So, one day, I had run out of science fiction to read. So I headed over to Project Gutenberg and browsed around for some old skool sci-fi. Basically, I grabbed copies of anything I thought had an interesting title.
Could I have been more wrong? Nope! This book is a fucking crazy trip, man! It's wild-ass speculative fiction like you've never seen. Ummm, read.
Now, let me note that I'm not saying the book is good. I don't think it is. It's not well written. The characters are not compelling. The dialogue is more stilted than you can imagine. And the plot is basically that this guy goes to a planet orbiting Arcturus, where he walks around, meeting other people who expound on their various philosophies. I honestly can't tell if the author loves these various takes on the nature of reality or whether he's satirizing them.
Personally, I found the philosophy boring. There's way too much
it's naturally so to cover up bald assertions. There's also a bunch of assertions about the natural roles and attributes of the various sexes. Yeah, I know, it's written in 1920. Still, so much of it is just groan-worthy. At one point, gravity is described thusly:
The great body of the earth is continually giving out female particles, and the male parts of rocks and living bodies are equally continually trying to reach them. That's gravitation.
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it's all presented via the most stilted language one can imagine.
You can get a good overview of the plot at Wikipedia's entry for it but don't go read the entry if you're planning on reading the book.
Wait... what? Why would you read it if I'm telling you how awful it is?
Because, as I also said, it's a fucking crazy trip, man! The best description of it is one I saw in a GoodReads review:
If a 14 year old who was really into Gnosticism were asked to invent the science fiction genre, this would be the result.
There are all these really weird parts, with bizarre descriptions of the planet, the denizens, the twin suns of Arcturus, and the nature of reality. It's like being on acid while simultaneously listening to baroque prog-rock and conversing with stoned Philosophy undergrads.
So, y'know, it's free to download if you want to spend a few hours going
What the Fuck?
So, what did you do for fun when you were nine? If you're Miss Daisy Ashford, you write this captivating story, put it away, and rediscover it as an adult.
The story is a love triangle. And, yes, there's an actual story here. The language is a treat. My poor wife was trying to read her own book while I continually interrupted to read yet another hilariously charming passage aloud.
It's not a long book, so there's no need for a long review. Just go get a copy. It is freakin' adorable!
Here are a couple of science-oriented non-fiction works to make you more knowledgeable about the world:
This one is a little weird in that the title makes it sound as if you're going to get actual stories about how different technologies came to be. And that's not really what this is. True, it looks at eight different technologies but mainly describes, in impressive detail, how each one works. And it does an excellent job at that task. We all kind of know how a battery works. After reading this, you'll really know how one works, how one is charged, and why it's really bad to drain some batteries too low. How does an atomic clock work? By the end of the book, you'll really know and understand how they work.
The explanations are very detailed yet understandable for someone with a moderate amount of science know-how. If that's you, then you'll want to give this a read.
Don't, however, go into it assuming there are stories.
Want stories? That's okay...
This one is an amazing and captivating spin through the Periodic Table. It talks about the Table itself and its development. But it's also a tour of the Table, hitting, basically, every area on it. And each and every section is packed with truly interesting tales. There's a good flow through the book, making the tour seem natural. It gets, maybe, a little shaky at the end. I started to feel as if the author was struggling just a wee bit and linking things together.
Or that may just be me needing to fine something about which to complain.
In the end, a very nice read.
Just finished reading Grant Morrison's
finished, I mean gave up two-thirds of the way through.
It's just awful. First off, it's misleading. The subtitle is
What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. And it does indeed start as an examination of comics and society. It's not a great examination. Most of it you've heard before. The rest just sounds like Morrison thinks tossing loads of adjectives together will impress. Honestly, he uses
lysergic three or four times. Probably more.
But at least it's interesting reading. Then in starts creeping his own personal story.
Now, let me be clear, there's a great genre of books where an author blends his biography with some topic near to his heart. A good example of this genre is Cardboard Gods. One that works in spite of the personal stuff is Candyfreak.
Alas, Morrison's story just isn't very interesting at the start. He draw comics for himself, for fun. Then he gets a drawing job for the local paper. Then he gets a job on a small book. Then larger ones. It's not what one would call compelling. Oh, and he didn't fit in as a teen. Good lord!
But the personal story doesn't detract too much until the mid-point, when it becomes clear that Morrison wants to talk about himself more than he wants to talk about comic books or superheroes. And, oh, does he like to talk about himself.
Look, if you like wordy descriptions of someones self-congratulatory faux occult travels whilst on drugs, then you might really like the second half. Me, I started quickly flipping through the pages, looking for a spot where he might actually talk about the book's subject again. Not finding one in a reasonable time, I gave up.
It doesn't help that he's just a poor writer of prose. It's as if he's being paid by the adjective while being penalized for each full stop. Several times I had to re-read a paragraph just to figure out what the hell he was trying to say.
Maybe it would have helped if I were a fan of his comic work. It's not that I dislike his work. It's just that, while I read plenty of comics, I just haven't read many of his.
That said, even if Gaiman had written this, I'd still think it was crap.
Please excuse the lack of a clever title. Anyway, here are some books I've read sort of recently, along with half-assed reviews, listed in reverse chronological order of reading! I haven't written any reviews for a while, so there's lots of them. At least that's forcing me to keep each one short!
Blue Remembered Earth - Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds' latest. Good, but not great. I didn't really like any of the characters, although I suppose there's no reason I need to do so. It's one of those books where folks follow obtuse clues to some grand revelation. The clues themselves were so bizarrely obtuse that I didn't really care about them. The grand revelations weren't really all that grand. But, in between, the writing is solid, although lacking the level of deliciously descriptive detail that marks Reynolds' best works.
His best work? The Prefect.
Redshirts - John Scalzi
Scalzi writes a fun and clever take on those expendable redshirts from Star Trek. This is a fast-reading lightweight book. That's a compliment. That's what he means for it to be and it is completely successful on that level. It doesn't mess about trying to be anything different. The main story is followed by three related short stories. The second one tries out a rarely seen gimmick. I think it should have been limited to just the video part of it, with the set-up moved to the main story. The gimmick would have worked better that way.
Solaris - Stanistaw Lem
After reading Roadside Picnic, see below, I decided to watch the glacially slow movie based on it, Stalker. And that got me to thinking about watching the just as glacially-paced Solaris. (Made by the same guy.) But, before I did that, I decided to read the book first.
Interesting, overall, with one of those open-ended musing endings which I find annoying. Still, was certainly worth reading. Just don't expect it to scratch any sort of hard sci-fi itch.
Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Old school Soviet sci-fi. It's not, however, loaded with propaganda. The current release is notable for being free of governmental edits, despite the lack of any sort or real political content. It's a really good read. The protagonist feels real and there's enough sci-fi stuff to keep me interested. As mentioned above, it was adapted into a movie, Stalker, in which very little happens, but where the non-action is strikingly filmed.
A Universe From Nothing - Lawrence M. Krauss
This may be my favorite book about hard science. One problem with science-oriented non-fiction is that it tends to be pitched at a low level. If you have a decent background in various sciences, then you're usually left wishing for much more and deeper detail. (I don't mean having advanced degrees. I just mean having something like a year of college-level physics under your belt.)
But this book isn't
dumbed-down at all. Well, of course, it is dumbed-down some. But it's still detailed enough, and difficult enough, to make it a satisfying read.
And, best of all, it gives a concise answer to why there is something rather than nothing, because nothingness is unstable.
Game Change - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Get an inside eye on the 2008 elections. This book purports to be factually accurate. Assuming that's so, this is a fascinating look indeed. Obama comes out looking the best. Hillary gains loads of sympathy, striving within a campaign hampered by a lack of organization and a famous husband who still loves attention (and women). McCain only looks good in comparison to the walking disaster that is Palin.
And Edwards is a clueless asshole. How did he fool so many of us for so long?
Kingdom Come - J.G. Ballard
new book from J.G. Ballard. (Meaning that it's newly published in the United States.) As usual, it's the same damn book he always writes. I've found, much to my surprise, that I'm entirely Ballarded-out, making this a tedious read.
A Fuller Explanation - Amy Edmondson
If you've ever tried to actually read Buckminster Fuller's Synergetics, you know it's pretty wild and obtuse. I have a copy and I've always had to be content with just looking at the weird diagrams. I just ain't that smart!
Edmondson tries to put it all into normal English, in the hopes that mostly normal people can understand it. And she does a damn fine job. She's lightyears more readable that Bucky. Which is not to say that this is a light read. It's not. But at least you feel like you have a shot at understanding.
One warning, though. You'll forever cringe when someone speaks of
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash - Jean Shepherd
This is the book on which most of the Xmas classic
A Christmas Story is based. It's not as enchanting as the movie nor is it as fun. It's still funny but the best bits are in the movie. Just go watch the movie.
The Cleanest Race - B.R. Myers
So, what the hell is the deal with North Korea? Why does so much of the population utterly buy into utter loony worship of an utterly loony ruler? Myers attempts to answer that question by drawing on internal North Korean documents never meant for outside consumption. I won't go into the details and I'm not at all sure I buy his thesis. But, damn, it's interesting watching him lay it out.
Make Room! Make Room! - Harry Harrison
Classic novel on which the movie Soylent Green is based. Plot-wise there just isn't all that much. The book is more about the society formed than the particular plot lines. That's not to say it's plotless. There's certainly a plot. It's just that the plot doesn't really seem to matter much. Interesting and classic, but not something I'd read a second time.
Containment - Christian Cantrell
I suspect that this is self-published. Regardless, I enjoyed it a lot. Some reviews have complained about an abrupt ending, but I found that it worked perfectly well. (Although the ending is fairly easily guessed.) In all, some solid fairly hard sci-fi.
Oddly, I can no longer find it at Barnes & Noble as an eBook, which is the format in which I bought it.
Machine Man - Max Barry
This one starts out great as a technological/psychological profile but steadily falters into a robot action novel by the end. Well, not the very end. The very end redeems itself a little. Still worthy of reading, I just wish the early promise had held up throughout the whole book.
Rat Girl - Kristin Hersh
A biography by an artist I don't know writing about her years in a band I didn't listen to. Regardless, I still found it interesting. It's as much about bipolar disorder as it is about music and it's certainly better written than either of these Husker Du / Bob Mould related tomes. And she's much less of an asshole than Bob Mould, too.
Accelerando - Charles Stross
I didn't realize that this was a collection of related short stories while I was reading it. Thus it felt really disjointed. It has some really great concepts, some a little mind-blowing. But it also relies on characters who act in extreme gestures seemingly simply because the story, such that is it, depends on it. In that way, it reminded me of Reynolds' Pushing Ice.
You might note that I have an obvious preference for hard sci-fi that contains great ideas, meticulously described, with interesting characters. Scalzi can hit this sweet spot. So can Reynolds. But it's tricky to do. That's why so many of my reviews are of the good-but-not-great variety.
The Children of the Sky
Back in the 90s, Vernor Vinge was a sci-fi god. 1992 brought A Fire Upon the Deep and 1999 offered A Deepness in the Sky. Both are wonderful novels and if you haven't read them, you should. Right now. I'll wait.
But he hasn't produced a whole lot in the new millenium. Rainbows End, in 2006, was good. At least I remember liking it at the time.
Then, just last year, he produced a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, called The Children of the Sky. Reasonably excited, I tossed it in the reading queue and just finished it over the weekend.
My verdict? Meh.
It's not that it's bad. It's just that it's not very good. The good is that it's set on Tines World and the Tines are fascinating. The bad? Well, where should I start?
I'll start with the long real-world time gap between A Fire Upon the Deep and the sequel. It's nearly two decades. Vinge seems to have assumed that everyone not only read A Fire Upon the Deep, but read it recently. There's very little in the way of recap. Even the Harry Potter books gave you more recap.
Problem two is that this isn't really a sequel. Based on the storyline, it's apparently book two of a trilogy. I have no problem with book twos of trilogies, but to toss this out nearly two decades later? Without any indication that it's part of a trilogy? And when can we expect book three?
Without a book three in the near future, the story is just, again, meh. Major plot points just sit there, unresolved. You can feel Vinge bringing up new questions and you read on, waiting for answers, but you never get them. Finishing the book is deeply unsatisfying. I suppose it's meant to whet your appetite for the next book. It didn't.
Forewarned of all this, the book improves. The story itself is okay. There's lots of meandering that really has no point other than filling pages with narrative. But, hey, you're on Tines World and that in itself is an interesting time.
One other thing really bugged me about the book. Actually physical descriptions of the human characters are sparse. Near the end, there's a description that's clearly supposed to throw you. You can almost hear Vinge chortling
Ah ha! You were assuming that X was Y but X is really Z! Yes, I was assuming X was Y because you've been using Y-ish language descriptions and Y-ish surname structures. Dropping that in at the end of the book didn't make me question my internal racial views. It just convinced me you're a smug dick.
Marooned in Realtime
Oh, I promised plural reviews. Okay, I also recently read his Marooned in Realtime, from the mid-80s. It's awful. I didn't finish it. Do you like Ayn Rand-ish rants about the evils of all governments, complete with liberal application of Godwin's Law, mixed up with a couple of mysteries? Then you'll like it.
(Am I the only person who sees a Libertarian archetype in the straight white male, successful in a niche market, who somehow thinks that scales?)
Did you completely fail at NaNoWriMo last year? Me, too! I didn't even get a novella out of it!
So, as with last year, I've modified the Winner graphic to be appropriate for my situation. Feel free to use it yourself!
In my previous post, I wrote about how eBooks are simply better than printed books. You may not agree with me, of course, but then you would simply be wrong.
I have several pet peeves. A major one is when people complain that an eBook costs the same, or even more, than the same book in a printed format. There's this big expectation, nay, demand, that eBooks should be cheaper than printed books. Way cheaper.
And, frankly, I don't understand this expectation. I understand the desire. I'd like for the things I want to buy to be cheaper, too. But I don't expect cheaper eBooks.
Why? Well, two reasons. One is that I don't think that the savings is really all that great.
From what I've read, the major costs are in the production of the content, rather than the physical manifestation of that content. In other words, paying the author to write it, paying the editor to edit it, paying the designer to design it, and paying the publicist to publicize it.
Yeah, printing books costs time and money, but so does hosting large-scale redundant computer systems. So does bandwidth.
And let us not forget the spectre of piracy. I have no idea how many book sales are lost due to the ease of copying eBooks. But, certainly, there must be some loss.
So, I think expecting some big discount due to the elimination of printing costs is unreasonable, based on the amount of actual savings. But that's not the real reason. Here's the real reason:
Let that soak in a second. Now, true, prices are linked to costs in that if you drop your prices below your cost, you're gong to lose money. But what I'm talking about is the other side of the coin.
People seem to think that if a manufacturer of something is able to cut their costs, then they should also cut their prices to match. Well, they certainly can, if they think it'll gain them a competitive advantage.
But buyers shouldn't expect a price cut based on lessened costs. Price is based on what the market will bear, not on what it costs to make something plus some pre-determined profit margin.
There's always this idea that sellers
should lower prices when their costs go down. Why? If I'm clever enough to develop a better product at a lower cost, why shouldn't I pocket that extra cash? Why should I have to pass it on?
Believe me, I'm no Libertarian. But I don't understand why there's this automatic reaction that a decrease in costs must be passed on to customers.
Another realm in which this expectation arises is with Apple computers. You'll always find folks complaining about Apple's large profit margin. It's usually tied in with some hardware cost comparison with PC components. But, dammit, Apple melds Unix with a darn nice UI and packages it up in slick looking hardware. That whole package is worth more that the cost of the parts lumped together. There's nothing wrong with Apple charging a premium for that value, regardless of their underlying costs. And there's nothing wrong with people choosing to pay a premium for that value, either.
Of course, the funny thing in all this is that if everyone has the expectation of lower prices for eBooks, then that does indeed become what the market can bear. But that's different than having an a priori expectation of such a price drop.
I don't feel bad for one damn minute when I pay the same price for an eBook. Sure, I would like it cheaper. I would like the printed book cheaper, too. There's no particular reason I should expect the eBook to be cheaper.
This is part one of a two-part post. The second part is about eBook pricing and how people who expect, nay demand, that eBooks be cheaper than printed books are simply wrong in that expectation, nay demand. And part of that argument is that eBooks are better than printed books. So this post is about how eBooks are indeed better.
1) Customized. I can pick my font. I can pick my font size. I can pick my margins. And I can pick my line spacing. On some platforms, I can also pick text and background colors.
2) User interface.
Turning pages is a pain. Yeah, it's not so bad if the book is middling-sized, with thick pages, cradled in your lap while you sit in a wing-backed chair in front of a fire with a cu of tea on the table next to you.
But, when you're lying on your back in bed, with a heavy hard-backed book, with thin pages, it's a major pain to turn pages without fumbling the whole thing and smacking yourself in the face.
With an eBook reader, it's a click of a button, or a tap on the edge of a screen, or a swipe across a screen. And that's not an exclusive choice. My Nook let's me turn the page in any of those methods.
And I can have multiple bookmarks, with needing scraps of paper or dog-eared pages.
And I can make notes without damaging the book itself.
3) Instant gratification.
You don't have to go to the bookstore to buy eBooks. You don't even have to leave your bed. You can buy them right on the device while you're laying in bed, or anywhere you have the proper connectivity.
4) Multiple platforms.
You can read eBooks on multiple platforms. Even if you take DRM into account, you have multiple options. (See below for more on DRM.) For my Nook-based eBooks, I can also read them on a Mac or PC, on an iPad, and on pretty much any smartphone, including both iPhones and Android phones. There are Nook eBook reading apps on all of these. And if I strip off the DRM, I can convert them for a Kindle, as well as use them in any number of eBook reading apps.
Yeah, I can even print them out.
5) Multiple Copies
Even with DRM, my eBooks are safely stored in multiple locations. At the very minimum, there's the encrypted copy on my Nook, plus a copy at Barnes & Noble. (Plus whatever redundant copies they keep. Which is likely tons.) And if I've pulled down a copy to my smartphone, well then I have a copy there, too.
I got into an argument online with a guy once. I was listing the advantages of eBooks and he took issue with my claim that eBooks are safer. He was equating the eBook reader itself with the eBooks, thinking that if the device broke, the books were gone. But that's not how it works. If your eReader breaks, you can buy a new one, log into your account, and all your eBooks are back. It's like songs and your iPod.
Meanwhile, he thought his physical books were safe and sound in his bookcases. I truly hope he never suffers a house fire or flood.
Note that you can make multiple back-ups of your eBooks even if you leave the DRM intact. The DRM doesn't keep you from making copies. It just prevents you from reading the copies with someone else's device.
And, once you've stripped off the DRM, eBooks are just another file that you can save multiple copies of wherever you please. For my eBooks, I have the encrypted copies on my Nook and at B&N. But then I strip off the DRM and save a nice clean copy on the extra memory card I have in my Nook. And on my computer hard drive. And on my back-ups on my external drives. And on the extra memory card in my wife's Nook. And in my Dropbox account, for easy access on my phone. And maybe on my phone itself, too. My house could burn to the ground and a flood could then wash away the ruins, and I would still have copies of my eBooks.
They're safer. If you think they aren't, you're not thinking clearly.
6) Small Runs and Self-Publishing
While I'm not at all convinced that publishing novel-sized works as eBooks is all that much cheaper than making printed versions, it is true that the bar to publication is lowered when dealing with eBooks. Basically, it becomes much easier to publish novellas and even individual short stories. One of my favorite authors, John Scalzi, has been taking advantage of this by publishing short stories and novellas. In the print world, he would either need to bundle a bunch together into a short story collection, or find some anthology to be a part of. With eBooks, he can simply publish them.
It helps that he's been extremely proactive in building an online fan base. Without that, I doubt it would work well.
eBooks also open the door to affordable self-publishing. No longer do you have to go to a vanity press and buy some minimum number of copies of your own book. Instead, you can put them directly on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
But, wait, you say, what about your claims in the other post about printing costs not being the main cost of books?
Well, it's true. You can self-publish on the cheap. But without professional editing, design, and publicity, you'll probably not sell many books. So, eBooks aren't a panacea for the woes of self-publishing. But they sure beat having stacks of your printed book cluttering up your garage.
All that said, I have bought some self-published fiction and found it to be pretty darn good.
And, actually, printed self-publishing on an on-demand basis has been around for awhile now.
1) Digital Rights Management (DRM)
What's DRM? It's copy protection, of a sort.
It's true, commercial eBooks usually come with DRM slathered on top, limiting you to reading the book only on one vendor's readers and apps.
But, really, how different is that then a printed book? Yeah, you can rip apart a printed book and Xerox each page. But, man, how tedious!
On the other hand, once you've finished reading a printed book, you can lend it, sell it, or give it away. Can't easily do that with a DRM-encumbered eBook. (True, Nooks have a lending feature, but it's hardly worth mentioning.)
Frankly, you should be ripping the DRM off your eBooks anyway. It's not hard to do, certainly easier than photocopying a printed book.
Yes, there are aesthetics involved in printed books. There's the feel in your hands. There's the smell of the paper. There's the joy of wandering through a bookstore.
And eBooks miss out on that. But, let's be clear here, the aesthetics are secondary. The content of the book is primary. It's like drinking good tea. It's nice if you're drinking it from a fine china cup. It may even enhance the tea. But the tea is the main thing. Not the cup.
Additionally, eBooks have aesthetics all their own, different, to be sure, but not intrinsically better or worse. The text is ultra crisp. The background soothingly neutral. The back of my Nook feels good in my hand, with a contoured back made of some pleasant material. The page-turn buttons click satisfyingly, although they're a little stiff for my tastes.
Sticking with printed books based on the aesthetics is a bit like saying you're sticking with vinyl. Or maybe it's more like refusing to buy a modern car because you really like tailfins.
Okay, I'll admit it, I miss giving physical books as gifts. It just doesn't feel the same to give an eBook gift certificate, or even to gift a specific book.
But you know what the problem is? It's not with eBooks; it's with me. I still value a physical representation more than a virtual one, although, as I've detailed above, that's a mistaken view. But, hey, I'm only human. And old.
So, in conclusion, eBook are just better. So there! Nyah nyah nyah!
(Have I mentioned that you can still read my 2010 NaNoWriMo Failure Novella for free?)
Yeah, it's all Saints' Day. I know. So what.
It's also my birthday. I'm 46. Holy crap! How did that happen?
I got a swell Sons of the Desert fez from my father for my birthday. It's awesome and their customer service is equally awesome! If you ever wanted a fine quality fez, and who hasn't, then you should get one from them.
This year, I'm going to try and silence my inner editor and just get crap down on paper. Well, get crap down in bits. I have a general idea of a story, but no real plot. And I have a gimmick in mind. The novel is called
Ass-Shaker Brown is Deep in a Fjord. It's a spy novel, sort of. It's set in Norway. And it's supposed to be one in a series. (The next one would be entitled
Ass-Shaker Brown is Going to Bangkok.)
The titular spy was originally going to have a team called the
Disco Motherfuckers, but I never got around to thinking up any actual team members. It was supposed to be sort of a Doc Savage thing. Now it'll be more of a James Bond thing. Sorta. Not much, actually.
As usual, I pledge to post here on December 1st whatever I have done at the end of the month. If I do it right, it won't be nearly as readable as To Infinity and Behind! The idea is to churn out 50,000 words of unfinished prose, not an almost finished novella half that length.
If you want to be a Writing Buddy, my username there is TommySaysSoWhat. (Yes, that's a Replacements reference.)