Sometimes I feel a little guilty about my mad scientists of Retropolis. That’s because I don’t normally think that our scientists are mad. Not, you know, muahahahaha, you cannot escape my Dessicating Diffracto-Ray mad.
But I have to say that any time the death rays and the giant robots and the curiously effective molecular destabilizers begin to get me down, I remind myself that there are avenues of research in our own Earth that are, to put it plainly, absolutely and positively demented. No. That’s not plain enough. What I mean is: bug-loving, glands to the wall crazy. Which is nearly plain enough.
For example, let’s look at robotics.
Recent advances in robotics include building robots that are fueled by meat. Wow, that’s nuts, right? So they did it again. With corpses.
But fueling robots with meat is pretty harmless, so long as robots can’t detect meat. So let’s make sure they can. In fact, let’s teach them to flense and debone meat. That’s better!
So now that the robots know how to prepare and eat meat, let’s ask them what they think of us, shall we? According to the robots, we are bacon. Mmmmm. Bacon.
But we shouldn’t worry, should we? At least they can’t escape. Oh, no, wait.
Okay. That is a little distressing. Shall we recap, then? We have built robots that are fueled by meat; we have taught them to recognize meat; they now know how to butcher meat; and we’ve made sure that they can get out of their paddocks and onto the streets.
What shall we do next? I know! Let’s build ANGRY robots!
That’s the kind of meditation I go through when I feel badly about the scientists of Retropolis. By the time I reach the end I don’t feel badly about them at all. Because I’m running down the street with a can opener in my hand and screaming that I am not bacon.
Oh, sure, the neighbors stare. But wait till they see what’s coming up behind me.
I really enjoyed The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette). I’m putting that right out front, because it would be too easy for you to think that I didn’t like it.
And when I say that I really enjoyed it, what I mean is that on two of the three evenings I spent with the book I stayed up late because I just didn’t want to stop reading it. I didn’t want to stop reading it in spite of the fact that its hero can Do No Wrong: his only missteps are when, for a moment, he wants vengeance… only to chastise himself for taking the low road, even in his mind, which of course makes us like him even more.
No, that wasn’t it. The thing that convinced me that I should not be enjoying the book is that it seems to mark the complete victory of Poughkeepsie.
I haven’t read much fantasy of the medieval or ancient sort in the past three decades, apart from Terry Pratchett; and Pratchett is really in a class of his own. I used to read a lot of fantasy, but at some point, I think unconsciously, I just stopped. I’m aware that what’s popular in fantasy has changed over the years. I just wasn’t really there to see it.
Back in 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin wrote an essay called From Elfland to Poughkeepsie. It’s really good; you should read it. In her essay Le Guin took a then popular fantasy author to task, very gently, for writing fantasies that didn’t need to be fantasies: fantasies that would work just as well if you pulled the fantastical characters out of the book and dropped them into Poughkeepsie. You see? The story and its dialogue would still make perfect sense, and would lose nothing, if they were placed in a fairly average modern day city.
So The Goblin Emperor is populated by elves and goblins who do not need to be elves and goblins. They have a few unique twitches (involving ears) but that’s the only thing that differentiates them from humans. The exact same story could be told with a setting in the Chinese empire, the Roman or Ottoman empires, or pretty much any empire you care to name, with hereditary bureaucrats, a disadvantaged underclass, and court intrigues. It has airships, but the fact that they’re airships doesn’t matter; they could as easily be cruise ships or, I guess, buses, because the fact that they are airships is completely incidental. There’s a small amount of magic (two instances, possibly three) that does not need to be magic. A little gas would have done the same thing.
My point is that this is a fantasy novel – a very good and enjoyable fantasy novel – that doesn’t depend on fantasy for anything that matters. It’s a very strange situation, but there it is. It’s Poughkeepsie.
What seems even stranger to me is that nobody seems to have noticed this, and I guess the reason why I’m surprised is that I just haven’t been paying attention to fantasy books. This may be what’s normal and expected now.
So The Goblin Emperor has given me a lot to think about, which is something that I like in a book. Such as: is this a bad thing? It’s an enjoyable book, so is it important that the fantasy elements be necessary to the story? And I’m still not sure.
You could say that fantasy has been mainstreamed to the point that a fantastic setting can simply be taken for granted, the way power lines and cars are taken for granted in a modern day mystery. But there’s something about that which makes me uneasy.
It bothers me that a book can be both fantastical and mundane.
So after many years I’ve re-read From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, to find that Le Guin was mainly concerned about dialogue and prose style (and she would probably approve of those, I think, in The Goblin Emperor). The rest – my expectation that the fantasy elements of a fantasy story can’t be separated from the story without turning it to nonsense – that’s all me, I guess. But it seems like a natural progression.
If you start out in Elfland but head in the direction of Poughkeepsie, it shouldn’t be any surprise to find that you’ve arrived there: that everything around you now sounds and smells and feels like Poughkeepsie, in spite of the bit of glamour that’s laid on top; in spite of the fact that, now and then, your ears twitch. So maybe – because I skipped the many miles that have passed between the late eighties and the present day – I’m just really surprised to see where I am.
As I said at the start, I liked the book. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about it, and to me that’s a very good sign. So this isn’t a criticism: this is just a question that I’m asking myself.
Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast and beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion. But what happens when it is considered merely as a place to "get away to"?
Well, you know what has happened to Yosemite. Everybody comes, not with an ax and a box of matches, but in a trailer with a motorbike on the back and a motorboat on top and a butane stove…. They arrive totally encapsulated in a secondhand reality. And then they move on to Yellowstone, and it’s just the same there….
… The same sort of thing seems to be happening to Elfland, lately.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, in From Elfland to Poughkeepsie
I’ve reached that stage in life when the people I’ve admired for as long as I’ve been admiring people have begun to disappear at what’s probably an accelerating rate. There are obvious reasons why I think that’s a shame; some selfish (it’s proof that aging is going on, somewhere near me) and some, maybe, unselfish (because I’m sorry for all of us that these folks aren’t here with us any more).
So this week, it’s Jack Vance.
I try to avoid eulogizing people I didn’t actually know. After all, who am I to weigh in? So I’ll just say that even though I try to avoid having favorites, Vance was still a favorite writer of mine because he was just way too good to yield to my policy of unfavoritism. I mean, you just couldn’t keep him down. And though he hadn’t been writing for quite some time his body of work is still every bit as wonderful as it ever was. If you don’t know that work, you ought to.
Now the world is full of people who did know, or work with, or correspond with Jack Vance. What they have to say about his passing is a lot more compelling than anything I could write. I noticed a curious symmetry in two of these: Matthew Hughes remembers his first exposure to Vance through the magazine publication of The Dragon Masters, while Frederik Pohl remembers publishing it. Taken together they’ll tell you about 10% of what you should know about Vance: the rest, you’ll get by reading him.
HiLoBrow.com has announced the launch of HiLo Books, an imprint dedicated to what they call Radium Age Science Fiction – because, after all, what the genre needs is more labels. By "Radium Age" they mean science fiction written between the years of 1904 and 1933, bounded on the one hand by the scientific romances of Jules Verne, Edgar Alan Poe, and H. G. Wells, and on the other (the upper?) hand by the Golden Age works of writers like Asimov and his contemporaries.
I have a problem with labels. Still, since HiLoBrow is effectively creating a brand I can understand why they’d want to find some label to distinguish it from everything it’s not.
The lineup of releases for 2012 is a pretty promising one – there’s Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt; taken together, these show a united front of mainstream writers from the period who each experimented with speculative fiction.
If it all sounds a little bit like someone who’s desperate to be taken seriously, I expect that’s fine. A series like this exists in part to draw new readers into the scary, nerdy depths of science fiction in a way that seems comfortable, and even respectable .
What I can’t understand, though, is the books’ covers. They look like something out of the ranks of the worst of Amazon’s self-published novels. It’s especially confusing because the folks at HiLoBrow certainly know what good book covers look like, either for these same works or for their own. Their earlier Wage Slave’s Glossary has a handsome cover by Seth, and they’ve showcased a beautiful gallery of period book covers including this lovely one for With the Night Mail.
So there’s no question that they know that books can be beautiful. I don’t understand why they want to publish ones that are pretty much the opposite.
This led me to wonder whether these books aren’t the slapped together Amazonian things they resemble; and trying to answer that question led me right down the rabbit hole.
First, HiLoBooks has a distributor for its books. So there can’t be much doubt that there will be a warehouse of their books someplace – PGW also handles Archaia Studio Press, Nolo Press, Cricket Books, and plenty of other familiar independent and small press publishers. It sounds like we ought to be safe from some of the self-published horrors at Amazon (full disclosure: I’m also self-published, though I hope not horribly, at Amazon)
Second, HiLoBooks – according to their press release – will be an imprint of ‘Cursor, Richard Nash’s “publishing platform of the future”.’ Since a visit to the Cursor web site was completely uninformative I dug deeper, to find Nash’s talk at BookNet Canada’s Technology Forum. In this talk (""Publishing 3.0: Moving from Gatekeeping to Partnerships") Nash admits more than once that he’s speaking in very abstract terms. Those terms are in fact so abstract that at the end of the presentation I still had no idea what Cursor was supposed to be.
You’ll see in the talk that Publishing 3.0 (more labels!) is supposed to be an upgrade for the role of publishers in which books themselves become just one aspect of the relationship between readers and writers; in which that relationship has now become the focus of publishing, since so many large and small interactions within that community – including the sale of books – can be sources of profit for a publisher.
But if, like me, you’re left scratching your head and wondering first, what that means, and second, why a publisher deserves to monetize every aspect of the relationship between authors and their audience, well, your head is just going to get scraped bare from all the scratching. The answer isn’t in there. The subtitle of the talk is "From Gatekeeping to Partnerships", but it sounds more like "From Gatekeeping to Super-Gatekeeping".
Like the music industry, the book publishing industry probably feels as though it’s besieged by new technologies and the uses we find for them. Nash’s "Publishing 3.0" seems to be a response that’s in direct opposition to the way things are headed. By "the way things are headed", I mean that we seem to be on the verge of a world where there are no gatekeepers; where, for better or worse, artists are left to deal directly with the community. This requires marketing, which is one of the traditional roles of a publisher; but it’s by no means certain that publishers will be the ones doing that marketing. The "Publishing 3.0" of Cursor looks like a plan to establish a whole new level of gatekeeping in which every interaction between writers and their audience is owned by the publisher. That’s why I called it "Super-Gatekeeping".
What would publishers bring to the table, to make that look like a good deal for the writers and their readers?
There is just the glimmer of an answer – to half that question, anyway – in a post at Nash’s own blog.
No more life-of-the-copyright contracts.
Instead: three year contracts.
Yup, from a contract that locks you in till seventy years after you’re dead, to a three year contract. Renewable annually thereafter. Which means after three years you can walk. Or stay, but stick it to us for better royalties because there’s gonna be a movie. Or stay with us because with all the additional formats and revenue opportunities we’re creating above and beyond what any publisher has to offer, you’re making more money than ever before.
This seems to translate to "We will own every cell in your body, but only for a little while". It doesn’t take too long a trek down memory lane to recall how many writers and artists were willing to do original work for hire just because they had to and how this sometimes left them excluded from very lucrative extensions to their work (Siegel and Shuster, or Jack Kirby, are the obvious examples in comics publishing). So in a Cursorized world, maybe creators would figure that assigning a publisher complete and total ownership – which might be temporary – is the price of doing business.
Nash’s talk establishes some comfy small press credentials (starting a publishing company during the night shift at Kinko’s) but the end product seems like something out of a dystopian novel. I don’t mean that in a good way, if you were wondering.
And with "dystopian novel", I seem to have come full circle and landed on the back of HiLoBooks. I wish them well, especially if they didn’t really mean for us to believe in those book covers. But I’m not sure about the company they’ve chosen to keep. I suppose that (their authors being dead, after all) one half of my misgivings about Cursor are unfounded in HiLo’s case. That leaves a not inconsiderable amount of discomfort, though.
Sommer Leigh has written a pretty thorough description of the retro futurist genres that (mostly) end in the suffix "punk".
I’ve said before that I’m not all that crazy about labels of this kind, and it’s partly because apart from the first of these – cyberpunk – the punk suffix is completely meaningless.
In William Gibson’s Neuromancer
and in at least its first descendants, "punk" really did belong in the name. The technological marvels of these futures were not there to benefit people. They were there to cement the power of large corporations and organizations. The fact that a disenfranchised few on society’s fringes were able to subvert those technologies to their own ends is what made them punks, in the punk rock sense. They were standing on its head the mechanism of power and making something personal and subversive out of it.
But then the word became popular, and shortly afterward it became meaningless, as we see in all the labels that have followed.
Leigh touches on this in her description of steampunk, which is nice to see. Heck, it’s always nice to see people thinking about the meanings of the words they use.
Apart from my own crotchety observations, then, Sommer Leigh has come up with short form descriptions of what each of these labels gets stuck on which should be useful to anybody who wants to use them. (Did I say I was done being crotchety? Oh well. And get off my lawn, there, you kids!)
Consider it a field guide to spotting these words when they’re thrown around in the wild. There are some nice examples cited except, oddly, for the one label I rather like. That’s "Raygun Gothic". Why do I forgive that particular label? First off, there’s no meaningless suffix – what a relief! But despite that, if you take a good look at it "Raygun Gothic" doesn’t seem to mean much, either. It’s just such a… pretty phrase, I guess, and sort of evocative, so I find myself smiling at it even though it, too, seems to be playing on my lawn.