Moving Day

Tens of thousands of years ago, entire tribes might move from one place to another, carrying everything they owned on their backs. Now we need two U-Hauls for one person. That’s progress.

Home (def’n): That largish container where you store all your junk.

Among Other Things

The very next morning from that previous post, I did indeed find Jo Walton’s novel waiting. I probably shouldn’t have let myself crack it open, because I’m already more than halfway done, and meanwhile I’ve left off other books I’ve been struggling to finish for awhile. Sometimes books can be hard work to get through and still be worth the effort, but there’s a heck of a lot to be said for something which is simply and only a pleasure and a joy to read, as Among Others is.

Think of Dan Brown. Most of the literati I know turn up their nose at The Da Vinci Code, but even if there isn’t much depth, writing a truly effective thriller like that, the consummate page-turner, requires a certain degree of technical skill that you don’t see that often. After all, even those “serious writers” would surely make their work as readable as possible (we’ll leave out the intentionally obfuscatory post-modernists and poets and essayists). Brown does one thing — suspense and climactic build-up — really well, and while his writing isn’t as smart as, say Ludlum’s, he still chose the write genre to let his light shine.

Just to clarify, Among Others is neither a thriller, nor is it shallow. It draws the reader in more via investment in the characters than a mile-a-minute plot. But it’s very readable, just the same. Definitely one of the best works of fiction I’ve read this year.

Busy, Busy, Busy

I knocked off an article this weekend, though I’m not sure where I’m going to publish/pitch it yet. But I need to start knocking off some reviews this week, as I’ve received rather a lot of material recently. At the moment I have half a dozen books in hand, plus one game and a DVD set. I hope to get half of these done by month’s end.

I also have a few items in transit that may arrive any time. These actually include several fantasy books, although this is a genre I’ve read little of the last few years. Lev Grossman’s surprise hit, The Magicians, along with his just-released sequel, The Magician King, are both on their way. It’s supposed to be a sort of school of magic premise, but rather than being geared towards younger readers as the early Harry Potter books were, it’s a bit more adult, being an American college of magic, with older, rougher around the edges protagonists. I’ve heard enough good things about the books to be intrigued. (Edit: The 2011 Hugo Award winners have been announced, and Lev Grossman has been recognized as best new SF writer.)

Also on the way is a book I requested, Jo Walton’s Among Others. She’s also an author I’ve been hearing about a lot lately, and this particular novel, which sounds like it’s as much about the life of a speculative fiction fan as being a work of speculative fiction itself, sounds interestingly meta-fictional. Each of these may possibly fall into the young adult category, I’m not actually sure. If so, I wouldn’t consider that a strike against them in the slightest.

Anyway, I’ll post here as I get new reviews up, along with any other articles that may be of interest.

Cory Doctorow on Non-Traditional Publishing

Cory Doctorow is someone who’s thought a lot about whether the traditional ways we do things in publishing are the only way. But he doesn’t just pontificate about it, he puts his money where his mouth is, experimenting with his own paycheque. If he succeeds, he has proof of concept of a new sort of marketplace. If he fails, it’s back to the drawing board.

For his Little Brother follow-up, For the Win, Doctorow decided to use a Creative Commons License. Digital copies are available as a free download at his Web Site, under multiple formats. Under the terms of the license, anyone can do pretty much whatever they want to with the text, and then re-release it, as long as they aren’t charging money for it. In this way, fan-made releases under every kind of format, for every kind of device, including, most recently, this audio version podcast, are available to everyone. And, if you enjoy it, just send a little donation Mr. Doctorow’s way. No obligation, though.

Doctorow’s even more recent release, the collection, With a Little Help, also comes with free digital downloads (again with a “pay what you want” policy), but he’s also trying to cut out the middleman for his physical editions, utilizing print on demand, and acting as his own publicist and agent and publisher. He describes this whole ongoing experiment at his Publisher’s Weekly blog, here.

I loved Little Brother, so I think I’ll be checking out that podcast. I’ll try to think of a fair payment to give him in return.

Back to School

It’s already back to school time yet again. Rhett Allain at Dot Physics has a nice post with advice to students, faculty, and administrators. Believe it or not, this will be the first time in 25 years that September has not meant a return to the classroom for me (this includes four years as a teacher and 21 years as a student — counting preschool). Other than a major relocation, September will be just another month of work as a writer.

But even if I never teach again, education will always be a major interest of mine. Making education work for everyone seems like it should be simple, but somehow it isn’t. There are students dealing with poverty, abuse, English as a new language, medical issues, learning disorders, or simply a teacher whose style doesn’t match with their own. Yet with few exceptions, they have more say over their own educational path than their teachers, parents, national leaders, or anyone else. Like Dorothy in Oz, the ones that beat the odds realize at the end, they had the power all along.

Indepedence, determination, initiative, stamina . . . this is all it takes. But no one develops these qualities overnight, and it’s a much tougher challenge to try to develop these qualities in someone else. This is where it gets complicated. And this is where I call bull on those pundits and politicians who claim a single, Magic Bullet solution to a “broken” educational system (e.g., charter schools, standardized testing). If there were any single thing that worked consistently to turn out committed, independent learners, absolutely everyone would be doing it.

Orwell and $500, 000 Books

I received a bit of happy news today. The Canadian publisher has agreed to send me an advance copy of Haruki Murakami’s newly translated, IQ84. It will be released in North America near the end of October. The title is a play on words, the q and nine being pronounced the same way in Japanese. The book is a tribute to Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, and it got me to thinking, I’ve never read Anthony Burgess’ variation on the same theme, so I thought I might pick up a copy. Here’s what I found:

That’s right, a new copy is available for the low, low price of half a mil.

My bad, it’s “almost like new”. But look, 98% of the previous millionaire book-buyers have been satisfied.

There’s an explanation for this, and here it is. Presumably the algorithm jdmediabooks is using also happens to like nice, round numbers.


Becoming a Real Writer: What’s a Real Writer?

Even defining oneself as a real writer is a tricky proposition. Are we talking professional versus amateur? Well, by the strictest definition, professional writers don’t exist, as writing doesn’t fall under the definition of a professional career (i.e., a certain set of formal training requirements, a professional association which is in charge of accreditation/licensing, as well as disciplining its members if they break their professional code, as with architects, lawyers, physicians, etc.). Sure, there are journalism degree programs, writing workshops, but these are, to varying degrees, optional.

What about money? If you get paid you’re a real writer, right? I once received a cheque, very early in my part-time writing, for under $5.00 for a story I had written. Was I a pro from that point forward? SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) has specific guidelines before they’ll recognize you as a pro SF writer, which includes selling a certain number of stories to markets they categorize as professional, all of which pay more than $5.00 per story. So, according to them at least, no.

What if you quit your day job and make enough money to live on just from your writing? Well, that certainly seems reasonable, at least on the face of it. It’s not about getting paid, but getting paid enough, and getting paid consistently that matters. It’s the only way you’ll be able to do it as a living, after all. But if you’re living in your parent’s basement and not paying rent, then getting enough money to buy frozen burritos and slurpees may not be the same as being a real writer.

Having said that, though, plenty of great writers don’t get to ever quit their day jobs. Lots of the magazine articles you read come from freelancers, who may not make enough sales to quit their bartending job. This has been particularly true in the last five years or so where staff jobs are harder to find, and many newspapers and magazines are cutting back or shutting down. On the fiction front, even novelist Steven Gould started writing full-time only very recently, 20 years and half a dozen published books in. What did it for him? His first novel, Jumper, being turned into a movie. But I considered him a real writer long before that.

So, I’m inclined to say you’re a real writer if you write, and people read what you write. Maybe you’re a part-time writer, maybe you’re a writer with a day job, but if that disbars you from being a “real” writer, then there are actually far fewer real writers than most people realize.

Warren Buffett Doesn’t Think He’s Paying Enough Taxes

And good for him. Sometimes it takes someone with a forensic accounting
to pick up on someone not paying enough taxes, but not this
time. His New York Times op-ed is a breath of fresh air.

OUR leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

The point is often made that the majority of American, working-class conservatives consistently vote against their own interests. I don’t think the point is made enough that we ought to vote for what’s right for our fellow citizens as a whole, rather than thinking only of our own interest*. (As an environmentally-minded inividual, I would also include future citizens in that consideration.) If nothing else, we’re all dependent on each other, and economic collapse is bad for everyone in the long run.

Link via Scalzi, whose take on this is worth a read.

*Just so we’re clear, I am indeed Canadian, but like many of my countrymen, I follow US politics as carefully as my own.

Sometimes it takes someone with a <a
href=’’>forensic accounting
degree</a> to pick up on someone not paying enough taxes, but not this

Science Fiction as Real Literature

I have a number of reviews on the backburner, but one of the things I’m reading in-between is The Secret History of Science Fiction, an anthology with an agenda. The basic premise, as explained in that link, is that if Thomas Pynchon’s critically-acclaimed novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, had won the Nebula, rather than the much pulpier Rendezvous with Rama, maybe science fiction would have earned some degree of respectability. The person who originally put this argument forward was Jonathan Lethem, a writer known both in literary and sci-fi circles, and his short essay is reproduced here.

I got a little annoyed with Margaret Atwood a few years back when she stated that her excellent novel, Oryx and Crake, was not science fiction. I took that to mean that she felt she was too good to write that speculative stuff. It’s a great novel with important societal themes, but it is unquestionably science fiction. The decision to categorize books in a certain way is usually simply about marketing, and not determined by the author. But it can give the false impression that real literature is one category while science fiction is another.

In reality, quality writing, character-driven narratives, and social relevance can all be found both in and out of science fiction. Science fiction isn’t about style or substance, the only real requirements are that it asks some kind of speculative question and the universe follows rational laws.

Great examples of highly literary science fiction include some of Atwood’s works, another Canadian writer, Robert Charles Wilson’s works (particularly Spin), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s brilliant work, The Wind-Up Girl.

What about something like Slaughterhouse-Five, or Charles Yu’s debut novel, How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe (which I reviewed here), or even Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is as likely as not to be found in the literary or “chick lit” section? If you click that review link, you’ll see I argued that Yu’s novel, at least, is not science fiction.

Is that because the book is a little too post-modern, a little too emotionally immediate for science fiction? How else could a book about time-travel not be sci-fi? I must think that mature themes don’t fit into the genre, which must be limited to juvenile adventure fantasies geared towards 12-year-old boys. Well, no. I don’t consider it science fiction because the book is very self-referential, contains aspects of self-parody, and its narrative follows more of an emotional logic than existing within a consistent, objective universe.

In this case, the work is more meta-fiction or modern allegory than anything else. The metaphor of the narrative takes precedence over the logical details of that same narrative. That’s not a knock, it’s just the kind of book it is, more akin to the style of someone like Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) than the tighter plots normally found in both general and genre fiction.

The point is, there’s no tier-based system as far as quality goes. You’ll find hack work in every section of the book store. If you know someone who is, or are yourself under the impression that science fiction (or mystery, or fantasy, or historical fiction, etc.) is hack work exclusively, you should consider taking a look at a couple of the books mentioned above (or any number of other great sci-fi works, Flowers for Algernon is rightly on many school reading lists).

Perception is everything. I’ve been stealth gifting non-SF friends with top-tier speculative works for years. (The key is in finding the right edition, without the pulpy covers some of the mass market paperbacks have.) If you’re a lover of literature, and you want to read the best that’s out there, you can’t limit yourself to one genre, even the genre of general or literary fiction. The best writers doing their best work are not found exclusively in any one category.

Marking His Territory

We have two dogs in our house, a male and female, two and three years old, respectively (with rounding). When we were training our young miss, we used a squirt bottle as a last resort, when verbal commands and positive reinforcement couldn’t get her attention. Veterinarians and professionals from vet tech schools tell pet owners that spraying should be used when other methods don’t work.

To this day, she leaves the room if she sees someone, for example, spraying disinfectant on a counter-top, and she doesn’t like to be outside while we’re watering the garden. She’s still wary, though she hasn’t been squirted in years.

So you’d think she didn’t like getting wet. But at the park last night, she decided to sniff around the same patch of grass our little mister was, well, “spraying”. We’ve had close calls before, and usually give them a heads-up when one isn’t watching where they stick their head, but unfortunately, this time we were too slow.

It bothered us more than them. With urine dripping from her left ear, our little miss continued to go about her business, apparently unfazed. But it occurs to me, since he’s marked his territory, and with no objection from her, this may mean our puppies are officially engaged.