I don’t just want a woman to be Bond, I want a woman to KILL Bond!

Why should we cast a woman as the next James Bond? To prove that women are dangerous and corrupt too. A woman actress as Bond isn’t a fantasy. It’s a chance to give Bond more realism.

A new rumour seems to pop up every week – Idris Elba will be the next James Bond! No, Aidan Turner! Jamie Bell and Tom Hiddleston are the latest men to have faced furious Bond scrutiny, but perhaps we’re all looking in the wrong direction.

We shouldn’t be searching for a man to take Bond’s place. We should be keeping an eye out for a woman.

I agree with many fans that Gillian Anderson would be a perfect Bond. Sure, Tilda Swinton has the mystique, and Emily Blunt has the moves, but Anderson’s onscreen presence embodies the single characteristic that Bond needs above all others. I believe, if her mission depended on it, that Anderson would kill.

I believe, in a word, that she is dangerous.

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Will the book be replaced…by the block?

An interesting article over at Rhizome speculates on the future of Blockchain as a disruptive technology within publishing.

What does the verb “to publish” mean in a society where every thought, movement, and moment is recorded and stored?

Let’s say that publishing is the act of making something public and drawing attention to it. And let’s agree that the opposite of public is private. In the past, these two spheres—public and private—were clearly defined and separate. Today, they overlap, merge, and melt together. In the context of traditional publishing, the acts of printing, binding, and distributing a book delineated an unmistakable step from the private to the public sphere. The writer in her room, working on the manuscript, bringing it to the publishing house, and so on down the production line. In contrast, many current info-tools work in a gray zone in between, obfuscating where data ends up and how it is exploited.

Today, it is clear that the categories “private” and “public” need to be redefined in order to give the user the choice of where on this private/public spectrum she is communicating. Is the message meant for one person? Or for the community of all intelligent lifeforms? Should it expire after five minutes? Or persist until the last bits of information succumb to entropy?

The block exist on the extreme point of both the private/public and the temporary/permanent scale: a block is absolutely public and permanent. An inscription in stone.

The full article falls a little bit into the hype cycle and is rather overstuffed with jargon, but taken in all it’s articulating exactly the issue that I believe many of us are coming to understand. On the one hand, publishing has already been irrevocably and terminally disrupted by digital technology. It’s only a matter of how long that disruption ultimately takes to play out. To paraphrase William Gibson, the publishing industry is already dead, it’s just unevenly distributed. On the other, the new model that has emerged is…well…ebooks basically suck, and Amazon is almost the shittiest imaginable ebook library. A wholly corporate owned knowledge silo, where every text is locked down by private owners and can’t even be effectively searched, with the whole thing literally flooded with junk ebooks attempting to game the system.

Can Blockchain provide a better solution? In short, yes. Whether it will is about whether the vested interests in the writing and publishing world can see to making it happen. But however it plays out, I suspect we’re nearing the point of letting go of the “book” as the central concept of publishing, especially in non-fiction. Knowledge is now far more modular. If I want to, for instance, lear to use Adobe Illustrator (which I’m currently doing) I don’t buy a book. A make thousands of Google searches and read hundreds of blog posts, as and when I need to answer specific problems. That’s the new landscape of knowledge and learning, and the offer of Blockchain is that it will provide an effective reward and incentive system, possibly through micro-payments, for writers toiling in that landscape.

Read my short essay on Blockchain and book piracy.

Geek critique: Neil Gaiman and Kameron Hurley pick apart pop culture

Two new nonfiction collections – Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats and Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution – present contrasting perspectives on geek culture today. So what’s the state of it?

Geeks were once like Victorian children: seen, but not heard; talked about but mocked, rarely given their own voice. But the newfound popularity of the culture – video games, comics, the mainstream cool of crossover hits such as Game of Thrones or Star Wars – makes geeks some of the loudest voices today. This week, two new nonfiction collections – Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats and Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution – showcase the spectrum of diversity that exists in the culture today.

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Dune deserves a new film adaptation

Confusing sequels, terrible prequels and poor adaptations aside, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece still stands up as the one of the truly great sci-fi novels.

I first discovered Dune through David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s SF masterpiece. The “Lynchian” style, that novelist David Foster Wallace would later define as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine”, would spin wildly out of control in the Dune universe, where the very macabre combines with … the even more macabre. Nonetheless, Lynch’s broken but mesmerising space-opera-come-art-film remains the best adaptation in a franchise that has been much abused over its 50 year history.

“Following the recent successes of Gravity and Interstellar, there’s a taste for epic sci-fi in Hollywood again”

Dune the novel was initially published in two parts, Dune World and Prophet of Dune, in Analog magazine. The full book was published in 1965, and would go on to win the Hugo award the following year, making it an immediate hit with science fiction audiences. Dune’s central conceit, of a feudal fantasy world recast in interstellar space, was not unique. Neither was the archetypal story of a disinherited prince reclaiming his realm. But the themes of ecology, drug use and spiritual enlightenment that Herbert wove into the tapestry of Dune made it vibe with the counter-cultural audience of the 60s and 70s.

It was the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, transformed from a young prince to nothing less than the omnipotent Emperor of the entire universe, that truly captured the hearts and imagination of Dune’s predominantly male audience. Dune is a boy’s own adventure, wrapped in an adolescent coming of age story, spliced with a Bildungsroman, in which boys become men by taming a giant worm and women only appear as princesses, priestesses or temptresses. It’s a book that boys and young men of a certain temperament – intelligent, introverted, angry – often obsess over. Dune is a potent wish-fulfilment fantasy, allowing its readers to play out the status and power they lack in the real world.

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Sci-fi owes much of its popularity to film and television, and like many of the most successful books in the genre, Dune’s prose style seeks to reproduce a cinematic reading experience for its audience. Frank Herbert mastered a close third person style that would influence many writers who followed, and has become the standard for commercial SF and Fantasy novels. George RR Martin’s hugely successful Game of Thrones novels clearly took some inspiration from Dune, right down to presenting each character’s inner thoughts as italicised sentences. It’s a style that makes Dune easy for infrequent readers to digest, but equally hard for literary readers to stomach.

Dune’s cinematic qualities have made it a natural target for Hollywood adaptations. But the Lynchian weirdness, followed by a lacklustre mini-series, have left the franchise in a televisual limbo for most of the last two decades. Herbert’s own sequels, while conceptually interesting and widely loved by established fans, lack the storytelling muscle displayed in the first book. A risible series of cash-in prequels have dragged the Dune universe down to the bargain basement of pulp fiction. It’s a sad legacy for such a significant work of fiction.

Like a desert planet returning to life, excitement bloomed around Dune again in 2013 with the release of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary film that revealed the unmade movie adaptation that might have been by Alejandro Jodorowsky. A decade before Lynch’s version, Chilean cult movie-maker Jodorowsy planned an even more baroque film, which would have starred Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger (presumably stepping naked out of a steam shower in place of Sting) with designs by sci-fi legends HR Giger and Chris Foss.

Learn about the 7 basic elements of great storytelling in the Rhetoric of Story.

Fresh from its 50th anniversary, Dune may seem to be a story fading into the past. But I suspect there’s life in Frank Herbert’s masterpiece yet. Following the recent successes of Gravity and Interstellar, there’s a taste for epic sci-fi in Hollywood again. And as the recent #gamergate saga confirmed, there’s no lack of angry, alienated young men begging for stories that put them at the centre of a fictional universe. But even 50 years after they reached their pinnacle, it’s Frank Herbert’s skills as a storyteller that will keep Dune alive for many decades to come. Because if there is one truly immortal thing in the universe, it’s a great story.

Originally published in The Guardian.

What was the first science fiction novel?

The Chymical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz might be the first ever sci-fi novel, claims John Crowley, but are there even earlier claimants?

“The heroes of many Indian myths, in a strange echo of today’s Marvel superheroes, also often derive their powers from scientific knowledge.”

Ask many science fiction fans what the first novel in their beloved genre was and they will likely point you to H G Wells The Time Machine (1895) or Jules Vernes Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). They aren’t bad guesses, both authors hold an important place in the history of sci-fi. But they’re very far from being its progenitors.

Anybody who knows the work of John Crowley will not be surprised that he traces the roots of science fiction back far further. Little, Big, Crowley’s fairie family saga, is as much a book about the history of fairy stories as it is a fairy story, and his two decades in the making Aegypt quartet is equally reflective on the history and influences of the mythologies it plays with.

Working with Small Beer Press and artist Theo Fadel, Crowley is bringing back from the hinterlands of human imagination a book he claims ranks as the first work of science fiction. The Chymical Wedding was first published in 1616, exactly four centuries ago this year. It follows the journey of it’s protagonist Christian Rosencreutz over seven days to a magical castle to witness the wedding of the King and Queen.

Calling The Chymical Wedding a work of science fiction risks making it sound rather less interesting than it is. The books authorship was claimed after his death by Johann Valentin Andreae, a German theologian and influential figure in Protestant utopianism. Laced with occult symbolism and layers of esoteric allegorical meaning, The Chymical Wedding became a foundational text of the secret order of Rosicrucianism, and hence influenced all of Western occultism.

The long and complex relationship between occultism and sci-fi is a topic deserving of its own article, or even book. Long story made short, The Chymical Wedding was almost certainly known to Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker and other authors of fantastic literature involved with The Order of the Golden Dawn. It’s not a huge leap from there to speculate that The Chymical Wedding was an influential text in the history and development of science fiction.

But was The Chymical Wedding science fiction itself? As John Crowley argues, the story is engaged in exactly the same kind of speculative process as modern SF, based upon the cutting edge science of its day – alchemy. Were he alive today, Johann Valentin Andreae is exactly the kind of figure you might expect to find cranking out the transcendent visions found in the best scifi storytelling. Science fiction certainly. But the first sci-fi story?

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Not even close. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two great epic tales of Hindu mythology, preserved over at least 2000 years, are just as much “science fiction”. The race of Vidyahara’s in those tales are made powerful by their “vidya”, a Sanskrit word for knowledge or science. The heroes of many Indian myths, in a strange echo of today’s Marvel superheroes, also often derive their powers from scientific knowledge. No doubt readers of this article can suggest many more examples.

Which isn’t to downplay the fascinating question John Crowley is throwing out for sci-fi fans to chew on. Science fiction is the name we give today to a storytelling tradition that weaves through all of human history. There’s a banal awfulness to taking that rich, mysterious history, amputating it’s first few thousand years, and saying sci-fi began when John W Campbell began editing Astounding science fiction in 1937, or whichever blip in the the spacetime continuum of story happens to appeal to your cultural bias.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein? The epic of Gilgamesh? Thomas More’s Utopia? For a lot of young people today science fiction begins with Star Wars. Where we place the boundaries of our culture says much about who we are and what we value. For those of us who value sci-fi for the freedom it gives to look beyond cultural norms, to imagine our world as it could be not just as it is, and to speculate on what lies beyond the apparently real, the history of sci-fi is as old as the human imagination.

The 8 Tribes of SciFi

UPDATE 1: the most excellent Paul Weimer suggests a 9th tribe, and it makes a whole lot of sense. The 9 tribes of scifi? I like it. Paul’s thinking is as follows:

The tribe I think you missed is what could be glibly called The Worldbuilders. Worldbuilders have been under stress lately, as what makes a realistic world and what doesn’t has been riven with internal strife over the roles of women and POC on the fantasy side of fantasy. But Worldbuilders, both fantasy and SF flavors, are the kind of people who see a 800 page epic fantasy or SF novel with a rich and detailed world, and dive right into it, seeking deep immersion with a world and its characters. Maps. glossaries and appendices for these books are features, not bugs. Readers of stuff ranging from Kate Elliott to Brandon Sanderson to Peter F Hamilton and James S A Corey.

UPDATE 2: some folks think Military SF has been poorly treated here. Once again THESE ARE NOT GENRES OR SUB-GENRES. Hence calling them tribes. Military SF is written and read by a number of these tribes. The Military Conservatives often pose as though they own that genre, and they certainly fill it with plenty of…interesting…books.

Calling sci-fi a genre in 2016 is about as accurate as calling the United States one nation. In principle it’s true, but in practice things don’t work that way. While crime, romance and thrillers all remain as coherent genres of fiction, it’s been decades since sci-fi could be comfortably understood by any shared generic criteria. What do Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Seas trilogy, the fiction of Silva Moreno Garcia and the erotic sci-fi of Chuck Tingle actually have in common, beyond being nominated for major sci-fi book awards this year?

“from any objective perspective, YA is the mainstream of sci-fi today”

The answer is they all belong to one of the eight tribes of sci-fi. Call them communities, call them cultures, but don’t call them genres. These eight groupings of sci-fi writers and their fans cut across the commercial marketing categories defined by publishers, and are unified instead by shared values and interests. After talking about bookish tribes in my Guardian column recently, I thought it would be fun to pin down the tribes within sci-fi. As with any typology, overlaps and exceptions exist, but as a professional book reviewer trying to understand the complex landscape of sci-fi writing today, this is the territory I have charted.

Commercial Storytellers
As Hollywood has always known, stories that appeal to tens or hundreds of millions of people all look much alike. The commercial storytellers tell archetypal tales, with the tropes of sci-fi providing a mere stage setting. George R R Martin, Stephen King, J K Rowling, in fact almost all the authors who sell a shed-ton of books to the masses are storytellers first and foremost. These writers may scavenge ideas from various genres, but they always upscale them to tell human stories with universal human appeal.

Worldbuilders
Ninth tribe suggested by Paul Weimer. See update 1 above.

The Weirds
Most writers at some point play around with the effects that can be induced by engineering stories with internal inconsistencies, mashing together disparate metaphors, or simply being weird for weirds sake. The weirds take this as an end in itself. With China Mieville as their reigning king they were riding high for a while. However, with newer voices like Molly Tanzer’s Vermillion coming through, the American ‘bizarro fiction’ movement, and with authors including Joe Hill and Josh Mallerman rejuvenating the traditional horror genre, the Weirds are still among the most creatively interesting of the eight tribes.

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Hard Sciencers
There’s a near irreconcilable tension between the poetic values of literature, storytelling and novels, with the logic driven realms of science and technology. When Hard SF inhabits that tension, as it does in the novels of Kim Stanley Robison, and the best work of earlier masters like Robert A Heinlein, it produces some of the greatest writing of the the last century. But taken as a whole the Hard Sciencers slip easily into an ideological quest to prove science can stand alone without poetry, emotion, or human insight. From their pinnacle in the 1980s when authors like Larry Niven banged out bestseller after bestseller, the Hard Sciencers are now a dwindling minority even within areas they once dominated. But the recent success of The Martian and Gravity among other suggests that, when it remembers to tell great stories, there’s still a huge appetite for hard SF.

Military Conservatives
During it’s Golden Age sci-fi became deeply associated with the values of the American dream. As those values have unwound America’s conservatives have retreated to sci-fi as a safe space to indulge their nationalist military fantasies. Amazon’s Author Rank for science fiction is packed with military SF novels, most of them repeating the same themes of Earth under attack by aliens, through to full fledged survivalist “prepper” fantasies, most self published and appealing to a small but committed audience of Donald Trump supporting SF readers. Given their aggressive, paranoid tendencies it’s hardly surprising these fans are fighting an imaginary war against the other tribes of sci-fi by protesting the Hugo awards.

51ukN0lxwJLProgressive Fantasists
If you want to make the world a better place, you need a space to imagine what that place might look like. From George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, way back to Thomas More’s Utopia and even further, writers have fantasised about the possibilities of progress, both good and bad. But it was the New Wave movement of the 60s, including Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany, who began pushing the boundaries of progressive SF. The annual James Tiptree Jnr awards highlight much of the best these folks have to offer, including a recent win for Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road. With Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds In The Sky and Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper among a wave of recent titles presenting challenging visions and re-imaginings of our reality, progressive fantasy seems more and more like the future of sci-fi.

YA Adventurers
They say the golden age of sci-fi is 15, and by that measure young adult writers are the ones really inspiring sense of wonder in young readers today. Even putting aside big hitters like the Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent and the Maze Runner, YA is a rich field for fantastic literature. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Garth Nix’ Abhorsen series, Holly Black’s various faerie inspired tales…I could make a really really long list of great YA sci-fi all to make the point that, from any objective perspective, YA is the mainstream of scifi today. But even when YA has interesting things to say for itself, it tends to hold younger readers with archetypal adventure “coming of age” stories that, by their nature, become less interesting for older readers.

The LitFic Tourists
It’s a rare trick for a writer to be both widely read and critically acclaimed. When literary writers wander into scifi, the attempt to be both often ends up being neither. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a huge book that sold for a hefty advance and has been duly marketed to hell and back by its publisher. But alongside its two equally huge sequels forms a vampire adventure story that suffers from being neither very scary nor particularly exciting. On the flip side the short stories of Kelly Link, which recently earned their author a place as a Pulitzer prize finalist, are sci-fi down to their genes but you could read them all and never know it. The crossover of literary and genre scifi produces some startlingly original books, but it also leads to some of the most ill conceived and downright dull chunks of wordage out there.

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Sexy Beasts
Sometimes, people just want a guilt free alien wereleopard tentacle sex fantasy, and scifi is there to give it to them. Authors like Laurel K Hamilton, Charlaine Harris and of course E L James have made sexy vampire tales mainstream, but there’s a long history of raunchy, and sometimes sadly exploitative, sex fantasy in sci-fi. John Norman’s Gor novels amounted to little more than misogynistic S&M fantasies, but similar themes get more sophisticated treatment in Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy fantasy series and elsewhere. Add in the staggering popularity of dinosaur erotica and the kind of sci-fi themed smut that gave the world Space Raptor Butt Invasion, and it’s clear that no understanding of scifi today is complete without the sexy beasts.

Comments closed. Come and find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

No, books are not back.

The RMS Titanic sank over a century ago, taking with it 1500 lives. It could have been many fewer, but in the early stages of the catastrophe the boat appeared to stop sinking, and many passengers in 3rd class were told the situation was safe, to only then feel the ship resume it’s lethal progress even faster.

Enter Simon Jenkins of the Guardian to tell us that books are definitely not sinking, and only the “technodazzled” thought otherwise. Hurrah, said the twitterverse, sharing the article over 36,000 times and leaving almost 900 jubilant comments.  If it’s fair to say that the more wishful the thinking, the less evidence it requires for celebration, then Jenkin’s thinking is the most wishful of all, as he presents hardly any evidence at all, and badly misinterprets the few data points he invokes.

The news that Waterstone’s has stopped selling Kindles is singularly irrelevant. If they stop selling Moleskine’s will that indicate the death of writing? The total number of smartphones worldwide is estimated to hit 2 billion and to continue growing at 7% each year. Every single one is a device designed for reading ebooks. It’s staggering that Jenkins, whose grasp of the technology doesn’t even reach to seeing the difference between ebook readers and ebooks, was allowed to present such a skewed perception as fact.

A 5% rise in Waterstones print book sales is good news. It’s driven by colouring books sadly, a temporary hobby fad. Even with that temporary boost, Waterstones isn’t profitable. It’s no longer shedding money, and isn’t likely to go out of business this year. But the chances of there being a dedicated high-street book retailer in 10 years time are remote. There will always be print books, but whether they’ll sell enough to support a retail industry is open to conjecture. Vinyl records still sell today, but not well enough to bring back record shops.

Jenkins killer “fact” is a fall in “digital content” sales of a few % points. Jenkins doesn’t mention that this is the same period publishers jacked up the price of ebooks in an act of near criminal sabotage against their own authors. A £10 paperback will now cost £13 for ebook or often more. Few people are happy paying more for an ebook, and so the “big 5” publishers ebook sales have fallen. Actual ebook sales however are way up and accelerating. As publishers attack their own writers, indie authors have stepped in and are now dominating the Amazon bestseller lists across the board. And they’re making a small fortune on 70% royalty rates, while all but the very bestselling mainstream published authors are failing to even make a living.

Which is really the heart of the problem. Not only is Jenkins article a shoddy piece of journalism, it’s inviting people to celebrate the continuance of a system that is not good for creators. Authors sign away almost all their income to retailers, distributors and publishers. The delivery drivers who haul the books get paid better than most trad published authors. Publisher’s do very well from ebooks, but still offer authors a derisory royalty on them, in increasingly odious contracts that gouge more money and rights from writers. If the beauty of print books comes nailed to the poor treatment of the wonderful souls who write them, you can keep it.

Comments are closed. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

Why is writing easy?

A follow up to last weeks video asking why is writing hard…why is writing easy!

What is the first story you were ever told? The huge number of stories we absorb just by being alive can make writing easy. Take that natural storytelling know-how, add some solid skills and you can enter the flow state of writing.

Why is writing hard?

I bet you’ve always wondered what I look like, right? Well now you can find out in glorious 720p video!

“Damien gets passionate about writing, and talks about the thing that makes it hard, the clash of two very different sides of our personality, the conscious mind and the subconscious imagination. OR. The crazy old hippy VS the corporate middle manager in all of us.”

Want to know more about The Writing Practice? Email me: damiengwalter@gmail.com

Have the Locus awards been hit with “myopic sexism”?

An all-male shortlist for YA fiction has left the Locus awards mired in controversy – but prejudice is an unavoidable part of any literary prize.

Literature has always been a tribal world, and the internet has only made that worse. The romance readers on one forum, the crime buffs on another. The LitFicers trade snark in their favourite webzines, while the MFA grads are so hipster they communicate exclusively via Ello. It’s all reinforced by the feudal architecture of social media, where the good graces and retweets of your genre’s overlords can make or break. When two great literary tribes go to war, the screams of reputations dying can be heard from Facebook to Instagram, and nothing sparks conflict between writers like book awards.

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