Monday, February 27, 2012

Stoker Award Nominees

I won't copy-and-paste from SF Signal (where I first saw the list; go there to see the nominated works in all their splendor).

But I did want to look quizzically at the nomenclature for this award. The winning works are not "best," or "favorite," or even "totally awesome," but instead the rather tepid "superior achievement."

So the Stoker-winning novel of any given year actually was awarded "superior achievement in a novel," which means, essentially, that it's somewhat better than most of the books out there.

Maybe it's just my cynicism talking, but that sounds suspiciously like the slow clap of literature -- you're not all that good, got it? you're just mildly better than some other things.

More Skiffy in the Library of America

SF Signal notes that a couple more SFnal books are coming up from the Library of America, one of the very classiest of the classy publishers: a volume of early Vonnegut novels and stories, and a two-volume sampler of SF from the '50s, including novels by Sturgeon, Brackett, Pohl & Kornbluth, Leiber, Blish, Bester, and Heinlein. (And, from those last names, you could probably guess exactly which novels are included.)

The Vonnegut is very welcome, and is actually the second LoA Vonnegut volume -- Novels & Stories, 1963 to 1973 is already out, and Novels & Stories 1950-1962 is coming up. With any luck, we'll get the post-1973 novels in due course.

The SF miscellany is more dubious -- though they've done it before, in a very similar two-volume set of crime novels -- since that's more obviously editorial-driven (the books had to be selected by someone, and are thus a snapshot of what one particular person at this moment in time thinks is important in an area the LoA doesn't want to fully cover), and the whole point of the LoA was not to exercise editorial judgement within books. Sure, there's the whole question of who's in or out of the LoA at all, but each author's works were supposed to be essentially complete. But nowadays, especially with their Philip K. Dick volumes, they're cherry-picking what some guest editor thinks are the important works, instead of letting each reader decide for herself.

(There's a longer version of this argument in an Antick Musings post from 2005 about the LoA Tales volume by Lovecraft; this has been a hobby-horse of mine for a while.)

However, one of my major complaints about the LoA -- that they hadn't done Ambrose Bierce, my pick for the greatest neglected writer in American history -- is now somewhat answered, with The Devil's Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. (It's not even his complete short fiction -- all of which deserves to be collected! -- but that's the same argument all over again.)

The Diagram Prize Rides Again

It's time once again for my favorite literary award, the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. The UK publishing organ The Bookseller -- sponsor of the award since its inception in 1978 -- has just released the 2011 shortlist, which is slightly longer than usual:
  • A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel: Volume Two by Peter Gosson (Amberley).
  • Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong (Urban Neighbours of Hope).
  • Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World by Aino Praakli (Kirjastus Elmatar).
  • The Great Singapore Penis Panic: And the Future of American Mass Hysteria by Scott D Mendelson (Createspace).
  • Mr Andoh's Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge by Stephen Curry and Takayoshi Andoh (Royd Press).
  • A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares (Phaidon).
  • The Mushroom in Christian Art by John A Rush (North Atlantic Books).
It may just be that I'm getting older and harder to please, but it seems to me that the recent shortlists have been more pedestrian than the great heights of the past. Sure, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs is wonderful, but isn't it just a slightly tattier manifestation of 2006's great winner The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification? And what of those twin icons of self-knowledge, How to Avoid Huge Ships and How to Shit in the Woods?

I'm sure there are stranger titles than these out there, right? Surely we still live in a world that's capable of a new Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers or Reusing Old Graves?

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/25

I'm getting to this post several hours later on Sunday than expected -- with deleterious effects on all of the other things I want to accomplish today -- so this may be shorter and more succinct than usual. Thus I'll run through the disclaimer -- these books arrived in my mailbox last week; I haven't yet read any of them, but here's what I can tell you about them -- and jump right in:

GTO: The Early Years Volume 11 is the latest volume reprinting a manga series by Toru Fujisawa, originally called Shonan Junai Gumi and published before his more famous Great Teacher Onizuka, but featuring the same main character. I insist on the traditional meaning of prequel -- that it was created later than another work, though set earlier in the fictional timeline -- and so this is not a prequel. But it is what Fujisawa was doing for the half-decade before he created his most famous series, and it's about what his most famous character was doing before he decided to become a great teacher. And this new volume comes from Vertical (hitting stores last week), after a several-year hiatus after earlier volumes in the Early Years series were published, and then abandoned, by another house.

The next two books are both from Tachyon, and I've already seen them once, so they get just quick notices, since I don't have anything new to say about them:
Fair Coin is a young adult fantasy novel from E.C. Meyers, and appears to be a first novel. It's about a young man who discovers a coin that makes his wishes come true when he flips it -- but, of course, the first rule of wish stories is that you never get exactly what you want, or want what you think you want. It looks like fun, and it's coming March 6th in hardcover.

Songs of the Earth is another first novel, from the British (from Northumberland, actually, which makes her Northumberlandish?) writer Elspeth Cooper. It's an epic fantasy, and the beginning of the series "The Wild Hunt." And Tor (the US version) will publish it officially tomorrow in hardcover.

And last is another book from Tor: Girl Genius Omnibus Volume One, by Phil and Kaja Foglio (who else?). It reprints the first ten issues of the Girl Genius comic, which were in turn originally reprinted as the first three (very slim) trade paperbacks from the Foglio's own publishing empire. So the whole thing now makes a three-hundred-page-plus slab of multiply-Hugo-winning steampunk comics, and I guess I've got to make another try at reading this. (I was a Phil Foglio fan from way back -- had all the Buck Godot and What's New collections, and even Xxxenophile comics, books and card game, back before the flood -- but I've never managed to get into Girl Genius.) This also is officially published tomorrow, so you can run right out and get it immediately.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Street Dates and Sales Velocity

I was pointed at a blog post about author Seanan McGuire this morning, lamenting the fact that her new book Discount Armageddon started shipping from about two weeks early and asking that her fans not buy the book until the official street date, because official first-week sales are incredibly important, and the fate of the series beginning with Discount Armageddon could be irreparably damaged if the same sales happened slightly earlier than her publisher had anticipated.

And this made me deeply confused. I work in marketing for a publishing company -- not one that has previously or is ever likely to publish McGuire, since we only do nonfiction -- and this struck me as precisely the opposite of how we typically operate. My employer is fairly laissez-faire with regard to street dates, particular when compared to the major fiction houses, but, still, my impression is that only a handful of books are published really day-and-date, and that the vast majority of books, even from major houses, have an official "on-sale" date, but are actually available to be sold as soon as cartons arrive at the bookseller, are opened, and the books are receipted into inventory.

(Real day-and-date publishing requires special shipments and printed cartons -- to make sure that stores know which books are to be held, and until when to hold them -- and my presumption is that Discount Armageddon shipped, with the rest of this month's DAW mass-market books, in unmarked cartons as usual. I could be wrong; perhaps someone will say so in comments.)

On top of that, when we have a book that we have strong expectations for, we regularly try to push for pre-orders (particularly on Amazon), since that leads to a stronger first week number and (usually) more copies continuing to go out for replenishment. So the idea of "don't buy my book now" sounded very backwards to me. (I also personally subscribe to the "get them to buy it now" theory of marketing in most situations -- if you put off the close until later, you lose a lot of your closes.)

I don't doubt that McGuire was told this by her publisher, and that she thinks this is vitally important. I'm not quite as sure that her publisher believes the same thing, though they might -- trade publishing is often run on expectations, consensus, and "we've always done it this way," so things that look counter-intuitive are often very common in the big houses. What I am pretty sure about is the actual direct effects of this early shipping. [1]

What a first-week sale can get you is one thing: onto a bestseller list, because that's likely to be the time of highest sales velocity for a mid-rank book. So I decided to look to see how likely that was. To call a mass-market book a "bestseller" these days really means one thing: that it charts on the New York Times mass-market list at least once. There's an additional wrinkle: the list as published in the Book Review lists only 20 books, but the "extended list" -- which is available online now, and was faxed to publishers back in the day before the Internet -- goes up to #35. And publishers are not shy about calling a book that hit #35 once a "bestseller," because it helps with sales, and we're in the business of selling books.

So I decided to compare McGuire's books -- both One Salt Sea, her most recent novel, and Rosemary and Rue, since that was her other series-starter for DAW -- with the books on the current New York Times list at #20 and #35. (Salt sold, in its peak week, 1.38 times Rosemary's peek week, so I'll use Salt as the comparison.)

The current week on the Times list isn't exactly the same as the most recent week captured by BookScan [2] -- and neither of those will be exactly the same as next week, when Discount Armageddon was expected to be published -- but it's all close enough for a rough sense.

So, the first thing I saw was that #20 (Wilbur Smith's Those in Peril) has remarkably high sales compared with books in adjoining positions (so high, in fact, that I think the Times is discounting or missing some sales, given that positioning). Given that, here's how some of the titles on the current NYT list compare to Salt's peak week:
  • #1: Danielle Steel/44 Charles Street -- 9.59 Salts
  • #15: George R.R. Martin/A Storm of Swords -- 1.56 Salts
  • #20: Wilbur Smith/Those in Peril -- 3.18 Salts
  • average of #19 (Nicholas Sparks/The Lucky One) and # 21 (Martin/A Feast for Crows) -- 1.52 Salts
  • #35: Patricia Briggs/River Marked -- 0.95 Salts
And there we see the hope: McGuire is capable of selling at a pace that just grazes the bottom of the extended list for a week -- she's right on the edge of sales of someone who could be called "a New York Times bestseller." And so, if those sales are spread across two or three weeks -- and if the assumption is that the first-week sales will be the highest peak for Discount Armageddon, and word of mouth or publisher marketing or phases of the moon or any of the other mysterious forces that make books sell won't push its sales up from that in any later week -- that could, indeed stymie Armageddon's chance to be a "New York Times bestseller."

So that's the real concern here: will this particular book hit a fairly arbitrary moving target, or fall short? (And it may be arbitrary, but it's a standard benchmark, so it is important.) Good luck to McGuire in hitting that level, whichever week it happens -- and, just maybe, Discount Armageddon will be popular enough to hit the list in more than one week!

[1] Indirect effects may, of course, include many other things, up to and including McGuire's worst fears -- if her publishing company really does look at first-week sales numbers as a priority (as opposed to, say, six-month sales numbers, or one-year sales numbers, or profitability at any of those points), it may have a deleterious effect. But I sincerely hope that isn't the case, because it would be stupid, and I still am enough of an optimist to think that publishing isn't actively stupid. Most of the time, anyway.

[2] BookScan captures, by general consensus, somewhere from 2/3 to 3/4 of the book outlets in the USA. Its numbers are proprietary, so I'll talk about them rather than give them directly -- and, again, they're generally lower than actual sales and are not the final numbers that publisher should be sharing with their authors.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

V Is For Vengeance by Sue Grafton

Titles don't have to mean anything. They often just function as markers, to indicate that a book is in a particular genre (Space Dragons of the Eternal Flame, for example, is a very soft SF novel, while Detroit DeathCrime is a particularly gritty thriller) or that it's the latest book in a series that a lot of people have been reading for thirty years.

Take V is for Vengeance, for example, which is the 22nd alphabetically-organized mystery from Sue Grafton. It begins with a scene set two years before the main action of the book -- 1986 and 1988, respectively; Grafton began this series with 1982's A is for Alibi, and she's kept her timeline anchored at the beginning, rather than the end like most series -- in which a young man is killed, and the reader settles in to expect a story of vengeance. We expect it to be vengeance for him, but any old vengeance would do, really.

But there's no vengeance to be found in V Is For Vengeance, and a reader may well suspect that Grafton is now just working from a list of Acceptable Mystery Title Words, and writing whatever book she feels like under that title. It's another story in which her series hero Kinsey Milhone wanders around, diligently investigating something, while a barely related plot goes on in scattered chapters from other points of view -- a style she's indulged for several books now, and which is working less and less well the more she works with it. (T is for Trespass -- see my review -- was quiet and mainstream-novel-esque, but still worked pretty well, while U is for Undertow -- my review is here -- had a half-baked twenty-years-ago Ross Macdonaldesque subplot that dragged the whole thing into family saga territory while managing to avoid the strengths of both that and the mystery novel.)

This book actually does have a murder in it -- not just the one in the opening chapter, I mean, but a real murder that Milhone investigates. But she doesn't know it's a murder until late in the book -- though the readers do, robbing ever more potential tension and deductive opportunities from our reading of the book -- and so has no sense of urgency. Grafton also crafts several dialogue scenes, particularly those of Milhone with her client (the man who hired her to investigate that neither-one-of-them-know-it's-a-murder-yet), so that she communicates primarily on an emotional level instead of presenting actual facts, thus allowing the plot to rumble forward blandly yet further.

There is a large criminal enterprise in V Is For Vengeance, but it's doubly disappointing. First, we have a number of chapters from the point of view of its overlord, who we see to be a decent man trying to do at least the sort-of right thing, making him feel like the love interest from a minor contemporary romance. And, from those chapters, we already know the scope of the criminal enterprise, which is bland and severely lacking in any of the thrills one hopes to find in organized crime.

At this point, I have to call Grafton's current style in the alphabet books a failure: she's pushing Milhone out of the center of her stories, losing tension and other core virtues of the mystery novel, and not gaining anything at all but bulk from her additional material. If she really wants to write a Milhone book from her heroine's POV and that of someone else, she really needs to create a villain -- and one that's actually doing something both fiendish and interesting -- and use that character for her third-person chapters the next time out. Using her third-person subplot chapters to delineate a massively sidebar late-in-life romance between a crimelord with a conscience and a bored, cuckolded [1] female socialite is a massive waste of novel space and her reader's time.

There is a character in this book who could be that villain, if she wants to use him the next time out. I hope she does: Grafton may have been stumbling in these last few books, but there's a strong history of excellent, gripping mystery novels behind those books, and she can easily get back to that mode if she wants to.

[1] Is it really "cuckolded" when the person cheated on is female? Or is there some other, more appropriate term, like "wife with a rich husband"?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Quote of the Week: The Attica Archipellago

"For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid's arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today -- perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system -- in prison, on probation, or on parole -- than there were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under "correctional supervision" in America -- more than six million -- then were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and uncontrolled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States."
 - Adam Gopnik, "The Caging of America," pp.72-73 in the January 30, 2012 New Yorker

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Holidays in Heck by P.J. O'Rourke

There are those who say that P.J. O'Rourke isn't the writer he used to be: that he's turned into a flabby, lazy caricature of himself, soured on too much whiskey, too much life, and too much time spent in the company of the grumpy fringe (right-wing division). In fact, I'm one of those people; I was deeply disappointed by his last two books, Don't Vote -- It Just Encourages the Bastards (see my review) and Driving Like Crazy (also see my review), though the former, being almost entirely reheated second-tier laugh lines from Rush Limbaugh, was notably worse than the latter, which both reprinted some work from O'Rourke's younger days and gave him scope to write about something other than how much he hates liberals.

Holidays in Heck, though, somewhat restores my faith in O'Rourke: it's a collection of magazine pieces from the past decade, organized chronologically and unified by the fact that nearly every single one of them sees him go somewhere to do something. (The title clearly nods strongly towards O'Rourke's classic collection Holidays in Hell, though, back in those days, he was a war correspondent, and so every single place he went was a hell-hole. The choices are much nicer and cushier this time around, befitting a man pushing sixty and dragging a substantially younger wife and three small children behind him.)

Perhaps, like my father-in-law -- and like a million other fathers-in-law across this fine nation of ours -- O'Rourke has become one of those men with whom one must never discuss politics. There are a number of references to how Republican O'Rourke is -- making me miss the days when he was proudly a Republican but simultaneously one that one suspected every other Republican in the nation would be slowly backing away from -- but it mostly stays at that level; O'Rourke doesn't engage in sustained political complaining for more than a couple of pages at a time, and those can be skimmed or ignored.

(Parenthetically, I really wish there was some way to get back the O'Rourke of the '70s and '80s, because that guy would have loved Ron Paul, and sending young O'Rourke on tour with Paul would have resulted in some incredibly awesome writing.)

So this book sees O'Rourke go to Hong Kong for a speech -- and drag the family along behind him -- and go to Ohio for the skiing -- and drag the family along behind him -- and go to museums in Chicago, monuments in Washington, DC, and Disneyland with that family still in tow. There's also a long solo trip to China and another fascinating trip alone to Kyrgyzstan (of all places!), both of which make me wish we could pack O'Rourke off to as many of the odder corners of the world as possible (extra points if they're currently or formerly Communist) and let him report back -- he's still as smart and incisive as ever when confronted with people and politics that he doesn't think he already knows all about.

It's not all good, of course: there's also a frankly embarrassing pure endorsement of John McCain, occasioned by a visit to an aircraft carrier and indicating that even O'Rourke can be turned into a chickenhawk by the power of generic Republican pro-war sentimentality. And he does lean on blandly stereotypical characterizations of his family -- his wife is a gun-toting grizzly bear! his daughters are shopping fiends! his young son is too small to be interesting yet! -- rather than actually letting them be real characters in his stories.

But we expect that -- no matter what territory is supposedly being explored, a P.J. O'Rourke book is always about one particular place: the land inside O'Rourke's skull, where nothing else is as important as he is, and his least defined preference is a mandate from on high. And when he's on -- let me quote my favorite line in the book, from a piece on stag hunting in England, "The British manner of cheerfully not complaining can't be maintained when there's nothing to cheerfully not complain about" -- he's as cutting and precise as anyone in the world.

Holidays in Heck is no Holidays in Hell; that book had the virtue of witnessing a unique sequence of moments in history, as the Cold War world collapsed and less-expected things took its place. But it's a strong return to O'Rourke's better form after a decade or more spent saying things that any generic Republican attack dog could have. I certainly don't want O'Rourke to start enjoying things, or looking kindly upon any government, anywhere, but I do want him to complain about things from his point of view, and not that of the bland midwestern Catholic that he could have been if he hadn't run away from that world forty years ago. And Holidays in Heck sees him doing that more regularly than he has for a long time.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Amazon Drops a Big Shoe

We all knew this was coming: Amazon has removed Kindle editions from all books distributed by IPG, after IPG wouldn't renegotiate selling terms (for both e and print products) to change them massively in Amazon's favor.

We have a word for this behavior when ten-year-olds do it: bullying.

And if IPG folds, it'll be a PGW or a medium-rank publisher next, then more, and it'll hit Random, Penguin, and the other big boys by the end of this year. I don't know how other publishers can support IPG -- I mean literally, since any collective action would be evidence of collusion -- but I do know that everyone who works for a publishing company is going to be quietly rooting for them.

(And, at times like this, it's important to remember that Amazon is almost certainly selling both the Kindle devices and most Kindle books published by others at below their cost: they are, once again, trying to directly buy market share and eliminate competition.)

[via Publishers Lunch]

Set to Sea by Drew Weing

Is a quiet life of contemplation less worth living than a life of action and event? That's the buried question in Drew Weing's first graphic novel, Set to Sea, a small-format hardcover with each panel printed at full-page size.

(And you have to imagine that, in between that paragraph and the next one, I went and found Weing's website, where there are amazing webcomics like this one.)

A large chap -- never named -- is the hero and central character of Set to Sea. We meet him as a young man, poor and knocking around a seaside town in what seems to be the mid 19th century. He wants to be a poet, but finds himself shanghaied onto a ship, set to work, set upon by pirates, and set up as third mate of that ship in the aftermath. Though he never did, strictly speaking, "set to sea" himself -- since that implies an element of choice -- the rest of the book tells the story of his life, in a sequence of mostly silent panels, each showing one moment in that life.

It's a short book, and a small one, but it implies and contains more than itself, with its hints of a changing world (and a man who may have changed along with it), with its implied message of work and experience over contemplation and self-containment, with its Segar-esque grotesque characters and the richly detailed environments they inhabit, and with its refusal to state baldly what it means or is. Set to Sea is a book to read and contemplate on, a book to look at and think about, a book to read slowly and then to read again. It's a lovely graphic novel from a creator I hope to see a lot more from as the years go on, and I hope his own busy life affords him enough leisure and time to continue to make gemlike, poetic stories like this one.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Boomerang by Michael Lewis

Reporters always overgeneralize; that's what they do. A reporter goes somewhere, talks to a couple of people, and then explains everything based on what he learned -- or conspicuously failed to learn -- there. And so their overgeneralizations will depend heavily on who they talk to -- if those few people are all radical Marxists, or philosophy professors, or paranoid schizophrenics, the resulting reportage will bear very little resemblance to what the reporter should have seen and explained.

Michael Lewis is a reporter -- generally a good one, I should add -- whose tropism is always towards the corridors of wealth and power. (His very first book, Liar's Poker, was the story of his own original failed attempt to enter those corridors of wealth, and, ironically, it was through the success of the account of his failure that he got there after all.) And so, when he declares that his newest book, Boomerang, is about what happened when the people of various countries "were left in a dark room with a giant pile of money," the reader has to make an immediate adjustment: the people weren't left in that room, it was their bankers and politicians. Certainly, some of that bubble-fueled pseudo-wealth seemed to benefit regular people, but the story Lewis consistently avoids is how the general population of several nations found themselves with vastly more debt than they expected, while their bankers and politicians walked away with, yes, giant piles of money. Instead, Lewis has swallowed entirely the right-wing post-mortem analysis of the crisis: that it was caused by letting relatively poor people and their governments have too much access to credit markets, and the only solution is to slash those relatively poor people's assets and support mechanisms. 

Boomerang collects five related articles from Vanity Fair, published between mid-2009 and late 2011, about how the bursting bubble of 2007-8 affected Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany, and California. In each place, Lewis has amazing access to major players -- in the last chapter, he goes biking with just-barely-former Governor Schwarzenegger, for example -- and is occasionally very mildly critical of their glib rationalizations. Iceland, though, is seen as a nation of unsophisticated fishermen who decided to transform themselves into investment bankers, got their lunch eaten by the actually smart investment bankers (the ones Lewis hobnobs with in New York), and crashed all three of their banks and much of the rest of Europe along the way. The Greeks have a society almost entirely based on cheating, from the least laborer up to the highest levels of government, and their entry into the Euro was a colossal blunder papered over by an expectation that markets would always rise and the fake Greek budget would, somehow, turn real along the way. Ireland turned itself into a real-estate Ponzi scheme, in which everyone sold property back and forth to each other and poured their GNP into just building more property until that was unsustainable. Germans are the stupidest, most gullible investors in the world -- and, incidentally, obsessed with their own feces -- so the entire crisis is their fault, since their money facilitated the bubble. And the USA, as exemplified by California and doubly exemplified by the city of Vallejo, is just another Ponzi scheme, this time of pensions for retired government workers.

Nowhere in this litany of woe and blame is a second of contemplation for where all of the money -- highly leveraged money, of course, another point that Lewis ignores -- to enable all of these bubbles came from. (Some of it came from the Germans, but they didn't initiate anything -- they just bought packaged crap.) Lewis entirely ignores the big investment banks -- primarily US and British -- that made a mockery of risk management, took leverage to new, dizzying heights, and cobbled together horrible loans into CDOs and other exotic investments that they could pretend were risk-free. He also ignores the rating agencies that took their massive fees from those banks and certified that, yes, you betcha!, those exotic investments were just as iron-clad and gold-bottomed as anyone could possibly hope. And he finally ignores the government regulators of a dozen countries whose job it was to keep an eye on such shenanigans, and who utterly failed to do anything about it.

So Boomerang is a quite entertaining, lively little book. But it's also very much like the story of a rape investigation that spends its entire time detailing the minutia of the victim's clothing and behavior on the night of the crime -- it is entirely beside the point.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tar Babies

Today was turning out to be really productive -- several blog entries written, movie & dinner with the family, building shelves and getting the storage end of the basement organized, and even a little bit of video game time -- when I realized that I'd just lost half an hour to reading my own old blog posts.

I don't know how real writers do it: if I'm this enamored of my own blatherings, and you're enough better than me to get paid to do it, I don't know how you manage to anything else all day long....

The Myth of the Comics Creator

People who write and draw comics -- particularly in the American superhero industry -- are called creators. This is important, and revealing. And we saw that mindset at work behind the scenes of the recent Gary Friedrich kerfuffle.

For those of you that aren't tightly plugged into the comics world, Friedrich was the first writer of the modern-day version of Marvel's Ghost Rider character, back in 1972. Friedrich had previous written for the Western version of Ghost Rider, and it's clear from all accounts that he had at least the general idea for the modern one: a demonically-possessed, motorcycle-riding anti-hero. Friedrich has long claimed that Ghost Rider was entirely his idea, though his editor Roy Thomas (who also wrote the comic in which Ghost Rider first appeared) and original series artist Mike Ploog disagree. (The major point of contention -- and this tells you more about the nature of American corporate comics than anything else -- is who came up with the visual concept of the flaming skull.)

As Ty Templeton pointed out in his cartoon commenting on the current Friedrich dispute -- I'll get to that in a moment -- Ghost Rider was a minor character in the '70s and '80s, and only surged into popularity in the height of the Image-fueled grim 'n gritty '90s, long after Friedrich had anything to do with the character. Still, one could argue that Friedrich's contribution was still essential -- particularly, as hair-splitting fanboys on the Internet would hammer hard on, if that flaming skull was really his idea, since that was the most totally cool thing about Ghost Rider.

So, Friedrich wrote Ghost Rider for a while, and moved on. Marvel, as was the scummy practice in those days, claimed all rights to the character (and story, and plot, and would have wanted rights to the air Friedrich breathed if they could have found a way to get away with it), stamping contacts on the back of checks and forcing creators to sign agreements later on if they wanted any more work. Ghost Rider eventually got more popular, and then turned into a moderately successful movie. (And it's important to note here that this "moderately successful movie" probably generated more cash than every previous comic featuring every incarnation of Ghost Rider combined.) Friedrich wanted his piece of that pie, since he "created" Ghost Rider -- he was even credited as the creator on early issues of the series. Marvel disagreed. Friedrich sued Marvel. Marvel countersued, as giant rapacious corporations do.

And the ruling came down a few weeks ago: Friedrich lost. He not only lost, but he had to pay Marvel $17,000 in repayment of his sales of Ghost Rider-themed art at conventions. And that's what really got the world angry: evil rapacious comics corporations have always demanded to own all publishing and exploitation rights, and rarely passed on a few pennies to the people that actually did the work, but they haven't before actually reached into the pockets of their former freelancers and rummaged around for any loose change they could find. (That $17,000 is pretty much Friedrich's only current income; he's aged and practically destitute. Marvel is literally kicking a man when he's down, and adding injury to insult.)

Marvel is clearly wrong, morally -- but when have we ever been able to expect a corporation to act morally? The law is shakier; Friedrich did have good precedents to stand on, but he's not as famous and deep-pocketed as Peggy Lee (who sued Disney over a song from Lady and the Tramp at the dawn of home video, and won), and judges tend to listen to money at least as much as they listen to the law. Friedrich is now yet another old man wrecked on the shoals of comics, worked as hard as possible as cheaply as possible for as long as possible, and then cast off without a pension, a 401(k) or even the rights to the things that he made. When it comes to the intellectual property mines, comics is arguably even worse than the music business -- in comics, there's hardly even the chance to get rich before you get screwed over.

But there's still that deeper question of the "Creator" -- that figure out of comics myth that makes an instantly recognizable, amazingly popular thing, which will be exploited for generations to come. Perhaps the least expected result of DC's shabby treatment of Siegel and Shuster over Superman -- where those two men really did come into a publishing company with material that they wanted to license, and eventually found themselves on the outside of a wall of lawyers and shady businessmen, while their material was still snugly on the inside, making money for other people -- is the reinforcement of that myth. Siegel and Shuster were robbed, but that trickster god Bob Kane was able to cajole his way onto the side of the lawyers and shady businessmen, screwing over in his own turn Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff, and others. And then twenty years later Stan and Jack created the Marvel Universe -- or perhaps a slightly different pantheon did, depending on your orthodoxy -- and Stan stayed inside while Jack ended up outside. The myth among comics fans is about the power of the creator, but the lesson from the real world seems very different: be the guy on the inside.

The myth of the creator implies that comics characters are static and perfect from the moment they're conceived: that everything important about them is there, explicitly or implicitly, in their first appearance, and everything else is just elaboration. If this is true, then it is a sad thing to be a comics creator: what you create has no life or energy and will never go anywhere new or exciting.

That's clearly untrue, as well. Think of Swamp Thing. Who created him? Is he really Len Wein's original concept, or Alan Moore's radical revision? Can "creation" hinge on the question of whose idea it was to give Ghost Rider a burning skull for a head? Is that what's really important?

Of course, superhero comics fans have to rely on the idea of the "creator," because their favorite characters are owned by those giant rapacious corporations, and not the folks that actually did the work over the years. Outside of corporate American comics, though, there's no real arguments over who "created" something: Charles Schulz and his heirs own Peanuts, Masashi Kishimoto owns Naruto, Herge and his heirs own Tintin, in the same way that J.R. Rowling owns Harry Potter and James Patterson owns Alex Cross. Superhero writers and artists are left scrabbling for the moral high ground, since the economics have been biased against them since the field started.

And that feeds into the tendency for corporate superhero comics to be static and bland: they're full of characters "created" by someone-or-other, and intended to stay exactly that way -- or, at least, to radically and surprisingly change for the span of a summer crossover and then to go back to exactly what they always were -- because the entire industry is invested in this image of themselves and their creations. Superheroes are icons, you see: they're modern gods, they're the mythology of our modern world. They're everything except living stories about real people, because they're definitely not that.

What superhero comics needs is fewer "creators" and more "owners." It needs fewer icons and more stories -- fewer new beginnings and more actual endings. It needs, more than anything else, to grow up and act like a field populated by grownups telling stories for grownups.

[Art at the top is by Mike Ploog from the original days of Ghost Rider; dialogue from this panel, originally by Friedrich, was removed by other hands before I saw it. I thought that was ironically appropriate.]

Nebula Second Thought

...and the SF community continues its streak of putting out major award news on holidays and weekends.

Is there not a single competent publicist in all of SF?

2011 Nebula Nominees

The Oscars of Science Fiction writing, SFWA's Nebula Awards, announced their nominees this morning, and those are:

  • “Kiss Me Twice,” Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2011)
  • “Silently and Very Fast,” Catherynne M. Valente (WFSA Press; Clarkesworld Magazine, October 2011)
  • “The Ice Owl,” Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2011)
  • “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 2011)
  • “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Ken Liu (Panverse Three, Panverse Publishing)
  • “With Unclean Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, November 2011)
  • “Fields of Gold,” Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse 4, Night Shade Books)
  • “Ray of Light,” Brad R. Torgersen (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, December 2011)
  • “Sauerkraut Station,” Ferrett Steinmetz (Giganotosaurus, November 2011)
  • “Six Months, Three Days,” Charlie Jane Anders (, June 2011)
  • “The Migratory Pattern of Dancers,” Katherine Sparrow (Giganotosaurus, July 2011)
  • “The Old Equations,” Jake Kerr (Lightspeed Magazine, July 2011)
  • “What We Found,” Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September/October 2011)
Short Story
  • “Her Husband’s Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine, October 2011)
  • “Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son,” Tom Crosshill (Lightspeed Magazine, April 2011)
  • “Movement,” Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2011)
  • “Shipbirth,” Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2011)
  • “The Axiom of Choice,” David W. Goldman (New Haven Review, Winter 2011)
  • “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2011)
  • “The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2011)
Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
  • Attack the Block, Joe Cornish (writer/director) (Optimum Releasing; Screen Gems)
  • Captain America: The First Avenger, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (writers), Joe Johnston (director) (Paramount)
  • Doctor Who: “The Doctor’s Wife,” Neil Gaiman (writer), Richard Clark (director) (BBC Wales)
  • Hugo, John Logan (writer), Martin Scorsese (director) (Paramount)
  • Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen (writer/director) (Sony)
  • Source Code, Ben Ripley (writer), Duncan Jones (director) (Summit)
  • The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi (writer/director) (Universal)
Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book
Winners will be announced at the gala Nebula Awards Weekend in late May in darkest Arlington, Virginia. At the climactic banquet of that weekend, Connie Willis will also be invested with all of the powers and responsibilities of the 2011 Damon Knight Grand Master.

There are many more nominees this year then there used to be -- six each in the Novel and Novella categories and seven in all of the others (except the Norton, with a surprising eight) -- which either implies lots and lots of ties (and thus secondarily implies a low voting turnout) or implies that SFWA generously decided to allow more nominees in all categories recently, in the spirit of "everybody gets a medal." Neither of those sound like good things to me, so I'm hoping my suppositions are wrong. 

(I also note that it's still difficult to get SFWA members to read short fiction that isn't in traditional periodical dead-tree form, though they are slowly moving to periodical zippy-electrons form.)

Good luck to all of the nominees, and, if you happen to be a member of SFWA, you really do need to vote.

A Quick Comics Thought

I've got a longer comics-related post coming later today, but, to whet your appetite, here's a short one:

DC's "Before Watchmen" project proves what a lot of us have been saying for years: the Big Two don't understand what a "story" is.

Sure, they understand "characters," and they definitely get "universe." "Synergy" is clearly in their wheelhouse, along with "brand extension" and "exploitation." But, even after eighty years, they still don't realize what a story is, and they probably never will.

(Here's a hint: a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes even in that order!)

The number of actual stories published by the Big Two has never been large -- and most of those were creator-owned and/or -controlled projects, like Watchmen or Ronin, to begin with -- and it may even be shrinking now, as they mine things that previously stood as stories to turn them into more "universes" with "synergy."

And, as long as the general comics audience prefers characters to story, this will never change. The fan reaction to "Before Watchmen" shows that preference is still solidly in place, so I don't have much hope. We're living in a box created by the taste preferences of four generations of eight-year-olds, and the Wednesday Crowd that the last generation solidified into. Luckily, the "comics industry" is not the whole world of comics -- and, despite what it thinks, it's an ever-shrinking and less relevant piece of that world.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/18

It's another Monday holiday -- at least here in the States; any foreign visitors may well be at work right now, and cursing their luck not to be born in the self-proclaimed greatest nation on earth -- which means I still do this post on time, but I also assume that many people won't see it for another day.

Anyway, these are the books that arrived in my mailbox last week, sent by their publishers. I haven't read any of them yet, but here's what I can tell you about them:

Time Snatchers is the first novel by Richard Ungar -- he's written and painted picture books before, including the acclaimed "Rachel" series, but this is the first time he's done a book divided into chapters and without pictures -- and is aimed straight at the avid young adult audience for dystopian SF and fantasy. (I might pass it on to my younger son, who's been on a fantasy tear this year -- he's so far run through Narnia, Artemis Fowl, Incarceron and its sequel, and probably several things I can't remember, and is finishing up Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy right now.) I'm not sure how dystopian its future is -- it appears to be a China-dominated 2061, and I suspect our new inscrutable overlords have a heavy hand -- but our hero's situation is certainly dangerous: Caleb is a "time snatcher," one of a group of young teens "adopted" by the Faginesque Uncle and sent back on quick trips into the past to steal priceless objects. Time Snatchers will be published in hardcover by G.P. Putnam's Sons in March.

Thomas Dunne Books is much more optimistic than I am: they keep sending me David Moody's zombie novels even as I make childish faces at them and keep failing to read them. The latest is Autumn: Aftermath, fifth in a series in which 99% of the human race died three months ago, and immediately came back to feast on the flesh of the living, yadda yadda yadda. This one sees a conflict between two groups of survivors -- because if zombie stories are about anything, it's that humans are inescapably horrible and should be eaten -- and I would not bet on the possibility of a happy ending. It'll be published March 13th, for those of you who don't get enough depression and sadness from the news.

I read Gail Carriger's novel Soulless when it came out -- and mostly enjoyed it, though I groused ungraciously that I would have preferred if had been an entirely different book -- so I'm interested and surprised to see that it's now been turned into a graphic novel (or "manga," since this is from Yen Press and it's aimed at a younger and more female audience than buys American-style comics these days), also called Soulless. (I'm vastly more surprised to see that the art and adaptation is credited to "REM," without explanation, though I'm 99% sure Michael Stipe has not turned to drawing shojo steampunk at this point in his career.) See my review of the novel for more details of the plot; the graphic novel version will arrive in March.

Speaking of graphic novel adaptations of existing novels, I also have here Uglies: Shay's Story, which was written by Scott Westerfeld and Devin Grayson and then drawn by Steven Cummings. (The book credits Cummings as "Illustrations," perhaps to hide the fact that this is comics, but I will have none of that.) It is, of course, a sidestory to Westerfeld's popular "Uglies" series, set in a near-future dystopia where everyone gets surgery at age sixteen to make them perfectly "Pretty" (and if you believe that surgery only affects outward appearance, I have a long lesson in modern YA publishing to give you). Shay, the heroine of the graphic novel, is apparently the best friend of Tally, the heroine of the main sequence of novels, but it's not clear how much of Shay's Story is a retelling of Uglies from another point of view. This one is from Del Rey, and will be in stores on March 6th.

I mentioned Melanie Rawn's Touchstone -- first in a new theatrically-themed secondary-world fantasy series, coming from Tor in hardcover on the 28th of this month -- a few months back, when the bound galley reached my desk, and so now I'll mention it again, since I have a finished book in hand.

And last for this week is the new novel from Tobias S. Buckell, Arctic Rising. It's a near-future SF thriller set in a rapidly warming -- and now essentially ice-free -- Arctic Ocean, with both conventional nuclear weapons and a mysterious global-cooling terraforming "superweapon" in play, a shadowy cabal with dark aims, and the one airship pilot thrown into the middle of it all. Tor will publish Arctic Rising in hardcover on the 28th.