Denver Area Science Fiction Association February Meeting

Now that I have a little more free time on my hands, I’ve been looking for ways to get more plugged in to the local science fiction fan and author communities. To that end I attended DASFA’s February meeting this evening.

This month’s meeting featured a panel of three local authors, discussing the topic “Salty Language is In Effect: The Outré in Genre Fiction.”  The panel consisted of Jesse Bullington (The Enterprise of Death), Jason Heller (Taft 2012) and Stephen Graham Jones (Zombie Bake-Off  and It Came From Del Rio). The three were not strictly science fiction authors (second-world and various shades of fantasy), and the primary subject material is not something I’ll recount here on a blog with young-adult readers, but there were a few interesting takeaways applicable to science fiction:

  • If you’re waiting for a completely original story that nobody’s ever done before, you’re not going to find it — originality lies more in the presentation, the setting, the characters, etc.;
  • One doesn’t have to include gore, violence, sex, or other “outré” material to tell a good story, and conversely, it’s tricky to include such things in a way that doesn’t seem gratuitous, offensive, or (worse) creepy or sleazy;
  • Having something to say, in the sense of something political, moral, or  philosophical, isn’t a bad thing and perhaps even unavoidable in all but the most anodyne writing. A writer should however be sensitive to the audience and present both sides of such matters in a fair manner (yes, yes, stop giggling — I freely admit we are a little blunt in places in In the Shadow of Ares, but there are stylistic and trilogy-arc reasons for this, as you’ll see in the second book);
  • There are more genre authors and genre events in the Denver area than I had suspected, and this may be true of a lot of small cities.

The last point is perhaps the most valuable – aspiring writers can benefit from involving themselves with these events and the organizations behind them, through the opportunities the latter provide for peer review, mutual feedback, motivation, and marketing. Networking is essential when you’re e-publishing — sitting at home behind your keyboard watching your Kindle sales reports and hoping for the best isn’t going to improve your writing or your royalties.

9/11 and Science Fiction

Glenn Reynolds (prompted by a post by Andrew Fox) muses on the absence of 9/11 (and by extension the War on Terror) from science fiction, which Fox speculates is a taboo subject.

Carl and I started writing In the Shadow of Ares one week before 9/11, so the genesis of the book spans the world before and the world after, in a way. Yet we consciously avoided making reference to the event or to the War on Terror and its various manifestations in the backstory to the novel. Is it because the subject is taboo? (It wasn’t when we began, quite the opposite.) Is it because we chose to be politically correct? (Hardly – if it had been unacceptably politically incorrect to talk about it, that would have been motivation in itself to work something in.)

No: it’s because the matter isn’t settled. It’s hard to extrapolate a likely future from current events when those events are so volatile and unpredictable. Five years or even one year later, any future history based around certain seemingly-likely developments of current conditions could be overtaken by events in the real world, rendering it not merely inaccurate, but wholly or even absurdly wrong. Just look at near-future science fiction from the late-1990s which understandably failed to anticipate 9/11 itself. For that matter, who would have expected from reading science fiction prior to 9/10/01 that the singular historical event of 2001 would have been a major terrorist attack rather than the discovery of an alien-built monolith?

Predicting the future by hewing closely to current trends is asking for trouble, so, we decided to simply gloss over the next two decades and begin our future with the first mission to Mars (and a nearly-simultaneous asteroid impact in the Atlantic) in 2025.

We do touch on Islamic terrorism in a couple of little ways, however. We refer several times to a settlement named “New Tel Aviv” — we haven’t had reason to include the backstory yet, but there is a reason for the “New” part. In the sequel, which we are writing now, terrorism is a key element of one character’s backstory as well as and element of the overall plot — but is played so as to illustrate that it is a dead practice, long abandoned even by radicals much as anarchist bombings and assassinations were all the rage in the three decades leading up to WWI. Indeed, the younger characters, when confronted with what appears to be terrorism, don’t know what to make of it any more than a teenager today would know what to make of “propaganda of the deed”.

I don’t for a second doubt that there are writers (and editors and publishers) who shy away from anything to do with Islamic radicalism or terrorism in science fiction since 9/11. Islam certainly wasn’t taboo before 9/11 given books like Terra and Jitterbug and short stories like Juhani Appleseed (note that in film, the producers of The Sum of All Fears have explained that they changed the villains from Arab nationalists to neo-Nazis well before 9/11 because the former had become cliche…while the latter had, apparently, not), but one would expect that the same political correctness which has made criticism or even insufficiently positive portrayals off limits in other areas of the arts to have done its damage in science fiction as well.

If you read carefully, however, you will find one small but poignant reference to 9/11 buried in In the Shadow of Ares. It has to do with the diggers, and anyone who watched the on-the-street video during and after the collapses streaming throughout the day on 9/11 itself should immediately recognize it.

Traveling Light

3-D printing may be more advanced than I had thought:

I am a little bit skeptical.  For example, how does the optical scanner determine the dimensions and configuration of individual internal parts, for which there is no line of sight?  That is not explained in the video, though perhaps it’s a simplification for the casual viewer.

Nonetheless, what a great technology for off-world travel. No need for spare parts.  Of course, you need a feed stock for the process that will meet the specifications for the end product, and it helps if that feedstock can be manufactured at your destination.  We already know that we can make breathing air and rocket propellant from elements readily available on Mars, so why not other compounds?

PJ Interviews Sarah Hoyt on “Darkship Thieves”

Over at PJ Lifestyle, Patrick Richardson interviews author Sarah Hoyt about her SF novel “Darkship Thieves”, which recently won the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Prometheus Award for best novel.

What I found particularly interesting about the interview is Hoyt’s experience with other writers and publishers regarding her political leanings. Having grown up with Heinlein, I generally expect science fiction to be a pro-liberty, optimistic genre – even after cancelling my Analog subscription after 25 years because of its ongoing drift towards a “progressive” perspective.

She also makes some good points about the future of publishing, akin to what we have discussed a few times in this blog (prompted by her comments, appropriately enough). Who knows if or how much new science fiction is really being locked out of the market because of the political leanings of the publishing gatekeepers — but with e-books having such easy access and low prices, will it really matter much longer? All that is needed to ensure the circulation of such books now is a means to locate and promote authors and stories with desired points of view.

What I’m thinking of is along the lines of a talent scout crossed with a restaurant critic, where an motivated reader scours the field for new material, finds what he likes, and promotes it to others. If their reviews and recommendations prove useful and informative to a like-minded segment of readers, they can become a trusted source or “brand”. To some degree, I think Glenn Reynolds has happened into a role like this – his own known libertarian leanings give a certain weight to even his trademark “in the mail” references to SF books.

Further evolution of this concept might turn this figurative brand into a literal one – like a small-label music producer, this trusted scout/reviewer might take a more pro-active role, assisting the writers they discover with improving their work and promoting them with a label that unfamiliar readers might associate with quality and an amenable perspective. Hoyt’s publisher Baen Books appears to be reinventing itself along similar lines (albeit on a different foundation and on a different scale). Given the emergence of e-books and blogs, the only barrier to any random reader doing this from scratch would seem to be the time and effort it takes to find and review the material and develop the reputation. This means that rather than one perspective manning the gates to the entire industry (and keeping out unwelcome intruders), there is the opportunity for an enormous diversity of viewpoints to flourish and gain reader attention. These hypothetical “boutique e-publishers” could take up the editorial and marketing roles traditionally performed by the print houses, at lower cost and with better alignment to underserved micro-segments of the science fiction market.

I feel compelled to address at least one of Hoyt’s other points as well, that being the ‘science fiction is entertainment, not preaching’. As anyone who has read In the Shadow of Ares can attest, we do spend some time expanding on certain libertarian ideas. For a novel directed exclusively at adults, I fully agree: nobody likes to be overtly lectured on ideas or principles they already share, and blatant lectures will do little to persuade those who aren’t already like-minded. ITSOA has been criticized by a few readers doing just this, but then, our book is directed at the young adult market. We made the conscious decision to make some of the philosophy in the book a bit more overt than we otherwise might have precisely because we expected to be introducing these ideas to unfamiliar readers. So, if you haven’t yet read the book, be aware that it does include a few expository excursions…

* — The word ‘libertarian’ is used in the broad sense here, not referring to the Libertarian Party but to pro-liberty and small-government political, social, and economic ideals.

Kindle Million-Seller

Well, this certainly puts to rest any qualms I had about e-publishing In the Shadow of AresSelf Publishing Writer Becomes Million Seller:

John Locke, 60, who publishes and promotes his own work, enjoys sales figures close to such literary luminaries as Stieg Larsson, James Patterson and Michael Connelly.

His remarkable achievement is being hailed as a milestone of the internet age and the beginning of a revolution in the way that books are sold.

Instead the DIY novelist has relied on word of mouth and a growing army of fans of his crime and western novellas that he has built up online thanks to a website and twitter account.

But unlike these heavyweights of the writing world, he has achieved it without the help of an agent or publicist – and with virtually no marketing budget.

Interesting. We’ve got about, oh, 999,000 sales to go to catch up, so help spread the word!

Concept Art

While rooting around in a desk drawer this evening, I came across a bunch of sketches of our early concepts from 2002-2003 for several locations and bits of hardware for In the Shadow of Ares. It’s surprising how similar most of them were to what ended up in the book — and that only one specific setting ended up not making it.

If I can get some time this weekend, I’ll scan them in, and in the case of the MA add a sketch of what the original concept morphed into over time.

On E-Publishing

Sarah Hoyt has come to the same realization that we did regarding e-publishing our novel:

But the field is opening, expanding, and offering a lot of other chances.

As for writers? Well, while there are books I’m not willing to let go small press or e-only – not yet – that is changing, too, and ask me again in three years and it could be quite different. For years now, being published anywhere but by the big boys/gals was an admission of failure. Just the lifting of that taboo is huge. As is the fact that being self-published is not the end of the world, anymore.

As she and several of her commenters point out, one risk in e-publishing is that a solid editorial influence is not necessarily present. An author can side-step the seemingly closed circle of the traditional agent-publisher route, but they then bear the responsibility of thoroughly editing their own writing (which for most of us is a risky proposition) or finding and paying out of pocket a suitable freelance editor to do it for them.

What convinced me that e-publishing was not the kiss of death to our book’s prospects, or a mark of failure (ie: “your book’s so terrible you can’t get it published for real“), was actually seeing a Kindle. Before that, I figured it was a gimmick that would be resisted by established authors and publishers in the same way that studios and record labels resisted digital media to one degree or another. But after trying one out, I started paying more attention to e-publishing. Soon, I was seeing news items about this or that author publishing their books directly to Kindle, getting urged by friends to go straight to Kindle ourselves, and seeing people using readers in airports and other public places.

By August, it had occurred to me that what happened to the music industry with the emergence of iTunes was happening in similar fashion to the publishing industry with digital readers. The technology was right, the public had accepted it, and now serious content was becoming available.

The post above briefly discusses how – far from being a threat – e-publishing could actually expand business opportunities for the traditional publishing industry if they are wise enough to embrace them. As an outsider, that makes a lot of sense to me…with the cost of “printing” books reduced almost to nothing, and the demand for new material always increasing, publishers who embrace e-books as (if nothing else) a farm team for their more traditional publishing business will be well rewarded. The cost to a publisher of editing and marketing an e-book may be little different, but with the overhead associated with preparing, printing, and distributing a paper book eliminated the overall investment in a new book is reduced, and taking a chance on a new author or an innovative story is therefore less risky to the bottom line.

Another opportunity that might emerge (and I would be very surprised if it did not, given precedents) is for e-book “small label publishers”. These would be akin to indie film houses and small/personal record labels, bringing to market unknown or niche titles and authors who would otherwise go overlooked or ignored by the mainstream publishing industry. The benefits these small labels could provide might include streamlined versions of the editing, preparation, and marketing functions provided by traditional publishers, but more importantly, they could confer a degree of respectability to overcome the stigma of “vanity publishing”. The label would serve as a secondary brand-name, helping inform potential readers that the book they are considering downloading has been through some sort of selection process and (as their familiarity with the label grows) serving as an indicator of the quality they can expect even from an unknown new author. One of the commenters on the linked post indicates this is already happening with Baen Books, so it would not surprise me to see it happen soon with new, start-up labels as well.

In short, our perceptions of “self-publishing” have completely changed in the past year, thanks to Kindle and other e-readers. E-books no longer seem to be a flash-in-the-pan fad, and the traditional agent-publisher model may as a result be forced to change to something a bit more open.

Kindle and Nook

The Kindle version of In the Shadow of Ares is now available at Thank you to everyone who has already purchased the book — plus the helpful feedback from  sharp-eyed Ari, who discovered an editorial comment left behind like a bad surgeon’s forgotten scalpel. The mistake has been corrected and the text republished, but it may take 24 hours to propagate to the product page.

We’ve had multiple requests to publish to the Nook platform, which I just so happen to be doing. It is a little bit more involved than publishing to Kindle — Kindle merely involved entering payment information, a cover image and description, and uploading the .doc file. Smashwords (the site used for Nook and many other e-reader platforms) is a little more particular about formatting and metadata, but in return it includes assignment of an ISBN number and listing in major book catalogs. This means publishing through Smashwords will not only get us onto multiple additional readers but into libraries and other outlets.