Posts Tagged ‘Neil Gaiman’

After many months of silence, I’m excited to finally announce the publication of Sincere Forms of Flattery from O+S Press, an anthology of short stories inspired by some of our favourite writers. Each story is accompanied by a brief essay explaining the relationship between the contributor, their story and the author whose work inspired it. Inside, you’ll find my short story, Needs Must, and an essay about how Neil Gaiman’s Sandman served as my introduction to urban fantasy, along with five other stories and essays, and some truly beautiful artwork:

Needs Must - SFOF illustration by Amandine Thomas (small)

Sincere Forms of Flattery is available on Kindle from both Amazon US and Amazon UK. Check it out!

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 – and are – a 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  – what mattered – is 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.

Warning: spoilers ahoy!

I’ve just finished catching up with Doctor Who, watching  The Curse of the Black Spot and The Doctor’s Wife back to back. The former was depressingly unoriginal: not only did we have to listen to hackneyed, unironic pirate dialogue, but for at least the third time in recent memory, an alien medical program turned out to be responsible for everything. (More of the latter later.)

Now, I didn’t grow up with Doctor Who –  the reboot served as my introduction to series. My husband, however, was a childhood fan, and at his recommendation, I’ve watched a large number of Tom Baker episodes as well as the two movies. Setting aside obvious points of comparison like special effects budgets, modern technology and so on, what distinguishes the classic episodes is the fact that the Doctor really does just travel about randomly. He has personal moments, yes, and he inevitably saves the day wherever he ends up, but the scope of these adventures is almost always local – by which I mean, the fate of reality itself does not hang constantly in the balance. So even though I disagree with the rest of his argument, I’m inclined to side with Pete May of the Guardian when he says of the new series:

“The Doctor should be a maverick wanderer, a rebel with a Tardis console, not a superhero. Now every plot seems to centre round the Doctor or his companions as being crucial to the very fabric of the universe.”

It’s a valid criticism, and not just in terms of actual plot content. The one thing I’ve found offputting in the new series is the melodrama: David Tennant’s absurdly long farewell, the regularity with which sidekicks are imperiled, put through the wringer, wangsted and woobied. Look: I love heart-wrenching decisions, tragic endings and emotional baggage as much as the next person. In fact, they’re pretty much my favourite narrative tools! But if you’re going to keep upping the ante week after week, season after season, in such a way that there must Always Be More And Bigger Drama, then in order to ensure that the strings of my heart are tugged rather than hardened, your story must meet three very simple requirements. They are:

1) Internal consistency, because nothing harshes the vibe of an emotional climax quite like the sudden realisation that the plot makes no sense;

2) Good writing, because if all your secondary characters are cardboard cutouts and all the leads are lumbered with cliched dialogue, I will swiftly cease to be in a mood for lovin’; and

3) Humour, because tragedy leavened by laughter is both more powerful and uplifting than the regular kind, and also, paradoxically, sadder.

These should not be impossible things! But as keen readers of this blog may recall, I was not impressed with the start of Season 6, primarily because they failed at hurdle number one. The Curse of the Black Spot was likewise felled by its recycled plot, and took a second stumble in terms of writing. Sufficed to say that, when the time came to watch Neil Gaiman’s episode, provocatively titled The Doctor’s Wife, I was very, very nervous. I like Neil Gaiman. I like Doctor Who. The idea of disliking the effective combination of these two things did not sit well with me – and yet, I was fearful, because while I still love the show, the first three episodes have left me apprehensive about its future.

And then the awesome started.

Because Neil Gaiman, among his many talents, does language. Part of what made The Curse of the Black Spot so very disappointing was the fact that Matt Smith’s dialogue lacked the flair and craziness synonymous with his character. Not only was the Doctor wrong about everything several times, he wasn’t even interestingly wrong. But from the very first moments of The Doctor’s Wife, we have secondary characters whose speech patterns and vocabulary set them apart. We have rapid-fire exchanges and glorious mad oracle ramblings from Idris. Just as importantly for my inner fangirl, we have references to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and several episodes of classic Who. Throughout the episode, Gaiman riffs on a memorable dinner conversation between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and finishes it up by having the Doctor tell House, “Brain the size of a planet, but still so small on the inside!” – a reference to the constant refrain of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Even the villain – a sentient planet – recalls Adams’ classic The Key to Time episode, The Pirate Planet, whose villain captained a moving planet he used to destroy or shrink other worlds.

Yes, we can pick the resolution ahead of time, but it doesn’t actually matter, because let’s face it: you pretty much always know the Doctor will triumph, some sciencey-sounding words will be trotted out to explain whatever has happened, and a slice of the future mystery will be hinted at in passing. Very few episodes of Doctor Who are designed such that the audience is given regular clues and encouraged to solve the mystery before the characters do, primarily because solutions involving alien technology and unknown cultures cannot sensibly be inferred without the use of a plot-spoiling infodump. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try, of course, nor that we’re unable to make narrative leaps based on our knowledge of the kind of show we’re watching rather than sticking solely to what we’re shown. But if you start judging the success of individual episodes based on how little you understood of what actually happened, as seems to be the case with fans of the first three installments, you run the risk letting actual gaffes go through to the keeper just because they didn’t make sense, in the mistaken belief that therefore, somehow, they must do. All of which is a way of saying that, in this instance, being able to pick the ending was a good thing. After so many stories that begged more questions than they answered, it was frankly a relief to encounter an internally consistent episode, one where everything you needed to know – and wanted to know – was provided.

I loved Idris, too: not just the idea of the TARDIS in a human body, but the recognition of the fact that she really is the Doctor’s one true love – his ‘wife’, in the way that all great captains are married to their ships. We’ve heard the TARDIS referred to as a ‘she’ before; we’ve seen the Doctor talk to her – pleading, praising, admonishing, laughing – and watched as the other characters tease him for it. In the last moments when her matrix simultaneously inhabits the ship itself and the dying body of Idris, allowing her to say a first and final hello to the man she stole nearly a thousand years ago, the communion between TARDIS and Doctor is oddly reminiscent of the last episode of Firefly, when River Tam speaks for Serenity, addressing the crew in her voice. It’s a resonant concept: ship as lover, as mother, as friend – a silent, unchanging character, and the vehicle for stories without which there could literally be no vehicle.

When, in the closing scene, Rory asks the Doctor if he has his own bedroom on the TARDIS, he doesn’t answer, because there’s no need: the control room is his, the room of his heart, and that’s where we leave him, communing with a ship he now knows is listening – has always been listening – and who alone of all creatures left in the universe shares his backwards/forwards perception of time. The Doctor’s Wife is a gorgeous, clever, funny, touching episode that embodies everything I’ve come to love about the show. I only hope that the rest of the season lives up to it.

‘Duty Calls’, xkcd 386

Ever since I became a published author, I’ve been struggling with the necessary tensions of belonging to the community whose output I most want to critique. Internally, the questions I’ve been asking myself have ranged from Should I write paid reviews to supplement my income? to What’s the best response to a book that enrages me? I’ve said before that total self-censorship is not an option I feel comfortable with – at least, not at this point in my life. After all, I’m still new to the authoring game; old habits are hard to break, and if I’ve been writing stories for longer than I’ve been reviewing or thinking critically about them, then it’s not much longer. To phrase the scenario as crudely as possible, I comprehend the wisdom of not shitting where one eats, but at the same time, I feel deeply uneasy with the idea that being an author means I’m no longer allowed to be moved by books, to be angered or disgusted or made quizzical by books – or rather, that I can be all these things, but only on the proviso that I’m secretive about it, as though my native reactions to narrative have somehow become shameful.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk. Stories of authors reacting to criticism on the internet abound, and are seldom remembered in a positive light (though frankly, I think we’re all on Neil Gaiman’s side when it comes to the whole pencil-necked weasel thing). Then there’s the mafia issue – which, for all it exaggerates the power of individual authors to affect someone else’s career, is nonetheless a salient footnote on the etiquette of criticism, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. Way back in the mists of time (2008) when I started this blog, my second ever post was on editorialising in the media: the creeping intrusion of personal opinion into factual content, such that the two are now almost irreversibly blurred. I said then, and maintain now, that a large portion of the blame for the current state of our news media can be fairly apportioned to a public thirst for sensationalism – or rather, to the perceived public thirst for sensationalism. I mention this because, while artistic opinions of any kind are always going to be subjective, certain regions of the internet have developed a taste for snarky, pejorative book reviews, which I’m coming to think of as being inimical to good criticism in the same way that editorialising is inimical to facts.

That’s not to say I don’t read snarky reviews. I’m not even claiming never to have enjoyed them, however guiltily. But I am saying that the general inability of readers, reviewers and writers to distinguish between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews  is becoming a genuine problem, particularly in a culture where blogging, social media outlets and review sites like Goodreads are all so deeply interconnected as to constitute a single hivemind. Anything you say in public is both easily attributable to you and, as such, open to yet more criticism. This can become something of a viscious circle, and while many disputes are tiny storms in tinier teacups, the blogosphere itself is a super-sized coffee mug as broad across as the internet is deep, its viscous contents routinely stirred by a combination of citykilling typhoons and the sorts of electrical disturbance usually found in Star Trek nebulae.

Or, to put it another way: shit you say on the internet gets read. Possibly only by that one guy who found your blog by accident that one time, and possibly by every adherent of every major online publication after the guano is flung at the rotating turbine. Anonymity is only the default right up until it isn’t, and the important thing to take away here is that you don’t get to choose what piece gets noticed. As John Scalzi so succinctly put it, the failure mode of clever is asshole, and as alluded to by xkcd, someone is pretty much always wrong on the internet. (For extra credit, refer to: Rule 34, Dante’s InternetGodwin’s Law, The 18 Types of Internet Troll, and any site involving fanon, slashfic or religion, particularly if it combines all three.)

So, for the purposes of attempting to enable a happier, safer, more constructive internet, here is a rough dissemination of the difference between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews, respectively:

1. Critical Reviews

Contrary to what you might think, critical reviews are not necessarily negative. Rather, they involve an awareness of literary conventions (pacing, writing style, structure, plotting), a demonstrable familiarity with the genre in question, and a knowledge of standard tropes and plot conventions. As much as possible, they endeavour to be written in the spirit of informative objectivity. By which I mean: no personal vendettas, no ad hominem attacks, no profanity (exceptions made in the case of positive usage, i.e: this book is fucking brilliant), and no snide remarks. Given the native imperfection of human beings, a cultural preference for humour and the fact that sometimes, in our honest opinion, a book just doesn’t work, your mileage may vary when it comes to enforcing these points; at the very least, our own views frequently lead us to be more lenient or strict with a particular review depending on the extent to which we agree (or disagree) with its conclusion. Note, too, that while I certainly think reviews of this kind are important, they can also be somewhat bloodless, especially when it comes to books we actually like. Thus, while critical reviews as characterised here can certainly be either positive or negative, I’ve chosen my guidelines with negativity in mind, if only because there’s a world of difference between laughing with and laughing at. Which leads us to:

2. Humorous Reviews

Ranging from gentle, tongue-in-cheek send-ups to gleeful mockery, humorous reviews are generally written with mirth in mind. This doesn’t prevent them from containing critical insights, however – they’re only couched differently. For me, the most successful humorous reviews are positive in tone. The best books infect us. Like viruses, they mutate our cells and turn us into replicators, instilling the urge to go forth and infect yet more people. Humour is an excellent means of transmitting this enthusiasm precisely because it overwhelms our objectivity with laughter and story-greed. When used in more negative reviews, it can serve the purpose of attracting readers, not to the book in question, but to the reviewer, displaying their personality and particular taste while still providing critical feedback on a novel’s pros and cons. Though sometimes verging into snarkish, schadenfreude territory (see above, re: your mileage may vary), a funny-yet-critical review will support its jibes with reasoned analysis and, where appropriate, balance the tone with lighthearted humour, ensuring that the end result doesn’t read wholly as a joke at the book’s expense. For all that I’m a fan of critical reviews, I tend to prefer them as one-off reads, or as tie-breaker votes when other, more subjective sources disagree. But when it comes to choosing a regular reviewer, humour is what wins out for me: not only because it affords a greater sense of who the reviewer actually is, but because even a negative review can still make me curious about a particular book – and if there’s one thing I don’t want a reviewer to do as a matter of course, it’s make me feel like a cretin for enjoying something they disliked. Which leads us to:

3. Pejorative Reviews

Often, pejorative reviews are based on adversarial reading by a hostile audience. Maybe the reviewer just doesn’t like the author, or the genre, or the voice. Maybe they think the premise sounds ludicrous. Whatever the reason, unless they’re willing to be talked into a full face heel turn, there’s a good chance that the outcome will be just what they expected – and, finding this to be so, they’ll be even angrier at the end than they were at the outset. Alternatively, they’ve gone in as hopeful, willing readers, and had that trust betrayed: their berserk button is pressed, and the result is an irate, shouty review full of capslock and swearing. Note that this is not, of itself, an inappropriate reaction, nor does it automatically make for a bad review. Sometimes, issues are important enough to get angry about, particularly when we feel our perspective is otherwise being ignored. But while such pejorative might be objectively understandable, it can also undermine its own critical significance, simply because of the difficulties inherent in disentangling venom from facts. So often when something makes us angry, we don’t slow down to explain why that anger is justified – or at least, not in a way that’s comprehensible to someone who hasn’t already read the book. This can lead virgin readers to assume incompetence on behalf of the reviewer – and if we want our views to be taken seriously, this is clearly a disadvantage. A further consequence of adversarial reading is the snowball effect: past a certain point, being reasonably annoyed with several things in particular easily leads to being irrationally irked by many things in general. For instance: while I might be perfectly willing to overlook one or two small typos in a brilliant book, their presence in a lesser story suddenly becomes a noteworthy factor in my judging it as such. Combine this with attacks on the author and an openly disparaging attitude to anyone who disagrees, and even the most eloquent vitriol is still tarred with the brush of being, well, vitriol. We might seek it out when a book disappoints us, desperate to know that we weren’t the only ones to feel that way, but overall, pejorative reviews tend to be of the least help, both to readers and to the wider literary community.

So! It is now late, and I have done my blogging duty for another day. Internets, what do you think about reviewing?

Dropping by Neil Gaiman’s blog, I found a link to this article about writers and their cats. Being both a writer and a devout cat nerd (such that if I wasn’t married, and never married, I would inevitably end up in a ricky old house, talking to myself and potting geraniums in odd gumboots while one of my seventeen cats dissected a mouse on the landing; and even so, it’s still not an altogether unlikely future scenario), I was very much drawn to the idea of cats as a totem animal for writers. Their cynical expressions, come-as-I-please mentality and blythe acrobatics are qualities which lend themselves to favourable anthropomorphisation, because they all translate, more or less, into Things We Think Are Awesome. Call it the Greebo Effect: the contradictory tendency of cat owners to perceive their pets as adorable balls of joy while simultaneously envying their cool-kid machismo. Dogs just can’t compete.

Personally, I have two cats. I’ve taken pains not to blog about them here, because – to my shame – the subject turns me into a grinning, anecdote-spouting moron with all the repetitive tedium of a Kevin Costner romance. And it’s not just me, as explained by this excellent xkcd comic on cat proximity. We’re all susceptible. Combine this effect with writerness, and the whole thing just explodes in a goopy word-syrup palateable only to other sufferers.

Which is why cat people seek each other out. It’s hard to have a conversation about the dead bird in the laundry with someone who just doesn’t care, because right when you get to the interesting bit, it turns out they walked off five minutes ago and you’ve been regaling a potplant. Bastards.

Best. Book. Ever.

That’s the short review. The long review, in which I mention not only the author (Nick Harkaway) but somewhat of the content, has just started. Thus:

The Gone-Away World is set in a post-apocalyptic, not-too-distant-but-slightly-parallel Earth. It is not exactly sci-fi, nor is it quite fantasy. Rather, it is speculative fiction in the fullest sense of the phrase: it speculates. Grandly. And it is fiction.

To say I enjoyed this book is an understatement of gross proportions, somewhat akin to describing Hiroshima as a power outage. Among other things, reading it by the photocopier contributed to my recent firing from a government bureaucracy – a pleasant irony, given what Chapter 1 has to say on the subject of pencilnecks. Having turned the last page less than an hour ago, I am therefore ideally placed to confirm that this is a book well worth getting fired over.

The chronology is interesting, and also highly effective. Imagine a linear narrative, its scenes labelled A to Z. Were you to pick up Scene R and place it carefully in front of Scene A, you’d have the right idea, as this is what Nick Harkaway has, in fact, done. In this respect, the structure is reminiscent of Memento: from an unconventional starting point, we travel back through the preceeding narrative in an orderly fashion, thence to discover the pivotal reason for said starting point. And this we do, with a hefty whack of brilliant, witty, outrageous, absurd, intriguing and above all entertaining sidenotes thrown in.

How, without ruining the book (and The Gone-Away World is not to be ruined lightly, or, for preference, at all) does one describe Wu Shenyang, Master of the Voiceless Dragon gong fu? Note – and this is important: Master Wu is not a ninja. Nor does Ronnie Cheung, foul-mouthed spirtual guardian and professional asshole, train ninjas. I will say no more. But read, and you will learn why.

I, geekily, am wont to describe the extreme cleverness of Harkaway’s writing in terms of other authors and their works – which is indulgent, as the man is clearly no mimic. Nonetheless: think Neil Stephenson and Cryptonomicon. Think Neil Gaiman and American Gods. Think Terry Pratchett and Night Watch. Think Jeeves and Wooster. Think the place between profundity and laughter. Think moments of awesome nerdity, heart-wrenching power and ripsnorting absurdity. Think lines, and the blurring of them. Think beauty.

By the photocopier, I cried. At home, I phoned my mother interstate to read her a passage, and laugh. It’s that kind of book. It’s hard to include my favourite moments here, although I’m sorely tempted. But like the gong fu of Wu Shenyang – and ultimately, the book itself – it’s about how you react. Sufficed to say that if a dialouge on exploding sheep, the Matahuxee Mime Combine, the ultimate in ninjas vs pirates and a man called Gonzo Lubitsch don’t whet your appetite, nothing will.

Trust me on this: just buy the damn book. Read it. Love it. Reccomend it to friends, relatives, co-workers and people you met at the pub. Then read it again. And so one day, when the list of Modern Classics is reappraised, there will be at least one book near the top that you read voluntarily, and loved, and get why it’s listed.

Really. It’s that sort of book.

Alright. Let’s lay some cards on the table.

I’m a would-be fantasy novelist. I’ve written 2.5 actual books, but none are published, nor are any currently en route to being published. The first of these manuscripts was the end-product of my high school schemes, a 160,000 word, first-volume behemoth. Between the ages of 13 and 18, it went through approximately five different iterations, each new interpretation resulting in the total abandonment of the one before, to the point where you could reasonably add another 100,000-odd words to the total project. That still doesn’t include multiple rewrites, countless hand-written notes, several different maps and all the creative angst and sanity of five years’ effort. The irony was, I changed the plot so many times that by the fourth version, I realised (belatedly) that my original framework had ceased to be viable. I scrapped it all, started again, and finished the final product not long before my 19th birthday. It took that long.

Of course, it’s rubbish. There’s interesting characters, some nice ideas, a few paragraphs I’m not entirely ashamed of, and that’s about it. But it wasn’t a waste of time. From the experience, I learned patience, editing, self-analysis and proved, once and for all, that I was capable of writing an entire book. I edited and submitted, but deep down, I knew it was time to move on: I hadn’t started the sequal, and realistically, I never would.

Enter my mind-numbing stint as a legal secretary, and the oodles of spare time in front of a computer it entailed. In the middle of an exceptionally long day, I started writing a new story, in no small way inspired by a recent spate of Buffy-watching. It grew longer. And longer. A plot arc formed. Characters developed. And all of a sudden, without quite intending to, I’d written a 75,000 word quasi-young-adult fantasy novel, with jokes (or at least, my own would-be version of Douglas Adams/Neil Gaiman comic asidery) and the expectation of two more books to come. I submitted; it was rejected, but kindly, and once with actual praise. I managed to wrangle a literary agent, who sent it to Penguin. I started writing the next volume. The agent closed her agency. I kept writing. The novel made it through the first round of Penguin approvals, but was knocked back at the second. I made final contact with my ex-agent, thanking her for the opportunity, and started a new edit of the first volume.

And that brings us up to date.

Something I find intensely problematic with being a would-be author: there’s lots of us. Some are exceptional, some are average, and some are frankly appalling. As best I can tell, the vast majority of people who get rejected by publishers belong to the latter category: it’s a base assumption, and one most people tend to make. Despite my own views, I might objectively be godawful, or at least mediocre. There’s many styles of writing, after all, and blogging is no guarantee of narrative chutzpah. And there’s always room for improvement.

But what I want – what I really want – is to be a fantasy author. It’s no good pretending otherwise. I can’t vouch for my skills, but I can vouch for my determination. A small, stubborn core of me is devoted to that end. It’s why my name, and not a pseudonym, is on this blog: I want to succeed, and be known in that success. I don’t want vast riches, or to be the next J. K Rowling: were that the case, my naievete would be frightening. What I dream about – the dream of dreams – is meeting the writers I love, as a published author.

In the aftermath of Comicon, the longing hits me powerfully, and twists. Over at DeepGenre, Kevin Andrew Murphy pens a writeup that makes me ebb and wrench with jealousy: Scott Kurtz at PvP and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, aka Tycho, aren’t helping, either. Clearly, there’s some issues here on my part, but I just want to be there, you know? The fact that I live on a different continent is just another reason to succeed.

I’d planned not to write here about trying to get published. Let’s face it: the blogsphere is a fantastic (ha!) outlet for angst, and while I’m as fond of ranting as the next person, I don’t want to whine at each and every hurdle. (Not much, anyway.) I’ll try to be good. I won’t let it hog the spotlight. But that’s where I’m coming from, and – with a bit of effort – where I’m going.

Ever since a friend introduced me to Penny Arcade back in Year 10, I’ve been a devout gaming/geek webcomics fan. At one point, I was checking seventeen different strips on a daily basis; realising this was insane, I scaled back to fourteen, where I settled until my first year of college. Probably, this would’ve continued, except that the internet connection in my new room was mysteriously broken, and took three weeks, umpteen phonecalls and five consultations with university IT support to fix. By that time, the amount of banked strips had reached critical mass; I didn’t have enough time to catch them all up, and so I pared back to a bare ten, farewelling 8 Bit Theatre, GPF, Nodwick and others with a heavy heart.

Since then, different strips have come and gone – Machall and Demonology 101 have run their course, while Dresden Codak is a new favourite – but my affection for the genre has remained. As has my admiration for the creators of my favourite strips. After eight years of being exposed to their humour, social commentary and general musings, watching the changes in art style and hearing snippets of personal data, they somehow feel more like acquaintances than anything else, people I could bump into and share a laugh with. This is, perhaps, the big difference between webcomics and traditional print media: connection to the creators. I grew up on Snoopy and Garfield, but couldn’t have picked Charles M. Schultz or Jim Davis out of a crowd; I knew nothing about them, their lives or interests beyond an intangible sense that it must somehow influence what they drew and why they drew it.

Not so Fred Gallagher, Scott Kurtz, Jerry Holkins and Michael Krahulik, Greg Dean, Randy Milholland and Tatsuya Ishida. Perhaps more consistently than any other creators, these guys have been with me through the most formative years of my life. I’ve changed since I started reading them, and they’ve changed, too: since my readership began, two have been married and three have had their first children. I’ve left school, gone to university, moved states and tied the knot – but even on my honeymoon, I was still checking comics along with email.

It’s strange to think of geeks grown up – at least, so mainstream society would have us believe. There’s still a strong bias against the idea that you can play video games, enjoy fantasy or sci-fi and read comics as an adult without being just as immature as you were at fourteen, because of the perception that these are childish persuits. As a kid, I was a geekling born to normals; and worse, I was a girl, which made it harder for my parents to notice. Had I been male, perhaps my compulsive interest in dinosaurs, Mario and Transformers would have fit a pattern, rather than seeming incongruous compared a similar fixation on My Little Pony. The penny finally dropped when, after years of playing every console and computer game my friends possessed and saving hundreds of dollars pocket money for a colour Gameboy, I woke up one Christmas to my very own PlayStation. Since then, I’ve never looked back – but had I not stumbled on a group of like-minded webcomic geeks, things might have turned out differently.

One of the greatest trials in growing up is figuring out who you are, not just in relation to other people, but on your own terms. Without friends who shared my interests, I never would have discovered webcomics; but without webcomics, I might have lost confidence in the idea that I could succeed that way, too. Because that’s the other thing I learned: that quirky, geeky, interesting, creative people can, with sufficient effort and support, earn a living through what they love. Although I read books, watch films and listen to music, I’m not privy to the everyday struggle and success of the creators. The end product just appears, disconnected from any personal genesis: like a magic trick, it entertains and inspires, but the mechanics are deliberately concealed. Authors like Neil Gaiman lift the veil through individual blogs, but back then, it was webcomics that got the message through.

Unlike Peter Pan (or today’s lost boys), geeks can grow up. And if webcomics are anything to go by, they can be happy and creatively successful into the bargain.

Thanks, guys.