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Aaaand I’m back on the blog treadmill after a festive break that ended up being a bit longer than intended. Busy, you know. Holidaying, working, thinking up new stuff. Got plans and hopes for 2014 – as I hope you all do, too! – but more on that another time.

Holidays mean holidaying, of course, but they also mean reading and watching, especially over Xmas/New Year. So here’s a quick summary of how some of my time got itself occupied while I’ve been keeping a low profile round here.

Reading first.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, is something I got to later than most other folks with an interest in this kind of stuff, but courtesy of a well-judged Christmas present, I read it in the last week of December. Fascinating, for those of you with a longing to see what was wriggling under the rock of all those superhero comics that overtook the medium in the US in the second half of the last century. The lasting impression I’ll take away is of a company, and to some extent an industry, that was winging it most of the time, populated by big, often abrasive personalities, riding momentum without the time or inclination to pay much attention to what – or who – got trampled along the way. It’s kind of a feverish vision, but I’m glad to report it hasn’t put me off the idea of dipping my own toes into the comics waters.

Then, Stealing Light, by Gary Gibson. Got this on kind of an impulse, because the e-book happened to be (and still is) ‘competitively’ priced one day when I was browsing for an impulse buy. No regrets: a fun, accessible space opera, the first of a series, featuring engaging alien masterminds, bonkers human cultures, an interesting and sympathetic heroine, and a narrative that increases the scale of the action and concepts as it goes along. I’ll be giving part 2 a try at some point (which I guess = job done, competitive pricing).

And here’s an oddity, which I include to illustrate the randomness of some of my interests. River Monsters, by Jeremy Wade. The book of the TV series, in which Mr. Wade goes to remote places and catches large, dangerous freshwater fish. I’m a long-standing fan of the TV version. It combines lots of my interests – wildlife, unusual travel, fishing (yes, believe it or not I used to go fishing now and again in my youth, but no longer) – and I find both the TV and the book refreshingly different and novel, compared to most natural history stuff.

Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I’ve heard of a lot more animals than most folks (being a naturalist/conservationist by inclination, education and past employment) but even I’d never heard of a Goliath tigerfish until Mr. Wade introduced me to it; and if you’ve not seen it’s teeth, well … check them out. Most surprisingly interesting bit of the River Monsters book, in a way, is the stuff about Jeremy Wade himself. Guy has issues – it’s not only aquatic monsters he has to deal with – and he’s pretty frank about discussing them.

On to the watching.

We’re experimenting with Netflix UK in the Ruckley household. As far as I can tell, the selection of stuff available on Netflix UK kind of sucks compared to what’s evidently available on the US service. But it’s easy and convenient and efficient and there’s still quite a lot of stuff on there. It’s meant I’ve watched more movies in the last month or so than in the preceding three or four at least.

For example: I re-watched Thor (the first one) and Captain America. That firmed up my initial impression: I much prefer Thor as a movie and a spectacle. Did reinvigorate my interest in seeing the imminent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though. Hot tip here, if you haven’t already heard: there’s rumours floating around the internet, from people who should know roughly what they’re talking about, that Winter Soldier is going to be something a little bit special. As in, seriously good film. Wouldn’t surprise me, because I really, really liked the trailer.

I also re-watched, after years, Funeral in Berlin, the second Harry Palmer film. Michael Caine doing much darker, grimier, more realistic version of James Bond. They made three of these films back in the 60s (and crappy sequels much later, which are best ignored), and I like them all. Caine does tremendously under-stated yet magically charismatic and kind of sexy stuff here, working with a nice script. They just don’t make films like they used to, do they? You should check them out, if the idea of the young Michael Caine doing this kind of thing appeals:

And I watched, for the first time, Battle Royale. Holy cow. That, let me tell you, is … different. Difficult to explain just how fascinating I find it, beyond saying that just as I’m captivated by the strange things manga offers that Western comics don’t, so Battle Royale is not quite like anything I’ve ever seen in any US/European production. The sensibility, the preoccupations, the humour, the hyper-acting. The wonderful composition of some of the images. The bonkers violence. It’s kind of unique, and feels very, very Japanese. Extraordinary. Not sure what else I can say about it, really.

Oh, I know what else I could say: It’s crying out to be watched in a double bill with Lord of the Flies.

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A couple of recent developments that I guess if I was obsessively on the ball about this kind of stuff, I might be able to offer a bit more info on what, if anything, they mean in practice.  But I’m not (on the ball, I mean); not in the way I used to be a few years ago, anyway.  But developments they are, nonetheless.

Historic regional divisions of the world, that put restrictions on what kind of e-books publishers could sell where, have been a bugbear of authors, publishers and readers alike since the whole ‘books don’t have to be paper and ink’ idea took off.  I’ve certainly had an occasional e-mail from folks complaining about their difficulty in getting hold of e-versions of my books in various parts of the world.  Maybe that’s changing, since it appears my publisher is finally going to be actively selling English language e-books everywhere, to anyone.

A press releasey type summary of the changes is over here, but the bottom line if I understand what’s happening correctly (never 100% garuanteed, I confess) is that before too long, if you want to buy an English language version of any of my books in digital form, you will be able to do so.  Wherever in the world you are.  That, if it works as seems to be intended, will be a v. good thing, if you ask me.  All the territorial restrictions inherited from a paper past never made a lick of sense, once e-books became an actual thing.

The other development, which came as a bit of a surprise, is that Piper, who hold the German translation rights to my Godless World trilogy, have – after a veeeery long delay – put out a mass market paperback version of Winterbirth (or Winterwende as it’s known over there).  As evidence, I can offer this Amazon.de link.  Does this mean German editions of the subsequent books in the trilogy might be forthcoming?  I’ve no idea, to be honest.  Like most such things, it’s no doubt sales dependent so if you or anyone you know speak German, can I humbly suggest this might be a suitable Christmas present perhaps?

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A few miscellaneous bits. Starting with by far the most important thing, the minor frustrations of my life. Because that’s what really matters, right?

So, I’m going to talk to some students on the MLitt course at Stirling University today. Enthuse or dispirit them on the subject of the life of a published author; could go either way, I suspect. Naturally, given that appointment, today’s the day I wake up with a sore throat, cough and general feeling of mild grottiness. Typical. Harrumph. Does it affect the odds of the enthuse or dispirit outcome? Time will tell.

Raising my eyes (reluctantly) from my own travails, I see B&N is heading into turbulent waters. Looks like those hoping the Nook might save them from a slow fade into history might be disappointed. And for reasons that are mysterious to me, it seems the founder wants to break up the company, taking over the the bookselling bit and cutting adrift the digital/Nook bit. It all looks very much like decline to me, terminal or otherwise. Given they’ve already said they’re going to be closing stores, it’s the slow-motion chewing up of a formerly strong but now very definitely fragile company. I’m kind of sceptical, to put it extremely mildly, much of it’s going to be left intact by the time the mastication is over.

Creative destruction’s all very well, but the future of writing, publishing, selling and reading books does not look a hugely appealing place to me these days. Quasi-monopolistic dictatorships are rarely pretty. We’re all going to have to live there, though, so might as well try to make the best of it.  Enjoy your nearest bricks and mortar bookstore while you can.

And here’s The Miniature Earth. What the world would look like, numbers-wise, if it was a village of 100 souls. Not a great deal that’s hugely surprising, but it’s kind of interesting, and elegantly done.

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As previously noted, I’ve developed a minor fixation with finding interesting, good value stuff lurking in the recesses of the Kindle store since I acquired the e-reading habit.

Here’s an update on recent discoveries.  As before, these are treasures found in the UK Kindle store, which may or may not be similarly keenly-priced in the US (but probably are, I’d guess).

Having read and enjoyed Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi, I grabbed his Hardwired for a fairly modest £3.25.  It’s a cyberpunkish novel from 1986, and it’s good fun.  Didn’t wow me quite as much as Aristoi, but well worth the read.  The basic set-up, of a rather anarchic, balkanised Earth left behind by the all-powerful corporations who have relocated into orbit, is very strong, and a lot of the action sequences are done well.  Recommended.

Shadow Unit (currently a mere £0.72 for the first volume, rising to less than £2 for subsequent instalments) is utterly fascinating, and something that could only really be done through digital publishing, I suspect.  A team of authors, led by Emma Bull and in the first volume including Will Shetterly, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, got together to produce tales of an elite team of FBI detectives who work on paranormal cases.  It’s a deliberate, meticulous attempt to reproduce the effect of a TV series in prose, and I was downright startled by how successful it is in that.  It borrows its structure and tropes straight from serialised crime drama, and is so absurdly perfect in mimicing the tone and feel that it’s almost disorientating.  Very, very clever.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online short story magazine, and probably my favourite source of podcast fantasy fiction.  Although the stories are enormously varied, it’s got a definite house style: high quality prose telling tales that are set in imaginary worlds and have definite beginning, middle and ends.  No ‘mood’ or snapshot pieces, on the whole; just well-told, imaginative stories in which stuff happens.  So although I haven’t read them all, I feel pretty confident in predicting that The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One, which contains fourteen stories for just £1.53, will be a safe purchase offering excellent value.

Leaving speculative fiction behind, here’s an example of the kind of thing I would never have stumbled across but for the advent of e-reading. Crossfire: An Australian Reconnaissance Unit in Vietnam is currently priced at £1.79, and worth checking out for anyone interested in getting another, subtly different angle on that whole messy war.  It’s main focus is on the experiences of a young man who had the misfortune to spend a lot of time, along with a small, tight-knit group of colleagues, doing advance reconnaissance in southern Vietnam.  The writing is competent, if unremarkable, and there’s not much that’s really revelatory, but it’s quite effective in conveying the day-to-day horrors and tedium of that kind of combat.  I was particularly struck by the horrific effect, both phsycial and psychological, of the ubiquitous mines and booby traps, which was eerily reminiscent of more recent and equally messy conflicts.

And finally, a freebie.  For the low, low price of absolutely nothing, you can get South, the amazing story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition to Antarctica, written by the man himself.  Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to say things go fairly spectacularly wrong for the expedition, and it becomes a tale of understated but nonetheless astonishing endurance and survival.  Adventuring and heroism from a bygone age.

 

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As previously noted, my Kindle and I are engaged in a mental tussle over the question of how much I should pay for an e-book.  In truth, only one of the factors mentioned in that post really affects my behaviour: the bottom line is that e-books don’t currently meet enough of my personal criteria for permanent, irrevocable, unconstrained and secure ‘ownership’ to make me enthusiastic about spending big chunks of my limited book budget on them.

That said, I’m enjoying reading stuff on the Kindle, and I continue to find the technology (hardware more than software) terrifically engaging and statisfying.  So I definitely want to use the thing, even if I don’t want to spend too much cash to do so.  Not a problem.  Bargains abound in e-book world.

The problem is finding them. It takes a bit of work, or luck, to excavate treasure.  There’s a distinct lack of reliable signposts to structure your explorations.

Here are a few of the treasures I’ve found so far, all available at the time of writing in the UK Kindle Store for less than the entirely arbirtray figure of £4.  (Can’t speak to the prices in the US Kindle Store, although the one or two I’ve cross-checked are pretty aggressively priced over there too).

Frankenstein will cost you not one penny, and as I’d call it one of the best sf books ever written that looks like a bargain.  I know some people struggle with the antiquated structure and pacing and language – which is fair enough; it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste – but to me that’s surface.  What lies beneath is, if you ask me, a work of visionary genius that puts much of the sf published in the subsequent 200 years to shame.

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams is the most fun I’ve had on my Kindle since I got the thing, and it cost me just £3.21. It’s far future sf set in a hierarchical human society of nanotech, gene therapy, virtual realities and many other wonders. It’s not what you’d call action-packed – although when face-to-face violence does take place it’s lengthily detailed – and the reader’s not exactly spoon-fed everything about the setting or characters, but I found it pretty engaging. Williams explores the world, both outer and inner, of his human demi-gods with smooth writing and an open mind. It’s kind of like a less democratic, less AI-heavy version of Iain Banks’ Culture, with more ambiguity about the pros and cons of such a society. And the best thing is, there’s plenty more modestly priced WJW e-stuff available for follow-up.

The Hunger Games will currently cost you a modest £2.70.  Now, I’ve not read it, so what am I doing pointing it out?  Well, I’ve bought it for future consumption because, just as Frankenstein marks the origins of the sf genre, this marks its current apogee in terms of cultural ubiquity and popularity.  I’m naturally curious about one of the most successful books the genre has ever produced, and here it is at a bargain price.

Unpossible by Daryl Gregory just sneaks in beneath the cost ceiling I’ve imposed for this post at £3.97.  It’s a short story collection, and an eclectic one at that.  All speculative fiction, from what I’ve read of it so far, but encompassing a wide range beneath that heading.  The tone varies almost as much as the genres do, from the decidedly dark to the wryly humourous to the fabulistic.  All of it’s done with considerable style and wit and polish, though.

I mentioned the (free) Lost World in my last post, so can’t resist pointing out you can also get as much Sherlock Holmes as you could ever possibly want for prices varying from nothing to all of £0.77 for a properly e-bookized collection of the whole canon.

Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offers a free digest edition, comprising one short story and all its non-fiction content (reviews, commentary etc.) delivered automatically to your reader every other month.  It’s a tempter for a full subscription, of course, (which only costs a couple of £ per issue, I think) but that’s no bad thing since it means they select a high quality story for inclusion.

Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1 I include here because it’s kind of what e-book shopping should be all about, isn’t it?  The chance to discover something unexpected, unfamiliar and to broaden your horizons.  It offers fifteen short stories for just £0.77, and from the (relatively little) I’ve read of it so far it would be a bargain at twice, or three times, the price.  As with the Gregory collection, the stories are diverse in genre and tone.

And finally, another e-item I haven’t actually read yet, but which also seems to me to illustrate some of what the e-publishing thing should be all about.  The Desert of Souls, an Arabian historical fantasy by Howard Andrew Jones has been getting seriously excited reviews since it was published last year, and I look forward to (probably) reading it.  But first, I’m going to read The Waters of Eternity, a set of six short stories featuring the same characters and setting as that novel, which I bought for just £1.52.  A perfect way to sample the milieu at no great financial risk, and if I like it, a pretty much guaranteed sale of the novel.  Whether you’ve already read and enjoyed The Desert of Souls, or if – like me – you’re just curious, what could be better?

(And I feel compelled to point out that while my own most recent modest contribution to world literature, The Edinburgh Dead, doesn’t quite squeeze under the arbitrary £4 price point, at just £4.49 for the Kindle edition it is, I can absolutely assure you, excellent value.)

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I’ll have more to say at some point about the bargains (real and illusory) available in ebook world, now that I’ve had some time to poke around in the unregulated, mapless swamp that is the Kindle Store.  But to jump the gun, I’ve just finished (re-)reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which cost me all of nothing.

This is a book that comes with a certain vague nostalgia attached for me.  I read it, and I think perhaps saw the not very good 1960 movie adaptation, at a young and impressionable age (certainly long before the cultural zeitgeist had a chance to teach me that Sherlock Holmes was Doyle’s only consequential creation).

The impression it made on impressionable me back then was of vivid adventure; so much so that I’ve got a feeling – impossible to absolutely confirm, given my hazy memory – that I produced my own fanfic set on the dinosaur-infested plateau.  Possibly even illustrated, since I didn’t realise until I was into my teens that the kindest thing I could for the world was to refrain from inflicting my art upon it.

Anyway, what did I make of The Lost World now that I’m a jaded, cyncial grown-up?  I had quite a bit of fun, that’s what.

Like a lot of old novels – this one appeared in 1912, I believe – it’s almost comically out of synch with what we’d call good prose writing these days.  It takes a ludicrous number of pages to get our heroes out of London, let alone up onto the famed plateau, and once there the narrative suddenly becomes frantic, cramming plot developments in one on top of another with relatively little regard for their plausibility.

The sexual, racial and environmental assumptions underlying the text are … not exactly attuned to mainstream 21st century thinking, to say the least.  (I found it oddly entertaining, as something of a conservationist by education and background, the way exploration and research in the novel – and at the time of its writing – revolve principally around shooting everything.  It’s a real taste of a different kind of lost world, and one that has an element of appeal in its certainties and privileges and ambitions.).  One of the central threads of the plot even sees our heroes participating enthusiastically in what might nowadays be seen as at best environmental sin of the highest order, and at worst something approximating to geoncide.

The science of the whole thing is utterly implausible in modern terms, unsurprisingly.  I imagine it seemed a good deal more believeable to its contemporary audience, and the lengthy scene-setting and character introductions at the start of the book were presumably intended to root the thing in the real world, and thereby render the speculations to come even more credible.  That said, the plot has plenty of hand-waving, and if you’re the kind of reader inclined to ask questions, most of them will be of the ‘… huh?’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ variety.

For all these potential barriers to enjoyment that the modern reader faces, though, The Lost World has plenty going for it.  Parts are really quite well and evocatively written; certainly better than Doyle’s early Holmes stories imho.

Professor Challenger, whose titanic, hubristic vision is the driving force behind the plot, is a wonderful creation.  Bombastic, rude, self-absorbed and arguably sociopathic; he’s great fun, and Doyle knows it.  I’d entirely forgotten quite how consistent, funny and thorough his writing of Challenger is.  Personally, I could have done with rather more Challenger stories and rather fewer Holmes, but that’s just me.

I had also forgotten that it’s a kind of epistolatory novel, the entire tale told through letters/article submitted by a journalist to his editor.  It may be entirely coincidental, but given that Frankenstein‘s got major epistolatory elements, and Dracula‘s epistolatory through and through, I wonder if these early writers of spec fic were deliberately using the form to enhance the illusion of reality in their tales.  Perhaps in the 19th and early 20th century ‘documents’ – letters, article, reports, whatever – were more likely to be unconsciously interpreted by the reader as having some kind of intrinsic authority, which they lent to the fantastical events being narrated.  Now, we live in an age of uncertainty and doubt, and are programmed to take nothing at face value.

Above all, I was sucked in by the sheer bravado and ambition of Doyle’s imagination.  At a time long before speculative fiction was the culturally ubiquitous commercial juggernaut of today, here he is spinning a wild tale of adventurers and dinosaurs and apemen in the Amazon; conjuring up visions that must have seemed truly extraordinary to his first readers, and still have the power to excite.

As I said, I don’t think the 1960 film version of The Lost World has very much to offer the modern viewer.  (An aside: whatever our misgivings about CG effects in movies, and I have a few, we should all rejoice unconditionally in the knowledge that the age of adorning real lizards with spurious horns and frills and filming them in close up to pretend that they’re dinosaurs is gone forever.  There can have been few more aesthetically disastrous and reptile-demeaning dead-ends in the evolution of sf cinema.).

So here, instead, is the 1925 silent version in its entirety.  Yes, book to big screen adaptation in just 13 years; even back then, the Hollywood blockbuster machine liked its ideas second-hand.

Like the novel, it takes quite a while to get going, but the dinosaur model animations are terrific, given that it was done almost 90 years ago, and the cast all look just right for their parts and for the time.  It also, arguably, has a better ending than the novel, and one that perfectly prefigures – and to some extent probably directly inspired – the modern obsession with monster-initiated urban destruction on the silver screen.

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So, I finally took the plunge a while back and joined the ranks of the e-reader army.

Kindle 4 (i.e. no keyboard, wi-fi only).

And sure enough, it changed my mind. Not in the sense that it substantially changed my opinion about anything to do with e-books etc. No, it changed – or at least is trying to change – my thought processes; my perceptions.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but first: do I like my Kindle?

Sure I do.  It’s a clever, effective bit of kit that does one thing – sell, deliver and display text for on-screen consumption – jolly well.  It’s what my parents, and hence I, would tend to call, approvingly, A Thing of Purpose.  It’s got a job to do, and it does it well.

And also: do I feel good about becoming a Kindle-owner?

Huh. What kind of a dumb question is that? Not quite as dumb as it sounds, if you were privy to my inner thoughts. Which approximate to: Amazon is not my friend. Neither as a reader nor a writer should I fall into the trap of imagining that Amazon is ‘on my side’. Amazon is on but one side, and that is its own. Charles Stross articulates my thoughts better than I could, right here.  Worth reading, especially if you’re under the illusion that the word ‘altriusm’ appears anywhere on Amazon’s agenda.

So, to rephrase, do I feel good about contributing, in my own entirely minuscule way, to Amazon’s advance towards monopoly and monopsony?  No, not especially.

But here’s the thing.  Amazon is going to determine – far more than any other single player – what the short and possibly medium term futures of the e-book look like.  I’m a writer, so I have a certain financial, creative and personal stake in this game.  So I got a Kindle, because I want to see what the biggest player and rule-maker is doing, how they’re doing it and how their system works.

I’ll probably do another post some time about what I actually make of some of the content I’ve loaded onto my Precious … ah, excuse me … my Kindle, and how I feel about the reading experience, but for now let’s just consider What my Kindle is doing to my brain.

It’s re-wiring it, that’s what.  It’s attempting to change my perceptions of what a book is, and what the value of a book is.  The second, unsurpisingly, is the interesting bit for me as an author.

Essentially, as I bimbled about online, wading through the swamps of the Kindle store, anything over £3 or £4 started looking expensive.  Now, I don’t actually believe that to be an entirely sensible conclusion to reach but nevertheless, for a whole load of reasons, I could all but feel the notion trying to take root in my brain.  Just a few of those reasons (not all of which I necessarily think are valid, but they were all there, feeding my unconscious thought processes):

  • There is no physical object for me to indisputably, irrevocably own on a permanent, unconstrained and transferable basis.  Without those fundamental components of ‘ownership’ I should not be expected to pay so much.
  • There is no physical object that has cost someone money to create.  Without those sunk costs, I should not be expected to pay so much.
  • There is a vast array of free or very cheap material on offer in the Kindle store; by comparison with it, more ‘traditionally’ priced items automatically start to appear expensive.
  • A virtual text feels inherently less consequential, considered and substantial (and therefore less valuable) than one that has been given physical form.
  • It’s sometimes hard to tell how long a text you’re being asked to pay for is, and there’s therefore a temptation to err on the side of caution when considering its value.
  • I don’t pay over £3 or £4 for hardly anything non-physical I acquire for entertainment purposes online (e.g. apps, renting a movie), indeed I pay nothing for a lot of it (e.g. podcasts, on-demand TV).

I could go on, but you get the idea.

To reiterate, I don’t think all of these kind of thoughts are either rational or reasonable, but that some part of my brain was busily processing them, out of the reach of my internal oversight, is indisputable.

It may be just me, of course.  I doubt it, though.  I fear I might be getting a glimpse of the future, just by peering into the muddy recesses of my own little head. And that future is cheap, but not necessarily in a good way.

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Because you can never have too many links, right?  And they don’t even all have to be about me … though some of them are, of course.

Let’s flag a couple of reviews of The Edinburgh Dead, first.

Neth Space likes it ( ‘a very good historical gothic mystery horror urban supernatural thriller’ !)

So does Civilian Reader ( ‘a superb, slow-burning horror suspense. Very highly recommended.’ !)

Come to that, so do the folks at RT Book reviews, who’ve got it listed as a nominee in the Fantasy category for their annual awards.  That’s nice, don’t you think?

And here’s something that tickles me.  As regular visitors here may have noticed, I’m a big, big podcast fan, so it’s particularly nice to be able to report my own podcast debut.  It has to be said, life is full of small lessons in humility, and one of them for me is hearing my own voice as others do: never fails to chip away at my self-image.  I did have a bit of a head cold at the time of recording (fully congealed sinuses, if you must know), but sadly I have a feeling I always sound much like this.  Ho hum.

Anyway, of all the places I thought I might end up talking about one of my books, the venue for my first podcast appearance wasn’t one of them, but it was a jolly pleasant experience: the National Review’s Between the Covers podcast.  You do, of course, come away from a quick, unedited interview like that with your brain buzzing with all the things you should have said and didn’t, but I don’t think I said anything that invites legal action or anything, so that counts as some sort of success in my book.

I’m also interviewed, in the more traditional text form, over at the aforementioned Civilian Reader.

Now, on to some less self-serving content netted out of the great ocean that is the internet.

First, two podcasts of possible interest to those, like me, with a near-limitless appetite for learning more about history:

The Seige of Tenochtitlan got talked about on BBC radio’s In Our Time programme recently – available on BBC iplayer here, or you can probably find a downloadable version in this list.  Difficult to think of a more extreme example of clashing cultures in all of human history, really …

And Max Hastings talks at some length about the Second World War on the BBC History magazine podcast – direct link to audio here, or find it in the list here (it’s the 21st October edition).  I found it interesting mostly because he concentrates on some of the details that often get overlooked or ignored in discussions about the war (like how many Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed … i.e. a very, very large number).

And now one of the most remarakble demonstrations of fan dedication and craftsmanship I’ve ever encountered.   The ultimate Star Wars documentary, in that you get to watch the film while simultaneously getting deluged with background information, annotations, creator interviews etc. etc.  Very, very clever and entertaining, and all the more remarkable because the same fan has done the same thing for Empire Strikes Back and Jedi.  Here, for your viewing pleasure, then, is Star Wars – all of it! – as you’ve never seen or heard it before.

I mean, seriously: that almost justifies the entire existence of the internet by itself, doesn’t it?

But let’s end on a less cheery note and dip our toes into the muddy waters of the impending bookpocalypse.  It’s mesmerizing, watching the turmoil into which the whole publishing industry is descending bit by bit.  Here’s two markers along the way to wherever it is we’re heading that caught my notice recently:

Ewan Morrison asking Are books dead, and can authors survive?  The answer to the first bit of that is clearly Not Yet.  Print books are clearly going to fade into a niche, but e-books aren’t going to be dying any time soon.  The answer to the second bit, I’m not so sure about.  The folks who sell really, really big numbers of their books are going to be just fine, of course.  The rest of us?  Actually: maybe not.

The picture Morrison paints is the worst case scenario, and I can’t really buy into it unreservedly, but … but … there are more than enough folk out there around the internet hailing the digital revolution as the best thing since sliced bread, and I increasingly find myself inclining towards a much darker prognosis, not only for publishers (turmoil hardly covers what they’re looking at) and writers (I strongly suspect if – like me – you’re not a bestseller, things are about to get uncomfortable, to say the least) but also for readers (be careful what you wish for … low prices and an explosion in self-publishing don’t come without consequences).

And Amazon continues to hammer away at the chances of anyone but them making money out of the book business.  Including authors, which is the bit that bugs me, obviously.  A lending programme for e-books might sound like a nifty idea to owners of Kindles, but it sounds like the tolling of a funereal bell to me.

The weird thing is, there’s so much going on that looks at best inadvisable and at worst potentially disastrous if, like me, you value the work of writers and the survival of a diverse and high quality output of books, and yet … I can’t think of a single thing anyone involved could do, or is likely to, that would change the outcome.  Pretty much everyone is coming at this from the point of view of their own individual best interest (personal or corporate), and that’s entirely reasonable and justifiable when looked at at the level of each specific decision, but the overall effect, seen in big picture terms, is … well, alarming just about covers it, I guess.

So, I had the pleasure of spending something in excess of ten hours as a guest of our splendid rail service over the weekend. Close to two hours more than I was supposed to spend, but that’s what happens when points and signals fail on a weekend.  I like travelling by train, as it happens, but only when they’re moving.  As soon as a train stops for longer than it’s supposed to, well then the anxiety starts.  If it’s stationary for long enough, the whole experience becomes a sort of slow existential torture as you powerlessly watch the minutes of your life tick by.

Anyway, both while the trains (two journeys involved) were moving and not, I occupied myself with some entirely unscientific surveying of the state of the written word in modern times.  Which is to say, I walked up and down the carriages being nosy about what people were reading.  Or more to the point, how they were reading what they were reading.  Now the sample size wasn’t very big, because I was only moving on a relatively short route from seat – buffet car – seat – toilet – seat etc.  You get the idea.  But I found it all mildly interesting nevertheless, even though my findings were … unremarkable.

I saw something like ten people reading actual books, of the ink on paper sort.  (None of them speculative fiction, as far as I could tell, but that’s neither here nor there).

I saw three people reading from Kindles.

I saw no one reading prose from any other electronic device (i.e. no tablets, Sony e-readers, whatever).

I saw more people than I could reasonably count doing one or more of the following: listening to mp3 players, fiddling about with laptops/netbooks, peering inscrutably at their mobile phones, and reading newspapers or maagzines.

I saw more people sleeping than reading books, whether of the paper or e- kind.  But I don’t blame them for that.  I did the same thing, when not marching purposefully up and down.

The sample size, for those who care about such things, was … oh, I have no idea.  I did say this was entirely unscientific, didn’t I?  Probably two or three hundred all together.

Not being bonkers, I don’t read anything much into these observations, beyond the degree to which they conform to my subjective impressions of where things are, and where they are going.

This is certainly the first time I’ve really noticed the e-reading contingent as a significant chunk of what was going on.  It’s also, I’m fairly sure, a much smaller number of people reading paper and ink books than would have been the case until really very recently.  That’s not down to the arrival of e-books so much as the ubiquity of mp3 players, wifi connections, cheap laptops/netbooks and phones that can and will do everything up to and including sing you a lullaby to send you off into a snooze.

In fact, on reflection I find it mildly surprising that  reading long form prose hasn’t already collapsed as a leisure habit under the onslaught of all these recently appeared alternative uses for what is allegedly our ever more pressurised free time.  I can only think that novels offer a distinct kind of pleasure that makes their appeal at least a little resistant to erosion.  There are (just) enough people who find something uniquely enjoyable about reading a book (and I’m talking both paper and e-books here) that they continue to prioritise it over all the other multitude of entertainment choices available to those stuck on a train.

Another completely non-revelatory truth on show in those carriages: Amazon owns the digital book space.  The Kindle outscored every other means of reading a book digitally 3-0.  Whatever the extent of the digital future for books (pretty enormous, I think everyone now agrees) it belongs, for the time being, to Amazon.

This is, to my way of thinking, Not a Good Thing, but I also think littering, global warming and sloppily privatized railway systems are Not Good Things and my disapproval doesn’t seem to have done much to stop them happening so … I’ve got nothing in particular against Amazon, I’m just not a big fan of quasi-monopolistic dominance of any industry.  This, for example, wouldn’t alarm me nearly so much as it does if it was being proposed by a pushy new upstart company rather than the Amazon-squid leviathan that already has a suckered arm scrabbling for a strangehold on every single element of the book publishing-distribution-retailing system.

What will I see when I’m stuck on an unmoving train four or five years hence? (And I surely will be, since there are few harder things to sort out than a sloppily privatized and horribly under-invested railway system).  Safe in the knowledge that no one will remember them when the time comes to call me to account, I am prepared to make bold and decisive predictions.  Here we go …

There will be at most one or two people reading paper books.  Possibly none, though I’d be mildly surprised if it happens quite that quickly.

There will be at least five or six people reading e-books, and at least half of them will be doing so on some iteration of the Kindle.

Even more people than the ‘more I could reasonably count’ I saw this time will be messing about in some non-book-related way with electronic devices.  Most of them will be smart phones.  Some will be tablets.  Some will be laptops.  None, or a close approximation thereof, will be netbooks.

At least 5% of those people will be doing something I – and indeed most of us – haven’t yet thought of with their electronic devices.  Knitting or something.  I don’t know; that’s the whole point.

There will be a dozen or so people reading hard-copy newspapers or magazines.  Less than today, but not extinct.

There will still be more people asleep than reading a book.  Because that, my friends, is just the way things always have been and always will be.  Probably.

Alert readers will notice that I’m predicting a potentially non-trivial decline in the total number of people reading books, irrespective of delivery system.  That’s one bit of my predictions I don’t feel entirely bold and decisive about, but I can certainly construct a vaguely plausible argument for ending up in that state.  Here’s hoping I’m wrong, eh?

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I’m not what you’d call an unconditional fan of the migration of book sales away from high street bookstores into the online or digital realms, as I’ve mentioned here before, but I’m also no great fan of the King Canute approach to life, sitting around on a beach shouting at the insensate tide in a pointless effort to halt its approach.  The cold calculations of economically wobbly times, and of convenience and ease, add up to a pretty powerful tidal force.

The pricing of books, both hard copy and digital, is a hot topic these days, and one that’s going to remain in flux for quite a time yet.  In the last week or two, I noticed a couple of price-related items online that I thought they might be of interest to one or two others.

First, The Book Depository is offering 10% off every purchase until the end of this month.  That’s on top of already pretty aggressive discounts, and free shipping on all orders, whatever their size, worldwide.  (Yes, free shipping worldwide.  I have no idea how they make money on this model, but apparently they do).  I mention this for two reasons.  First, The Book Depository is already often cheaper than Amazon UK for any given title (always cheaper for graphic novels, for some reason, which is what I mostly buy from them) so this adds up to a pretty spectacular deal for the next week or so.  Second, if we are going to gradually lose our high street bookstores, it would be nice if there was at least some competition in the online sale of hard copy books – it’s a bit of a mystery to me why The Book Depository isn’t already better known as, at least in the UK, a lively competitor to Amazon, so I thought I’d do my negligible little bit to point out that there is such a thing as choice in your selection of online vendor.

Second, The Book Depository is not always cheaper than Amazon UK.  Witness The Edinburgh DeadAt the time of writing, Amazon UK is offering my next book, due out in August, at the pre-order price of £4.34.  That’s a 46% discount on the cover price.  Within spitting difference of half price.  A real book you can hold in your hands, never be parted from by DRM or vendor collapse, and lend to your friends if you so desire, for not much more than £4.  Now by all means, feel free to rush over there and pre-order the thing – I’d be nothing but delighted if folk do take advantage of the opportunity to get their orders in early – but I can’t help but think what a funny old world we live in.  At that kind of price, Amazon can’t be exactly rolling in profit on each copy sold (to put it mildly).  What chance do the high street bookstores possibly have?  I mean, if I hadn’t already read the thing, I’d be first in line to get my order in, never mind my nostalgic affection for the bricks and mortar booksellers.  Money talks, in the end.  It always does.

(As an aside, in light of the constant, tumultuous debate – that’s the politest way of describing it – over the pricing of e-books, I noticed that on Amazon UK, the Kindle editions of all three of the Godless World books are, by non-trivial amounts, the cheapest versions availableAll are priced at £4.99, with the hard copy editions somewhere between £5 and £6.  That’s not an unfair price for an e-book, I’d say, but there are powerful forces that could yet drive that price a good deal lower and if they do, something – quite possibly several somethings – is going to have to give in the great author-agent-publisher-seller merry-go-round that has dominated the book business for a long time now.  No bad thing, you might say.  Maybe.  We’ll see …)

On a more cheery note, but still in the spirit of public service, here’s the most useful thing I’ve learned from the internet in the last month or so (it really is, and I’m not sure whether that says more about me or the internet):

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