Sunday, 28 July 2013

My Malign Influence Spreads

A friend asked me to post something to his social-network-type thing, so I've taken my blogging time for this week and applied it there. You can read it here.

Just a quick note: I wasn't going to write a blog this week. My grandma passed away back in California, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to write about that, while writing about all the other silly subjects I usually write about didn't seem appropriate.


It was kind of therapeutic to talk about the thought process that impelled me to go buy a couple of fantasy novels as a way to cope. Hope you enjoy it, and that you leave me a comment, either at that blog or even here.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Dark Side of the Long Tail

The other week I read this article on LinkedIn, by Anita Elberse at Harvard Business School, which cites figures saying the top 1% of performing artists account for 56% of concert revenues. It was interesting timing, as just a day or two after the article was published, Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke from Atoms for Peace said they were pulling their music from Spotify, because they say the music-streaming service screws musicians, particularly up-and-coming ones.

I talked about Chris Anderson's second book, Free, a couple of months ago, but I still haven't gotten around to reading his first, The Long Tail (in which he coined the phrase). Nevertheless, the book's subtitle - Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More - gives a good idea which side of this debate Anderson falls on. And in fact, Elberse's disagreed with him on this before, so this is all clearly a long-running argument that I'm getting ready to stick my oar into.

I wasn't entirely surprised when I read Elberse's article, or about Godrich and Yorke's Spotify protest. I've read elsewhere (can't remember where, unfortunately) that iTunes is actually the best-paying digital market for artists - they make something like a hundred times more in royalties and so forth on iTunes than they do on services like Spotify. And for all the talk of long tails, it makes sense to me that, per Elberse, artists like Madonna would still command a larger share of the market than all of the bands who, just a few years ago, wouldn't have had any sort of distribution at all.

This probably comes down to how consumers react to choice. If you're looking on Ticketmaster's website for a concert to go to, you'll be confronted with a page full of artists you've probably never even heard of, with the odd familiar name sprinkled in. Too many choices like that means your brain shuts down and you lose all desire to make a decision; or in other words, screw all these guys, I'm going to see Justin Bieber.

On Spotify, meanwhile, try as they might to improve recommendation engines and stuff like that, your best bet for finding something to listen to is to search by artist or album name, and you can only search for artists whose names you already know. Which means that you have to be the proverbial informed customer - but who has the time for that? Or, once again in other words: screw all these guys, I'm listening to Coldplay.

Maybe that's all glib. But my point is, while digital music is undeniably a big step forward in allowing unknown bands (or authors, if you want to talk about publishing) to get their work out without going through the traditional gatekeepers, just being allowed on the shelves isn't enough to move units. And even marketing campaigns can't fix everything - if you're only big in Minnesota, that's a step forward, but you're still competing with established artists who are big everywhere.

All of which is to say, the long tail is an extremely useful meme when talking about categorizing things (you have your top five sellers, and then your ten thousand others), but with apologies to Chris Anderson, I still don't see it as the future of business, unless somebody figures out how to control a large enough portion of the long tail. And then by definition you're no longer part of the long tail anyway.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Trayvon Martin and Edward Snowden: Be the Change You Want to See in the World

So George Zimmerman walks for killing Trayvon Martin. Or to be more precise, pursuing, provoking a fight (that he quickly realizes he can't win) and subsequently shooting Trayvon Martin. Good job, America - how's that shining city on a hill thing working out?

I don't want to be too simplistic or snide with the above, but it's hard not to feel disgusted. Sure, I read the article in Slate where Justin Peters pointed out that the case against Zimmerman isn't clear beyond a reasonable doubt, and I agree that you can't convict a person based on the public sentiment against them. But if we look at Emily Bazelon's article this morning, following the verdict being handed down, she notes something even more chilling:
After all, as Adam Weinstein points out, the lesson right now for Floridians is this: "in any altercation, however minor, the easiest way to avoid criminal liability is to kill the counterparty."
So does this mean that in Florida "stand your ground" is going to turn into "preemptive strike, shoot to kill"? A reasonable person would hope not - would hope, in fact, that this tragedy spurs Florida (and other states with "stand your ground" laws) to change the legislation. But it seems more and more apparent that there aren't any reasonable people writing legislation in America. You only have to look at what's been happening in Texas, with the abortion bills and Wendy Davis's filibuster, to see that.

This comes at the same time that the extent of the government's spying program, PRISM, becomes gradually clearer. When the news broke, I remember being surprised at how little reaction there seemed to be - while we've got protests in Brazil that started over bus fares, protests in Turkey that started over land redevelopment, and in Egypt the populace has deposed the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. I get a lot of "progressive" petitions (I use that word in quotation marks, because I'd like to reclaim the word "liberal"), and it was weeks before any of them addressed PRISM or Edward Snowden.

Not to get too nerdy, but the best assessment of the predicament we're in came from John Champion and Ken Ray's Star Trek podcast, Mission Log (bear with me). In the podcast from last November, while discussing an early episode, one of the hosts - I believe it was John, but can't confirm - pointed out how the Enterprise had disabled an alien ship that had threatened it, and then Captain Kirk offered to help the alien ship. While discussing that, he talked about how that tied into how we need to adhere to our ideals all the time, not just when it's convenient - and he tied that into the political climate at the time.

It struck me then (I was listening to it earlier this week), and it feels incredibly relevant now, with this judgement handed down. It's too easy to be cynical, to believe that our actions don't matter if we talk about the right ideals, but neither of those things is productive, frankly. Do we want to be a country where people can walk down the street without fearing for their lives? Do we want to be a country that doesn't treat its citizens as potential criminals or terrorists?

Then let's get off our asses and live those ideals. If you're scared of missing American Idol, DVR it.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Guy Gavriel Kay's Rich Tapestry

In the nine or so years since I started seriously reading fantasy, I've managed to turn my dad into a fan of a number of the authors I've discovered, including such luminaries as George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie. In a few cases, this has turned to my advantage, as he went and picked up the authors' other books before I could. One of the authors for which this has happened is Guy Gavriel Kay - in fact, my dad ended up buying so many of Kay's books that I've been consistently borrowing them for the last couple of years, and ended up bingeing a little this year when I grabbed five books from my dad's shelves. And then promptly bought the Kindle versions of two more.

The man himself.

Having read so many books by a single author in such a short time, you can't help but notice certain patterns in his or her work, and Kay's work is no different, in that respect. But the patterns that he follows are themselves what sets him apart from other fantasy authors (I've read that he prefers not to be pigeonholed there, but it'll have to do for the moment).

The main idea running through almost all of his books is, of course, how his novels are based on historical events. His two most recent were inspired by key events in Chinese history, and previous ones have explored settings as diverse as the Byzantine Empire, Moorish Spain, and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France. The only ones that didn't hew to this historical fantasy mode were his opening trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, and a sort-of sequel called Ysabel.

Being kind of an obsessive completist, I started with the Fionavar books, several years ago, although I wouldn't say they're Kay's best. They felt a little too indebted to Tolkien - he helped edit some of Tolkien's papers while still at university - and ended up pulling in a few threads (no pun intended) that felt sort of out of place to me (think King Arthur and Lancelot). But for whatever reason, after finishing those books, Kay went off in a completely new direction, and I think it's served him well, allowing him to avoid the usual settings reminiscent of medieval northern Europe, and the usual plots of dark lords and sieges.

He's said himself that he's interested in the historical settings, but with fantasy trappings, because it frees him from having to write exactly what happened, or portray historical figures as they "really" were. That said, I've learned from hard experience to avoid reading the Wikipedia entries on those specific historical periods until finishing the book in question, otherwise I end up getting some brutal spoilers.

The other striking thing about his work is how he uses female characters. Some fantasy authors portray women really badly, alternately as scolds or sex toys; others arbitrarily make them badass soldiers, which is a neat idea in itself, but sometimes gets overused. Given that Kay's books are mostly based on historical events, his women rarely pick up swords, but even when their societies deny them power, they still have agency. A notable example is his 1992 book, A Song for Arbonne, based on the Albigensian Crusade, which took place in Provence; there he posits a society ruled by women, where the arts most appreciated at court are wit and poetry. Perhaps to contrast it with the prevailing themes of epic fantasy literature, the antagonists are from a heavily sexist, warlike country to the north, which despises Arbonne enough to eventually launch an invasion.

Arbonne was the first book of his that I read after the Fionavar books, and this struck me, in no small part because I'd found his treatment of one of his female characters in the first volume, The Summer Tree, to be pretty awful. Where most of the other main characters in the book - a group of Canadian students who travel to a magical fantasy world - gain powers of their own, one of the women sits around being pretty for the entire book, until she's captured by the evil god and raped. I remember almost putting the book down at the time, because it felt as if she'd been put in there exclusively for that (although, unlike, say, Paul Kearney, Kay doesn't lovingly describe it happening).

Now, what happens to the character in the next two books kind of refutes that, but not entirely. So I've always wondered if his amazing female characters since then - like the Empress Alixana or the physician Jehane - were intended to make up for that early mistake. Whatever his intentions, Kay's female characters set a standard that every fantasy author should aspire to.

Another notable thing about Kay's books is that, poetic and beautiful as they are, they also don't shy away from warfare and violence (or sex). Much like I said in my laudatory post about Joe Abercrombie's work, Kay allows you to see the violence that characterized these societies, and its effects as they ripple out from one act, seemingly insignificant, without flinching or even reveling in it. The description of what happens to a pair of characters toward the end of The Lions of Al-Rassan, set in an analogue to Moorish Spain, is brutal and heart-rending, but also rings true.

If I have any criticism of Kay's work, it's that his style has perhaps become more solidified - I won't say set in its ways: there were a few too many points in River of Stars, his latest, where the omniscient narrator talks about how a character's actions affect the rest of his or her life, or the history of their nation. It was also sometimes difficult to tell why certain characters did certain things; but for all that, the very end of the book was amazing, and like in all of his books, the prose does a fantastic job of conveying the surroundings to the reader.

And that, in the end, is why I believe that every would-be fantasy author should read Guy Gavriel Kay. His prose is amazing, probably the best in the business - the only one I think can come close (and that's because he's funny) is Joe Abercrombie. F Scott Fitzgerald said that a person who wants to write fiction should read six top-flight authors each year - Guy Gavriel Kay should comfortably sit in that rank of writers.