discussions

16Jun

Kiva Microfunds

Now, I came across Kiva Microfunds and thought the whole thing pretty damn interesting. Apparently, Bill Clinton thought it a good idea too.

Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.

Kiva is the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world.

The people you see on Kiva’s site are real individuals in need of funding – not marketing material. When you browse entrepreneurs’ profiles on the site, choose someone to lend to, and then make a loan, you are helping a real person make great strides towards economic independence and improve life for themselves, their family, and their community. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates and track repayments. Then, when you get your loan money back, you can relend to someone else in need.

Give someone the chance to take themselves out of poverty, and more of your donation goes to good effect—that is, less percentage of money put forward gets sucked into paperwork and infrastructure. Can’t be bad.

14Jun

J.G. Ballard

Nice little interview with J.G. Ballard at the Guardian website. There really is no one quite like him. A couple of years ago I read a few of his books in the usual author flings I have, where I buy up lots of their books and proclaim them the best thing that ever happened to me, only to look back on them with fond memories. I really recommend reading—and sticking with—The Atrocity Exhibition. Whilst not on the surface an easy read, it seeps into your mind the way surrealism can do so well, with dazzling images, metaphors, and a prose that just absolutely sizzles. This edition is very useful, since it puts many of the sections into historical context. Being only a nipper of the SF/F world, I needed it.

Science fiction was a “chance discovery. It touched a spark, but I never wrote the kind of SF that was typical of the time.” The novelist M John Harrison, who was part of the editorial team of New Worlds, the magazine that published many of Ballard’s most controversial stories in the 60s, points out that he was “never well received by generic SF readers and activists. His work is too clearly poetic, satirical, metaphorical – all of which discourages suspension of disbelief and the immersive experience of the exotic on which SF pivots

Now that’s an interesting point, isn’t it? Perhaps never more so than in the modern publishing climate, where so few experimental works are published. So, many are put off when SF is too much involved with these things. I know I’m certainly not, but I’m not the average genre reader, having being knee-deep in the industry for a while.

8Jun

Some Ideas On Why The E-Book Will Not Mean The End Of The Printed Page

Or at least the fiction market. Here are some things to consider:

1 ) The majority of people who read a lot of fiction love books, the physical thing. Period. They are unlikely to stop buying books because of this physical love. They like them on their shelves. They like walking up to them. Perhaps lending them to a friend.

2 ) People who don’t buy many books, but still read say a few a year, will not see any logic in purchasing an expensive device for such limited use.

3 ) You can’t see what someone’s reading—unfortunately a significant driver in fiction sales. (Those seeking to wear books as a statement of intellect, fashion etc)

4 ) Would you want to read an expensive device in the bath? Books are quite easily replaceable. And they dry out, too.

5 ) Books are pretty cheap, easy to transport, and durable as it is. You can annotate them properly, and underline stuff etc. Nothing needs improving (which may well be a factor of it’s own).

6 ) The major book buying market exists for more older individuals; perhaps they are not technologically savvy as those who drove the mp3 market.

7 ) Stop comparing things to the iPod! Music has always been played on a device—from early days etc to now. It’s just finding the perfect device. Well, books work as they are. They have never been ‘on something else’ apart from audio books, which play some role in the industry, but they’re for people on the go. Oh, and when Steve Jobs at Apple says there’s no point in an e-book device for his company, listen to him.

8 ) Individual mp3s were driving many of the sales behind iPods. The fact that you could hold a thousand tunes on one device was a wow factor. That’s not the same for books. People don’t read random chapters from many books. They read one book at a time.

9 ) Worth saying that this might work for some textbooks perhaps in schools or universities, where it becomes nothing more than a network search of specific subjects—a limited Internet.

10 ) Many book purchases are made on cover design. You have no cover for these things that people can browse over.

11 ) The Kindle is being sold as something to consumers in a too-persuasive way. When you saw what the iPod was, you just wanted to own one. You thought, that’s what I’m missing. I have to have it. The key to such a culture-changing product is that it sells itself.

12 ) Amazon were spinning the hell out of this: ’sold out after a few hours’ – note that they’re also not listing this in the electronics store, but the ‘kindle store’, so it can’t be compared to other devices in sales rankings. I suspect if we look past the hype, which is painfully obvious here, things aren’t so good.

13 ) The digital rights on this device sucks. No one wants their book usage dictated to by a table full of lawyers.

14 ) The gift value of books—you only have to look at the fact that the majority of book sales are in the Xmas period. Unwrapping an ebook, not so nice or practical.

15 ) The Kindle looks as though it was designed circa 1983.

These are more points for debate, really. Take a look at many of the articles on e-books taking over the world: those who are praising the revolution are often those who think they can sell their own e-book based product.

Don’t forget about the psychology of readers…

5Jun

How Epic Is Yours?

I was intrigued to read about this bit of news from star editor and all-round Top Bloke, Lou Anders. It got me thinking about the differences between Swords and Sorcery Fantasy, and Epic Fantasy. I think there’s a distinction to make.

Epic Fantasy for me has multi-stranded plots, huge amounts of movement, deep worldbuilding, and is very much a complex beast. Writers such as Steven Erikson and George R R Martin etc have moved things on significantly in recent years. They are much more intelligent than many of the Tolkien clones of the 80s and 90s. They have matured, and the movement has gone on.

Swords and Sorcery may differ in that it’s much more lo-fi, less of the huge complexity (but not intellectually so) with an eye back to pulp-retro classics. Maybe it’s more fun and doesn’t take itself as seriously in some cases. Writers such as Abercombie, and Scott Lynch, are two of the more popular writers being labelled in this style. (But would they even see themselves in this category?)

The question of has Swords and Sorcery ever gone away is interesting. In bookstores, where the majority of people buy their fantasy books (let’s not forget this, not these online discussions we have), this distinction has never been there. There is fantasy or science fiction or horror.

Sub-genres are sometimes a case of who can be more anal, but in this case, I don’t think it has gone away. There have always been lo-fi fantasy novels on the shelves in lower numbers, they just never saw past the domination of bigger, Epic Fantasy titles.

Because that’s where the money is.

I think the review coverage online is skewing our treatment of these books to consider them as a significant movement. If we were to analyze book sales data (which I couldn’t really put online), I suspect the picture would be different, and the movement would be more difficult to see. And I for one would see those S&S writers I mentioned above treated as Epic Fantasy anyway. The term Swords and Sorcery for me is loaded with pulpiness. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you, but I’d certainly steer these aforementioned authors into more sophisticated categories.

2Jun

The Genre Will Eat Itself

I read this post on SF Signal, a top genre blog. Basically, some dude has had it with the bickering etc that goes on in the genre.

This isn’t just about the blog comments, e-mails and forum posts of the last week. This is about the blog posts and comments, emails and forum posts, editorials and everything else from the last few years. The genre-bashing has reached felonious levels. I have read (and yes, partaken in) so much sub-genre and author clobbering that I’m starting to feel nauseous. And I can taste the blood and bile burning up my esophagus.

Chill, is what I say.

The one thing that’s easily forgetablle online is just what a tiny minority of SF and Fantasy book buyers we are. The majority will buy their books and not join in with all the shenanigans that go on in forums etc., the endless lists of who’s better, of what this movement means.

I enjoy it. I enjoy watching people lose their temper too. I loved it when M John Harrison made his world-building posts on “the clomping foot of nerdism” [sadly now offline]. He just wound up a hare and sent the dogs a-chasin’. The debate that resulted is hugely beneficial to some. But it’s the nature of fandom, surely, and only goes to show that there is passion here that most other genres would kill for.

But most punters don’t care about this, so if you don’t like any of it, just step away and join them. Close your eyes. Log off. Read your books in peace. I never understand why people get so irate about these blogs or whatnot—only to blog about it.

31May

On Social Book Networking

The Guardian reports on the rise of the virtual bookshelf on social networking sites.

For anyone with even a moderate interest in books, snooping at other people’s bookshelves is one of life’s great pleasures. Like music collections, personal libraries offer tantalising encapsulations of character; a quick glance at an acquaintance’s bookshelves or a scroll through their iTunes provides juicy fodder for all sorts of assumptions and judgements. (The students I knew at university who crammed their shelves with reams of avante-garde theory were far too aware of this.)

When these projections of personality are done online, they are what Christine Rosen calls egocasting – “the thoroughly personalised and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste”. This follows the same principle as the radio site Lastfm, which is based on tracking down music similar to your existing tastes by finding people who like the same sounds as you.

As we purportedly experience Facebook fatigue and Myspace exhaustion, web forecasters predict that the next phase of social networking will be all about specialist sites like these. And where music goes, books will follow, as a wave of new book-related social networking sites promise to do for readers what Lastfm did for inquisitive listeners.

I love these kind of things. I must admit, there’s something quite proud about the Virtual bookshelf. It also means you can choose who never to talk to based on their literary judgements. “What? You like [insert shite author here]? I’m sorry we can no longer be friends…”

If only real life was as easy.

29May

Symbolism

Just a few thoughts on symbolism. I’m currently re-reading Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series, and I’m really fascinated by the use of symbolism. I won’t go into detail here, but there are good essays here and here if you’re interested. Now, is it me, or are symbols totally out of vogue these days? It’s almost as if there’s a mere hint of those sorts of things, it turns people off.

I remember reading China Miéville and loving the fact that many of his names actually meant something. They weren’t just plucked out of The Big Book Of Bobbins Fantasy Names. Of course, it’s not essential for story, but what about those who want something in addition to that?

Maybe it’s just me, but I love those kind of things in books. Even if only a handful of people really want to dig into your work, it’s wonderful that there are layers to be picked at again and again. I love to make allusions to things, to trick and sidestep the reader, and then when he or she have found the secret doors there might be a new sense of satisfaction.

27May

Visions Of Earth

According to this source, Nasa’s probe to Mars that was launched nine months ago was stocked with our literary visions of the red planet.

The compilation contains work by such giants of science fiction as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Paul Anderson and Arthur C Clarke. But it also includes early classics such as H G Wells’s War of the Worlds, published in 1898, which set the template for an entire genre of malevolent invaders from the Red Planet. Accompanying images will include Flash Gordon film posters (complete with cardboard spaceship interiors), and cover artwork for Edgar Rice Burrough’s Martian tales which set a trend in the kind of pneumatic spacewomen (was it the effects of low gravity, we used to wonder) who adorned the covers of pulp sci-fi comics in the 1950s.

Makes you wonder the hell would you send back to Earth, then, to represent the state of the World as it is, or to sum up our visions of the place. I for one would slap DeLillo’s Underworld on the list for a start, since that contains a plethora of riffs on our lives.

I think it’d be a good idea to bury some current SF in a time capsule, see what the next couple of generations makes of what’s to come. Or maybe some dying earth books, such as Viriconium, or the Book of the New Sun sequence—for something that won’t be dug up for thousands of years, that is…

26May

Dalai Lama vs Religious Freedom

Some of you might know I’ve an active interest in Buddhism. It’s worth knowing a few things such as commented here. I’ll quote big chunks, because he’s more eloquent than me on this subject! I feel the need to put this out there because the western media aren’t really covering the issue in any sufficient detail—and as with any subject you might know enough about, the media do a poor job in covering things well.

So why are Buddhists demonstrating against the Dalai Lama? Because, over the past decade, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile have been spearheading a drive to persuade Tibetans, and the wider Tibetan Buddhist community, to stop their involvement in the practice of a particular Buddhist deity called Dorje Shugden.

Now, the word ‘deity’ in Buddhism means the same as ‘buddha’; Dorje Shugden has historically been viewed as an enlightened being, on the same level as the buddha who taught in ancient India.

Many high Lamas in Tibet praised the practice of Dorje Shudgen; these Lamas included someone called Trijang Rinpoche, one of the current Dalai Lama’s tutors (now deceased). It’s safe to say that until recently, the practice has been revered and respected by generations of Buddhists, and has done no harm to anyone.

Despite all this though, the Dalai Lama is encouraging Tibetans to abandon the practice on the grounds that it harms the cause of Tibetan freedom, and is ’spirit worship’. He has not revealed evidence for these claims, despite repeated requests from Buddhist practitioners who are concerned about the mounting persecution and violence that’s happening as a result of the Dalai Lama’s efforts to destroy the practice. This persecution includes the refusal to grant ID cards to Tibetans who will not give up the practice, refusal to admit the children of Dorje Shugden practitioners to schools in the exiled Tibetan community, and death threats against those who continue with the practice.

There’s a campaign worth being aware of at the Western Shugden Society and videos like the one below showing some of the real situation faced by many Buddhist practitioners. Stay with it, and there are some more you can follow on this series on YouTube. Particularly moving is the second part.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5sOm-uQH9Y] [youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aboblx-0zAs&feature=related]

18Mar

Slow Reading

I don’t know about you, but I’m amazed and fractionally suspicious of anyone who manages to read several books in a week. I was happy to find this article about the joys of reading slowly, and I utterly agree.

If a book is worth reading, it must be absorbed, sentence by sentence, which often means re-reading paragraphs if they are tricky – or if they are delightful.

I only ever have time to get to books I think are going to be worth opening these days, since time seems ever more precious. I’ve found bliss from reading Don DeLillo, a man whose sentences ring with style and finesse, and rereading only sends you deeper. M John Harrison is another, where burying beneath the prose brings you further zen-like realisations, makes you question more about the text and yourself. His words sparkle.

Why is it that people seem to insist on reading so many books a week. Is it to tick them off some grand list to impress their mates? Is it a sign of the times to have such levels of consumption? Are they reading it properly? Or are they reviewers such as this one? Surely taking your time with something worthwhile stirs the soul. The kind of thing that makes summers endless, humid, pungent, sensual things we remember for years after.

I like to think that authors who slave over sentence-craft are rewarded by readers who do the same, who take their time to enjoy the work in their hands. Maybe I’m just a frilly-cuffed romantic fool, but I wish more readers would take their time instead of racing through paragraphs. Sure, books must entertain, but that’s a basic standard. I wonder what other writers think about their work being read at speed?