Welcome to my worlds

Let me introduce myself: I’m Jonathan Edelstein, a long-time Internet friend of Aziz. I live in Queens, I’m married with no children but one cat, and I’m about halfway through my forties. I practice law, and hope someday to get it right.

Union, Travail, Justice

I’ve been writing recreationally since I was four years old – my “first novel,” complete with illustrations, was about a cat who drove a truck, and I still have it somewhere in the closet of my spare room. Last year, I broke into the pro scene with First Do No Harm, a short story published at Strange Horizons, and The Shark God’s Child and The Starsmith will appear soon in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Escape Pod. Through the good offices of Sealion Press, I’ve also published Union, Travail, Justice, an 8000-word alternate history story set in a Gabon that voted against independence in 1958; Luke didn’t care for it, but you might.

First Do No Harm takes place 30,000 years from now in a society that is emerging from a dark age, and is about medical ethics and the conflict between scholastic and scientific approaches to knowledge. Various reviewers have characterized the story’s future as too much like the past and not enough like the past; I’ll leave it to you whether it’s too hot, too cold or, as other reviewers thought, just right. What I’d like to discuss instead is the cultural setting.

Mutanda, the world of First Do No Harm (and the forthcoming Starsmith), has a language and society that are adapted from those of the Lamba ethnic group of the Zambian Copperbelt. The Lamba cosmology is, in some ways, made for science fiction, particularly in its concept of the awantu. The awantu maintain the sun, moon and stars – a cosmic working class, if you will – but the remarkable thing about them is that they’re people, with the “ntu” root that means “person” in almost all Bantu languages, and not gods or spirit creatures. They are people of another creation from humans, but they’re conceived as natural beings: in science fiction terms, as aliens.

The awantu play only a background role in First Do No Harm, but many of the kinship customs, words and names shown in the story are also adapted from the Lamba. Of course, no culture is likely to remain pure over 30,000 years, so there are elements drawn from other places: the clan structure owes a great deal to Gabon, the religion to the Yoruba, the clothing to several parts of West Africa, and if you’ve been to Lagos, then Chambishi Port might be a bit familiar. When The Starsmith comes out, you’ll see some Mandé and Shona influence, and if I sell other stories in the same universe, there will be echoes of other places, as well as cultural traits that appear nowhere on earth. And The Shark God’s Child, a fantasy, is set in an Austronesian-based culture that combines elements of Melanesia, Micronesia, Borneo and Madagascar.

Anyway, by now, you’ve probably figured out that I enjoy world-building and writing from the point of view of other cultures. I plead guilty as charged – Africa and the Pacific have been interests of mine for more than a quarter-century, I’ve published professionally on issues of Melanesian law, and I’ve been an honorary member of a Yoruba family for some years. I’m also a white Jewish guy from Queens, which means that when I discuss my stories, I sometimes end up in a conversation about cultural appropriation.

I hate the term “cultural appropriation,” because it conceives of culture as property and also as something that has clear boundaries. In fact, cultures blend into each other, and they have begged, borrowed and stolen from each other for as long as humans have been recognizably human. People and nations have migrated, traded and fought since immemorial times, and as they’ve done so, they’ve adapted and repurposed others’ cultural artifacts. The story of Noah’s Ark came from Gilgamesh; Christmas is Saturnalia with the serial numbers filed off; the stories of Indra, Zeus and Thor are sometimes uncannily familiar. Appropriation and adaptation is how cultures are made.

But however much I dislike the term, I recognize the thing. Culture may not be property but it is patrimony, and parts of it are sacred. Cultural artifacts aren’t meant to be superficial decorations, and they aren’t meant to be used offhandedly as window dressing or, worse, portrayed with a false claim of authenticity. The recent controversy about J.K. Rowling’s expansion of the Harry Potter universe, in which she placed the African magic academy Uagadou (a West African name used for the ancient Ghana empire and Burkina Faso’s capital city) in Uganda and decided that the skinwalkers of Navajo myth were in fact evil wizards, comes to mind, but there have been others.

So, when I build my worlds, I realize I need to walk a fine line and to draw from others’ stories without claiming to tell those stories for them. My overriding concern is to treat my source material with respect: to research thoroughly, to consult with people from the source culture (and let them know what I’m doing) whenever possible, to listen if anyone from that culture has issues with my portrayal, and to treat cultures as something three-dimensional and integral parts of the story rather than decorations. I try to take lessons from those who have gone before me. Above all, I try to acknowledge that I’m a tourist in other cultures and that I have an obligation, as any tourist would, not to litter the place and write my name on the walls.

Neil Gaiman famously said that anyone offended by the term “political correctness” should simply replace it with “treating other people with respect,” as in “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!” Maybe the cultural appropriation debate might best be viewed the same way. If I can achieve “treating other people with respect gone mad,” then maybe I’m doing something right, and I’m always grateful for any help in getting there.

Nexus by Ramez Naam

nexus-ramez-naam

Nexus, by Ramez Naam, is book 1 in a trilogy that I’d never heard of until book 3 was spotlighted by John Scalzi on his blog. Scalzi has been tireless and diligent in promoting new authors and connecting them with his fanbase, allowing prospective readers to really get a sense for the imagination behind a given book right from the author’s mouth. I’ve found a number of promising reads there (and I hope Auston Habershaw has his slot lined up…)

Check out what Ramez Naam has to say about his new book – and if you’re like me, you’ll be sufficiently intrigued to buy the first volume – which is on sale for $2.99 (Kindle) at Amazon right now.

(Or, read Ars Technica’s review. Also glowing 🙂

Also, Ramez Naam has the coolest name since Hannu Rajaniemi. 🙂

“genre” vs “serious” fiction

An intriguing essay on the arbitrary distinctions made by the literature community when deciding what books are treated as proper literature and which are relegated to the genre ghetto:

In a strange quirk of history, literature in the late 20th and early 21st century failed to follow in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound. Instead, conceptual fiction came to the fore, and a wide range of writers—highbrow and lowbrow—focused on literary metaphysics, a scenario in which sentences stayed the same as they always were, but the “reality” they described was subject to modification, distortion and enhancement.

This was seen in the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie; the alternative histories of Michael Chabon and Philip Roth; the modernist allegories of José Saramago; the political dystopias of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro; the quasi-sci-fi scenarios of Jonathan Lethem and David Foster Wallace; the reality-stretching narratives of David Mitchell and Audrey Niffenegger; the urban mysticism of Haruki Murakami and Mark Z. Danielewski; the meta-reality musings of Paul Auster and Italo Calvino; the edgy futurism of J.G. Ballard and Iain Banks; and the works of hosts of other writers.

Of course, very few critics or academics linked these works to their pulp fiction predecessors. Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, a book whose apocalyptic
theme was straight out of the science fiction playbook. But no bookstore would dare to put this novel in the sci-fi section. No respectable critic would dare compare it to, say, I Am Legend (a novel very similar to McCarthy’s in many respects). Arbitrary divisions between “serious fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even when no legitimate dividing line existed.

Only commercial considerations dictated the separation. Literary critics, who should have been the first to sniff out the phoniness of this state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that anything was amiss.

There does seem to be a loosening of these constraints, however. Look at the mainstream success of Neil Gaiman (whose early work fits right into the lineup of authors mentioned above) or new writers like my friend G. Willow Wilson whose book Alif the Unseen is making serious waves.

True, books like the astonishing The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi aren’t going to get the same literary attention – but then again, maybe that’s a good thing. There’s definitely a perception that “hard” science fiction or “high” fantasy are not digestible by the mainstream (even though Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Harry Potter are among the most-read books of all time).

Just Another Day #goodbyeEureka – thank you, @SyFy

Eureka, the scifi show on Syfy about a crazy town full of geniuses, has ended. They gave us 5 great seasons and I am grateful to Syfy for allowing them to produce the “series finale” episode as a send-off to all the characters, something that Stargate: Universe never did get.

The best thing about Eureka wasn’t the science fiction or the high concept. It was teh characters – they had more heart and were more authentic than most scifi shows. Firefly was full of wisecrackin’ badasses, but the only person who really was genuine was Kaylee; Eureka had an entire cast full of Kaylees. Stargate Universe was character driven but was more about the high-concept of true exploration of the Unknown, and it did that brilliantly, but the appeal was different. You can’t compare Eureka to SGU in that way. In fact, if anything, the template for Eureka was The Cosby Show, which served to inform mainstream America that here was an upper-class African American family, with the same dreams and problems as everyone else. Eureka took that template and applied it to Science and scientists, normalizing them the same way. The only way you do that is with a cast of genuinely interesting people, with an authenticity to the chemistry and camraderie that clearly isn’t limited to the screen.

Regardless of why it was great, it’s over, and though of course I have my usual issues about the broken model of television and cable and the perverse incentives that seem to bury the shows I want to watch while rewarding the ones I don’t, I can accept it. Eureka and Farscape and SGU still exist, I did watch them, and I loved them. And I can recommend them to others here on my blog in the hope that others will be enriched by them as I was.

Guide to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga

Mark has posted what must surely be the definitive overview and guide to the Vorkosigan Saga. If you’ve any interest in reading these books, start with Mark’s post.

For myself, I snagged Warrior’s Apprentice and Mountains of Mourning from the Baen Library. I’ll probably get around to the rest eventually – I’m less interested in Cordelia’s story than Miles’ exploits though. At any rate, figuring out where to start and what to skip just got a LOT easier thanks to Mark’s due diligence.

forget Obamacare and SCOTUS: it’s Tau day! it’s Back to the Future Day!

So, apparently there was this big hoo-hah today about some political thing or the other. But the real significance of today is this:

Back to the Future.. but the Future is NOW!

That’s right – today is the day that Doc set as the Future in the first Back to the Future movie!

UPDATE: No, it wasn’t. Three years too early. Sigh.

What’s more, today is also June 28, or “6/28” – which means it is Tau Day! What is tau, you ask? It’s the true circle constant (6.28), unlike that upstart Pi. For more details on the primacy of Tau and the centuries-old conspiracy that is Pi, see the Tau Manifesto, though really I think this image says it all:

Tau is one turn

and here’s a snappy little music video too:

so, enjoy today, a most historic and important day! And don’t worry/gloat too much about that other thing. It’s really not as important as this.

Game of Clones: online streaming is killing quality TV

Online video services are broken. Consider the case of Eureka, a fantastic science fiction show about a silly town full of super scientists, which is being canceled like most quality SF because it could never find an audience on broadcast TV. If you want to watch Eureka online, you’re in semi-luck, it’s on Hulu (Plus). However, there’s a catch:

For Syfy scripted television, the first four episodes of every season will be made available online the day after they air. Every episode after the initial four will be available 30 days after air.

5 episodes will be available at a time.

This is an entirely arbitrary limitation that means that I won’t be watching Eureka even though it’s online for at least a month – a month in which newer shows might come along and eat into my limited availability for watching new and exciting television – like Game of Thrones. This, in a nutshell, is why online streaming is no saviour of quality television: because the content is still slaved to broadcast economics. And for the purposes of this discussion, anything on basic cable might as well be broadcast TV. Unless we get true a la carte pricing on cable (which will never happen), this will always remain true.

Erik at Forbes wrote a deservedly widely-linked piece lambasting HBO for refusing to make GoT available outside a premium subscription, pointing out that the restriction has only encouraged rampant piracy. Later, Erik called for HBO to at least allow folks to subscribe to HBO Go as a standalone service, only to later realize that this is untenable from HBO’s perspective due to their business model. In a nutshell, piracy isn’t a threat to HBO’s ability to create quality TV programming – online video services, however, are a mortal threat, especially “cord cutting” (as an excellent rebuttal by Trevor Gilbert at Pando Daily also made quite clear). It’s also worth reading HBO co-president Eric Kesseler’s thoughts on the matter.

The problem is that quality TV is expensive. Great shows like Awake, Terra Nova, and Eureka are all lost, while nonsense like Lost gets renewed for a milion years and people actually were fooled into thinking that’s good television. Once in a while you get something great like Battlestar Galactica that survives barely long enough to tell a story in depth and in full, but these are rare events built on the fertile ground of corpses of superior concepts like Farscape and Firefly.

The rush to the web means that most content companies are reactionary – they grudgingly put the shows online, but they do it half-assed (as in Syfy’s case with Eureka) with inane restrictions that hamper building a viral audience. Netflix doesn’t have any current television at all, the only game in town is Hulu or buying videos from Amazon or iTunes, which rapidly makes even the expense of cable television seem like a bargain. The end result is that the video go online (at significant engineering and overhead cost) but they fail to generate any viral interest – and cannibalize broadcast views, which hurts ratings.

Yes, Nielsen supposedly does count DVR views towards ratings now, but it’s doubtful that’s equally weighted as a faithful viewer sitting down at the annointed timeslot. But even using a DVR is like flying the space shuttle compared to ease-of-use of online, given that every device in your family room has an internet connection now: Wii, XBox, Playstation, smart TV, Roku, Apple TV. All of these support Hulu and/or Netflix or both and most support Amazon video. DVRs are dinosaurs in comparison.

But if DVRs are not counted as equal to a traditional view, then surely Hulu etc is even less. It’s trivial to ignore ads on Hulu by opening a new window and checking your email, or laying the iPad aside and goofing off with your phone for 30 sec. Hulu is very helpful in even giving you a countdown for how much commercial remains.

No matter how you argue yourself an an exception to the rule, it’s a no-brainer that online viewing of television means less ads, less engaged consumers, and lower ratings. And that hurts good TV across the board. It’s harder to persuade a studio to take a risk on a new concept because they know that even if it’s good, they can’t sell as many ads as they used to so the cost-benefit calculation is going to be worse than it was a few years ago, and will get worse further still ahead.

There’s only one alternative for quality television, outside the Clone ARmy of online streaming services, and that is premium television. If SyFy were a premium channel we would be watching Firefly season 5 by now. As long as we circle around the drain of online streaming we are going to see fewer and fewer shows outside that paywall worth watching, and the few that do make it will be short-lived. The cancellation of Awake really burns in this regard – a show that had an incredible idea but just didn’t have the time to mature. Look at the difference between Encounter at Farpoint and Yesterday’s Enterprise or The Offspring, for example. We don’t get to see that kind of maturation anymore because teh economics of ratings has driven it into the ground, and online streaming is the bloody shovel.

The techsphere is all agog over everything mobile, streaming, real-time, immediate gratification, and cheap. But that’s a formula for dren rather than quality. This is why we can’t have nice things.