Saturday, January 15, 2011

When You Wish Upon A Star, Be Careful To Choose the Right Star

Apropos the mention of star-watching in the last post, XKCD's latest (click to embiggen):

Getting Into Death

Here were Joshie's beginnings. A dystopian upper-class childhood in several elite American suburbs. Total immersion in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. The twelve-year-old's first cognition of mortality, for the true subject of science fiction is death, not life. It will end. The totality of it. The self-love. Not wanting to die. Wanting to live, but not sure why. Looking up at the nighttime sky, at the black eternity of outer space, amazed.
Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
Which set me to thinking about my own long-ago self, when he was at that golden age. Was he really getting into death, back then, when he got hooked into the mainline of SF?  I don't think that he thought that he did.  He was a bright, disorganised kid living in a small town, and like many such he wanted to get out.  SF opened up new worlds to him. America. The future. Easy travel to other planets.  And some of his favourite stories - Theodore Sturgeon's 'The Way Home', Tiptree's 'Beam Me Home' - were about about ways of escape.  When he looked up at the stars in the summer nights sky, he wasn't thinking about eternity. He was wondering if someone like him was up there on a warm wet blue planet circling a yellow star, looking up at their night sky and thinking what  he was thinking.  He was projecting.  He wanted out bad, and SF was balm to that ache.

Well I got out, and I became a scientist, which is what I wanted to be, and then I became an SF writer, which I also wanted to be, and how cool is that?  And now I think, about the SF I read and the SF I write: yeah, in one way or another, it's all about death. I'm just starting in on the editing process of a novel about avoiding the inevitable and the costs this could incur, which is one reason the quote caught my interest.  It's something I've been thinking about.  Also, when I tweeted part of the quote at the head of this, my friend Andrew McKie tweeted back 'I have long maintained the death thing. There's audio somewhere of me droning on to Kincaid about it at a BSFA thing.'  Hard to argue about this with Mr McKie: he once worked for the best bit of the Telegraph - the obits department.  To borrow a line from Michael Connelly, death is his beat.

I used to think SF was all about change, but all change means leaving something behind. I left behind my childhood when I quit that little town for university, and never really came all the way back.  Death is a more permanent kind of change. And if you avoid it somehow, that will change you too.  You won't be some eternal extropian twentysomething, planning to turn a galaxy into beer and pizza.  You'll be something so deeply weird the future equivalent of all the world's armies would try to take you down if you ever returned to Earth.

But we're not just talking about childhood's end, or the all-too-brief span of human life, in SF. We're talking about the end of everything. The end of the universe, maybe flattening out forever, maybe crunching back down into the Singularity of a new universe, maybe giving birth to hundreds of new universes. We're talking about the end of reality.  We're talking about hard, important questions. If everything is in flux, what is useful and what isn't? What do we do with our knowledge about the immensity of the universe and the seemingly microscopic size of our place within it? How can we make sense of that, and learn to live with it? Is it really possible to develop strategies to avoid the heatdeath of the Universe or surfing the wave of a new Big Bang? And what then? And what then...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Thanks to everyone who took the trouble to comment here or on Twitter.  All very useful, especially as there was reasonably general agreement about the price range.  It seems to me that if I go ahead with this crazy idea I should price the OOP collections at around £4.20 (which includes the VAT eBooks attract), or possibly a little lower.  That would come in at a little under $7 at the current exchange rate, which might be a bit high for US readers, but perhaps not too high (Would they have to pay VAT?  I realise that I have no idea.  If not, the price would be well under $6.)  That's somewhat less than the price my UK publishers are charging for a couple of OOP novels that have sneaked out as eBooks.  I wouldn't charge much more for the new collection, to be honest.  All of three would consist of reprinted stories after all.

A couple of other points, if you can bear it (authors do tend to go on and on about eBooks, so forgive me).  The price of printing a book is only a small part of the cover price.  Editing, production design, maintaining offices and warehousing and distribution add a bit more.  A large chunk goes to the end seller; much smaller chunks go to the publisher and author.  So the idea that eBooks are much cheaper to produce because they aren't physical objects isn't exactly right; although they are somewhat cheaper, new books still have to be edited, given cover art and so on.  As for the price difference between hardback and paperbacks, at the moment, some people are still willing to pay extra for the latest book by their favourite authors, just as they're willing to pay extra to see a film in a first-run cinema.  That will change, I think.  (it would also be nice if hardbacks in the UK were all printed on acid-free paper, to give them the kind of permanence of US editions.)  At any rate, OOP titles revived as eBooks should definitely be cheaper.  Some are very cheap indeed - presumably in the hope that what's lost per unit will be made up in greater volumes of sales.  Not sure I want to go there quite yet.

One commentator raised the point that people below a certain age expect books to be free. As I'm well above that certain age, and still earn my living from writing and selling fiction: I don't.  And I still buy books at full price, when I have to.  But if it's free fiction you want, then look here.  There's a small anthology's worth of free stuff.  And you're welcome to distribute under the terms of the Creative Commons License.  Think of it as a gift, or as a taster for stuff you can buy.  Whatever.

PS Chris asks why the Confluence trilogy isn't back in print.  Good question!  I'm trying to persuade my UK publishers to do just that.  Hopefully in one nice fat volume.  And failing that option, I do have the eBook rights...

UPDATE: Again, thanks for commenting; thought I'd reply here rather than under the fold.  Various people have given me cogent reasons not to simply stick with Amazon/Kindle.  My plan now, such as it is and if I go forward with my idea to self-publish those OOP collections, would be to use Kindle as an experiment, and then go to the more open format ePub format, which appeals to me because it is supported on all kinds of platforms (including Stanza, which I use), and I think gets around the licensing problem . . . but it looks like it'll be a steep learning curve.  RFYork - thanks for the link to Charlie Stross's blog post on why books aren't cheap and to talkie_tim and Blue Tyson for supporting arguments : exactly.  And here are a couple of good posts on why pirating books hurt the author rather than sticks it to the 'greedy publisher'.  I especially like Saundra Mitchell's suggestions for ways that the problem can be turned around to help the reader and the author.   More news, when I have it.  Don't hold your breath, though; I have one book to edit, and another to write, and I'm seriously short on the kind of Victorian can-do energy that enabled Charles Dickens to be a novelist, a magazine publisher, and a smash-hit performer (and killed him, in the end...).
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