Archive for October, 2011

NASA's photo of Diwali Night fireworks in India

– reblogged from here.

Furious refugee groups have questioned how long the federal government will continue mandatory detention after the suicide of another refugee at Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul today slammed the government following the death this morning of the Tamil refugee known as Shooty to his friends.

The Immigration Department has confirmed the man was taken to hospital earlier today but died.

Citing poisoning as a possible cause of death, Mr Rintoul said a number of approaches had been made to DIAC to have Shooty released into community detention, but they had been unsuccessful.

He said the man’s failed bid to be released to attend a Hindu festival may have sparked his suicide.

– Patrick Lion, Refugee advocates slam mandatory detention after refugee suicide

.

Diwali

.

The lights are lit

to welcome a goddess.

.

Good has won, and nations gleam

with rainbow lights

as evil is driven out by love

and families meet

and laughter is shared

. 

and just for a night

the world is remade ‚Äď

the stars are rivalled

by earthly brightness:

. 

billions of hearts

and billions of candles

blaze like auroras

and banish the dark.

. 

But elsewhere, as always,

evil endures.

. 

The cell has no candles.

It punishes hearts

by denying them hope

until life is a box

without doors or space

and the whole world hangs

from the tip of a key

whose name is release

that is rarely spoken

and seldom used.

. 

And into this dark

comes the rumour of light

that is called Diwali,

and all good things

are remembered again,

 .

and the promise of love

is music in ears he thought were deaf;

and the promise of kin

is touch to a body long denied;

and the promise of free

is bread in the mouth starvation claimed ‚Äď

.

but at the last, the man in the cell

remains.

. 

Despair is his poison.

Darkness wins.

He swallows it down

and the lights go out,

for the key called release

fits a second door

whose name is death

and whose lock will open

even when cells

will not.

. 

A billion candles

to welcome a goddess ‚Äď

. 

and yet we could not light one

to welcome a man.

– also posted here.

Musing on ebook piracy and free downloads yesterday¬†at Alan Baxter’s blog, I made a passing comparison between the digital distribution of books, whether legally or illegally, and the sale of second-hand hardcopies. In both instances, neither author nor publisher makes money on the transaction, but whereas the former practice is almost invariably viewed as foolhardiness where legal and theft where not, the latter is viewed as a benevolent, even positive, parallel economy – and the more I think about this distinction, ¬†the more arbitrary it seems. If publishers and authors are concerned about losing revenue to piracy ¬†– that is to say, to the free transmission of their products and to reduced-price sales made by unrelated third parties in a digital context – then surely the natural system with which to draw comparisons is the physical second-hand market? Throw in data regarding library usage and loans between friends, and you’re basically looking at the real-world equivalent of the digital DL ecosystem, viz: instances in which a single first-hand copy is read by multiple people, only one of whom pays money to the publisher.

This being so, if the mass availability of free or cut-price digital books is causing authors and publishers to lose out on revenue, then you’d expect that the combined presence of friendly loans, libraries and the second-hand market would be seen as having an identical (or at least similar) effect. After all, humans are quite a mercenary species: if we can have something cheaper or for free, then why would we pay full price? Or, put another way: if I can buy all my books second-hand, grab them at the library or borrow them from my friends, then why would I ever pay full price for the same product? Why would anyone?And yet the indisputable fact is that people – and I’d even go so far as to say a majority of people – do.

Here’s an important question: how did you first discover your favourite authors? Did you stumble on them by accident, or pick them up cold in the bookshop? Did you read a good review and decide to check them out? Did a friend spruik their work or lend you a copy? Did you see their opus discounted or for second-hand sale and give them a try? Did you find them at the library? Did you follow their blog or Twitter and decide to read their books? Take a long, hard moment to think about it, because unless my own experiences are very much anomalous, the chances are that the first time you read a new author’s work, you didn’t pay full price for it. In fact, you may not even have paid at all. Going through my own bookshelves, I can vouch for the fact that almost every single author whose work I now collect or have ever bought religiously – Kate Elliott, Katharine Kerr, Terry Pratchett, Tamora Pierce, Robin Hobb, Sara Douglass, Anne McCaffrey, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Richelle Mead, ¬†Naomi Novik, Libba Bray and George R. R. Martin, to name but a few – first entered my awareness through free, loaned, library or second-hand copies. Douglass, Bray and Pierce all came from libraries; I bought second-hand editions of their early works, then expanded to buying first-hand when I could afford it. Elliott, Kerr, Pratchett, Hobb, Martin and Novik all started as second-handers. Stephenson was a loaned to me – in fact, I’m currently reading a friend’s copy of Anathem – while I won my first Mead book in a contest. My first McCaffrey was a gift, and followed by much second-handing before I ever bought her works new.

But Gaiman is arguably the most interesting test case, not only because of his favourable stance on piracy and free books, but because his is the instance that links us back to the digital world. Because when I turned eighteen, a friend’s birthday gift to me was a CD containing an illegal, ripped version of the complete Sandman, which I read voraciously and loved in my first year of college. As a direct result of this, not only do I now own all of Gaiman’s novels, but whereas the pirate CD has long since vanished down the back of a couch, I have since acquired the complete Sandman in brilliant, first-hand hardcopy – the same way that I’ve bought or been given all his other books.

So why, in all these instances, did I switch to paying full price? There were Рand are Рa number of reasons. Some, as you might expect, are mercenary when taken in isolation: for instance, though it was easy to find older books second-hand, it was simply more expedient to buy later volumes new than wait for used copies to hit the market. Aesthetically, too, a new copy tends be better looking and sturdier than a second-hand equivalent, and, in the case of Sandman, preferable in terms of both quality and physicality to a digital rip. But those are all pragmatic concerns: what changed  Рwhat mattered Рis that I loved the stories, and therefore wanted the best possible copies as quickly as possible. I wanted to support the authors, because I wanted them to keep writing, and because there was no longer any question that their books might not be worth the money.

But wait! I hear you cry. That doesn’t apply to the digital realm at all! Is there really so much of a difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook that readers would pay for a better edition? If the accessibility problem is the same – if it’s a choice between clicking one button for free, and one to pay, for essentially the same product – then what advantage does a first-hand copy have?¬†

To which I say:

Firstly, if there’s no difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook, then possibly there should be. The onus is on publishers to make their product unique – to reward digital first-hand purchasers with pretty content the same way that gorgeous hardcopies do. What about the addition of features that only work on one or a limited number of devices, so that a ripped version would be less special than an original? What about ease of use, where legitimate acquisitions are easier to make – and certainly available more quickly – than their illegal equivalents? What about digital bundling with hardcopy editions? These are all considerations that the industry is actively investigating, and while there will always be people who don’t care or can’t afford the full price – just as there are people who aren’t fussed about the condition of second-hand copies or can’t afford new books – it seems alarmist and inaccurate to suggest that there’s no meaningful difference between official ebooks and rips.

Secondly: believe it or not, the internet has not suddenly caused the entire world to turn into bastards. As I said in the Baxter piece, some of us – a lot of us, in fact – are more than willing to balance out our free or reduced-price consumption of things by paying to support the content we like. If the only conceivable advantage of a paid-for book was that it generated revenue and thereby allowed the author to keep writing, that would be reason enough for most of us. The webcomics arena, for instance, provides innumerable examples of this, and while I’m not so naive as to start touting the generosity, altruism and selflessness of humankind as proof positive that such a system should work flawlessly, I’d humbly suggest that any author who thinks that the majority of their readership is made up of selfish, thieving assholes should probably stop to wonder why they ever thought such people would give them money in the first place. As radical and terrifying a thought as it may seem, authors have to trust that most of their readers are actually decent human beings, at least where books are concerned, because the alternative is to start thinking the worst of the people you want to support you – and that way lies madness.

And thirdly, because it bears repeating: ebooks are not replacing hardcopies. What they represent is an increase in the number of ways that people can access stories, and while ereaders and their ilk are definitely still a new arena, that doesn’t mean the problem of free content – or, more specifically, of multiple readers accessing a story that has only been paid for once – is exclusively a digital problem. Digital music didn’t kill radio, and it certainly didn’t kill the industry; neither DVDs nor VHS before it have ever come close to threatening movies, nor has online streaming overly dented Hollywood; similarly, home recording, Tivo and boxed sets haven’t changed the balance of free vs paid TV. And if libraries didn’t kill bookshops, then I have a hard time believing that ebooks will either destroy publishing as we know it or replace hardcopies, because if there’s two things human beings – and, by extension, the market – like, it’s variety and¬†complementary¬†systems.

Returning to the concept that the provision of free content ultimately leads to more sales, consider how the internet has changed the way we read. I buy books now, not just because they appeal to me, but because I read the authors’ blogs or Twitter and think they have something interesting to say; because innumerable ¬†book blogs and sites like Goodreads get readers invested in the ideas behind new releases while holding contests for the distribution of free early copies and ARCs that are no longer the sole purview of professional reviewers or one-off promotions in dead tree media; because there are free short stories, character bios, Easter eggs, wallpapers, maps and worldbuilding data available online, all designed to draw the reader deeper into the world. All of which is another way of saying: we rarely buy books cold any more (assuming we ever did). Bookstores and libraries are no longer our only – or even our main – source of information on upcoming releases, new authors, related titles and literary events; and that means that when we finally do front up to a first-hand store, whether virtual or physical, there’s a much greater chance that we’ll already know what we actually want – because somehow, somewhere, we have already been provided with free content.

Ultimately, I feel that the debate about ebook piracy has been stymied by the same sort of fearmongering that usually ¬†characterises debates about welfare cheats. Yes, some people will always abuse the system, and it’s only right that we have mechanisms in place to deal with them. But simplifying the whole issue as one of lazy, selfish thieves taking advantage of the charity and resources of better people is always going to be deeply problematic, because of the extent to which it hinges on notions of deservedness. By which I mean: books are technically a luxury item, non-essential to daily living while simultaneously constituting an irrevocable, significant and active portion of our popular culture; but literacy is essential, and books are a big part of that. This is why so many government programs are obsessed with making sure children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to books – because of all the positive links between fostering a love of reading early on and later educational success. And yet, when it comes to the legitimate reasons why many people pirate ebooks, or rely heavily on libraries, or only buy second-hand – that is to say, because of reasons of disability, disadvantage, poverty and¬†accessibility¬†– we have a tendency to assume the worst of them, as we so often do of people (the same people?) who live on welfare: that they should be grateful for what they have, and that they are stealing from us by aspiring to possession of things whose full cost they haven’t personally paid, and therefore don’t deserve.

It’s true of every necessity – food, shelter, medicine, education, childcare – that there will always some people who can’t afford them. The solution in these instances is not to throw up our hands and say that if everything were free, the system would break, and that such people must therefore fend for themselves; rather, it’s to expect that those who can pay, do – through taxation, through donation, through the support of relevant economies – so that those who genuinely can’t don’t have to. And this might seem like a radical, even socialist notion (egads! hide!), but I genuinely do believe that books are an educational, a social, a cultural necessity, and that if the primary upshot of ebook piracy is to get more people reading – by providing books to people who can’t afford or access them otherwise; by introducing new authors to people who would otherwise restrict their reading out of uncertainty; by granting greater access to the books we already own but can’t buy in legal digital form because of region restrictions – then, as with the example of welfare, I’m quite willing to risk that the 10% of cheating, thieving assholes go unpunished in order that the other 90% actually get to read.

But maybe that’s just me.

The castle of Starveldt is waiting. Having escaped once from Sanguisidera, Solace and her friends are in desperate need of guidance. Seeking to unravel a cryptic prophecy, they travel to the Rookery, an otherworldly place governed by the enigmatic Liluye. Magical and wild, the Rookery tests them all in preparation for the crossing to Starveldt. But the group is starting to fracture. The threat of Lord Grief continues to grow; old betrayals, lies and secrets boil to the surface – with startling consequences. As danger closes in, can they make their peace before everything falls apart? Or will the Bloodkin triumph?

Last Saturday on October 1, The Key to Starveldt hit shelves, officially confirming it as my second published novel. The largest part of my brain still cannot process the idea that this is A Thing That Has Happened, as opposed to A Thing I Have Daydreamed About And Which Would Never Happen, Ever, which is possibly why it’s taken me so long to blog my celebration. But! That time has now come, and so I say unto the world at large, SQUEE! The Key to Starveldt is out! Reviewer Jenny Mounfield says:

“With its shades of¬†Alice in Wonderland, Misfits, Supernatural‚ÄĒand others‚ÄĒthis series will delight the Twilight generation. Meadows has handled her large cast of characters with ease; each is as multi-layered and complex as the plot‚ÄĒwhich really is a slippery thing: easy enough to grasp, but not so easy to hold onto. It twists, squirms and folds back on itself, all the while keeping readers guessing.

The Rare isn‚Äôt just a story of good and evil, it‚Äôs about friendship, loyalty, belonging and dealing with difference. As Solace tries to resist the lust for human blood encoded in her genes‚ÄĒtraits her dark brother has embraced‚ÄĒquestions of nature versus nurture, not to mention our ability to choose our own fate, are brought to the fore.

I was bowled over by Meadows‚Äô story-telling skill in book one, and book two has not disappointed.”

Which, frankly, fills me with glee. But in case you need a little more inducement, I offer you this reading from Chapter 3: The Rookery.

Expect more Cool Things to come, but for the moment: whee!

Warning: spoilers.

I found the final episode… interesting. There were a number of awesome ideas in play – the alternate history mashup world, Amy’s train, Live Chess – and some excellent characterisation as well, which went a surprisingly long way towards redressing some (though by no means all) of the earlier problems I’ve had with the treatment of Amy in particular and River more generally. There was a cheesy-yet-delightful nod to Indiana Jones with the line about rats, the booby trap and the ravenous skulls in the temple of the headless monks, while the reappearance of some previous characters gave the whole thing a sense of catharsis, and the device of having the Silence chase the Doctor and Churchill during their conversation managed to be both ominous and creepy despite being familiar. This was definitely a showcase of Moffat’s better talents: strange and improbable settings with a dash of madcap thrown in, the action cutting between different times and places rather than being grounded to a single locale. All things considered, it was an unexpectedly positive note on which to end a season which has otherwise proved damnably frustrating, and has had the effect of calming my rage a little. Though not exactly brilliant, The Wedding of River Song is nonetheless surprisingly solid, with flaws that are more the byproducts of ambition than careless offense. Thus:

The Good

  • Amy and Rory’s alternate selves. God, YES. Amy being proactive! Rory not being a doormat! An office on a train! Finally, we see these companions as they ought to have been: all last vestiges of the Love Triangle of Doom stripped clean away, so that even though Amy isn’t with Rory in this strange new world and despite her memories of the Doctor, she neither pines for him nor expects to be rescued – in fact, she rescues/captures him, which I’m pretty sure is a first. As is Rory’s quiet love for Amy: even though we’ve seen him in his guise as Stalwart Soldier before, this is the first time he’s been neither puppyish nor Woobified¬†nor outclassed by¬†the Doctor in a blatant ship tease tactic¬†– and even better, Amy is his commanding officer. But the best thing is that, once the world returns to normal, they keep their memories of being awesome. Nothing is handwaved away by space magic, time fluctuations, dopplegangers or dream states: instead, the pair of them – but particularly Amy – actually get to level up. So when Amy sits down with River over a glass of wine, the two of them comparing time travel diaries, not only do we get a sense that this is an actual mother/daughter relationship, however bizarre, but Amy gets to carry the weight of what she’s actually done, and learn from it. Specifically:
  • Amy killing Madame Kovarian. In cold blood. And telling her¬†venomously¬†as she does it that ‘River didn’t get it all from you, sweetie.’ This is the first and only time we see even a hint of the rage and grief that accompanies the loss of the infant Melody. This is an angry mother exacting revenge for the loss of a child she’ll never see again, and fuck what the Doctor would say about it – which, given her previously slavish adherence to his morality, is almost an epic development. Even more crucially, she’s never rebuked for it: nobody comes and patronises her, and instead she’s allowed to work out the consequences by herself. This is a dark, powerful, brilliant moment fleshed out by a wonderfully chilling speech, and even though it still doesn’t balance all the terrible things that have happened to Amy and her various dopplegangers over the past two seasons, it nonetheless takes enormous strides in the right direction. Mr Moffat, if you’re listening: MORE OF THIS.
  • Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill in Buckingham Senate with a Silurian physician and Charles Dickens talking about a Christmas special he’s writing on a morning breakfast show, plus a train track into the pyramids. If I have to explain to you why this is awesome, you’re not doing it right.

The Meh

  • The Tesselator as the Doctor’s Get Out of Jail Free card, because honestly? Not all that shocking. It doesn’t help that we already knew he couldn’t possibly die, no matter how much they kept calling his death a fixed point – he is the Doctor, it’s his show, therefore he lives, QED – but at least they ratcheted down the angst a bit and focused on the surrounding ideas, rather than just milking the melodrama.
  • The title. Though it certainly grabbed some attention prior to the episode airing, it also contained a massive spoiler for what should have been the single most unexpected and moving event in the episode. And when I say unexpected, I mean that the only reason it happens is because the Doctor needs to convince River to let him die, and she apparently loves him so much that it’s the only way she’ll let him go (more of which later). Which is a flimsy reason, really, but still sort of cool, so I can’t quite decide whether heralding the wedding in the title was a cunning way to make the audience less skeptical and more accepting of the actual event, when it came, or if had a sort of hybridised Chekhov’s Lampshade¬†effect that unintentionally served to spoil its own twist. I guess I’ll never know for sure, but nonetheless, I suspect it might be the latter.
  • The Doctor’s beard of sorrow and craziness. Very scenic, certainly, but it feels like a cheap trick. Which it is, sort of. Still, I guess it works?

The Annoying

  • Why doesn’t Amy know who Rory is? I mean, she remembers his name, but even though the wildly idealised version she draws of him doesn’t resemble the actual product, you’d still think the name would tip her off. A comparatively small blunder that could have been easily avoided, it nonetheless niggled at me the whole way through.
  • River saying that the pain she’d feel if the Doctor died would be equal to that of everything in the universe ceasing to exist. I know it’s a time-travel romance and they’re encountering each other backwards, but River’s love has been growing more and more one-sided lately, to the point where her obvious need for him to reciprocate is actively stifling his ability to do so. More importantly, though, we seem to have a continuity problem. We’ve already seen that the Doctor plays no part in Melody/River’s childhood – he couldn’t find or save her – such that her first youthful meeting with him after the child-in-the-spacesuit incident is when Mels regenerates into River in Let’s Kill Hitler. The turning point of that episode is where all her flirtatious psychopathy falters, however conveniently and unrealistically, when she learns about her future with him, the knowledge of which is apparently enough to override all her training and make her switch sides. The next thing we see, she’s off to get her degree in archaeology – but as soon as she’s finished studying, she’s taken by Madame Kovarian to kill the Doctor at Lake Silencio, with the tacit implication being that they haven’t seen each other in the intervening years – she has, after all, been studying so she can go out and find him herself. True, it’s possible we’ll see that they’ve spoken between those points in a later episode, but as things stand, all her angst about not wanting to kill him – her choice to fracture time rather than shoot him in the final – seems to hang on the very slender thread of those previous two encounters, both chronologically and emotionally, which also makes her love for him a very suspect motive. Possibly it’s a later version who marries him, but we don’t know that for sure; and given that we’ve already seen their last ever kiss in an even earlier episode, we have to assume that this is a younger River than the one who helped him at the start of the season. The point being, as much as I liked how impromptu and brief the ceremony was, as well as the significance of the kiss – which was one of the better, more genuinely romantic moments between the two of them – I’m really wanting to see the events that make her fall in love with him in the first place, rather than just keep having their existence inferred: the fact that he’s the Doctor and therefore awesome¬†isn’t enough, not in this context. His ignorance of their history was an amazing device to begin with, but the longer that emotional truth is hidden, the more (or so I fear) it weakens River’s character, turning her from a kickass, independent and equally awesome love of his life into another companion with unrequited affections along the lines of Martha Jones.
  • As much as I loved these versions of Amy and Rory, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at how disconnected their awesomeness was from their previous portrayals. If Amy really had been just a best friend this whole time, a clever, self-possessed, no-nonsense girl blessed with extraordinary powers of observation courtesy of growing up beside a crack in time and space, and if Rory had always been stalwart and unthreatened by the Doctor’s presence, so many of the earlier problems I had with the show might never have existed, or been ameliorated along the way. Which is irritating. But at least we’ve moved on from there, finally.
  • There was no TARDIS in this episode, except in flashbacks. Where did it go?
  • Do we really have to wait another season before the whole thing with the Silence is resolved? I like that Moffat’s playing a long game, but his mode of play is starting to grate. It’s been dangled for two seasons already now, and there’s only so much suspense to be derived from a cryptic couplet and the¬†unshakable¬†inference that the Silence fear whatever circumstances eventually prompt the Doctor to tell River his name. To quote Monty Python, get on with it!

On balance, though,¬†I’m prepared to call the episode a win. Sure, it didn’t move me to ecstasy, but it was much less problematic than its immediate predecessors, and there were some genuinely cool moments that I’m keen to revisit at some later date. I’m still ready for some new companions – but I’m definitely going to keep watching.