Has Game of Thrones reached its sell-by date?

George RR Martin meme

George RR Martin finishes the Game of Thrones series. Yeah, in your wildest fantasy.

Ok, so I’m late to the party, but I just spent the last six or eight weeks (I’ve lost count) reading the 1,123-page paperback edition of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, book five of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, mostly because my obsessive-compulsive tendencies prevented me from abandoning the door-stopper. I wasted about half that time.

You know there’s a problem when the author has to explain himself on the first page of the book. After the dedication, itself a tome (31 names!), in what he titles a “cavil,” an obscure word meaning “trivial objection,” he nearly apologizes for what he’s about to do: give you virtual whiplash by taking you backward then forward in time and into parallel universes. Off you go, don’t get lost! Continue reading

Hachette may have won the battle, but Amazon will win the war

Medieval joust

Hachette may have unhorsed Amazon, but the game is far from done.

Amazon and Hachette kissed, made up, and walked into the sunset hand-in-hand after their ten-month dispute over ebook pricing. That’s what the spin doctors want you to think when you read the statements issued by each company yesterday and the followup press reports, but it’s impossible to believe that the fires of resentment and future conflict aren’t seething in the c-suites of both companies. Hachette may have won the engagement, but the war is far from over.

Here’s the issue: Amazon wanted to set ebook prices on its website; Hachette wanted to set them itself. In a version of single combat worthy of Game of Thrones, Amazon landed the first blows when it pulled features such as overnight delivery of Hachette books. Not for the first time, Amazon used its market power to pressure a supplier to sell on best terms. Hachette took the rare step of publicly crying foul, and pursued a boxing-like jab-jab-jab strategy to wear down its opponent. Meanwhile, it egged on a loud chorus of ringside authors in an attempt to shame the champion into lowering its guard, leaving it open to a knock-him-on-his-arse blow. Continue reading

Review: How “Interstellar” resembles “How the West Was Won”

Interstellar movie poster

Interstellar owes a lot to the epic western genre.

Interstellar is a glorious tangle, an ambitious film that accomplishes much, but fails to grab the audience by the throat. Director Christopher Nolan delivers a sci-fi epic true to the Hollywood form, spanning galaxies and taking the viewer to places impossible to visit in real life. It expands on a classic American (indeed, human) theme–striking out for new lands–but falters when Nolan can’t escape the black hole of Hollywood cliches.

As father of two daughters, I’m a sucker for the film’s central relationship, that of test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, played by mumble-mouthed Matthew McConaughey, with his genius daughter Murphy, played by three different actors of various ages, most effectively by young McKenzie Foy. They live on a flat, dry, blight-ravaged landscape where ecological disaster has overtaken humanity’s ability to adapt. Climate change is the unspoken villain, though the emergency is scientifically non-sensical (“Earth is running out of oxygen!”). The most alarming aspect of this world is hopelessness, a sense that the land is finally wreaking its revenge on its human exploiters and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it. Continue reading

Is fiction about climate change for real?

Still from Interstellar

Climate change is a driving force in Interstellar’s plot. Still courtesy Warner Bros.

The movie Interstellar opens on November 7 and climate change drives the story. Stills and leaked reports about its plot point to an agriculture irreparably damaged by global warming, forcing the protagonist to leave Earth in search of greener pastures. Commentators are lumping Interstellar into the current crop of post-apocalyptic thrillers, which include Hunger Games and Divergent. A few writers and activists are pegging it as “climate fiction,” though others say such genre thinking trivializes a disaster unfolding in real time.

Hollywood embraced global warming as a theme only recently. Young Ones, released on October 9, posits a future with little fresh water, and Into the Storm, which opened August 8, shows a small town devastated by a series of climate-driven super-tornadoes. Science fiction writers, however, have imagined a climate-ravaged world since the early 1960s. One of the most prescient early books is George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, published in 1987. His vision of an Australia flooded by rising seas is echoed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s Bangkok in his 2010 novel The Windup Girl. The Thai capital is kept alive by dikes and gates reminiscent of the Thames Barrier in London. Continue reading

Why Amazon is a writer’s best frenemy.


Amazon is your frenemy. Image courtesy Finding FUKI.

It’s fashionable in writing circles these days to vilify Amazon as if the company was a science fiction monster stomping a beautiful edifice into dust. Most of these authors and their allies, such as the members of Authors United, owe their fame and livelihoods to legacy publishing, so it’s natural for them to defend the hand that feeds. On the flip side, they weren’t complaining when Amazon took the risk of opening new markets for their books, which presumably meant higher sales and larger royalty checks. Friends with benefits are a good thing, until you realize the “friend’s” real motives. Of course, Amazon was never their friend, and it’s not their enemy.

For the midlist author or the writer rejected by the legacy world, Amazon and its cousins in the self-publishing universe are a godsend. I’m a case in point. Proposals for my first book, a history of an important Seattle-area fishing schooner, were turned down by more than a dozen traditional publishers, including several that specialize in stories from the Pacific Northwest. One editor said too few people would buy the book to justify the risk. That makes perfect sense: Maritime history is a niche market, publishing is a risky business, and a press needs to break even on its investments at least. A generation ago, the project would have ended there. In the 21st century, the self-publishing world made possible my small contribution to local history. The book is now available in Seattle-area public libraries and for purchase online. Since then, I’ve published other books through Amazon or its companies in this way. For me, Amazon is my friend. Continue reading

Utopia vs dystopia smackdown: Guess who wins.

Utopia, Texas, sign

Utopia, Texas. Image courtesy University of Houston, Clear Lake.

Too dark. Too depressing. Too frightening. These are the comments some critics and authors apply to the crop of movies and novels drawing viewers and readers to the multiplexes and bookstores these days. From the Maze Runner to Divergent, dystopias dominate the best-seller and blockbuster categories, and culture watchers wonder if the public has lost hope in the future.

Could it be that dystopia’s opposite–utopia–is simply boring?

Today’s complaints about dystopian stories originate with the movie made from the novel the Hunger Games, about a young woman who challenges an autocratic society that oppresses weaker communities with a blood sport. It’s really a classic “us-against-the-world” teen rebellion story, but the environment is dystopian, so it gets mentioned in the same breath as 1984, a gross injustice to George Orwell. Continue reading

Review: Peak oil fuels this dystopian survivalist novel

Cover image for In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, by Jennifer Ellis

Scientists, pundits, and self-appointed prophets paint the impact of climate change with brushstrokes of extreme weather, upended economies, and pandemic disease. It’s up to writers and artists to imagine the effects of these changes on human relationships. More and more writers are examining the possibilities and dangers of life in a warming world, including Jennifer Ellis, author of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, a dystopian survivalist novel that explores how people who grow up in a world of abundance cope with instantaneous privation.

Ellis’ imagined future may be happening right now. Economists say that we may have found all the oil that’s economically feasible to extract. From this moment of “peak oil” forward, further extraction costs more and more money. Production falls sharply, disrupting advanced economies. Natalie and Richard, a Vancouver, BC power couple before the peak, move with a select group of friends to a isolated farm in the British Columbia interior. Over the next few years, society collapses around them, and when we meet the couple and their tiny, self-sufficient community, slaving gangs roam the empty roads and overgrown countryside attacking isolated homes and towns. The farm’s inmates greet each stranger with suspicion, and guns settle arguments as often as words. Continue reading