Category Archives: General opinionated stuff

Products: success and failure

We’re surrounded by products, day in and day out. The world is full of things to buy – not all of which are books. Personally, I’m a sucker for high-end tech. Some people buy designer jeans or expensive cars; I wear army surplus combats, drive a car that’s so small and fuel-efficient that I don’t have to pay road tax, and spend my hard-earned cash on personal tech with specs higher than I will ever need.

I’m not an IT professional – or even a particularly skilled amateur – but I love finding a new bit of tech that makes my life easier or more fun. Some women buy new clothes; I buy new apps.

Product Failures

So I find it interesting to look at what products succeed, and which ones fail. This article describes four products that failed:

  • The Ford Edsel – the only other time I’ve heard of this is in one of the Herbie films where an Edsel gets cut up and made into sculpture. A classic example of trying to be all things to all men and ending up not pleasing anybody. Plus, if you add all those knobs and whistles, they’d better work. Plus, not look weird.
  • The Microsoft Zune – Microsoft’s answer to the iPod, which I vaguely remember. Failed because it didn’t do anything new, or better than the iPod, and additionally had the square, clunky Microsoft design aesthetic. Might appeal to today’s hipsters, but back in the day, it was just uncool.
  • McDonald’s Arch Deluxe – ‘grown-up’ burger. The thing is, you don’t go to Macky-D’s for grown-up culture. You go for food that is fast and cheap.
  • The Google Glass. Apparently, released onto the market (and to journalists) before it was an entirely finished product. Prototypes are often less-than-stunning – and that was the Google Glass.

The last is the most interesting for me. It reminded me a lot of this article about care robots in Japan – and how Japan’s interest in robotics in the care industry has met with an unenthusiastic response from prospective users. At least in 2011, Japanese people wanted to be cared for by human beings, not robots – no matter how good the robot was.

Part of the failure of the Google Glass seemed to be an emotional adverse reaction from potential customers – just as elderly people in Japan didn’t want a humanoid robot caring for them (although non-humanoid robotic tools appear to be less of a problem), people found the Google Glass creepy, scary, and threatening – even to the level of assaulting the wearer, or ejecting him from shops simply for wearing a set. I wonder how much of this has a parallel with the Western fear of Muslim women wearing the face-covering niqab – culturally, we place great importance on being able to see people’s faces. We’re used to spectacles – since they’ve been around for about 750 years – but any other face-covering is weird and scary.

Another part of the failure of the Google Glass, I think, is that it was a cool bit of tech that did a job that very few people needed done. While having instant access to email and weather reports sounds cool – it’s actually not what most people either need or want. For the majority of the population, having your mail on your phone is quite enough. Apparently, Google Glass hasn’t gone away – but I predict that when it returns, it will be directed towards the sector of the population that really does have a need for it: e.g. police and security personnel, surgeons, on-location reporters. It seems unlikely that, culturally, society at large will be willing to accept Google Glass as personal tech for some time to come.

Apple: Product Success

Our household is a Mac household: Macs, iPads, iPhones, Apple Watches. My husband and I both like the Apple ecosystem – it’s reliable, efficient, and viruses are less of a problem (though my husband’s Mac still managed to catch one).

But one thing I notice about Apple is that they are very careful about what new products and features they introduce:

  • iPod/iPhone: kicked off serious changes to the music industry. Then – with the introduction of the app store – the rise of customisation of personal tech by enabling the consumer to buy little tiny programs that did a limited set of things, rather than a one-size-fits all big-program approach.
  • NFC technology: much whining about how Apple was falling behind because Android phones had NFC before the iPhone – but when Apple put NFC into the iPhone, it was coupled with the launch of Apple Pay, which revolutionised the way we pay for things. Either that, or they timed their market entry perfectly to catch a significant uptick in contactless technology adoption.
  • Apple Watch: latecomer to the smartwatch market, but I see Apple’s market share is now about half of the smartwatch market.

And this summer, we’re hearing much sneering about how Apple is missing a trick on the home automation market, with Google Home and Amazon Echo busily carving up the market between them. Personally, I think we’ll see – as predicted – the Apple entrant into the market next month, and I’ll be surprised if it isn’t something special. Apple’s strategy seems to be to wait until the technology available enables the manufacture of a product really worth having, rather than just a tech toy, before they enter that market themselves. More cynically, one might say that they wait for other people to make the mistakes, then swoop in with a beautiful, finished product that doesn’t have any embarrassing gaffes attached to it.

The Apple product philosophy seems to be, “Forget what’s cool, or what we can do – what can we make that is useful?” Then, of course, they make the useful product cool.

Back to Books

And, to relate this back to books and publishing…

Firstly, many of the same rules apply to books as to other products:

  • Don’t try to be all things to all men: figure out who your target demographic is, and write the book they want to read. Even if the target demographic is people exactly like the author, the market might be small, but they’ll be really happy. The more different people you try to please, the less chance you’ll please anybody.
  • Steer away from just mashing together as many genre conventions as you can, in the hope that this will increase popularity. It won’t: it’s more likely to look like parody. Or just silly.
  • If you’re going to offer something similar to what is already out there, you’ll have your best success if you add something new and interesting, something that is uniquely you. Otherwise, people will just stick with the market leaders, or at best you’ll have to fight everyone else for your share of the pie.
  • Know what people want from your kind of book. And give them that thing. You might give them other things as well, but you need to give them what they came for. People read romances for the happily-ever-after; they don’t read it for the hero and heroine to die tragically in the last chapter.

And when it comes to the book, the item itself? People want to read. E-books have taken off because they give people what they want – the author’s words – in a format that is convenient and fits into today’s busy lifestyles. Likewise, audiobooks are on the rise because they’re downloadable now, and they enable people to ‘read’ while they’re doing activities that otherwise make reading dangerous (like driving, or ironing).

Will electronic books ever include ‘expanded content’ like video, or background tracks? Well, maybe. But I wonder if those things come under the heading of ‘cool but ultimately useless’ because even though they’re possible (and people are already doing it) they’re just not what people come to (fiction) books for. I expect sound and video will become very much a part of textbooks, where they can be truly useful – but fiction is a different landscape, and like Google Glass as personal tech, I don’t think they’re what readers really want.

Of course… I might be wrong!

What do you think?

Technology: Winners and Losers

A Dodo

History is full of winners and losers, and it’s particularly obvious when dealing with technology. Take video recording, for example. Does anybody remember Betamax? I remember borrowing video cassettes when I was a kid – the shop had lots and lots of VHS tapes, and tiny little section for Betamax. Pretty  soon you couldn’t get Betamax at all (although if you really tried, apparently you could – as Sony only stopped making them this year). I did hear that Betamax was actually better technology – it just didn’t take off. Now, of course, the VHS has been replaced by DVD, and the last manufacturer of VHS tape players stopped making them.

E-books are an example of a technology that was somewhat slow to take off until Amazon brought out the first Kindle device. As a person who started reading e-books on a PDA with a battery life about an hour and a half, I desperately wanted a Kindle when they first went on the market – but unfortunately, I couldn’t have one because they were only on sale in the USA. Now, they are everywhere – and I’ve said before that I think they will eventually completely replace mass-market paperbacks. The market for paper books will probably continue, but only for presentation and collectors’ editions.

But the advent of e-books also brought with it additional sub- technologies. When e-books first became available, there was an assumption that the time of a book as being simply words on a page – whether that page was electronic or paper – were drawing to a close. Books would be enriched with audio, and video, and probably a bunch of other enrichments too.  And that is what the company Booktrack thought too: they develop soundtracks for books that include background music and sound effects, just like a film. The technology never really took off, and possibly one reason was because the only way to listen to the soundtrack with via their app.  Another reason may have been that in the early days, most people were reading on dedicated e-Ink book reading devices, which may not have had audio capability. Now that more people are reading on smartphones, this raises the possibility that Booktrack were simply ahead of their time – were they to start up now, would they do better?  Since they are still going, will they manage to popularise their technology? Or will it die, a technology that simply did not fill a need? It happens: look at the Google Glass. While in the abstract, it’s kind of cool to think of having your own heads up display, in reality it probably makes you feel a bit silly, not to mention getting you thrown out of restaurants. I expect the Google Glass will make a reappearance, but probably aimed at security services rather than the general consumer.

At the other end of the scale, you have Pokémon Go. A game that involves people walking around in the real world, looking for imaginary monsters. Most people stop doing that at about the age of five. Yet, it’s become a global craze. People are getting mugged, falling over cliffs, and crashing their cars because they are paying more attention to hunting Pokémon than to the real world around them. Who would have guessed that the game would take off to such an extent?

It makes me glad that I’m a writer.  No matter what the technology – whether audio or visual, dead tree or electronic – people will always want stories. The way in which they consume those stories might change, but the story’s the thing.

Ebooks on the way down? I don’t think so.

The Bookworm, a painting by Carl Spitzweg

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg

The Guardian has published yet another article prophesying the demise of ebooks:

…Now the official Publishers’ Association confirms the trend. Last year digital content sales fell last year from £563m to £554m. After years on a plateau, physical book sales turned up, from £2.74bn to £2.76bn.
They have been boosted by the marketing of colouring and lifestyle titles, but there is always a reason. The truth is that digital readers were never remotely in the same ballpark. The PA regards the evidence as unmistakable, “Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital.” Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen…

Well, speak for yourself.

I can only speak for myself, too, but my experience is exactly the opposite.

Firstly, to me, a book is not a physical object: it is the author’s words. If I bought a paper book and all the pages were blank, I wouldn’t say “Well, it’s the feel of it in my hands that’s important, isn’t it?” – I’d demand a refund.

I’m not the first person to think this way: Ray Bradbury said it before me, in Fahrenheit 451At the very end, Guy Montag is introduced to the people who, by memorising a book, take on the identity of that book, with the aim of preserving the author’s words for future generations. These people are not hoarding paper copies: they’re hoarding the actual words, to be set down in physical form later, when it’s safe.

Further back, the Indian sacred texts, the Vedas, were transmitted via oral tradition for centuries before they were written down. In the Guardian‘s view, then, these books are not “real books” because they are not set down on paper.

I was an early adopter of ebooks, on the grounds that was cheaper to re-buy my paper novel collection in ebook format than to buy a new house, and that was the choice with which I was faced (either that or go and live in a tent in the garden, because getting rid of some books was clearly not a viable option). My first “ereader” was a PDA with a battery life of about an hour. Any serious reading had to be done with the device in the charging cradle, and even a technophile such as I had to admit that this method of reading was never going to challenge paper books.

Then e-Ink came on the scene, and I bought my first ebook reader, which was a very expensive (by today’s standards) iRex iLiad. It was wonderful: it was light, it was portable, and I could have as many books on it as I wanted. And its battery lasted more than an hour, goodbye PDA.

And so I bought books. My dealer of choice was BooksOnBoard, and I bought so many books that they made my account a “trusted account” so there were no daily limits – I was spending over £100 at a time, replacing my thousands of novels with electronic books. Of course, I could have scanned the paper books and converted them that way (and for those I couldn’t get digitally, I did), but scanning a paper book is only the beginning of the process. Even with good OCR, you have to go back and fix the mistakes. It takes hours, and even if you “pay” yourself a stupidly low hourly wage, it’s still massively cheaper to buy a new, retail e-copy.

Nearly ten years later, my ebook conversion project isn’t finished – but there are only a handful of books left to do.

So, in my little n=1 study, purchases of ebooks have dropped dramatically from the early days – but this is not because I’m less interested in ebooks, or because I’ve returned to paper. My initial ebook-buying frenzy was the result of conversion of my existing library to digital; I’m now on the plateau, buying digital to add to my library. So of course my purchasing has slowed down.

I still buy a lot of books – more than I ever did before digital. I don’t have to think “where will I put this?” because my book reader has a capacity of thousands. I can buy, download, and be reading in seconds or minutes: buying a book doesn’t take hours or days. Plus, many books are cheaper now, so I can afford more of them. Digital is the high-volume reader’s dream come true: infinite bookshelf space, low prices, and a massive choice.

I don’t think that I’m unique amongst readers. I would bet that a good proportion of the initial sales figures of ebooks was readers like me, re-buying books they already had on paper, in a format that they could read on their new reading devices. Now that initial phase is over, we’re back to “normal service has been resumed” in ebook-buying land – or, more accurately, “normal service has begun”.

Likewise for reading devices: in the beginning, everyone who wanted to read digitally had to buy a book reader. The only alternative was desktop/laptop, and that’s not really viable. Now, the initial distribution phase is over: everyone who wanted a book reader has got one, and new sales are increasingly often going to be existing customers replacing their old readers (and not everyone will do that every year) or new customers (children/young people getting their first reader). Additionally, there are new ways of reading ebooks: affordable tablet computers have arrived. The first iPad was released in 2010, and it was as expensive as a top-flight bit of kit might be expected to be. Nowadays, the price of an entry-level tablet computer has dropped: you can buy a Kindle Fire for under £50 – which is cheaper than the entry-level Kindle, at £59.99. Of course eInk book reader sales have dropped – not only has the initial rush subsided, but there are now options that just weren’t available in 2007 when I bought my iLiad.

People considering the difference between ebooks and paper should also consider those people who can’t read ordinary paper books. The obvious population are partially-sighted people. My husband is a teacher, and one of his students (years ago now) was partially sighted. She couldn’t read ordinary-sized text, and the only large-print books available were those aimed at older people: Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, and so on – hardly calculated to appeal to a fourteen-year-old girl. My husband showed her his iLiad, and she was instantly entranced. Here was a way for her to read the same books her friends were reading: every book could be large print. Her parents bought her a reader, and later thanked my husband.

Then there are the people for whom manipulating a paper book is difficult. What if you only have one hand, or no hands? What if you can’t manage the weight? Book readers are light, and they can be held and the pages turned with only one hand. Or they can be propped up and the pages turned with only a touch.

On the other hand, Amazon has now opened two physical bookshops. Why would they do that if paper books are dying? I would suggest several reasons:

  • I think paper books are dying, but they are doing so very slowly. Paper will be around for a number of years yet, and Amazon is not the sort of company to let any business opportunity slip through its corporate fingers (and let’s not forget, Amazon sell paper books too).
  • Physical browsing is different from internet browsing. Cookies and algorithms show you the books the system things you’ll like, and that’s often a good thing; I’ve made some great discoveries that way. But browsing the shelves of a bookshop can introduce you to things you would never have encountered otherwise. Plus, just browsing a bookshop is fun.
  • Amazon also sells its electronics – Kindle, TV, Echo, etc – in its physical stores. Being able to inspect these gadgets in person before buying is much more important than with books. Despite what the Guardian says, if you’re buying a novel, you’re buying it for the story (which you can still check out online with the free sample), not the great typesetting and the cream-tinted heavy paper pages. (Or maybe that’s what Guardian journalists do buy books for. Miaow!)
  • Amazon is the biggest bookseller in the world: it can afford to open, and if necessary subsidise, a few physical bookshops.
  • If I were a paranoid person who thought that Amazon was really out to destroy the bookselling industry, then I would think that this was the next stage in Amazon’s campaign. After all, people who buy books from an Amazon physical bookshop are still buying from Amazon. And if they’re buying from Amazon, they’re not buying from Barnes & Noble, or Waterstones, or whatever the alternative is. Guess who wins?

So what are my predictions for the ebook market, if I think the Guardian is wrong?

  1. Paper will be the format-of-choice for non-fiction for the foreseeable future. The ease of flipping back and forth, and the indexing, make paper a good choice for non-fiction. Unless, of course, e-textbooks become more like mini downloadable websites, to be used mostly on tablets. I don’t think (at present) eInk is the best choice for books that one typically does not read start-to-finish as the page turns are just a fraction too slow.
  2. Paper novels will be around for the next few years – at least 5-10, and probably more. Moving from paper to digital is a big change, bigger than moving from vinyl to downloads (via cassettes and CDs) was for music. Books have always been physical objects, unlike music. It’s much easier, psychologically, to move from buying a music CD to downloading, because the experience of music doesn’t change; you put your music-format-of-choice in the player, and away you go – it still comes through your headphones or speakers in the same old way. Books are different: it’s a big culture change to move from rows of paper objects with pretty covers on your shelves, to electronic files on your computer/reading device. So the change will be slow, but I think it will happen. Eventually, the many practical advantages of digital will win out over sentiment and habit.
  3. The mass-market paperback is going to be the first victim. The combination of bigger profit margins on ebooks and the rise of indie publishing will result in smaller print runs of mass-market paperbacks, and then a move to print-on-demand as print runs become too small to be viable. This will be seen first in indie publishing (where print-on-demand is the norm already) and small presses. Eventually, the larger publishers will go print-on-demand too.
  4. The hardback will stick around for a lot longer. The hardback is the format of choice for occasions when appearance counts: gifts; presentations and prizes; and reading posh literary fiction on the train.
  5. Paper novels are unlikely to die completely for the foreseeable future, if only because there will be the die-hards (like those who swear vinyl is better than digital for music) who want paper and will provide a market for it, even if at the print-on-demand level.
  6. The dedicated book reader is here to stay. Occasional readers will probably read on their smartphones or tablets, but high-volume readers are more likely to want a dedicated device that is light, has excellent battery life, and doesn’t make their eyes ache.

Time will tell which of us is right!

#ThisGirlCan?

I’ve made the decision to get fitter, lose weight, and so on.

This means running.

Running’s pretty easy; you don’t have to go anywhere special to do it. You don’t need expensive equipment. You just put on your trainers and some sloppy clothes and hit the streets.

Except, it’s not that simple, is it?

You see women running, and they’re all skinny and fit, jogging easily with their bright-coloured Lycra and their purpose-made water-bottles and their headphones.

They are not like me. They do not puff and gasp, red in the face, hair everywhere. I don’t have all the right gear; my tracksuit bottoms don’t quite reach my ankles because either they’ve shrunk since I got them, or I’ve grown. It could be either, because I had them when I was at school, and, not making any specific statements about age… but I do have grey hairs.

In short, my whole appearance just screams “I’m not good at this.” I am neither efficient nor decorative. And, really, one is expected to be one or the other. If you’re whizzing past lesser mortals, you can be forgiven for crappy clothes. If you’re decorative enough, nobody cares how fast or how far you run.

So, my strategy? Run at night, when nobody can see. Only, of course, running alone as a woman may not be the smartest idea, so my husband has to come with me. He’s pretty nice about the fact that I slow him down.

So, #ThisGirlCan? It’s a media campaign by Sport England, intended to encourage women to do more exercise, and more sport. Research has, apparently, shown that what holds women back from physical activity is the fear of being ‘judged’.

When I first saw an advert, it pissed me off. Yet again, I thought, we have a bunch of people who think women need help and guidance. Of course women can. They don’t need to be told that. If women want to jog or cycle, or do karate or rock climbing, they can. They don’t need to be reassured that it’s still OK to be seen in public looking less than sexy and gorgeous.

Then I took a step back, and thought, “You who dare to run in broad daylight in your grotty old jogging bottoms, gasping and wheezing, may cast the first stone.”

Even though I’m generally pretty uninterested in what other people think (you only have to look at my wardrobe choices), I still don’t like running where people can see how unfit I am. And women-only gyms, or sessions, are not the answer.

In my experience, other women are usually much nastier than men. Men might call out a comment, but then they get on with their day; it’s just a joke that they probably don’t even understand is quite as confidence-sapping as it is (plus, you can put it down to male chauvinism and ignore it). Women, on the other hand, are spiteful. They’re not just making a joke; they deliberately set out to hurt, to destroy confidence, and to position themselves in a superior position in the pecking order to you.

So yes, #ThisGirlCan has a point. At the very least, putting pictures of women who aren’t skinny and fit, and who do their thing – whatever it is – without being prevented by the fear of what other people will think, might give some women the confidence to get out there and do what they want to do, regardless. Sometimes, that’s all it takes – the knowledge that you’re not the only one who wheezes and jiggles and looks as if she’s about to either melt or have a heart attack.

 

My new book reader finally arrived… Hooray!

Kobo Aura H2O

Kobo Aura H2O

A couple of weeks ago, I managed to break my primary ebook reader. It is (was) a lovely Kobo Aura HD. It went everywhere with me, which may have been the problem because everywhere includes to work in a rucksack and into the shower.

This was, of course, an opportunity to order the new Kobo Aura H2O, which wouldn’t mind if I took it in the shower.

A waterproof book reader – it’s amazing nobody has thought of it before. I knew there were places you could send your reader off to, and they would waterproof it (for a price, obviously), or you could do it the low-tech way, which is to put your reader in a freezer bag, but a real waterproof reader is amazing.

It’s lovely to be able to take it in the shower – and I’ve started having baths again, just so I can relax in the bath with my Aura. Plus, the screen is an improvement over my old Aura HD – the white is whiter, the black is blacker. There isn’t a hard button for turning off the light any more, but I’ve got used to doing it with the on-screen slider.

I was an early adopter of ebooks – I like gadgets! Since getting my first ereader – an Irex ILiad, which cost over £400 – I’ve become a firm believer in ebooks, for fiction at least. I love being able to carry multiple books around with me, and never having to worry about running out of things to read (especially since I also carry my emergency reading on iPhone and iPad, just in case). I love being able to read while eating without having to work out some way to keep the book from closing or flipping over pages. I love being able to read in bed by the soft glow of the reader screen, rather than having to keep the main light on. It’s also easier to get to sleep after reading in a mostly-dark room.

Aside from my love affair with my book reader, I always love to see more authors’ backlists being published as ebooks – for me, it’s one more step towards every book being available electronically. Being a long-time ebook fan, I’ve watched as more and more prominent authors moved towards having ebook editions, and rejoiced every time I found a new one, whether I intended to buy any of that author’s work or not. Ebooks have also allowed the revival of the novella – uneconomical to publish in paper format – and for authors to publish short stories as singles for the first time. Thanks to ebooks, authors have more freedom than they have ever had before, incuding the freedom to publish without involving a commercial publishing house.

Yet, even with the evidence of ever-increasing ebook sales, there are still people who swear that ebooks are a passing fad, or that ebooks aren’t as good as paper.

For some uses, yes – at least at the moment – paper wins. I still prefer paper for textbooks (until I have to copy out any quotes, of course, at which point I prefer electronic), and in schools it’s probably logistically easier to use paper for class reading books. And yes, paper books look pretty on a bookshelf, and downloading an epub file doesn’t have the same feel as buying a book and taking it home…

It’s noticeable, though, that most critics of ebooks do not concentrate on what paper books do well (easier to keep a class of kids on the same page, easier to flip back and forth, no colour diagrams on an ereader); nor do they concentrate on what ebooks do badly (colour pictures, browsing bookshelves, being able to see at a glance what books you own). Instead, they concentrate on emotional responses that are nothing to do with the author’s words. When I read of someone criticising ebooks because they “like the smell of a paper book” or they “like to turn the pages by hand”, I find myself thinking, “well, if that turns you on, buy yourself a blank notebook from WHSmiths; clearly, the author’s words aren’t important to you.” It’s also interesting how many of these ebook detractors admit that they’ve never even tried reading an ebook.

As for being able to pass on old copies of paper books – well, good luck with that. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find a charity shop that will take books, and second-hand bookshops are getting picky too. Selling on Amazon will get rid of the books, but since many paperbacks are selling for 1p each, it’s often more (or nearly as) expensive to sell the book than to just stick it in the recycling box.

These people seem to forget that books are for reading. Books are not for home decor, nor are they fashion accessories. They are a mechanism for making the words of the author available to the reader, and an ebook does that supremely well – far better than a paper book, because it’s faster and cheaper, and doesn’t snap shut if you don’t weight it down with the edge of your dinner plate.

After all, paper or eInk is only the delivery system: the real magic of reading happens in your own head, as the story unfolds in glorious technicolour behind your eyes – regardless of whether you have a paper page or a black-and-white eInk display.

Technology: fiction turning real (or not)

The iKettle

The iKettle

I love technology. The picture is of the iKettle – advertised on Amazon as the first-ever wifi kettle. With your iKettle, you can switch it on via your smartphone with an app or set it to switch on at a particular time; you can invite your friends around for a cuppa via the ‘share’ function, and it will ask you whether you want a cuppa when you arrive home.

Totally cool. I want one.

OK, I’m probably not going to get one, because while totally cool, it’s also kind of useless. It’s a gadget ahead of its time. One day, all kettles will be wifi-enabled. The days of a watched kettle never boiling will be over, because we’ll switch our kettles on via our phones, and only amble into the kitchen when the water is ready. However, at the moment, it’s just a bit excessive. And expensive. Saving 5 minutes of kettle-watching doesn’t mean enough to me that I would spend nearly £100 on a wifi-enabled kettle.

But kettles aside, we can already control home heating and the lighting via smartphone. We can pay for small items in shops via smartphone. Your smartphone is personal organiser, clock and calculator all in one.

If anyone has read Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth, first published in 1975, they will recognise the fictional ‘minisec’ as the modern smartphone. Likewise, in J.D. Robb’s In Death series (first published in 1995), heroine Eve Dallas wears a ‘wrist unit’ which supplements her ‘comlink’ – which items of technology bear a striking resemblance to a smartwatch paired with a smartphone.

Star Trek‘s replicator is now – sort of – available in the form of 3D printers, at least for non-food items. A tractor beam has been created at Dundee University.

On the other hand, some science-fiction technology predictions are being shown to be way off the mark. Aldous Huxley’s one-man light aircraft in Brave New World (the flivver) has never got off the ground in reality, despite several attempts – not the least being the Ford Flivver.

Both Isaac Asimov and J.D. Robb have a lot of robots (‘droids’ for J.D. Robb) in their books; robotics just hasn’t taken off in the way it was predicted to do twenty years ago (or fifty or a hundred years ago). We don’t have robot servants; producing a robot that will replicate even some of the functions of a person is proving to be much more difficult than originally thought.

Even for robots, though, there is still hope. Although the human-like robots of Isaac Asimov and J.B. Robb (let alone Star Trek‘s Data) are proving to less attainable than originally thought, you can already get a robotic vacuum cleaner  and robot ‘carers’ for the elderly are in development.

But the picture is actually more complex than what is technologically possible. As the Japanese have been discovering, it’s one thing to manufacture a robot – it’s quite something else to get people to use it. At the moment, it seems that the complexity of the technology isn’t the only reason that robot servants and helpers are looking relatively unlikely for the future – it’s the fact that people prefer to be looked after by other people. People are happy to use robot vacuum cleaners, or robotic chairs or toilets – or even a robotic pet, up to a point. But it seems that a line is drawn when it comes to something that looks and seems to act like another person.

Is the resistance to humanoid robots simply the reaction to something new and strange – or is it deeper than that, a deeper desire to draw a line between People and Not People? With a vacuum cleaner, it’s a pretty simple concept: it’s not a person, it’s a device. When we’re talking Commander Data, though, a robot who looks and acts like a human, where do we draw the line? Is he a person or is he a device (a question that was considered in one episode of Star Trek.)? There are already ethical questions being asked about the use of robots in caring for the elderly.

Then there are the advances that weren’t predicted at all. J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas still uses cash (‘credits’) instead of simply tapping her wrist-unit or comlink against a reader to make an electronic payment – yet we are starting to see not only tap-to-pay near-field-communications payments but also software that allows money to be transferred electronically between friends. In Star Trek, a character might have a number of PADDs, indicating that the tablet-like devices possibly come preloaded with information, or only have a very limited capacity – yet in the real world, we only have one tablet computer (usually) and download the information we want, then delete it when we don’t need it any more. References to ‘book disks’ in several series is jarring – now we have electronic book readers, we don’t use disks to load books onto them: we download directly from the internet, or download to a desktop computer program and then transfer. No disks involved.

What changes will the future hold? Robots haven’t taken off the way it was originally envisaged, and we don’t all have a personal flying machine, but computers have mostly exceeded authors’ expectations, with smartphones and smartwatches now able to control our homes and keep us in touch with our friends and with the news. But the most difficult thing about writing new technology, I think, is not the technology itself, but how people deal with it.

Authors did not predict our human reaction to humanlike robots, or the changes that social media, coupled with smartphones, have made in people’s daily routines. This isn’t surprising – there are always going to be some ‘misses’ along with the ‘hits’. But it does mean that anyone writing science fiction needs to learn from the mistakes of the past, and pay attention not only to the real technology that caught on (smartphones) but the technology that didn’t (humanoid robots).

Really good science fiction isn’t just about inventing some great new technology – it’s about telling the human story around it.

Revealed: Firkins Bakery Conspiracy

The last thing you want when driving around a roundabout is to catch, out of the corner of your eye, some fascinating text which demands a second look. This morning, I caught sight of a newspaper headline board that said “REVEALED: FIRKINS BAKERY CONSPIRACY” and nearly ran into the back of the car in front, which had chosen that moment to slow down to almost walking pace to make the exit.

I spent the rest of the journey trying to work out what the headline could have been about.

The “REVEALED” carries connotations of scandal and excitement, of journalists in greasy-spoon cafes or on rainy street corners paying for information with used banknotes. Or maybe a long-running undercover investigative operation, with journalists putting the Public’s Right To Know above their own personal safety as they infiltrate the notorious Firkin Bakery Gang. Then an all-night-long marathon job, to get the story put together and ready for the morning edition, with journalists and editors going home for a shower as the sun rises over the quiet streets, satisfied in the knowledge of a job well done.

A CONSPIRACY requires a group of people working together, usually in secrecy and often outside the law. Crowded, smoky rooms at the back of dingy little shops, running a wide-ranging blackmail and extortion scheme based on threats to reveal prominent people’s consumption of confectionery – or in a penthouse office at the top of a high-rise in a big city, plotting a hostile takeover of the world-famous Firkins Bakery (purveyors of cake-related delicacies to the rich and famous over the world, since the days of Marie Antoinette).

Or, with the addition of an apostrophe, was the conspiracy the brainchild of the mad scientist Dr Firkin, plotting to add his dastardly secret formula to the world’s flour, turning the bread-eating population into mind-controlled zombies?

Then I arrived at work and looked up the full story – which proved to be, if not quite as exciting as I had imagined, definitely more than a little bizarre! Truth may not be quite as strange as fiction, but it comes pretty close.

Back at the keyboard

How long is it since I wrote a post on this blog? I don’t even like to think about it. But here I am, back again.

Things are going to be different from now on. (And how many times have we all said that?)

But these are the things that are different:
1. I am not going to try and post every day, because that just ain’t going to happen. Life has too many other things going on. But I’m going to try to post at least every week. That should be achievable. (Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound, at that!)
2. I’ve finished the degree I was doing last year, and as far as I know I passed (the university screwed up, so I’m graduating six months late, imagine how happy that makes me).
3. I’ve started (and am nearly all the way through) a graduate diploma in law, with the intention of qualifying as a solicitor – eventually.
4. I’m going to write a novel. It may not be a good one (although I hope it will, obviously). Nobody may ever want to read it (although I hope they do). But I’m going to write it, and I’m going to publish it – self-publish if I have to. Because it’s something I want to do at least once, and if I don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.

We only get one chance at life, and as excuses for not doing something go, “I never got round to it” is pretty poor. Like Miss Piggy says, “Make time!”

So here I am again. Let’s see how it goes. 🙂

Gun control

I love guns. I love shooting.

However, I have trouble figuring out why a person who is not in the army, or any kind of reserve force, would need an assault rifle. Setting aside the lack of huge carnivorous beasts in most towns, even were you to go out hunting huge carnivorous beasts, an assault rifle would probably not be the appropriate weapon.

Assault rifles are for killing lots of people in a short amount of time. That is what they are designed to do; it is their sole purpose and they fulfill it very well.

As has been demonstrated.

President Obama needs to put the following simple proposition before the American people:

One of the two following situations is true:

1. The American people are against schoolchildren being murdered in job lots. Therefore, they will introduce tighter controls on those weapons that make it easy for people to do this. This will include not allowing private citizens to own fully-automatic weapons without a pressing and immediate reason (or at all).

2. The American people do not wish for tighter gun control, and are happy to accept that the murder of job lots of schoolchildren is an inevitable consequence of allowing easy access to fully-automatic weapons. The lives of American schoolchildren are less important than an adult American citizen’s right to own fully-automatic weapons, the sole purpose of which is killing lots of people very quickly.

These are the only options. Of course, a person who is determined enough can obtain an illegal weapon – but the school and workplace shootings that are so common in America are usually done with legal weapons owned by the shooter, or the shooter’s relatives. Restricting the availability of legal fully-automatic weapons would at least mean that it would be more difficult to go on a killing spree on impulse.

Increasing access to free and low cost medical care so that those with mental health needs get the care they require would be an added bonus.

Requiescat in pace.

Genre fiction and intellectual snobbery

Well, here we are again… As you can probably tell from the lack of posting, November is proving to be a month full of incident. Or, at least, full of work. I’ve handed in one essay and got a mark back for it, so I can stop quietly panicking about it – and start quietly panicking about the next thing.

Anyway, a proper post today.

This one is about genre fiction, which you probably figured out from the title. Now, I love genre fiction. Fantasy, science fiction, detective stories, thrillers, romances… This is mostly what I read. Very rarely do I venture into ‘literary’ fiction.

Many people seem to have a very sniffy, contemptuous attitude to genre fiction – and to fantasy, sci-fi and romance in particular. Fantasy and sci-fi are seen as the province of spotty seventeen-year-old boys with no social skills, and romances are for silly women without the brains to read Real Books.

I find myself wondering whether any of these critics have ever read any examples of the genre they criticise. While I would be the first to admit that there is some appalling trash published in the genre fiction market, I hardly think that the ‘literary’ fiction section is without its embarrassing volumes.

Take romances, which are possibly the most derided (especially with the mainstream popularity of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings which have made fantasy slightly more respectable). For a start, look at Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Both famous, both classics which have stood the test of time – and both of them are archetypal romances. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get together again. Happy ending. So what is it that makes Jane Eyre a classic that it’s acceptable to give to school children as a set book in literature class, but the output of the Mills and Boon publishing house into worthless trash that you can’t be seen reading in public without risking ridicule?

If we move into science fiction, Jane Eyre has been re-done as a science fiction story (Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn). So where do we go from there?

Well, one could say that genre fiction is easy to write. After all, the plan for romances is pretty simple: as above, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get together again. This covers nearly all romance novels. Therefore, a romance can’t possibly be as good as a literary novel, can it, because the author doesn’t even have to come up with a plot!

But wait…

There’s a certain circularity to this. If one sets out to write a romance, then knowing the common plan is useful… but on the other hand, if you set out to write a book and it just happens to conform to the plan – then it’s still a romance!

And this leads us back to Jane Eyre, which, although it’s certainly a romance, gets filed with the classics and literary fiction. So clearly, it can’t be just about plot.

So it must be about characterisation and writing style, since those are the other elements to a book. Yet if characterisation and writing style, rather than plot, makes a novel literary rather than genre, it must be therefore inappropriate to classify a particular work as genre fiction rather than literary merely because it refers to magic (file it under ‘fantasy’) or it’s about boy-meets-girl (romance) or includes space-ships (sci-fi).

And yes, I have to admit that many romances I’ve read could never be described as great literature. They’re mind candy. I like romances because they’re intellectually undemanding, and they’re fun. But some of them are more than that. Look at Georgette Heyer, who’s been dead since 1974 but whose books are still in print. Personally, I think her novels are as well-written as Jane Austen’s, and Heyer certainly did her research. Do books which survive so long after their original publication and show such evidence of research deserve to be dismissed as mere ‘genre fiction’?

Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective fiction (mostly featuring Lord Peter Wimsey) is what made her name, but she also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her detective stories show her scholarship, in such widely divergent areas as chemistry, modern languages, and campanology. Sayers is credited with at least partial responsibility for making detective fiction ‘respectable’ – yet she still gets dismissed as ‘genre fiction’.

I would conclude, therefore, that the term ‘genre fiction’ is only useful for describing the basic premise of a book, and the assumption that genre fiction is less worthy of attention or praise than ‘literary’ fiction is quite without logical support. The literary worth of a book should be judged on the quality of the writing within, rather than on its not falling into a certain genre category.