booklist 2013: James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father, Len Deighton

February 14th, 2013 | stuff2013

This was a fun little thing.  Len Deighton writes a gossipy, fond, sometimes rather sad history of how the James Bond films got made, how there came to be two Bond movies made at the same time (the unfortunate NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN being the stalking horse to the “real” movie cycle), and how almost everyone involved lived in grandeur and yet died in despair and poverty.  Some lovely touches of detail, and fascinating sketches of a time somehow oddly past: the days of the well-dressed, well-lunched, somewhat gamey creative eccentric, staggering from country home to city bar to beachfront pile in a wine-sodden haze, trailing an industrial plume of cigarette smoke and legal paperwork the whole way.

A very enjoyable afternoon read.  Cheers, Len.

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THE HUMAN DIVISION And The Digital Serial

February 13th, 2013 | stuff2013, thinking

I’ve already talked about the first instalment of John Scalzi’s serialised sf novel THE HUMAN DIVISION here.  I read parts two to five on the train into London today – I’ve been getting them auto-delivered every week, and intended to read a couple of parts on the plane, but got into David Byrne’s HOW MUSIC WORKS instead.  (Still on track for a book a week in 2013, if you squint at it.)  Anyway.

What I wanted to briefly note down is this.  This is a thirteen-part serial.  Each piece takes no less than ten or fifteen minutes to read, I think.  Some, like the first episode, are much bigger.  He’s taking a risk by varying the length of the episodes so dramatically, but I think he’s getting away with it.  Each piece is costing me 99 American cents, or 64p.  An mp3 runs me 99p on iTunes.  A tv episode costs £2.49 on iTunes.  Each episode of THE HUMAN DIVISION automatically downloads to my Kindle. 

In modern-day terms, this is the equivalent of a cable television show season happening – but in a deeply participatory “cool” medium, and with a greater informational density than other cool media like tv or even comics.

It’s the instant nature of the ebook, with its automagic form of broadcast, that’s the killer.  If there was a single serious misstep, it was that the publisher did not negotiate with Amazon (I don’t know if it’s true for other vendors) to create a one-click subscription for all thirteen parts.  Perhaps that was impossible.  I certainly would have liked it, though.

While companies like Netflix attempt to embrace the “novel for television” by making all thirteen parts of HOUSE OF CARDS available simultaneously, it’s interesting to see Scalzi and Tor go the other way by testing not a traditional serialisation but a “television season for novel.”  The walls of the current standard of container are getting bent a little.

You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Stephen King’s forays into periodical serial had been taken in the spring days of the e-reader, tablet and smartphone.

Yes, doing digital-only or (in this case) digital-first still feels a little exclusionary.  But, honestly?  Is it any more economically exclusionary than publishing in hardback?  And it’s not like there’s not a substantial digital-first audience out there.

I don’t pretend to be informed enough to know if THE HUMAN DIVISION constitutes a signal suite of breakthroughs in publishing.  But it’s the one in front of me, and it’s gotten me thinking.  There’s a beauty to the idea of signing up to receive the digital broadcast of a prose serial.  Buying a season of book and having each piece magically appear every week.  And, conceivably, reaching an audience that won’t or can’t hit bookstores, through the developing momentum of word-of-mouth over thirteen weeks.  And, frankly, getting to talk to people for an entire season, one week at a time.

Not Fully Baked, as a thought.  But it’s nagging at me.  There’s more to unpack, but I wanted to get this down now.

booklist 2013: LOVE IS STRANGE, Bruce Sterling

January 31st, 2013 | stuff2013

coverThat is one peculiar fucking book.

You get the strong feeling that Bruce sat down one day and said, “A Paranormal Romance.  People like those.  How can I tear down the term ‘Paranormal Romance’ until it a) turns into something I would like to write b) makes people who like Paranormal Romances cry blood?”

Bruce likes breaking things in his fiction. I often see things his characters love getting ruined somehow. It’s hard to think of anyone else who enjoys the casual harrowing of his characters so much.

It is a romance.  Bruce does in fact have fun playing with old romance-fiction tropes.  There are points where you can almost hear him cackling as he rattles around a LOVE BOAT port of call and scatters poison romances across the sun-kissed trattorias and streets.  There is the paranormal: or, at least, people who think they’re paranormal, and people who call each other paranormal.  It’s also, to some extent, about the delusions around these things.  The female romantic lead is a loon, the male romantic lead is a Silicon Canal alpha-drone, the supporting cast are grotesques and I’ll be surprised if Mr Sterling is ever again invited to a European futurism conference.

“Go to your Futurist Congress,” said Farfalla.  “They are expecting you there.  Your important friends will take good care of you.  Nothing will happen to you there.  Nothing ever happens when important people talk about the future.”

Bruce enjoyably tours the world with his romantic monsters, gleefully showing up the sooty old structures of the romance form while cracking its floorboards with brazen hodloads of science and politics.  It’s a weird, lumpy, sometimes uncomfortable comedy about shitty people.  It is the best and only romance novel you should read this year.  It is fun and evil.

But it really is a peculiar fucking book.

Ebook only: find out more at this page.

booklist 2013: STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE, Ian Rankin

January 23rd, 2013 | stuff2013

SuniIan Rankin’s Detective Inspector John Rebus has long been the strongest of Britain’s crime-fiction police protagonists.  Ian’s determination for unsentimental reality in the Rebus books meant that, in 2006, the old bastard aged out and had to retire from the Edinburgh strength.  Here in 2013, though, retired coppers can work for cold-case squads in a civilian capacity, and so, like it says on the cover, Rebus is back.

He shares the book, though, uncomfortably, with Ian’s most recent protagonist, Complaints (“Internal Affairs”) plod Malcolm Fox.  In previous books, Fox has seemed compassionate and self-controlled.  Here – perhaps simply in contrast to Rebus? – he comes off as chilly and childish.  That said, they were never going to get along, especially as Rebus gets into full swing once more.  Loosed on the whole of Scotland, the reprehensible old git gives a good account of himself, and maybe even learns a new trick or two in the doing of it.

It’s not the very best crime novel Ian Rankin’s written, I don’t think.  But I do think it’s a really good novel.  It’s a novel about Scotland, its geography and its people, and the things they hide. It’s a late album from a rock act who have suddenly realised that, yes, they have all this to say, too.  It’s a magnificent read.

booklist 2013: THE HUMAN DIVISION #1 – The B-Team, John Scalzi

January 15th, 2013 | stuff2013

So John Scalzi’s doing this thing with publisher Tor where he’s releasing a weekly serial. It’s a novel, but designed to be experienced episodically. Scalzi:

The only problem is, the story I wanted to tell wouldn’t exactly work in straight-ahead novel format. Or more accurately, it could work as a novel, but it would (work) better as episodes.

The first episode, THE B-TEAM, popped just after midnight.  I read it in a single sitting.  I’m not incredibly au fait with John’s OLD MAN’S WAR science fiction setting, having read only one book in that sequence (THE GHOST BRIGADES), but I wasn’t in the least bit lost by this latest addition to the series.  I’d go so far as to say that you don’t need to have read anything in the sequence thus far to understand THE HUMAN DIVISION.

It’s a thing hard to talk about without spoilers, this story.  But let me try and frame it like this. Perhaps you remember one of Iain Banks’ impetuses for beginning to write military science fiction/ space opera.  I can’t find the exact quote right this second, but it was something along the lines of wanting to rescue a genre he loved from a bunch of American fascists.  The phrase “American fascists” is his, I’m pretty sure.  Anyway.  You get the idea.  From Heinlein and Campbell through to Niven and Pournelle and the current-day state of that end of the field, it’s a pretty flat and reactionary field, full of flat and reactionary characters.

What Scalzi does in these books is take the second strain of military sf, the more liberal and literary works like Joe Haldeman’s THE FOREVER WAR, and sew it into the classic form.  What comes out is rich and smart and funny – still very much a good-time rollercoaster entertainment, but also pleasingly human and self-aware as it rattles along its tracks, scattering spaceship wrecks, lethal diplomacy, species dieback and interstellar spookshow paranoia in its wake.

This first episode was basically a really good laugh, and I’m looking forward to the following episodes appearing on my Kindle.  As far as I know, all forms of ebook reader and retail can get you a copy: Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iBooks etc.  99 cents in the US, 64p in the UK.