(Ob. disclaimer before I start — I know Philip Purser-Hallard, he’s an internet friend, and he’s commissioned me to write for an anthology he’s editing. However, I got to know him because he’s a favourite writer of mine, not the other way round, so I don’t think my judgement of his work is biased.)
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or, at least, judge it by a very small part of the cover.
The Pendragon Protocol’s cover design looks like a “dad book” — the top of the book is a Union Jack, fading into a sword on top of some esoteric symbols, with a London cityscape underneath and the title written on top in runic-looking lettering. Looking at just the cover art, this looks like equal parts Dan Brown and Sven Hassel, with a little bit of Michael Dobbs or Jeffrey Archer thrown in. It’s the kind of cover art that instantly says “not for you” to me, and likely to many of the readers of my blog.
And indeed this is a book about a high-tech secret government department hiding secrets dating back millennia and fighting neo-Nazis, eco-terrorists, and serial killers at home and in Iraq, so anyone who bought the book on the strength of the cover art is not being misled.
Similarly, the blurb on the front talks about the book putting urban fantasy back where it belongs — and the book is, indeed, about the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, updated and set in contemporary London, so I suppose it is urban fantasy.
But the part of the cover by which you should pay attention to is the part which says “Philip Purser-Hallard”, because Philip Purser-Hallard is one of the two or three best science fiction and fantasy writers in the world today, and the only reason he’s not widely regarded as such is that all his published work so far has been in spin-offs of media licensed properties, usually published by small publishers for niche audiences. This is his first novel to be entirely outside other people’s continuities (though his work within those continuities has tended to involve him creating his own semi-detached areas anyway) and one hopes it will bring him to a far wider audience than his work has so far reached. Certainly it deserves to.
In this book, which is the first of a planned trilogy, but thankfully works perfectly well read alone, Purser-Hallard introduces the Circle, a covert-ish law enforcement body whose higher-ranking members take the insignia of the Knights of the Round Table, and by doing so gain near-magical powers (though everything in the book stays just this side of physical possibility). It’s explained that they don’t gain any supernatural abilities, just a clarity of focus and purpose, and a psychosomatic growth in strength and dexterity, which comes from letting these living ideas into their heads.
Part-meme, part-archetype, part-loa, the Devices let the people whose minds they live in perform feats which otherwise could only be performed by legendary figures, but they also affect the personality of their hosts, causing them to be drawn to re-enact elements of their originals’ stories, almost without realising it — and it’s not just people on the side of the law who have Devices. For every Gawain or Lancelot there’s a Green Knight or Mordred. But nobody is the villain in their own story…
While on the surface, then, this is a fantasy-cum-police-procedural-cum-conspiracy-thriller, it is in fact a novel of ideas, and a novel about ideas, in the most literal sense — about how ideologies shape us, about order and chaos, about storytelling and narratives, about Britain and the visions people have of it, about how winners write history, about class, the folk process, and about the very concept or authority.
In other words, once again Philip Purser-Hallard has, as he so often does, written a book that pushes so many of my intellectual buttons that it feels like reading a book I’ve written for myself — if, you know, I was a much, much better writer than I am. This is a book I’m going to be pushing people to read.
But it’s not a heavy, hard-going, book either. It’s a very straightforward, linear, exciting narrative full of swordfights, jokes, and hidden secret fortresses disguised as office buildings. It’s a book that’s pure story — the kind of thing people describe as a page-turner — and even for people who don’t care about the ideas, it has a lot to offer just in terms of keeping you reading to see what happens next. I can’t describe much of the plot without giving away a major revelation that comes at the half-way point (one I inadvertantly spoiled for myself by flicking to the back and looking at the list of sources in the acknowledgements, so don’t do that), but just as this is worth reading for those who want to be made to think, it has just as much to offer for those who prefer their books to feel like an action movie.
It’s not my favourite thing Purser-Hallard’s done — that would be either his wonderful short story De Umbris Idearum or his note-perfect Olaf Stapeldon pastiche in Peculiar Lives — but it’s by far his most accessible work, and the best in terms of pure storytelling. I can’t wait for books two and three in the series.
You can find out more about the Devices Trilogy at the series’ website.
I am getting more and more annoyed at self-publishers.
Before anyone gets confused, I self-publish myself. While the next book of mine to come out is likely to be through a traditional publisher (depending on Obverse Books’ publication schedules), I’ve published something like nine books myself, and plan to put out a couple more this year. I hope to be able to continue publishing books both by myself and through traditional publishers, as the project in question suits.
And I don’t think I’m some kind of special exception to the rule, and that everyone except me is rubbish. I own and enjoy self-published books by (off the top of my head, and no doubt missing some out) at least a dozen authors. My all-time favourite comic, Cerebus, was self-published, as was much of Eddie Campbell’s stuff. Sturgeon’s law applies to self-publishing as much as to anything else, but it does not mean that the other one percent isn’t worthwhile.
So my problem is not that people are publishing their own works, but rather that there is a pernicious culture around self-publishing, and it’s that culture which I would like to see gone before it does serious harm to the culture at large.
This manifests in two ways. The first, more common, but probably also more benign of these, is encountered pretty much everywhere that the topic of books comes up online. This is the person who says “the great thing about self-publishing is that it removes those elitist gatekeepers who stop great books getting to a mass audience. Some self-publishers have become millionaires — just look at Amanda Hocking/whatever the name of that Fifty Shades person is! Readers don’t care about things like typos and formatting, they just want a good story! Fuck The Man in the form of the big publishers! We don’t need the businessman in his suit and tie, with his quality control!”
(After my most recent encounters with one of these people, I went and had a look at the books he’d put up on Amazon. The free sample of the first one I checked started with a preface talking about how he’d written it during his GCSE English exam. I felt no need to read any further).
I have a lot of sympathy for these people, because I was one of them fifteen years ago, saying exactly the same things about the MP3 “revolution” and wondering why no-one was buying the pisspoor demos I’d recorded on my four-track tape recorder and uploaded to Mp3.com. They will either give up writing, or they’ll realise that things like reading through what you’ve written to make sure it’s in actual sentences are good ideas, and no-one will buy, or even see, the rubbish they shovel onto Amazon by the ton.
What I don’t like are those who act in effect as lobbyists for Amazon, the people who encourage this mindset. There is a group of people, mostly former mid-list thriller authors who’ve been published by the major publishing companies and built up a small fanbase, who have set themselves up as self-publishing gurus. They write short ebooks about how to make a million dollars a month on Amazon, constantly blog about the evils of the big publishers, and generally act as propagandists.
Several of the usual suspects recently released a “petition”, which I won’t link to but which has had media attention and received thousands of signatures, about the ongoing dispute between Hachette and Amazon.
Now, I don’t have any time for either party in that dispute, though I end up giving both a substantial fraction of my income. Hachette’s problem is largely of their own making — by enforcing DRM on their books, they’ve helped cement Amazon’s near-monopoly position — and when multi-billion-dollar multinationals fight I tend to want both to lose.
But the arguments in favour of Amazon are so disingenuous it’s almost unbelievable:
[Publishers] paid authors as little as possible, usually between 2% and 12.5% of the list price of a book.
Amazon, in contrast, trusts you to decide what to read, and they strive to keep the price you pay low. They allow all writers to publish on their platform, and they pay authors between 35% and 70% of the list price of the book.
Which is not so much comparing apples to oranges as comparing apples to an orange seed that’s been chewed up and spat out.
Publishers edit, proofread, clear intellectual property licenses where appropriate, do market research, create cover art and designs, typeset, produce a physical paper book as well as an ebook, and distribute those books into bookshops. And a chunk of the money in a book from a publisher also goes to the shops such as Amazon that sell them (and that “between 2% and 12.5%” is strictly true, but the 12.5% is a standard figure, while the 2% definitely isn’t…)
Amazon, meanwhile, have a form that lets you upload a file, and then they take between thirty and sixty-five per cent of whatever you charge for that file.
These two things are not the same.
(And incidentally, these authors are here talking about only ebooks in the latter category. When I self-publish a paperback book on Lulu.com and it gets sold through Amazon, I get between 94p and £1.50ish on a £10 book, depending on the number of pages. The average of 9.4% and 15% is 12.2%…)
Amazon, on the other hand, has built its reputation on valuing authors and readers dearly.
I know the Supreme Court in the US just ruled that businesses can have religions, but I have seen no sign of Amazon having any values. To the extent that publicly-held corporations can have values, they’re pretty much all psychopaths…
They go on to talk about Amazon’s dispute over costs as being Amazon standing up for the little guy…
Amazon have, thanks to publishers like Hachette’s short-sighted insistence on DRM, attained a near-monopoly on ebooks, having something like 80% of the market. They now want a monopsony as well — they have spent the last few years offering greater and greater incentives for self-published authors to pull their titles from all other vendors, while also making it easier for them to see other authors as competitors rather than colleagues, with things like their zero-sum KDP Select book-lending promotions.
If Amazon succeeds in its ultimate aim of cutting the publishers out of the loop, that doesn’t make things better for authors. Rather, it means that instead of those authors having several big customers and a large number of small ones, they will now only have one customer, Amazon, and if they lose that customer they will have no market at all. This is, incidentally, already the case with audiobooks, where Amazon owns the only publisher, Audible, with any significant market share.
Now, some of the more libertarian types may see this as a perfectly good thing — and this is the line often taken, “that’s capitalism, capitalism’s a good thing!” — but as I keep meaning to write in a post, capitalism is the enemy of the free market, not a synonym for it, and I far prefer markets to capitalism.
But the thing about these authors, of course, is that they’re paid shills, not people expressing an honest belief. It’s not a coincidence that many of the loudest voices praising Amazon’s self-publishing programs don’t actually use them themselves any more, but instead are published by Amazon Publishing, a subsidiary of Amazon that acts in every way like a traditional publisher — one of those “elitists” that “want to tell you what you should buy” — including editing, paying advances, and so forth. Authors for Amazon’s imprints, unsurprisingly, get a lot of publicity on the site itself, and at least some of them are getting very large advances.
What we have here are people who can see who the biggest bully is, and who are making sure they stay on the bully’s side, and are promoting Amazon’s cause for their own short-term gain, and damn the consequences for the culture.
Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing tool is a useful one. Their dealings with authors are, in my experience, relatively fair, and there are many authors for whom it’s a great option. My problem is that by trying to compare it to the totally different situation of traditional publishers, and by defending Amazon’s predatory practices against Hachette, these propagandists are trying to make it the only option, and that would be an unimaginable tragedy.
And they’re doing it while claiming to speak for self-published authors. Well, they don’t speak for me.
[NB this is a topic that often attracts rather heated debate. While I do moderate comments, please don't assume that if your comment didn't get posted that it was censored by The Man and try to post another twenty comments saying so. All comments on this blog by new commenters get held for moderation, and I won't have net access from Saturday morning til Sunday evening, so they won't get approved til then.]
My thoughts on the nominated novelettes:
The Lady Astronaut Of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal is a very touching story about lost possible futures, whether the futures we give up for others or the possible futures of science fiction that we no longer believe in. It’s written very much in the style of something that would have been published in Galaxy in the late 50s, but that’s part of the point.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang may be the best-written of anything I’ve read thus far from the Hugo Packet, but it leaves something of a bad taste in my mouth. The story compares lifelogging, data-mining software that stores every event that ever happens to someone in searchable form with the introduction of writing to a tribe that has previously had only an oral culture. While the story does do the “it has good points and bad points” thing, on the whole it ends up coming down on the side of the software, and so for someone as concerned with privacy issues as I am, it felt like reading propaganda from the enemy. Beautifully written, well argued enemy propaganda, but all the more insidious for that.
“The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard For whatever reason, I just kept bouncing off this one. I’d start reading it but glaze over. I thought at first it was the formatting — the epub, unlike most of them, was in the horribly ugly “standard manuscript format” (Courier font, underlining for emphasis) which I find almost unreadable, but even reading the version online I can’t honestly tell you anything that happened in it two minutes after finishing reading it (though this time I’ve got a bad headache, which won’t help). I don’t know whether it’s the genre (I’m not a space opera person), something about me, or what, but it just doesn’t sit right in my brain.
“The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen (no online copy) is one of the “Sad Puppy” slate, and reads like a Heinlein juvenile, except nowhere near as good. It’s the near future and the space race has begun again except between the US and the evil Chinee hordes, and the US space programme is now run by the military instead of those soft civilians at NASA, and we follow two officers, a man called “Chopper” and a woman called “Chesty” as… zzz…
Opera Vita Aeterna by “Vox Day” is available to read online, but I’m not going to give that vicious little troll any more publicity than he’s already had. It’s a piss-poor excuse for a story, by an “author” who clearly wants to show off his knowledge of Catholic theology and liturgical Latin, but who just proves he knows nothing of either. It would be bottom on its own (lack of) merits, even if Beale wasn’t a viciously racist troll who advocates violence against women and defends rape.
Here we get to another of the controversies surrounding this year’s Hugos — the “Sad Puppy Slate”.
Novelist Larry Correia put together and promoted a slate of works for this year’s award, which he promoted through his blog, and almost all of which have made it to the shortlists. Correia’s aim was, apparently, to get on the ballot himself, to promote his friends, and to promote right-wing science fiction and fantasy (the people whose work he included on the list were for the most part hard right, like Correia himself).
Now, Correia’s defenders have said that the reason people are getting upset with him is simply because he “gamed the system” by encouraging people to vote for a slate. This is nonsense. What he did was perfectly fair. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with including your friends in your nominations when you make them, if they do good work — I intend to nominate David Allison for Best Fan Writer, Dan White and Lawrence Burton for Best Fan Artist, and Phil Purser-Hallard for Best Editor (Short Form) next year, among others, because I think that frankly they deserve those awards. Nor is there any problem with telling other people how you’ve voted and suggesting they do the same. Nor is it bad to encourage people to vote for yourself — I’d promote my own novel and short stories for next year’s ballot if I thought there was even a one in a million chance to get on the ballot. Some of those things may seem gauche to some people (though not to me), but those aren’t the problem.
The problem is that Correia was trolling. And we can tell he was trolling, because in the Best Novelette category (which I’ll come to in a day or two) he included a story by Theodore “Vox Day” Beale.
Now, Correia and many of the other writers in the list have been nominated for major awards in the field before, and Correia at least is a best-selling author with a large fanbase. They could all possibly have got on the ballot on their merits, irrespective of their politics or anything else. But Beale… I have never, ever, heard a good word said about Beale’s fiction by anyone who has read it. The man is primarily known in SF fandom not for his fiction, but for his blog, which is a prime example of “Dark Enlightenment” slime — racist, homophobic, and misogynist, and utterly incapable of behaving in ways compatible with basic humanity (he has, for example, advocated throwing acid in the face of “independent” women, and defended rape).
I’m someone who’s reasonably inclined to separate art and artist — I am, after all, a fan of Dave Sim’s work — but Beale has the same prose style and lack of coherent thinking ability that characterises most of the dark enlightentment/MRA/ultra-right pseudo-libertarian blogosphere, and has never been considered a good writer outside Beale’s own head (fewer people read Beale’s story before nomination than actually nominated it). He is, however, a symbol for the culture war going on in SF fandom. Correia included him purely and simply so that he would enrage people, and that rage in turn would allow Correia to say “hur hur, see, those libtards aren’t really so liberal are they? They can’t tolerate intolerance, and that’s why they don’t vote for my novels in their awards, so I win”.
Opinion has been split among fandom as to how to cope with this, with some advocating the equivalent of a no-platform stance , and voting them at the bottom without reading them (which has the downside that it gives the “sad puppies” proof that they’re being victimised and judged on things other than the quality of their work”), while others, notably John Scalzi, have advocated judging the works on their merits (which has the downside that it’s rather easier for a straight white man to take that attitude than for a woman who doesn’t want acid thrown in her face).
There is, simply, no right answer here, and I don’t want to get into an argument with anyone. My own attitude is that I’m going to review them here under their own merits, but that I 100% expect that to put all of them below “No award” anyway, as even ignoring the political side of things, all of the authors involved are of the “SF should be just about turn-off-your brain fun adventure stories” school, when what I want more than anything when reading genre fiction is to be exposed to new, fresh, ideas. So I’ll be putting them on the bottom of the list on their merits, but I don’t want to say that’s the “right” thing to do, or that anyone else should.
Anyway, the stories, ranked best to worst:
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M Valente (not available to read online) is an absolutely lovely, haunting, retelling of the Snow White story set in the Wild West, written in a gorgeous prose style that switches mid-sentence between the spoken plainness of Mark Twain and the ornate beauty of a fairy tale. It’s disturbing at times (and it contains child abuse and attempted rape, for those who get disturbed by such things), but it’s extremely good, and will definitely win. And for those who care about it, pretty much every speaking character in the story is a woman.
Equoid by Charles Stross is part of his Laundry series, a series of comedy/horror novels that are equal parts Dilbert (90s Dilbert, when it was funny), Yes Minister, spy novel, and Lovecraftian horror. This novella is firmly in the horror camp — what comedy there is mostly comes from spotting sly references to other works, or from Stross’ dead-on impersonation of Lovecraft’s incredibly leaden prose style (in flashback sequences supposedly taken from Lovecraft’s own letters — most of the story is in Stross’ normal narrative voice for the Laundry series), and most of all from the fact that Shub-Niggurath, the deadly goat with a thousand young, is here reinterpreted as… a unicorn. I enjoyed it immensely, but it does feature a scene of tentacle rape, described rather vividly in the Lovecraftian section, which makes me hesitate to recommend it unreservedly.
Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages is a beautifully written, well crafted, story about race, nature, and the effect films and stardom have on people. It’s easily deserving of an award — but not the Hugo. Other than one brief sequence where a chimp appears to talk (which is presented ambiguously, so it could be a hallucination, a dream, or a trick played by one human on another) and a couple of lines of description which hint at cryptids, there is nothing even vaguely SF/F about this novella — and those sections could be excised from the story without any real change. The Hugo Awards are “awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy”, and this is neither by any reasonable definition. Were this a lit-fic award, this would go right to the top, but it shouldn’t even have been eligible for the award, in my opinion. It’s not bad, at all, but giving it a Hugo would be a category error on a par with giving it an Oscar.
The Chaplain’s Legacy by Brad Torgerson (not available to read on the web). The better of the two “sad puppies” here, this is actually a perfectly decent story of its type, and one I don’t regret reading, though I doubt I’ll ever reread it. It’s definitely not deserving of the Hugo, but it’s a perfectly competent piece of work, albeit in a genre (Space Marines In Space!) that I find dull in the extreme. It even has one or two ideas in it. There are definitely worse Heinlein imitations out there, though there are also far better ones.
The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (not available to read on the web), the other of the “sad puppies”, is a tie-in to a tabletop miniatures game, and so badly written I couldn’t get through more than a third of it before giving up in utter boredom. It is “Book II of the Warcaster Chronicles”, and just proves my general rule that “Book X of the Y Chronicles” is another phrase for “book Andrew Hickey shouldn’t bother reading”.
Now I’ve finished the latest draft of my novel (and hopefully any further revisions will be relatively minor rather than the major changes I made this time) I can get back to blogging, and to start with, here’s a belated review of The Brakespeare Voyage (ebook here).
This is an odd book for me to review, in that I had — sort of — read it before I ever read it. Simon Bucher-Jones, one of the two co-authors, told me the basic story outline several years ago, and last year he sent me a late draft of the book so we could coordinate stories a little — there is something set up in this book that will resonate a little with my own next book (which will be published by the same publisher, so take this as my declaration of interest).
So when I actually read it, as an actual proper book, there was a strange feeling of deja vu — but then, that’s appropriate for a book like this, which is resolutely non-linear in its structure, and which is built on a dense network of allusions both to other books and to earlier and later events in the novel’s own timeline.
The book is, in essence, the story of a whaling ship, and as such all through it there are resonances with other nautical stories — the Jonahs (whalers who believe their own ship is also a whale), Captain No-One, one strand of the story starting “Call me Nebaioth” (Nebaioth being the son of the Biblical Ishmael) — but this is no ordinary whaling ship, being instead a ship that sails the void between brane universes.
Captaining it — at least in one version of reality — is Robert Scarratt, a figure who will be familiar to readers of The Book Of The War. Both Bucher-Jones and Dennis contributed to that book, and so it should be no surprise that this book makes more use of the Faction Paradox mythology than many of the books have up until this point. Where books like Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia are Faction Paradox books because they have a certain atmosphere that fits with the other books, this is something that couldn’t have been done as anything else. It makes use of so much of what is established in the other Faction Paradox books that it’s impossible to conceive of it being done in any other series.
And it’s absolutely marvellous. While the basic form of the narrative is that of a nautical adventure — the kind of story that was mostly told between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries — all the elements of that style of story are given new forms and context in a story which works on the grandest scales imaginable.
Some may find the novel’s form — with multiple narratorial viewpoints intertwined (though mostly just those of Scarratt and Nebaioth), each telling only part of the story and not in chronological sequence, with some metafictional elements also thrown in — difficult, if they’re coming to this book only knowing the authors for Doctor Who spin-off fiction. But the truth is that the form merely fits the subject matter, and Faction Paradox more than any other setting seems to demand this kind of structure (there are superficial structural similarities both to Lawrence Burton’s Against Nature and to the next Faction Paradox novel, though all three books were conceived independently).
The book requires some work from the reader, but surprisingly little for such an idea-rich book. Practically every page, and certainly every chapter, contains an idea around which a lesser writer would base an entire book on its own. My own particular favourite was Hilberta’s Hostel, which I found a beautifully funny concept.
I’m really not doing justice to the book, but it’s probably the best thing that either Bucher-Jones or Dennis have written, and another sign that the Faction Paradox series is in safe hands at Obverse.
For those who are interested, Simon has posted several pieces about the evolution of the novel on his blog, where you can also read some pieces of Faction Paradox flash-fiction.