Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

I know, I know. I'm late to the party. But it's a really awesome party! So slip those goggles on and let's chat in the Metaverse!

**This review is spoiler free, except for the bits you need to highlight in order to read. So feel free to read without worry of spoilers.**

Summary: Set in a dystopian cyber-punk future, Hiro Protagonist and Y.T. are partners in the freelance information business. Hiro is a hacker, a prince of the Metaverse and general slacker. Y.T. is a 15 year-old Kourier, a skateboarder and general smart-ass. They uncover what might be the biggest information bomb of all time, a drug called Snow Crash. Sumerian myth, a computerized alternate reality and a man desperate to be the new Ozymandias, combine to make a surprisingly thoughtful techo-thriller.

The Good: This was a really interesting and a really fun ride. The mix of fast chase scenes, cool tech and deep philosophical thought were well balanced. Do not be fooled by the back of the book! It will lie and tell you this is a popcorn and explosions sort of sci-fi, but there is way more linguistic theory than you might imagine. Fans of dystopian futures will dig the franchise-owned America, where nations are literally companies where you can buy citizenship. This is one that both fans of Ender's Game and Foundation will enjoy, with both complexity and action in droves.

The protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (that makes me giggle every time), was fun and while I won't say I related to him very much, I enjoyed his story greatly. He is a little too cool to speak exclusively to the socially awkward nerd, but he is a rather positive spin on the male power fantasy, so I'm down with him. He doesn't have a lot of flaws, and most of them seem to relate to his ability to understand women, but there was enough Y.T., who I talk about later on, that I didn't notice his lack much. 

The tongue-in-cheek humor is one of the best things about this book, and I loved every minute of it. If you're the type of person to name your Tauren in WoW  "Nancy Moo" then you need to read this book. The word play and puns are just fantastic.

The Bad: At times the book felt a little dated. Mostly in the focus on skateboarding, which is just shy of gratuitous. Mostly this is nit-picking, but unlike Ready Player One which references a time in the past but takes place in the future, this is mostly referencing/taking place in the 90's with some callback to ancient Mesopotamia. It dates the story a little, but mostly in a fun way and not in an overly distracting way. (For the record I think Snow Crash is "better" in that is a lot more complex, but I think Ready Player One plays more to the thrills and the nostalgia of gamer culture.)

A lot of the descriptions floating around about this book are misleading, and in a sort of bad way. The descriptions I saw play up it's playful, fast paced parts and don't even hint at the fact that a lot of the book is just two characters conversing. I think because of this, especially early on, those slower sections dragged a bit for me.  Not because of the pacing or the writing, but because I was thrown for such a loop when it happened. It would be like if someone told you Ender's Game was a book about kids playing games in a Zero-G environment and saving the world. Which it is, but that is so incomplete as to be silly, and you'd be pretty upset that the "kids playing games" was actually "kids killing each other". We see half the book from the perspective of a character (Y.T.) who is not even mentioned in most synopses. So for her first few chapters I was also thrown and distracted by her rather than enjoying it. I was into her and the deep conversations enough that I kept going, but I wish I hadn't been so distracted by it.

The Awesome/The Ugly: I really, really dig the female characters. Juanita and Y.T. are forces to be reckoned with in the narrative, and while they were different they were both very strong. I'm sad that they are left out of the blurb on the back of the book, but I talked about that already. Y.T. is a very believable, smart, tough and has the BEST one liners. Juanita is a brilliant, talented hacker who has and inspires some great lines about sexism that I found really provocative. They are three dimensional and fully fleshed out characters that I could get behind, which is a huge bonus. I'm not sure what I think about the sex(?) scene with Raven and Y.T., but I'll add something when I've digested it more. 

I have this thought floating around that since Y.T.'s name means "Yours Truly", we the readers are really supposed be identifying with her rather than Hiro, who is...well, the hero. Especially because so much of this is allegorical, and Hiro is literally supposed to stand in for a mythological figure. He's sort of like Odysseus or Achilles, recognizably human but rather out of reach. Y.T. is much more human, and is often in much more vulnerable positions. This allows for some interesting thoughts about the difficulties with identifying with larger-than-life heroes, and the need for a more human perspective. Plus she is younger, and I found myself wondering at times if this book was written for teenagers. They save each other pretty consistently, which gives rise to even more thoughts about how people give their heroes life and visa versa. 

Overall I really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction, and even a few who don't.

PS I'm testing out this style of reviews, let me know what you think in the comments!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Can You Hear Me Screaming From Capitola?

***Disclaimer- This was one I wrote some time ago (thus the reference to Rick Perry), and for some reason never published. The article in question happened a while ago, but I still think it's a good piece on what bookselling is and why it's important. So, here you go.***

It is truth universally acknowledged that an outrageous and daft opinion is in need of someone to speak their minds loud enough to start some shit.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Amazon/Fanfiction - PG (Warnings: Corporation!fic, DubCon)

(Don't worry if you don't get the title, it's mostly for my own chuckles. Though anyone who does get it...amirite?)

It seems that Amazon has made it possible to "publish" fanfiction.

I say "publish" because as seen in this article by John Scalzi, it doesn't really seem like the authors are going to be getting a lot of compensation here. Basically, if you as a fanfic author get your work produced by Amazon, you may only get paid for it once, because after that they own it and any of your new material that you make, and they have the right to publish it elsewhere without your consent or giving any compensation to you. It also doesn't seem like you'd be getting a paper version printed, so it's more of an e-publish situation.

As a bookseller, this effects me...not at all really. Not at the moment, based on what rights they have and the content they allow. I mean, shows/books like Pretty Little Liars didn't have media tie-in books anyways, so it's not really encroaching on my business. For those who aren't hip deep in bookselling, a media tie-in is a side story or a continuation of a world (usually a tv or movie world) through professional writers being paid to come up with something that then gets put on the shelf of a bookstore. A good example is Star Trek, which is a franchise that has quite a lot of novels associated with it. Star Wars, Halo, Doctor Who, all of these franchises have books for when you just can't wait for the next episode or the next film.

What's the difference between media-tie in and fanfiction? Not a lot, except that one is free on the internet where the authors don't get paid, and one is endorsed and authors are paid for by the franchise itself. You could argue that the ones being paid have higher quality since they get editors and stuff, but that's not always the case. The really big difference that I can see, is that in most cases the major content of the media tie-ins are directed and decided upon by the people in charge of those franchises. So when it is decided that Chewy should die, you know that decision isn't R.A. Salvatore's, although the details are left to him. There is a sense that the story is legitimate, not just something some random fan decided to go with. This explains why the books have the market that they do, and one I don't think is going to translate over to the fanfiction land.

Am I worried about what may happen if one of those franchises does get added? Maybe. But for me the big kicker is if they aren't allowing porn, I'm not overly concerned. Here's the thing, and it may sound strange coming from me, but extra content from a franchise is often consumed differently based on gender lines.* It is a commonly held belief that women both create and consume the majority of fanfiction. (I could find surprisingly few statistics on this, but this has been both my personal experience and there are some figures here and some scholarly opinions here.)  And as Cracked points out, the majority of fanfiction is...romantic in nature. So if Amazon isn't allowing erotic fanfiction, then they are taking out a huge portion of why women people read fanfiction in the first place.

Let's look at the most successful fanfiction publication to date, shall we? 50 Shades of Grey by E.L James, which is popular for a myriad of baffling reasons, but no one can deny the sex content. I would argue that it's because of the erotic content, and it wouldn't be nearly as big a deal if it wasn't in there. Then it would just be Twilight, set in an alternate universe where there is no magic. I know right? Who would read that? I feel then that female readers, who would generally be the ones to read fanfiction versus media tie-ins, wouldn't be as interested.

So I'm not really sure what, if anything, there is to get excited over. Unless Amazon a) gets the right to franchises that already have a market like although even that is no guarantee of success  or b) they allow erotic fanfiction. Though even if either or both of those things happen, with the terms of service the way they are I'm pretty sure most fanfic writers are gonna take a pass. And I would encourage them to do so, because that seems like a pretty shitty deal.

Nice try Amazon, I see where you were going with it, just maybe get a beta before you try again.

*Men do read fanfiction. I have seen them at it! But gender constructs being what they are, men don't read it as much, or own up to it often.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tumblr Taking Over?

Browsing though some catalogs of graphic novels for my store, I came across this gem to describe Young Avengers: Style > Substance  -
Fight scenes! Fake IDs! And plentiful feels! (aka "meaningful emotional character beats" for people who aren't on tumblr.) Young Avengers is as NOW! as the air in your lungs, and twice as vital. Hyperbole is the BEST! THING! EVER!
This is not only what I see as a potential buyer for a store, which is also....odd because as far as I know we book buyers are not known for being on Tumblr overly much. I mean, I am, but so far as I know there isn't a tag for bookstore book buyers.

This is what YOU, random comic book reader, would see as the description online. This is how they are trying to sell the series to you, with an in-joke to a social media site known for gifsets and odd grammar. The Young Avengers fandom on tumblr must be bigger than I thought.

Tumblr, I blame you for this, and I'm not sure if I should feel self-satisfied or deeply ashamed.  It's true that Young Avengers saw a lot of response on tumblr, but this is nonsense. The only other explanation is that the person writing the blurbs is a) on Tumblr and/or b) is involved in the Young Avengers fandom on there. o_O Marvel, are you planting spies now?

...I have also now ordered this and all other volumes of the current Young Avengers. So, yay marketing?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Captain's Log - Star Trek Into Darkness

What? I've never done a review you say? Clearly I have. Just. In the future. VIA TIME TRAVEL. Yep.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Time Flies When You're...

...Opening a new store.

For those who don't know, the reason I have been MIA for the past two months is because Borders went out of business, taking my job with it. We (lead by my manager Dorothy) decided to do something crazy, like partner with people who run a toy store and open up our own bookstore.

The store is open now, and anyone who lives near Captiola, CA should come check it out! I will be making posts regularly again soon, hopefully stating today. Thanks for your patience!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bookstores Take a Stand - Comically

As you may have read in the news, DC comics has released 100 of their titles to Amazon exclusively, meaning that the Kindle Fire is the only device that will be able to support them in an electronic format. Don't have the Kindle Fire? You can still get those titles at a brick-and-mortar store, or at least you could until earlier this week when Barnes and Noble decided to pull  all of those titles from the shelves.

As you see in the articles, many (including the employees) felt that this step was a little drastic, and would ultimately hurt the company rather than help it. Certainly customers who are unaware of the stakes are unhappy, and even those that are still have to deal with not being able to buy their favorite comics at the stores they like to support. The war for digital content is one that is hard to understand unless you are working in that environment, and even then I can understand the frustration on the store employee's level. When customers depend on you to have the thing that they are seeking, it is hard to have to explain to people that may or may not care that your company has made this decision, and you do not have any way to change it.

That being said, when I first heard about this, I was majorly impressed. Barnes and Noble has been saying for some time now that they will only continue to provide "showroom space" for those titles for which they also have electronic access. (This was in a PW article some months ago, which I cannot find now but I promise my word is good for it.) At the time I thought that this was a load of hot air, quite frankly, because who would risk that much to take a stance against that behemoth of Amazon? Again, I understand the objections to it, but you have to admit to the sheer amount of chutzpah that a move like that takes. I also have no love for Amazon, who does not even have the redeeming aspect of employing booksellers to soften the blow of how many stores they have helped put under. So I admit that I did not regret that DC might have had their noses tweaked a little for relying so heavily on Amazon.

I also think B&N has a point. Booksellers everywhere can understand the frustration of having someone come in, ask you to find a book, and then go buy it online. Watch this video from the Harvard Bookstore, which humorously but accurately depicts the frustration of watching your hard work benefit another company. For Indies, they rely on the goodwill of their customers to support their local bookstore to get people to buy actual paper copies, and people respond to that. B&N, who can't reap the benefits of being a "local", relies on being able to sell their products electronically as well to keep their customers loyal. Without that ability, it really doesn't profit them to keep a title in stock that people will just come in and look at, listen to the employee recommendations, and buy elsewhere.

Do they lose the sales from people not being able to buy the paper copy? Sure, but they've seen what happens when a company relies on just being cheap and there, rather than aggressively expanding into the electronic world. Right or wrong, they seem to be taking a stand against the idea that they exist solely as showroom space, and refuse to participate in a system in which they are not seeing any benefit for themselves.

Now it seems that Books-A-Million has joined the embargo. If I may make a Star Trek reference, it's as if one of the non-aligned worlds has joined the Maquis forces and lent them a semblance of legitimacy so they look less like a spoiled child throwing tantrums over things that they cannot change. It will be interesting to see if this move will sway customer sympathy in their favor. This "alliance" make the issue less about Barnes and Noble, and more about the book industry as a whole. While I'm sure B&N comic book revenue is nothing to sneeze at, adding BAM numbers to the equation makes things a little more serious if DC wants to continue this way.

It will also be interesting to see how the Indies react to this "call to arms". I would venture to say that since there is nothing that would really benefit them to help either Barnes and Noble or BAM, they will probably sit this one out. More than either of these chains, the Indie relies on having the physical product for the regulars and for the walk-ins. They therefore can't really afford to do anything drastic over electronic content, and in any case a lot of them don't offer their own e-reader anyway. However, it may benefit the book-selling industry as whole to remind publishers that they need their showroom as much as book stores need the product.

Surprisingly, I don't really feel strongly one way or the other about this battle. I think it is intensely interesting, and I have always had something of a soft spot for lost causes, but the objections against this move are very valid. Beyond the question of whether or not they are right to be doing what they are doing, there is also the chance that this won't pan out, and they will have alienated their customer base for nothing.

What about you? Do you feel that bookstores have the right to refuse to carry product that they do not have access to electronically? Or do you feel that bookstores have a responsibility to the community that they are in to have the good titles in stock, and that they are only hurting themselves in the long run? I'm curious to hear what people at other bookstores or even those not involved in the industry think. While the book industry has always been rather insular, I think the most important thing going forward is to hear what the concerns and responses are of the community you serve.

After all, isn't that what rebel causes are for?