Why Robin Sloan is the Future of Publishing (and Science Fiction)

On his blog, Robin Sloan describes himself as a "writer and media inventor." I'm not entirely sure what a "media inventor" is, but I assume it has something to do with how he manages to break just about every rule of publishing I can think of and make it work.

Take his novella "Annabel Scheme". It's just under 28,000 words long or a hundred pages or so (depending on the font). Conventionally, there's just no market for a work of that length. Sure there are exceptions, like the special edition that independent press Tachyon brought out of James Marrow's Slouching Towards Hiroshima, but that was a rare event. Generally, it's too long for magazines and fiction websites (which usually top out at 10,000-15,000 words) and too short for books (which start at 50,000 words). It's not that someone might not want to read a 100-page work of fiction—why not?—but the infrastructure just doesn't exist to get it into people's hands. So Robin turned to the Internet, specifically Kickstarter, a website full of people trying to raise money for art projects, independent film, theatre, magazines and so on. He created PBS-style pledge levels, offering, for different levels of "membership", PDF copies, print copies, surprise gifts, your name in the acknowledgements even behind-the-scenes peaks at his work on the novella (as he wrote it!). He said if he raised his goal of $3,500 for the work, he would release a PDF of the book free for everyone. Shockingly, he raised $13,942 dollars by almost 600 donors, more than most novelists get as an advance on a first novel. Not bad for a self-published, unpublishable novella.

Confession: Dogmata, Faith, Science, and Belief

I am a natural atheist. I was not raised in any particular faith tradition, and my earliest questions about religion and what it meant were often met by my parents with further questions rather than any answers. I came in the end to reject religion and belief in God in general because I could see no way to determine which of the conflicting views presented by the religions I knew about was correct. All of them seemed to claim that they were correct and the claims they made were incommensurable. I came to this understanding of the world at a very early age, and it seemed like a very natural and correct position to me. So much so that I recall very specifically being shocked a couple of times in my childhood that other kids hadn't come to the same conclusions. As early as the first grade I remember being taken aback when I was at friends houses and they said grace before a meal, or when someone that I thought was smart reacted strongly against some offhand remark I made about the stupidity of belief in God.

Small Beer Press launches Weightless Books

Noted indie publisher Small Beer Press has launched a web-based ebook store, Weightless Books and are currently pursuing many other independent publishers to join them in the venture. The store offers ebooks in blissfully DRM-free PDF format.

Small Beer Press is one of my favorite publishers, focusing mostly on short story collections and anthologies, and run by Kelly Link, who I have called the greatest living short story writer, and her husband Gavin Grant. There's a lot of great books on sale already at Weightless, including Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud's remarkable collection A Life on Paper which I mentioned once before and the latest issue of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, the zine that Link edits and which is on my list of Fiction Magazines Worth Reading.

Weekend Reading - 6/11/2010

Two great articles from Lev Grossman this outing.

First he talks about the persistant question does he write fantasy or literary fiction or what? in which he explores the meaning of genre and concludes that he doesn't understand the question, but if he had to he would come down on the side of fantasy.

In a related and much more in depth article in The Believer Grossman talks about Leonard Wolfe and the man who he sees as his uncanny doppelgänger, turning the two into metaphores for the rise of "literary fiction" and "fantasy" as distinct genres in the early twentieth century.

io9 has the most comprehensive treatment I've seen yet of the history of alternate history fiction.

Matt Cheney reviews the kind of Science Fiction/Fantasy book that you can give to people who don't read Science Fiction and Fantasy: Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death

Small Beer Press is bringing back into print Ted Chiang's seminal collection Stories of Your Life. Ted Chiang is a strange author, since 1990 he's published only 11 stories but almost every one of them has won awards and raked in plaudits. He is an example of a writer who fine tunes every story until they're diamond sharp.

While I'm pimping Small Beer (owned by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, who I have said is the greatest short story writer working today) they are also bringing into print for the first time in English A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, a French master whose work reads like Kafka and Borges. The page also contains links to several of his stories reprinted online, which are wonderful.

Charles Stross on using the iPad as a writing device.

In non-literary stuff: Michael Chabon on how Jews can be boneheaded too!

And finally FICTION TIME!

"The Days of Flaming Motorcycles" by Catherynne M Valente opens with the line "To tell you the truth, my father wasn’t really that much different after he became a zombie."

Happy, In Fact: Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things

Time is a funny thing. It's only really there when you aren't paying any attention to it. Take notice of the passage of time, and it freezes in place, neither future nor past but rather the oppressive weight of a nowness that is paradoxically both never ending and impossibly fragile. There is a sense of this troubling temporality that shoots through all of Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things, which obsesses about temporal passage and what it does to us in a continual iteration of images. This "caughtness" by time is captured in lines like:

Buried by Midnight
I am a warm
fly in amber.

from "Miracle on the Hudson"


Usually no one goes
close enough to notice
the noise of biding time,
a vastly off-white habit
from patience.

from "Anarchy's Tiptoe"

What matters in these images, and others, recurring throughout the poems in this book, is that they establish time as a framework within which the entirety of the poet's concerns are found. This temporality is compounded by the sectioning of the book into the usual five acts of stage drama, forcing the rhythm and expectation of a linear dramatic narrative onto the inherently nonlinear scraps of theater contained within each Act. Here then, are the slaves, the characters and persons collected within King's poems bearing under the weight of the master time, and also the master of the poet who is never far from the page. Because these poems are in no way about time, but they are within time and the concerns of lust and love, sex and death, growth and evolution are all made heavy by the burden of time's whip upon them.

Remembering a Poet Who Packed Stadiums: Andrei Voznesensky

On June 1st great Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky passed away at the age of 77. Voznesensky lived in a country and time when a popular poet could fill up stadiums, which he did in the 50s and 60s. In 1962, Khrushchev called him a "capitalist agent" and publicly denounced him as a pervert, which caused him to have a nervous breakdown.

I had a poem by Voznesensky read at my wedding. Here it is reproduced in its entirety,

"Dead Still" by Andrei Voznesensky translated from the Russian by Richard Wilber

Now, with your palms on the blades of my shoulders,
Let us embrace:
Let there be only your lips' breath on my face,
Only, behind our backs, the plunge of rollers.

Our backs, which like two shells in moonlight shine,
Are shut behind us now;
We lie here huddled, listening brow to brow,
Like life's twin formula or double sign.

In folly's world-wide wind
Our shoulders shield from the weather
The calm we now beget together,
Like a flame held between hand and hand.

Does each cell have a soul within it?
If so, fling open all your little doors,
And all your souls shall flutter like the linnet
In the cages of my pores.

Nothing is hidden that shall not be known.
Yet by no storm of scorn shall we
Be pried from this embrace, and left alone
Like muted shells forgetful of the sea.

Meanwhile, O load of stress and bother,
Lie on the shells of our backs in a great heap:
It will but press us closer, one to the other.

We are asleep.

Stuff I Like: A List cum Apologia of 5 Things that I Enjoy

So my last few posts have been pretty heavy, full of angry political nonsense. I thought it would be a nice change to just take a minute to list off a few things that I think are awesome and that you should also think are awesome.

1.) Rottweilers

Rottweilers are just awesome. They are big stupid animals that don't understand how big and stupid they are. If raised properly and treated well they are wonderful cuddly companions wholly undeserving of their ferocious reputations. People who train rottweilers to be mean should be shot. I like rottweilers a lot.

2.) Corn Dogs

I don't know who invented the corn dog, no one does, but that man or woman is a wonderful illustration of the genius that's possible with a simple idea. Take a sausage, put it on a stick, dip it it in corn bread batter, deep fry. Genius. Now granted, like many people I generally treat the corn dog as a delivery system for a variety of condiments, primarily hot mustard. But even as such a device, the corn dog excels. Mr. Anonymous corn dog inventer, I salute you.

3.) Googie Architecture

Marijuana Decriminalization: A Sketch of the Case in Favor

Fact: a lot of people like to get high. Whatever your position on the issue of Marijuana Decriminalization, I think we can start from a place of agreement on that basic premise: yes, Virginia, a lot of people like to get high. But here's another fact that may be a bit more controversial: Marijuana is good medicine for a lot of people. You may not know this, but this is a fact that's been recognized by the federal courts. There are a couple of people with serious degenerative diseases in America for whom the most effective treatment with the least damaging side effects is smoking marijuana. There aren't a lot of those folks, but there are some, and because of their situation as a result of a court settlement, a couple of people (I think the actual number is four), get regular shipments of Marijuana cigarettes from federal labs that grow pot for them.

Ok, so stipulate to that fact: for some limited, small number of people at least, Marijuana is extremely valuable as medicine. We can have a debate about the numbers, sure, but accept that there are at least a couple and we can have an important conversation.

And that conversation is about what do you do about the intersection of those two uses of Marijuana, on the one hand purely recreational and on the other objectively medically valuable.

How a person participates in that conversation, I would argue, has to do with their answer to a couple of fundamental questions: first, is there something wrong with getting high, and second based on the answer to that question, what do you do about the problems created by a particular subgroup of the folks who like to get high?

Why I Hate Firedoglake

So I just got an email from firedoglake, a blog that I started reading during the healthcare debacle of last year primarily because the editor was appearing repeatedly on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Here's what the email said:

A federally funded drug task force seized as evidence up to 200 petition signatures for marijuana legalization in Washington State in a series of early-morning raids this week. Seizing the petition signatures is bad enough. What's worse is what the task force did on its raids of a legal marijuana dispensary and its owner's home.

Drug agents handcuffed a 14-year-old boy and pointed a gun at his head. Then they took $80 from a 9-year-old girl's Minnie Mouse wallet that she earned for straight A's on her report card.

Now the drug agents - funded by the US Department of Justice - say they can only find two pages of the petition. But they had time to make photocopies of the petition, keeping the names and addresses of residents who signed.


The intended effect of this raid is to put a chill on other citizens from signing the petition, who will fear having their names and addresses exposed to a drug task force. It's intimidation, pure and simple. And your tax dollars are paying for it.

Now this all came as a bit of a surprise to me. As someone who follows the drug war fairly closely, I recalled that last year the Obama administration had made the decision that pursuing medical marijuana growers who were in compliance with state law was not a good use of federal manpower and that it would be de-emphasized. So it was surprising to me that this federal taskforce was going after a medical marijuana dispensary, particularly in my home state where attitudes about The Weed among law enforcement are in my experience pretty lax and where the City of Seattle has more or less decriminalized the possession of small amounts for personal use.