@ontent by Cory Doctorow

If you like SF or issues of fair use for intellectual property, it’s likely you have read some of Doctorow’s opinion pieces online. If you haven’t, he has collected many of his previously published essays into book form, which is free to download. I bought an autographed, paper copy of @ontent at WorldCon. I’m old-fashioned and I love paper books.

This book of essays is such compelling reading, I found myself devouring it like a thriller fan, losing sleep to find out what he would say next. It’s so cleverly written and so well-argued, I’m not sure how to review it. Let’s just say his are some of the sanest and most reasonable opinions you can find on peer-to-peer file sharing and ebooks.

His views are radical, in that he does not support the big recording labels and book publishers in efforts to prevent piracy, but his opinions are practical. Encryption technology doesn’t work and treating even the most naive and law-abiding citizen like a pirate for wanting to copy a song onto several computers (such as the case with DRM-protected music from iTunes) is wrong. It should be easy to back up our hard drives and upgrade our hardware, without losing access to our music.

For the artists, many of whom cannot make a living simply from writing fiction or recording music, it has always been necessary to publicize and make money via other means. These are areas where artists benefit from having a personal dialogue with a community of fans. To build such a community, word of mouth, sometimes in the form of file sharing and downloads, is helpful.

I have reversed my opinion on this issue twice in my life. As a teenager and in my twenties, I believed in the old medieval ethos where ideas were free and belonged to everybody. In the history of literature, stories are used, reused and reshaped by every story teller with no apologies. Why then, according to Doctorow, shouldn’t fan fic be valued highly?

I think most authors would be honoured to have fan fic devoted to the worlds they create. Brilliant writers inspire imitators but each work is unique. Some great works of fiction inspire new genres. Should we tell new writers there is something wrong with rewriting the story of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? These stories have become archetypes in our society and whole fiction genres have grow out of them. Who is to say a fan fic writer won’t be the one to create the next Dracula or Sherlock Holmes?

For a while, perhaps influenced by my very law-abiding job and influenced by my ambitions as a writer, I thought that copyright should be respected by everyone in every case. People should not steal money from artists by not paying royalties. Certainly the professional development I have received from my board of education stressed the respect for copyright. It was all about teaching children to use technology without the unauthorized use of copyright materials. I’m all for teaching children to respect artists and the hard work they must do to make a living but I’m waiting for a better set of regulations.

In Canada, we have had some ideas about fair use that worked. Cancopy was a program where writers received a certain amount of money based on their popularity because it was expected that some people would photocopy books. In the same way, a certain amount of money was charged on blank cassettes and paid back to recording artists based on their airplay. This system recognised that people liked to record songs from the radio and create their own ‘mix tapes.’ Maybe something similar could be done for ebooks.

Right now Access Copyright is working on the Google settlement for copyright holders who have had their work digitized, mostly without their permission. Nearly every book published before January 2009 is affected by this settlement. The date to opt out and retain your right to sue Google independently is September 4, 2009. For more information from the Canadian point-of-view, look at this article on the Access Copyright webpage.

One of Doctorow’s main points is copyright is always changed to catch up with new technology. Whatever law is in place at the moment, was written in reaction to the last wave of technology. He cites the introduction of the player piano (which hurt performers and sheet music printers), the radio (which hurt Vaudeville acts), or P2P sharing (which is hurting CD sales). I eagerly await new developments in this area. In the meantime, why don’t you download a copy of Doctorow’s book for free and make your mind up for yourself?

Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston

I met Lesley Livingston, author of Wondrous Strange, at the AD Astra SF/ Fantasy conference in Toronto. She launched the book there and took place in a couple of interesting panel discussions. My favorite of these was a discussion of fight choreography and fencing. Livingston is a principal performer and founding member of the Tempest Theatre Group.

Her first novel is a magical tale about seventeen-year-old Kelly, a risk-taker who has left her home to take a backstage job in a small New York theatre company. She gets her first break when the actress playing Titania in Midsummernight’s Dream breaks an ankle. Things are not what they appear, however, and soon Kelly is drawn into a faerie world which, around Halloween, threatens to spill out into Central Park.

This is a sophisticated YA novel which appealed to me both for literary qualities and for the sense of wonder. Our firsts always retain a certain glow in our memories and youth makes the whole world seem alive, almost supernaturally so. This novel, which involves feerie politics and changling romance is a light-hearted net in which to capture that youthful vivacity.

Jane Austen aside, this is the first book I’ve read in years where the “A” story was the romance plot. That’s right, I’m coming down in favour of a romance novel in the fantasy genre, both things outside my usual range of tastes. For a more thorough review, you might want to read The Book Zombie, who gives a complete plot synopsis. You can also see Livingston interviewed by her publisher on YouTube.

Happy reading.

The White Tiger

I just finished reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. It is one of my favorite types of novel, a literary page-turner set in India with a unique voice and point-of-view. I recommend it highly and can see why it won the Man Booker Prize for 2008.

Currently I’m reading the Watchmen graphic novel which is a slow read for me. The dire atmosphere and misogynist drawings are taking a lot of the fun out of it. How many panels do I have to look at involving rape, near rape, extreme ugliness or someone with blood coming out of their mouth? Ugh. I’m having to force myself to finish it, so it’s hard to understand why Canada’s Globe and Mail named it a top 100 novel of all time. Perhaps I’ll know when I get to the end.

These past few weeks have been so busy with school I’ve done little writing but I did enjoy the reunion with my critique group last Thursday. Right now I’ve got to get back to that manuscript on the go. I get critiqued May 21. Wish me good luck.

Happy reading.

Ages of Wonder — Czerneda & St. Martin

Now reading: Ages of Wonder , edited by Julie Czerneda and Rob St. Martin. This is one of a pile of books I brought back from Ad Astra. It will take me months to get through my stack of new SF novels, especially since I’m supposed to be writing.

So far I’m really enjoying this book of short stories. I think one reason some people avoid Fantasy stories, even before they read them, is Fantasy’s reputation for vague pseudo-medieval English settings. Stories like that are no longer in fashion, but if you say Fantasy to me, I still visualize long-haired maidens leading unicorns.

I prefer well-defined, researched settings. If they do it right, I like it when Fantasy writers take liberties with old cultural icons, like Neil Gaiman’s Anansi-inspired novels or Christopher Moore’s Grim Reaper baby.

This collection, organized into The Age of Antiquity, The Age of Sail, The Colonial Age, The Age of Pioneers, The Pre-Modern Age and The Age Ahead, promises Fantasy with an authentic feel.

Novel Progress Report: Now working on Chapter 10.

Fool — Christopher Moore

I have to recommend Christopher Moore’s Fool: A Novel. It’s a rollicking pastiche of Elizabethan and Pagan sensibilities, played for maximum sex and mayhem. I was impressed that an American who has not lived in England got the mix of Shakespearean and colloquial English right. Historically accurate language would get in the way of farce, so Moore substitutes current English slang to keep the tone earthy and mine anachronisms for humour. In his long note at the end of the book, Moore lists his sources and names the DVDs he watched for research. By the style of comedy, I was surprised he didn’t name Rowan Atkinson of Blackadder. The comic situation is similar. An ambitious, morally degenerate underdog hero takes on the bloodthirsty and even less scrupulous bad guys of the English court.

Here’s my recommendation. If you like Blackadder, you’ll love reading Fool. If you like Fool and you are unfamiliar with the Blackadder TV series, you’re in for a treat.

In personal news, I finished chapter eight of my work-in-progress at 10:00 this morning. I’ll see how much more I can get done today.

Seth Godin’s ‘Dip’

Seth Godin’s little book, The Dip, is all about achievement. He discusses it at his blog The Dip by Seth Godin. I read the occasional business book, not because I am an entrepreneur, but because I love to see how successful people think. This little book, full of common sense, is designed for those willing to reach the ‘tops of their fields.’ With the Olympic closing ceremonies today, it’s time to think about achievement.

Who, given the choice, would go to the second best brain surgeon? We want the best so the best get all the attention and business. You have to be the first, offer something unique and be the best or resign yourself to only a small fraction of the market.

The dip is a metaphor describing the long, discouraging slog between a beginner’s early learning curve and mastery. Most people quit in ‘the dip’ before they become the best.

One of the things I like about this book is that it encourages you to quit. I have heard too many superstars encourage young people to never give up, to hold on to their dream, to make every sacrifice. I wish they would add that talent and a willingness to relocate are necessary. Kids should not be told they will be superstars if they are tenacious, despite mediocre talents and an unwillingness to make their own luck. On the other hand, sometimes mediocrity is good enough.

I am an amateur writer and director of kids’ musicals. I will never make a living at it. I wouldn’t dream of taking something so rewarding and turn it into a job. Instead, I do it at school. The kids love to be stars in their own show. Years later some even come back to reminisce. This is a much richer reward than money, but it will never get me past Godin’s ‘dip.’

Most people are much happier not being super-successful, rich and famous and most days, I’m one of them.

Now, if you told me I could be a well-known, self-supporting fiction author, that I had the talent, that all I had to do was quit my job and devote myself to writing full-time… I’d certainly think about it. That’s one reason why I read books like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan and Godin’s The Dip. I still have this crazy dream. One day I’ll write a great novel manuscript and the right editor will pull it out of the slush pile. Stranger things have happened.

For example, I just read Stephanie Meyer’s #1 New York Times best-selling debut novel, twilight. What a success story.

Until then, happy writing.

I am America (And so can you!)

I recently finished reading Stephen Clarke’s Merde Happens and Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You!), two humorous books that take an ironic look at American life by two men both called Stephen C. Conspiracy? I certainly think so.

The thing about humour is it doesn’t change people’s minds. Nobody laughs at something they disagree with. Comedy reflects what they already believe and allows them to laugh at things they suspect are true, whether or not these things are polite. Humour also counts on the audience feeling superior. Nobody laughs at being made to feel stupid.

Stephen Colbert has a TV show and gets lots of exposure. He says things that are hyper-correct to Right Wing thinkers, in a tone that lets us in on the joke. He thinks Right Wingers are wing-nuts who don’t believe in evolution. Here is a quote, somewhat overwritten, that leaves no doubt about where he stands on science.

“If I may quote myself: Reality has a well-known liberal bias. And who can you depend on to kowtow to reality like it’s the only game in town? Scientists. They do it religiously. With their fanatical devotion, scientists are no better than cult members – only difference is they put their blind faith into empirical observation… Only problem, we weren’t put on this planet to question our environment, we were put here to process it into fuel for our cars.”

Naturally, sharing his liberal bias, I laughed out loud reading this book. I know it’s a time-waster to read someone funny who you agree with but why not? You have to be happy sometimes.

I was less pleased with Stephen Clarke’s Merde Happens. Clarke is a Brit with three other books to his credit on the theme of French/English cultural misunderstanding. I’ve lived in France. I visit Quebec and I listen to French-language radio frequently. I do not believe that the British are superior to the French. I figure they’re all European and therefore pretty much the same – like, say Canadians and Americans are pretty much the same. 😉

Needless to say, I found the humour in this a little strained. The main character, Paul West, has opened an English Tea Shop in Paris. The problem is, he has labelled everything in English and when he get inspected, the fine the French government levies is large enough to put him out of business. I suppose I should be a little more sympathetic but I’m not. The amount of the fine is obviously exaggerated for effect and the general situation is not so absurd. Why shouldn’t a shop in Paris be required to post French signs?

We have a similar situation in Quebec. Retail signs there have to be in French and if there is another language present, say Chinese on a restaurant sign, the French letters are supposed to be larger. It’s all part of making French the main language of daily expression in Quebec just as English is the majority language in the rest of Canada and the United States.

This seems fair to me. The francophone diaspora is under pressure to survive. The Académie française is deluged with English tech neologisms every day. French, once the language of diplomacy, has been superceded by English, the most popular second language in the world. That’s a lot of people learning English instead of the language of Molière.

I suppose the best parts of Merde Happens, for me, were when Clarke takes on American foibles, but we share so many of these in Canada, they were funny but not exotic: SUV’s, highway driving, supercharged air-conditioning, outsourcing, men in kilts (okay, maybe that part would have been funnier if it didn’t smack of homophobia).

The result is a mildly funny book with enough narrative drive and sexy bits to keep me reading to the end, which was forgettable. To ‘get’ this one fully I guess you have to be English or at least share Clarke’s point-of-view.

Happy reading.

Vertige des Auteurs

I enjoyed Georges Flipo’s Le Vertige des auteurs. The anti-hero, Sylvain Vasseur, is a middle-aged functionary forced into early retirement. Vasseur has very simple tastes. Until the day of his retirement, he shows interest only in cycling, sex with his long-suffering wife, beer drinking and watching the Tour de France. At his retirement party, his boss, Delorgey, asks about his future plans. To Vasseur, who worships men of power, these activities seem suddenly too small. Eager to please his idol, who assumes he will do something artistic, Vasseur proclaims that he will write. This boast becomes the impetus for a new career as a writer.

Vasseur’s ex-boss, eager to increase his own prestige, uses his publicity department to promote his hapless protege. The result is a comedy both pitiless and funny. The anti-hero, Sylvain Vasseur, does write elegant business letters, but his talent goes no further. This fact is completely lost on his boss, too concerned with money and prestige to have developed artistic tastes of his own.

Flipo dramatizes the worst-case scenario for wannabe writers. Imagine a man determined to sacrifice everything for art, (love, friends, money, success, health) but who lacks the wit to abandon his hopeless crusade before it destroys him. Vasseur is fated to fail by his vanity and self-absorption. He hurts his allies and ignores all advice and warning signs. When we read of his suffering, near the end of the book, it is well-deserved. I will not reveal the twist ending but will say it satisfies, prepared for in advance yet still surprising.

I hope to read more books by this master of style and ideas.

Happy reading.

the continuity girl

I recently read and enjoyed Leah McLaren’s the continuity girl. It was my guilty pleasure while I was doing all that entertaining and writing to complete the JulNoWriMo Challenge (see previous posts).

Meredith Moore is an obsessive film script supervisor, the person responsible for making sure the timeline of a movie visually matches in each frame. She is talented, fastidious and feels completely in control, until she wakes up on her thirty-fifth birthday wanting to have a baby. She calls this irresistible drive “The Quest,” making for a book of adventures that are imaginative, well-observed and often hilarious.

This novel, which fits the chic lit marketing plan, deserves to be called a comedy as much as a romance. McLaren, a columnist with Canada’s national Globe and Mail newspaper does not stint on language. You can hear the influence of her work as the Globe’s London Arts correspondent in the narration as well as the dialogue. It makes for richer language and I liked McLaren for not dumbing it down.

The ending feels inevitable and it is happy. This feel-good piece makes no moral judgements on today’s single, working women who want to have babies. For balance, McLaren portrays Meredith’s mother Irma, a free-loving poet who, in her early twenties, accidentally became a single parent. To Meredith she is negligent and selfish. To the London notables she is famous, amusing and quite possibly barmy. This mother-daughter relationship is one of the highlights of the book.

This is a good, light read with some fun social commentary and a cast of idiosyncratic characters. I recommend it.

Happy reading.

Stephanie Plum does the numbers

Last night we had a lovely party for my husband’s mother with cake, way too much food and, of course, chocolate. Today I am hoping the driving rain we had most of yesterday is over. The Swedish family is off to Canada’s Wonderland to ride roller coasters. I can’t attend because of a funeral. Although I didn’t know the departed, I am very fond of his brother, a sort of ‘uncle,’ to me.

Making the best of things, naturally I will be spending as much of this morning as I can catching up on the novel-in-a-month project. So far, it’s been worth the effort in writing lessons learned, if nothing else. Why else do these crazy challenges?

I could have signed up for a writing conference this summer (expensive!) but there is no guarantee it would have taught me more than writing (so far) 31 000 words. Many people would argue that making connections, meeting editors and so forth is much more productive for a beginning writer who wants to get published. Maybe, but what is the point of shaking hands with editors and agents if you can’t show them a manuscript? This will be my fourth novel (if you count my YA manuscript, my 3-day novel and my very first fantasy manuscript which was written in six weeks before I had even heard of timed writing challenges). How can my writing not be improved after the fourth? I’m trying for a light tone, a little bit like Janet Evanovich. My Mother loaned me one of her fun, Stephanie Plum numbered novels at the start of the summer.

I suppose a review is in order although I believe Janet Evanovich is such a best selling author, anyone who would like her has already heard of her. Her Stephanie Plum stories are about a skip tracer who is terrible at her job and her comic romantic adventures. There are a lot of stereotypical Italian mobsters, played for humour as well as suspense. The sexual tension between Stephanie and her cop crush and Stephanie and the mysterious and powerful Ranger is one of the main attractions. The humour derives mostly from character and there is a parade float of colourful characters here. Excellent beach reading!

Happy reading/ writing!