Tag Archives: Technology

Still Stalking Sterling: Dispatches from a Hyperlocal Future

I didn’t notice until I clicked through to it from my RSS reader that this lengthy ‘blog post from the future’ on Wired is by none other than my favourite cyberpunk author and all-round hand-waving Texan genius, Bruce Sterling.

I should have noticed, of course; in hindsight, it’s very much in his style. Although it doesn’t work exceptionally well on literary terms (it’s one big infodump with a framing concept), I doubt it is supposed to – and it’s well worth a read anyway. Here’s a snippet of news from 2017 as an example:

“Meanwhile, gray-haired representatives are wigging out over the hordes of Americans who blithely abandon their passports to travel the world with European mobiles. The Europeans let you do that. They understand that their hopelessly crufty nationware only impedes the flow of ever-stronger euros. Nobody wants to deal with nationware, not even in an emergency. It’s not granular enough, fast enough, close enough to the ground. If you lose everything you own in a flood or hurricane, who are you going to call — the federal bureaucracy?! Amazon.com, Google, Ikea, and Wal-Mart can deliver anything, anywhere, while the Feds are still stenciling their crates of surplus cheese.

It’s not about who salutes, folks. It’s about who delivers. Remember that. I said it first. You can link to me.”

Apparently there’s more to come, which promises to be fun. As well as being an interesting format with which to deliver futurist ideas (or ‘foresight consulting’, as I believe we’re supposed to call it now), I like the meta-ness of blogging a fictional blog from the future. It also highlights the potential for serialised short fiction to make a resurgence, if the authors can find the right hooks. Hmmm …

DRM – what’s dumb for music is dumb for books, too

Thanks to Tobias Buckell, I caught another slice of wisdom from Eric Flint of Baen Books on the subject of piracy (though not the sort with ships and cutlasses, mind) and the genre fiction market:

“You literally can’t penetrate the obscurity of the book market. You’d have to spend every waking moment reading book reviews—and even that wouldn’t suffice, because the book reviewers themselves, all of them put together, can’t keep up with the production of new titles.”

(Yup.)

“In short, the book market is just about as opaque as any market there is. I might mention, by the way, that this is not the least of the reasons that the fears of authors that they’ll get “pirated” are almost always just plain silly. With the exception of a tiny percentage of very well-known authors like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, the real problem authors face is that only a very small percentage of their potential customers have even heard of them—so how likely is it that the ravening hordes of electronic pirates are out there plundering their titles?”

And a little further on:

“In the real world, the only authors—or musicians, by the way—who get “pirated” in any significant numbers are ones who are already famous and enjoy top sales. (And all the “piracy” is likely to do, even then, is simply boost their sales. See my next essay for a further discussion.) The great problem faced by all authors—musicians are in a very similar position—is the opacity of the book market. The entertainment market in general, actually, even movies. Compared to that problem, all others are fleas standing next to mammoths.

It is therefore absurd for an author or a publisher to support DRM, when DRM not only makes the market still more opaque, but—worse yet—it removes the best tool any author has today to penetrate that obscurity, at least a little.”

That is, of course, the O’Reilly / Doctorow “piracy as progressive taxation” argument, but here it’s coming from someone who knows the industry of which he speaks from the beancounting end. And the music industry comparison is timely, what with plunging CD sales and corporate panicking making headlines. They’re failing spectacularly; publishing would do well to learn from their mistakes.

Further evidence from O’Reilly, via Doctorow (ZOMFG! H4X! k0nsp1r4cy!), in the form of a case study of sales and download figures for a non-fiction title whose free availability became a Digg headline:

“…what’s most striking (apart from the huge scale mismatch, in terms of the number of people accessing the content through the free online version), is that when the downloads spiked in January of this year from about 8000 a month to nearly 30,000 after the book’s free availability was noted on digg, we didn’t see a correspondingly sharp decline in sales. Of course, neither did we see any evidence that free availability of the book spurred sales. And as noted above, there is a sharp drop at about the time the download data starts that is likely unrelated to the downloads, even though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that downloads had some effect.”

This is of limited relevance here – because popular fiction is a different kettle of fish to obscure geek tomes on the future of telephony, and because this is a case where a free, easy and perfectly legal source for the electronic version was made available. But even so, it’s worth noting that there was no sharp decline in sales.

Of course, the best way to nullify piracy, as Flint and O’Reilly have both said before, is to make the stuff freely available at source. Publishers have been reticent about this, which is probably no surprise – the economics of abundance is a pretty new phenomenon in creative works, after all – but the problems being experienced by the record labels should be sufficient impetus to start planning ahead.

And the options are there – even Google, those filthy copyright-infringing bookscanner types, are holding out a hand to publishers by offering them the chance to have branded portals to the content of theirs that Google makes available:

“Publishers can tailor the index of their search engine so that only books published by them show up in the query results, Google said Friday. As in the main Book Search site, these result pages give users the option to link to online shops that sell the listed books.”

Sure, Google gains from this. They’re not stupid. But publishers stand to gain, too – and while playing King Canute as your business dwindles might be a glorious stand for what you’ve always believed in, it’s ultimately an empty display if you’re in the business of getting good reading material in front of the eyes of readers. Go with the flow; it’s easier to adjust your stroke if you’re not swimming against the tide.

Dead publishing houses and digital reading

Some booky gubbins from over the weekend … a sad bit of news that caught my eye on the SFBC blog is that Perseus Book Group is axing a few subsidiary houses in their acquisition of Avalon, one of which is Thunder’s Mouth Press.

In my fortunate position of getting sent more books than I have time to realistically read, it’s a rare occasion that I lash out my own cash on one, but two of the books I bought in the last year were Thunder’s Mouth titles: Sterling’s Visionary in Residence collection and Rucker’s Mad Professor. There’s a lot of these amalgamations happening in publishing at the moment, and I wonder how this will pan out over time – the Long Tail hasn’t yet kicked into the book market the way it has music.

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Some bibliophile at The Guardian got given a demo unit of iRex’s forthcoming Iliad ebook reader to try out for a month, and seems to be fairly impressed by it – although he reckons it’ll be a long time before they kill of the print book business, which is something I’ve always conceded and which has been stated by minds far greater (and more versed in the technology and economic ramifications) than mine. But as reflects the item above, the following statement is interesting:

“It won’t destroy bookshops, any more than the much more advanced music-download business has destroyed albums.”

I can only assume the gentleman hasn’t seen the sales figures for the music industry recently – the album is indeed dying as a format, as is the bricks-and-mortar music outlet. The effects will take longer in an industry like literature, where pace of change is by necessity that much slower (books take time to write and edit after all), but if there is a truism in media these days, it is that “technology disrupts markets – inevitably and irreperably”.

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Finally, we have the one and only Bill Gates proclaiming that reading will eventually go entirely online. There’s no timeframe mentioned, of course, and it’s probably a tautology to all but the most agressively technophobic. But Gates has scored well as a futurist prediction machine in the past – his book The Road Ahead, published in 1995, was stunningly accurate as far as such documents go – though not without some prophecies that look remarkably silly in hindsight.

We’ve got a long future of paper books to come – with POD technology making short runs more practical and affordable, there’s little reason that science fiction should suffer the effects of change any more than the greater market as a whole. But as the Guardian fellow says, we will start to see ebook readers in the hands of the ubergeeks – Stross’s “Slashdot Generation” – very soon, and the first increments of change will begin to unfold.

If I had £500 spare, I’d happily be one of those technology pioneers – indeed, should anyone from Sony or iRex be reading, I’d be more than willing to evaluate and critique their product for them over a lengthy time period …

IBM provides fuel for Mundane science fiction

Via FutureWire comes material that may provide relief for those concerned that the strictures of the Mundane SF submission requirements leave them too little room for maneuver …

IBM has published a report called “The Next Five in Five”, which is a cheerily optimistic bit of futurist thinking that lays out the five major technological innovations that the Big Blue crew believe will occur within the next five years. You’ll need to click through for details, but here are the all-important bullet points:

  1. We will be able to access healthcare remotely, from just about anywhere in the world
  2. Real-time speech translation-once a vision only in science fiction-will become the norm
  3. There will be a 3-D Internet
  4. Technologies the size of a few atoms will address areas of environmental importance
  5. Our mobile phones will come close to reading our minds

What I find interesting about this report is how plausible it is. It may be that IBM deliberately kept it that way, but even so it contrasts astonishingly to the Tomorrow’s World type of boosterism that I remember from my childhood. I’d watch those programs and think “wow, just imagine that!” I read that list, and I shrug and think “yep, seems likely.”

I have some sympathy with the Mundane manifesto*, and this report shows why – there’s acres of scope for speculative fiction based purely on plausible real-world developments. Though of course you’ll need to get published quickly before reality trumps your fictional masterpiece!

That said, I think there’s still a place for the wide-screen new space opera, which fulfils a different urge. You can write fiction featuring scientifically implausible tropes and still make it deeply relevant to the human condition – as the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks demonstrate most admirably, IMHO.

[* Said Manifesto has vanished into the places where unrenewed domain names are eternally blessed, at least as far as I can tell from a perfunctory Googling, but Abigail Nussbaum’s report on it will tell you most of what you need to know.]

Fiction first, science second

Despite the name, science fiction isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) all about science and technology.

Sure, you need some of that stuff in there – in varying degrees, from each writer according to his or her individual preference. But first and foremost, the second part of the name is the important bit: science fiction. It’s just stories, first and foremost. And because of the way human psychology works, good stories – the ones that engage the most readers the most effectively – are about people.

Well, maybe it’s better to say characters, because in science fiction some of the ‘people’ aren’t necessarily human people, but the point still stands – and it is made successfully by Ian Hocking’s essay for Concatenation’s twentieth anniversary issue:

“When the story is put on hold for attention-stretching paragraphs, even pages, you place your fiction into the category that justifies the response of those who hate science fiction: ‘I’m not interested in all that space stuff’. You shouldn’t have to be interested in the space stuff to an enjoy an SF story any more than you need to have an intrinsic interest in African territorial jurisdiction to enjoy Casablanca, Russian history to enjoy Dr Zhivago, or time paradoxes to enjoy The Terminator…”

Reading that reminded me of one of Jeremiah Tolbert’s recent posts (that I was sure I had linked before, but can’t seem to find in the archives). He’s talking about reaching the same character-over-gimmicks realisation Hocking discusses above, and mentions that Ted Chiang’s anthology of short fiction was the catalyst for this epiphany:

“What I thought I had realized was a pattern in his collection. Each story seemed to be an idea story, only he had two ideas that he had connected at an interesting intersection. But what he was doing that I had not yet learned how to do was taking a character’s life and figuring out where that idea intersection impacted them most.”

Wise words, I think. As Tolbert’s parting shot mentions, this probably isn’t news to many readers here at VCTB. But to someone struggling to learn the basics of the craft, it’s a crucial revelation, and it’s certainly changed the way I think about writing fiction.