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The Myth of Publishers as Gatekeepers

I read a pair of posts over on Fantasy-Faction via Magical Words on the issue of self-publishing and its effect on the publishing industry in general.  The two authors took two very different approaches to the subject, and came from two different perspectives.

You should read the two posts if you really want to understand the full context for what I’m about to write.  But in summary, one called the explosion of new authors “the writer’s plague” and decried the damaging effect of much of self-publishing has had on publishing and English literature; the other expounded on how a self-publishing signal-boosting contest run by Mark Lawrence was “revitalizing” SFF.  The first comes across as very elitist even if it’s not meant that way, and the second is a massive exaggeration.  SFF is being revitalized by a large number of factors, of which one is certainly gems in the rough discovered from self-publishing.

But how does that relate to my post title?  Well, as often happens in self-publishing discussion, accusations of dreck-peddling by self-publishers and of elitist snobbery from fans of trade publishing came up several times in the comments to the two posts.  The existence of snobbery towards self-publishing and the justification for it are a mixed bag of truths that people rarely stop to examine.  But they should be examined.

Is and Why Is So Much Self-published Writing Crap?

Yes, a great deal of self-published SFF (and literature in general) is dreck.  So is s portion of trade published SFF.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Publishers have an investment in their lists and therefore want to do as much as possible to be sure they pan out.  And so they engage in editing and proof-reading.  These costs come out of author profit for obvious reasons.  Many self-publishers do not to to the same lengths as trade-publishers to ensure the quality of the work.  This is for many reasons.  They are more likely to have a biased view of the quality of their work as studies have shown it is much harder to be objective about your own material and also because they may not have written enough or studied writing enough to know how badly they’ve misjudged their work.  Trade-published authors can suffer from the same issue, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for.  Further, good editing costs money.  That’s why authors fork over s much of the profit to publishers and agents.  Which leads to the second issue.
  2. There’s nothing stopping you from publishing your trunk novels and high school angst poetry.  Self-publishing costs as much as you want to invest.  Stock covers and raw drafts and a few hours can get your book “published”.  This tends not to result in very good books.

 

People Misunderstand the Character of Publishers as a Business

Although publishers provide publishing services such as editing and cover design, publishers are not service companies.  Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace are examples of publishing  service companies.  You can pay them money for services.  There are many free-lance service providers.  But what they will not do is “buy your book”.  Which is itself a mis-characterization of what publishers do.  Publishers do usually buy the various copyrights associated with your intellectual property.  They don’t buy the intellectual property, though, only the license to produce a product from it.

But what publishers really are is venture capitalists.  Turning a manuscript into a quality book product is expensive.  Printing that book is expensive.  Just like a tech start-up tries to attract venture capital to start a business when they don’t have the money themselves, an author is something like a book start-up.  But they rarely have the money to take the risk on making, marketing, and selling their product themselves.  So the publisher comes in and looks at the product and if they think they can make money by fronting the author the money to produce and sell the book, they make an offer.

Now, the skills to produce a quality book from a manuscript are almost entirely unrelated to the skills required to produce a manuscript.  So not only does the publisher front the money, they provide the services in-house.  Their large reserves of capital allow them to take the risk of providing these services with no guaranteed ROI.  If the publisher publishers your book and it tanks, you don’t owe them the cost of production, nor do you owe them the advance on royalties for selling them the various license rights to the finished product.

It is the combination of these two aspects of a publisher that seem to cause people confusion.

Publishers Are Not Gatekeepers

Many people when self-publishing was just getting started were doing it because they couldn’t get accepted by a trade publisher.  Their product was not believed to be marketable enough for the publisher to risk an investment.  Publishers don’t give a shit about the quality of your manuscript.  They care about the commercial viability.

This is why you see so many books published by trade publishers that are total shit writing-wise, or you think are total shit.  Snookie’s memoir is going to sell a ton of copies and make a bundle regardless of the quality of her ghost-writer.  When you are a debut author of fantasy or SF or whatever, the publisher has no way to judge the risk involved in publishing your manuscript, except for their experience in publishing other manuscripts from debut authors.  And many books fail, or at least don’t succeed massively.  The publisher has to have a way to recoup these losses.  That’s why you get such harsh terms in your contract.  The few major sellers and many minor sellers have to not only pay for the non-sellers, they also have to pay the bills and then produce a profit.

No one is stopping your from publishing your book.  A publisher is not preventing you from being on bookstore shelves.  The bookstore is the gatekeeper, although honestly, would you go in and yell at Shark Tank or Walmart for not investing in or stocking your amateur product?  No, you wouldn’t.  Because that’s silly.  Publishers are investors with services-added, and they have no obligation to invest in your product/company/brand.

Agents Are Not Gatekeepers

Similarly, an agent is a company offering services.  Services on commission.  They are not a gatekeeper trying to screw over brilliant but misunderstood works of art.  If they think your manuscript will make them money, they take it.  On spec.  No charges.  For which you agree to pay them a percentage on future profits.  If no publisher takes on the book, you don’t owe any money.  In fact, the agent is out time and money on your book that they could have spent elsewhere.

Publishers Accepting Only Agented Manuscripts is not Gatekeeping

If you need an agent to get your work considered by a publisher, it’s not “gatekeeping”.  Well, it is, technically.  But gatekeeping is not a crime.  It takes me four or five hours to read a standard-length fantasy novel.  If a publisher would receive a reasonably-expected 10,000 manuscripts a year, that’s 40,000 hours.  If they pay minimum wage to their first readers–which would be stupid, because knowing whether a book is potentially commercial is a high-skill job–that’s $320,000 a year just on the first screening of a manuscript.  Let’s say 10% of those manuscripts are worth a second look by a more experienced reader, or even just a second read by another first reader.  $32,000 a year.  That’s equivalent to an entire employee position.  Why in the world would you expect someone to provide you that service for free?  Some entire businesses have net profits less than $352,000.

Publishers want agented manuscripts because then that process is already completed, and without them paying for it.  Shit, the agent doesn’t even get paid for it.  Do you as an author really want to be shelling out a minimum of $32 a manuscript submission?  If you submit to 10 publishers, that’s $320 out of pocket for a manuscript that is unlikely to be picked up.

Now imagine that, but you’re paying for all the costs associated with production of the final text and the printing.  You’d rather be paying for that?  Please.

 

The Pros and Cons of Trade Publication

 A trade publishing deal takes care of all the technical aspects of publication and getting space on bookstore shelves.  Publishers are respected brands.  You can expect to sell many copies on name recognition of the publisher alone.  I know that a book published by Orbit or Tor with an interesting cover blurb has a strong chance of being worth my time and money.  And you get thousands of dollars up front, which you will keep even if the books sells not a single copy.

But you do have to get accepted by a publisher, probably pay an agent, sign over your copyrights, and for a general average of 10% of the cover price in royalties, and you have to pay back your advance with sales before you get more money.

 

The Pros and Cons of Self-publication

You retain full creative control, keep all the copyrights, and get a far larger share of the profits.

In exchange, you front all the money for production and have to source and compensate your own talent.  If you are wasting your money on a bad book, tough luck.  And you might honestly not realize the low quality or commercial value of your manuscript.

 

Snobbery

So, you often hear complaints about snobbery from trade-published authors or trade publishers and readers towards self-published works.  There’s no inherent reason for this, of course.  Great books have been self-published and horrible books have been trade-published.

But!

There is practical reason for this snobbery, condescension, etc.  Readers get burned by self-published works all the time.  There are tons and tons of horribly written, edited, and produced self-published works.  The majority of them suffer from fatal flaws.  And there are hundreds of thousands of them.  Why in the world would a reader want to run those odds when the odds are much better (though far from perfect!) when going with a trade-published work?  That’s a silly expectation.

But!

There are many reasons an author might choose to self-publish besides they couldn’t hack it in the trade publishing world.  That creative control can be very handy.  There are many horror stories of publishers fucking over authors in contracts or with rights reversion.  There are horror stories of shitty or racist/sexist/etc covers an author has limited say in.  There are terrible stories about marketing from trade publishers for midlist books.  If you happen to have the necessary skill-set for publishing and marketing a book, it may be a much better choice to self-publish.  Hugh Howey got a trade publishing deal for print, but he kept e-book rights because is was financially sensible for him to do so given his success in that format.  He should be applauded for that decision rather than looked down on.

Maybe the writer knew they could make more money by ignoring the desires of the publisher.  If you can sell more shitty pulp novels at a higher royalty than you could a better quality novel through a publisher, who’s to say you shouldn’t, if profit is your goal?  (As long as you aren’t deceiving readers, in my opinion.)

Signal to Noise and Target Audience

The elitism in trade publishing is both misplaced and understandable.  The signal-to-noise ratio, or ratio of good books to bad, is drastically higher in self-publishing.  But it’s important to remember that even if an author is self-publishing because they couldn’t get a trade deal, it doesn’t automatically mean their books is terrible.  They may have a brilliant work that targets a niche market.  The publisher may have liked the book but felt they lacked the expertise to sell to its specific audience.  Perhaps it could have made profit but not enough.  Perhaps there was a glut in the market.  Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.  Maybe it didn’t fit the publisher’s brand.  Maybe it didn’t match any editor’s taste.

The sheer number of books being published today does make it a lot harder for even a brilliant story to stand out from the crowd.  Even though even more of the crowd of published books these days aren’t good.  It’s perfectly legitimate to complain about that.  Or to not read self-published authors because as a reader you’ve found it’s not worth your time.  There are more quality trade-published SFF books in the world than I could afford in terms or either time or money.  The review blog I participate in doesn’t review self-published books because we haven’t found it to provide us the same value as readers or reviewers.  There’s nothing snobby about that.  No one owes your book their time or money.  You may have a quality book that doesn’t succeed the way you want it to, and it doesn’t have to be malicious.

 

Conclusion

I am 100% against condemning other’s publishing decisions.  But I think it’s reasonable to discuss them.  If I think a writer might have done better to trade publish than self-publish, I’ll say so.  You shouldn’t call people stupid, or cast insults because they chose a different route than you.  You shouldn’t do that even if their book sucks, unless they are misrepresenting that for personal gain.  You’re perfectly welcome to say a book sucks, though.

The tone of the first article I linked to is distressing.  It’s metaphor is insulting.  It makes a few valid points, but there’s no reason why they had to be a jerk about them.  And it makes a few invalid points, as well.  Rather than just criticizing other’s “bad” decisions, we should first seek to understand them and the context in which they occur.  And then, with that understanding, we might consider critiquing them.  Maybe.

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I’m a Lazy Shit

Some of you may have gathered that I’m a lazy shit.  From the number of post series even with their own index page that never finished or even came to fruition.  I do in fact intend to get all of those up eventually, but I’m a lazy shit.  And some of them require serious research and planning and maybe even citation of sources, all of which I hate but the last of which I really hate.  Just ask my former Academic Advisor.  I’m more an off the cuff sort of person.  If you imagined this presents some major challenges to the goal of me ever having a story/book published, congrats.  You’re pretty sharp.

Anyway, for that reason, I will be trying to post on here more frequently, but in smaller bites to work my way up to having a stronger habit of consistency, which I hope will be beneficial to my fiction and also to those more ambitious series of posts sitting around the Chimney unfinished.

First up–today in fact!:

A world-building post on the challenges and answering techniques for creating a new and unique world not based on a set of previously existing Earth cultures.  Many of which are probably exocitized and stereotyped in your conception, particularly if you are a (white) Western European, or really any identity that isn’t a part of those cultures in general.  Fantasy versions of real-world cultures are fraught with risk, not just from cultural appropriation or downright racism, but from genre stereotypes, from lazy writing and characterization, from plain old old-hatted-ness.  But more on that in the post later today!

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Uncategorized

 

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The Problem with “Boy Books”

First, read this post by YA Author Justine Larbalestier: The Problem with Boy Books

I’ll wait.  It’s a very good post, and the parts I want to respond to are probably not the ones most would expect.

Unfortunately, comments on Justine’s post were closed, so I’m putting my response here on the Chimney.

I have a page here on the Chimney listing 200  YA/MG-ish books with male protagonists and/or authors.  For a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t made explicit on the page itself. For example, it makes the point that in fact there are many and even many good YA books with male protagonists and authors.

But to get to my thoughts on the whole “we need more YA books starring boys so boys will read” debate.  This argument, as Justine points out, makes several important assumptions, almost all of which are false.

  1. Boys don’t read.  Well, that’s obviously crap.  I read and I know many other folks of the male persuasion who do as well.   Not only now, but from back when many of us would have classified as YAs ourselves.
  2. Relatedly: we must solve this problem by getting boys to read YA.  Also crap.  Justine points  out that many boys do read, just not within the genre of YA.  The argument seems to be that YA books are for YAs, so if male YAs aren’t reading them, male YAs must not be reading.  Which is silly.  Although most YA lit focuses on YA (or lightly above) protagonists, sales data shows that the audience, whether intended target or not, is so much wider.  First, yes.  More female YAs read YA lit than male.  In fact, the readership appears to be drastically weighted towards females in all age categories.  So despite that settings and characters–and the blunt category label–I don’t think we can say that YA is lit for YAs, thus undermining the argument at issue here.
  3. A third assumption, which some might disagree about the truth of, is the assumption that we need boys to read more. Do we?  That depends on what value we believe/claim reading to have.  Is there some positive influence unavailable elsewhere that reading provides?  I certainly don’t claim to be able to prove either possible answer there.  But even without the full answer, the partial response we can rely on is that reading does have value and does provide some benefits, at least to some people.

 

I do have to disagree with Justine on one point: books do not have gender, sure.  But they have a target audience.  Just looking at the above-mentioned readership of YA, it’s clear that some books appeal more to certain people (and arguably groups) than others.  So in fact, there are “boy books” insomuch as marketing shows that  we can target our product and advertising towards specific groups we wish to cultivate as customers.  The underlying question is really whether there is cultural and individual to the reader value in such targeting. Most marketers and companies will naturally argue for the financial value to them.  Personally,as I suspect Justine does, I think there’s a great deal of value in having readers cross market category lines.  If we indirectly discourage boys from reading “girl books” by creating an opposing category of “boy books” and then hinting very strongly in our marketing that boys should read these in preference to girl books, we’re artificially preventing them from gaining the value of learning about different perspectives.

 

Now to address my points:

Boys do read.  They may not read YA, but as I say in point 2, that doesn’t mean they don’t read.  In fact, there’s a strong belief among the book-ish community that boys read a great number of Middle Grade books, and then generally mix in adult genre fiction over time as they age out of the middle grade category.  (It’s interesting to note that YA has a much wider practical audience compared to its supposed target audience than middle grade does, such that many readers never age out, or eve pick up the category later in life having not indulged when they were actually young adults.)  So there’s  no reason to artificially force some sort of supposed gender parity in YA publishing.  The fact that YA is less popular with boys does not as claimed equate to reading in general being less popular with boys.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a broader array of male protagonists in YA, written by male authors or otherwise.  But keep in mind that I read over a hundred books a year, so it’s not that there’s necessarily a deficiency, but that I am an outlier, and further, no longer a young adult, thus somewhat disqualifying me from being a statistic at all.  (Though I read at the same pace when I was younger.)  Also, I had and have no trouble reading either female protagonists and authors or “girl” books, so again, still not an argument for forcing gender parity in main characters.

And speaking of consumption of alternate media, I don’t enjoy (fiction–or non-fiction, I suppose) books about sports.  But I love anime (and manga) that involves sports.  As Justine brings up early on, all boys are different.  Anecdotally, no amount of sports-themed boy-lead stories are going to automatically bring more males like me into reading YA.

 

I’m gonna now delve into the Go vs chess analogy in Justine’s post because as you probably know, I love both linguistics and AI.  It’s in some ways a brilliant analogy, since it captures the issue of ignorance on the part of the person criticizing YA as simplistic.  Although Go has far simpler tools and rules to play, it’s far more complex than chess in it’s play.  Words work similarly to games like Go and Chess in terms of the complexity of meaning that can be derived from very simple building blocks.  I took those stupid reading level tests in high school.  Scored too high to get any book recs.  As Justine points out, the complexity of stories come not from the quality of the words themselves, but  from how they are arranged.  Quality here being defined as conversational level words versus SAT words.  For example, I could have said  “verbiage” instead of words, but despite the fancy  vocab, the meaning is the same.  In fact, I could have given the same meaning with “Two-syllable words vs eight-syllable words.”  TL;DR: If your plot is simple, you can’t hide it beneath flowery prose.  So much more goes into a story than the grammar.

 

 

Finally, onto the third point.  Justine cites empathy as something that readers can gain from novels.  You’re more likely to get empathy from a competently written story about someone different from you than about someone much more similar to you. Similarity enforces rigidity in thinking, where as difference more often encourages flexibility.  So if we want boys to read more(they already read plenty accounting for non-gender-related factors!) because of what they gain from reading, then in fact forcing stereotypical gender parity is the opposite of the correct solution.  They might read more (they won’t!), but they’ll gain less.

 

*I’ve actually left out a few very interesting points Justine made in her own post, because I don’t currently have anything to add, and they are separate attacks on this myth from the ones I’ve chosen to address here.  But they are just as important!   Especially the point about general gender disparity in readership/charactergender/author gender  vs. YA specifically.

 

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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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AI, Academic Journals, and Obfuscation

A common complaint about the structure for publishing and distributing academic journals is that it is designed in such a way that it obfuscates and obscures the true bleeding edge of science and even the humanities.  Many an undergrad has complained about how they found a dozen sources for their paper, but that all but two of them were behind absurd paywalls.  Even after accounting for the subscriptions available to them through their school library.  One of the best arguments for the fallacy that information wants to be free is the way in which academic journals prevent the spread of potentially valuable information and make it very difficult for the indirect collaboration between multiple researchers that likely would lead to the fastest advances of our frontier of knowledge.

In the corporate world, there is the concept of the trade secret.  It’s basically a form of information that creates the value in the product or the lower cost of production a specific corporation which provides that corporation with a competitive edge over other companies in its field.  Although patents and trade secret laws provide incentive for companies to innovate and create new products, the way academic journals are operated hinders innovation and advancement without granting direct benefits to the people creating the actual new research. Rather, it benefits instead the publishing company whose profit is dependent on the exclusivity of the research, rather than the value of the research itself to spur scientific advancement and create innovation.

Besides the general science connection, this issue is relevant to a blog like the Chimney because of the way it relates to science fiction and the plausibility and/or obsolescence of the scientific  or world-building premise behind the story.

Many folks who work  in the hard sciences (or even the social sciences) have an advantage in the premise department, because they have knowledge and the ability to apply it at a level an amateur or  a generalist is unlikely to be able to replicate.  Thus, many generalists or plain-old writers who work in science fiction make use of a certain amount of handwavium in their scientific and technological world-building.  Two of the most common examples of this are in the areas of faster-than-light(FTL) travel (and space travel in general) and artificial intelligence.

I’d like to argue that there are three possible ways to deal with theoretical or futuristic technology in the premise of  an SF novel:

  1. To as much as possible research and include in your world-building and plotting the actual way in which a technology works and is used, or  the best possible guess based on current knowledge of how such a technology could likely work and be used.  This would include the possibility of having actual plot elements based on quirks inherent in a given implementation.  So if your FTL engine has some side-effect, then the world-building and the plot would both heavily incorporate that side-effect.  Perhaps some form of radiation with dangerous effects both dictates the design of your ships and the results of the radiation affecting humans dictates some aspect of the society that uses these engines (maybe in comparison to a society using another method?)  Here you are  firmly in “hard” SF territory and are trying to “predict the future” in some sense.
  2. To say fuck it and leave the mechanics of your ftl mysterious, but have it there to make possible some plot element, such as fast travel and interstellar empires.  You’ve got a worm-hole engine say, that allows your story, but you don’t delve into or completely ignore how such a device might cause your society to differ from the present  world.  The technology is a narrative vehicle rather than itself the reason for the story.  In (cinematic) Star Wars, for example, neither the Force nor hyper-drive are explained in any meaningful way, but they serve to make the story possible.
  3. A sort of mix between the two involves  obviously handwavium technology, but with a set of rules which serve to drive the story. While the second type is arguably not true speculative fiction, but just utilizes the trappings for drama’s sake, this type is speculative, but within a self-awarely unrealistic premise.

 

The first type of SF often suffers from becoming dated, as the theory is disproven, or a better alternative is found.  This also leads to a possible forth type, so-called retro-futurism, wherein an abandoned form of technology is taken beyond it’s historical application, such as with steampunk.

And therein lies a prime connection between our two topics:  A\a technology used in a story may already be dated without the author even knowing about it.  This could be because they came late to the trend  and haven’t caught on to it’s real-world successor; it could also be because an academic paywall or a company on the brink of releasing a new product has kept the advancement private from the layperson, which many authors are.

Readers may be surprised to find that there’s a very recent real-world example of this phenomenon: Artificial Intelligence.  Currently, someone outside the field but who may have read up on the “latest advances” for various reasons might be lead to believe that deep-learning, neural networks, and  statistical natural language processing are the precursors or even the prototype technologies that will bring about real general/human-like artificial intelligence, either  in the near or far future.

That can be forgiven pretty  easily, since the real precursor to AI is sitting behind a massive build-up of paywalls and corporate trade secrets.  While very keen individuals may have heard of the “memristor”, a sort of circuit capable of behavior  similar to a neuron, this is a hardware innovation.  There is  speculation that modified memristors might be able to closely model the activity of the brain.

But there is already a software solution: the content-agnostic relationship  mapping, analysis, formatting, and translation engine.  I doubt anyone reading this blog has ever heard of it.  I would indeed be surprised if anyone at Google or Microsoft had, either.  In fact, I only know it it by chance, myself. A friend I’ve been doing game design with on and off for the past few years told me about it while we were discussing the AI  model used in the HTML5 tactical-RPG Dark Medallion.

Content-agnostic relationship mapping is a sort of neuron simulation technology that permits a computer program to learn and categorize concept-models in a way that is similar to how humans do, and is basically the data-structure underlying  the software “stack”.  The “analysis” part refers to the system and algorithms used to review and perform calculations based on input from the outside world.  “Formatting” is the process of  turning the output of the system into intelligible communication–you might think of this as analogous to language production.  Just like human thoughts, the way this system “thinks” is not  necessarily all-verbal.  It can think in sensory input models just like a person: images, sounds, smells, tastes, and also combine these forms of data into complete “memories”.  “Translation” refers to the process of converting the stored information from the underlying relationship map into output mediums: pictures, text, spoken language, sounds.

“Content agnostic” means that the same data structures can store any type of content.  A sound, an image, a concept like “animal”: all of these can be stored in the same type of data structure, rather than say storing visual information as actual image files or sounds as audio files.  Text input is understood and stored in these same structures, so that the system does not merely analyze and regurgitate text-files like the current statistical language processing systems or use plug and play response templates like a chat-bot.  Further, the system is capable of output in any language it has learned, because the internal representations of knowledge are not stored in any one language such as English.  It’s not translation, but rather spontaneous generation of speech.

It’s debatable whether this system is truly intelligent/conscious, however.  It’s not going to act like a real human.  As far as I understand it, it possesses no driving spirit like a human, which might cause it to act on its own.  It merely responds to commands from a human.  But I suspect that such an advancement is not far away.

Nor is there an AI out there that can speak a thousand human languages and program new AIs, or write novels.  Not yet, anyway.  (Although apparently they’ve developed it to the point where it can read a short story and answer questions about it, like the names of the main characters or the setting. ) My friend categorized this technology as somewhere between an alpha release and a beta release, probably closer to alpha.

Personally, I’ll be impressed if they can just get it reliably answering questions/chatting in English and observably learning and integrating new things into its model of the world.  I saw some screenshots and a quick video of what I’ll call an fMRI equivalent, showing activation of the individual simulated “neurons”* and  of the entire “brain” during some low-level tests.  Wikipedia seems to be saying the technical term is “gray-box testing”, but since I have no formal software-design training, I can’t say if I’m mis-uderstanding that term or not.   Basically, they have zoomable view of the relationship map, and when the program is activating the various nodes, they light on the screen.   So, if you ask the system how many legs a cat has, the node for cat will light up, followed by the node for “legs”, and maybe the node for “possession”.  Possibly other nodes for related concepts, as well.  None of the images I saw actually labelled the nodes at the level of zoom shown, nor do I have a full understanding of how the technology works.  I couldn’t tell anyone enough for them to reproduce it, which I suppose is the point, given that if this really is a useable technique for creating AIs, it’s probably worth more than the blog-platform I’m writing this on or maybe even all of  Google.

 

Getting back to our original topic, while this technology certainly seemed impressive to me, it’s quite possible it’s just another garden path technology like I believe statistical natural language processing to be.  Science fiction books with clear ideas of how AI works will work are actually quite few and far between.  Asimov’s Three Laws, for example, are not about how robot brains work, but rather about  higher-level things like will AI want to harm us.  In light of what I’ve argued above, perhaps that’s the wisest course.  But then again, plenty of other fields  and technologies are elaborately described in SF stories, and these descriptions used to restrict and/or drive the plot and the actions of the characters.

If anyone does have any books recommendations that do get into the details of how AI works in the story’s world,I would love to read some.

 

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Should Authors Respond to Reviews of Their Books

Quite randomly, I stumbled onto a web of posts and tweets detailing an incident of an author commenting on a review of one of their books, being taken to task for it, and then spending what I see as way too much time further entangling themselves in the resulting kerfluffle.  I won’t name this author, because I’m not posting clickbait.  I read both sides of the argument, and while I sided mostly with the reviewer whose space was invaded, I do think some of the nuance on both sides that was over-shadowed by this author’s bad behavior offers valuable insight into both review and more general netiquette.

First, I want to establish some premises:

  1. Posting to the internet is a public act.  That’s true if your post is public rather than on a private blog or Twitter account, say.  But it ignores the complexities of human social interaction.  If I’m having a chat with my friends at IHOP (Insert your franchise pseudo-diner of choice), we’re in public.  So it’s a public act.  But not quite!  If some random patron three tables down were to start commenting on our nastily engaging discussion of who should fuck who in the latest, greatest reverse harem anime, we would probably consider that quite rude.  In fact, we have lots of terms for that sort of thing: butting in, nosy, etc.  I think a valid analogy could be made for the internet.  Sure my Tweet stream is public, but as a nobody with no claim to fame or blue checkmark, it’d be quite a shock for the POTUS to retweet some comment of mine about the economy or the failings of the folks in Washington.  The line can be a bit blurrier if I run a popular but niche politics blog, or if I have a regional news show on the local Fox affiliate.  But just because you can read what I wrote doesn’t mean I expect, much less desire, a response from you.
  2. My blog/website is my (semi-)private space.  Yours is yours.  I own the platform, I decide the rules.  You can write whatever you want on your blog.  Your right to write whatever you want on mine is much less clear-cut.
  3. You have institutional authority over your own work.  While most authors may not feel like they have much power in the publishing world, as the “creator”, they have enormous implied power in the world of fandom and discussion of their own specific work, or maybe even someone else’s, if they’re well-known friends of Author X, say.  If I criticize the War in Vietnam or Iraq, and a four-star general comes knocking on my door the next day, you better fucking believe I’m gonna be uncomfortable.  An author may not have a battalion of tanks at their disposal, but they sure as hell have presence, possibly very intimidating presence if they are well-known in the industry or for throwing their weight around in fandom.

Given these basic premises which I hope I have elaborated on specifically enough, I have some conclusions about what I would consider good standard netiquette.  I won’t say “proper” because I have no authority in this area, nor does anyone, really, to back up such a wording.  But a “reasonable standard of” at least I can make logical arguments for.

  1. Say what you want on your own platform.  And you can even respond to what other people have said, especially if you are not an asshole and don’t name names of people who are not egregious offenders of social norms or who haven’t made ad hominem attacks.
  2. Respect people’s bubbles.  We have a concept of how close to stand to someone we’re in a discussion with in real life, for example, that can be a good metaphor for on what platforms we choose to respond.  Especially as regards critique, since responding to negative comments about oneself is something we know from past experience can be fraught with dangerous possibilities.  I would posit that a person’s private blog is reasonably considered part of their personal space.  A column on a widely-read news site might be considered more public,but then  you have to weigh the consideration of news of your bad behavior being far more public and spreading much faster.You should not enter it without a reasonable expectation of a good reception.  If there is a power imbalance between you and the individual whose space you wish to enter, we have rules for that.  real-world analogies.  For example, before you enter someone’s house you knock or ring the doorbell.  A nice email to the specified public contact email address asking if they would mind if you weighed in is a fairly innocuous way to open communications, and can save face on both sides by avoiding exposing one or the other to the possible embarrassment of being refused or the stress of refusing a local celebrity with no clear bad intentions.
  3. Assume permission is required unless otherwise explicitly  stated.  This one gets its own bullet point, because I think it’s the easiest way to avoid the most trouble.  A public pool you might enter without announcing your presence.  Would you walk into a stranger’s house without knocking? One would hope not.
  4. Question your reasons for engaging.  Nobody likes to be  called sexist.  Or racist.  Or shitty at doing their research.  Or bad at writing.  But reactionary  defenses against what could be construed as such an assertion do not in my mind justify an author wading into a fan discussion.  Or a reader discussion, if one considers “fan” as having too much baggage.  An incorrect narrative fact is likely  to be swiftly corrected by other readers or fans.  Libel or slander is probably best dealt with legally.  A reviewer is not your editor.  You should probably not be quizzing them for advice on how to improve your writing, or story-telling, or world-building.  Thanking a reviewer for a nice review might be best undertaken as a link on your own blog.  They’ll see the pingback, and can choose to engage or not.  At best, one might pop in to provide a link to their own blog where they provide answers  to questions raised in the post in question or a general discussion of the book they may wish to share with those who read the review.  But again, such a link would probably be best following a question on whether any engagement by the author might be appreciated.

Overall, I think I’ve suggested a good protocol for an author tojoin in fan or reader discussions without causing consternation or full on flame wars, and at a cost barely more than a couple minutes to shoot an email.

 
 

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Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.

 

Spoliers:  It could have been better.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Reviews

 

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