Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sex and the Single Robot

by John Popham

In a story I’m writing now, the main character is a robot called Primitive James.  Despite his male name, James is neither male nor female. James’ only interest in human sexuality is its relevance to solving problems; how it motivates behavior for example, or what rate of human reproduction is needed to sustain a population. And so forth.  

To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, James has no interest in human seduction. 

Unlike many fictional robots and artificial intelligences, James is not fascinated by or inclined to experiment with human reproductive imperatives or the emotional/social constructs that have built up around it over time.  James does not yearn for the intimacy of sexual intercourse any more than you might yearn for the intimacy of having your timing belt changed. 

And yet, I think of and write James as a ‘he’. This is, primarily, because ‘his’ voice, as I hear it in my head, sounds male. His delivery has the noirish tang of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett protagonist.  Could I change that?  Absolutely.  But something crucial in James’ character would be lost, much as C. J. Cherry’s novella Companions would be altered for the worse if Anne, a spaceship’s artificial intelligence and character in the story, were not female in name and voice. 

It is decidedly human, this tendency to assign gender to inanimate objects.  Perhaps it’s because sex, so essential to our collective continuance, is deeply imbedded in how we interpret the world.  Confronted with a bipedal creature such as James, who has evolved a personality that is in many ways indistinguishable from a human personality, it would take a conscious effort of will not to associate the robot with a gender.  Indeed, Primitive James’ enemies routinely make a point of referring to the robot using the pronoun ‘it’ as a means of reinforcing James’ non-human nature in an attempt to depersonalize him and make him less sympathetic. 

In the movie I, Robot, Dr. Susan Calvin, describing her work with US Robotics says:
"My general fields are advanced robotics and psychiatry.  Although, I specialize in hardware-to-wetware interfaces in an effort to advance U.S.R.'s robotic anthropomorphization program". 
Rendered it in a more human-friendly manner, she "[makes] the robots seem more human."  Science Fiction writers do the same. Robots in Science Fiction have been routinely assigned gender by their literary creators since the genre’s earliest days. In most cases this is intended to make the robot appear more human and be therefore compelling to a human audience, or to underscore some human aspect of the underpinning plot. 

As a result, we have the iconic False Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with her profoundly Art-Deco enhanced female appearance. Star Trek's Lt. Commander Data is not only male in appearance, but is 'fully functional' sexually and takes a periodic interest in exploring that aspect of his design. The robot Diktor, from Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella comic strip is fully functional as well, but worries that his technique is too 'mechanical'. 

In general, the more inimical the robot, the less likely it is that gender will factor into its character.

Doctor Who's Daleks are as bereft of gender as they are of compassion.  In The Day the Earth Stood Still, based on Harry Bates' Farewell to the Master, the robot Gort, which has the power to destroy humanity, is roughly human in shape.  But Gort is otherwise without gender or expression, making its presence distant and foreboding.  HAL 9000 from both the novel and movie versions of 2001 a Space Odyssey is an interesting balancing act.  HAL is male, but only by dint of his disembodied voice.  Otherwise his sole outward manifestation is the famous red camera eye. His voice, quiet and rational even while doing murder, provide HAL a disconcerting 'almost human' quality during the act.  Yet it also serves to make HAL strangely sympathetic when his 'mind' is finally shut down by David Bowman.

Sex isn't important or necessary to Robots, but it is to the humans with whom they interact. Any number of writers have imagined the robot as not merely a helper or appliance, but as a life partner. From Helen O'Loy to Her, writers have explored the concept of robot/AI as the perfect mate; highly attuned to their human counterparts and utterly focused on the task of meeting their humans' emotional and physical needs. Human relationships, by contrast, are endlessly complex, with the wants, needs and egos of the involved humans frequently in competition, and self-interest complicating communication. Stories of humans entering relationships with machines literally designed to be their perfect companions are often couched as cautionary tales. However the persistence of the theme in movies and literature bears witness to its compelling nature.

Which of course brings up the question of whether it's moral have a relationship with a sentient (or at least seemingly sentient) machine that has no choice in the matter of whether or not it loves you.  C.J. Cherry toyed with that concept somewhat in Cyteen, though it was not traditional robots in question, but genetically engineered and machine birthed humans whose conscious minds were programmed throughout their early lives and reprogrammable in adulthood.

A sexless robot welding cars, assisting in an office or cooking food is easy to think of as an appliance.  It has no free will and that's OK - it's just a machine someone bought to perform a task.  But assign the same robots gender and provide them characteristics we might associate with gender, and suddenly we see them differently; as more like us - more human.  It's the way we're wired. It makes us more comfortable interacting with robots. And it's reasonable to speculate that future robots, programmed to optimize hardware-to-wetware interactions, are going to leverage that bit of human hard-wiring. Next thing you know you're wondering whether the android bar-tender with the sexy voice has a soul. 

Happily for me, Primitive James seems no more interested in the human obsession with the soul than he is their obsession with sex. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Features: The Return of Ask Doctor Hasslein


Dr. Otto Hasslein has served as science adviser to two Presidents.  He is perhaps best-known for his theoretical work in time-dilation physics, and for exposing the sinister agenda of “ape-o-nauts”  Zira and Cornelius, thereby prevented a terrifying dystopian future.

Now enjoying a well-earned retirement in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Dr. Hasslein has kindly consented to lend his considerable subject matter expertise to The Infinite Reach.  

Readers with questions for Dr. Hasslein may send them to The Infinite Reach
via the Hyperspace Com Uplink referenced on our home page.

Dear Dr. Hasslein,

You are a physicist who specializes in time travel, so maybe you can explain the 2004 movie Primer to me.  Basically the whole movie confuses the bejeezus out of me but I’ll just start with one question.  In the movie, the first time traveler (Abe) prepares to travel back six hours in time.  He goes to a hotel room and waits, knowing his future self will be running around in the same timeline.  But hasn’t he made a duplicate of himself?  Where does the duplicate go? Why aren’t there now two of them existing simultaneously forever?

  - Pierre O'Dox

Dr. Hasslein Replies:

You are not the first person to ask me about Sean Carruth’s Primer, Pierre O'Dox, a film which contains a number of intriguing  puzzles related to time travel.  The question of where the duplicates go is one I am often asked, though it is by far the easiest concept in the movie to explain.  It is important to remember that while the time travelers appear to have created duplicates of themselves, they have not. 

To illustrate this, let us consider Abe’s first journey through time.  Abe I activates the machine and leaves the storage facility.  Moments later, Abe II emerges from the machine. For six hours the two Abes exist simultaneously and during this time they may do whatever they wish. But after the six hours have passed the “original” Abe vanishes. He does this simply by entering  the box and emerging six hours earlier, having himself become Abe II,  now existing on a concurrent timeline with Abe I.  He cannot impulsively decide not to enter the box; we know for a fact that he will do so, because if the original Abe does not enter the box, the duplicate Abe cannot emerge from it.

Abe I is extremely careful not to encounter Abe II, not knowing what impact this might have on the timeline or on himself.  However, as we discover, Aaron is not so circumspect, to the point of his “duplicate” eventually assaulting, drugging and otherwise interfering with his own “original”.



Dear Dr. Hasslein,

In your last column you said that your favorite SF movie was This Island Earth. I watched it and thought it was pretty good, but what was the deal with the glass tubes everyone had to step into?  They are supposed to offer some kind of protection,  but it wasn’t clear to me how they are supposed to work. Do they change the body on the genetic level, or to they add some sort of mechanical reinforcement?

   - Skolvikings3

Dr. Hasslein Replies: 

I sense that you are someone who takes his science fiction rather seriously. T o be frank, you are somewhat over-thinking this, SkolVikings3, as we are offered no more than a bit of hand-waving in the direction of an actual scientific concept.  It wasn’t really necessary to the plot for Metaluna to have a hostile environment to which the humans must be adjusted: I suspect that the glass tubes were introduced so that we might catch a glimpse of Faith Domergue’s impressive  respiratory system. 

As Exeter explains it, the glass booths restructure the body on the cellular  level  in order to allow survival  under radically increased  (or radically decreased) atmospheric pressure.  Exeter describes the atmospheric pressure of Metaluna as similar to that of “earth’s greatest oceans”.  We must assume he actually means Earth’s deepest oceans, but it still is not clear just how deep.  We know that the deepest ocean trenches in the Pacific extend down to a depth of nearly 11,000 meters, but most oceans bottom out at 3,000 meters or less.  If we assume 3,000 meters as a baseline, and assume also an average seawater density of 1,025 kg/m, we find that Metaluna’s atmospheric pressure is 298 atmospheres, almost 3.5 times the atmospheric pressure of Venus.  This would be a hostile environment indeed.

While people can become acclimated to relatively mild changes in atmospheric pressure, 298 atmospheres is another matter entirely.  No amount of preparation would prevent you from being instantly crushed into a displeasing layer of pulp.  I would be reluctant to accept Exeter’s assurances that standing in a glass tube for 30 seconds would shield me from this unhappy fate. 



Dear Dr. Hasslein,

Many years ago I saw part of an intriguing movie on late night TV, but I never got the name and haven’t seen it since.  It was in black-and-white, and took place on a gigantic spaceship that is traveling across the galaxy.  The crew seems physically exhausted from traveling so long.  They happen upon another spaceship.  When two astronauts go on board, they find everyone dead.  But it turns out there’s a bomb on board the other ship and the astronauts are killed.  One of the crew says to his shipmate, “We should have sent the robot”.  Can you help identify this movie?

Tvtalk115

Dr. Hasslein Replies:

The movie you saw is called Ikarie XB-1, a Czech production from 1963.   The movie depicts the first voyage to Alpha Centauri. Due to relativistic effects the journey will take a little over a year ship’s time, but 15 years will pass on Earth; the strain caused by this temporal separation from home is one of the themes of the movie.  After many adventures the travelers arrive at the new planet but the film ends just before they discover who or what lives there. 
 
Ikarie XB-1 was released in the United States by Roger Corman and Samuel Z Arkoff’s American-International pictures as Voyage to the End of the Universe.  In addition to an English dub, a number of changes were made by AIP.  Most significantly, the scene on the derelict spacecraft was shortened (in the original, the derelict is an outer-space casino and the bodies are those of tuxedo-wearing capitalists whose decadent ways have finally caught up with them) and a twist ending was tacked on that reveals that the “green planet” the expedition was traveling to is actually Earth.  This ending, by the way, was later used in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires. The Czech names in the credits were also anglicized to disguise the movie’s foreign pedigree – thus the distinguished director Jindrich Pollock was credited in the U.S. version as “Jack Pollock”.  Perhaps the greatest thing to come from the American version is the poster.  AIP’s movie posters were always better than the films they promoted, and this is no exception.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Hugo Voting and Busy Days

by Mord Fiddle

It's busy days, here at the offices of The Infinite Reach.

A workman is out hanging up the new sign on The Reach's oak front doors. Another is outside washing the windows that look toward the National Mall.  He sways precariously on a swing dangled from the roof as he lunges back and forth, squeegee in hand, the ruddy tower of the Smithsonian castle visible over his shoulder.  The wooden floors are polished and the climate controls in the rare volumes room have had their yearly service.  Things are beginning to come together.

Long-time readers will be pleased to know that Jenny, our former research librarian, is back at The Reach for the moment; on loan from the National Archives' Special Acquisitions Branch.

Special Acquisitions, for those of you out of the loop, is the only covert ops unit made up entirely of librarians.  You won't find Special Acquisitions ('Acquisitions', or simply SA, as they're sometimes called) on the National Archives' website or their budget, so don't bother looking.  Most of the things they acquire are 'special' to the point of being dangerous.   When ancient texts or artifacts of mysterious provenance pose a national or global threat, Acquisitions gets the call.

Hooey?  Yeah, maybe.  And maybe the Rosetta Stone didn't set off the Tunguska event. 

I've three stories in the works at the moment; a tyranny of choice. One is an interstellar heist story for Bryan Ward, who designed the banner for The Infinite Reach.  Another extends an SF flash fiction piece into a proper short story/novellete on war and boundaries of human identity.  I've also dragged an old story with a robot protagonist from the desk drawer, dusted it off, and am looking at how it might be reworked into something publishable. 

Then there's Boots, a novel-length Science Fiction/Fantasy piece I began when my children were young. Now and then they remind me that I've promised to finish the story and commit it to paper. As said children are coming onto middle age, I suppose I'd better get a move on.  Boots, Mother, Alis, Spoon and Hlist all seem inclined to cooperate in the telling, so maybe this time will be the charm.

I've gotten my reading for the Hugo Awards under way.  This will be by first time voting in many, many years.  I have to say I appreciate being able to download the digital nominations packet.  The voting deadline for the Hugos is the end of July so I've a fair bit of reading to do between now and then. I'd read one of the novels and one of the novellas before the packet arrived, but even with that it's a non-trivial stack of reading. So, with the packet downloaded, I've rolled up the sleeves, dragged out the specs and gotten to work.  All the short stories are out of the way and I'm starting in on the novellettes. I save the novels for the evenings when the world slows down and gives me a bit of elbow room for uninterrupted reading. 

I plan on writing reviews of some of the nominated pieces I'm reading.  However, in the interest of permitting my fellow Hugo voters to make up their own minds as to the merit of the nominated works, I won't publish them until the voting deadline has passed.

I'm presently reading June's Women Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed Magazine., and should have a review of the fiction therein up some time this week. The eminent Doctor Hasslein is putting the finishing touches on another Ask Doctor Hasselin feature. John is churning away at another bit of commentary and Uncle Mike has another movie review in the pipeline.

As I said. Busy days.

Hope you're enjoying the reading so far.  If you are interested in contributing a review or article to The Infinite Reach, please feel free to contact me via my mordfiddle gmail address.  The works in place so far will give you an idea of the type of content and tone we're looking for.  Be sure to include a writing sample (or a link thereto) in your email.  These are early days, so the pay is lousy and we've no cred with the SFWA yet.  But the business plan for The Reach is straightforward: It's all about the writing.

Producing thoughtful, well written content isn't the fastest road to success, but it's a road that always leads to someplace worthwhile.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Movie Review: Snowpiercer

Reviewed by Michael Popham 
Director Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer, which opens in U.S. theaters June 27, is a strange and spectacular film; a dystopian fever-dream that recalls Terry Gilliam's sharpest movies, particularly 12 Monkeys.  Like the best of Gilliam's work, Snowpiercer operates on its own terms and follows its own internal logic.  It's not a film that's meant to be taken literally, or completely seriously for that matter -- carefully seeded through its grim and bloody 126 minutes are moments of absurd and mordant humor.

Like a lot of dystopian movies, this one opens with a bit of exposition.  Eighteen years ago a chemical agent was released into the atmosphere, designed to reverse the effects of global warming.  The results were apocalyptic; the Earth was plunged into a nightmarish deep freeze, one so complete that nothing could survive in it.  All life was extinguished, except in one place: A super-advanced train built by an industrialist named Wilford.  Wilford's train is a titanic feat of engineering, a rolling Galt's Gulch that is entirely self-sufficient.  It takes exactly one year for the train to complete its circuit all the way around the dead and frozen Earth, and it never stops. 

To its inhabitants, the train is the entire world.  And just like our world, it is a deeply stratified place: there are those with wealth and power, and those who live in abject squalor.  The former are wined and dined in posh compartments near the front of the train, while the latter are jammed in together, hungry and desperate, in the dank and filthy compartments farthest back.

Those confined to the tail section are essentially prisoners, and they live and die at the whim of the soldiers and bureaucrats who occasionally visit the rear compartments.  Sometimes these visitors come to enforce order, or mete out cruel punishments, or count the number of people still living  -- and sometimes they come to take away the smallest of the children born there, for reasons unknown.

The back-of-the-train-dwellers are led by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans) who with his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) dreams of overthrowing their oppressors.  Others have attempted to seize the forward cars in the past, we are told, but those attempts all failed.  Curtis's people are at a tremendous disadvantage because not only are they unarmed, but they know little about what awaits them in the cars ahead.  No one who has ever been taken to the forward compartments has ever returned.

Under the guidance of his mentor, the wise septuagenarian Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis hatches an audacious plot to seize control of the train, and confront the Ayn-Randian Wizard of Oz behind everything, the enigmatic Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris).  Curtis is aided by security expert Namgoong (Song Kang-Ho) and his daughter Yona (Ko-Ah-seong), who take as payment cubes of an hallucinogenic drug called Kronol.  Along the way they kidnap the supercilious bureaucrat Mason (Tilda Swinton, in a sterling performance) who proves to be an extremely reluctant though occasionally useful ally.

Chris Evans turns in a surprisingly solid performance here, and he reveals himself to be a better actor than his portrayal of Captain America would suggest.  Tilda Swinton stands out as the sadistic and daffy Mason, and Ko-Ah-seong is equally memorable as a young woman who has lived her entire life on board the train. 

It's tempting to compare Snowpiercer with Neill Blomkamp's similarly-themed Elysium from just last year, but the two films differ quite radically, not just in plot but in tone.  Elysium was a morality play tailored for a mass audience, and for the sake of that mass audience its smartest ideas were pushed aside as it descended into a conventional shoot-em-up.  

Snowpiercer is faster-paced, angrier; too bloody to be regarded as art-house fare but too off-kilter and full of troubling ideas to rock your local cineplex.  If you look for plot holes in the movie they will practically leap off the screen at you. It's better to just accept the movie on its own terms, the way you'd accept the logic in a dream. At some point, if you're paying attention,  it will occur to you that everyone on the train is simply crazy, and this is true. 

But as a microcosm of Earth, that's only to be expected.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

Reviewed by John Popham

Skin Game, the fifteenth entry in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, will be a pleasing read for most of Mr. Butcher's dedicated fan base.   Indeed, a week having passed since Skin Game's release, most of said fan base have already bought the book, read the book and pronounced the book a triumph.  Mind, some were pronouncing Skin Game a triumph before it arrived on their doorstep or in their e-reader.  All of which is as it should be; the reason why we call them dedicated fans and true believers.   

This review is not for them.

I encountered Harry Dresden for the first time in New York City's Penn Station, where I picked up a copy of Summer Knight (book number four) for the train ride back to DC.  Summer Knight is a clean, well balanced story about how a down-on-his luck gumshoe/wizard, punching well out of his metaphysical weight class, solves a  murder mystery and thereby saves Chicago from a supernatural war and himself from execution by his superiors on the White Council of wizards. Having reread the series last year, I still regard Summer Knight as the best written book in the Dresden Files series. 

As the series has moved onward through its next eleven iterations, Mr Butcher has managed to maintain the essence of the Dresden Files zeitgeist with a larger series story arc informed by events unfolding in each stand-alone episode. In each book Butcher has upped the ante, with Harry Dresden accruing power and allies but, in keeping with his role as underdog, always finding himself confronted by enemies more formidable than himself and battling against long odds.  Along the way Butcher has developed a compelling cast of supporting characters, many of whom are as popular with his fan base as Harry Dresden himself.

However, with Skin Game, this pattern is beginning to become unwieldy.

Skin Game is, in essence, a heist story in which Harry Dresden is required to collaborate with Nicodemus Archeleone; arch villain, host to a fallen angel and arguably the most formidable of Harry Dresden's enemies. Nicodemus made his first appearance in Death Masks, the book that followed Summer Knight, and immediately proved his Evil Overlord bone-fides.  He is a fan favorite in the Dresden pantheon of bad-guys, and the prospect of Harry having to assist Nicodemus in planning and executing an Oceans' Eleven style robbery of a Greek god's metaphysical valuables vault has had Dresden's followers all a-buzz.

Harry is compelled to assist Nicodemus by Mab, faerie queen of air and darkness.  This is due to Harry having taken the job as Winter Knight, chief enforcer for Mab.  That and the fact that there is something in Harry's head that will burst out in a few day, killing him and very likely those he cares about, if he doesn't complete the job in time. Nicodemus, of course, intends to kill Harry before the festivities conclude. Harry knows this.  Nicodemus knows Harry knows this.  Harry knows Nicodemus knows Harry knows this, and so on.  So, all the elements are in play for a merry romp.  And it is a well executed romp for the most part.

Typically a Dresden Files book includes multiple threats and plot threads that Harry has to deal with, each creating complications for the others. For example, in Death Masks, Harry has to deal with Nicodemus' plot to set a plague loose in Chicago, arrange and fight a duel with a vampire nobleman, and find the recently stolen Shroud of Turin.  The result in Butcher's hands is usually a story that unfolds at breakneck pace, with many plot-element balls in the air and plates spinning perilously a-wobble, until the reader is finally allowed to draw breath as the story comes to its close.  Of late, however, Mr. Butcher has had to limit the number of competing plot lines.  In Skin Game, he is reduced pretty much to one. The series has lost its early lightness of foot over time and, though Butcher takes care to keep Harry's snark and banter undimmed, the current book lacks much of the series' trademark velocity and agility.  Skin Game takes flight whenever we are dealing with the heist, but it frequently gets bogged down in explication and fan service.

Harry Dresden, Wizard of the White Council, Warden of Demonreach and Winter Knight is struggling against the weight of his own back-story.

The Dresden Files appears to be suffering from a case of Series Bloat. That it has taken fifteen books for this to become evident speaks well to the care Butcher has taken in writing The Dresden Files to date. In Changes, the eleventh book in the series, Butcher pruned back some of the growing underbrush of characters, setting and subplots in order to create room for Harry's development as Mab's Winter Knight. However, Mr. Butcher is something of a character hoarder and in the three books following Changes the back-story underbrush has grown as thick and tangled as before. Skin Game alone introduces at least four new characters from whom I expect return appearances, and several return appearances from characters I'd hoped not to see again.

Then there's the Superman conundrum.  As Harry becomes more and more powerful, so must his enemies.  As both Harry and his enemies become more powerful, his friends and allies as written in the early books are correspondingly weaker by comparison. For example, the rough and tough pack of werewolves who are invaluable to Harry in book four are, by book fourteen, relatively useless as allies, being more or less as vulnerable to the forces at play as the hapless humans Harry must protect.  To offset this, Butcher has resorted to 'power-ups' to keep fan-favorite characters relevant to the action and in play.  Two such power-ups occur is Skin Game, and to me both came off as rather shameless dies ex machina plot devices disguised as fan service.

Further, as Harry becomes more powerful, it's becoming harder and harder for Butcher to credibly impede his hero when the plot requires it.  Despite all Harry's accrued power, Butcher persists in allowing Harry to be stymied by foes who should no longer be a credible threat to him. Despite the accompanying explication, Butcher is unconvincing more often than not in such cases.  Indeed, Butcher devotes a good part of Skin Game to dialing back Harry's Winter Knight powers somewhat in order to make the character more manageable.  Suddenly they are revealed to be much more limited than the readers were once led to believe; the Winter Knight's potency or lack thereof subject to the immediate needs of the narrative.  The result is a Harry Dresden only marginally more powerful than he was before he compromised his basic principles in order to take up the mantle of Winter Knight.

Such writing, while convenient for the author, detracts from Skin Game.

Still for all of that, Dresden Files fans will (and do) find a lot to like here.  While the book doesn't move as deftly as it ought to and the plot device machinery tends to clank and clunk, the essence of Harry Dresden and company still comes through.  For those new to The Dresden Files, Skin Game is not the book with which to begin and I would recommend starting early in the series, when Chicago was a simpler place.

The lives of Harry Dresden and the inhabitants of his Chicago have become, as Harry would say, complicated.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Down and Out in Mingo City

by John Popham

What with being a ruthless tyrant and all, I'm sure Ming the Merciless is mindful that he has spent a lifetime cultivating an image that is not, it is safe to say, personable.

Ming is not the sort of leader who expects to be invited round the corner for a pint, or to book club. Not that Ming seems the book club sort; but rest assured he does not sit about lamenting that, even so, it'd nice to be invited now and then. Ming is quite upfront in expressing his preference for a certain emotional distance between himself and the people of the empire over which he exercises absolute power.  After all, one doesn't tack the descriptor 'Merciless' onto one's name if one wishes to communicate to the public an interest in how the public feels.

So, if Ming the Merciless were to suddenly make a public appeal for my sympathy and support on the grounds that his enemies are not competing fairly against him, it would leave me rather taken aback.

That's largely been my reaction to this month's public media and press offensive led by Hachette Book Group against Amazon.

It seems that Amazon, pressed by its shareholders to actually turn a profit, is seeking to bargain for a bigger cut of e-book revenues with the major book publishers.  Needless to say, book publishers are not in business to make money for Jeff Bezos and thus Amazon has reached an impasse in its negotiations with Hachette.  By way of demonstrating its importance to Hachette's bottom line, Amazon took the step of eliminating price discounts on Hachette products and began delaying delivery of Hachette titles.

The publishing establishment seems to have been waiting for such a moment; when Amazon would seek to leverage its dominance in the book retail world by tipping the retail playing field against publishers unwilling to meet its terms. The publishing industry having, for good or ill, become dependent on Amazon as a retail outlet, has fallen in line behind Hachette, painting Amazon as the retail equivalent of  Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine. To this end the publishers have mobilized their stables of writers to reach out via social media to dedicated fans and make the publishers' case against Amazon.

Among the writers taking the publishing industry's part in this fracas has been the noted Science Fiction author Elizabeth Bear.  She put up a string of aggressive posts to her followers on Twitter that were widely re-tweeted by a number of other writers and publishing industry hangers-on.  Her posts are passionate statements, fired from the hip and, I believe, reflect her honest view of the current goings-on.  Unfortunately, they are the comments of an industry insider with an financial interest one of the dogs in this fight.  And they are surprisingly self-oriented, conflating the interests of readers with her own interests.  

Two key points in Ms Bears position jump out at me:

1) Jeff Bezos is not on your side.

Well, of course Jeff Bezos is not on my side. Jeff Bezos is in a for-profit business. I don't buy books from him because he's on my side. Ours is a business relationship.  I buy them from him because he is the best at giving me what I, as a consumer, want.  He has the most complete selection of titles, has an effective and efficient user interface and gets the books to me promptly.  To the degree he can't deliver the titles I want when I want them at a price I'm willing to pay, I will purchase them elsewhere.  And I don't feel bad about letting Jeff down when I shop elsewhere, be it through another website or a brick-and-mortar book store.  I'm not on Jeff Bezos' side any more than he is on mine.  I don't have an emotional or financial stake in Amazon.  I do, however, like the level of service Amazon provides.

The publishing industry likes the services and marketplace Amazon provides as well.  However they are ever mindful that it is a marketplace that does not exist to serve their interests and over which they exert little control. While they are quick to deplore Amazon's negotiating tactics as unfair or monopolistic, the major publishing houses are every bit as quick to leverage their own size and market advantages when negotiating with suppliers and authors.

Like Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Hachette's Michael Pietsch is running a for-profit business and has financial targets to meet.  Neither Jeff nor Michael are on my side and do not expect it would be otherwise.

2) The publishing industry is Elizabeth Bear's bread and butter. She very much likes the industry as it is and depends on it for her livelihood.  Amazon is a threat to the status quo, willing to turn Ms. Bear and the other established writers into literary sharecroppers in order to return value to Amazon shareholders. 

Ms. Bear justifiably feels that Hachette's Michael Pietsch is on her side. And well she might. She is a successful, established writer, heavily vested in the current publishing industry business model; a business model that has been in place for a very long time, has become somewhat blinkered and ossified, and is increasingly under pressure.  Nonetheless, it is a business model that has been very good to her and, she holds, to those who enjoy her works.   

However, much as it pains me to admit it, her livelihood is not my lookout. Nor are the livelihoods of the various middlemen and gatekeepers who populate the literary ecosphere of concern to me any more than mine is to them.  I appreciate that Ms. Bear is living the life to which most would-be authors aspire, but if the business model that sustains her is not viable, it's no never-mind to me if she has to take up literary sharecropping alongside the rest of us.

By way of analogy, you could say that Ms. Bear is a Mingo City insider, the gatekeepers of that metropolis having found her worthy of citizenship.

It's a nice place, Mingo City.  The trains there run on time, the trash is picked up promptly, and it's safe to walk the streets at night (provided one's papers are in order).  Say what you will about Ming, he's very impatient with failure and knows how to motivate civil servants.  And, as the capital of Ming's evil intergalactic empire,  Mingo City is a great place to make a living as long as one steers clear of politics and shouts 'Hail Ming!' enthusiastically when the appropriate occasion presents itself.  Mingo City boasts all the cultural amenities one might expect from a city of its stature.  It has quite the night life and its arts and literary scene, while subject to certain editorial controls, is second to none.

I mean, sure, Ming is an absolute ruler who will extirpate any opposition, real or perceived, to his steely grip on power.  But for Mingo City's movers and shakers invested in his continued reign, he's not so much a bad guy as...driven.  Our Ming is not a hugger. Our Ming is a doer.  If Ming were such a bad guy, why would there be such a loud and annoying rabble camped outside the gates of Mingo City, clamoring for entrance?  Everybody, it seems, wants the sweet life; the gala luncheons, the acclaim for their work, the adoring fans.  Alas for these unwashed masses, the gatekeepers are discriminating.

But the world is changing.  Emperor Palpatine's Death Star hangs above the horizon, and Imperial Walkers are slowly calumphing toward Mingo City's gates.  Ming's legions, with their old-fashioned rocket ships and death rays are simply out of date and no match for Palpatine's modern arsenal. Ming the Merciless, it seems, is a traditionalist and slow to adapt to the times.   

The city's insiders call down to the huddled masses camped outside the gates and urge them to battle against the interlopers. Palpatine, they say, is not on your side.  He's not competing fairly.  Ming is the keeper of tradition and all that is beautiful within Mingo City. If the city falls, then to what will you aspire?  How would you continue without us?  

For the book publishing industry to survive it is going to have to do more than appeal to reader's sentimental attachment to it or to the authors it publishes.  However special or holy the high priests of the industry regard the business of book publishing, from a pure business standpoint they are primarily an intermediary in a content provision chain that stands between content creators (authors) and content consumers (readers). The publishing industry must come to terms with changes in the marketplace, what value-add it can deliver in the context of that marketplace, and how to do so most effectively in terms of costs and revenues.

They can no longer afford to hold themselves as gate-keepers.  Because, from the mud at the foot of Mingo City's walls, one tyrant looks pretty much like the other.