few hoops (which no doubt data analysts will pick apart) to arrive at some…interesting…ebook sales figures for the Kindle platform.

Traditional authors being screwed by their publishers.

First, let’s be clear. This data is pretty shonky. There’s no real way to tell how accurate it is. But, in the absence of transparency from the industry itself (either Amazon of the Big 5) it’s the best data we writers have access to. And the story it tells is shocking. Many people like myself who have closely observed the rise of the indie revolution in ebooks suspected this story, but it’s never been so starkly drawn as in this report’s bar graphs and pie charts.

The headline of the Author Earnings report should be something like “INDIE AUTHORS BEATING MAJOR PUBLISHERS BLOODY IN GENRE E-BOOK SALES” with the sub-heading “Traditional authors being screwed by their publishers.” That’s the story Howey sketches out, with some illuminating stats in support. 39% of daily unit sales in ebook genre bestsellers are indie published. THIRTY FUCKING NINE PERCENT. Before ebooks and Kindle, that figure for books as a whole would have been effectively 0%. If you had told any professional in publishing that 39% of any of its markets would be taken over by self-published writers, they would have laughed at you. Can you imagine if TESCO and Sainsbury’s (UK supermarket chains) lost 39% of their market share to people selling groceries from a table at the end of their garden? That is effectively what has happened to publishers in ebooks. Even more revealing, statistics suggest that publishers make twice as much on every ebook sold than the author does. Maybe publishers merit that level of renumeration. But the growing numbers of writers choosing the indie publishing route suggests that many writers don’t feel that is the case.

I do part company with Howey’s interpretation of the Author Earnings data in many places. Most significantly, I think Howey is guilty of wishful thinking in his narrative for why ebook sales are so strong in the established commercial genres like Mystery and Sci-Fi.

“What this chart shows is that indie and small-publisher titles dominate the bestselling genres on Amazon. We can clearly see that the demand from readers for more of these works is not being fully met by traditional publishing. Among the advice given to aspiring writers, you’ll often hear: “Write in the correct genre.” And here we see the sales-potential of that advice.”

via The Report – Author Earnings.

Howey believes that there is a vast demand for these genres among readers. And while I’m certainly not questioning the popularity of genre fiction, I think this is a simplistic mis-reading of the real changes afoot in ebooks.

What I believe is happening is better explained by the “principle of digital abundance“. When you take a physical product – a book for instance – and make it digital, you fundamentally change the economics of that product. Physical books are scarce. Even in the era of mass-paperbacks, their availability is limited. Digital books are abundant. They are unlimited. And the economics of abundance simply does not play by the same rules as the economics of scarcity.

The potential readership of ebooks is also abundant. Not unlimited, but in such large numbers it can almost be considered as such. Ebooks sell through smartphones and tablets, computers and the internet. Integrating ebooks in to the digital marketplaces of Amazon, Apple and Google has made them a mass consumer item in a way they simply weren’t through bookshops. And the lower prices of ebooks at £1-£3 makes them impulse buys. Pull this together and you have a vastly increased book buying public measured, not in millions, but billions of people. The digital market for ebooks is a massive boomtown. And it’s also something of a jungle, that magnifies the commercial pressures of the pre-existing print market.

Genres work as a marketing tool in print because they hook buyers who aren’t experts on books. This effect is vastly magnified in ebooks because so much of the expanded audience are only occasional readers. They’re people browsing the Amazon store on their iPad and impulse purchasing, not just books but many things. “oh a book about Atlantis for 99p…buy!” And with literally billions of people doing this, it’s hardly surprising that a lot of writers as selling a lot of books. What’s notable about the books that sell in digital markets isn’t so much genre as …bluntness. These are books that “do what it says on the tin”. And the tin is very clearly labelled. The inexpert approach of indie writers is actually a massive advantage to the current wave succeeding with ebooks, because they see this market much as their inexpert readers do, and write books to suit.

As the ebook market matures, it will have to steadily rise in quality or collapse.

Ebooks are currently a very immature marketplace. And another untold story from Hugh Howey’s report is that it might also be a very short lived one, unless it can tackle its quality control crisis. Howey’s explanation for the high demand for genre books suggests a huge number of very satisfied readers finally getting the books they had hungered for. My alternate explanation suggests a lot of new, inexperienced readers in a marketplace flooded with shoddily written, knock-offs of better books, churned out at a ridiculous speed by writers with little skill or insight to share. What Chuck Wendig calls the “Shit Volcano” of self-publishing. We’re in a phase where contributing to the “Shit Volcano” can make you some cash. It would be very naive to interpret this data as meaning that will always be the case. As the ebook market matures, it will have to steadily rise in quality or collapse. If the Author Earnings report data isn’t all solid fact, the need for quality certainly is.

Publishers have missed the boat on digital genre fiction

Publishers are making moves to exploit the success of genres like romance and sci-fi in digital book sales onplatforms like the Amazon Kindle.

“Certain categories [of eBooks] have a much larger digital adoption than others,” Dobson said. “The genres were among the first where readers took to the digital format and the ratio of readers of digital, as opposed to physical, are much, much higher.” In the case of some genre titles, as much as 60 to 70 percent of the sales are digital. “I think there is an enormous audience in digital right now,” Dobson said. “It’s actually where the action is.”

This is quoted from an interesting Wired article on the subject. But it’s an article which completely misses the real meat of the argument. The big 5 publishers are being beaten bloody in ebooks by a merry band of self-published authors lead by the likes of Hugh Howey. Zip over to Amazon and take a look at the top seller lists in any established genre. You’ll find two kinds of writer. established big hitters like George R R Martin. And a whole bunch of indie authors you have never heard of, but are making small fortunes selling genre books directly to a hungry audience. What you won’t find are mid-list and debut authors from traditional publishers. And that must worry many people in the industry. Hence the rush to mine the rich seem of genre fiction.

Read the full Wired article.

Everything that’s wrong with the Men’s Rights movement summarised

I had been ignoring the Men’s Rights movement as one of the many pointless things that finds a space on the internet, until I wrote about the male bias in geek culture recently. That column for The Guardian produced a torrent of bile from hundreds of male commenters. Many identified as Men’s Rights activists. The whole thing was an excellent insight in to the deeply dysfunctional and immature psychology of many young – and not so young – men today.

The problem lies in how MRAs react to feminism. They see people talking about women’s issues and their reaction is not one of empathy. It is always, “What about us? Bad stuff happens to us too.”

That’s from this interesting post by The Frogman, who has spent some time interacting with the Men’s Rights movement and, in response to an anonymous comment on his blog, produces this excellent summary of everything that is wrong with the Men’s Rights movement.

I’ve been to the forums. I’ve interacted with the people. I’ve tried to give the men’s rights movement a chance. Unfortunately the people involved are much more concerned about derailing and dismantling feminism than actually solving any of those issues. As if they can’t make any progress until feminism is destroyed.

And.

If the MRAs continue to derail every conversation by making it about them, they are not going to be taken seriously. There is plenty of space to talk about men’s issues. They don’t need to invade the space of feminism to be heard. And if they keep thinking women are the enemy, even though women are actually trying to make progress with some of the very issues you mentioned, they aren’t going to have much luck actually solving anything they care about.

What saddened me about the response of the self-identified “geek males” I engaged in discussion was how utterly blind they were to the common ground they share with feminism. Young men who talked about how they had been bullied and beaten at school, couldn’t see that the corrupt, patriarchal system feminism seeks to dismantle is the same system oppressing both women and men. If MR activists need to learn one thing, it’s that feminists aren’t the enemy.

(I think MRAs need to learn more than one thing, but that would be a start.)

THE GOLEM AND THE DJINNI – a masterpiece of fantasy literature

Unforgettable images shimmer from the pages of The Golem and the Djinni. A palace of glass and gold glittering in the Syrian desert. The bustle and heartbeat of New York in 1899, populated with a cast of intriguing characters, two of them creatures of magic. Chava is a golem crafted by a rogue rabbi, her intended master dead and buried at sea, she is free to do as she wills. Ahmad is a djinni, a spirit of fire and of the desert, trapped in human form by a bracelet of iron. Both must confront the same question; what is the price of freedom when you have been created only to serve the will of others? Around this theme Helene Wecker’s debut novel crafts an unforgettable fantasy story. The Golem and the Djinni takes us deep in to the immigrant experience of 19th century America, and the contrasting cultures of Judaism and Islam that meet there. But the grand themes never overwhelm the human story that Wecker weaves from the lives of two quite inhuman characters. Comparisons with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell come easily, but Weckers novel achieves a depth of meaning and human emotion that Clarke’s work never truly touched. The Golem and the Djinni is a masterpiece of fantasy literature that readers will discover with joy for many years to come.

Originally published in SFX magazine.

Eleanor Catton debunks the idea that literature is elitist

Eleanor Catton is a very powerful writer. What do I mean by powerful? Writers don’t command armies, head governments or lead major corporations. No writer I know can leap a tall building in a single bound. Many, in fact, struggle to get up from awkwardly low seating. And yet writers do have very great power, when they choose to wield it.

Writers tell the truth.

Having put that there, on its own line, as a baldly contentious statement, let me take a few sentences to unpick it. Which is a good word. Writers unpick the truth. They take a bundle of contradictory and confusing ideas – like a ball of yarn that has got all tangled up – and untangle the threads so we can see them clearly.

Elitism is a tangled mess of ideas if ever there was one. Literature is another mess of often contradictory things. Jumble the two together and you end up with such a dense conceptual mass that very people will be able to make sense of it. Eleanor Catton is one of those very few people. And writing for Metro NZ, in a bare few hundred words, she unpicks the yarn ball of literary elitism so that we can all look at it clearly.

These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.

Catton begins her short essay by talking about elitism. And the way that complex writing, using “difficult” words like “crepuscular”, attracts accusations of elitism. But it’s when Catton tugs on the thread of consumerism that the issue of literary elitism begins to unravel. We think of writing that we don’t understand as being elitist. But this is only because we have been trained to think of literature as a product of consumerism.

Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.

Books are not chocolate bars. Books are not fashion clothing. Books are not motor cars. Or blockbuster movies. Literature is not a consumer good. It is, in Catton’s words, an encounter. The most crude and ridiculous sign of treating literature like a consumer good are the 5 star rating systems employed on Amazon and elsewhere.

All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat.

Here Catton hands the reader / consumer a chance to think about literature in a quite different way. A book is like a relationsip. You encounter a book in the same way you encounter any person who becomes important in your life : parents, friends, lovers, even enemies. And of course this can only be true. Books come bubbling up from the deep imagination of other humans, they are about the deep emotional experience of being human, of being alive. How can you treat this like a can of coke?

The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient. These negative appraisals are rarely developed beyond, “If I had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, it would have been better.” I am always tempted to reply: “If you had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, you would have been better.”

Here is Catton’s trump card. She may be tempted to say it, I often find myself actually saying it. Literature isn’t there to entertain you. Any more than your friends, parents, lovers or anyone else in the world exists to serve your needs. These are all things that you relate to. And you are responsible for the health of all you relationships.

I highly recommend reading Catton’s essay in full. Then take some time to unpick the complex problem of literary elitism for yourself. Stop thinking about literature as a consumer good, and start thinking about it as an encounter. And then see if what once seemed like elitism, starts to look like something quite different.

Forget Iron Man-child – let’s fight the white maleness of geek culture

Fantasy has become a sandbox for immature masculinity. What kinds of stories could we tell if our writers tackled the hard truths of male identity and privilege?

The coming year threatens to be another period of white, male heroism in geek culture. Another summer of superpowered men in the cinema. Another year with only 4% of video games having female lead characters. Another year where a list of 30 hotly anticipated fantasy novels lists only seven by women, and only one by a writer of colour, where a science fiction shortlist with two women out of five is greeted as some kind of victory.

Money is the bottom line in the uniform white maleness of geek culture. The entertainment conglomerates that produce most of this content fear the female geek because they might disturb the profit margins. Boys buy more toys. And so the evil eye of corporate marketing departments is fixed upon them.

Read more @ Guardian books.