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Speculative Fiction

From Hannah Arendt‘s, The Human Condition (1958).

In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, and the stars. To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for a time span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity. Yet, for a time it managed to stay in the skies; it dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company.

This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which rilled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first “step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.” And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American re- porter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia’s great scientists: “Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.”

Such feelings have been commonplace for some time. They show that men everywhere are by no means slow to catch up and adjust to scientific discoveries and technical developments, but that, on the contrary, they have outsped them by decades. Here, as in other respects, science has realized and affirmed what men anticipated in dreams that were neither wild nor idle. What is new is only that one of this country’s most respectable newspapers finally brought to its front page what up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, un- fortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires). The banality of the statement should not make us overlook how extraordinary in fact it was; for although Christians have spoken of the earth as a vale of tears and philosophers have looked upon their body as a prison of mind or soul, nobody in the history of mankind has ever con- ceived of the earth as a prison for men’s bodies or shown such eagerness to go literally from here to the moon. Should the emanci- pation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudi- ation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?


Grand Schemes – The Barnes & Noble Review

Grand Schemes
Essay by Paul Di Filippo

Isaac Asimov memorably identified the three major types of science fiction as “What if,” “If only,” and “If this goes on.” Magnificent works have emerged from each of these categories, but readers — and writers — have reserved their greatest love for the first of the trio. Asking simple, counterintuitive, counterfactual, or even childlike and naïve questions — the kinds that begin with those two words — seems to unlock the storytelling imagination like nothing else.

In many cases, what follows naturally from “What if” is something almost as fundamental to speculative fiction: the Big Idea. A massive, revolutionary, visionary conceit that practically begs to be instantiated in fiction. Big Ideas are the highbrow cousin of the Hollywood “elevator pitch,” a concise formulation of a winning premise. (And sometimes a Big Idea gets positively reductive, producing a “Big Dumb Object,” such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld.) The Big Idea might very well be attended, in an SF novel, by a flock of lesser idealings to help support it. But generally, the core notion looms at the center, like a monarch on the throne. Recognizing the centrality and importance of such crystallizing conceits, author John Scalzi even invites his peers to discuss the Big Ideas behind their own projects at his popular blog, Whatever.

Some Big Ideas, of course, prove derivative; others shrink on the page for want of narrative oxygen. But two recent novels exemplify the marvelous possibilities of this classic approach to speculative fiction.

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Gender and Publication

Results of VIDA‘s 2011 Count. The numbers are stark.

In 2010 VIDA took on the project: of counting the rates of publication between women and men in many of our writing world’s most prestigious literary outlets. VIDA’s Count produced hundreds of responses. It seems everyone wanted to share in a conversation that appears many believe is necessary and long overdue.

So this year we’ve done it again.

The 2011 Count.

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Technology and Reading (cont.)

Recently bought a copy of Tainaron, the first print book I’ve ordered in a long time. Paid less than $5 for a new, hard-cover book. Shipping was fast and the book is attractive, but had an electronic version been available for, say, $9.99, I would have bought it instead.

E-book readers are buying plenty – but not in bookstores –
The new study by Book Industry Study Group says e-book consumers are buying more books – both print and electronic – but they’re buying mostly online and via in-app purchasing.

Fiction readers are gravitating toward Kindles and Nooks, while nonfiction readers tend to prefer tablet readers like iPads.

We’ve known it all along: E-book readers are buying and reading more, according to a study by the Book Industry Study Group.

What’s interesting, though, is where they’re buying and what they’re reading. According to the BISG’s Consumer Attitudes Toward E-book Reading survey, e-book consumers are buying more books – both print and electronic – but they’re buying mostly online and via in-app purchasing. Where they’re not buying, according to the survey, is brick-and-mortar stores. More than half of e-book readers increased their use of apps to purchase books and more than one-third increased their use of general retail websites such as, according to a BISG statement. Sadly, that seems to come at the expense of chain and indie bookstores. According to the survey, more than a third of e-book buyers decreased their spending at national chains and 29 percent reported buying less from their local indie.

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One of the perks of attending The Clarion Writers’ Workshop is a ticket to Comic-Con. I skipped going, but after seeing this trailer I’m still glad I didn’t. Just looking at the insane amount of people packed inside the convention center makes me short of breath.

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Literary Macking

Fur coat and platform shoes not required, for now.

Holly Robinson: Pimping Your Book, Indie or Traditional

Now that I’ve got feet in both camps, I have a unique perspective on the good, the bad and the mysterious truths about book marketing. My memoir, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, was published by Random House. I leaped into the indie world when I self-published my first novel, Sleeping Tigers, a couple of months ago. My second novel, The Wishing Hill, will be published by Penguin in spring 2013. These experiences have taught me a lot about book publicity, but I’m still learning new things every day. There are some differences in how traditional and indie books are publicized, but those differences are shrinking by the nanosecond. The truest thing I can tell you is that, no matter how your book makes it into the world, you’ll need to take an active part in the publicity. Here are a few tips to get you started.Mine the Free Resources

The Internet is a wonderful tutor. There are more free resources out there about marketing your book than you’ll ever have time to read. Google anything from “picking a book cover” to “social media for authors,” and you’ll get enough hits to last through a few thermoses of coffee each time you do it. Make good use of these resources. One of my favorites is Novel Publicity’s “Free Advice Blog.”

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The Plagiarist (cont.)

Plagiarists, beware: the internet will find you out | Books |

The story of Kay Manning, found out for raiding other people’s books, is a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to copy

Liz Fielding's blog

Hurrah for the internet, which has unmasked and brought down another plagiariser: in this case a romance “writer” going under the name of Kay Manning. Her uncovering came courtesy of a crack team of authors: first Liz Fielding, who posted about a short story of hers which she’d discovered had been plagiarised. “All Kay Manning has done is change the names of the characters, change the location and minor details,” wrote Fielding. “Why, I cannot imagine, since she’s giving it away free. To have her name on a successful story, perhaps? To build a reputation she can use to sell her own work?” Manning apparently responded to the accusation, claiming the situation was the result of “an honest mistake”. “I put this story in the wrong folder on my computer and actually thought it was mine that I started a long time ago. If I really wanted to ‘steal it’ do you honestly think I would have put it up for free?” she asked.

Perhaps. But then Elizabeth Chadwick entered the fray, uncovering a host of other works which Manning had seemingly lifted.

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Character Sketches


Images created using law enforcement composite sketch software and descriptions of literary characters.

The Misfit, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” Flannery O’Connor

He was an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look. He had a long creased face and didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt. He had on blue jeans that were too tight for him and was holding a black hat and a gun…“You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!”… When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth…Hunching his shoulders slightly…The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.

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Literary Day Trading

Picking Literary Stocks | BOOK RIOT.

According to a story in The Atlantic I included in today’s Critical Linking, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas has started guessing which authors will have lasting historical import and then buying up their papers. Usually, libraries and archives have waited until such status has been assured before dropping millions of dollars on diaries, letters, manuscripts, tax receipts, and other documents.

But in true Texas oil-hound fashion, the Ransom Center seems to think that they can get ahead of the game by placing their bets now and have done so on contemporary authors like David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson. In a sense, they are playing the literary archive game like the stock market, hoping to buy low now and reap the benefits for posterity.

This led me to wonder: what living writers’ future reputations would I get in on right now? And which might I “sell”?

Jonathan Franzen: SELL
I have a comp for you: Sloan Wilson. Haven’t heard of him, right? He wrote one of the big social novels of the mid-1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. It was a huge success and was made into a decent movie starring Gregory Peck. And no one reads it now. Franzen is a great chronicler of contemporary society, but that’s what he does best. Generally, literature about the society of its day tends to age rather poorly; the stuff that endures transcends the specifics of its time. Oh, and guess who wrote the introduction to the 2002 re-issue of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit? Yup, Franzen himself.

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The Plagiarist

Interesting article about a guy who tries to pass of the works of others as his own and gets caught. I kept thinking, If he could lift whole passages from well known writers and not be immediately called out on it, what does that say about the quality of the writing he was appropriating?

So, larger issue– the notion that authors should “fade into the background” or “avoid having a heavy authorial hand”.  Misguided, I think, a call for generic (and seemingly interchangeable) prose. Writing that has a strong voice, that is immediately recognizable as the work of a specific person, asserts itself in a way that avoids ingratiation or worse, the reek of authorial supplication. An added bonus is that such writing is much harder to fob off– I suspect that anyone trying to plagiarize Cormac McCarthy or Jose Saramago wouldn’t get very far before being exposed.

Quentin Rowan, a.k.a. Q. R. Markham, Plagiarism Addict : The New Yorker.

The author of “Assassin of Secrets” had a secret of his own.

The author of “Assassin of Secrets” was a thirty-five-year-old début novelist with the pen name Q. R. Markham. Just before the book’s publication, in November, there were signs that it would be a hit: it had blurbs from the spy novelists Duane Swierczynski and Jeremy Duns (“instant classic”) and glowing early reviews. Kirkus pronounced it “a dazzling, deftly controlled debut,” and Publishers Weeklywrote, “The obvious Ian Fleming influence just adds to the appeal.” On the James Bond fan site, someone linked to an excerpt, which the publisher, Little, Brown, had posted online, and wrote, “Anyone read this novel? I’m ordering it next month . . . it’s very Bondian.”

But, as in a thriller, no sooner had the book’s trajectory been established than it was reversed. That day, another Bond fan wrote to the thread, “Why order a copy? Just read chapter 4 of ‘License Renewed’ ”—by John Gardner, who continued the Bond series after Ian Fleming’s death. “It’s all there, the ‘matched luggage’ . . . ‘What’s it like to kill a man?’ the son et lumiere at ‘Frankie’s’ flat—entire paragraphs copied verbatim from John Gardner’s text.”

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Want to Know More? Click Here

Article examining why “enhanced content” in digital books works better with nonfiction than fiction. Miller nails it, for the most part, but I wonder if massive fantasy novels, ones like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series with its extensive world building and elaborate historical backgrounds, might benefit from enhanced content– fantasy readers are already used to puzzling over detailed maps and long lists of genealogical data.

Reality, exploded – E-books –

Forget interactive fiction — the most innovative e-books make something strange and wondrous out of the facts


Prognostication about the future of the book is everywhere; making predictions about what books will be like tomorrow seems much more profitable (not to mention easier) than creating actual books today. Yet all these prophecies collide with a basic problem: The book, as it currently exists, is hard to improve upon. Cheap, highly portable and free of maddening formatting problems, the printed book has met most readers’ needs pretty well. Sure, in recent years, technology has transformed the distribution of texts — you can order any book online or tote around dozens of e-books in a lightweight reader — but the vast majority of these books remain essentially the same: linear strings of words, with the occasional image.

Still, the dream of interactive books lives on, despite a series of digital disappointments ranging from hypertext fiction to CD-ROMs to experimental Web novels to current ventures in social reading. Previously, I wrote about the inherent tensions between interactivity and narrative in enhanced fiction e-books. Indeed, there’s little evidence that images, videos, sound effects or clickable doohickeys add anything of value in the eyes of most readers of prose fiction. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the enhanced e-book of Stephen King’s novel “11/22/63″ contained a 13-minute film by King himself, yet only 45,000 readers were willing to shell out the extra $2 to get it, compared to 300,000 who bought the unadorned e-book ($14.99) or the 1 million purchasers of the print edition ($35). King’s publisher expressed doubts that enhanced e-books were worth the extra trouble and expense.

Nonfiction, however, is another matter.

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