The Future of Publishing?

SF Signal has an excellent topic this week for their mind-meld, a gathering of experts in the field who commentate on a common subject. This week's topic looks to the future of a field that's central to the speculative fiction genres: Publishing. The responses are well worth looking at and reading over, especially for those who are interested in writing professionally, or for fans who are wondering where their fix will be coming from next.

The short answer consensus seems to be that publishing, books, stories and everything isn't going anywhere, but the field will see major changes in book distribution and creation, not to mention the publishing rights of authors. eBooks and dedicated readers seem to have thrown most everyone through a loop as they scramble to figure out just what's going on, and trying to make their best guesses on where the industry will step next, which is in turn dependent on a number of factors outside of the publishing industry's control.

To be fair, books have had their own share of issues throughout recent memory, although the challenges here are a bit bigger. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a massive amount of consolidation of bookstores as major chains worked their way into existence, causing quite a lot of soul searching and closings of independent bookstores as a result. The bigger stores seem to have met their match as roared past them, because it could do things differently, and better than a physical bookstore. With eBooks, the troubles come as established markets find that their models for selling books is potentially undermined by an entirely new way to sell books, bringing in a number of new challenges and opportunities to the publishing world.

Every single online conversation about books seems to turn to the eBook market, with people coming down on two sides: "I LOVE EBOOKS, I READ SO MANY OF THEM!" and the "I LIKE THE SMELL OF PAPER AND THE WEIGHT OF THE BOOK IN MY HANDS!" crowds, both of which miss a major point: all that the platform does as function, whether physical or a computer, is content delivery. The same book exists in both realms, and as Lou Anders points out: "... it's always been about the content, not the delivery mechanism." Publishers have an extra option that just didn't exist in any major way, and they are slowly waking up to the possibilities that electronic books will allow. The popularity of eBook readers is a good thing, I think.

The move to electronic formats does allow for a split between hard-copy 'traditional' books, and eBooks in ways that really hasn't been touched on yet. When I attended ReaderCon, one presenter, Leah Bobet, noted that there are impressive things that electronic books can do: interactive features, links to relevant content and ways to read books in very different ways than we can now. Cheryl Morgan notes the very same thing this time around: essentially special features that can get tacked on to what you're reading. With that line of thinking, books are poised to change a lot: multiple editions of the bigger books, with stripped down text for those who just want the story, or special features for the top of the line products. Some books already have these sorts of incentives: interviews with authors, reading guides, and previews of upcoming novels.

Despite this, I don't think that hard-copy books will go away any time soon. There is enough market demand for hard-copy books, and the medium has had a long, long head start on the eBook revolution, which is still working its way through its early days. EBooks are certainly popular, and will grow to be even more so as the market shakes out the big obstacles. I suspect that we'll see the end of dedicated eBook readers such as the Nook and the Kindle (sorry, Barnes and Noble and Amazon), in favor of multiple use devices such as the iPad, or dedicated eBook readers such as the Sony Digital Reader as a universal format is adopted by stores and publishers alike. The ability to read a book on multiple devices, I think, will be more important that the actual proprietary hardware that we have now. This is a lesson that online magazines are finding, and I suspect that while the Kindle has a good run right now, it'll become a bit more open and accepting of other formats.

While e-readers might become a bit more open, I can see exclusivity remaining, becoming a major factor in how stories are sold, coupled with how chain stores might try to stay in the game. A couple of years ago, Borders released an exclusive book through their stores. I was a bookseller at the time, and this was a book that had been pushed quite heavily, and through the company's efforts, it did fairly well, although I can't figure out what the title of the book was or who the author was. The experiment doesn't seem to have been as much of a success, because I haven't seen anything like it since then (although I'm not quite in the same loop as I was before), but I think it's an idea that has merit, and that it'll be experimented with again.

There's little doubt that major book sellers are having their own issues at the moment: too much stock, not enough of it selling, and it's likely that we'll see Borders fail in the next couple of years, if not sooner. Amazon and Barnes and Noble, I suspect, are going to be far better off because of their own efforts to integrate web sales and ebook readers earlier than their competitors. These are large organizations that nobody wants to see fail: the loss of a major bookstore is something that authors and publishers don't want, because of the potential to reach a large number of loyal customers, and the companies themselves don't want to die off. The chain stores are here to stay, I suspect, despite the swan songs of their demise, simply because they have the potential to sell a lot of books to a lot of people. They might be facing some major changes, but I would doubt that we'll see the current companies die off, or at least not without some sort of replacement in one form or another.

If there's anything that the Kindle has demonstrated, it's that exclusive things do work: the Kindle's done quite well, and where Borders has attempted their own exclusive things, I would predict that the major bookstores, in their efforts to stay relevant, will move a bit into the publishing field. It makes a bit of sense: they have experience with the market and the books that they know work. The only piece that's missing is that they are only an outlet. Moving to begin selling their own books (Barnes and Noble already sells its own editions of a number of classics) would allow them to drum up a reason for people to come to their stores. Imagine if an author such as John Grisham or a similarly well-exposed author came out with a book that only sold at Barnes and Noble, published exclusively through them: it couldn't be sold through or other competitors, and would get a fair amount of visibility through internal marketing and so forth. I can imagine that there would be a bit of anger from other authors, author groups and other stores, but large groups of dedicated readers would buy them. The trickle-down effect would be slow, with other authors jumping on if it works, and other bookstore chains copying the idea, slowly opening it up to more and more people, splitting the market up a bit, and giving the chains a bit of an edge over juggernauts such as

There are a lot of assumptions here: the internet might not be the same, and as some people noted, the idea of net neutrality is slowly dying and the internet is changed radically. I don't know that it'll be as bad or as better than what people are imagining now, but major changes in how the internet works will spell major changes in how books are sold: another reason why physical books might remain longer than expected from those already writing their obituaries.

But, as has been stated already: the mediums in which books are sold are merely content delivery systems that bring the stories to the reader. Regardless of how that plays out, there is plenty of demand for books, and as such, I've little doubt that there will need to be in place editorial and distribution elements for the serious efforts. One thing is for sure: we're in for an interesting ride.

2010 Reading List

This was a great year for reading. A lot of excellent fiction was released, and I felt like I got a lot of good out of my year from the books that I picked up. Here's what I read.

1- A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, Neil Sheehan (1-14) This was a fantastic history on the Cold War, one that I wish I'd come across while I was working on my project. I've revisited it a couple of times since the start of the year for other projects.

2 - The Forever War, Joe Halderman (1-28) This was a book that had come highly recommended for years, and I really enjoyed how it was more about people than guns and brawn.

3 - The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel (2-8) During the Second World War, a team of specialists were dispatched around Europe to save art from the effects of war, the focus of this book. It's a little uneven, but tells an astonishing story.

4 - We, John Dickinson (2-19) This was a crappy book. Amateurish and poorly written.

5 - Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2-24) I watched the movie around the same time, and I've long like Gaiman's works. This was an excellent YA novel.

6 - Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, John Scalzi (3-4) Scalzi's Whatever blog is always an entertaining read, and this collection takes some of the better entries into a book of short essays. Thought-provoking, interesting and well worth reading.

7 - Shadowline, Glenn Cook (3-6) With all of my complaints about military science fiction not being all that accurate or conceived of, Shadowline is one of the few books that have made me eat my words - there's some well conceived ideas here, and this reprint from Night Shade Books was a fun read.

8 - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jeminsin (3-19) N.K. Jemisin's first novel came with a lot of buzz, and I really enjoyed reading it from start to finish. It's a very different blend of fantasy than I've ever read.

9 - Spellwright, Blake Charlton (3-29) Spellwright was probably one of my favorite reads of the year - it was fast, entertaining and thoughtful - a good fantasy debut, and I'm already eager for the sequel.

10 - The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee (4-21). Karin Lowachee's Warchild was a favorite book from my high school years, and I was delighted to see her back after a long absence. This steampunk novel is an unconventional one, and a good example for the rest of the genre to follow.

11 - The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams (5-17) David J. Williams contacted me after I wrote an article on military science fiction, and I went through his first book with vigor - it's a fast-paced, interesting take on military SF and a bit of Cyberpunk.

12 - Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu (5-28) Charles Yu distinguished himself as a talented writer with his short fiction, and his recently released collection shows off some great stories.

13 - Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi (6-1) Bacigalupi goes to Young Adult fiction with Ship Breaker, an excellent read set in a post-oil world. He gets a lot of things right with this: the surroundings and trappings of the world aren't always important, but the characters and their struggles are timeless.

14 - Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (6-8) This much-hyped book was one that I avoided for a while, but I blew through it after I picked it up. It's a fun, exciting read in the quintessential steampunk world that Priest has put together. I love this alternate Seattle.

15 - To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck (7-15) Steinbeck's book is a dense one that took me a while to read through while I was reading several books at one. It's an interesting take on biblical themes and on faith itself.

16 - American Gods, Neil Gaiman (7-25) This was a book that was a pick for the 1b1t movement on twitter (something I hope returns), and I was happy for the excuse to re-read this fantastic novel. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and this time around, it was fantastic to have that reaffirmed.

17 - The Burning Skies, David J Williams (7-25) The followup to the Mirrored Heavens, this book took me a while to get through because it was dense and intense. A decent read, but it proved to be a bit of a chore to get through.

18 - How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (7-30) This was probably one of the best science fiction books that I've read in a long time. It's brilliant, well written, interesting and part of the story itself. It's an outstanding take on time travel as well.

19 - River Of Gods, Ian McDonald (9-2) I've long heard of Ian McDonald, but I hadn't picked up any of his stories before now. His take on a future India is a fantastic one, and can't wait for more of his stories. River of Gods broke the mold when it comes to western science fiction: the future will be for everyone.

20 - Clementine, Cherie Priest (9-3) This short novella was a bit too compact for the story that it contained, but it demonstrated that The Clockwork Century is something that can easily extend beyond Boneshaker.

21 - Pattern Recognition (9-11) William Gibson's book from a couple of years ago, taking science fiction to the present day in this thriller. It's a fun read, and I've already got the sequels waiting for me.

22 - New Model Army, Adam Roberts (9-22) This military science fiction book had an interesting premise: what happens when crowdsourcing and wikiculture comes to warfare. The book is a little blunt at points, but it's more thought provoking than I thought it would be.

23 - Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman (9-26) An excellent anthology of short stories from all over the speculative fiction genre. There's some real gems in there.

24 - Andvari's Ring, Arthur Peterson (9-26) A translation of norse epic poetry from the early 1900s, this book looks and feels like a book should, and is one of those bookstore discoveries that I love. This was a fun book that has roots for a number of other stories in it.

25 - The City and The City, China Miéville (9-30) One of my absolute favorite stories of the year came with this book, my first introduction to Mieville. This murder mystery set against a fantastic background has some great implications that go with the story.

26 - Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigaulupi (10-22) A paperback version of Bacigalupi's stories was released towards the end of the year, and I have to say, it's one of the more disturbing reads of the year, but also one of the most excellent.

27 - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (10-31) I did a little reading on Washington Irving and found an e-book of this while I was going through a bit of a fascination on the gothic / horror genre. This book does it well. Hopefully, I'll be able to do a bit more research on the author and his fiction this year.

28 - The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman (11-8) The television show was an interesting one, and I finally was able to catch up on the comic that started it. They're very close to start, but that changes after a couple of episodes. Some of the characters were spot on.

29 - Baltimore, or,The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola. (11-8) This was a fun read: Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden both have some great storytelling abilities when it comes to horror fiction, and their take on vampires is an excellent one.

30 - Dreadnought, Cherie Priest (11-10) Cherie Priest had a really good thing with Boneshaker, but Dreadnought was a bit of a disappointment. It didn't have the same flair or feeling that the first book did, but it did do some things that I'd wanted to see in Boneshaker. It's an interesting series, and I'll be interested to see what happens next.

31 - Lost States, Michael Trinklein (11-13) This was a fun book that I came across in a local store on states that didn't make it. It's a fun, quick read with a number of fun stories.

32 - The Jedi Path, Daniel Wallace (11-14) While I thought this book wasn't worth the $100 for all the frills and packaging, this is a really cool read for Star Wars fans, going into some of the history and methods of the Jedi Order.

33 - Horns, Joe Hill (11-22) This was the other absolutely fantastic book that I read this year (reading it as an ebook and then from the regular book) from localish author Joe Hill. The story of a man who sprouts horns and a small, emotional story about his life. It's an astonishing read, and one that will hopefully be up for a couple of awards.

34 - Doom Came to Gotham, Mike Mignola (11-24) This was a fun, alternate take on the Batman stories in a steampunk world. Batman + Mignola's art = awesome.

35 - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling (11-28) 36 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (11-29) 37 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (12-1) 38 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (12-3) 39 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (12-12) 40 - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (12-15) 41 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, J.K. Rowling (12-18) I'm not going to talk about each Potter novel in turn, but as a single, continuous story, Rowling has put together a hell of a story here. Outstanding characters and storylines, and the works as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts.

42 - The Magicians, Lev Grossman (12-27)

The logical book to read after the Harry Potter series was Lev Grossman's novel that can be described as an anti-Harry Potter. It's a fun novel the second time through, and good preparation for his followup this year.

43 - Brave New Worlds, John Joseph Adams (12-31)

The review for this book is coming shortly, but I have to say, it's one of the best anthologies that I've ever read.

On to 2011!

Don't Panic! It's Geek Pride Day!

Today, May 25th, is Geek Pride Day. Marking the anniversary of the first Star Wars film release in 1977, the day also coincides with 'Towel Day' to commemorate the passing of Douglas Adams back in 2001, as well as the Glorious 25th of May, for fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Overall, while a tongue-in-cheek holiday to commemorate all things nerd, it's a good time to sit back and realize the very real importance of 'geek' and 'nerd' values.

I have long called myself a geek, and it's something that I've written about, and looked at frequently. I've never really gotten the negative connotations of that label: I had my geekier side in High School, that all important time when social stereotypes are defining, and unlike some of my friends, I never had a difficult time with it - Harwood was pretty small, very accepting, and one of my favorite English classes taught Ray Bradbury and Stanislaw Lem. I worked and spent a lot of my spare time in the library, reading away at the extensive Star Wars backlog, before discovering that the library had an extensive collection of science fiction classics. Things were only compounded, when I met several friends at Camp, where I was introduced to such things as Monty Python and Dungeons and Dragons. College brought much of the same, and geeky pursuits have been a common mainstay and interest with my life thus far.

The trick comes with reconciling the vast interests that seems to encompass the 'Geek/Nerd' type of person. Star Wars, Star Trek, Monty Python, Shakespeare, Gothic Literature, Sherlock Holmes, Twilight Imperium, Spiderman, Pirates, Ninjas, The Decemberists, NASA, Narnia, Harry Potter, and so much more all are common interests from most of my friends, sometimes, the same person. Unlike any one field, geeks tend to have an extremely wide range of interests, and while not everyone likes every single element, or just a single one. Reconciling the wide range of franchises and interests that most geeks partake in is close to impossible, where the interests lie with just about everything. A geek, in the larger sense of the word, is essentially someone with a dedicated interest in something - an expert, master, obsessive.

I believe that the speculative fiction genre, which is a sort of umbrella for SciFi, Fantasy, Horror, Gothic and Weird fictions, appeals particularly to geeks because of the immersive and encompassing nature of some of the content. Science Fiction, when done properly, can be literary, scientific, heroic and interesting, all at the same time. There's deep roots to the genre, going back to mythology, but as time moves on, literary influences and scientific advances add on as time goes on. Even when franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek pop up (not to mention things like Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Stargate, etc), the longer storylines, characters and events add in a lot of information to be gone over.

The genre also is one of the rare ones that really translate well over various mediums. Fiction, non-fiction, comic books and graphic novels makes up a lot of the paper content, but video games, films, television shows, online shorts and web comics come across extremely well. The cultural additions that things such as Star Trek and Star Wars have contributed are astounding. Even if someone's never seen the films, they'll generally recognize the Vulcan hand gesture, or the deep breathing of Darth Vader.

There’s a hidden set of values within this sort of interest on the part of geeks. While geek interests been characterized as childish, foolish, a waste of time and so forth, like trying to nail down the definition of the social type, geek values transcend the content, and go more towards the method. There are some exceptions here, especially if one can make a career or living out of what they like to do. Geeks are attentive to detail, and this is a good thing. While the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres are largely passed over by academia, many of the lessons that the traditional mainstays of literature and fiction can be taught with science fiction book. As a student, I was often bored by some of the readings that were assigned: I couldn’t see any practical value in Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, but when it came to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the lessons were something that I still value today. The same is most likely true with others. Where people, especially geeks, might be uninterested in one thing, their focus and obsession with what they are interested in is something that can be used as a teaching tool. Some of the biggest industry leaders are geeks, because of their attention to detail, intelligence and vision.

These are good things. A population that is ready, willing and interested in learning is something that is invaluable in today’s society. In a time when there is a perception of apathy with today’s youth when it comes to learning, the right avenues need to be sought out and used, encouraged and nurtured. I firmly believe that my ability and interest to read is one of the key foundations of how I perceive and approach the world. Should I ever have children, they’ll be fed a diet of all sorts of foundations of literature, going back to the Greeks. While I’ve had people question why I’ve read hundreds of Star Wars books, keep hundreds of books in my apartment, and why I’m constantly reading or watching a television show, I point to how these things spark new interests, thoughts, ideas, concepts and so forth, in my mind.

Moreover, the geeks of today are curious, questioning. Science Fiction often is associated with the question: “What If?”, something that is incredibly important in all walks of life. Without that question, humanity never would have crossed the oceans, travelled to the moon or examined something that they weren’t sure about. This, combined with a good education, is something that can be learned from the Geek community.

Plus, Geeks are just damn cool. So, today, on Geek Pride Day, be nice to your friendly, neighborhood geek. In all likelihood, they have some thoughts on world domination, and I can tell you, the high school bullies of the world won’t fare well.

I, Human, not I, Robot

Looking over my bookshelves, I had a bit of a revelation: there are very few books that really use robots as characters in them. Taking a look, I only see Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and several additional collections of short stories, a collection of Ray Bradbury stories that contains 'There Will Come Soft Rains', a couple of Iain M. Bank's Culture novels, Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ekaterina Sedia's Alchemy of Stone and maybe a couple of others that I passed over. An additional trio of books: Ambassadors from Earth, Edison's Eve and Wired For War all represent a significant figure when it comes to real - life robotic systems and theory. However, looking over the movies that I have on my shelves, robotic characters readily come to mind: C-3P0 and R2-D2 from Star Wars, The Terminator from that franchise, Robbie from Forbidden Planet, the replicants from Blade Runner, Ash from Alien, Andrew from Bicentennial Man, Sonny from I, Robot, and so forth.

I have to wonder about this: there is a large gap in recognizable characters between the two mediums, film and literature. Film seems to contain far more in the way of robots, androids and mechs that come to mind, while I have a difficult time remembering the names of some of the characters from some of my absolute favorite science fiction books.

The first element in which film readily becomes the better medium is its visual nature, allowing for elaborate costumes, props and CGI'ed components of metal and plastics that make up what audiences really think about with robotic characters. Some of the most dramatic imagery from science fiction cinema includes robots: C-3P0 and R2 in the hallway of the Tanative IV, The Terminator coming out of the flames, Ash getting his head bashed in, and so forth. Simply put, robotics are more visual, allow for some differences between living characters and their mechanical servants.

The use of the term 'Robot' goes back to 1923 (1) with Karel Čapek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots, and according to genre historian Adam Roberts, came at a certain time of anti-machinery sentiment with science fiction at the time, with other books, such as with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Olaf Stapledon's The Last and First Men look to the use of mechanical and scientific processes and as a result, a population that overly depends upon them as something wholly against nature and counter-productive to humanity as a whole: societies are generally dystopic and dehumanize their inhabitants. This somewhat fits with some modern science fiction films, such as the far futures of The Terminator and The Matrix, and even with Wall*E, where an overreliance of machines results in our destruction, or at least an enormous disruption of society. (2) Indeed, Robot comes from the Czech term robota, which translates to servitude.(3)

Indeed, it should come as no surprise that early views towards robotics weren't necessarily looked at in any sort of favorable light: throughout history, a constant struggle between leaders and those being led has come about, and one lesson that a history teacher (Mr. David Munford, thank you), imparted was the destruction of clocks and machines during one early worker uprising. The use of factories in particular lends itself well to machinery and associated dystopia images and themes. Henry Ford put to good use the assembly line, which relegated skilled labor to fastening single bolts day in and day out. It is particularly ironic that those human workers were in turn replaced by robots who do the same roles for them.

In literature, then, the use of robotics goes far beyond characters, but is typically used as part of a larger theme that a novel is trying to push across to the reader. The Three Laws of Robotics that are central to Isaac Asimov's robot books are particularly conscious of this fact, and represents some level of paranoia on the part of the human race that at some points, robots will eventually take over humanity because of their inherent strengths over human flesh: stronger, faster, smarter, etc. This makes Asimov’s novels somewhat different from the earlier books with mechanical imagery linked to dystopia: Asimov’s world shows where a fall of society has not occurred because of the indulgences by humans, but generally only because the robots that we’ve essentially created in our own image are just as screwed up as we are. Dystopia, in this case, may be in Asimov’s futures – we certainly see that in his Foundation stories – but for the time being, he views a world with robotics as one where robotics act as a natural counterpart for humanity, rather than a replacement, although the threat, held in place by his three laws, is still there.

In films, however, different elements are brought out: robots are the servants of humanity & associated sentient life in Star Wars, performing vital and specialized tasks while interfacing with their creators. The same goes for the robots in Blade Runner and Wall*E. At other points, they're used for war, such as in Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, where they then turn on their human creators for a variety of reasons, or under the control of a vast, superhuman intellect, such as in the Terminator franchise. Here, these elements often, but not always, hearken back to a sort of dystopia, where robotics are part of a larger problem: it represents the failure of the human race to continue with its biological need to reproduce, and demonstrates some basic elements of life itself: Darwinism or survival of the fittest. Those that cannot keep up, will be destroyed, or at least overcome.

Within literature, the larger themes of dystopia and robotics are used, with the protagonist generally someone who overcomes the system/society/social norm to relearn what it means to be human, and there is a larger theme of the scientific, mechanical, logical order, represented by robotics, and a more organic, theological, chaos, represented by people. At points, this is represented with some very pointed examples: Ray Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, which shows a robotic house living diligently on long after its inhabitants have destroyed themselves. However, the reason that robots themselves seem to be fewer and farther between is because there is an inherent need for this dystopia theme to be present in the film: it represents the weakness of humanity, carries with it religious overtones and two extremely different styles of thinking all wrapped up into a single character, which oftentimes, seems to be difficult to work in or really justify as a regular character in a book that takes just part of the story, especially if they are not the central part of a story. Their existence represents so much in relation to their human counterparts, it would seem almost a waste to have a story with a side character as a robotic entity, rather than fleshing out everything that he/she/it represents.

With movies, these themes are there occasionally, but generally, explosions and violence comes first and foremost in the eyes of paying audience members.

1 - Jeff Prucher, Editor. Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2007, 164 2 - Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Press, 2005, 159 3 - Ibid, 168

The Temptation of Taste

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, for when you eat it, you will surely die." (Genesis 2:15)

So it is said in the Bible, a basic story element: the temptation of mankind and the resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden. From this point, this element and the imagry of food as a means of temptation has been used in a number of subsequent works, especially within the speculative fiction realm. With this imagery, there is the theme of utopia as something to be gained or lost with the consumption of the food, and is either an element that the protagonist is tempted away from, or something that proves to be an obstacle in the pursuit of utopia.

According to Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, the notion of 'Utopia' comes from Sir Thomas More, although as the Bible demonstrates, it is a concept that certainly predates More's musings on the subject. The Greeks, through their epic story the Odyssey, used the imagery in a couple of instances as Odysseus travelled home from Troy: The encounter with the Lotus Eaters, where three of Odysseus's men ate the Lotus, became addicted and thought nothing of returning home, but their later encounter with Circe on the island of Aeaea is one in which these themes really come out:

"They called her and she came down, unfastened the door, and bade them enter. They, thinking no evil, followed her, all except Eurylochus, who suspected mischief and staid outside. When she had got them into her house, she set them upon benches and seats and mixed them in a mess with cheese, honey, meal and Pramnian wine, but she drugged it with wicked poisons to make them forget their homes, and when they had drunk she turned them into pigs by a stroke of her wand, and shut them up in her pig styes."

In these instances, the men who came under the various substances and spells found that they were pulled away from their journey - the temptation theme at its best, and introduces the idea of going home as a form of Utopia for those far away. Certainly, the soldiers who fought at Troy for ten years would liken their homes to something special, perfect, as a means to get them through the conflict. This would be for a couple of reasons: they were fighting a battle on the part of their home nation, something worth protecting and dying for, and had plenty of motives to return. This makes the theme of their temptation even more important in the larger view of the storyline: they have an incredible amount to lose in their return, and their failure to adhere to their goal demonstrates their weakness in character and desire to return home, intentional or not. Like in the Bible, there is a central moral to the story that the righteous and those who have strong moral fiber will see their goal to the end - the adventures of Odysseus' crew, and later, Adam and Eve, demonstrate this to a fine point.

While Ancient stories have certainly used this element numerous times, a number of modern stories also take on similar imagery, with similar morals. The Grimms Fairy Tales include a story that is no doubt familiar to many: Hansel and Gretel, which sees the two children abandoned to die in the middle of the forest by their evil stepmother. As they attempt to find their way home, they come across a white bird, which delights them and leads them to a house made of bread and sugar. Overcome with hunger, they eat at the house and are invited in by the old woman who lives there, who intends to snare and eat them. Gretel tricks the witch into the oven in her place and escapes home. Once again, the perils of moving away from one's goals, in this instance, being tempted by food while attempting to return home, is used, although in this instance, it is children who are swayed, rather than men.

Coraline is another story that comes to mind, when looking at more recent works. Neil Gaiman's tale sees the young girl Coraline Jones in an unhappy existence with her parents, and upon her discovery of an alternate world, she is enticed with the idea of a better set of alternative parents, who feed her (which brings to mind this imagery of a table full of food being a vehicle for temptation) and show her a life that is very different, but odd. Over the course of the story, Coraline realizes that this existence and its inhabitants have their own motives, and not motives that will benefit her, and the main character struggle is in her fight to return her parents and herself to their proper existence. This is the main part of the appeal of the story, where Coraline must not only determine her true place, but also the value of home. Where other stories have take the notion of home as a set utopian value, Coraline must first determine what her utopia is: home, for all of its flaws, is the place where she is truly loved, and where she belongs.

Similar themes are brought up in Pan's Labyrinth, where the image of a feast tempts away Olivia after she begins her own journey after meeting the Faun in the Labyrinth behind the Spanish outpost. At this point in the story, she has already completed one of the tasks set before her - recovering the key, in her journey towards returning to her mythic home, where she is supposed to be a long lost princess, on a quest to return to her home. When she brings the key to the lair of the Pale Man to retrieve the knife, and overcome with hunger, she eats from the table, and is chased out by the Pale Man, who has eaten other children before her. Once again, the theme of temptation swaying the traveler is brought along, and it harkens back a bit to the Adam and Eve story, where the girl is tempted away (as in Coraline as well) from the true path by a distraction, in this instance, a meal.

On the science fiction side of the house, Paolo Bacigalupi's novel The Windup Girl features in some similar ideas, if on a much greater scale than just the character's actions, but figures far more into the background story in the world that Bachagalupi presents. Agricultural firms have wrecked the world through their actions, attempting to turn their food into a better product, and unwittingly unleash plagues into the world, causing economic collapse and famine across the world. In the pursuit of a Utopia, they have created the opposite, a dystopia-style world where they have strayed from an arguably more righteous path: the preservation of the species.

In all instances, the idea of food is used to sway the protagonist or other characters from their own personal utopias, whether that's their home or the creation of a perfect world, where they are loved, which in and of itself reveals a couple of things: the definition of a Utopia isn't necessarily a paradise that is populated by their desires, but by a single concept: love, either the love of one's parents or one's subjects/compatriots, for their simple existence. In Coraline, Olivia and Hansel/Gretel's case, it's the love of their parents, in Odysseus's, it's his family, and in the instance of the corporations in the Windup Girl, it's the people that they feed.

Their quest for a personal utopia demonstrates that a utopia is something that can be revoked, as Adam and Eve both found, but that one of the basic motivations for one's existence is to seek such a concept - God's placement of a flaming sword at the entrance of Eden demonstrates the struggle to achieve such a goal - otherwise, it stands to reason that the Garden could simply be taken from existence, where the temptation and goal would be gone forever, and thus, become nothing to seek. God did not do this, but he left the Garden in place. Food seems to be the constant in most of these stories (and I'm sure that there's numerous other examples - these were the ones that were immediately familiar to me), because it is, in itself, a symbolic measure - food is something that sustains, but something that rots with time, and is, in effect, a temporary joy when compared to the character's ultimate goal. In all instances, the characters are temped because of their circumstances, where they are desperate to continue onwards. In a way, the scales are tipped against the characters.

When looking at a number of these stories, it's generally the woman who instigates this sort of fall, most likely as a reference to the biblical story - the Greeks had no issue with the men instigating their own downfall, while Gretel was the one who saved her brother. Coraline and Olivia had their own weaknesses and thus were hampered by them, as well as Eve, way back when. There are arguments along this line that this is sexist in all different ways, and while yes, it certainly is when you look at it in one way, but it can also be looked at as opportunity, where the women overcome their newfound trouble and emerge victorious - Coraline recovers her hapless parents, and Olivia ends up in her mythic home (of course, she dies in the process). If anything, the men of these stories come out pretty poorly, and aren't the ones that the story is about - this proves to be an excellent change for strong female protagonists in a story.

This leads to another aspect of this argument, which was the existence of the Tree of Knowledge in the first place, as a sort of test for the characters on their journey. In each case, the characters fail this test, and their quest towards Utopia is jeopardized: Odysseus's soldiers are almost foiled from their return home (although they are killed off in other ways), various children are almost eaten, and so forth. Yet, in their failure, they find new opportunity to prove their character and better themselves by learning from their mistakes and regaining their morals to reach home. Where they fail in each case, this too happens in almost each case.

This impacts story in huge ways - it provides motivation for characters in ways that translate into real life, and provides a way for characters to grow and change with the issues that they face along their respective paths in life. In a number of ways, this specific imagery is used to hearken back to the bible, because it's very basic imagery. The character is hungry, but shouldn't stop - that is certainly something that's fairly easy to relate to, and works for all the reasons outlined above.

The obvious answer to all of this is that it's a moral story presented for the characters as a means to teach a simple and complex lesson to the reader: temptation can often lead to problems for the protagonist, and that their weakness in character must be compensated for by continued hardship and peril in their journey towards their utopia.

On Awards

Earlier today, a piece that I wrote for SF Signal went online, about the aftermath of the Oscars, with the movie Avatar failing to capture a number of the major awards for which it had been nominated. Awards are interesting things, and ever year, without fail, there is the general number of complaints about which film was awarded any given award, generally with the Best Picture award, and this year is no different.

Thinking back on the issue, I'm fairly thrilled that Avatar was shut out of the award, simply because I didn't think that the film was worthy of the award. There's undoubtedly people who will disagree, but on the whole, Avatar's most notable achievement was the extraordinary amounts of money that it raked in, and the special effects. The film did win for the visual effects category, as it should have, and at the end of the day, with a movie earning billions at the box office, what can an Academy Award really do to improve upon it? Not a whole lot.

Personally, I felt that if there was any film that was really shut out of the entire Academy, it was Duncan Jones' Moon, for which it rightfully should have been at least nominated for Picture, Director, Actor and probably a bunch of other things. The film never had a big push from its studio, Sony Pictures, and the nominations went on without it. It was disappointing, to be sure, but looking over that, I can't honestly think of any good, practical reason to really be annoyed over the lack of an award. I loved Moon for its story, characters and sets, and earning an award would have merely been icing on the cake. Nice to have, but not essential. I loved the movie for the movie, not for the awards that it would have won.

Awards are certainly nice - they bring a director to certain visibility, which certainly helps with future endeavors, but in some of these cases, these are directors who have rapidly become well known within the speculative fiction genre: Duncan Jones, Neill Blomkamp, James Cameron - these are all fairly well known members of the genre now, as their films gained considerable acclaim while their movies were out, and in all likelihood, they'll be working with other projects within the genre. It's recognition after the fact by one's peers is one thing, certainly, but these films have already been recognized on a number of other levels already - there's verification that the movies are good, people enjoy them and that they'll likely be classics in the field. (Well, Avatar, probably not) The award itself is a thank you after the fact, a superficial pride thing that has absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about the movie.

Moon, District 9 or Inglorious Bastards winning an Oscar? That would be awesome. But I still like them all the same.

Sex and Science Fiction

The other day, while I was checking up on science fiction news sites, I came across an article that SciFiWire posted: "Fringe's Anna Torv As You've Never Seen Her Before: Topless (NSFW)", with a couple of photographs that weren't actually revealing or anything too distasteful - no shirt, but she was definitely covered, and on the whole of things, pretty light fare compared to other websites out there - just take a look at some of the late night titles that io9 will post up every now and then.
What really got me was reading the comments in the article. A number of posters were pretty annoyed by this article: "I'm getting really tired of this site displaying low level porn on it. You must've recently hired some juvenile male to run the site.", "Yeah, it's fun, and it probably increases web traffic significantly, but it's really annoying to us ''real' science fiction fans, and that's why we came here: science fiction." There's a bunch of others as well, but that is the basic flow of some of the comments, although there were some good comments that went the other way as well. While some of the commenters were complaining more about the site's propensity to post up related Science Fiction and Fantasy news, there were certainly a number of comments relating to the actual content of the article.
Sex has long been a part of science fiction, either as a ploy to get young, male readers to part with their money in the early 20th century and incidentally, read magazines and novels, or as a direct plot point, science fiction is hardly a genre that is as innocent as a lot of people seem to think that it is, along with horror and comic books. Going back to the American Depression in the 1930s, Science Fiction magazines, under Charles Gernsback and Mort Weisinger, often featured and objectified women and men alike on the covers of magazines and novels, as well as in their content. (Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow, 132-133). As major comics such as Superman moved into the markets, much of the same moved with it. Looking at Superman, the relationship between Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent is a good example of this objectification, on both sides: Lois rejects Clark because he isn't perceived as man enough, especially compared to Superman. It's an ironic twist that holds a number of lessons in identify and judgment, but it also holds up a standard when it comes to gender roles: the strong, not the weak are desirable, while women are attracted to the image of a person, not necessarily their character behind it. (Jones, 143) Women and men are both heavily objectified in comics: just look at some of the art work when it comes to the Marvel and DC comics - characters are exaggerated in their proportions to the extreme.
This says nothing of the deeper roots of the genre, which science fiction historian and author Adam Roberts asserts, comes from the tradition of Gothic literature that far predates the materials cheaply available to wide-eyed boys in the Great Depression. "Gothic fiction is a popular category of academic pedagogy and research: a usefully delimited subgenre of fantastic literature... typically, a gothic novel includes mysterious and sinister goings-on, usually involving supernatural agency such as ghosts or devils ... located in distant, wild places, castles or monasteries in inaccessible portions of central Europe, where innocent young women are terrified, men have commerce with the devil and there is much to do with graveyards, ruins and madness, all flavored by a distinctive atmosphere of eroticized suspense, shock and horror." (Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction, 82) Look no further than Bram Stoker's Dracula for a good example of this sort of eroticized atmosphere, something that has carried into the modern day with similar elements of the genre, such as True Blood or Twilight.
This is why I find the shock and appalled nature of a number of a lot of people so ridiculous, simply because it represents a sort of high-minded elitism, either from somebody looking down on the collective genre of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror as something insignificant and childish, or from within, with people taking the highbrowed route that scrubs the genre clean by removing anything mildly offensive to the common viewer/reader to fit their needs. Both approaches do the genre a disservice, either by rejecting it or by selectively looking back on it for an inaccurate look. It's even more ridiculous in the internet era, where advocates of free choice insist that everybody must be protected from everything offensive.
The point in all of this is that sex and science fiction have never been all that far apart, no matter what shocked and appalled commentators believe to be the case. Used either for selling extra copies or for story content, there is a reliance on character types that have prevailed throughout literary history to become fairly resilient staples in our books, movies and television shows. If there is anything really worth getting offended over, or at least looking more closely into, is gender objectification, as well as our own outrage over seeing what is usually heavily implied.

eBooks & Value

Last week, and publishers started going head to head with the business model that has set up for their Kindle eBook store. With the recent release of the Apple iPad, new alternatives have been opened for publishers. With it, there has been a flood of problems and statements from all edges of public opinion about not just the power that seems to be able to field, but also to the very nature of the place of e-books.

The background of the story lies with Amazon's preference for a lower price for an e-book on their Kindle device. Typically starting at $9.99, one of the major publishers, Macmillan, went to Amazon with new proposals for how to sell their books. From how I understand it, it would introduce a graduated pricing system, starting their new books at $15.99 and gradually dropping the price as demand falls away. This is something that's already pretty well established in the book industry, with hardcovers of the really big books starting off at $25 to $30, before dropping down to trade paperbacks (Around $15 each) going to or going directly to mass market paperbacks, generally around $7.99 each. There's a new, taller book (I'm not sure what it is called) that typically runs around $9.99 per copy.

A big part of the issue is that profits that go to the publisher, and eventually, the author, have been cut into, as it is a cheaper way to distribute the book. This made a lot of sense for, because after purchasing a multiple hundred dollar device, because it helps the more economically minded consumers actually use the device. While it's just a little more than the mass-market paperback, buying a new release book that would normally be $30, for something between $9.99 and $15.99, makes a lot of sense, especially for the consumers who really matter - the ones who buy hundreds of books a year.

This makes good for the consumer, for sure, but it does impact other elements down the publishing line, and indeed, the bookselling line. Pundits, for years, have been predicting the demise of brick and mortar bookstores with the introduction of online bookstores such as, and with the slowly growing rise of e-books and the Kindle, it's coming back, and for good reason: bookstores are getting hurt by this new competition. I recently was laid off from Borders when they closed down 200 of their smaller stores in order to consolidate to their larger ones. While there are other issues at stake there, it is clear that people buy far more off of the internet than from in a store. When given a chance, I'll do the same thing - I can pick up other books cheaper from Amazon's used bookstore, but also from used bookstores around the area.

This is all part of a larger consumer culture that seems to be pushed along by giants such as, Walmart, Home Depot and other stores: consumers want to pay the lowest possible price for what they want. Bigger stores can make that happen, and we've been conditioned to respond to that sort of thing. One of the problems, however, is in how the consumer values the product that they're intending on buying, and how much the creator, whether it's a publisher or manufacturer, and there's a growing gap that's pushed forward by these larger stores. It's good for the consumer and good for these stores in particular, but it's not good for the manufacturer of whatever good you're trying to buy.

I'm not sure that that is a good thing, because eventually, the manufacturer's ability to produce will have to be decreased due to lack of profits. In the publishing industry, forcing a publisher to take a smaller cut for their books means that less money could make it to the author, who will either need to sell more books or negotiate a better deal with their publisher. This is even more of a problem when stores, such as sell a majority of your books, and where your entire publishing company has been taken off, as is the case with Macmillan.

I think part of the issue is addressing just how much a publisher should value their e-books, and making customer expectations meet that. Books have a lot that go into them, from editing, layout, marketing and so on, and in a consumer culture where expectations towards lower and lower prices are pushed as well, that particular detail is going to be lost. It would seem that the publishing industry has reached a level where they don't want to move any further.

How exactly does one value an e-book? I can say with certainty, that I will typically go with the price on the back of the book for a majority of the books that I purchase in a year. I try to find something with a discount, and made use of my employee discount, but once purchased, I know that the book was mine. When it comes to e-books, there are a whole lot of other options, especially with, which essentially sells you a license for the book, which can be revoked at any point. (This happened, somewhat ironically, with the book 1984, recently). This is the same with music and software, and has been around for a while, so I'm not sure why everyone is raising a fuss about it now. Thus, people purchase a product that they cannot transfer or resell as they could the physical product. Even if it is cheaper, I think that even $9.99 isn't a good value for the consumer, as opposed to my feeling that $25 is a very good value for a physical book in some instances.

Who's at fault for this? Well, everybody has blamed everybody. The publishers have been blamed for distrupting Amazon's plans, the consumers have been blamed for wanting low prices, the publishers for demanding too much, and the authors have been blamed for whining and complaining about this. This has always been an issue with business, because there are numerous people who get different cuts, and everybody wants a larger piece of the pie. Personally, I think that the publishers are well within their rights to set the books at whatever price they want - how they value their product - because they are primarily in charge of the creation. Amazon has just enough leverage to force their own prices on the publishers because they account for large portions of the sales. Authors, I think are largely blameless in this, because they simply have no control over how these books are sold, marketed and edited. Consumers, I think, need to have a more realistic value in their heads for what they buy.

The bottom line that I see here is that this row isn't the end, but in this instance, it's not unreasonable for a graduated pricing system, as publishers want. While is looking to entice people to their Kindle, I think that there is sufficient momentum on their part for moving people to digital formats. People aren't necessarily going to be scared away by higher ebook prices, because these higher prices will still be better than the alternatives. Just as casual readers will wait for a year for their favorite author's book to come out in paperback, the buyers who really matters, the repeat customers who buy a larger volume of books will buy the books as they come out, generally at the regular price, or at the sales price that drops that just a bit. Unfortunately, as has moved to punish a publisher, the authors have been caught as collateral damage.

This, more than ever, just reinforces my desire for a hardcopy book, rather than an e-book. The tactile crap that a lot of people go on about just doesn't figure into it. When I buy a book at a bookstore, that is my property, not just a piece of data that can be revoked by a company as it sees fit, and I can sell it and return my losses as I need. Plus, I don't need to worry about a battery for any of the books that I own.

Grace Potter and the New Year

Where the rest of the world has New York City's epic ball drop in Times Square, Vermont has Grace Potter to ring in the new year. It's rapidly becoming an annual event, with several lead-up concerts at the Higher Ground to meet demand, and the overall event has become a highly anticipated run of concerts. I wasn't able to attend the New Year's Eve show, but I was able to attend the second concert on the 27th, with Alberta Cross opening up for the Nocturnals. All in all, I came away from the show pretty disappointed. The Nocturnals sounded great, played a number of newer songs, several covers and re-arranged songs and a bunch of old classics.

The group has been a popular one here on Carry You Away, and I've followed their rather extraordinary rise from small, local group to major-record-label one, and it's been a fun ride to watch. Their last album, This Is Somewhere, was absolutely fantastic, blending modern and classic rock, fantastic songwriting and with an incredible energy throughout their album and their live shows.

This show wasn't bad, it just wasn't what I expected, and it wasn't as good as other shows that I've seen from them. Part of this, I think, is because it was the lead-up to the really good show: New Year's Eve. With additional concerts added on, I have to imagine that the show was a bit toned down (even then, the energy was high), and that some of the really good material was saved for later.

The show that I saw, while good, was scattered. With a new album coming out later this year (from what I know, it's called Medicine), and with a new lineup, changes are to be expected, and some of the results were here - the band is certainly straying into more directions musically, which is very good, but with this concert, the group felt all over the map, from Classic Rock to Jam Band Raegge to Soul and regular rock. I'm interested to hear where they go, but the overall concert felt incoherent, poorly planned out and overall, that affected the entire evening for me. Music such as this is far more than just the musicians - it's their presentation, the quality of their music, how they play it, and how well thought out each concert is.

This leads me to two of Grace's opening acts, Alberta Cross and Josh Ritter, whom I've seen both open for the Nocturnals, and a good example of presentation. Alberta Cross, opening for Grace became a band that I'd rather not see again. I have their latest album, The Thief and the Heartbreaker, and I've liked a couple of the songs, but live, in person, the band seemed lax, sloppy at points and just not all that exciting to watch. On the other hand, when I was Josh Ritter in 2007, and recently again in 2009, they presented a far different appearance - they coordinated dress (and actually didn't go for the grungy rock star look), played a great set of music and clearly looked like they enjoyed themselves and put a bit of thought into what they were doing. This wasn't something that I got a good sense of with Alberta Cross, I'm sorry to say.

Similarly, I have to wonder if this was sort of the same deal with the Nocturnals, coupled with their rapid rise to local and national fame, and leaves me a bit worried for the future of the group. In 2009, the band's bassist Bryan Dondero left the group over creativity issues, leading the band to add on a new bass player Catherine Popper, as well as rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco- with new directions in mind. This sparked some worries that the group is going to be departing far more from what they've done before as they've become a major label band. Fortunately, the concert on the 27th, despite some of the issues that I had with it, seem to show that the group is still churning out good music, abit with a much larger variety of sound.

To be very fair, after listening to the NYE show, there were some improvements over the Saturday show - they were still a bit scattered, but sounded better, with much more energy and with a lot of good material to play. Here's to hoping that they will continue that trend in 2010.

To Geek or Not To Geek

A couple days ago, the New York Times ran a short article that cited Dr. David Anderegg as saying that the terms Geek and Nerd should be banned, in response to another article about the need for 'Cool Geeks'. This is a subject that I hold very near and dear, being a self proclaimed geek.

Like GeekDad on, I believe that the New York Times somewhat misinterpreted Dr. Anderegg's argument, although it seems that it could have been better worded. I dislike the notion of banning any type of word, and I don't believe that calling somebody 'Nerd' or 'Geek' is nearly the same level as a racial or homophobic slur. But even to that extent, the idea that words should be banned because of the connotations that surround them is one that seems misguided at best. The constitution outlines the limits of the freedom of speech, but to me, this isn't necessarily a legal argument, it's one that is governed by social convention. Any sort of slur is at the height of rude and unacceptable behavior, and it is along these lines that this should be solved, not necessarily in the courtroom.

This, I think is what the point of Dr. Anderegg, who's written a book on the subject. The first article that the New York Times ran, New Programs Aim to Lure Young Into Digital Jobs notes that "But not enough young people are embracing computing — often because they are leery of being branded nerds." And that is a perfectly valid argument. While I've noticed that geek stuff is getting cooler all the time, from the black rimmed classes to obscure things, the connotations associated with being labeled a 'geek' or a 'nerd', ones that aren't good. I've come across a number of people over the past couple of years who are shocked at my admission to being a geek, but also try to talk me out of it. "You're not a geek!" has been a pretty common thing, and however helpful the suggestion is, it does show that there is quite a bit of a problem in the public image: ie, something right out of the 1970s, at the height of uncoolness.

Benjamin Nugent, in his 2009 book American Nerd: The Story of My People, does a fantastic job in uncovering some of the root origins of the stereotype of geekiness, and to just what a nerd is. (You can read an excerpt here. Much of the stereotype is perpetuated by a couple of things: the public persona as reinforced by mainstream media, either through television shows or newscasts, and through the actions of people who are, well, nerd-like. There is no shortage of the extremely stereotypical single, slightly (or overly) overweight, unemployed guy living in his mother's basement who's playing video games because he's inept in social situations.

This is the big, underlying point that needs to be understood - it's not the words that need to be changed, it's the behavior that reinforces the need for the words that needs to be better understood, in most cases. As the first article notes, there needs to be more 'Cool Geeks" as the economy changes and advances with technology. Part of that, I think, is providing better role models, in both the media and in person. There's some good things going on, and I believe that the overall trend is changing, if slightly. Shows such as 'The Big Bang Theory', 'Dollhouse' and 'Stargate Universe' both have a number of good examples of geeks in their prime element, while the information age allows us to study things to our heart's content, whether that is science fiction, automobiles or music.

What doesn't help, I think, is the general attitude towards learning and knowledge that the country suffers from, and was embodied in the prior Presidential administration, with an attitude that a straight shooter going by his gut is far better off than someone who takes the time to study and examine a situation. This isn't necessarily a political thing at all - I see this far more as a sort of embodiment of larger, ongoing trends. However, when the current administration is headed by someone who's posed with a lightsaber and as Superman, hopefully there's something going right when it comes to this sort of thing. (Come to think of it, McCain, during his first run for president, also posed with a lightsaber.)

The problem isn't just that there's a perception that geeks aren't cool, there's just not enough geeks and nerds out there who are totally comfortable with the distinction to wear it loud and proud, to overcome that particular image. We're comfortable in our own little niches, from online sites of like-minded people and fans to social groups. One of the solutions is that we need to be out and about more with our passions - this is one reason why I absolutely love the 501st Legion - through our communities to set an example for the kids who avoid what they really like because of the negative perceptions associated with it. But there is also a larger issue of someone who's knowledgeable just doesn't seem cool, and for the life of me, I have a hard time understanding why. I often can't fathom why people go out of their way to avoid learning, escaping to a life of dull repetition that's brought on by the wires and lights in a box. More than ever, we need geeks in the world, or at least the parts that make us good. Geeks are, and will be more popular than you think.

I Like That Old Time Rock 'n Roll

As the decade has begun to close with the end of the year, there have been a number of 'Best of the Decade' lists in the music blog world, and a number of them have gotten me thinking about music over the past ten years. Since the start of the decade, I would consider these past years as some of the most formative in my own tastes in music, especially during my years in college. During that time, the entire music industry has been changed, for better or for worse, and with these changes has come new opportunities, sounds and experiences for musicians and fans alike.

My own taste in music has varied over the past ten years, from radio top 40 hits to Indie-Rap and I'm very eager to see what comes next. Looking back, I found that it would be almost impossible to put together any sort of comprehensive list for the last ten years, simply because there is too much music, it is too varied, and there is far, far too much that I haven't listened to. While computers have become paramount in the way that music is transmitted, shared and listened to, I can't help but wonder if it's harmful to the overall music scene.

Looking back over music of the 1960s and 1970s, the music is easily recognizable, memorable and classic. Looking back over the decade, I'm not sure that I can find a comparable number of bands that match not only the quality of the hits of prior years, but ones that have the same presence. With other years populated by bands such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Eric Clapton and more, revolutionaries all in their own way, the past couple of decades have much bigger shoes to fill.

The formative years of Rock and Roll have been filled with epic tales of musicians gone crazy: smashing up hotel rooms and instruments on stage, getting arrested on stage, all the while pushing the limits of free speech and taboo topics to entertain the masses, who ate it up with relish. And, the music was good too - music labels, I think , didn't quite know how to deal with all of the new sounds and styles that were coming out from aspiring musicians: all they could do was control the direction, like pointing a fire hose, hoping that the water inside was just right.

Since that time, music has become more refined. We've settled down, figured out what works and what sounds just right. Advances in technology, from the introduction of computers and editing programs allow musicians to put together a fantastic sounding album, cheaper, quicker and to an incredibly wide audience than ever before. Young people, ever the bright start of the music industry, have been freed, recording demos with cheap recording equipment and access to MySpace, and have the chance of finding an audience amongst the numerous people out seeking for new sounds, and even more obscure bands and singer/songwriters.

My music interests have ebbed and waned over the past ten years, starting with listening to 107.1, WORK FM (Now FrankFM, a Classic Rock Station) a Top 40 station, which effectively brought my music tastes to '90s alternative/grunge. I didn't get that much into listening to anything outside of that before a couple years into college. A friend of mine at the time, later girlfriend, now ex, introduced me to indie-rock, styles along what was heard in Garden State, which further influenced what I listened to. Artists such as Alexi Murdoch, The Decemberists, Spoon, Nick Drake and others entered my playlists. From that point, I began to listen to more - not only to new artists that were coming out, but also to bands that I'd grown up listening to: the Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, Fleetwood Mac.

In listening to the old and new, there's an incredible amount of influence that is held by artists from long ago, especially by newer artists. Folk-rock has undergone a huge resurgence among the hip, from artists such as Alexi Murdoch, Iron & Wine and Bon Iver growing in popularity over the past couple of years - in no small part, no doubt, to commercial placement of their songs in television shows and commercials.

While the music is fantastic - I count all of the above to be some of the best artists of the decade, but at the same time, I've become very weary and wary of the independent market for music, because of the sheer drive to feed the hipster masses by going completely out on a limb and doing something patently outrageous, but in a calm, civil sort of way. In a way, the kids who go out and record come up with some interesting stuff, but they don't toe the line like musicians of old. The music that we have today, independent and commercial (although that distinction is flat out ridiculous in and of itself - all music is commercial) is sanitized, watered down and just too appropriate. Maybe I'm just listening to the wrong types of music, but a lot of bands just don't have that raw energy and bite that the '70s brought us.

We don't have our Hendrix, our Lennon or our Jagger - instead, a lot of our front men are put together by their publicists, who put them up on a pedestal for their outbursts, poor judgment or incredibly noble deeds (I'm looking at you, Amy Winehouse, Britteny Spears and Bono). But in a way, they become products in and of themselves, sold to the public through the spin on their actions, rather than the popular judgment of their actions unguided by the invisible hand of a major marketing company. In a world where news is paramount, and any news is good news, it seems that the rash actions of the people we admire are more constructed, rather than heat of the moment rashness. I have a feeling that those individuals, who've built up their personas in the time before facebook and MySpace, will be longer lasting. Even the persona of avoiding a personality, or just trying to be different by wearing mismatched clothing, acting the awkward soul in a way to appeal to more fans who make it out to see them.

Don't get me wrong, there's a huge difference between the personality of a band and the music that they play, but over time, how much of a band's persona becomes intermixed with their music as a whole? In an age where the choices of music and bands is akin to water from a fire hose, the strive to be completely unique by adopting a certain persona for a band just seems shallow, fake. There are very few bands out there right now that I would label as being truly unique, focused on their music and presenting a fairly honest image all at the same time. At the end of the day, while there is plenty of selection - good selection - I can't help but wonder if these musicians will really stand the test of time, or if they will just be lost in the multitude of other hipster artists who get their brief break of fame before realizing that they have to continue the act. At the same time, I wonder how many bands that have been sold to us will last in the long run.

Looking back over the music that I've accumulated over the past couple of years - and I've accumulated a lot - there are certainly bands that I go back to time and time again, while there are even more that I've listened to, and really enjoyed, but who soon become unmemorable. It'll be fun to go back and seek them out in another ten years to see if anybody knows their name and see if their record deal through the strength of their MySpace page and website is really enduring. In some cases? I would bet so. In far more instances, I would bet that a lot of these bands will fail the test of time, only to be resurrected by lone fans with overburdened hard drives. In the meantime, I’ll take that old time rock and roll.

Veteran's Day

Today is a day to remember the sacrifices of those who had died for one's country. In the United States, November 11th has been designated as a day to reflect and celebrate the sacrifices of American Servicemen, while in the Commonwealth, Remembrance Day likewise commemorates the those who made the ultimate sacrifice. November 11th was selected because of a worthy anniversary: the end of the First World War, on November 11th, 1918, the conflict that had shocked the world so much, that many hoped that it would be the last.

Sadly, this never came to fruition, as humanity has continued their destructive streak across the century, and will likely to far into the future. In many ways, the trials of soldiers in the far future have provided some of the more interesting science fiction tales.

When thinking to military science fiction, the first book that often comes to my mind is Starship Troopers. Robert Heinlein's masterpiece has the right tone and the right messages throughout about not only the plight of the soldier, but the responsibility and honor that veterans upheld because of their service. In one particularly early scene in the book, when Johnnie and Carl go to join the service, they are bluntly told that military service isn't the romantic adventure that seemed to have been the perception. This doesn't come too much as a surprise, as Heinlein himself was a Veteran, having graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1929, and served as an officer until 1934, when he was discharged. As the Second World War roared into the lives of Americans, Heinlein worked once again for the military as an aeronautical engineer, alongside two other notable science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Starship Troopers realistically and in a relatable fashion, sums up the soldier's experience in wartime, and demonstrates that Science Fiction can be used as allegory in a number of instances.

Another remarkable example of military science fiction is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and related books that take place during and after. Card's character, Andrew 'Ender' Wiggen, a tactical prodigy and statistician, is a prime example of a soldier who has a varied experience with warfare - and a mixed legacy in the years following his and humanity's successes over the Buggers at the end of the book - a nearly complete and utter destruction of the alien homeworld. Ender's Game is brilliant in its use of characters - Ender proves himself in Battle School, where he uses unconventional tactics to ultimately succeed and demonstrate that he has a superior mind for this style of warfare. A second series of supposed tests are designed to prepare Ender for the invasion of the Bugger's homeworld, only to find that there was no tests - his battles were real, and he was ultimately responsible for the destruction of an entire race. Ender's story is an interesting one, compared to other soldiers, in that he never hit the front lines - rather, he was orchestrating the war from light-years away. Despite this, the war had a profound impact on Ender for his actions - a similarity that is shared with American soldiers who pilot UVAs, according to P.W. Singer in his book Wired for War.

The franchise that embodies warfare in space is Star Wars. Love it or hate various elements of it, I've been greatly impressed with the stories that have been told about the Grand Army of the Republic, through a couple of different sources. The first is the Clone Wars television series, for really emphasizing on the troopers who fought on the part of the Republic. However, the real person who deserves attention for the portrayal of the troopers is Karen Traviss, with her fantastic Republic Commando series. Traviss had quite a lot of experience with the military to draw upon. As a result, Traviss goes far more into the mentality and motives of the soldiers, bringing them far more into view as people, not merely clones. Even better, the events of Order 66 seem very relevant throughout, and Traviss works hard to not only ensure that their motives for following those orders are explained in a logical fashion, but as to the intentions of the soldiers entire existence. The Clones are in a unique position here - bred only for the purpose of war fighting. For them, they're not volunteers, and they aren't expected to live beyond the war - something that the TV series touches on a little bit as well.

While thinking of Traviss's Star Wars books, another good look at war comes with her book City of Pearl and the follow-up novels in the Wess'Har Wars, which examines interstellar conflict over several systems and many thousands of years. Two of her races, the Wess'Har and the Isenj, have been at war over conflicting lifestyles - the Isenj are rapid colonizers, due to a high birthrate, and did so at the cost of their environment, while the Wess'Har believe heavily in the natural world and literally applied a scorched earth policy to planets that they felt were out of line - there's a heavy environmental message here, but it does help to reinforce a point that theorist Carl von Clausewitz made, that Warfare is an extension of policy, and thus, fought on the terms of one's society. The soldiers here are deeply affected by the conflict, as several are essentially immortal, because of a parasite that they had picked up, one that ensures their survival. The long term toll of warfare on these soldiers is an interesting one, and several are noted to have killed themselves (prior to the events in the books) because of the stresses associated with their condition.

When it comes to interstellar warfare, as well as the potential for long term and dedicated purpose, John Scalzi's Old Man's War is another prime example of this sort of Science Fiction. This book, the first in a series (I have the follow up book, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet), sees a world where old men and women are taken, because of their life's experiences thus far, and had their minds transferred to a new, enhanced body. There are many similarities to Starship Troopers and The Forever War (another one that I have, but have yet to read), and Scalzi has an interesting take on the enhanced soldiers and their purpose. One argument in the novel is that these soldiers have been given an artificial lease on life - the best that they can do is to continue to fight. However, in this instance, they aren't necessarily fighting for any particular cause, just the broad, overarching idea of 'humanity', as their citizenship on earth has been terminated by joining the fight in space. This somewhat bothered me, and a couple of the main characters, but highlights another, important aspect in warfare - soldiers, foot soldiers, are trained to fight for one another, to preserve their squad and fellow soldiers, and that message rings heavily through Old Man's War.

Timothy Zahn has also addressed the idea of enhanced soldiers, through his books Cobra and Cobra Two, where a group of soldiers have been enhanced with a number of internal improvements - better skeletons, weapons, a sort of commando unit that are nearly unstoppable in urban combat on alien worlds. However, what really struck me with these books is that the focus is not necessarily on the fighting, but the lives of the soldiers afterwards - these soldiers, with permanent enhancements, had to adapt to civilian life where they were mistrusted and abused because of their abilities, enough to cause conflict in their homes and enough to force the entire Cobra population off world to better offerings.

Military Science Fiction has its share of veterans, and examines, as a whole, not just the cool elements of science fiction, such as powered armor, lasers, epic ship to ship combat and the like, but also the impact, and continued impact that warfare will have on those that are asked to do the fighting, for whatever reason. The concept is such a large one that it is interesting to find a number of different themes - all of which might be found with any given soldier in a real military - have essentially been separated out amongst a number of novels, and examined in depth. The overall message that can be taken from this is that the hopes following World War I were unrealistic, and that humanity will continue to fight - wars large and small will continue, and no doubt, that will continue when we reach the starts. However, it is important to remember the human cost of warfare, not just on society, but upon those who ask to serve their countries, or even worlds.


The future is here, I'm sure of it. For the past couple of years, I've owned a variety of Apple iPods to keep up with my growing interest in music. Looking back at my record with the devices, I'm a little surprised that I actually stuck with the product - since my first one, I've gone through five. Two 3rd generation Classics, 2 2nd generation Nanos and a 2nd generation iPod Touch, which has since been swapped out for an iPhone. Fortunately, I've only paid for a couple of these, because of Apple's fantastic warranty, which covered the first couple devices when their hard drives broke.

I resisted the idea of buying an iPhone for a while, which was one reason why I bought the Touch from a fellow 501st member earlier this year. That was where I realized that there was quite a lot to these devices, and partially the reason why I went out and got a phone. The sheer functionality of the two devices have been a very interesting one, and I believe that it's something right out of science fiction.

I'm finding that the iPhone is an invaluable tool - just carrying it around with me allows me ready access to my calendar, a camera, my e-mail, a calculator, notebook, dictionary, thesaurus, first aid guide, an e-book reader, maps, a compass, the weather, and the internet, among other things, as well as being my phone and music player. I'm slowly getting into the habit of tracking my bills, 501st and work events, concerts and a bunch of other things by using it as a planner, while noting down my food shopping list, interesting books as I browse and looking up the occasional word when I come across something I can't readily remember.

Essentially, what I can hold in my hand is an entirely new method of communicating with the world. I know I'm preaching to the choir here on the Internet. But I'm absolutely astounded that I can check my e-mail, various discussion forums, the news, weather and so much more, practically everywhere I go. (Given AT&T's crappy coverage of Vermont, my options are pretty limited in places). Thinking back to my family's first mobile phone, a clunky, bulky thing that could hardly be put into a pocket, and could only do one thing: call another phone. Here, calling another phone is almost an afterthought.

Star Trek is largely credited with the idea of a hand-held communicator, and the idea has been used throughout the SF genre for years. Taken back to the 1960s, an iPhone, even without having any form of cellular network to operate on, would still be a pretty handy device - it already would be more powerful than the Apollo spacecraft, and considering that the computers of the time were the size of a room. No wonder that the idea of a handheld, wireless communications device would have been a radical idea at the time, and even throughout the next couple of decades, this sort of thing can be used as a prop in the genre.

What interests me more is that for such a rapid development in our society, the influence of something such as a smart phone doesn't seem to make its appearance in Science Fiction as prominently as it might have been. During the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the knowledge that someday, people could walk around, constantly in contact with one another via an impossible technology would have made prime story material for some of the authors. Indeed, some of the effects of these devices would probably fulfill some science fiction authors worst nightmares about a healthy society. The declines in reading, the mutilation of reading and writing abilities, the shorter attention spans and other, similar troublesome trends that we are seeing now help provide the need for such devices.

I for one, have noticed the changes in my own behavior with my phone. Before, I existed without internet at my apartment, although I could check my e-mail on my prior phone. I didn't have television and most of my news updates came from my commute to and from work. Now, I find myself checking my messages every hour or so, while being able to access an incredible amount of information whenever I think of it. Should I want to learn anything about the Faroe Islands (an island group in Northern Europe between Norway and Iceland), or if I need to look up the meaning for the word 'causerie' (light informal conversation for social occasions) or tomorrow's weather, (Mostly sunny, highs in the mid 70s, Light and variable winds...), I have it at my fingertips. I've made a conscious effort to fill my phone with things that are useful, and as such, I've found that in this regard, the phone is a very powerful tool, akin to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or the Encyclopedia Galactica. But at other times, I just want to put it away, and just read a book.

Unfortunately, the phone has that covered. I downloaded the iPhone's version of's Kindle technology, which further adds to its already impressive array of uses by turning it into an ebook reader. I've downloaded a handful of the free offerings from the website. I'm currently reading Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, which is sure to keep me occupied at the next time that I am stuck in a line or away from my books. I can't say that I'm sold on the idea of an ebook reader, but with the option, and the occasions when I've found myself away from whatever I'm reading, I find it to be incredibly useful.

A couple years ago, this sounded like something out of a science fiction novel or film - the advances in technology and miniaturization over the past couple of years has the potential to change how we learn, access information and communicate with one another, but it doesn't change the way in which we interpret that information - it just gives us more and more as people's appetite for information over knowledge increases, which I find more worrying. I like to think that I have customized the programs in my phone be of use, for communications and information access, as well as for entertainment, and as a result, it's by my side constantly. It's handy, but I'm happy that there is one feature on it that has been a staple of all computers since their creation: an off switch.

“Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars.”

Air Canada says it has accepted 2300 reservations for flights to the Moon in the past 5 days. - Cape Canaveral, July 24th, 1969, in the morning news report to the crew of Apollo 11.

After the successful launch, journey and lunar landing, Apollo 11 safely touched down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th, 1969, the final successful note to one of the greatest adventures in human history. Apollo 11 was the touchstone of the entire space program, and on that day, the three astronauts on board, and the entire NASA workforce fulfilled President John F. Kennedy's mandate that had been issued eight years ago. Man had landed on the moon, and returned safely to earth, with five months to spare. Between 1969 and 1972, NASA sent six additional missions to the moon, one of which ultimately failed. On December 14th, 1972, Astronaut Gene Cernan became the last human being to set foot on the moon.

In the thirty-seven years since we last stepped on another worldly body, we have yet to break out of lunar orbit, despite the fantastic momentum that had been built up in the years preceding the Apollo program, and bringing the constant question: When will we return?

There are two major reasons for the lack of further lunar missions, one folding into the other. The first is the very nature of Kennedy's mandate. We would go to the moon, land there and return safely by the end of the decade. As far as a mission goes, it translates well into the American public - there is a where and a when, and that was it. Following the Apollo 11 mission, public interest in the lunar missions waned to the point where major news networks refused to air the crew's broadcast during Apollo 13. Far fewer people took interest in the later missions, and the planned missions for Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were scrapped, despite having the hardware, crews and support staff in place.

This lack of interest, and extra hardware moved NASA to a different direction. In 1972, preliminary funding for the Space Shuttle orbiter was announced, and in 1973, Skylab, the US's first space station, was launched, the result of the Apollo Applications Program, which was designed to modify Apollo hardware to fit other uses. With the launch of Skylab, and the move towards orbital shuttles, NASA transitioned from an agency designed to break barriers and explore new ground (figuratively) to one that was designed towards scientific endeavor and research. This mode of thinking provides an impossible environment for the planning of the types of missions that lunar or even eventually, Martian missions require.

Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were carried out in a highly logical, stepping-stones manner that allowed us to reach the moon. Unfortunately, it did not allow for us to continue returning to the moon after the initial missions were carried out. An Apollo-type program is needed for our eventual return - new rockets are under construction, as well as a new lander and spacecraft, with the intention to return to the lunar surface by 2019 with the Orion 15 mission.

What is lacking is the proper environment in which space travel and lunar missions can thrive. We reached the moon because we were attempting to beat the Russians to the surface, ending the Space Race readily. It was competition, with a sense of national pride and honor at stake that allowed for the massive budget and organization that allowed NASA to go to the moon. Now, with things such as healthcare, terrorism and other major national issues crowding the legislative agenda, there is little desire to go to the moon, it would seem, as there are pressing matters here on earth to do.

I'm often skeptical of such assertions. While yes, a lunar mission is a costly affair, (the Apollo project cost $135 billion, adjusted), the current war in Iraq has cost $669 Billion dollars. That sort of money could easily be used to spend on health care, paying down the national debt and other notable things, but it is the projects such as this that make the United States what it is, and provides a reason for people to continue to imagine, and to provide something absolutely splendid for the country to point at and look upon with pride. Apollo was an absolutely stunning national achievement, one that makes everything that we do worth living for, and to defend.

We will return to the moon, and we will eventually travel to Mars, to Io, and Titan, whether brought there by NASA or by private enterprise, but it is within human nature to travel and to explore.

Technology & Pirates

Last night, on my way home from work, I ended up listening to a couple commentators discussing the recent rise in piracy off the coast of Somalia. This has been of particular interest here in Vermont, as Captain Richard Phillips is from Underhill, and recently was returned home safely after a 5 day standoff with the pirates who took him hostage.  The article in general was examing a number of high tech ways that vessels, which generally don't like to arm their crews (for safety reasons), are adopting to fend off pirates. These items range from types of foam that can prevent someone from climbing up on a ship, water cannons, directed sound and light emitters that deafen or blind combatants, all of which have had some use in the seas already. Most of these things I remember being developed by the military for non-lethal warfare, and they seem to be pretty effective at repelling boarders, which is hoped will help to stop piracy in that region. 

I don't think that it's going to work, however. 

A short while ago, I did several reviews and an interview with Wired for War author Peter Singer, and I think that there are several parallels between this high-tech approach to taking on 21st century pirates, and our new, high tech ways to taking on insurgents in a 21st century world that Singer has outlined. Additionally, there were several points in my own studies on methods of warfare that give me some pause when it comes to new and high-tech gadgets being put into combat situations. 

On the more obvious side, technology seems to be the silver bullet for warfare. Soldiers nowadays have enormous capabilities compared to their historical predecessors. Our soldiers can fight in the dark, can shoot a person from over a mile away, can fly over a hostile combat zone from thousands of miles away, and talk to one another while fighting in a way to coordinate their movements. These advances have allowed our military personnel to be far more effective in combat, and as a result, more people come back alive than before. There is very little downside to this. 

What I fear, however, is that our military, and indeed, our society, has come to expect far more from fighting forces, and are more willing to utilize technology as a method of warfare. While covering the 2009 Colby Military Writer's symposium here at Norwich University a month ago, the panel discussion brought up the point that President Eisenhower noted in his fairwell address in 1961, warning against the rise of a military industrial complex, noting that going to war nowadays is far easier, because the personnel required is smaller, with technology being percieved as making up the difference far better than humans can. 

This has certainly been a big issue for Iraq, and numerous talks and people I've spoken with have noted that the human element to warfare is something that cannot be underestimated or eliminated. Author Alan R. King, noted that many of the problems that we had in Iraq was a failure to understand the human element within the country, with in turn cause the situation to worsen. Peter Singer also noted that a number of human rights groups have looked into the idea of utilizing unmanned drones in genocide areas, such as Sudan's Darfur, in an effort to stop the violence, and former CIA operative and author Robert Baer has noted that for all the satellites in orbit, having an operative in a room with someone is the best way to gather intelligence, because they can see, hear and feel everything that it going on, things that robotic solutions cannot do at the present moment. These 'solutions' are really not solutions. 

So, when it comes to the rise in Piracy in Somalia, technology is certainly going to deter some pirates. But, what happens when they aquire a water cannon of their own, or use goggles and ear plugs to counter the countermeasures? The same thing is happening in Iraq at the present moment with children armed with spray paint - an expensive robot is taken out of commission by a far cheaper solution. The other issue that I see with extensive countermeasures against pirates is that this could up the ante when it comes to the pirates themselves, and they have already threatened to do so following the deaths of the three pirates who took Richard Phillips the other day. Simply killing and deterring pirates at this point is a short-term solution, as we have found killing insurgents. Where there are people who have taken up arms, there will be people to follow, and the situation will escalate. 

President Obama has recently said that they will be putting a stop to the rise in piracy over there, but what exactly does that mean? Will we send in a carrier group to cover a large amount of ocean, while not addressing the underlying problem? Or will he go the route that will be unpopular and attackable by working with the remains of the Somali Government to try and control the problem through economics, which will ultimately solve the problem? The pirates are the symptom of a country in dire need of help, and working to alleviate that symptom will not bring about any sort of long term solution.

Bryan Dondero to Depart the Nocturnals

According to Vermont's largest daily newspaper, Bassist Bryan Dondero is departing from the popular VT band, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, raising some issues that he had with the band and their creative direction. The recent move has forced the band to cancel several shows (Revolution Hall in Troy, NY on March 25th; The 8x10 in Baltimore, MD on March 26th; and Mr. Small's in Millvale, PA on March 27th) that were coming at the end of the month, although there is no word as to whether the band will continue at Bonnaroo.
The article cited Dondero's displeasure with the band's move to a major record label in 2007 for their fantastic album This Is Somewhere, which marked a noted change from funk-soul in the band's style to something more along the likes of classic rock. In the article, he stated: "I was always a little skeptical, they’re owned by Disney." He then goes on to note that he and Potter disagreed on several points, and that he felt that he was going to be asked to leave the band.
This is a bit surprising, at least to me. I've been a huge fan of the Nocturnals since I started listening to them several years ago, and being from the same place, and indeed, attending the same high school as Grace, it's been absolutely fantastic to see the band grab so much attention as they have in the past couple of years. The group has largely been seen to have been a great creative force, and it's unclear as to how this will affect the band, especially as they are working on their next major record label album.
This also brings up the argument about indie vs. major label records. Obviously, there is far more creative control when it comes to an independant record, as the band found with their first two albums, which gained them quite a bit of notice around the state, and only with the major record, were they able to gain even more attention on a nation-wide level, especialy with appearances on Jay Leno, Grey's Anatomy and One Tree Hill.
That being said, Potter's latest single, I Want Something I Want is a huge departure from her normal style, and even I've been a little disapointed with the stylistic change here - it's an incredibly shallow and pop-ish song, far below what we've come to expect from her. It's not a bad song alone, but within the context of what we've heard before, it doesn't come close. However, the Nocturnals are on the rise, and it should come to no surprise that they will have to sacrifice some style and independance for the attention. While it's not a good situation, they can do far more later on, as well as with their live shows, which are incredibly energetic and exciting to watch.
I really hope that the Nocturnals will find another bassist in the near future, so that they can continue to play around the area, as well as complete their new album, but I hope that they won't forget their Vermont roots and where they came from, because that would be an enormous amount of talent that would be squandered with the regular, consumer level music. The Nocturnals are much better than that. I also hope that this doesn't spell any more problems for the band, because I'll be very, very sad if they break apart.
(Originally posted to Carry You Away) Image from Flickr

Borders Books & Music and The Science Fiction Genre

A number of authors have posted up on their personal blogs what appears to be a disturbing trend when it comes to one of the nation's largest booksellers: Borders Books & Music. It seems, that because of profitability, the Borders chain is cutting back on a number of SciFi titles that they used to carry, which has several authors up in arms, because if one of the biggest retailers doesn't stock their books, that represents a huge cut in their own profitability.

Author Greg Frost seems to have started this with a blog post here. In it, he notes that his book, which went back to the printers a couple times and received good reviews, is not being picked up by Borders anywhere. This is because the first book in the series didn't sell well. Through the rest of the article, he brings up several points that are both indicative of the industry and of the genre, disturbing trends alike. (I have to say, that after reading this, I'm tempted to pick up the first book and see how it is. )

I used to work at a Walden Books, which is owned by Borders, and I've noted a couple of problems with the chain that several of these authors highlight. I don't see this move as malicious intent on the part of the book chain - I see it more as misguided business models that are designed more towards profitability than towards promoting books and reading. Yes, this is a business - a very big one - but for all the need for Borders to make money, I've always seen a book store as a place where people can find something new, exciting, invigorating and fun, mainly through the joys of reading. This is far easier when it comes to a smaller, local bookstore, because they have the narrow shelves, creaky floors and obscure books, and generally, the knowledge and enthusiasm. As Frost points out, the book selling industry has never been a hugely successful one, but it's held up and kept moving by people who have a passion for books and reading. In my opinion, that's how it should be, and while this is largely unrealistic, it's still a nice thought to have.

Several other authors have chimed in about this. Pat Cadigan slammed the company in her blog, Ceci N'est Pas Une Blog with this post.  She notes that a lot of these stores tend to stock primarily movie edition scifi books - I, Robot and Minority Report as two examples, but not so much some of the lesser known, but equally just as good, authors. I think that she misses some of the bigger picture here when it comes to the business, but I do agree with several of the things that she says when it comes to losing our culture.

While I don't think that we're losing culture (any sort of culture that involves buying or selling is generally pretty superficial anyway), it is drastically changing because of the internet. Some things that we hold dear, such as browsing a bookstore has been lost to clicking away on a computer screen, while the books that really sell are the rapidly written movie novelization for the genre movie of the month.

Andrew Wheeler chimes in as well with a more balanced blog post here, and takes far more into consideration that bookstores are businesses, and that a lot of this is an effort to move over to online sales, in an effort to compete with the juggernaut He also explains something about why the big chain stores are in business, and how that has changed some of the landscape, and how that seems to be coming back to bite authors and consumers at this stage. Larger chain stores, when introduced, were big, had a lot of stock and introduced discounts and a fairly consistent inventory to the equation, which some of the more independent bookstores didn't have. Here in Vermont, I can tell you that there are a number of smaller bookstores near my house - Bear Pond Books is great, but they have a very, very limited selection of Sci-Fi and fantasy books. Rivendell has a slightly better selection, while the Northfield Book Store also has a fairly limited selection. The Walden Books where I used to work up the hill has four or five times the selection of SciFi books, than all of those stores, and they can order just about anything on the market.

Bookstores and culture is changing, mainly because of the internet. Major websites such as sell books very cheaply, offer a ton of options and are incredibly fast. Brick and mortar stores are struggling to keep up, and have had to really expand the selection of things that they sell, which is why you now see items such as candy, movies, cafes and discount cards. I'm not trying to defend Borders - I have several issues with some of the things that they do, but this is something that seems to be across the board when it comes to these big stores.

The Borders rewards card is a particular problem - it was when I worked there and it still is. Employees are given a percentage goal for the number of purchases made with a card, and how many people are to sign up. The idea is customer loyalty - If a customer gets coupons from Borders or benefits because of these cards, they're going to shop there more. The problem that I've always seen is that the required percentages are insanely high, and it's very hard to obtain for a cashier, and I know several people who have resorted to scanning in blank cards just to try and keep up - at the cost of their jobs. Borders tends to be pretty draconian about their business policies, and one of the things that really took the rosy hopes that I had for working at a bookstore right away from me. I didn't like worrying about my sales figures  more than telling a customer about a book that was really good - it became more of a how can I get this customer to buy more stuff? While again, this isn't a surprise or something unexpected when it comes with retail sales, it runs against everything that a bookstore should be. Bookstores have to remain in business, but the corporate structure really doesn't lend itself well in this case.

The biggest problem when it comes to science fiction authors is that these cuts, at an attempt to become more profitable, are being hurt for the sheer superficial reason that they don't sell enough copies, and much more of the genre, as I've ranted before, is moving more towards media tie-ins rather than the purely original stuff. While this isn't bad, it is leaving the genre with more of an image that its just a pile of crappy novels based off of this movie or that video game. Across the board, media tie-ins aren't as good as regular fiction, in my point of view. There are exceptions here, and a couple authors who would disagree with me, but when it comes to the genre, I would much rather see original works, not based off of any franchise, get the shelf space, rather than a work that's largely a product (even though it might very well be a good product) advertising for something else, like a movie. This lessens the genre. This added step from Borders doesn't help things at all when it comes to authors who haven't gone and written for the media tie-in market, either because of personal choice or because they haven't been able to work their way in yet.

Increasingly, I'm finding it harder and harder to find what look like good reads on the bookshelves of stores, which is a real tragedy, because this is one way that the newer and upcoming authors can really break out and get an audience. I'm not advocating for a boycott of Borders, because that doesn't really help things - if nobody buys related genres from there, the sales go down and you've made the problem worse. Supporting your independent bookstore is generally the best thing to do, if there is still one around, but the main thing is to continue to follow authors and follow up on new ones, and order their books from somewhere, even if it requires jumping through several hoops. Because in the end, you want to read the book, and the effort to get it should make it all the more worthwhile.

Edit: Wednesday: Neil Gaiman has chimed into the argument from his blog here.

Bookshops have neither infinite shelf-space nor infinite financial resources, and if you only have space and resources enough to put out on the shelves five new SF or Mystery or Horror books this month, then the sixth and the sixteenth books that come out in that field aren't going to get bought or shelved. And even if they are, a lot of them are going to vanish next month, and it's a rare author who remains popular enough to hold his or her shelf-space forever.


A while ago, I wrote about a show that was coming out that I was pretty excited for - Fringe. The show's been out, and it's pretty much what I've expected, and it's certainly a fun program to watch. The main thing is though, you really can't take it too seriously. Popular mechanics went and did a feature on the bad science in the show. From both episodes that I've seen, they're really taking liberties with what's going on here, and theyve acknowledged that - J.J. Abrams has said that they would pretty much jump the shark each episode, which makes me think that the creators just want to have as much fun as possible before the ratings plummet.

One of the readers on the PM website left this comment:

" It's science fiction, not science fact. there's no point in wasting time and effort to debunk something that isn't real in the first place"

This made me think a little bit - to what extent is Science Fiction about made-up science? To some extent, there's quite a bit, when you look at some of the things that SciFi has covered over all the years. We see aliens from mars, aliens from other star systems, worm holes, cloning, robotics, robots that look like people, robots that look like people and want to be people, hyperspace, and so forth, nothing that really has any real-life counterparts, unless you subscribe to the aliens landed at Roswell thing. So there's a lot of science fiction that utilizes made up items in order to tell its story.

But how much of this is merely a plot device and how much is just technobabble? This, in my mind, is what seperates the good science fiction from the bad. The best science fiction stories that I've read and watched have some of the more absurd things happen to some of the characters. Takeshi Kovacs is a super soldier who's trained to switch bodies by means of a Stack, a small carbon device implanted in his brain (and much of the rest of the population) to prolong life. Shan Frankland was infected with a parasite that allowed her to survive a trip into the vacuum of space for months before being revived. Martin Springfield is an agent for a super intelligence known as the Eschaton, and works to prevent causality breaks designed to eliminate the Eschaton. Dr. Susan Calvin is a robopsychologist for US Robotics and Mechanical Men, and ... you get the idea.

In each instance, the science here is a secondary element, although generally, very well thought out, given the level and sophistication of knowledge at the time of the book's publication. The characters and story are the primary movers here. The same goes for two of my favorite TV shows, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, where a lot of the science that could, and has been traditionally dropped in as technobabble, has been eliminated in favour of a character driven story.

To me, this is what really makes or breaks a story, when an author or creator can place people in improbable or impossible situations, and make them react in a way that entertains, or enlightens us, rather than a useless explaination for something that doesn't exist.

This isn't to say that all science fiction utilizes fake science, and with time, science catches up to the literature. Charles Stross's Halting State (reviewed here) utilizes MMORPG and Social Networking as part of its storyline, showing off a near future that's quite frightening. Karen Traviss's Wess'Har series utilizes some likely technology throughout the story, and presents some very real problems, such as Global Warming and Climate Change several hundred years from the present day, and provides a fairly realistic-seeming future for society after that happens. The film Minority Report actually utilized a think tank to try and figure out where technology would go, and in the years since its been released, much of what we saw seems likely. The list goes on and on.

The big question is, when does some of the more fantastic things, like Cloning, Artificial intelligence, flying cars and jet packs become non-fictional? We've already had a couple of those things happen.

In short, there's a lot of Science that will be perceived as fake, but necessary. In Fringe's case, it's the fantastic explanation that's undermined by bad science. This really doesn't set the show apart from things such as the X-Files or Star Trek, but it is fun to watch.

The Dark Knight

I saw a screening last night with a couple of 501st friends, and all I can say is that I was completely blown away by the movie. It held such an intensity, darkness and brilliance that I'm not at all reluctant to say that it's possibly my favorite comic book movie to date. As a friend of mine mentioned, nobody is going to care about a drunk in a tin-can after this one.

Plot details are everywhere, so I don't think that I will have to say what the film is about. What really makes the story here is it's intense plot that is very twisted and packed with subplots and characters. It's a little overwhelming, and I think that it's the one drawback to the film, because point A at the beginning is nearly forgotten from point q way at the end. That being said, it's an amazing ride between those points, and it's nice to see a film that doesn't pander down to an audience, but takes them along for a wild ride.

Everyone is singing the late Heath Ledger's performance as nothing short of brilliant, and I'm inclined to agree. Ledger's Joker is a far cry from Nicholson's performance, fitting the style of the new franchise - dark, gritty and completely without social inhibitions of right and wrong. He is, essentially, the perfect counterpoint to Bale's Batman. One is a source of justice, the other is one of chaos and anarchy. As Alfred, played by the great Sir. Michael Cane says, some men just want to see the world burn, and that is what Ledger's joker is all about.

The usual suspects, Bale, Caine, Freeman and Oldman are in top form as they were in Batman Begins, and are joined by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes a far better Rachel Dawes, and Aaron Eckhart, who plays Harvey Dent, who pulls out a brilliant performance as Gotham's new DA and later as the villian Two Face. There's even a short appearance from Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow, which was a nice touch, and Heroes' Eric Roberts as a crime lord was also a cool appearance. I also spotted William Fichtner from Prison Break in the beginning, which was cool.

What the Dark Knight shows the world is that comic book films are not necessarily something solely for a younger audience. This film is dark and bloody, intelligent and borders on something like a horror film at times. It's a far cry from other batman movies such as Batman and Robin or the Fantastic Four. Like Iron Man, which came out earlier this summer, it wraps real world relevance with the fantastic.

Additionally, the movie delves much more into superhero mythos than most films or comics that I've read, really exploring the nature to which good and evil interact, as well as the intentions and consequenses of those actions. The Joker is a force for anarchy, but to what extent has be been brought into being by the mere existance of Gotham's Dark Knight? Caine's character tells Bruce Wayne that this is somewhat the result of his existance:

Bruce Wayne: I knew the mob wouldn't go down without a fight. But this is different. They crossed the line. Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand.

This is mirrored (no pun intended) by the introduction of Harvey 'Two Face' Dent in the form of Aaron Eckhart. The DA of Gotham is a force for good, but essentially becomes enamored of the idea that there is two sides to everything, and this is shown a lot in the movie, especially after half of his face is burned off. It goes to show that the best of the best can have two sides, and that the good can become the worst type of evil. The Joker is essentially a catalyst, and knows it - he tells Batman that he's out there to give Gotham a better class of criminal. Two Face represents a more organized, type of evil, and I wonder if this, as well as the villification of Batman at the end, foreshadows some of what might come up in the next Batman film, which would be interesting.

The film is downright brilliant, and hopefully, I'll be able to catch it in theaters again at some point.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Joss Whedon's done it again - created something geeky, cool and downright addicting, and which has completely sucked me into. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

The premise is fun - a up and coming super villain in LA has a blog, where he answers reader mail, talks about his plots of world domination and the girl that he's too shy to talk to, Penny, whom he sees at the laundry. Intermixed with the dialogue is some catchy songs, turning this short miniseries into a sort of geek musical.

It's stripped down, simple, but very fun and interesting to watch. I predict that in the very near future, we'll see people put together the costumes and perform this as a fan musical at a convention somewhere. It's short and easy enough to do that it wouldn't be difficult. Whedon's not a stranger to musicals either, nor are some of the cast - Neil Patrick Harris is a Broadway alum, and Whedon's done at least one musical episode. The songs are light and catchy. I've had a bunch of them floating around in my head for the past couple of days now. Whedon's assembled a nice cast of albums from his shows, which is all the more entertaining to see fan favorites.

"With my freeze ray I will stop... the world."

Like many of Whedon's creations, there's a good mixture of well crafted characters. We've got the archetype good and bad guys, but the good guy has his darker sides and the bad guy has his good sides. Along the way we meet Moist, who can make things slightly damp, and Bad Horse, "Who rules the league with an Iron hoove." It's another fun foray into the superhero genre, which seems to be getting more and more popular outside of comics. I've been getting more and more interested in this sort of thing, and this really reminds me of Soon, I Will Be Invincible and to some extent, Heroes.

This comes at an interesting time, because NBC just released the first of a series of minisodes for the show Heroes, called Postal, following a mail man with a very loud voice. The first episode features him escaping from a doberman and a couple of company agents. Minisodes are an interesting thing that really doesn't seem to have caught on to a wider audience. Battlestar Galactica, Eureka and a couple of other shows have released these, and Heroes marks the latest in the intigration of mainstream media to user-generated content and viral marketing.

Thus far, Dr. Horrible is a success. The site crashed on the first day of the miniseries release, and has been brought back up again, and the second episode hasn't given me any issues. The first episode hit the #1 spot on iTunes as well, and I'm reasonably sure that the 2nd episode, whenever that it released via iTunes, will do the same thing. Then, on the 20th, the free content will be pulled, and a DVD release will follow. Will this experiment work? It seems to be. Hopefully it'll be successful enough for Whedon to continue to do this sort of thing, and according to at least one source, they've considered a sequel series.

This comes at an interesting time - the release of the Heroes minisode, and of course, this week is the one that marks the release of The Dark Knight, easily my most anticiapted film of 2008. I declare this week to be Superhero week. Next episode will be released on the 19th, this Saturday. I absolutely can't wait to see how they wrap this up. Will Dr. Horrible take over the world and get the girl? Or at least join the League? Will Captain Hammer have his way with Penny? Will there be more catchy songs and witty dialogue? Undoubtably.

Watch the episodes here.

Memorable quotes:

Part 1

- Captain Hammer, corporate tool. He dislocated my shoulder...again... last week. (Billy/Horrible)

- I received a letter of condemnation from the deputy mayor. That's gotta have some weight. (Billy/Horrible)

- I love your hair (Billy/Horrible) What? (Penny) No, I love the...air...(Billy/Horrible)

- Just a few weeks away from real, audible connection. (Billy/Horrible)

- Armored car? (Moist) Courier van. Candy from a baby. (Billy/Horrible)

- Need anything dampened, made soggy?

- Why not cut off the head? (Billy/Horrible) Of the human race? (Penny) It's not a perfect metaphor. (Billy/Horrible)

It's curtains for you. Lacy, wafting curtains. (Captain Hammer)

Part 2

- You're kidding, what a crazy, random happenstance. (Billy/Horrible)

- Billy? You're driving the spork into your leg. (Penny)

- I say successful that I archived my objective. It was less successful as I inadvertently introduced my arch nemesis to the girl of my dreams. (Billy/Horrible)

- Which it will, because I hold a PhD in horribleness. Peace. But not literally...(Billy/Horrible)

- I also need to be careful about what I say on this blog, because the LAPD and Captain America are among it's viewers. (Billy/Horrible)

- Captain Hammer threw a car at my head. (Billy/Horrible)

- At my most badass, I make people want to take a shower. (Moist)

- The only signature he needed was my fist. But with a pen in... that I was signing with... (Captain Hammer)