Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review: Brave New Worlds edited by John Joseph Adams

 Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

Politics in fiction is a tricky subject and some authors even have the notion that it should be eschewed in their writing. The problem, however, isn't the presence of an agenda (which is inevitable) but rather that it's easy to fall into the trap of being heavy-handed and sounding didactic. A well-written dystopia--and there are a lot of them in Brave New Worlds--embraces the concept of writing for a particular ideology and exagerrates it to one extreme. If you believe that Science Fiction is the literature of ideas, then no sub-genre embodies this more than dystopic fiction. What makes this anthology brilliant is that the theme actually leaves authors with much room for flexibility as it can talk about science or religion or culture (or any combination of those). It's been some time since I last read read an anthology by John Joseph Adams but this is easily my favorite: it's potent, socially relevant, and leaves a strong resonance with the reader. Not that he hasn't attempted such a book in the past, such as with Seeds of Change, but this is a much stronger title, not just in sheer quantity, but with the choices he makes (in both selection and chronology).

I'll be honest: there are a lot of stories in this anthology and not all of them are winners. Some are simply ho-hum while others can be dragging. Having said that, there are a lot of powerful pieces as well, and they're the type of fiction that shines through such an anthology. It's a heavy book with over thirty-three stories and covers a wide variety. It has timeless classics like "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin (and Omelas is arguably my favorite dystopia), and even the popular "The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick. But Adams is thorough and while a collection of classics would have been good enough, what carries the anthology are his selections of (relatively) newly-written dystopias: "Ten With a Flag" by Joseph Paul Haines, "Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs" by Adam-Troy Castro, "Resistance" by Tobias S. Buckell, and "Civilization" by Vylar Kaftan come to mind. There's also everything else in between (there's even a comic, "From Homogenous to Honey" by Neil Gaiman and Bryan Talbot). What's interesting is that while themes like religion and birth control are quite common, each writer approaches those topics from a different angle. The way "O Happy Day!" by Geoff Ryman tackles homosexuality for example is vastly different from "Pervert" by Charles Coleman Finlay for example.

At the end of the book, Ross E. Lockhart has a "For Further Reading" section which is a list of other dystopian books. It's an exhaustive list and there are novels I've never heard of, which is a good thing. My only concern though is that it has this classification of "titles notable for their high literary value" which I find to be a very subjective term and I would have preferred a more neutral term such as "highly recommended". This section also reminds me of the effectiveness of the short story. While it's obviously possible to write a dystopia using novel-length fiction (as evidenced by the list), they can be just as impactful--if not more--in the short story format. That's the appeal of the book: Adams isn't just selling you thirty-three stories, here's selling you thirty-three dystopias or ideas that'll provoke you one way or another.

I couldn't help but think how Brave New Worlds would prove useful in the academe, not just because it features various idea-centric stories that are well executed, but because the various agendas are transparent and gives readers room to discuss the various possibilities and implications. In the introduction, Adams discusses the duality of dystopias, namely utopias, and the book succeeds because I felt that there were some stories in which the alternative doesn't sound so bad, or at the very least makes a compelling argument for living in that kind of society.

February 28, 2011 Links and Plugs

Just came back from a seven-day work week.

Also a shout-out to the Strange Horizons reader's poll.


Spotted Lily by Anna Tambour

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Essay: Understanding the Edsa Revolution

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the Edsa Revolution. The concept of "People Power" is fresh, considering current events, such as the protests in Egypt two weeks ago. But I say that not just as praise, but also as a warning. Other countries have attempted the same movement, but massacres do happen, such as what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The current question in Filipinos's minds is whether the revolution was a success. In many ways, that also echoes a concern of people around the world when it comes to Egypt: what happens next? The problem stems from the fact that people have different expectations.

This dilemma isn't new. A lot of people, in my opinion, suffer from a Messiah Complex, not in the sense that they envision themselves to be omnipotent and infallible, but they expect someone else--an individual-- to solve all their problems (and considering some of our prominent religions, it's not surprising). Unfortunately, this belief is a poor fit for democracy.

When people contemplate the Edsa Revolution, they compare whether the Philippines is better off today. The problem with that statement is that being "better off" is a relative term and doesn't provide concrete metrics. When former president Marcos was ousted, Filipinos expected many things: land reform, a prospering economy, a corruption-free government, etc. In other words, a utopia. What some of us don't understand is that these goals cannot be accomplished by a single individual nor does it happen with one single event. These are long-term problems and what's needed are long-term solutions. And that means constant vigilance and effort on our part as citizens.

What the Edsa Revolution did accomplish, and this was a transparent short-term goal right from the outset, was to oust a dictator. In that sense, we succeeded. Why was this important? Because it opened the possibility for change. This is the current plight of Egypt. A decade from now, Egypt may be better or worse off than its current state. We don't know what will happen, only the future can tell us that. But rather than the responsibility solely resting on one individual, the burden is now shared equally among its citizens (and to a certain extent, the global community).

This struggle isn't new. In fact, more than half a century ago, former president Manuel L. Quezon had this to say:
"I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a country run like heaven by the Americans, because however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always change it."
Whenever I used to see this quote, it usually ends with Americans, and leaves out the last part. Which I think is important here: not just the possibility of change, but the pronoun we.

In my opinion, some of us fail to fully comprehend all of the implications of a democracy and dictatorship. For example, democracies are complex creatures, unique to each culture and nation. The Philippines's democracy is vastly different from that of America's, or even Athenian democracy. Each type of democracy has its own advantages and disadvantages, sometimes giving more power to its citizens, at other times to its representatives. At the other end of the spectrum are dictatorships. Much like democracy, dictatorships can take on various forms, and not all dictatorships are equal. Some Filipinos miss the days of Martial Law. There was, after all, quick implementation of plans and policies. But that is the nature of dictatorships: with no one to question our superior's orders, drastic actions can be quickly accomplished. Democracies in general, on the other hand, have numerous checks and balances that change is relatively slow. (Similarly, long-term dictatorships can also plan better for the long term as succession to their rule ceases to be a threat.) But the problem with dictatorships is what happens when your leader stops being benevolent? Will you have the freedom to state your opinion, much less effect change? That is, in my opinion, a fundamental concept, going as far back as the philosophical debate of free will. Or better yet, what happens if you become the minority, the oppressed? What if your are suddenly abducted by the government for no reason at all other than being suspected of treason? The innocent are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

There is also simple ignorance on the part of us Filipinos. For example, one of the pro-Marcos sentiments is that we had a strong peso vs. dollar rate during Martial Law. Unfortunately, this isn't due to Marcos being a savvy economist, but because we were under a Command Economy--thus the president could set the price without reacting appropriately to market forces. It can be advantageous in the short term but ultimately unsustainable as debts starts to pile up (and that is what happened with our national debt).

Nor were we on our best behavior. There is, of course, a lot of repressed anger at the time. The existence of looting after ousting a dictator comes as no surprise. But whereas Egypt made attempts to protect its treasures, there was no one to stop us Filipinos from looting Malacanang Palace.

Just the other day, I finished reading Brave New Worlds, an anthology on dystopian fiction. Editor John Joseph Adams writes a good introduction, especially the part where he reminds us that whether a society is a utopia or a dystopia depends on your perspective. Take for instance the story "Resistance" by Tobias Buckell: society has lost its ability to vote and in its place is a computer making all the decisions, based on how society would have voted. One could view this as the "benevolent dictator" argument and pro-Marcos supporters could have perceived the Martal Law era as that kind of utopia. But for some of us, that is a nightmare. These utopia-dystopias are real. Take for example China's one-child policy. Filipinos will frown upon it, especially when we have families here with half a dozen to even a dozen or more children. But in China, it's a way of life, and for them, the pros more than outweighs the cons. The concept of a benevolent dictator (and while arguably Marcos had some good intentions, he was hardly benevolent) is lucrative, but do we really want to live in such a society?

It's all too easy to take for granted the liberties we currently have. If the Edsa Revolution didn't take place, I'd imagine the Marcos regime taking control of the country's Internet, perhaps an amalgam of the Great Firewall of China and Mumbarak shutting down the Internet. But that is simply conjecture. If you want concrete, tactile examples, one only needs to look at the country's top newspapers. The Philippine Daily Inquirer was established during the weakest point of Marcos's administration, three months before the Edsa Revolution. At the peak of Martial Law, I doubt if the publication would have survived. The Philippine Star, on the other hand, is very much a post-Martial Law broadsheet, founded by key contributors of The Philippine Daily Inquirer. That's not counting the TV and radio stations that were monitored--and censored--at the time.

Was the Edsa Revolution a success? In its short-term goals, yes. A dictator was ousted. The power to change reverted back to the public. But when it comes to the long-term goals, it would be foolish to believe that a single event would sustain such a change. If we want a better Philippines, be it education, population control, quality of life, etc., it needs sustained action and effort by everyone, and not just from our leaders, past or present. That is the true price of our democracy, that we need to get involved to produce change. Filipinos might grow cynical with the voting system, at how there is cheating involved. But action and democracy is simply not just about the voting process. There were no votes cast to determine whether the Ampatuan Massacre would be reported for example. We have the tools. The question is what are we doing with them. And unfortunately, there will not always be easy answers to come by.

February 24, 2011 Links and Plugs

Just a heads up that I might not be updating the blog during the week of Feb. 21 ~ Feb. 25 due to work. (If you're reading this this week, then I'm fortunate to update things today.)

Also, a shout-out to Jeff VanderMeer's fund-raising challenge.



Dead Stay Dead by Paul Jessup

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February 23, 2011 Links and Plugs

Just a heads up that I might not be updating the blog during the week of Feb. 21 ~ Feb. 25 due to work. (If you're reading this this week, then I'm fortunate to update things today.)



M-Brane SF #25

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 22, 2011 Links and Plugs

Just a heads up that I might not be updating the blog during the week of Feb. 21 ~ Feb. 25 due to work. (If you're reading this this week, then I'm fortunate to update things today.)



Predators I Have Known by Alan Dean Foster

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review: Objects of Worship by Claude Lalumiere

The problem when it comes to praising authors--and I initially heard of Claude Lalumiere from Rick Kleffel's recordings over at The Agony Column--is that when the reader finally encounters their fiction, they don't live up to the hype. Thankfully, that's not the case here as Objects of Worship is a tight, powerful collection and easily elevates Lalumiere as one of my favorite writers even if I had never read anything of his before.

Before I tackle Lalumiere's fiction, there are two things I want to talk about. First is the art of the short story collection. Objects of Worship isn't a thick book but most of the stories stand out (there are two or three stories that are simply competent but they're the exception). What interests me is how the stories are ordered: it's not simply Lalumiere sharing his stories based on their publication date, but a conscious methodology in his chronology. Arguably his best stories are in the beginning of the book, and his comic book-influenced stories are segregated from each other. There is also the tightness of the theme and Objects of Worship feels like an appropriate title as the stories have a religious--sometimes overt, at other times a mere detail--undercurrent. The other point I want to make is how it's too easy to make generalizations about writers, especially if they're not researched comprehensively. If we were to simply read Lalumiere's fiction that was published in Electric Velocipede for example, we might categorize Lalumiere as a writer who writes superhero fiction. Looking at his body of work however, that's not quite true. The author tends to combine conventions to form something entirely different, be they superheroes, myths, or slice-of-life stories. While Lalumiere does write about superheroes, he also writes about other things as well, as evident in the other nine stories in the book.

What makes Lalumiere's writing effective, and why his fusion of typically unrelated tropes effective, is his subtlety. Take for example the opening (and most powerful) story "Objects of Worship". What immediately catches the reader's attention is the presence of gods in everyday life as well as the lesbian relationship between the two main characters. The former element is already a recipe for a successful dystopia but there's another assumption that is never explicitly stated: that the world of "Objects of Worship" has no men. Suddenly, the lesbian relationship of the protagonists isn't a deviance but the norm. This, in turn, leaves much room for interpretation. Could the gods in the narrative be stand-ins for the abusiveness of males? There's a lot to discuss in this short story but that's not the sole reason why it's one of my favorite pieces. Underneath all the conceptual turmoil is the relationship between the characters. Despite the inclusion of the fantastical element, the arguments and inner conflict stem from genuine human drama and Lalumiere writes it with credibility and depth.

Another example is "The Ethical Treatment of Meat" wherein the meat in question is us human beings. Again, it's never explicitly stated that the protagonists are zombies. Instead, Lalumiere writes the narrative in a serious manner so the fact that the gay couple happens to be zombies is incidental and the humor is deadpan. For the most part, the main conflict in the narrative is the relationship between the two main characters but on the other hand, you also cannot deny the cruelty-to-animals parody of the story.

That's not to say each of Lalumiere's story is perfect. I find "A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens" to be problematic when it comes to the supporting female character for example, but it's not surprising considering the inspiration (which the author explains in the afterword). Still, even this "flawed" short story has its merits and again, the lack of didacticism and info dump on Lalumiere's part shows restraint that he manages to utilize as an effective tool.

What impresses me with Lalumiere's fiction is that there's a lot to ponder as most of the stories are layered. They're enjoyable and funny on the literal level but it's also rewarding when you peel its many layers and understand the techniques the author employs. Objects of Worship is easily a must-have collection and my only regret is that it took me this long to finally read Lalumiere.

Book Review: The Broken Man by Michael Byers

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

Sometimes, when we read fiction, what we're looking for is something vastly different from what's been done before. Arguably that's the appeal of writers like Kij Johnson or Kelly Link: not only do they use language to great effect but they're also not afraid to experiment. However, we also shouldn't discount fiction that's simply well written, using traditional but effective techniques to convey their story and seduce the reader. The Broken Man by Michael Byers is more of the latter than the former and it's evident from the first few paragraphs. There's nothing jarring or out of place in the narrative. In a certain sense, the writing style is predictable. But it's also compelling and interesting--which is as it should be considering this is a novella so the author has fewer liberties.

The skill of Byers's technique can be pinpointed to two factors. One is his characterization: his protagonist isn't exactly the most likable of characters but readers understand and even sympathize with him. In many ways, he is what the best of us could have been if we were disillusioned. That Byers manages to convey this without being didactic, at least early on, is a point in his favor. The other element is the sense of verisimilitude Byers conjures. There's confidence in the author's writing that makes us believe he knows what he's talking about. Considering The Broken Man takes place during a film shoot, Byers convincingly fabricates a self-contained movie industry within just a few dozen pages. Between the characterization and the telling details, The Broken Man is a short but potent narrative.

That's not to say The Broken Man is entirely formulaic or perfect. As far as the former is concerned, Byers does deviate from expectations and drives the narrative into a different direction later on. The innovation of Byers is the fact that his horror is two-fold: there is an existing internal, psychological horror haunting the characters while the external horror is simply the catalyst for the conflict to emerge. Unfortunately, this innovation is also the author's weakness. The so-called monster in the story, at least as far as description is concerned, isn't terrifying. There are also moments in the story which are supposed to be suspenseful but this reader feels cheated during those moments: there is no seeding of the protagonist retaining or losing his talisman, so the success and failure of the encounter feels like a coin toss.

I wouldn't say The Broken Man's flaws are its weakness per se. This is where Byers attempts something different and while his execution is far from ideal, it nonetheless stands out from the pack. The good more than outweighs the bad and Byers's skill keeps readers glued to the book.

Book Review: Jack o' the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney

"Beware of fairy tales, beware of Jack." That's not a line from Jack o' the Hills but a phrase whispered by a phantasm as I write this review. We hardly associate the two with horror: the former, over the centuries, have been sanitized and moralized while the name Jack has been similarly watered down. Some of modern fantasy, such as Cabinet des Fees or the anthologies of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, have attempted to either re-invent fairy tales or return them to their primal roots. It's a tricky road to traverse and there are a lot of pitfalls. Jack o' the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney isn't horror per se but there's enough material here that makes it unpleasant reading (in a good way). If I were to meet the Jack in the story for example, it's a Sean Connery James Bond moment: I don't know whether he'll seduce me or shoot me. Don't get me wrong though: at the heart of many fairy tales, including this one, is Romance and Cooney writes a compelling narrative that is as passionate and seductive as the mythical fey.

Jack o' the Hills is comprised of two stories, "Stone Shoes" and "Oubliette's Egg". They stand well on their own but together, they are part of a larger narrative. Assessing them individually, "Stone Shoes" and "Oubliette's Egg" both have the same style but I found the former to be slightly tighter and consistent. Right from the beginning, one is immediately drawn to the fairy tale landscape of "Stone Shoes" thanks to Cooney's tone and technique. Arguably it's easier to sustain such a voice due to it being the shorter narrative of the two. "Oubliette's Egg," on the other hand, is where the author gets to be more playful, whether it's the plot twists or crafting complex antagonists. Whereas it's the language that ensnares you in "Stone Shoes," it's the drama and the conflict that keeps you reading "Oubliette's Egg".

Together, however, there is a larger theme that encompasses Cooney's writing. One is her subversion of various fairy tales: you get bits and pieces of it here and there, some elements lurking at the back of your head but it's never fully realized as Jack o' the Hills is Cooney's unique narrative. In a way, that's refreshing as there is this sense of both familiarity and ambiguity.

Another is the didacticism that populates today's fairy tales. Cooney sidesteps the assumed moral imperative and replaces it with amoral characters: they're not evil per se but they're not afraid of committing atrocious acts to accomplish their agenda. The titular Jack is a good example of this. Of course the same could be said of the villains as well: while there is this sense of selfishness in them, they aren't without their redeeming qualities. For example, towards the end of the book, there is a tender moment with Oubliette that simply melts the reader's heart.

There is also how Cooney usurps the traditional concept of love. At the end of the day, Jack o' the Hills is an epic love story and the ending of "Stone Shoes" and "Oubliette's Egg" shows that. But because the characters are amoral, the love they feel becomes motivation to commit dastardly deeds. It's all too easy to generalize this type of love as wanton selfishness but as the narrative progresses, the reader begins to doubt this conclusion. Love in Jack o' the Hills might be destructive but it's also born out of selflessness.

In terms of craft, Cooney is insidious. I use that term because while Jack o' the Hills isn't actually graphic, it insinuates a lot, making the reading experience a lot more vivid than it should be. Most of the action is implied, and this is magnified during the climax of "Oubliette's Egg". Cooney manipulates the details out of us instead of her explicitly stating what happens. It's tricky to use this kind of restraint but Cooney consistently pulls this off.

There are some minor flaws in the book. For example, in "Oubliette's Egg," there is a digression on the sixteenth faerie. It's a wonderful and enjoyable digression but overall, I felt the narrative lost a bit of momentum due to the drastic shift in perspective. Again, this is fairly minor, and there are people I'm sure who would put up a good defense for the inclusion of this scene.

Overall, Jack o' the Hills is a compelling narrative that usurps and appropriates the best elements of fairy tales and warps them to suit Cooney's purpose. It's a precisely-constructed narrative that's dark and Romantic and charming without sacrificing the elements that make it a fantastic fairy tale.

February 21, 2011 Links and Plugs

Just a heads up that I might not be updating the blog during the week of Feb. 21 ~ Feb. 25 due to work. (If you're reading this this week, then I'm fortunate to update things today.)



 Crossed Genres Quarterly #1 edited by Jaym Gates and Natania Barron

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Essay: The Innovation of Philippine Bookstore Chains

One of the recent news items is that Borders declared bankruptcy, while over at Australia, Angus & Robertson is similarly in danger. I'm not here to discuss what Borders or Angus & Robertson did wrong. What I do want to talk about, however, are Philippine bookstore chains.

Until the mid 1990s, there were two major bookstore chains: National Bookstore and Goodwill Bookstore. That's not to say there weren't independent bookstores at the time: La Solidardid Bookshop is an old independent bookstores, going as far back as 1965. Popular Bookstore is also one of those legacy franchises that didn't quite transition into a major chain. But let's go back to the two prominent bookstores of the time*.

If you were a discerning book lover, you hated both bookstore chains. There are two reasons for this. One is that they were a monopoly: it's not that they had an awful selection of books, but you were pretty much stuck with what they had. This was before the Internet so while they did have book ordering services, who knew what books to order? You pretty much had no choice but to consume what was on the shelves (this is the reason why at one point, I owned several dozen Dragonlance books, simply because there really was nothing else to buy at the time when it came to fantasy). Suffice to say, between the two bookstores, you had a small selection to choose from (pretty much today's independent bookstores have a wider variety compared to what they had back then). The other reason is perhaps more aesthetic. We've all heard of bookstores from abroad, whether it's Barnes & Noble or Kinokuniya. Neither National Bookstore or Goodwill Bookstore fit that image. In fact, foreigners would probably be shocked if they entered a shop called National Bookstore only to discover that the common commodity being sold aren't books but school supplies**. Yes, you heard that right: school supplies. And to a certain extent, only slightly more palatable to the bookworm, text books.

This enmity is arguably undeserving. It's true that at the time, majority of the income of both bookstores stem from sales of school supplies and text books. But if school supplies and text books were such best-sellers, they were also under no (financial) obligation to stock fiction and non-fiction books. This is where the reader's interests conflicts with the business owner. The former wants a store dedicated to all sorts of books while the latter has to pay the bills. The solution? Here's one of my favorite quotes from Socorro Ramos, co-founder of National Bookstore, in an interview conducted by Clinton Palanca published in The 2000 Phlippines Yearbook: "If I didn't sell the pencils, I wouldn't be able to sell the books."

So how effective has this strategy been? At least in the case of National Bookstore, which has been around since the 1930s (surviving fire and war), is able to sell a $9.99 book for $7.78 (and the latter price is already inclusive of taxes. (My point of comparison is Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson's The Gathering Storm) How is this exactly accomplished? Well, I'm not privy to National Bookstore's financial books, but I expect it's a combination of being able to import books in massive quantities (i.e. saving on shipping costs), subsidizing expenses with its other, more profitable business, and government policy that does not charge value added tax on book imports (an entirely different position when compared with Australia's restriction on parallel imports).

Over the years though, the local bookstore chain industry changed. In 1996, Power Books was launched, and what's interesting was that it was started by the heirs of the Ramos line. It was, at least in terms of appearance, what bookworms wanted in a bookstore: it only sold books and had chairs and couches for people to browse and read books. In terms of selection (and price) though, it was entirely identical to that of National Bookstore. A few years ago, that changed. While there is inevitably overlap (and arguably a significant overlap) between the book selection of National Bookstore and Power Books, the two aren't identical. Each franchise has its own set of book buyers. (As an aside, this inter-family development of bookstores is no surprise. Ramos's brother, Manuel Cancio, was the founder of Goodwill Bookstore. Over the years though, National Bookstore and Goodwill Bookstore--and now Power Books--are distinct and different business entities.)

Another bookstore chain that emerged was Fully Booked. Now they didn't enter the field without any previous experience. They operated an independent bookshop, Bibliarch, which specialized in art books and related paraphernalia, back in 1997. Eventually the group decided to try their hand at managing a larger bookstore and did so through the Page One franchise. Suddenly, there was this large bookstore that made the selections from National Bookstore and Power Books look paltry. Unfortunately, this also made the price of books expensive (perhaps to pay off the licensing fee for the franchise). Eventually, the company would lose the franchise--and there was even a few months were it was a nameless bookstore and some of my friends referred to it as "Not Page One" for lack of a label--and was reborn as Fully Booked in 2003. Now Fully Booked wanted to price its books competitively with its rivals. Just yesterday, I bought Jonathan Strahan's Engineering Infinity for $6.92 and this is a book that has a retail price of $7.99. Now what's interesting--and what disturbs--me is Fully Booked's business plan. They seem to be aiming for the long-term as I can't foresee them recouping their expenses in the past few years: ever since 2003, they've established 13 stores nationwide, including a five-story flagship store. I predict that a decade or two down the line, one of two things will happen: Fully Booked will either outsell Power Books, or fold like Borders.

Goodwill Bookstore has had an interesting fate. It's down to five branches whereas in the past, it was ubiquitous. Its selection has also reverted to its old business model, namely school supplies and text books. Again, I'm not privy to the inner workings of the company, but the rumor with regards to this downsizing is due to transition with the ill-health and eventual demise of its founder.

Having said all that, I'm cautiously optimistic when it comes to the state of Philippine bookstores, or at the very least, National Bookstore will weather through the tough times. Power Books, while it has made some mistakes, is adapting. Just last year, it underwent a re-branding (exchanging its old blue and gold colors for blue and orange) and I'd like to think this change is its means of coping. Fully Booked, on the other hand, knows it's playing for the long-term (measured in decades instead of years) so while it's using, in my opinion, a risky strategy, we won't know until far into the future.

*I am leaving out another successful bookstore chain, Book Sale, which specialized in selling used books. The used books industry here is another discussion altogether.

**Another surprise best-seller at the time were greeting cards.

Friday, February 18, 2011

February 18, 2011 Links and Plugs

Just a heads up that I might not be updating the blog during the week of Feb. 21 ~ Feb. 25 due to work.



Take No Prisoners by John Grant

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Essay: The Politics of eBook Formats

There are times when I'm tired talking about .epub and .mobi. The problem with these formats is that they tend to be US/UK-centric. Take for example .mobi*. While it was semi-popular back when people still carried PDAs, it currently thrives solely due to the existence of the Kindle and the Amazon ecosystem. Now the problem with the Kindle and Amazon is that it mainly caters to the US/UK crowd. How many Southeast Asian countries for example have Kindles sold at local retailers? Or for that matter, will online retailers actually sell them eBooks (due to geo-restrictions)?

Contrary to popular belief, eBooks aren't a new concept. You don't need an eBook reader to read eBooks. The first eBook was born when word processors were developed. If you ask a friend to send you a copy of their draft, whether novel or short story, they'll most likely send you a .doc or .rtf file (or .odt depending on their word processor). I once got sent a .pdf but that's the exception. Unless a commercial transaction is involved, I doubt that they'll be sending you a .epub or .mobi file. The problem with the eBook hype for the past few years is that people, especially Westerners, assume that eBooks must be .epub or .mobi since that's what the major vendors are selling. But in reality, various eBooks were already circulating even in the days before Amazon or iPods, whether they took the form of the lowly .txt or .pdf file.

If you look at the pirate economy, majority of the files aren't .epub or .mobi (although that's starting to change as newer uploads are starting to use those files) but .txt (because it's simple), .doc (because it's common for users to have word processors), .pdf (easiest output for scanned files, especially books which have images), and .lit (a remnant of the PDA generation of eBook pioneers). These formats are being circulated around the web and easily the format of choice for those without commercial eBook reading devices. To me, this is an interesting phenomenon because it sidesteps the ecosystem of various distributors (Amazon, Apple, Sony, etc.).

Similarly, related to this is the underground hardware economy. One of the local eBook readers (my review here) available in the Philippines (but sourced from China) doesn't adequately support .epub (it won't load in my experience) but among the other files it supports is .txt, .pdf, .html, and .fb2 (according to Wikipedia, a format popular in Russia). It's newer brethren has a similarly eccentric list of supported formats. Here's the specs of Korea's Soribook (no .epub or .mobi).

The problem with .epub and .mobi is that it's honestly optimized for one type of book (fiction/non-fiction books without images) and this design choice is reflective of the culture that's pushing it. Take for example Japan, home of the cellphone novel. It's a country where manga (or comics) comprises a significant chunk of its publishing industry, currently comprising as much as 25 percent of book sales as of 2006. Any intelligent book designer will tell you .epub and .mobi is a poor fit for comics (and why there's a separate app for comics on the iPhone/iPad Touch, such as ComiXology). It's even more shocking to find out that "83 percent of all e-books sold over Japanese cell phones, were digital comics". Even disregarding Japan's manga phenomenon, there is also the practice of reading right to left, top to bottom (left-to-right is practiced as well but it's usually reserved for titles and short phrases) and that's simply not supported by either format. Instead, while Japan is waiting to create its own format, what's currently being used is .xmdf (for both fiction and comics) and .pdf. China has a similar challenge as it's home to various formats which I've never heard of before, such as .ceb and .pdg (and I'm not yet tackling Korea). The prominence of the mobile phone as the eBook reader of choice also steers the entire eBook ecosystem in a different direction. One of the factors is the fast broadband available in countries like Japan and Korea but another is how the language itself changes the way that culture reads; for example, you can read an old essay of mine which explains why Japanese readers read fast, and why their language occupies less characters on a screen: Japan Ain't Necessarily A Nation of Speed Readers.

There are two factors that influence the adoption of another culture's technology. One is the tech that's currently available. For example, in the Philippines, while HD TVs are available, virtually no vendors--not even pirates--are selling Blu-ray discs and players (the exception are Playstation 3's and laptops with built-in Blue-ray drives). DVDs are still the format of choice among consumers and pirates. I was listening to an interview with South African author Lauren Beukes and one of the phenomenons in her country that she mentions is how South Africa simply skipped mp3s and went directly from CDs to music played on cellphones because the latter had a huge adoption rate. The other factor, and this might be a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma, is the culture's awareness of the said technology. In one of Salon Futura's podcasts, Alisa Krasnostein, a publisher from Australia, mentions how reviewers don't know what to do with .epub files (as opposed to .pdf), even if you don't need to have a portable eBook reading device to read them. It's not an issue of technology per se (as .epub can be read on the PC, assuming you have the right software) but a general ignorance of the file format, how to use it, etc. Here in the Philippines, except for a minority of readers (which includes myself), most people who read eBooks aren't that familiar with .mobi or .epub. (Similarly, one of the problems I encountered was finding a good .epub designer; it's easy to look for graphic artist who knows how to layout .pdfs but that's not the case with .epub.)

Now I'm not advocating the abandonment of .epub or .mobi files but readers should be aware how imperialist the said formats can be, and the technological divide separating them from readers of other countries. .epub and .mobi are formats optimized for a specific culture and the technological innovations and ecosystems built around them favors readers of a specific demographic. Readers who use formats like .txt or .doc might look primitive compared to early adopters of other eBook formats but is that really a fair comparison? What gets lost in a lot of discussions is that it assumes .epub and .mobi are the superior formats and should be adopted by everyone when that shouldn't be the case (at the very least, it's not the scenario for Japan and that's a country with a lot of paying readers).

*.epub is more widespread than .mobi.

February 17, 2011 Links and Plugs

Just a heads up that I might not be updating the blog during the week of Feb. 21 ~ Feb. 25 due to work.

Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales & by Anna Tambour

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    February 16, 2011 Links and Plugs

    Just a heads up that I might not be updating the blog during the week of Feb. 21 ~ Feb. 25 due to work.




    The Winter Triptych by Nicole Kornher-Stace

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    Essay: The Problem with eBook Design

    Let me begin this essay with a digression. Once upon a time (around 15 years ago), designing for the web was a designer's nightmare (and one would argue, it still is). While HTML had its own set of advantages, such as the ability to reflow text or use hyperlinks, it also came with significant disadvantages. Some of these were a lack of options: there were only 216 safe colors (as opposed to 16 million!) for example or the limited support when it came to fonts. The bigger problem, however, was designing a web page that appeared identical among most--if not all--users. One had to take account the user's web browser for example (Internet Explorer vs. Netscape); what looked good in one browser might look messed up in another. It even gets more complicated when you discover you need to factor in the web browser's version AND the user's Operating System. Another irreconcilable design element was the user's screen resolution (which is different from the user's monitor). A resolution of 800x600 vs. 640x480 meant that a web page could support three columns of text as opposed to two (or sometimes, simply larger images). The web designer's nemesis wasn't the limited set of tools they were given but that their canvas was an amorphous blob that varied from user to user. It was unfortunately all-too common for one person to say "but it looked great on my computer" and appeared messed up in another. (For more info, you can check out Variability in Web Page Displays.)

    The key to good web design back then--or at least the safest route--was to build websites which catered to the lowest common denominator. If one had a choice of designing for 800x600 resolution or 640x480 for example, you'd go with the latter because what theoretically works for 640x480 should work for 800x600 (in reality, 800x600 users weren't receiving optimal design).

    The good news is that over the years, web design has significantly improved, especially in line with the advancement of the hardware. For example, web pages now supports various fonts and designers are more comfortable using a wider palette of colors. Some problems are still there (Internet Explorer vs. Firefox vs. Chrome vs. Opera vs. Safari) while others have become less significant because the barrier to entry has been raised (the difference between 1280x1024 and 1680x1050 is minute, at least when it comes to web layout; both resolutions will handle three columns of text adequately). Currently, the only time significant web design problems pop up is with mobile devices. That's why some websites (like Futurismic) have their own, smaller version for mobile devices, and why this blog looks awful when viewed from a mobile device.

    Going back to the eBook discussion, well, the first and foremost problem of eBooks is that there is no universal standard. Wikipedia (yes, I know Wikipedia isn't the most "reliable" of sources, but it's adequate for this discussion) lists more than a dozen eBook formats. We could also trim it down to seven if we follow Smashword's survey of its most popular eBook formats from February last year (just bear in mind Smashword's ecosystem so let's not get too carried away with the popularity of specific formats vs. others) but seven is still too many. Now each format has its own advantages and disadvantages but for the purposes of this essay, let's simply talk about ePub (and together with Mobi, are the two most common commercial formats).

    Now you'd think that limiting one's design choices to ePub would make eBook design easy but in reality that's not the case. Much like my example with web design (and it's really no surprise considering the skeleton of ePub is HTML), a lot of the considerations are similar. Take for example your cover: it might look good on the LCD screen of your 9" iPad but will look awful on the e-ink screen of your 7.1" Sony Reader. Design-wise, one really can't get too fancy. Images might not load in the proper position, especially when you have a variability of the iPod Touch's 3.5" screen vs. the iPad's 9.7". Investment in typefaces might not be the wisest decision as well, considering that users can override your font choices and replace it with their own. There is also the question of what application you're using to read the ePub file. Adobe's Digital Editions? Stanza? Barnes & Noble's eReader DRM? And if one were to include a media file, whether audio or video or some other format, would the software/hardware support it? And at the time of this writing, the draft of the latest ePub standards has just been released so more variables are up in the air.

    Then there is the problem of actually coding the eBook. Honestly, the best method (i.e. error-free as opposed to expedient) of designing an eBook is by coding. There are, of course, various services and programs that offer to convert your document into ePub. It's not that they don't work but that they're seldom perfect. Sometimes, this manifests itself in a sudden break (sentence break, paragraph break, etc.) or certain characters not appearing correctly. These aren't "major" issues but as a professional product, it looks sloppy. Bookmarks also come into play and designers need to index their pages. There are, of course, worst-case scenarios. Below are some examples (click images to enlarge).

    In the first example, I used a PDF as the source file for file conversion.


    In the second example, my designer used Calibre to convert the document to ePub, and while it worked competently enough for other sections of the anthology, some were unfortunately missing *significant* text.


    Now I'm not saying don't use ePub conversion programs. Sometimes, it's a good base to work with and edit the file as necessary to make it perfect. At other times, the designer might want to avoid it entirely as it takes more time revising the document, as opposed to building it from scratch.

    Because of the current limitations of ePub (and hardware), there's really not much room for creative design when it comes to eBook design. One could theoretically aim for a drastic layout but there's really no guarantee it would load properly across every platform and device. Up to this day, I still don't know if my own ePub files appear competent across all devices. Look, it's honestly not that difficult to publish an eBook. Making the said eBook look great, however, is a different story altogether.

    Edit: Another problem is that when you produce an eBook for a particular format--say ePub--it comes with the understanding that you're doing an ePub version for all platforms, whether it's the Nook, the Sony Reader, or the iPad. Ideally one should create an ePub version for each of those devices (and models) to create the ideal aesthetic but that's impractical (on either the designer's side or the consumer's end).

    Edit 2: Suffice to say, the end-goal of the ePub book designer isn't to make the book look terrific, but rather to make it not suck among most platforms.

    February 15, 2011 Links and Plugs

    Just a heads up that I might not be updating the blog during the week of Feb. 21 ~ Feb. 25 due to work.

    Also a shout-out to the I Should Be Writing fundraiser.


    Jack o’ the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    Book Review: Monstrous Creatures by Jeff VanderMeer

    Disclosure: The author sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

    Matthew Cheney, Cheryl Morgan, Abigal Nussbaum, Andrew Wheeler, Paul Witcover. When I think of genre nonfiction that I want to read, whether it's essays or book reviews, these are the names that spring to mind. It's not about eloquence or style but what rises from their writing is critical thought and analysis, as opposed to simply a knee-jerk reaction to the day's latest controversies or book hype. I'd also add Jeff VanderMeer to that list of writers and Monstrous Creatures--aptly titled considering the scope of what VanderMeer has written over the years--compiles some of his best nonfiction.

    The subtitle of Monstrous Creatures is "Explorations of Fantasy through Essays, Articles, and Reviews" and it's important that we make a distinction between the four sections of the book. The first and fourth section cover VanderMeer's essays, the former tackling the genre in general while the latter covers his more personal experiences. The second and third sections are similar: they're reviews, introductions, and commentary of other people's works (there are exceptions of course: I would hardly label the article "In Praise of Beer" as either a review or an introduction). But whereas the second section is more in praise of the featured authors or their work, the third has no such imposition as incisive criticism is to be expected. This isn't the first time that I've read such a book and usually, one of the problems as a reader that I run into when it comes to the second and third section is that there's only so much introductions and reviews that one can absorb in one sitting. It makes me question whether there is a more elegant way of presenting the material. Take for example the interviews in the book: there are three and they are inserted at the end of each section. It serves as a good bridge between sections at the same time avoids overwhelming the reader. Unfortunately, considering the volume of reviews in the book, such a dispersion will not work, and there is also the question of categorizing the nonfiction (i.e. when I read the third section, I know they are mostly reviews).

    The problem with introductions and reviews isn't that they're not well-written. VanderMeer's criticism of House of Leaves for example is aptly creative for its subject matter, at least one of the ones overtly so. Nor are they ineffective. When VanderMeer talks about Sfar and Trondlheim's Dungeon Series for example, it makes me want to go out, buy their book, and read their work. In a certain way, this is one of the shortcomings of such a collection: the sense of impotence as one reads how great/deficient a piece of text is without being able to interact with the text itself. I mean there's no sadder moment than reading a great introduction to a book and not having the book! In this day of online shopping and megabookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the problem of acquiring the said books might be less inconvenient, but there's also the point where you break away from Monstrous Creatures to read another author's text to appreciate VanderMeer's writing. Rinse and repeat two dozen times and it can be a humbling--or frustrating--experience, depending on how much you've read of the works VanderMeer references.

    To be fair, this isn't a problem endemic to Monstrous Creatures but to collections of reviews and introductions in general. In fact, a good gauge is that the more effective the writing of the said pieces are, the greater the frustration of the reader. If I read a mediocre review of Steve Erickson's Zeroville for example, would I be dying to grab a copy of the book just to confirm my suspicions? When I read the book also plays a significant factor. If these were blog entries that I read once a week, it would not be a challenge. But compiled in a book with the expectation that one reads it one sitting (at least this is the burden of the reviewer who must consume books in a short a time as possible) then the act can feel weary. Of course this reader's methodology also isn't the most optimal. Just as one might want to have breaks when reading a poetry collection, the same advice is applicable here. The fault here is sensory overload on the part of the reader rather than bad writing. Having said that, what I enjoy about VanderMeer's choices is that he writes about books that aren't common. Monstrous Creatures isn't a collection of reviews of the decade's most popular books, but rather books that we probably should be reading.

    Whereas I have those reservations when it comes to the second and third sections of the book, I have no such complaints when it comes to VanderMeer's essays. They are, so to speak, material that I could read on and on without having a care for the time. VanderMeer's piece entitled "The Language of Defeat" might have been written as far back as 2008 but it's a subject that seems to haunt the genre reader/writer throughout the years and the article will be just as relevant today as it was yesterday. As a fellow writer myself, "Politics in Fantasy" is a must-read, and while it was published back in 2006, it also has this timeless quality to it as every writer will have their own perspective on whether injecting politics in their fiction is a good or bad thing (or more importantly, how it might be a trick question). What's appealing about VanderMeer's nonfiction is that it's clear that he assumes intelligence on the part of the reader. Take for example his piece "The Romantic Underground" which is written with deadpan humor but astute readers will catch on to the clues such as footnotes like "The author is unable to confirm or deny whether any actual 'RU' research has been done for this essay" or "Except when it's not". One of the more powerful pieces however are in the last section, which is how VanderMeer ties his writing to his personal life. "The Novella: A Personal Exploration" for example not only tackles the merits of the format, but how it affected VanderMeer as a writer. It's both informative as well as shedding light on VanderMeer as a human being.

    VanderMeer has contributed a lot to literature--genre or otherwise--and Monstorus Creatures is, if were to be honest, simply scratching the surface. Still, if you're looking for critical reading, or at the very least a roadmap to genre fiction that you might have neglected, you can't go wrong with this book. It's entertaining and intelligent, proving that both qualities can co-exist. My only word of warning is that you might want to go easy on the second and third sections. They are best savored like fine wine rather than a casket consumed all in one gulp.

    Book Review: Above by Stephanie Campisi/Below by Ben Peek

    Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

    I've always believed the future of the book lies with independent presses and just this month, I've read impressive publications from the likes of Papaveria Press and Twelfth Planet Press. As far as production quality is concerned, one needs to actually hold and grasp a copy of Twelfth Planet Press's Doubles Series which Above/Below is part of. It features double covers and one can read the novelettes in either order. Suffice to say, it's not the mainstream presses that publish books like these: they're risky and unconventional and not easily categorized. But to readers, they can be rewarding--if done right. And if Above/Below is any indication of the future, then Twelfth Planet Press is indeed cutting edge.

    Now this isn't the first Doubles Series from Twelfth Planet Press that I've read. Roadkill/Siren Beat was an enjoyable romp. Above/Below however goes beyond that previous publication. If either Roadkill or Siren Beat were published individually, they would still work as stories. Combining them into one book, aside from the aesthetic appeal of book design, adds nothing to the narrative. That's not the case with Above/Below however. Again, if either Above or Below were published individually, they would stand well on their own. Combined into this single publication however, they are greater than the sum of their parts, adding another layer that the reader can enjoy. There is also the impact of reading them in a different order, setting a different expectation for the second story read. The book is laid out in such a way that one could start with Ben Peek's Below before reading Stephanie Campisi's Above. What I've come to realize, especially since I was reading this book through an eBook rather than print, is that this quality is lost in the electronic version. As a file in my computer, the narrative is linear: the book starts with Above and then transitions into Below. It is possible to simply skip to Below before reading Above but this feels unnatural, especially when Above is the first section of the eBook. That's not the case though with print--and that reminds me of the value of the book as an artifact. There is no strict "beginning" and starting with Below is as legitimate as starting with Above. The only betrayal in the print version is the presence of the book's ISBN. In this specific case, I think I can say the print version provides value that the eBook can never provide.

    When it comes to the fiction, the parallels and divergences of each narrative is quite interesting. One can't help but compare and contrast the two stories and asking which is the superior story feels inevitable but ultimately faulty. The strengths and weaknesses of one story is supplemented by the characteristics of the other, thus forming a symbiotic relationship that's not possible if this were a single novel (as opposed to two narratives that form a novel-length book). Nor is it simply a matter of different perspectives or point of views. Campisi's writing style, while not too different from Peek's, is still her own and has a different voice. I could review Above or Below on their own but that would do no justice to the book. Instead, they must be assessed together and as a whole.

    Both stories start with husbands as characters but thematically, that's where their similarities end. In Above, our main character has hope that his lover will get better. In Below, that's not an option and instead, focuses on the character as a father. If we scrutinize this deeper, especially as we progress through each narrative, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the duality of both stories. One could claim, for example, that our protagonist in Above is focused more on reconciliation with his past while with Below, the main character is looking towards the future.

    There is also an irony in the choice of characters. The setting of Above for example is supposed to be the more utopian of the two worlds yet our perspective is that of a social outcast. Below, on the other hand, is viewed from the lens of a privileged person, or at least one burdened with the duties of the elite. That we have this kind of interplay is interesting for me as a reader because while it's clear that Campisi and Peek wrote their stories independent of each other (i.e. it's not a collaboration per se), there is a synthesis that works in this kind of format. One can't help but analyze both stories using juxtaposition. Above, for example, is comprised of two or three main characters, and the conflict works on an abstract level (i.e. we never witness first-hand the consequences of the character's actions). Below, on the other hand, has a relatively large cast, and conflict is gritty and personal.

    What's common with both narratives however is the strength of their writing. The characters are three dimensional and complex; in fact, much of the conflict stems from the inner turmoil of the characters in their respective stories. The cosmology is rich and layered--to the point that it echoes current concerns whether it's colonialism, imperialism, war, etc.--but both authors aren't lazy when it comes to introducing the world to us. There is no infodump and instead, readers are guided through context clues and organic narration. Above/Below is also the product of compelling writing as the action is upbeat and tension is constant. There was never a moment where I felt I could tear myself away from the book, nor is there wasted space.

    Together, the narratives show us the bigger picture but never leads us to a definite answer as to who the moral victor is. In fact, one could jump to easy conclusions at the end of each narrative, but when you take both stories into consideration, we create this space for ambiguity and debate. 

    The book also includes "special features" to supplement each narrative. They're not essential reading by any means but enrich the setting.

    One of the questions I'm asked when it comes to the craft of writing and speculative fiction is whether the genre has done anything new or remarkably different. Most of the time, I have no valid reply. A short story is a short story after all, irregardless of genre. It's not everyday after all that we come across a book like The Griffin and Sabine trilogy or City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris in which the medium or the storytelling technique changes everything. Above/Below is one such book and I say that not just because of the format but due to the quality of the writing as well. While short and immediate, one could spend a long time analyzing the book, poring over the details, debating the politics of the setting, and analyzing the nuances of Campisi and Peek's technique. They're compelling novelettes in their own right but together, a must-read novel for any reader--genre or otherwise--and is easily one of my favorites for 2011.