Archive for February 2013
It doesn’t take much of an effort to find weblog pieces and online discussions filled with curmudgeonly commentary on the possible elimination of “real” paper books. Books printed on paper, the curmudgeons fear, will soon be rendered extinct, unable to compete with the convenience of eBooks and magazines available on laptops, tablet computers, and dedicated ereaders. This looming apocalypse clearly arouses the disgust of many book lovers, with a few foolishly adopting the “cold dead hands” rhetoric for which NRA activists are known. Most are merely resigned to the changes in progress, shaking their heads (and sometimes fists) and grousing in fine curmudgeonly fashion that the world that follows this apocalypse will be inferior to the world they knew.
For lovers of books and reading, it will surely be a different world. But inferior? I don’t buy that. I’m eager to own my first ereader.
Now, like the curmudgeons bemoaning the sad fate of “real” books, I’m a heavy reader. I understand their love of reading. Books have been a major element of my life for as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t a proper Christmas unless one of the packages contained books, and when asked my preference for a birthday gift I usually had a title or two in mind. (If I didn’t, the adults in my life were very good at picking out volumes that pleased me.) So I can say with complete sincerity that I love books and reading. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the smell of books, and the sound of the pages turning. Most of all, I find the interaction between the words and my mind and imagination enormously gratifying – I always have. And in the joy I so often feel while reading, whether for entertainment or edification (or both at once), I have found an understanding of why my reaction to eBooks is acceptance, not resistance.
I love to read. Reading, not the book itself, is the thing. Flipping the pages, smelling the paper, feeling the weight – all of these things are sensations I associate with reading, but they are not the act of reading. The central matter is my mental and emotional interaction with the words, and through them the ideas and stories presented by the authors who arranged those words in the hope that someone might one day read them. Whether I’m adding to my knowledge of history or science, or escaping reality for a few minutes or hours, it’s the reading that does it for me. That’s the experience that counts. Once I’m into a book, the sounds and smells of bookishness are lost on me. It turns out that this happens as readily for me with an eBook as one made of paper. So whichever way the reading world turns in terms of delivery methods – and it’s pretty obvious where things are headed – my reading habit won’t be affected. In fact, the most likely effect will be an increase in the amount of reading I do. I’m not getting any younger, you see, and I feel an ache in hands and wrists when I hold a substantial volume, and it’s ever more common for me to set a book aside because arthritis is having its way with me, and not because I’ve run out of time to read. But all books weigh the same when in a digital format, and a good ereader weighs next to nothing.
The books I currently own will stay where they are; I won’t be replacing many volumes with digital counterparts. Except for a few frequently used references, I can’t see any point. But many new books, especially works of fiction, will come my way in a digital format. I’ve already used the Kindle and Nook reading apps on my laptop to discover new authors, and this process will only accelerate when I have a dedicated ereader. I see myself, in years to come, buying either paper books or eBooks, whatever suits the needs of the moment, and for as long as both exist.
But if paper ever does go the way of the dodo, I’ll still be reading. I’ll be reading eBooks.
Curmudgeons will no doubt read these words (assuming any of them read weblogs online, which come to think of it is rather unlikely) while frowning and shaking their heads. I’ll leave them to it. There’s no point arguing with those who espouse a lost cause, and eBooks are not going to be a “fad” as so many predicted when the Kindle first hit the market. As evidence of this, consider the UofA student union, in which I am typing this entry. Yesterday I strolled through the union and kept a count of people I noticed reading. Those reading something on a laptop only counted if I saw nothing animated on the screen, a small number. I found 58 people reading, and 33 of them were using ereaders of some sort; you really don’t need to do the math to know what those numbers reveal. Of greater interest to me was the fact that readers of print and eBook alike had the same fixed stares of readers everywhere when lost in a story. There was no visible difference between readers of books and eBooks; the experience seemed the same for them, either way. The current generation of eBooks has succeeded because, for those who desire the experience of reading, they ultimately provide exactly the same thing. Being hung up on the superficial aspects, paper crinkling and the scent of ink, often amounts to little more than grasping after rationalizations to hide a knee-jerk reaction to change.
Study history and you will soon learn that it’s the nature of human civilization to change. And when you understand the pervasive nature of social change you realize there are only two ways to react. You can embrace change, work it and direct it and try to mitigate its less savory aspects. Or you can dig in your heels, hit the brakes, and circle the wagons. But history also teaches us that those who simply try to prevent change are eventually swept away and rendered irrelevant. Those who argue against eBooks and ereaders, especially those who try to prove there’s actually something harmful in such things will, with their objections, soon be forgotten. Their point is already moot, as my informal count in the student union yesterday showed. Books in digital form, or whatever eBooks evolve into, will be the way people read in the near future. And since I plan to read in the future, I will read eBooks.
A couple of years ago a friend acquainted me with the idea that self-publishing, or independent publishing, was now a viable route for getting a book out to readers. Having struggled for years to sell a book to a traditional publisher, and having seen a few people burned by “vanity publishing” scams, I was both curious and skeptical. But I looked into the matter, and curiosity quickly overwhelmed skepticism as I discovered the still new world of self-published ebooks on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, and the options presented by “print on demand” book production. There appeared to be something to all of this “indie publishing” talk, after all, something perfectly legitimate. It really was a chance to get books out there in front of people, without an agent or a publisher. (Of course, that’s all it is. A chance. You can publish a book this way, but contrary to the claims of countless internet carpetbaggers, producing sales of that book is another matter entirely! And a subject best examined separately.)
In that lunchtime conversation, the same friend suggested I dig out one of my unpublished novels, clean it up, and give it a chance out there in the big, bad digital world. When I convinced myself that it would actually be worth the effort to try the self-publishing route, I did just that. I pulled out a book I gave up on sometime between 1998 and 2000, with the title The Way of Leyra’an, and started working it over. I meant to make an experiment of it, but that’s not how things unfolded. It very quickly became a renewed commitment to writing. Rereading and rewriting that book in the last half of 2011, two things became very clear. First, there was a lot more to this story than I’d originally imagined. Second, I still enjoyed writing, and getting back to it again was like discovering that I really could go home again. So the revision became extensive and laid the groundwork for a series, and being at home with words again sort of pulled the cork from the bottle. Words poured forth.
I rewrote what became The Luck of Han’anga. When I found volunteers to beta read the book (one of them the very same person who set this all in motion) and the book passed out of my hands for a time, I turned my attention to the shorter work that I published as the memoir Mr. Olcott’s Skies. This was a test, a way to quickly learn the ropes of indie publishing. It worked, and developed a small following of its own into the bargain. By the time I had The Luck of Han’anga in hand for necessary revisions, I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing. By the middle of 2012 I was ready to launch my first novel, and did so, even as work progressed on the next novel in the War of the Second Iteration series. (A draft of Book Three took shape as Book Two went the rounds of beta readers.)
On Valentine’s Day, 2013, I released Book Two of the War of the Second Iteration: Founders’ Effect. That makes three books out in the span of a year – March 21st being the anniversary of Olcott’s Skies. As I watched the first few sales I was reminded of what a strange and wonderful thing this is, to be putting my work out there in the real world of readers. There is a touch of the unreal to it, because I’d given up hope of ever seeing it happen. And now – here I am, with three books published and a fourth well underway. That’s a huge change, in only a couple of years, from having no hope at all, to taking the first steps forward on a grand adventure. All the more so, as I didn’t see this coming.
Founders’ Effect – War of the Second Iteration, Book Two is available, and a few people have already begun to read it. This is all for real. Book Two is my way of pinching myself, to make sure I’m not dreaming. But I’m wide awake after all, it seems, and in a way that has not been true in far too many years.
Founders’ Effect is currently available as an ebook for Kindle and Nook ereaders, and in multiple formats from Smashwords.
Book One, The Luck of Han’anga, is available from the same sources, and as a paperback from Amazon. (The paperback version of Founders’ Effect is in production.)
Sometime in 1981, on my way to reading all of the Hugo Award winning novels published up to that point in time, I found the Starblaze Editions illustrated reissue of They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley. I had, by then, read several Hugo winners; unable to find copies of some of the earliest, I was not going down the list in strict order. They’d Rather Be Right (alternatively titled The Forever Machine) was the second novel to win the Hugo, and was one of those that took a while for me to find. My admittedly vague recollection of reading the book was one of surprise that it had won the award, especially on the heels of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Still, I don’t recall actually disliking the book, and so I was surprised recently, while browsing reviews of They’d Rather Be Right on Goodreads, to discover that it draws a lot of rather venomous criticism. It’s widely held to be the worst novel to ever win the Hugo Award.
Rereading it, I find it difficult to argue the point. It’s certainly the weakest novel to win the award; it truly does not hold its own against either its predecessor, or the novels that followed. While full of interesting – if now somewhat dated – ideas, it does not blend them smoothly into the story as it unfolds. Instead, the authors stop frequently to lay things out to the reader, sometimes through unspoken thoughts of the characters, but all too often as simply narrative exposition that does little to advance the story. It also starts out awkwardly. Reading this novel felt like sitting down in a theater to watch a movie twenty minutes after the start of the film. Much had already happened before the first chapter began, and none of it was adequately explained in the setup. There had been a great public outcry against the mechanical mind at the heart of the tale, leading to the persecution of those responsible for its invention, but the exact reason for the outcry and the incident that set it off is never clearly explained.
The characters are often mere sketches, set up to serve a particular role, and developed no further. In a few cases, characters are almost painful caricatures of people in particular professions; military and law enforcement professionals are treated especially unkindly. However the characters are handled, they offer little that engaged me as a reader. I get the feeling I’m not supposed to care about them so much as just listen to them as they convey the ideas on which the story rests. The tendency to caricature, unfortunately, extends to the social commentary that seems a central (and rather blunt) theme in this novel. That leads to scenes and passages that play like an early Peter Sellers comedy gone wrong. The impression that comes across is that the authors were looking down their noses at society, the one around them in the mid-1950’s, as they wrote the book. It comes across, at best, as naïvely elitist.
And that observation leads to one regarding a very significant difference between this book and the only other Hugo winner at that time, a difference that leads some modern-day readers to be dismissive of the book when they review it. The Demolished Man was clearly set in the future, and Bester made an effort to imagine how that future would look, feel, and sound. They’d Rather Be Right is supposed to be in the future, but that holds only if everything about the 1950s carried through to whatever vaguely defined future the authors had in mind. As a result, while The Demolished Man remains fresh and interesting today, They’d Rather Be Right comes across as a period piece. If you’ve ever read an anthology of early-to mid-1950s short sci-fi stories, you’ll recognize the feel of this book; it hasn’t aged well. I point this out merely as an observation, one that is true of many novels from any given decade. Saying a book falls short because of this is more than a little unfair. This book is flawed in ways that have nothing to do with when it was written, and that provides plenty of legitimate grist for the critical mill.
Given the book’s numerous problems (and I’m by no means alone in pointing them out) it’s no surprise that so many people are puzzled by the fact that this book won the Hugo Award. I’ve seen plenty of explanations, everything from the thought that the ideas driving the story were outstanding for their time, to conspiracy theories involving voter fraud. I think a closer look at the times during which the book was written may provide a better explanation. They’d Rather Be Right was published on the heels of the McCarthy Era and the Second Red Scare. In many ways, the society the authors describe as a setting for their story reflects the fears many intelligent people had during that episode. “Opinion control” is frequently invoked to describe an underlying cause for the troubles experienced by the society described in the novel. Characters in the book fear Soviet-style tattling by neighbors and co-workers. Even a casual examination of McCarthyism reveals that fears of such things were anything but groundless. Then as now, many, if not most, science fiction fans were wide open to new ideas, new ways of thinking and doing, and these were traits viewed with suspicion by the anti-Communist witch hunters of those days. I’ve met fans from that era over the years, and several have confessed they spent much of the Fifties looking over their shoulders and watching what they said in public. It was not, by all accounts, a happy time to have an active mind and imagination. So it isn’t much of a stretch to see They’d Rather Be Right as a response to the hysteria and paranoia of the time, and in fact, it almost certainly was a response of sorts. If that’s so, winning the award is less of a surprise. The novel spoke to the fans of that time and held their fears up to the light. That’s the sort of impression that might lead someone to cast a vote.
Whether or not this is what happened, I can’t say for sure. The above is informed speculation, and from things I’ve recently read on the matter, makes as much sense as most of the other explanations floating around out there. However it happened, They’d Rather Be Right did in fact win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1955. If you have an interest in the history of science fiction, read this book for the sake of understanding its place in that history. If you’re just looking for a good story, however, you might want to skip to the third Hugo winner.