For my own future reference: a reverse-engineering blogger has gotten shell access to the Kindle's Linux-based OS. The interesting part is the second half, where he publishes an easter egg-like list of keyboard shortcuts, including one that finds the nearest gas stations or restaurants based on the cellular modem's location data.
Amazon really needs to ship my order. I've got a lot of books I want to read, both in the disposable pulp and current affairs categories, and I figure that if I buy them in digital form, the thing will pay for itself in a year.
The reaction to the Kindle by Internet pundits seems mixed so far, which is fine--everyone gets an opinion, and most of them are wrong. But what amazes me is the incredible attachment to the printed book. John Gruber, a man who never met a sneer he didn't like, links to one typographer's view:
PEOPLE DON'T WANT TO READ BOOKS ON A SCREEN. Why is that so hard for someone as obviously smart as Jeff Bezos to accept? The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a 'thing' in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to. But books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of technology has yet to be improved upon. And won't. Certainly not by something that looks like a prop from Charlie's Angels and has, are you ready, a whopping ONE typeface. For everything! Yay!Who would have thought? Someone who makes book covers for a living isn't keen on the idea.
But of course, this is completely wrong. Music hasn't returned to "pure sound" at all, and while it might have started that way it hasn't existed in that form for more than 70 years, since people sold sheet music on the streetcorner. Music is a commodity now, and the iPod didn't change that. If anything, it made it worse.
In fact, the music metaphor works, but not the way the writer clearly hopes. He's expressing a kind of nostalgia for the form of the printed word--hence his distaste for "a whopping one typeface" and the concept of reading on a screen, no matter how good it is (and an e-ink screen is shockingly good). People like this confuse the form of the book with what really makes it important: the information inside. The form is important, granted, since a display that distracts or grates on the eyes prevents you from getting at that information. But it's not the book, any more than a CD is the music.
Insisting that a book has to be on paper is like insisting that music has to be on vinyl, because without the feel of a record's grooves "it's just not the same experience." It was a silly point of view then, and it's a silly point of view now. I'm not saying that the Kindle will change everything, necessarily, but it seems curiously obtuse to insist that the change is never going to come just because you like paper. I like paper too, but I'm not going to insist that there's something magical and perfect about it that will last forever.
Here's the thing: like a lot of other people, I've been reading e-books for years now. Every PDA I've owned, practically my first move has been to put an e-book reader on it. It's incredibly convenient: I bore easily, but I've almost always got something to read. And I'm not really an oddity. Lots of people read onscreen for hours a day--you know, what with the Internet, and all.
I could say a lot of great things about electronic text. I took my current job because journalism is going through this same transition (and not always gracefully), and I wanted to be a part of it. I think it's genuinely important. But I will point out at least one way that the form of a physical book is something not to romanticize:
Yesterday I re-read Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks. It's one of my favorite books, and Banks is one of my favorite authors. Sadly, my copy of Player of Games is stolen. It's a bootleg e-book that I picked up my senior year of college. I wish I could have paid for it--but of course, the book's been unavailable in the US for more than 10 years now. Banks's other titles have been out of print for even longer. For some reason--perhaps because of his outspoken Socialist beliefs--American publishers don't bring most of his stuff here, with the exception of a short-story collection and a couple of the weaker (and less political) novels. Good luck finding him in your average Barnes and Noble.
Now, at the moment Kindle doesn't offer those missing Banks titles either. But that doesn't have to be the case. There's no burden for shipping an e-book, or for "printing" it domestically. There's no reason that I shouldn't be able to buy it and give money to my favorite author. That's the whole point of digital distribution--indeed, that's the whole promise of the Internet: it eliminates the physical space that, while traditional, is also cumbersome and prone to interference by powerful actors.
Against my better judgement, I'm really interested in Amazon's Kindle ebook. Let's get the objections out of the way first.
First and foremost, it only reads .txt and .azw at the moment, the latter being Amazon's DRM'd file format. No RTF, no PDF, HTML only through the web browser. Second, because its ebook files are protected this way, you can't loan them to someone else or sell them when they're done. There's no used book market for the Kindle.
But I don't think either of those matter, because I doubt they'll actually last. Amazon has stated, obliquely at least, that the platform will open at some point to new applications--but it'll probably be hacked long before that. And there's a fundamental difference between DRM for text and for audio: with audio, stripping DRM often means losing data--burning to a CD and re-ripping, for example, is a lossy process--but stripping DRM off text can usually be done without losing anything. Books that I buy from Amazon will probably be convertible to something else, if I should ever need to do so, the same way that Microsoft's LIT format has now pretty much been cracked open.
It's possible to freak out too much about DRM. The fanatics at Boing Boing, for example, recently had a hissy fit over Amazon's MP3 license, which (in theory) restricts resale. Were they planning on reselling MP3s? Could Amazon actually enforce that? Probably not, to both questions, but that's not stopping people from getting hysterical about it, even though the average user couldn't care less.
The draw of the Kindle, for me, is that I buy a lot of books, and I typically buy them from Amazon. The fact that Kindle is usually cheaper is nice, as is the fact that the books wouldn't take up physical space. Our apartment has a fair share of bookshelves, and they're overflowing at the moment. It would be nice not to have to worry about piling up more dead trees in our limited real estate.
And the free wireless network is also tempting. Despite my disagreement with both its general philosophy and content, you can kill a lot of time with Wikipedia. And an always-on cellular web browser, no matter how basic, is a pretty big value-add. When external applications make their way onto the Kindle--which, again, I think is pretty much near-certain, even if Amazon changes its mind and tries to stop them--it could be a really killer value.
Right now, the only deterrents are the lack of availability and the $400 price tag, and that's probably a good thing. I'd guess we're going to see the Kindle develop over the next 6 months to a year, until it reaches something more like its full potential. At which point I might actually be able to buy one.
All that said, as the title of the post hints, isn't a fire just about the last thing you want your book platform to evoke?
For future reference: Brian Michael Bendis's graphic novel Powers is available online for free at Newsarama, here.
If you want to know an era, you take a look at its pulp. That's where the subconscious peeks out. Horror movies, for example, track in interesting ways against mainstream culture of their time--the slasher films that rose with the sexual revolution, the nuclear-powered monsterfests of the 50's, or the nature-strikes-back stylings of the environmental 80's. It's not perfect, but you can get an interesting glimpse into the spirit of the times.
It occurred to me, yesterday at the L St Borders, that the same kind of thing applies to science fiction. It is, after all, a genre composed of what-ifs and daydreams, which is an easy way for social fears and needs to express themselves.
So what's playing at the Jungian Theatre of SciFi Monstrosities these days? Not cyberpunk, that's for sure. Looking over the selection (which is hardly overwhelming on L Street, but neither is it anemic compared to other chain locations), you could be forgiven for thinking that William Gibson is the only person who ever wrote in the subgenre, and he only rents space there now--you could argue that Pattern Recognition and the Bridge trilogy are cyberpunk, but I think that has more to do with Gibson's style and personal obsessions than anything else. It's particularly interesting for my zeitgeist theory that cyberpunk has quietly died, because when it emerged it was seen as a direct response to the privatization and post-Cold War fugue of the Reagan era. Apparently, those big Japanese corporations just don't scare us any more.
What looks to have replaced c-punk as a genre is self-conscious nerd fiction. No doubt this was always an aspect of science fiction--Robert Heinlein's stories of intrepid day-saving engineers with slide rules of steel are just nerdcore from the days when buzzcuts were geek credibility. But I actually saw a book the other day that had, as part of the back cover blurb, something like the following:
Imagine it read in the nicotine-roughened tones of a movie announcer for the full effect. Because seriously: the big dramatic device here is the product cycle? I know we can't necessarily assume that the back cover of a book is entirely an accurate representation of its contents, but I'd rather stab forks into my eyelids than read that. On the other hand, I'm not its target audience. People who do coding all day long and fit a very specific psychological profile probably find it riveting.
I know what that means: there's a market for that kind of cubicle fiction, and clearly there are authors writing about what they know. I'm less clear on why transhumanism has undergone such a renaissance in sci-fi lately. As typified by Alistair Reynolds, Vernor Vinge, John C. Wright, Charlie Stross, and a horde of wannabes, these stories concern people that are at least partly virtual, or manipulated by nano-technology, or other malleable aspects of data. The Singularity often figures prominently. Does it say something about readers that their fiction seeks to reject the boundaries of the human form? Or is it just a reflection of attention spans raised on instant messaging conversations and Boing Boing? Either way, it's another interesting counterpoint to the cyberpunk genre, which explicitly put its protagonists in the role of criminals, lower classes, and vaguely anti-establishment slackers. The transhumanist trend seems like a move back into the utopian technofetish of Golden Age science fiction, just with weirder devices and less emotional characters.
Anyway. The other interesting trend I saw on the shelves was the revival of the gritty "magical underworld" theme. Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, and a few others pen books about wizards, werewolves, and vampires that are all around us, having really exciting adventures and lots of great sex. There are a lot of these books on the shelves at Borders. I'm not sure if it's a backlash against the geeky escapism of genre fantasy (is it the equivalent of cyberpunk unicorns) or just a coincidence that incorporates the intrinsically (if trashy) appeals of exciting adventures and sex. I can't really blame people for the latter.
From the back cover of "Watch Me" by A.J. Holt:
But Jay's Washington bosses have told her to stop. She can't use her program. It violates the Constitution. It violates these sick killers' civil rights.
Now Jay's been transferred to a tiny office in Santa Fe. She's instructed to stay out of multiple murder cases. As far as Washington knows, she is.
LIKE HELL SHE IS.
Jay is going on-line. She's going to track down the killers. What will she do when she finds them? She says...
Somewhere in or around DC, Alberto Gonzales lights up a cigarette, glances at the torn paperback next to him, and mutters, "Was it good for you too?"
The scifi/fantasy section at the nearby Borders bothers me. In fact, most bookstore SF sections bother me. But the L Street Borders is especially bad, for several reasons.
First, it's being squeezed gradually into a smaller area. The back shelves are gradually being taken over, like kudzu, by manga paperbacks. There are rows and rows of these things, ugly little white books with garish logos in place of titles on the spine. Looking at the manga books, whose consumers seem to be mostly 13-year old girls, I feel old. These are not something I am going to ever enjoy, or even likely understand, in my lifetime. Get off my porch, CLAMP! If I see you brats in my yard again, I'm calling your parents, see if I don't! Why a genre with such a young demographic has three shelves in DC's business district is a mystery to me. Maybe the proximity of GWU has something to do with it.
But even while other genres force scifi over, the books themselves are getting bigger. Trade paperbacks have become fashionable--and why not? I pay $7 to buy The Scar as a regular-sized novel, but $12 for it as a trade. The paper costs are probably lower, and they look thin and sophisticated on a shelf. The fact that it's harder to toss into a bag, or harder to read one-handed, those are not priorities for the printing industry.
Who is this Laurell K. Hamilton chick? I don't know, but I'm thinking I'm going to have to find out, if only because her books have a whole row all of a sudden. These are the novels with the monochromatic covers featuring disembodied female nudes--never a face, just a torso or a set of legs. The cover blurbs read "romantic thrills and erotic chills," which leads me to believe that these are some kind of Harlequin romance fused with World of Darkness fanfiction. The user pics on various Amazon pages for them show both the nudes and bland oil paintings of the generic horror type, so maybe they've shown up in force after a rebranding and fresh marketing push. I shouldn't complain, honestly. At least the books are fairly honest about their contents, and they're still more tasteful than the average dreadful fantasy cover. Sex has always been the awkward, fumbling Achilles Heel of speculative fiction.
But there's a whole series of these. There's a series of StarDoc books. Eric Flint and David Drake write their military scifi series. Everywhere you look, there's a half a shelf being used for potboilers and their sequels. Again, from a marketing point of view, this makes sense. Sequels have established characters and reliable settings. They create repeat buyers. They can be written quickly at a suitable but not excessive level of quality. From a marketing view, spam makes a lot of sense, too. I hate series, or trilogies, or whatever you want to call them. Endings are sublime. Don't stretch it out.
I've never been completely comfortable browsing the science fiction stacks anyway--call it the literary equivalent of a puritan upbringing. So maybe I'm not the best person to be discussing its trends and shifts. I do find it interesting to watch the drama played out on the shelves, as they move and change over time. It's a whole different world from the used bookstores that I usually frequent.