Thursday, July 24, 2014

Those Deep Down Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic Blues

by J. D. Popham

Post-Apocalyptic. Everyone's doing it.

In television, movies, books and games the sub-genre's gotten to be such common parlance that it practically needs no set-up.  Throw a few overgrown, crumbling buildings onto a desolate landscape, drop in some distressed and abandoned cars and/or SUVs, cue the entrance of a scruffy looking wanderer (or group of wanderers) armed with a random assortment of high and low-tech weaponry, and the audience knows they're in a post-apocalyptic setting. 

I get the attraction.  Really, I do.  Post-apocalyptic is easy.  It's so easy that even mainstream literary writers like Lee, McCarthy and Lepucki are getting in the act.  It's science fiction without having to bother much with the pesky science bits.  In fact most post-apocalyptic stories dispense with the science early on, if they bother with it at all, during the set-up.  Take Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a recently released Summer blockbuster.  In the film's prologue we learn that apes were made intelligent by a virus that, as an encore, all but wiped out humanity.  After that, science is pretty much sent to the showers and the movie proper unfolds as social allegory and CGI battles scenes. 

The Post-Apocalyptic movie and television show have become to the new millennium what the Western was to the mid-twentieth century.  They are popular, action-oriented entertainments that are inexpensive to produce.  And you can do pretty much as you like with zombies, mutants, aliens and the other stock villains of post-apocalyptic fiction.  They can be as evil and threatening as you need them to be and you can kill them off in droves.  No one's going to object that you're vilifying and misrepresenting an actual race of people European settlers drove to the very brink of extinction. Unlike Native Americans, zombies, aliens and post-apocalyptic mutants have the advantage of being fictional.  They are the ultimate 'other' who can be exterminated wholesale without hesitation or moral qualm; a critical consideration if the excessive deployment of assault weapons and other small arms is central to a story's entertainment value.

The apocalypse used to be a bad thing.  Some post-apocalyptic stories, such as Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz, were cautionary tales warning us of the fragility of civilization and the dangers of technological hubris.  In others, like David Brin's The Postman, the devolution of society after an apocalypse and our darker impulses are obstacles to be overcome in order to arrest the slide toward chaos.  Still others examined the essential nature of the human society when a civilization arrived at over the course of thousands of years suddenly falls away.

Lately though, we've become jaded.  The Post-Apocalyptic landscape has become so familiar, so laden down with tropes, that it's more theme-park than catastrophe in the popular imagination. 

Zombieland, for example, is a dark comedic romp where there's little remorse for civilization lost.  Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson, a man without purpose in a civilized society, has found his true calling as a Post-Apocalyptic zombie killer.  Jesse Eisenberg's Columbus has a shot at love with Emma Stone's Wichita, a woman who would be well out of his league if all the attractive guys hadn't been turned into the shambling undead.  Aside from the dwindling supply of Hostess Twinkies, the apocalypse has been a net positive for the male protagonists of Zombieland.

Never mind that polio, cholera, mumps, measles and tetanus are far scarier than zombies when modern medicine doesn't have your back.  There is money in pushing the post-apocalyptic world as a dystopian fantasy.  A quick survey of the internet will reveal a surprising array of items for sale that no post-apocalyptic survivor would want to be without, from survival rations to anti-zombie cutlery and ammunition.  Even the CDC and FEMA have leveraged our fascination with the zombie apocalypse and the end of civilization as we know it in order to promote emergency preparedness.  This is not lost on risk-averse publishers and media execs who, perceiving the apocalypse as a sure thing, are sold on selling us the end of civilization. And so they do.  Like a raging virus or the rampaging undead, post-apocalyptic fiction, movies and video are overwhelming the Science Fiction landscape. 

Like I said, I get it. Publishers and media execs are paid to make money, not to exercise artistic integrity.  Post-apocalyptic is an easy sell and "It's the next Hunger Games" goes a long way toward getting a project green-lighted.  But it's getting old.  The apocalypse used to have shock value.  Now it's just banal and depressing.  Worst of all, it's become unimaginative, and that's exceedingly bad news for Science Fiction; a genre that is at its best when the imagination is in full flight.

Much has been written about the decline of Science Fiction.  It is, I have to admit, a much less dynamic a form than it used to be. As writers we are decidedly less daring and creative than we once were. I believe it is because we dream less expansively, less audaciously than we once did.  We have lost our enthusiasm for the future. We have become tied down by convention, as if all the trappings of Science Fiction have been invented, all its stories told, and there is nowhere left in all the wide universe we have not gone.

Publishers bear some of the responsibility for this, favoring as they do books that align best with established marketing categories and sales projections.  Following the current hot trend before it cools is the best way to get published, particularly if your book is structured and pitched as a potential series in the event it's a success.  Post apocalyptic stories may be unimaginative, but they fit easily into a publisher's comfort zone and market forecast.

However, at the end of the day, we are in charge of what we dream, and responsible for the stories we tell.  If we confine our dreams to the boundaries of popular culture or a publisher's sales plan, we have done both ourselves and the genre we love a great wrong.

I have a first edition of the Adventures in Time and Space anthology published in 1946 by Random House.  Most of the stories in it, from John Campbell's Astounding Stories, are over seventy years old.  They are products of their day and some wear their advanced years better than others.  However, even the most cautionary of the authors' tales carry an unmistakable enthusiasm for the possibilities that lay before them.  The world we live in was, to them, the stuff of dreams.  And the stuff of their dreams shapes our world even now.  
Dream lavishly, my friends.   

Monday, July 21, 2014

Writers of the Future, Publishers of the Past

by J. D. Popham
Publishers worry that a widespread shift to print on demand could, like the advent of e-books, disrupt their century-old business model.
      - Brad Stone: Business Week

The book publishing industry is having something of a replicator moment.

A replicator, for those of you who are more into fantasy than science fiction, is a manufacturing solution originally popularized by Star Trek that simplifies logistics and inventory management to a mind-bending degree.

Let's say, for example, that your interstellar spaceship breaks down and you need a critical part, a 'port compression coil' let's call it, to bring the spaceship back on-line.  In our present-day logistics paradigm, you'd be expected to carry a spare port compression coil around with you. After all, given that your ship cannot operate without one, the port compression coil represents a single point of failure that could leave you, your ship and your crew stranded in deep space if you can't replace it.

I mean, what kind of moron would break atmosphere without a backup port compression coil? 

The problem is that spare parts and any other manufactured items have mass and volume. They have to be produced in lots, distributed and then stored until the time comes to dispense or use them - all of which creates overhead costs.  If the inventory of such items runs out, anyone wanting one must wait for the next production run, or find a substitute.

On spaceships, mass and volume are at a premium. In the case of our spaceship, a non-trivial amount of its fuel, lift capacity and cargo space must be dedicated to hauling around a load of critical spare parts that, if its crew is lucky, will never have to be used while traversing the depths of interstellar space.

Our fictional replicator solves all this.  It's usually described as having a database of 'patterns': essentially molecular blueprints for physical items like port compression coils. As long as a replicator has the pattern for a port compression coil in its database, and sufficient bulk matter available for use as an input (say, for example, a broken port compression coil), a port compression coil can be 'replicated' on site and on demand.  Equipped with a replicator, our spaceship's need to haul an inventory of spare parts (and many other supplies, such as food) is much reduced, if not eliminated, along with the financial and resource overhead that would have been spent in so doing.

The idea of the replicator suggests a possible future in which the value chain between the designer of a product and the product's consumer is profoundly shortened. Which is pretty cool in principle for most readers of science fiction.  

There is no doubt, however, that the advent of replicator technology would create financial upheaval.  Many firms are heavily invested in value chain links that would be bypassed by replicator technology, and their long-standing business models would become obsolete. Such firms would be forced to adapt their business models and change their strategic direction (or 'pivot' to use the current business jargon). Firms unable to pivot, that remained chained to the old business model despite its diminishing utility, would be living on borrowed time.

Which brings us to the book publishing industry's replicator moment.  

Much has been written about the current negotiations between Hachette publishing and Amazon.  While there are many markets for books, Amazon is certainly the most lucrative for publishers and the most high-profile for authors. Publishers make roughly $2.50 more selling an e-book through Amazon than they do for physical books and, in the Amazon marketplace, they sell many more e-books than they would otherwise. In contract re-negotiations Amazon is demanding a bigger share of the revenue from e-books: a share roughly equivalent to the $2.50 uplift over physical book revenue Hachette has enjoyed to date. Hachette, of course, is understandably reluctant to part with said uplift. Both sides dug in.

The resulting spat became heated and spilled out into the public. Many fingers have been pointed, unkind words spoken and elbows thrown. Authors and pundits have have weighed in on both sides and the ongoing negotiations have become proxy for a bitter culture war in which bystanders are asked to choose between emergent publishing/retail technologies and the preservation of a genteel literary culture, as though this were an either/or proposition.

In the midst of all this, looming in the shadows, is Print On Demand. With Hachette assailing Amazon as a bully and Amazon calling out Hachette as an antediluvian relic, Print on Demand (POD) has been something of an aside or foot-note in most articles. Its presence on the table is seen largely as a negotiation tactic by Amazon. In the midnight bedroom of publishers' imaginations, POD is the monster in the closet, the snakes under the bed. POD, more than any other item on Amazon's wish list, is the publishing industry's primal bug-a-boo.

While hardly replicator technology, Print On Demand (POD) does offer significant streamlining of the logistics sector in the physical/paper book (p-book) publishing business. Rather than printing books in large lots, holding them in inventory and shipping them off to retailers, POD facilitates 'just in time' printing and shipping of books. POD books are printed and bound on industrial printers upon order, either at a retail location or a fulfillment center.

In many cases, POD is much more efficient and streamlined than the current business model, and would save both the book publishers and book sellers alike much of the overhead associated with shipping and managing large inventories of physical books. According to Brad Stone at Business Week:
If print on demand became widespread, publishers could cut their fixed costs and solve the perennial problem of stores returning unsold books.
But Stone goes on to say that, while happy to use POD providers themselves when relatively small runs of books are needed, publishers regard the idea of POD in the hands of retailers and fulfillment centers, particularly Amazon, as something of an existential threat.
 But that would throw into doubt almost everything else about the way big publishers conduct business, since they’re compensated based on the range of services they provide, from editorial guidance to storage and distribution. Print-on-demand technology would make it harder for the publishers to justify keeping a large majority of a book’s wholesale price. One of the New York publishing chiefs says that even allowing titles to be printed on demand by Amazon when shortages occur is a bad idea, since it might encourage the company to order fewer printed books.   
Normally, eliminating inefficiencies is desirable for firms as it means they spend less of the revenue they generate on overhead costs. However, in this case, the Big Five publishers seem unconvinced that this would occur. Certainly authors, retailers and the reading public would demand that some of the cost savings be passed on. And the unnamed New York publishing chief Mr Stone references is quite correct when he says that POD is likely to result in smaller bulk orders from retailers for p-books.

However, there is no immediately evident reason that the publishers would not be able to maintain their current profit margins, assuming the larger slice of the per-p-book sale price they receive today accurately reflects the publishers' higher costs in the printing and distribution phases of the production process. And while POD's just-in-time nature means a lower burst of revenue for the publisher after a book's initial release, it doesn't necessarily mean less money for the publisher. It means that publishers will have a smoother revenue stream over time and one that is not so closely dependent on print runs.

By the same token, authors should benefit from their works' ongoing availability being decoupled from follow-on print runs and on-hand inventory. POD would keep print versions of books active in the marketplace and generating revenue for their authors long after initial release. Freed from the risk associated with ordering and maintaining an inventory of p-books up front, retailers would be able to sell books by a larger selection of authors, including marginal or niche authors that get limited play on bookseller's shelves in the marketplace today.

Further, the current publishing business model, which generates a large volumes of books that are never sold or read but finally returned to publishers, results in unconscionable amount of wasted energy, raw materials and labor. In a 2008 interview with NPR, Jed Lyon, president and CEO of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group and the National Book Network, estimated that 25% of all printed books are returned to the publisher for credit. While a practice this wasteful may have been acceptable during the Great Depression, it is certainly not acceptable today when technologies exist that make it largely unnecessary. 

Generally speaking, the potential benefits of POD should make it very attractive for both the publishing industry and authors.  However, retail-based POD represents significant change to a business model that has remained largely unchanged for nearly a century. The principle strength of that business model has been one of control. Control over the printing and distribution of physical books has traditionally provided the publishers a large degree of leverage with authors and retailers, and acted as a high barrier to the entry of new competitors.

For good or ill, that control is now threatened. Technology has caught up with the book publishing industry. 

With e-books, of course, print runs and control of physical inventory are irrelevant. The advent of that technology removed the print and distribution phases of the publishing production cycle from the means of production for a large part of the industry's output, along with the attendant control previously enjoyed by publishers. While the reading public's continuing appetite for print books has kept the traditional print and distribution phases alive and under publisher control, POD threatens to put them, and with them the publishing industry's century-old business model, on life support.

Any business model that has persisted more or less unchanged for a century is living on borrowed time. Amazon, at once the industry's savior and Great Satan, is merely the first retailer with the leverage to insist on innovations such as e-books and POD, innovations that make perfect sense when one steps back and views the author to reader value chain. The innovations under negotiation in the Hachette/Amazon fracas have been long in coming and are changes the Big Five publishers should have gotten in front of and planned for years ago.

But rather than address the critical task of updating their business model, the Big Five have chosen to hunker down and defend the inefficient print-warehouse-distribute publishing paradigm. Time and resources that should have been spent developing the processes and tools needed to adapt to emerging technologies and provide for the long term viability of the major publishers were squandered defending business as usual. In a recent NY Times piece, a publishing executive admits that the industry's leaders have no other strategy and are “all sort of looking around now, waiting for Moses.”  From a business perspective, this represents a stunning failure of imagination. 

Have no doubt: whether or not Hachette wins a battle in their current negotiations with Amazon, retailers going to win the war. The publishing industry's apparent inability to re-imagine and remake their industry, to pivot, is making this outcome inevitable. As things stand, the publishing industry needs Amazon far more than Amazon needs the publishing industry. The degree to which this is true is evident in that, while the remaining four of the Big Five privately voice support for Hatchette, that support does not extend to speaking out publicly on Hatchette's behalf, or reducing the volume of business they do through Amazon to show solidarity with Hatchette. As the New York Times reported
It is in their interests for [Hatchette's] Mr. Pietsch to drive a hard bargain, and they are cheering him on, but silently. They have their own relationships with Amazon to protect, and they do not want anything they say to be construed as antagonistic....
Many readers have limited access to book stores, and for much of that audience Amazon is the book store. That readership buys a lot of books from Amazon published by the Big Five. Given the current business terrain, the demise of that outlet would be the worst possible outcome for any of the Big Five publishers. Ginning up mistrust of Amazon among authors and the literary elite, Hachette's current negotiating tactic, does nothing to change that terrain.

The place of traditional printing and shipping of print books will continue in the foreseeable future. However, it is going to be an increasingly smaller part of the production cycle. Publishers of the past have been able to leverage their control of print and ship to drive deals favorable to themselves with both authors and retailers. Publishers of the future must confront the likelihood that they will lose that control and find ways to prosper without it.

If they are wise, the Big Five will develop experimental imprints dedicated to proof of concept work with POD and other emerging technologies of interest to the publishing industry. Working with authors and retailers, such imprints would allow publishers to proactively determine how technical innovations like POD affect the industry and what business processes and contractual innovations are needed to balance the interests of authors, publishers, retailers and customers. Experimental imprints would reduce the uncertainty associated with technological change, and allow industry participants to prepare for the future, rather than being ambushed by it.

Publishers of the future will take careful stock of their contributions to the author to reader value chain if the printing and distribution links in that chain are much reduced. At present the major phases of the publishing process include acquisition, copy editing, graphic design, production, distribution and marketing. It's possible the production and distribution phases could eventually be reduced to generation and dissemination of digital files to authorized retailers and the accumulation of print and sales activity from those retailers. In that case the publishers must focus on their remaining links in the value chain, namely acquisition, copy editing, graphic design and marketing.

Publishers are quick to tout their competitive advantage in these areas, and they are highly valued by authors who've had the opportunity to work with a large publishing house. The Big Five remain, for better or worse, generally accepted arbiters of quality with extensive pull in the retail markets. With so many titles competing for Jane's beer money, a Big Five imprimatur will still continue to be seen as a means of separating the wheat from the chaff. Those advantages will still remain with the large publishing houses if their role as printers and distributors is diminished. However, mainstream publishers would be well advised to maintain a laser-like focus on acquiring and retaining the best authors and superior execution of the pre and post production phases of the publishing process. Absent high barriers to new competition, established imprints will thrive only if they deliver on their reputation.

Just as some retailers like Amazon have begun competing in the publishing industry, the publishing industry might consider extending itself into retail order fulfillment, expanding rather than shrinking their role in the author to reader value chain. Given the publishing industry's experience with managing print and logistic chains, opening up POD equipped fulfillment centers of their own and selling that service to Amazon's competitors would seem a reasonable strategy. This aligns with talk among mainstream publishers of establishing a marketplace to compete with Amazon, and in doing so publishers would avoid ceding an 'infinite inventory' advantage to Amazon by providing POD based fulfillment functionality to all retailers.

While the age-old passion for books and literature may act as a point of friction against market forces for a time, the book industry is a business. The cold calculations of profit and loss will prevail. New technologies will defeat old business models. It's nothing personal. It's just the future. As any writer of the future worth his salt knows, hiding from the future or hoping it will go away are exceptionally bad ideas. Stories of those who have attempted it are legion, and rarely end well for the future-averse.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

by Michael Popham

On a Friday afternoon 41 summers ago -- Friday, June 15, 1973, to be exact -- Battle For the Planet of the Apes opened in theaters around the nation. It enjoyed little fanfare and carried none of the weighty expectations of a summer blockbuster.  In fact, the summer blockbuster had yet to be invented.

 In those days summer was regarded as a slack time for movies, and nothing of importance was released in the summer months.  Battle For the Planet of the Apes had  "nothing of importance" written all over it. 1968's phenomenally popular Planet of the Apes had already spawned three sequels, each one cheaper than the last, and Battle, the fourth sequel, was the chintziest by far.  It was aimed straight at the kiddies and was essentially a cheat. Instead of an epic ape-versus-human war for control of the Earth, as had been breathlessly promised in the trailers, the movie ended with a half-hearted skirmish between a couple dozen apes and some begoggled humans driving dusty jeeps and a schoolbus around the Fox Ranch.

Battle was for many years the last film of the Planet of the Apes franchise and it stood for decades as a monument to the law of diminishing returns. No sequels followed it because no one could figure out how to make another Apes film for less money.

But the generation of kids who paid money to see the ignominious end of the ape film cycle grew up, and passed their enthusiasm on to their kids; their fond memories fueled a renewed interest in all things ape.  The ape renaissance began with an ill-advised  remake of the original film by Tim Burton in 2001.  A decade later, another attempt was made to reboot the franchise, and this time Rise of the Planet of the Apes got it right.  That film, essentially a re-telling of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, described how a chimp named Caesar gained the power of speech and led his oppressed ape brethren out of bondage.

The new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, like Battle, begins ten years after the events of the previous film.  The world's human population has been decimated by a genetically-engineered plague and humans have all but disappeared. Caesar, along with his tree-dwelling compatriots in the Muir Woods, wonders if the humans have finally run themselves into extinction.  That particular outcome would suit most of the apes in Caesar's company just fine, since their only interactions with humans had been negative: the lucky ones had been imprisoned as zoo specimens; the unlucky were used in cruel experiments.

One such unlucky ape is Koba, a chimp scarred both physically and emotionally. While he secretly covets Caesar's power, he knows he cannot challenge him directly, and he bides his time. He knows that sooner or later Caesar will be weakened in the eyes of his people and ripe for overthrow; the only question is when.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the humans aren't extinct after all.  A small human enclave has sprung up in nearby San Francisco. The survivors, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) want to re-establish a power grid, to replace the diesel generators that are quickly running out of fuel. To this end they seek to repair the hydroelectric power station which (convenient to the plot but inconvenient to everyone else) lies within ape territory.

One of the humans making his way to the dam stumbles onto a pair of apes.  The human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), is startled and reacts (as humans tend to do) with gunfire, and one of the apes is injured. A kinder, gentler human contingent led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) arrives to apologize and plead their case for access to the power station.  Caesar agrees to this, much to the consternation of the other apes, and for the first time Caesar sees his leadership being questioned by his followers.  Caesar and his moral counterpart Malcolm seek a way to establish a mutually beneficial truce; while Carver and his counterpart Koba relentlessly push their respective sides toward bloody conflict, and this tension is what propels the movie forward.

Dawn is a surprisingly intelligent and nuanced film, reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins in the way it transmutes its pulpy, low-budget source material into something much more evocative and serious. The word Shakespearean keeps bubbling up when you think about it, because the characters seemed doomed by their own weaknesses. Both the humans and apes want to build a new society, but the worst habits of the old order keep intruding.  Even the apes, building a community for the first time on the bedrock of simple, immutable principles ("Ape no kill ape") find that ambition, resentment and blood-lust inevitably creep in and threaten to destroy everything they have built.

Dawn also represents a new high-water mark for CGI in film; it contains some of the most carefully-done and convincing SFX work I've seen in a long time. Like all good special effects, you don't notice them most of the time, and simply take what you see at face value.  This is especially important since the movie takes a huge gamble in turning over so much of the movie to its ape characters. Luckily, it pays off. Andy Serkis' performance as Caesar comes through the effects process effortlessly, and seeing him communicate with his brethren via sign language and occasional words and sentence fragments is delightful. The ape community, shown to us in small intriguing glimpses, leaves us wanting more.

 Curiously, for a film as ambitious as this one, the ape characters seem much more fleshed-out than the humans. Malcolm is inexplicably dull and earnest, and Kerri Russell's Ellie has little to do but stand around and look concerned. Even Carver, the catalyst for so much of the mayhem in the film, is just a clod who conveniently makes the wrong choices 100% of the time. And Kodi Smith-McPhee is an unfortunate example of what seems to be standard-issue in post-apocalyptic stories these days: the sullen, brooding teenager.  By comparison, Toby Kebbell's Koba and Nick Thurston's Blue Eyes have much more dynamic character arcs, and it's too bad the humans weren't thought out as thoroughly as the apes.

All in all, though, this is a nearly perfect movie, certainly the best in the franchise since Charlton Heston ran around Ape City in a loincloth nearly half a century ago. To director Matt Reeves and company I say: congratulations, well done, and bring on the sequel.