Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Year of South African Genre Fiction - Part 1

Okay so it's a bit of an exaggeration, but sometimes I feel like I read to live. Like the books are my air and water and that they feed me.
I have just recently had the most wonderful run of books, starting late last year with Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls, Charlie Human's Apocalypse Now Now, Sarah Lotz's The Three, straight onto Sarah's partner-in-crime (or at least horror) Louis Greenberg's Dark Windows and their third SL Grey book, The New Girl. Somewhere in there I also read the Deadlands Trilogy by Lily Herne (another Lotz collaboration, this time mother and daughter)
It only dawned on me recently that everyone of those books is by a South African author, (a lot of them by the same author).
As an avid reader who has been devouring books since as far back as I can remember (I think I was reading Agatha Christie by the time I was 6 or 7) I cannot remember ever having read this many books by local authors in my life - cumulatively.
South Africa is definitely going through some kind of genre fiction rennaissance and the fact that I know most of these authors personally is just a little disorientating for me, but also kinda cool.
In the last year alone seven authors whose names I first read in the Something Wicked slush pile have nabbed themselves international publishing deals, three of those six-figure deals.
Now that's all very well, but are they any good?
My feelings on Lotz's The Three have been made public over at Arcfinity, as for the rest of them?
Varying degrees of brilliant.

The Shining Girls is the book that probably needs the least raving from me as most of the world has done that already, and quite rightly so. For Beukes it is a gigantic leap in both her writing ability and storytelling techniques, not that either were lacking before, but The Shining Girls is in a different realm from Moxyland and Zoo City (both books I loved, by the way). I wait with baited breath for Broken Monsters.

This is a book about zombies
destroying the world. Also,
there isn't a single character who looks
like this in the whole fucking book!!
The Deadlands books started out great with Deadlands, and I was desperate to read the second, Death of a Saint, as soon as it came out. Unfortunately Penguin decided to rebrand the books and shoved one of the most tedious, clich├ęd covers on it that completely put me off reading it. Now I know you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover but, Jesus, have you seen this cover? It's such a crap cover that it actually made me question my memory of Deadlands. This cover looks like it belongs on some kind of fantasy romance book for 13-year-old girls. It totally put me off the series for years.
It was only after having read The Three that, feeling starved for more Sarah Lotz, I finally picked up the book and started reading, laying it face down on the bedside table at night, just like I used to do with the Stephen King's when I was in my early teens because the covers frightened me.
Not that I should've been surprised, but Death of a Saint is brilliant. Sarah and Savannah really hit their stride with this second book, it is much darker and a helluva lot more violent than the first (so why change the fucking cover, guys!)
By the way, there is a character named Saint in the Deadland books. This is what she looks like:
Yep, she ain't white.
Death of Saint takes our characters out of the enclave and across the South Coast of South Africa - it's a fantastic road trip book that offers both insights into just how bad the situation is, but also grows the characters wonderfully.
My only complaint is that Lele,. who was kind of with it and cool in the first book is mostly turned into a lovesick and jealous pain in the ass, but that is more of a personal complaint than an author complaint - she's supposed to be a pain in the ass - she's the pain in the ass character, for this book at least.
But all-in-all it's a great book that moves the story at a much faster pace and with more urgency than Deadlands did. It also ends with a helluva cliffhanger, so when I finished it at around 2am I immediately went in search of book three... only to discover that it hadn't been released yet.
So I emailed Sarah and begged.
By the time I woke up the next morning I had The Army of the Lost sitting in my inbox.

Army of the Lost blows the previous two books out of the water.
The cast and scale of the story suddenly explodes. After the general intimacy of the first two books (where you're following only five characters on their journey) this one multiplies the cast list by hundreds.
No longer are we traveling through the countryside or safely tucked away in the Cape Town enclave, now we're in the big city.
Army of the Lost takes place completely within the borders of Johannesburg, or rather what used to be Johannesburg.
It is by far the best of the three books, the characters, the pace and the story just pick up and fly. In keeping with Death of a Saint, Army of the Lost takes a further step into the darkness. The body count is high, and a lot of the time just not fair.
I tried to pester Sarah for the fourth book, but at the time she hadn't finished it yet.

Continued in Part 2 (coming soon).

Friday, February 10, 2012

Conspiracy? What Conspiracy?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, in fact I openly mock them and laugh in their faces (HAAHAHAAHA hollow moon, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!), except for my best friend, whom I love dearly and hate to get into pointless arguments with, but…

… is it just me or does it feel like the big entertainment companies (and I include publishers and Marvel and DC in this) are desperately trying to kill the web, not because of the never-ending Piracy/IP debate, but to stifle the huge influx of free and ingenious entertainment that is being created daily by internet users around the globe.
Consider this; Entertainment companies are dying, not due to piracy or archaic practices, but because technology today puts the power in the creator’s hands.
Once upon a time there was simply no way to create your own product and distribute it to the world. The technology needed to record an album, or shoot a movie, cost more than most people would earn in their lifetimes. But then came video, and then digital technology, and now the internet.
I love the internet, it's like the wild fucking west. Everything and anything can happen here, good and bad. But for creators of any medium, this place is gold.
So nowadays, musicians don’t need to sacrifice 98% of their sales to record companies anymore, comic-book artists and writers no longer need to relinquish the ownership to their works, writers can self-publish and for filmmakers there is the wonderful world of YouTube.

Yes, the distribution available from the big studios/publishers is impossible to compete with, though in some cases that’s not always true, but more and more musicians are signing distribution deals with record labels, rather than signing publishing deals. Radiohead has been an extremely successful independent band for years now, and yes I know they were an extremely successful signed band first, but my point is still valid. Jonathan Coulton has never been signed; he is a 100% internet success.
I think what is happening is the major studios are becoming distributors of content instead of publishers, and this is pissing them off. I honestly think these guys are running scared, they have no (decent) new content coming out, more and more creators are turning to alternative sources for funding and their library of limitless bounty is slowly dwindling away, either through age (if the length of posthumous copyright doesn’t keep growing) or overuse (over-abuse), and so now they want to take away our playground.

But for the little guy this is pretty much the best time in history to be a creator, the resources available are near infinite.
Sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Wreckamovie are proving that crowd funding is not only possible but is a faster, and in some cases more successful, means of funding a project, and crowd-funded projects remain the property of the creators. No evil studios to decide that your beautiful one-shot comic should be turned into a never-ending, soul-sucking, creator-destroying franchise starring Nicolas Cage (I’m looking at you Marvel – you are literally turning into comic-book villains. Get it? See what I did there?).
Ten years ago I could never have published an internationally-distributed magazine from my lounge. It was just not possible.

Maybe I am talking total shit here, but it definitely feels to me like there is a bigger agenda here, and I don’t think censorship is it, at least not the way we perceive censorship. I think this is about killing competition and maximising profits from rehashed crap.

I say Fuck ‘em.
What do you think?
PS, some awesome creator owned and independently financed stuff for you.
Jonathan Coulton's Music
Star Wars Uncut - brilliant crowd-sourced version of Ep 4
The Death and Return of Superman - short film by Max Landis
Play By Heart (indie film, this one’s mine)
Bandwagon: Season 1 Playlist. (With Emma Caulfield)
Dr Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog (Joss Whedon magic, starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicai Day and Nathan Fillion)

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Digital vs Paper, Why Can't We All Be Friends?

As most of you know, I run an online/e-book fiction magazine called Something Wicked. My entire market is people who own e-readers and enjoy downloading our magazine, so it is fair to say that I depend on e-reader customers to finance my magazine. I myself own two Kindles, and have downloaded dozens and dozens of books and magazines. I have subscriptions to six short-fiction magazines, five of them e-mags, and only one in print.
I think it is fair to say that I am a fan of e-books and the e-reader technology.
Now, as I’m sure you know, there has been an ongoing debate,(for what seems like years) around e-books versus paper books. Each side of the argument tends to be presented with vehemence and certainty, ‘e-books are the future’, says one, ‘noooo, e-books will never replace the beauty and sentimental value of paper books’.
The general gist of the debate seems to be that pro-ebookers tend to think that the printed book is on its way out and those who simply cannot relinquish their sentimental attachment to books say that this technology will never beat a good book.
In the spirit of spewing more words into this debate I decided to put forth my opinion, because I think it is a point of view that neither side has touched upon, or if they have, I haven’t noticed.
What most people seem not to take into account is the fact that, however fantastic and extremely useful e-readers and e-books are, they cannot replace written words on paper, not because they won’t, but because they shouldn’t, for various reasons, but most obvious, is their cost.

A lot has been said about how cheap e-books are compared to real books, but what people forget is that, an e-book is only cheap if you have a $100 e-reader, an internet connection and a credit card. If you don’t have any of those things, then e-books are as easy to come by as a family vacation on Mars.
The world is an extremely different place to the way Americans or other rich nations see it. Most of the population of this planet earns less than $200 per month, in some countries $200 is a good annual salary, but, if you’re literate, poverty or lack of earning power has never made books inaccessible.
Books are not prejudiced about their readers, anyone who can read, can read a book. But without the initial financial outlay for the e-reader, be it a computer, or Kindle, or Smart phone, or iPad, very few people are able to read an e-book.
The ease of transference of literature has made successful entrepreneurs out of people with poverty stricken beginnings. There are millionaires who grew up with barely enough money to feed themselves, but they had books given to them by friends, family, or employers, or found them on the street, and they buried themselves in the imagination of stories, or the knowledge of passed-down or discarded text-books, encyclopaedias, newspapers  - and redefined their financial position.
How will this happen in a future where all we have is e-books, how will you donate your old books to your library, or your gardener if they’re all tied up in licensing restrictions and, more importantly, sealed shut inside your Kindle or iPad.
Even if you actually gave your gardner your old Kindle, how would he even power it if the shack he lives in has no electricity?

The other thing about relying solely on e-books is we are voluntarily tying ourselves, indefinitely, to a single company, whether it’s Amazon, or Barnes & Noble or Apple, is irrelevant, the end result is the same; if you want to keep the books you paid for, you’re locked-in.
I read a tweet today;
@scarthomas:Let's face it, Amazon's not going to be around until the end of time.Give it 5 years & Kindle will look like a floppy disk”.
Where will our books be then, where will our literature go?
So what happens when a couple of years down the line the battery on your iPad finally gives up, no worries, you can just buy the latest iPad and transfer all your purchases across, or the latest Kindle or Nook, or whatever, which brings me back to my first point, most of the world can barely afford to buy one of these toys with a month’s salary, even if the books themselves are cheap, so when their battery dies, they toss the e-reader, (you couldn’t even use it for firewood) and all that knowledge and money and fiction has been totally wasted, never to be read again.
Now again I reiterate that I love my Kindle, I love that I can fill my it with out-of-print public domain books. I’ve read more classics since purchasing it than in my entire life before then. But short-fiction magazines are what I love the most on Kindle. One of my favourite online magazines at the moment is Lightspeed Magazine, I have an e-subscription and I absolutely love that every month their new issue is delivered right to my Kindle. I LOVE IT, you hear me? LOVE. IT. As someone who used to spend in the region of $150 to get a single subscription to a magazine posted to South Africa, e-books and e-readers have saved me a bundle.

But, the instant Lightspeed Magazine announced their Year One anthology in paperback, I rushed off to buy it. It took three weeks to arrive, but when I took it out of it’s parcel I pawed it longingly, all the awesome stories I had read over the last year, collected, in paper, in a book, which I could keep forever, and put it on my shelf and maybe in ten, or so, years my daughter might find it there and pick it up and read it, and discover those stories for the first time again.

Something Wicked does the same thing, we publish exclusively online and through e-books, but we do a bi-annual anthology in print. We do this because, as the editor, I want a permanent copy of the stories we’ve published. I want to hold it, and show it off on my shelf, and to be able to lend it to people and be discovered by my kids and my kid’s kids.
Also, books smell great.
Ask anyone who is a lifelong reader what is one of their favourite things about books, and most of them will tell that it is the smell, the smell of ink on paper. Nothing can beat that smell.
My Kindle smells of the leather case it’s in.
And now my point.

The point I am trying to make here is that we should stop debating whether one format is better than the other, stop trying to get rid of legacy, or dead tree publishing and understand that both mediums are needed. We cannot replace one with the other because the losses would be too great. E-books are an amazing and vital augmentation to printed-paper, the two together can rule the world in perfect harmony (crack that Coke and sing along).

One is super-efficient and immediate, it allows us to consume at a voracious rate and pay little for our books. It gives (some of) us access to millions of lost and out-of-print books, but, as Jonathan Franzen, points out, there is a sense of permanence to books; they can be lost, or wet, or forgotten or donated or tossed in the bin, but they can also be re-discovered by someone else. The print continues to exist regardless of who is reading it, or whether the batteries are flat. And again, try to remember that most of the world cannot afford the technology that so many of us children of the internet take for granted.

It is vital, especially now at this juncture, that knowledge and imagination be freely available, and even though it might technically not be free for the original purchaser, for everyone else that picks up that book over the years, it can be, whether through a charity or a library donation or a box of magazines delivered to a retirement home.
When I was at school, back in the mid-eighties, we would be given our school textbooks at the beginning of every year.

We would open the front cover, and at the bottom of a long list of names, (sometimes twenty or thirty of them) we would write our own name. Those textbooks had been passed down from student to student for, in some cases, twenty-odd years. They would be filled with arcane doodles from students that had graduated years before we had been born, sometimes the answers to math questions would be scribbled in the margins, or passages underlined as important, and we should learn them for the exams.

I don’t see that happening again anytime in the near future, do you?
Tell me again that e-books are permanent, and that they are forever.