Can sci-fi ever not be political?

When is a giant lizard not a giant lizard? When it’s a metaphor for the might of the military-industrial complex. Audiences turning up for the latest cinematic incarnation of Godzilla have expressed some disappointment that much of the battling kaiju action was kept off screen. In its place director Gareth Edwards makes the smart decision to tinker with the kaleidoscopic political meanings that surround the giant lizard.

What Edwards chooses to place front and centre are the twin legacies the second world war foisted on modern society – nuclear weapons and the United States military in all its glory. By the end of the movie we’re left in no doubt that, whatever risks they pose, we need the monstrous forces mankind can control to defend us from the monstrous forces – be they real or imagined – we cannot. Audiences want sci-fi to entertain us, but even blockbuster movies come loaded with political messages.

In recent months the community of science fiction readers and writers has been embroiled in an escalating war of words over the genre’s political soul, catalysed by the nominations for this year’s Hugo awards. Allegations of bloc-voting arose as a slate of little-known writers appeared among the nominees, after a concerted campaign by a small group of writers to get the books on the ballot.

Read more @ Guardian books.


A modest proposal to combat Amazon (oh and piracy)

My last post on Amazon for a little while, I promise. As previously noted Amazon have cornered the digital marketplace for ebooks, which has the potential to mean the end of booksellers and publishers as we know them. Once Amazon have destroyed the industry infrastructure, there is little doubt they will bring down the 70% royalty rate offered to authors at this time.

Nothing is going to stop writers writing and readers reading. But a future where all writers are under the thumb of one giant technology company is one I would rather not see. There is of course an obvious solution – establish an alternative ebook marketplace. But displacing an incumbent business with a $70 billion turnover is no easy task. Here is my modest suggestion for how it might be achieved.

1. Establish an online digital library. This library has two goals i) to provide a universal library – free to access – of all published texts. ii) To support the livelihood of the writers who create those texts.

2. Any writer may place their texts in the digital library. They agree to make the text freely available to all through the library. In return they receive data on all readers of their book. Library loans are limited to around 2-3 at a time.

3. Texts are sold through the library at prices set by their author. The author receives a 90% royalty on all sales. 10% of all sale revenue is used to support the trust managing the library.

And that’s it. A universal library, a stable market for writers, and a self-sustaining way to limit the disruption of technology companies like Amazon on the development of human knowledge and learning. Oh and it would effectively kill ebook piracy as well. Why not?

Why Author Earnings makes sense

Hugh Howey and his team have published the latest Author Earnings update. And the story, as with all previous updates, is that self-published authors (working primarily through the Amazon Kindle marketplace) are doing very nicely thank you. In fact, much better than debut authors published by the Big 5.

The data and methodology used to arrive at these conclusions is questionable to say the least. There’s no reason to believe that any of the numbers presented by the Author Earnings team are accurate. For many, that is reason enough to dismiss the narrative they build on that data. That does however still leave us with an apparently large number of self-published authors making significant sums of money. So Author Earnings saving grace is that it provides a narrative for an existing phenomenon, a narrative that is currently unchallenged.

I’m interested in the phenomenon of self-published authors because it mirrors a much wider trend across the creative industries. Consider the rise of make-up and beauty video bloggers on YouTube. Until recently, the only way to make a living as a television presenter was to work for a major media corporation. Now a relatively large cohort of people are making quite a lot of money presenting their own YouTube videos. Also until recently, if you wanted to make a living as a tutor you needed to work for a large educational establishment. Now you can build courses on Udemy or Udacity and sell them directly to students. With $99 courses frequently attracting 2000 or more students, successful tutors are earning significantly more than a teaching position might offer. And in fact this trend stretches across the creative industries, from crafts people establishing businesses on Etsy, to graphic and web designers working through online marketplaces like Envato. Join these dots together and you have an observable trend towards digital marketplaces that offer an alternative outlet – and income – for creatives.

So it makes perfect sense that writers would also be effected by this trend. In fact it would be strange if there was not an Amazon Kindle marketplace, or equivalent, where writers were selling their wares directly. To this extent the narrative of self-published success put forward by Author Earnings is entirely consistent with the broader trends reflected across creative industries as they are impacted by new digital technology.

While these are very positive developments for creatives of all kinds, it’s worth considering what the current limitations of success in a digital marketplace are, and how these will likely apply to the success of self-pubished writers. A successful YouTube video does not make you Oprah Winfrey, and a successful self-published novel does not make you Stephen King. There are long term structural benefits to being recognised within an industry, that success in a digital marketplace does little or nothing to confer. The viral popularity that drives sales in a digital marketplace is immensely transient. It’s not so much come today gone tomorrow as here one minute gone the next. These digital marketplaces are unregulated. When Udemy reduced its payment to tutors to 50% for internal sales, there was no recourse for tutors whose incomes were slashed. And there won’t be any recourse for authors when Amazon lowers its 70% royalty rate.

There’s every reason to think that the digital marketplace – whether run by Amazon or another player – is here to stay for self-published authors. But it’s essential to recognise the limitations of that market along with the strengths.

Amazon is not a bookseller, and why that matters for writers

Technology behemoth Amazon is in the firing line of publishers, authors and the combined might of the literary world again today. Like the ultimate alpha predator Godzilla on a rampage across Tokyo, Amazon crushes a little bit more of the publishing industry just by moving. And it’s about as worried by the protests of writers as Godzilla is by tank-fire.

Amazon’s crime is pretty heinous this time. After a squabble with the publisher Hachette, one of the big beasts of the industry, Amazon is “disappearing” Hachette authors – up to and including J K Rowling herself – from their website. And it seems there is very little either Hachette or the authors can do about it. But heinous as this is, it really should come as no surprise. These are exactly the kinds of practices marketplaces have always used to squeeze the most possible profit out of their sellers.

Amazon is being widely criticised for operating unethically as a bookseller. Amazon may or may not be unethical. What they certainly are not, any longer, is a bookseller. Continuing to think of Amazon as a bookseller is a major part of the reason so many publishers and writers struggle to understand Amazon’s actions, or see them coming.

Amazon were a bookseller. That kookie seeming company that people started mail ordering books from back in the mid 1990s. I remember the first time I bought a bunch of books from them, having to pay in dollars on my card. It felt like that company really loved books. Of course we all know Amazon grew, and started selling all kinds of other things. Media, electronics, and ultimately anything that could be retailed. As Amazon grew, its presence in the world of book-selling grew disproportionately. Publishing is a relatively small industry. Amazon isn’t just a big fish in that small pond any more. It’s a Godzilla trying to swim in a puddle.

Amazons insight was that ebooks would require a marketplace.

The tipping point that transformed Amazon from bookseller to book marketplace was the introduction of it’s very, very savvy Kindle ebook platform. To be clear, the Kindle is not the e-ink reader device Amazon sells. Kindle is the entire ecosystem that allows a person to buy an ebook and then read it on their computer, phone or tablet. Amazon timed Kindle perfectly for the proliferation of such devices. And it engineered Kindle ideally so that publishers and also, significantly, writers themselves, could sell their books through their new marketplace.

Marketplaces have been integral to commerce for as long as humans have bought and sold, bartered and traded. Imagine you are a farmer with a crop of cereal. You can try setting up a stall on your farm to sell your stock. But unless you are blessed with a throng of visitors, you won’t do very well. To sell your crops you have to take them to the marketplace. Because that’s where the buyers are. And the buyers are there because it’s convenient. Instead of taking dozens of journeys to dozens of farms, each buyer makes one journey to the marketplace and gets all the things they want. And the person who establishes the marketplace gets very rich, because in one way or another, they get a share of every transaction.

Amazon’s insight was that ebooks would require a marketplace. This is counterintuitive at first. Surely its as easy for people to visit any given website with just a few mouse clicks? Readers could easily buy ebooks directly from publishers. Most publishers have their own ebook store. Few of them do significant business. Many authors sell ebooks directly through their websites, very few sell many, and none the kind of stratospheric numbers writers can potentially sell through the Kindle marketplace.

Convenience. Giving your credit card details to a new vendor is inconvenient. Downloading an ebook to your computer then finagling it on to each device you might want to read it on is inconvenient. Not having the ebook sync to the same page on each device is inconvenient. If you don’t know what book you want, looking at lots of different unrelated websites is inconvenient. If you want to see annotations made by other readers of the books, a normal ebook won’t do that. Inconvenient. The list goes on. Lots of small inconveniences. Most of which, the Kindle marketplace solves. It doesn’t solve them simply to provide a good experience. It solves them so that cumulatively, Amazon ends up owning the marketplace for ebooks.

Marketplaces make money from their sellers, who in turn make money from their buyers. Amazon’s profits in the book marketplace turn on exerting as much power as possible over sellers – who in the digital marketplace are now the publishers themselves. It’s not Waterstones or Barnes & Noble uploading ebook files to the Kindle marketplace. It’s publishers themselves laying out their wares on the stalls of Amazon’s marketplace. And it’s publishers being gouged in exactly the way all marketplaces have always gouged their sellers.

In the conflict between Hachette and Amazon the question is not which side to take, but how to keep the competition going.

A traditional marketplace will often choose to sell from a number of stalls itself. This allows the marketplace to negotiate relationships with suppliers. If one seller is doing well with melons, the marketplace can offer the melon farmer a marginally better price, and scoop the profits. Which is exactly what Amazon are doing by establishing publishing imprints within its own marketplace. What’s important to understand here is that Amazon has no real interest in being a publisher. But by owning a few of the publishers that sell through its marketplace, Amazon wields greater control over all of the others. Similarly, Amazon has no real interest in fulfilling the creative ambitions of the thousands of “indie authors” self publishing their books in their marketplace. But it has served to strengthen their marketplace to offer independents, for now, a very good rate on their wares. A traditional marketplace might do very much the same thing, burning the major landowners it does most of its business with by letting the small holders trade on better terms. Historically however, these conditions are temporary, and when they snap back, the small holders are wiped out. When Amazon reduce their 70% royalty to 50, or 20, or 5%, you’ll see the same misery among writers as when small holders are forced off their land.

Unless writers – who are the producers of all the goods that both publishers as sellers and Amazon as marketplace rely on – begin to think seriously and act collectively to ensure their interests. The battle between Hachette and Amazon, and the wider conflict between publishers and Amazon, is a conflict between sellers and the marketplace. Neither side is good or evil. They are business entities, which do what business entities do, which is to act selfishly in their own interests at all times and in all things. The competition between publishers and Amazon is actually very good for writers – it is raising advances and adding new income sources for writers as the sellers and the marketplace compete for the goods they supply. In the conflict between publishers and Amazon the question is not which side to take, but how to keep Godzilla and Gojira fighting as long as possible. At the point one side wins, writers will face harder days again.

Only a creator culture can save us

We’re trying to rebuild a failed consumer culture. We need to make a new creator culture instead.

Published in Culture – A Reader for Writers, editor John Mauk, Oxford University Press.

I arrived in Leicester in the late ‘90s as a student, a year after losing my mother to cancer. Having little support, I worked my way through university as a street sweeper, a factory worker, a waiter, a barman, a door-to-door salesman, a cleaner, recycling operative and grill chef. I wanted to be a writer but that seemed like an unattainable dream at the time. A few years later I began working for Leicester’s library service as a literature development worker.

The first initiative I ran was a project to gather the reminiscences of senior citizens. There I was, in my mid-20s, in the meeting room of an older persons’ lunch club. I had a circle of plastic stacking chairs, paper, pens and a dozen volunteers, most of them past their 80th birthday. At the time, I could manage (as I still can) a good line in cocky arrogance. I told everyone how things were going to be and what the project was going to achieve. We were to capture voices from under-represented stakeholders in the local community, thereby encouraging social cohesion. I hadn’t yet learnt that the language of Arts Council England funding bids doesn’t mean much to normal people. Patient smiles greeted my words.

After a long pause, a woman in her 90s started to speak. She had grown up in a children’s home in Leicester, she told us. She had been abused by her father and then by another man at the home. She had worked in factories when she was old enough. Her husband died young, and so did her son. It took her half an hour to say this much. At the end, she said she’d never told anyone about her life before.

I was, in retrospect, unprepared for that project in every possible way. I spent the next fortnight doing a lot of listening and transcribing. The other stories were no easier to hear. Child abuse, abhorred in today’s media, was so prevalent in the industrial communities of England before the Second World War that it had passed almost without comment.

We published a small pamphlet of writing from the project. It seemed puny and easily ignored, but it meant a great deal to the group. There was even a small reception to launch it. A few friends and relatives and a dignitary from the local council came along to enjoy the municipally funded wine and nibbles. The storytellers themselves had all made new friends, and had kept busy instead of sitting idle in care homes. They had had a chance to speak. And a few people had listened.

It would take me the best part of a decade to really understand why that was important.

In dozens of projects and hundreds of workshops, I tried to help people to develop everything from basic literacy to advanced creative writing skills. I worked with teenagers from local schools, who loved vampire novels and wrote their own hip-hop lyrics but said they didn’t like English, until you told them that Mary Shelley was the first goth and ‘rap’ stood for ‘Rhythmic American Poetry’. I worked with groups of factory workers and people caught in mind-numbing call-centre jobs who just wanted to find something, anything, to show that they were worth more than that. I sat in on daylong symposia of Urdu verse and learnt what it is to have Hindu and Muslim communities talk to each other through poetry. I ran projects with drug users and mental health service users, often the same people. A lot of these people were young men, my own age, from roughly the same background as me. I started to see how real the gaps in society are, and how easy they are to fall through.

Any act that helps to empower a person creatively can ignite the imaginative spark without which life of any kind struggles

This all happened in a midlands city of 330,000 people. Leicester now has the third-largest Hindu community in England and Wales, as well as substantial Muslim, Black African, Somali, Polish and Chinese populations. In the late 1800s it was an industrial powerhouse, the hosiery capital of Europe. By the start of the 20th century, it was home to some of the poorest wards in Britain. Throughout the industrial revolution, it had sucked in thousands of rural labourers to man its factories. When the factories closed, that population, lacking any history of education or development, was abandoned, left to subsist on state benefits and lower-than-minimum-wage jobs on huge sink estates. Decades later, many are still there.

I honestly have no idea, beyond individual stories, if the creativity work I did had any real effect. I still get emails from one or two of the school kids I worked with: they’ve gone on to write their own sci-fi books. But there’s a guilt trap in almost any job where the aim is to help other people. Human need is infinite, and you quickly learn the limits of what can be achieved, or else you break from the pressure of attempting the impossible.

Even so, what I did see again and again was the real difference that a sliver of creative life can make, even to people in the worst circumstances. I saw it most often through the discipline of writing, and I think that the written word makes a good route for many people. But any act that helps to empower a person creatively can ignite the imaginative spark without which life of any kind struggles — and in many senses fails even to begin.

The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

Neal Stephenson – legendary author of speculative fiction –  on Elon Musk and geek culture, the  NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, how negative cultural narratives are killing big science  – and the upbringing that made him the writer he is.

“I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird.”

~ Neal Stephenson.

IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks, Stephenson’s collected non-fiction writing, was due for release in the UK and I was fascinated to talk to the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon about his wider views of science, technology and contemporary culture. It happened that the interview came just at the time that CLANG, the innovative sword fighting game that Neal had championed to successful Kickstarter funding, hit a few kinks in its development.  Our interview took a few twists and turns, but came out full of interesting insights in to the author’s thoughts and creative development. But, as sometimes happens with interviews, our discussion didn’t quite match the focus the commissioning technology publication had been looking for.  And so, after some consideration, I’ve rescued the interview from editorial limbo to publish here in full.  I hope you enjoy reading it.

Damien Walter, 2014

DW – Your non-fiction writing collected in Some Remarks displays the same fascination with technology and social change as your novels, I think that’s fair to say? Where did this fascination begin?

seveneves NS – One of the items in Some Remarks is a foreword to the posthumous re-issue of David Foster Wallace’s book Everything and More, in which I try to make the case that DFW’s work is informed by a particular sensibility peculiar to what I call the Midwestern American College Town,  or MACT. I won’t try to recapitulate that argument here, but the gist of it is that I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird. I suppose we all have such insights when we move away from the place of our upbringing. My ancestors had been ministers, professors – or ministers and professors – for several generations back. That’s in the paternal line. On the maternal side, they were reasonably well-to-do farmers with a direct and recent connection to Geraldine Jewsbury, a very complicated Victorian author. By the way, I didn’t know about any of that when I was young, I only became aware of it in my twenties and thirties. But one assumes it has an effect.

Anyway, during the 20th century they all made a turn toward science and technology and so I ended up with a lot of academic scientists and engineers in my family. I grew up in a MACT, dominated by a university of science and technology, wherein our neighbors, the people we saw at church, the parents of my friends, etc. all tended to have (or to be studying for) Ph.Ds. Some of my friends’ fathers had worked on the Manhattan Project, and as a teenager I worked summers as a research assistant in an old Manhattan Project lab. I developed a fairly typical nerdy fascination with computers and programming, which showed up in my fiction, particularly Snow Crash; and when that book became popular among high tech people, I ended up knowing many such.

DW – How did this upbringing contribute to your talent for seeing the “big picture” of technology?

NS – To the extent that I have any talent for it, it presumably arises from the fact that I never recognized any meaningful division or conflict between science and technology on the one hand, and any other aspect of culture (literature, religion) on the other. The typical MACT is too small to allow for specialization, and so if the professors are going to have cultural events they must organize them themselves, rather than delegating the work to a separate cultural elite. Again, all of this was simply the air I breathed, and I didn’t become conscious of it until later in life.

DW – The MACT sounds like much the kind of place where many young science fiction fans came of age. Today scifi and “geek culture” are arguably the new mainstream culture of the internet connected generation. How do you rate its influence on your work?

NS – Re scifi/geek culture, this is something that I grew up with, just as a historical accident. I can still remember seeing The Hobbit for the first time, in the hands of an older boy at my school when I was in the sixth grade. This was at about the same time that I was obsessing over the original Star Trek series and watching Astro Boy cartoons. Today, of course, we would identify all of these as being touchstones of geek culture, but at the time, nothing of the sort had even been imagined. So I was left with a fascination for these strange found objects on the periphery of our culture. I could say similar things about D & D and even Star Wars. People who were fans of one of these things tended to be fans of the others, and so geek culture evolved, I think, out of a lot of random encounters in dorm rooms and subway cars, and began to snowball as the geeks got better at networking.

“when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise”

When the Internet came along and made networking easy, the whole phenomenon just exploded and has now become a dominant force in our culture. I never partook of it as heavily as some others, in the sense that I didn’t go to SF cons, have never visited Comicon, and haven’t really been involved in the relevant Internet discussion groups. Consequently, when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise, and in fact I wasn’t really aware that anything had happened until people began to reach me via the then-new medium of email and to address me as if I were some kind of significant person.

Its main influence on my work has been that I have felt confident that I need not keep writing the same book over and over again. I have tried to make each book different from the last. I’ve always felt confident that this would work, which is to say, that the community of readers would accept this sort of random-walk approach, and so far I have never been disappointed. From time to time I will hear from a reader who is startled by the fact that my latest book isn’t very much like the one previous, but those people seem to be outnumbered by the ones who don’t care at all, supposing they even notice.