April 30, 2010

Building on the Feet of Ozymandias

Hatched by Dafydd

In an earlier post -- The Religion of Fear Itself, or Why I Despise Modern Liberals (reason 334) -- I proposed that modern, "New Left" liberalism has become utterly dependent upon inducing terror of the future and the unknown in its adherents. Quoth I:

Why is Hawking so frightened? And why does he think should the rest of us be afraid? Because liberal ideology -- and in particular disgust with Western civilization and unthinking acceptance of all the environmenalist myth-making about the unnaturalness of humanity -- leads many liberals into despair and terror....

[L]iberalism has metastacized into the philosophy of catastrophe, where every way we live brings about our gruesome death: Eating, drinking, exercising, heating our homes, cooling our heels, and now even exhaling. From the Center for Science in the Public Interest to the IPCC to ELF and ALF, liberals warn that we must fear everything.

But there is yet another reason I despise modern liberalism -- or actually post-modern, or "pomo" liberalism; I despise it for what it has done to science fiction, the most quintessentially American literary form.

Science fiction, as a distinct literary genre set apart from fabulism and fantasy, began in France in the 1860s, as Jules Verne penned such masterpieces of science speculation unfolding within a narrative as Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. (The latter two have been "overtaken by events," but we have yet to send humans to the Earth's core.)

The field continued to develop in a continental way as the mantle passed to Herbert George Wells. H.G. Wells took on much more challenging and controversial themes in the Time Machine (time travel), the Island of Doctor Moreau (genetic engineering and creation of hybrid "manimals"), the Invisible Man (duh), the War of the Worlds (interplanetary warfare), and Men Like Gods (parallel universe), along with his movie, Things to Come, which depicted a radically changed future Earth -- itself quite shocking to movie-goers of the 1930s (admittedly Fritz Lang paved the way with movies like Metropolis; but that silent classic was more of a socialist parable than real science fiction).

But around this time, the power and impetus of "scientifiction" shifted to the New World, as publisher and rip-off artist Hugo Gernsback began pushing pulp science-fiction magazines to the masses. The first was Amazing Stories, which began publication in 1926; it was soon joined by numerous other competing science-fiction magazines, of which the most important for many decades was Astounding Stories (original title, that), which began publication in 1930.

American science fiction was distinguished from its European counterpart by:

  • The muscularity of plot and characters;
  • An optimistic, forward-looking perspective;
  • The "normality" with which the abnormal was handled -- people in the 22nd century don't wander about talking about the marvels of the 22nd century; it just seems normal and natural to them;
  • The celebration of science, technology, and change, rather than seeing it as a dire portent of terrible things to come;
  • And the elevation and promotion of the original science-fictional idea, which subsequently drives the rest of the story.

It's the latter I'm most concerned with in this post... for it is precisely that original SF idea that makes good science fiction a more useful, more optimistic, and yes, more American genre than any other literature.

And it is precisely that original SF idea that liberal publishers and editors have nearly succeeded in driving out of the genre, thus transforming the perfect American literature into an anemic parody of Euro-decadent "literature of the fantastic."

What's an original SF idea? I define the term to mean an original idea so interesting that we can discuss it for hours -- without even referencing the story whence it came. My favorite example comes from Poul Anderson's most important early work, Brain Wave (1953):

For (hand-waving) reasons, every form of life on Earth that has a central nervous system (CNS) becomes, over a several-month period, about five times as intelligent as it began; in particular, humans now have an IQ of roughly 500.

How would the sudden, radical increase in intelligence affect human civilization? How much of daily interaction between people, government, commerce, and even love depend upon each person having imperfect information about other people? Would that situation still obtain in a world of geniuses beyond what any of us could possibly imagine? (And on a more po-mo level, how does a writer with high-normal human intelligence write convincingly about people many times smarter than he?)

What of the relations between humans and dogs and horses, our closest symbiots with CNSes? (Our digestive bacteria are not affected by the change.) What about people who really just don't like thinking... wouldn't being so dreadfully intelligent and unable to turn it off be sheer torture?

The point is that we could sit in a room and discuss the ramifications of several billion people with IQs in the 500 range for hours, even days, without ever getting to the events that unfold in the novel.

Such original ideas used to be the core of the definition of science fiction.

They needn't be "hard science;" Ursula K. LeGuin's novel the Left Hand of Darkness (1969) posits a race that is neither male nor female but cycles to one or the other "gender" once a month or so. Yes, it's a liberal feminist book by a liberal feminist author; but her liberalism is older than the New Left... before the former lost its ability to think, to create, and to imagine radical change that wasn't necessarily towards either socialist utopia or capitalist dystopia. Clearly, if we did not have static, defined genders, our society would be profoundly different.

Original science-fictional ideas are often short-handed to "what-ifs": What if we could travel forward in time and bring back a report of what we saw? What if we could travel backward in time and alter the past?

A what-if can also be an original "riff" on a previous original idea: What if so many people were traveling backward and forward in time, changing events higgledy-piggledy in a never-ending "change war," that reality itself was crumbling around their ears? That last is the original SF idea Fritz Leiber used in his "change war" stories, including the novel the Big Time (1957) and several short stories.

Another non-hard-science, original SF idea forms the basis of Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy (1975): What if every imaginable conspiracy was literally true -- and all at the same time?

What-ifs train our minds to be more flexible and tolerant of differences, to look for solutions in unlikely places, to think "sideways," to accept the inevitability of change, and in general, to prepare us for the future -- which is always different from the past, but more recently has become more different at a faster rate (cf. Alvin Toffler's Future Shock series of nonfiction sociological speculations).

They also put severe constraints on the author, because he is forced by the game rules to make his speculation plausible within what is currently believed to be reality, whether science, sociology, politics, or any other venue for speculation. That is, even the most phantasmic what-if must be handled by the author in as realistic a way as possible... unlike magic in a work of fantasy, such as the Lord of the Rings (at the high literary end) or the Harry Potter stories (at the pedestrian and juvenile end).

While I have no objection to fantasy -- I have probably read thousands of fantasy stories and published two fantasy novels myself -- and while I wholeheartedly agree that Europeans (especially Brits) have contributed many original SF ideas to the field, spearheading the "New Wave" of science fiction in the late 50s and through the 60s... nevertheless, we have lost something terribly important and very American from the literature over the last few decades; and I want it back.

But how did liberals get such power to thoroughly remake science fiction?

The problem with traditional publishing is the huge up-front cost of typesetting, printing, binding, stocking, distributing, and promoting books. It literally takes tens of thousands of dollars to make copies of a single title available in a Borders or B&N bookstore; for a book expected to be a bestseller, that cost jumps to hundreds of thousands of dollars per title.

It takes a giant corporation willing to invest beaucoup bucks to bring a book to the normal market (as opposed to small presses, speciality presses, give-aways, and vanity presses); and whether corporation or government, control follows funding as corruption follows liberalism: The editors and publishers, who must part with the money, dictate to the authors what they may write, by the simple expedient of rejecting any manuscript that does violence to their liberal sensibilities.

Too, the larger the corporation, the more closely it acts like a government, and the more intimate and incestuous are its relations with the State. That is why CEOs and BoDs of big corporations are so often liberals and socialists: The last thing in the world they want is a free market where they must actually compete for market share. They would much rather belly-up to the pig trough of private-public "partnerships" -- that is, conspire against the general public. Simply put, huge corporations attract liberals because "rent-seeking" profits multinationals far more than Capitalism.

So liberals took over the publishing industry many decades ago; and when the New Left took over liberalism, they recreated science fiction in their own uncreative image. In the front door went political correctness and sucking up to post-modern trends like gender-feminism and conservative-bashing; out the back door went those pesky (and dangerous!) original ideas.

True, SF sales in the standard model of book production are drastically down; but it's easier for lefties to explain that away -- too much unrestricted competition from movies and TV, literacy is in decline, the economy is bad, it's all Bush's fault -- than actually to analyze the problem and solve it. SF books used to give readers something they couldn't get from sci-fi movies and spacy TV series: serious speculation about original science-fictional ideas, what-ifs. Absent that bonus, more former readers prefer the visual media to a denuded literature of absent ideas.

Not all publishing falls into the standard model; so-called "print on demand" books are cheaper, because you don't print the book until someone orders it, then you mail it to him. But that has never been a very large component of the total book-selling market. Most readers want to see the book and flip through it before deciding; then when they decide to buy it, they want to take it home on the spot.

So how to break the liberal stranglehold on the publication of putative "science fiction?" Alas, there are only two ways for the what-ifs to return:

  • The New York SF publishing Mafia loses control of the literary genre (and corresponding marketing category), allowing real capitalists to restore the original idea to its former centrality. (This should happen shortly after Hollywood turns Republican.)
  • Alternatively, some new means of publication allows authors to bypass the New York SF publishing Mafia entirely, making titles available to customers without first having to pass the liberal Cerberus at the gates. Thus could we build a new edifice upon the crumbled feet of Ozymandias.

by Percy Bysshe Shelly
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I don't see online reading as that "new means of publication"; too many people (such as myself) cannot find pleasure in reading fiction on a CRT, or even an LED or LCD screen. It makes my eyes ache. But I hold out great hope for "smart paper" or "electronic paper" devices, like the Amazon Kindle or the Sony Book Reader. These technologies more closely mimic the experience of reading words printed in ink on paper that has defined a "book" for millennia, long before Gutenberg hurriedly invented the printing press to pay off the loan sharks on his tail.

Of course, in order to be just as comfortable on the eye as high-quality printing, e-paper needs to get a much higher dot-density -- more in the 2500 pixels per inch (ppi) range, or at least 1250, than the pitiful and myopia-inducing 167 ppi of the Kindle 2 (150 ppi for the Kindle DX), or even the 200 ppi of the Sony Reader Pocket Edition. And it needs a lot more than sixteen shades of grey; better yet, the same spread of full color found in contemporary monitors. But these are just engineering details, easily worked out. The main point is that e-paper has all the advantages of online text (storage capacity, the ability to make notes, hold bookmarks, link to other passages in the same work or other works), plus the ability to read it in broad daylight at the beach without your eyeballs dropping out of their sockets.

Being well-trained in science-fiction reading protocols, I can easily envision a future in which such e-paper readers become the standard means of "publishing" (disseminating) books. In such a world, my task as an author would be...

  1. Write the novel
  2. Put it into the format necessary to display on the e-paper reader
  3. Make it available for downloading
  4. And last, the biggie: Find some way to publicize the book so potential readers know it's available.

Somewhere in that muddle I must find a business model that puts money in my pocket for writing the book in the first place. My best guess for step 4 is that well-known amateur book reviewers would receive a dozen books a month, each author hoping his book makes the cut and a prominent place in the next online review column.

Too, companies, organizations, or groups of respected individuals could form book clubs to filter books by quality and orientation. Thus if you went to the Conservative Book Club's website, you might see a list of fifty or so books published the last year that the club mavins think conservatives would particularly like. Each book listing would include a download link.

As for the author's money, either the download or decrypting the file beyond the first couple of chapters would require payment, or perhaps the download site would sell adverts and pay the authors directly based upon frequency of (free) download. But by some means, money must flow to authors, or authors will be forced to quit writing and find honest work.

Either way, liberals will have their own lists; but they won't get to control everybody else's list. The chokehold will be broken, and proper science fiction will flourish once more; a huge, untapped market for it still exists, and to quote a much misunderstood phrase, "information wants to be free" -- meaning not that information wants to stiff its writers, but that information cannot be shackled for long.

I hope to play a role in bringing about that Millennium, but I don't know exactly when it will commence; I don't have any secret deals I'm working on; I'm just waiting for the technology to catch up with the vision. Keep watching, as they say, the skies.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 30, 2010, at the time of 9:59 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Stephen Macklin

The good thing is that to some extent, that market already exists. The danger is that it will be overly dominated by Apple and Amazon. If they can see past their own politics to the financial opportunity they will allow this market to grow on the infrastructure they already have in place.

I don't think it's impossible. I can go to Apple's iTunes and live stream WABC in New York. Their lineup from noon to 9:00 p.m. is Rush, Hannity and Mark Levin.

I'm certain it's not a feed Steve Jobs listens to regularly but it exists on his service.

The above hissed in response by: Stephen Macklin [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 1, 2010 6:25 AM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

I walk into the Library of Congress; the works of the ages are all (or almost all) available to me. Which tome do I choose for my evening read? Well... too many choices. So. I narrow it down to a retailer. Vastly more limited supply, yes, but a more distilled supply as well, if you will. What's popular... what they recommend. I prefer Sci-Fi/Fantasy, so I narrow it down even more; I'm down to a thousand choices or so. Say my fave authors have nothing new on the shelf, and none of the cover art tugs at me. (Yes, I'll admit I'm that shallow.) Now I take a chance.

Apply this to e-Print books... Amazon has everything... and yet, I'm not able to choose from everything. So what's MY Fantasy (sorry) solution?

A website created/maintained/written by folks who know their writing. Some may prefer Gropy Romance Space Opera (and anxiously await the next Honor Harrington novel!) some prefer original ideas / thought experiments, some alternate history.

Key point: NONE prefer the Star Wars/Trek empires. None at ALL! ;)

I would love to see that... and I would even get a Kindle or something to download stories DIRECTLY FROM that website, even at a premium over the Empire that Jeff Bezos Built. Not MUCH of a premium, of course... but I'm being charged $8+ for a novel now; I could afford an extra buck or two for the service provided by the Staff. Preferably Staff would be writers, and not be able to promote their own stuff. What would keep them from Cross-recommending dreck? A reputation for recommending dreck would kill the model, so Enlightened Self Interest would have to be key.

No, I DON'T know any of those authors. Why are you laughing so hard? Get a grip, Dafydd. Geez.

In any case, that would be what I'd like to see as a consumer. It would be nice to try a book that somebody I know recommended, and nicer still to find the first in the series available. Can't tell you how annoying it is to be drawn in by a good cover/cover blurb only to find it's #3 in a series... and #1 and #2 are not in stock. Ever.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 1, 2010 5:31 PM

The following hissed in response by: MrDamage

I recommend to your attention Baen Publishing, and in particular, John Ringo, David Weber, Eric Flint, David Drake and S. M. Stirling. Check out the free library for examples of their work

The above hissed in response by: MrDamage [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 1, 2010 9:10 PM

The following hissed in response by: BlueNight

I work as a blueprint printer. The industry standard printing process is now black toner on white bond paper, just like your office laser printer. At 400 dpi, text is indistinguishable from newsprint or paperbacks at a foot from my eyes. (600 dpi is even better, but only slightly, to my eyes. People who prefer high-quality hardbacks will prefer 600 dpi.)

The above hissed in response by: BlueNight [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2010 11:52 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


I set my printer to print at 600 dpi; so 600 ppi would probably be okay.

But what we have right now is 167 ppi. They really need to work on that; it's one of two things holding me back (the other is the $300+ price tag).


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2010 6:14 PM

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