Monday, April 25, 2011

Alien Contact, the Anthology: Beginnings...

Science fiction has always had a love affair with aliens, as far back as the early days of the pulps, with their BEM1 covers and stories such as John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?"2 (written as by Don A. Stuart in Astounding Science Fiction, August 1938 -- pictured left) and Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1945 -- pictured below).

I don't recall my age at the time, but I had the misfortune to be home alone on a Saturday afternoon when the movie Invaders from Mars was the featured matinee movie on television. And to tell you the truth, I've not watched the movie again since! I'm going strictly by memory here, so bear with me if all the details in this brief recap aren't completely accurate (though I did look up the characters names on the Internet Movie Database).

As I recall, ten-year-old David MacLean wakes up one morning to a loud noise and bright lights outside. He rushes to his bedroom window in time to see a flying saucer land in the sand dunes just beyond the fence. He tells his father, who goes outside to investigate, but his father doesn't return home until the following day -- and when he does, he behaves differently: moody, sullen, quick to anger. And, David spots an unusual, albeit small, scar on the back of his father's neck. Soon, the same personality change (and scar) affects his mother, the police chief, and other townspeople. David finally turns to, and confides in, a local doctor, Pat Blake, and she, in turn, confides in a local astronomer, Stuart Kelston. Together, they convince the Army of the danger, and the Army intercedes. The good doctor is captured by the aliens, but she is rescued just before the mind-controlling device is inserted in the back of her neck. At the climax of the film, the Army endeavors to blow up the UFO bunker, as the UFO itself attempts to lift-off. David, Doctor Pat, and others are racing down the hill, away from the UFO and the pending explosion -- while the recent events pass before David's mind's eye -- and then...

David awakes as from a dream, to a loud noise and bright lights outside. He rushes to his bedroom window in time to see a flying saucer land in the sand dunes just beyond the fence.

Whew! That was a creepy ending. Dream becomes reality? -- not something I had ever seen in a movie, at least at that point in my young life. I can't say I had actual nightmares of that movie, but certain images were burned in my mind for many years, particularly the evil-looking alien head with the wriggling tentacles, encased in a large glass bubble, carried by two Martians: green, seven-foot-tall, primitive-looking creatures with insect-like eyes. As I said, I haven't seen Invaders from Mars probably since I was around David's age, but the images, and feelings, still remain. (I will also admit that I haven't seen the movie Alien, either, since its original theater run -- and a midnight showing at that; but I'll never shake the image of the alien bursting out of Kane's [John Hurt] chest.)

For me personally, it's a love/hate relationship with alien tales: they can freak the bejesus out of me -- particularly movies -- but I keep coming back for more. Something about the unknown, and the unknown possibilities -- and the hope that, just maybe, there really is an ET out there somewhere.

This is why, in 2007, after Nick Gevers and I decided to work together on an original anthology project, I jumped at the prospect of doing Fermi Paradox-themed Is Anybody Out There?3 -- even though Nick presented me with a number of excellent ideas.

And this is also why, on August 27, 2008, when I visited the house of Night Shade in San Francisco, and met with Jeremy Lassen, Editor-in-Chief, to discuss ongoing and future projects, I proposed an anthology of previously published "alien contact" stories. In the course of contacting authors for Is Anybody Out There? a few had expressed to me the fact that they had already written their Fermi Paradox story, or their first contact story, and thus weren't particularly interested in writing yet another such story. This got me to thinking: Classic Golden Age stories like Leinster's "First Contact" and Campbell's "Who Goes There?" have been collected in numerous anthologies [I strongly recommend The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology series], but not so these "contemporary classics" from, say, the past 30 years or so. Periodicals are ephemeral, and online 'zines even more so (if SCI FICTION4 is any example). So, it falls on editors and anthologists to ensure these stories are collected for present as well as future readers.

Author James Gunn, professor emeritus of English, and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, both at the University of Kansas, postulates that "humanity/the individual and the alien" is one of the 14 Basic SF Plot Elements.5 Right up there with time travel, AIs, dystopian SF, space travel, etc. -- though Gunn has a far more elegant way of stating these in his list.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

J. R. R. Tolkien Quotes Simone de Beauvoir

I've just watched a two-part video that has recently been released by the BBC; the video was originally broadcast in March 1968 as part of the BBC series In Their Own Words British Authors and features J. R. R. Tolkien, with comments from Oxford students who reflect on his work. It's quite a treat (if you can overlook the overly spacey soundtrack).

I had some difficulty understanding Tolkien himself, at times; he speaks quietly and quite rapidly, and with the accent, well, there were a few phrases that got past me.

Toward the latter part of part two, Tolkien reads from a quote by Simone de Beauvoir, French existential philosopher and social theorist. Since Tolkien felt this quote significant enough to read in its entirety, I thought I would share the quote with you here, and then embed below the two videos, should you choose to view them. [It is actually a single 26½-minute video that has been split into two parts.] Now, the quote:

"There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation."
—Simone de Beauvoir

Part 1; time 13:46 --

Part 2; time 12:48 --

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Monday, April 11, 2011

SpaceX Keeps the Dream Alive

Tuesday, April 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight: the fully automated, 108-minute orbital flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

There was a time, indeed, when I was young and naive. Regardless of what you may think, yes, 'tis true. When Apollo 11 landed astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, I assumed that this was just the beginning: science fiction had become reality. Satellites were one thing, but people on the moon? How cool was that! I imagined that more missions to the moon would be scheduled, eventually leading to the construction of a moon base. And with the moon base as a launch platform, the next target would be Mars. On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon, I actually believed that within 25 or 30 years -- definitely by the turn of the century -- we would have astronauts landing on Mars.

Unfortunately, few of those imaginings have come to pass. A handful of additional moon landings later, and then, between budget cuts and politics, the US chose to go no farther in space. The Space Shuttle program, along with the International Space Station, provided some possibilities for further space exploration, but my imagination had already been crushed. And now, only two shuttle flights remain until yet another US space program becomes enshrined in the National Air and Space Museum.

That is, until SpaceX unveiled the Heavy Falcon launch vehicle during a press conference on April 5, 2011: "Falcon Heavy, the world's most powerful rocket, represents SpaceX's entry into the heavy lift launch vehicle category. With the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft weighing over 53 metric tons (117,000 lb) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Falcon Heavy can lift nearly twice the payload of the next closest vehicle, the US Space Shuttle, and more than twice the payload of the Delta IV Heavy."

If you are intrigued by the possibilities of space flight, and you have a spare 1 minute and 24 seconds, please watch the SpaceX Heavy Falcon animated video that I've embedded below:

According to the press release, "the liftoff thrust of the Falcon Heavy equals fifteen Boeing 747 aircraft at full power." And that is a lot of power. The Falcon Heavy is certainly no Saturn V -- the launch vehicle for the Apollo project -- but it will do the necessary job of getting spacecraft to low earth orbit. And from there? We can only dream again.

I don't know if, in my lifetime, I'll ever see a manned space mission go beyond the moon, but I can hope the dream stays alive for future generations.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Writing (& Publishing) 101: A Conversation Between J.A. Konrath & Barry Eisler

March was a busy month for writing and publishing links and resources, which is why I split up my March Links & Things blog post (April 5), devoting one post on April 4 to "Writing 101: Don't Respond to Negative Reviews" and this post to a second set of links.

In my March Links & Things, I noted that best-selling author Barry Eisler had turned down a two-book, one-half-million-dollar deal with St. Martin's Press in order to self-publish his future books himself. And I linked to an interview in The Daily Beast in which Jason Pinter (@jasonpinter) asks Barry Eisler (@barryeisler) why he decided to self-publish.

But there is more to this Eisler/self-publishing, a lot more....

Barry Eisler is not your typical author: He graduated from Cornell Law School, joined the CIA in a covert operations position, and then left the CIA after a few years to work as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan. He began writing full-time in 2002, and is the author of two best-selling series, both thrillers: one features anti-hero John Rain, a half-Japanese, half-American former soldier turned freelance assassin, and the second features black ops soldier Ben Treven.

I checked out Barry Eisler's website and I was totally knocked out. Obviously, I expected the website to be in English; what I didn't expect was to find his website available in 8 other languages. Now that is impressive! And an incredible means to reach a global audience.

But I can't talk about Eisler's move to self-publishing without mentioning his friend and fellow author, J. A. Konrath (@jakonrath). After nearly 500 rejections and 9 unpublished novels, Joe Konrath finally scored with his tenth novel, Whiskey Sour, the first in his continuing series featuring Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels of the Chicago Police Department. Joe has stated that he discovered the Amazon Kindle in 2009, and since has self-published his novels in eBook format. And, in fact, on December 20, 2010, he published a blog post entitled "A Newbie's Guide to Publishing" in which he begins his post with "You Should Self-Publish." In this post, Joe Konrath tells why he felt, for many years, that traditional publishing was the only way to go. But once he discovered the Kindle, and is now selling 1,000 eBooks a day, he is reversing this one long-held belief about writing and publishing.

Anyhow, my purpose with this blog post is to bring to your attention a recent conversation between Konrath and Eisler on the subject of eBooks and self-publishing. The conversation itself was originally done as a live Google Docs discussion, and then later was edited and posted on Barry Eisler's blog. What's even more significant is that the authors made the conversation available in downloadable, mobile platforms: "doc, pdf, epub, and mobi formats, so it can be uploaded to Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, Kobos, and pretty much any other device." In the third paragraph of the conversation you'll find a link to a zip file that contains all of these formats. Be aware that this is not a light conversation, nor a short one either; it clocks in at about 13,000 words and is 35 pages on my Sony eReader.

But if you are an author and/or publisher, if you are considering eBooks and self-publishing, then you need to read this conversation, which "examines the history and mechanics of the publishing industry as it exists today, analyzes the way the digital revolution reflects recent events in Egypt and the Maghreb," and more.

Here's some samples from just the first few pages of the conversation:

Barry: general point was that digital was going to become more and more attractive relative to paper. First, because the price of digital readers would continue to drop while the functionality would continue to increase; second, because more and more titles would become available for digital download at the same time more brick and mortar stores were closing. In other words, everything about paper represented a static defense, while everything about digital represented a dynamic offense. Not hard to predict how a battle like that is going to end....

Barry: ...Lots of people, and I'm one of them, love the way a book feels. I used to like the way books smelled, too, before publishers started using cheap paper. And you can see books on your shelf, etc... those are real advantages, but they're only niche advantages. Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that's because there's nothing like candlelight -- but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they're in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former....

Joe: I also love print books. I have 5000 of them. But print is just a delivery system. It gets a story from the writer to the reader. For centuries, publishers controlled this system, because they did the printing, and they were plugged into distribution. But with retailers like Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords, the story can get to the reader in a faster, cheaper way. And publishers aren't needed. Do you think publishers are aware of that?

Barry: I think they're extremely aware of it, but they don't understand what it really means.

Joe: I believe they've gotten their business model mixed-up. They should be connecting readers with the written word. Instead, they're insisting on selling paper.

Joe: ...The agency model is an attempt to slow the transition from paper to digital. Windowing titles is another one. So are insanely high ebook prices....

Barry: Well, again, I think they're taking it into account, but they're drawing the wrong conclusions. The wrong conclusion is: I'm in the paper business, paper keeps me essential, therefore I must do all I can to retard the transition from paper to digital. The right conclusion would be: digital offers huge cost, time-to-market, and other advantages over paper. How can I leverage those advantages to make my business even stronger?

Joe: We figured out that the 25% royalty on ebooks they offer is actually 14.9% to the writer after everyone gets their cut. 14.9% on a price the publisher sets.

Barry: Gracious of you to say "we." You're the first one to point out that a 25% royalty on the net revenue produced by an ebook equals 17.5% of the retail price after Amazon takes its 30% cut, and 14.9% after the agent takes 15% of the 17.5%.

Like I said, you really need to read this conversation. And there's no excuse, because you can download it in a variety of formats, for print, mobile devices, or even read it online.

Addendum: I neglected to mention that at the end of the conversation, there are more than 425 comments, so you've definitely got your reading cut out for you. Note, though, that the comments are only available on the blog post; they are not included in the downloadable files.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

March Links & Things

This is my monthly wrap-up of March's Links & Things; you can receive these links in real time by following me on Twitter: @martyhalpern. Note, however, that not all of my tweeted links make it into these month-end posts. Hopefully, you will find some value in what follows; and if you are new to my blog, you may want to catch up on my previous month-end posts: just look for the "Links and Things" tag in the right column of this blog; there are 28 previous blog posts.

  • I've blogged previously (here, here, and here) about Liz Williams's fifth, and most recent, Detective Inspector Chen novel, The Iron Khan. But this is the first time I've come upon a review of a Chen book in which the reviewer so succinctly sums up what is so special about these novels. The reviewer's name is "Paul," the review is on, and this is merely one of Paul's 836 (as of this writing) reviewed books. Paul writes: "As is usual for the Chen books, the narrative not only focuses on Chen, Zhu Irzh and their friends and allies, but new characters, whose goals, desires and needs bloom like a flower quickly coming into full season. Both the titular antagonist, the Iron Khan, other antagonists, and those who oppose their efforts, such as the Japanese warrior Omi, have their narrative threads intersect with our main characters. They have pasts, presents and futures of their own, and never serve to act for the benefit of the main characters. If anything, these characters draw our main characters and their talents into their stories, for ill or will." [Note: I edited all 5 volumes, so far, of the Detective Inspector Chen series; the first 4 titles for Night Shade Books, the most recent title for Morrigan Books UK.]
  • The Jacqueline Howett meltdown may have been the major controversy this past month, but there were no shortages of others.'s @ebooknewser reported that publisher HarperCollins plans to limit the number of checkouts to 26 that their eBooks may have at the public library. This means that after 26 checkouts the library is required to purchase another copy of the eBook. The Pioneer Library System, Norman, Oklahoma, responded with a video showing various HarperCollins print books, their condition, and the number of times each has been checked out; had there been a limit on these print copies, hundreds of readers would never have read these books because the library simply cannot afford to replace a book unless it is both in demand and severely damaged. The HarperCollins decision has led to numerous libraries throughout the country boycotting HarperCollins eBooks. So if you cannot find a HarperCollins eBook at your library, don't blame the messenger (your public library), blame HC. In fact, feel free to send HC some feedback right now!
  • Two Very Big Names in publishing were in the news this past month: Barry Eisler and Amanda Hocking. NYT bestselling author Barry Eisler turned down a two-book, one-half-million-dollar deal with St. Martin's Press in order to self-publish his future books himself. On the other hand, bestselling self-published author Amanda Hocking has gone New York, signing a four-book, two-million-plus deal, after a very heated bidding war, with St. Martin's for her next series of books.

    Via The Daily Beast, Jason Pinter (@jasonpinter) interviews Barry Eisler to find out just why the author decided to self-publish. In the interview Eisler explains the numbers and reasons behind his decision. Here's a taste: "What happens whenever I hit that point [the earn out point] is that I'll have 'beaten' the contract, and then I'll go on beating it for the rest of my life. If I don't earn out the legacy contract, the only money I'll ever see from it is $142,000 per year for three years. Even if I do earn out, I'll only see 14.9% of each digital sale thereafter. But once I beat the contract in digital, even if it takes longer than three years, I go on earning 70% of each digital sale forever thereafter. And, as my friend Joe Konrath likes to point out, forever is a long time."

    As to Amanda Hocking, the St. Martin's deal was announced in the New York Times, which stated that Ms. Hocking explained herself to her readers, via her blog, thusly: "I want to be a writer," she said. "I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation." (via
  • Self-Publishing Review (@selfpubreview), whom I have linked to on numerous occasions, has a follow-up piece on Amanda Hocking, noting that though she has garnered all the attention recently as a self-published author -- and she may indeed be one of the wealthiest – she certainly isn’t a self-pub pioneer. But who are said pioneers you may ask? Boyd Morrison, Lisa Genova, Zoe Winters, and Dean Wesley Smith. You can read their stories on the Self-Pub Review link.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Writing 101: Don't Respond to Negative Reviews

I had just begun my month-end Links & Things wrap-up when I realized that the following item would take quite a few more words and space than a single paragraph, so I'm going to post this one point, and then follow with the monthly Links & Things blog post.

The major editing/publishing controversy this past month surrounded author Jacqueline Howett. The controversy began innocently enough when BigAl's Books and Pals website reviewed Howett's self-published novel The Greek Seaman. The entire review, including the title and author of the book, and the fact that it received two stars, only came to a total of 355 words... But those 355 words generated almost as many comments -- 309 before the blog owner cut off comments. The reviewer stated that readers would "find the story compelling and interesting"; it was the caveat that upset the author so much: "the spelling and grammar errors, which come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it’s difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant."

The author posted multiple comments to the review, accusing the reviewer of not downloading the correct/current version of her eBook. She accused him of not responding to her personal emails. She accused him of not understanding her writing because she is, and writes, British English. She even went so far as to post other, positive reviews of her book in the comments section, I assume to prove her point and to counteract his review. The reviewer, in turn, posted a couple of the author's more egregiously written sentences as examples -- you judge for yourself:

"She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs."

"Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance."

And then the ultimate sin: when other readers began commenting as well, in support of the review, which was, as I said, positive except for the negative grammar aspects, the author, Jacqueline Howett, told everyone to "Fuck off!" Not the best way to make friends and influence readers to purchase your book. After that, the blog went viral, and the comment section became little more than an author pile-on. After seeing a photo of the author on her blog, and reading about her worldly travels, one would think that her life experience would have yielded more maturity than what she displayed in the comments section.

The lack of quality in her writing unfortunately supports the generalized notion that most self-published books are crap -- and a lot of them are, so we have to rely on reviews like those from BigAl's and other review sites to sift the wheat from the chaff. There are also a lot of lessons to be learned here: It is not the reviewer's responsibility to find/track down the current/correct copy of the book to be reviewed. The book that the reviewer is sent, or the one the reviewer buys off the shelf, or online, is the book that gets reviewed. If you, as the author, do not want a lesser quality book to be reviewed, then don't put it out there! And, as an author, you must learn to accept the good reviews with the bad; you don't necessarily have to like it, but you absolutely must learn to accept it, or shine it on as one bad reviewer's personal opinion, or whatever it takes to get past that negative review. Enjoy the positive reviews when you can, and try to learn and improve your writing and/or the quality of your book from the negative ones.

The link above to BigAl's will allow you to read the review and comment section at your leisure. I doubt that most will read more than the first 50 or so comments; after that, it really does become tiresome. But you'll get the point: Writing 101 -- Don't respond to negative reviews. Simply grin and bear it (and try to learn from the review if you can).

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