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.

whither science fiction as a genre?

There’s been a lot of intropspection about science fiction by science fiction authors recently. It started with Elizabeth Bear’s essay in Clarkesworld, titled “Dear Speculative Fiction: I’m Glad We Had This Talk“, where she personifies sci-fi as a genre into a goth teenager, accusing it of the attitude that “nothing fun can have value; that only grimdark portentousness and dystopia mean anything.” Abi Sutherland had a follow-up in the same vein, where he advises a now-sobbing adolescent Science Fiction (or, “Fic”) to stop “acting like an outsider hoping to join a high school clique” and to “stop mistaking darkness for value.”

To be honest, I don’t really agree with the critique. Admittedly, I am way behind on the Hugo nominated books, but what I do is religiously follow the annual Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Dozois, and as far as I can tell the range of science fiction (at least in short story form) is as wide as ever. I am something of a short-story zealot however – to me it is the purest form of SF.

Meanwhile, Charlie Stross sounds the alarm over the vitality of the genre as a whole, pointing to ebooks as the culprit. I’ll excerpt the main part of his argument:

I am not sure it is possible to write introspective, complex SF as a screen medium. The natural length of a feature movie is around 120 minutes; the traditional movie script runs at one page per minute, with 250 words per page—that buys you, in literary terms, a novella. Add in the expectations of studio executives and the dumbing-down effects of editing by committee you end up with huge pressure to make the script commercial rather than complex. Some director/scriptwriters have the clout to get what they want: but then you end up, as often as now, with George Lucas. Nor is there much scope for a dialog in which directors build on someone else’s ideas. So a large chunk of cinematic SF is stuck, spinning its wheels, mistaking ever better special effects and ever bigger first weekend box-office draws for progress.

Written SF harbours a much more complex ecosystem in part because the works are potentially bigger (big enough to encompass big ideas) and in part because it’s still, to some extent, ghettoised.

Genre, in the ebook space, is a ball and chain. It stops you reaching new audiences who might like your work. You are an editor, presented with “Rule 34”: do you choose to market it as SF, as crime/police procedural, or as mainstream literary fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to market it as all three, with different cover designs and cover blurbs and marketing pitches and reader recommendations and reviews for each bookstore category?

Stross says this problem is unrelated to the issue being discussed by Bear and Sutherland, but it strikes me as quite related indeed – science fiction novelists seems to be chasing after literary validation, in part to escape that genre ghetto and in part to broaden it. Meanwhile, the sub-field of short story sci-fi seems to be weathering the transition to e-formats well – Asimov’s is ridiculously affordable, though there are complaints about formatting. And of course teh aforementioned compilations are great value for cream-of-the-crop – Dozois will release volume 29 this year which is an astounding milestone in and of itself – and the year retrospective he writes about the entire field is worth the price alone. I wonder how many other science fiction authors read it?