Book reviews

Why I will never buy a Kindle

One of my bosses got a Kindle 2 a few months ago, and was wondering how an avowed gadget lover such as myself did not have one already. I am perfectly comfortable reading books in electronic form on the small screens of PDAs or phones, but I have little interest in carrying yet another device with its bevy of chargers and accessories, so I just humored him. As far as I am concerned, the Apple iPad pretty much killed the e-reader market. E-ink technology has a place in digital signage, but a general-purpose computing device with Internet connectivity like the iPad wins over a unitasker any day.

My main objection to commercial e-books as they are mooted today is digital rights management. e-books cannot be resold or even given to family members. Even if DRM were acceptable, the value of a restricted e-books is a fraction of the value of a real book, but pricing today is much higher, despite massively lower costs of production, and short-sighted publishers want to take them even higher, to the same levels as hardbacks.

All tech companies fall somewhere on a spectrum of evil. Microsoft is on the bumbling side—their products are inferior and their marketing practices sharp, to say the least, but they are a fairly open company when it comes to developers using their platform, and Bill Gates is a modern day Robin Hood of sorts, taking from rich Westerners and giving to the poor in the Third World. Apple embodies the seductive dark side—superior products but a company that has no compuction in stabbing developers in the back, and with a demonstrated penchant for control freakery as shown with the iPhone App Store. Google is on the undecided side, ruthlessly violating privacy, but still capable of the odd principled gesture such as facing down Chinese censors.

Amazon as a company lies quite far on this spectrum. Good customer service does not excuse their behavior:

  • Jeff Bezos is personally listed as an inventor on the obviously frivolous “one click” patent and has been using it to extort royalties and stymie competitors.
  • At one point they removed all gay themed books from their search listings by classifying them. Faced with a firestorm of controversy, they unconvincingly claimed it was an operator error. Why do they have a bulk blacklisting facility in the first place?
  • In an example of life imitating art, they pulled e-book copies of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” from Kindle users who had paid for them. Apparently, they had never bothered to check if they had the rights to sell them. The simple fact Amazon has the power to pull books back from electronic bookshelves is unacceptable.
  • They are trying to leverage their dominant position in online book sales to monopolize print-on-demand publishing by refusing to carry books not published by their own on-demand imprint, BookSurge, even though the latter is higher priced than competition and has serious quality issues.
  • This is only the tip of the iceberg. Publishers speak in hushed tones about Amazon’s thuggish “negotiating” tactics, but never publicly out of fear of retaliation.

Since the launch of the Kindle, which is estimated to have 70% market share in e-readers, Amazon has been trying to leverage its market power in paper book sales to corner the market in e-books. One of the prongs in their strategy is to keep the legacy model where the publisher treats the e-book store like a dead-tree book reseller, rather than a model and revenue share more in line with the true costs of e-books (which are obviously much lower than for physical books, as the bandwidth required is piddling).

Apple’s iPad and its associated iBooks store has changed the way the debate is framed, and offers publishers an attractive agency model to counter Amazon’s diktat. It is not surprising that five of the big six publishers (all but Random House) signed up for the iBooks store.

Last Friday, in an escalation of mind-boggling arrogance, Amazon decided to punish Macmillan, the smallest and weakest of the big six (at least in the US) by withdrawing every Macmillan book from sale, including paper books, not just e-books. Among others books by Macmillan affiliate Tor, the leading label in Science Fiction and Fantasy, are not available for sale by Amazon (although they are still available from third-party sellers via Amazon’s site). Essentially Amazon is trying to use its dominance in printed book sales to twist Macmillan’s arm. As far as I am concerned, this is racketeering.

Disclaimer: my wife used to work for Macmillan in the UK. Not that it matters, Amazon’s behavior would be just as reprehensible with any other publisher.

I do not approve of the publishing industry’s doomed attempts to impose premium pricing on e-books, or their attempts to impose unacceptable DRM, but customers are perfectly capable of voting with their feet, as I do, and a middleman like Amazon behaving this way is intolerable. Booksellers censoring books or limiting supply is not an innocuous act. Norman Spinrad is in self-imposed exile in Paris because B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, the dominant booksellers in the 80s, would not sell his more controversial books (like Journals of the Plague Years) out of fear of offending conservative audiences in the Bible Belt.

Small independent bookstores are failing everywhere, and even the large Barnes & Noble and Borders chains are in dire straits. A company like Amazon with a demonstrated history of abusing its market power cannot be permitted to continue. I always buy my SFF books from the lovely Borderlands Books in any case, and my classical CDs from Arkiv Music, but I will henceforth abstain from buying books from Amazon altogether.

As for the Kindle, it can go to hell. I would not take one if they gave it to me for free.

Update (2010-02-04):

Like the SFWA, I replaced all the Amazon links on this site to Indiebound, a website that helps support independent booksellers.

Update (2014-05-28):

They are employing their racketeering tactics again, this time against Hachette.

Wittgenstein’s Poker

The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

David Edmonds, John Eidinow

Harper Perennial, ISBN 0060936649, Publisher, Buy online

coverPlato is one of the sacred cows of the philosophy establishment. Whitehead famously wrote: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. That said, his political theories are utterly indefensible. His attitude towards the Spartans who defeated and occupied his native Athens (and abolished the democracy the aristocratic Plato hated so much) would in modern terms be classified as that of a Quisling. His proposals are those of a soulmate of Pol Pot: a totalitarian society with a rigid caste system. In Plato’s ideal society, the philosopher-king caste rules through lies and deception1, children are removed from their parents to be brainwashed by the state, if they are allowed to survive the state’s eugenic culling of the weak in the first place. Dissidents are interned in reeducation camps and killed if they do not eventually recant. Given such moral bankruptcy, it is hard to take anything else he wrote seriously.

One wonders why Plato’s popularity among philosophers remains undimmed. Perhaps this has to do with vanity, as many a philosophy professor toiling in mediocrity no doubt fancies himself an unjustly overlooked candidate for the position of philosopher-king. As related by Plutarch, Plato himself, exiled from Athens by the restored democracy, sought to flatter Denys (Dionysius), the tyrant of Syracuse, by extolling the latter’s putative virtues as a philosopher, in order to induce him to follow the program exposed in The Republic. Denys demonstrated that even tyrants sometimes show wit2, dismissed Plato, and even considered enslaving the fawning philosopher so that he may experience a taste of what he advocated for others.

Another explanation may lie in Plato’s polemics against the Sophists. The Athenian democracy did not allow the use of lawyers in judicial proceedings, but the rich found a work-around: they hired specialists, essentially professors of rhetoric, to rehease trials. The Sophists would often boast that they could “prove” something and its opposite. This is a valuable, if somewhat debased skill, but it also has the side effect of destroying the credibility of philosophical methods, something Plato and his later admirers obviously object to. The Sophists were essentially skeptics and relativists, post-modernists over two millennia before post-modernism became fashionable. Plato’s was entirely successful in blackening their name, and the professional philosopher class no doubt owes some atavistic gratitude to him for that masterful propaganda.

Criticism of Plato’s views was mostly timid and limited to an audience of specialists, until Karl Popper revealed it for what it was in his blistering (and justifiably so) magnum opus of 1945, The Open Society and its Enemies: The Spell of Plato, although Bertrand Russell made pretty much the same points in his contemporary History of Western Philosophy. In his book, Popper exposes Plato as the wellspring for both Nazi and Communist totalitarism.

Popper was also a specialist in epistemology, the study of how knowledge is acquired, in science or elsewhere. His criterion of falsifiability (a theory is scientific only if it can be proven false), while not necessarily offering the practical guidance he hoped for, is still the best litmus test for whether a theory belongs to the realm of science (as in Darwin’s theory of Evolution) or not (as with creationism or its dissembling sibling, “Intelligent Design”).

As he believed in the worth of this endeavor, he had little patience for the hollow, superficial brilliance of a Ludwig Wittgenstein (I do not mean in any way to imply equivalence between Wittgenstein and a charlatan like, say, Derrida). Wittgenstein’s Poker retraces the background and history of the sole, explosive encounter between the two Austrians. Wittgenstein allegedly threatened Popper with a red hot fireplace poker, then stormed away in a huff. Debate still rages about exactly what happened, despite no dearth of witnesses, a testimony of sorts to the fallibility of human memory and the limits of the search for knowledge.

The book slowly and methodically lays the background behind the men’s confrontation. Both were born in assimilated Jewish families of Vienna, but the similarity ends there. Wittgenstein was the son of an immensely wealthy industrialist, and his brilliance was widely and immediately acknowledged by his peers. Popper’s middle-class family lost its savings in financial collapse, and he long had to struggle for both a living and recognition. The authors do a reasonably good job at explaining the philosophical differences between the two men in laymen’s terms. While both were refugees from the Nazis, the book’s insistence on their Jewish background as a major factor on their outlook seems a stretch.

After all this preparatory work, the description of the argument itself is a let-down. It is rather hurried, and makes too many unwarranted assumptions on the psychological state of mind of the protagonists, bordering on a fictionalized account.

1: Interestingly, this concept of the “noble lie” was revived by the so-called neo-cons, many of whom are followers of Leo Strauss, an admirer of Plato. This only goes to show the enduring relevance of Popper’s Open Society.

2: In another instance, Argentina’s Juan Perón “promoted” his critic Jorge Luis Borges to inspector for poultry and rabbits at the Buenos Aires municipal market. Borges reacted with vitriol, but his later approbation of the 1976 junta puts the lie to any grandiose claims of principle.

A book signing with Steven Erikson

Steven EriksonI reviewed the Malazan Book of the Fallen last year — it is one of the very finest Fantasy series, in my opinion. I met Steven Erikson today during a book signing at Borderlands Books in San Francisco. Sadly, there were enough people in the audience who had not read all first five volumes that he read from Memories of Ice rather than from the final manuscript of the sixth volume, The Bonehunters (due out in February 2006) that he carries with him on his Palm PDA.

Tor Books has acquired the rights to the series for the US market. They have already published the first three volumes, and are expected to catch up with the British publishers by the eighth or so. The cover art on the Bantam British edition is better though. The publishing industry has an adage, “mugs sell mags”, and the US covers have more figurative illustrations, sometimes unhappily so, as with the slightly cheesy cover of Memories of Ice

Erikson described the genesis of the series and Malazan universe in a series of literary role-playing games with fellow archeologist Ian Cameron Esslemont, author of Night of Knives, a novel set in the same universe, also the first in a series. He mentioned he is also working on a series of six novelettes featuring the psychopathic necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach (whom he managed to work into Memories of Ice), from the point of view of their long-suffering manservant. The novelettes will be, in Erikson’s own words, “more over the top”. The first two, Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead have already been published (even if Amazon incorrectly claims the latter not available yet), the third one is coming shortly.

When asked whether he was planning on extending the series beyond the planned ten volumes, he mentioned he had the outline of all ten almost from the very beginning (keep in mind it took him 8 years to get The Gardens of the Moon published, and that only happened after he moved to England). There is still a lot of room for spontaneity — as he puts it, if the author is bored when writing the actual books because he put too much effort in preparatory notes, the readers are likely to be bored as well. Erikson also committed to giving “payback” to his readers for sticking with the story (sounds ominous, doesn’t it?), with some snide remarks referring to Robert Jordan’s ever-lengthening Wheel of Time series. The anecdote he mentioned was that of a 75 year old woman who was asking a bookseller when the next installment by Jordan would be published, because she was afraid she might die before that series was completed… In all fairness, Jordan has announced the next volume will be the last, bringing closure to long-suffering fans.

I asked him about the whole extinction of magic as a moral imperative angle, and he indicated the later volumes in the decalogue would bear on the issue. He also said he is in no way endorsing imperialism (Deadhouse Gates is in part inspired from events in the British Empire’s oppression of India and Afghanistan). I also mentioned how difficult I found the abrupt transition introduced by volume 5, Midnight Tides. He agreed, but it was required by the 10-volume story arc, and postponing it would only make things worse. Among other matters, we will read more of the Forkrul Assail, whom he describes as the nastiest of the four founding races.

As a final note, I have been to book signings with Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan and Steven Erikson, and I am always amazed by the inconsiderate people who come with cartons full of books to sign, presumably to make them more collectible and valuable. The value in these events is in meeting the authors and interacting with them, not in giving them tennis elbow for financial gain.

The Algebraist

Iain M. Banks

Penguin (UK), ISBN 1841492396, Author’s site, buy online

The AlgebraistMuch like the great Fredric Brown, Scottish author Iain Banks’ work straddles the worlds of science-fiction and mystery. His SF books are signed Iain M. Banks (the others drop the middle initial), and could be roughly classified as Space Opera. Don’t expect to find mescaline-fueled visions of alternate realities à la Philip K. Dick (Single-malt whisky seems to be the drug of choice) or dystopic cyberpunk universes. While trendy steampunks disdain space opera as a spent sub-genre devoid of possibilities, Banks’ books demonstrate brilliantly how misconceived the notion really is.

The gorgeous cover design marks a break from the earlier ones. It depicts the transit of Io across Jupiter, and the original, taken by the Cassini-Huygens probe, is available from NASA. Unfortunately, like other British-published authors, this book will likely take an unreasonable amount of time to cross over to the USA, possibly as long as two years. The solution, as usual, is to order online from Canada.

The Algebraist is not set in the Culture universe of many Banks “M” novels. The chief protagonist is a “seer”, a xeno-ethnologist specializing in contact with Dwellers, an alien species almost as old as the Universe. The anarchistic and hedonistic Dwellers colonized gas giant planets across the entire galaxy, their life spans extends in the millions of years, and they take obvious delight in baffling the short-lived “Quick” species that presume to ferret out their secrets. At the same time, the byzantine and quasi-feudal society the seer belongs to (shades of Dune here, including a full-blown Butlerian Jihad) invests him with the mission to discover a secret inter-galactic transport network supposedly developed by the Dwellers. This secret could alter the galactic balance of power and the seer finds himself caught in a deadly three-way web of intrigue.

Banks makes no secret of his left-leaning instincts, developed in reaction to Thatcherism. One wonders how allegorical the rapacious Mercatoria and the mass-murdering Starveling Cult really are. Much as the Culture series explore a post-scarcity society and how it would cope with moral relativism, The Algebraist approaches how societies could communicate across vastly different time horizons. My guess is any culture where individual lifespans exceed a million years would primarily be concerned with staving off boredom. The Dwellers have their form of panem et circenses, and are a passive-aggressive throwback to the Culture. Banks recognizes that even in a society that has evolved beyond scarcity (viz. the Culture mantra: Money is a sign of poverty), social credit (known in the book as kudos) will remain a powerful non-financial motivator.

As with his previous SF novels, Banks’s wealth of ideas does not fail to dazzle, where lesser authors would prefer to dole them out parsimoniously in multiple installments. This book was gripping enough to keep me reading well into the wee hours of morning, even on a week-end where I had barely enjoyed a single good night’s sleep in three days. What more can one ask?

The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Steven Erikson

Bantam Press (UK), ISBN 0553812173/0765310015, 0553813110, 0553813129, 0553813137, 0593046285, Publisher, Buy online: Gardens of the Moon Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides, The Bonehunters, Reaper’s Gale, Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams, The Crippled God

Fantasy, like Science Fiction, is a genre that gets scant respect, in spite of (and perhaps due to) its popular appeal. Literary critics require the turgid prose of a James Joyce or T.S. Eliot to feel a smug sense of superiority over the unwashed masses unable to appreciate pedantry for its own sake. It is true many fantasy novels are serialized hack work designed to be sold by the pound, but the better specimens of the genre are worthwhile reads, beginning with The Lord of the Rings, the book that started the modern phenomenon.

The problem with The Lord of the Rings is that it casts too wide a shadow, and the inevitable comparisons do not do justice to later authors’ originality. One of the weaknesses in the LOTR is its reactionary social value system. Not surprisingly, an Oxford don like Tolkien did not break from the mental shackles of the English class system, still enduring today and much stronger in the early twentieth century. The books show strong dislike of people daring to rise beyond their station, and an uncritical approbation of monarchy.

Many authors have strived to portray grittily realistic worlds that eschew the simplistic good-versus-evil morality plays so beloved of religious fanatics and political extremists worldwide. It is important to note that this moral ambivalence, or more precisely the refusal to make hasty judgments on morality, is not a recent phenomenon. The Tale of Gilgamesh is the first epic, written five thousand years ago in ancient Sumeria, and the eponymous hero is depicted in the beginning of the tale as a tyrant. Among these non-manichean works, Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever and Glen Cook’s Black Company stand out. To these major works, we must now add Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.

This relatively recent series (one installment per year, 10 planned) is not yet famous in the United States. At the end of the Second World War, British and American publishers came to a non-compete agreement dividing the English-speaking world in respective turfs. Steven Erikson is a Canadian living in the United Kingdom. Five of the books in the Malazan series have already been published in the British publishers’ traditional market, when the first one only now reached American bookstores. He is not the only author to suffer these delays, Iain M. Banks excellent Science Fiction and other novels also take several years to cross the Atlantic — but not J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, as sheer demand would probably cause parallel imports to overwhelm the tottering system. In the era of global e-commerce, it is easy to get around these anti-competitive measures, by ordering from Canada, at the cost of higher shipping fees (shipping from Amazon UK is prohibitively expensive). Amazon Canada and Chapters are good sources.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen chronicles the legions of the Malazan Empire, strongly reminiscent of the Roman Empire, in a world ruled by magic and where mortals routinely ascend to divinity, and conversely, where gods are routinely killed or enslaved. This is not without precedent in world mythology, indeed it is very similar to the beliefs of the Greeks. The Malazans soldier on against impossible odds in their efforts to establish good government in the place of squabbling feudalists, to the backdrop of cosmic struggles spanning hundreds of millennia. Only their discipline, adaptability, dogged tenacity and judicious use of sappers allows them to save the day (though with grievous losses). This is a conceit, of course, albeit a common one in Fantasy — every historical army eventually conformed to Brien’s First Law and outstripped its ability to succeed in spite of itself. The supposed benevolence of Malazan Imperial administration would also be a historical first – no empire in history has ever been truly benign. One has only to read Polybius, Flavius Josephus, or Cicero’s Verrines to realize just how rapacious and murderous the Roman Empire really was. The Mongol Empire was noted for its ghastly invention of pyramids of skulls. The British Empire perfected moral hypocrisy, genocide, continent-scale drug dealing and invented the concentration/extermination camp.

Fantasy can be seen as an exercise in speculative metaphysics, and any metaphysics that allows for magic implicitly subscribes to some form of Idealism at its core, but only Borges, a great admirer of Schopenhauer, has truly approached it this way. In the real world, Idealism has led to unspeakable acts of mass murder through its offsprings Marxism-Leninism and Nazism (interestingly, Schopenhauer, possibly influenced by Buddhism, predicted that Idealism would transform good intentions into evil deeds). Is there any reason to suppose an universe that has Idealism as its very essence, not merely the conjecture of philosophers, would escape the same consequences? Indeed, Erikson’s universe has seen its share of genocides, some ongoing. Erikson trained and practiced as an archaeologist, not a philosopher, and while he occasionally stumbles upon the idea that negation of magic would be a major ethical imperative (most noticeably in his invention of the Azath, a force that binds and neutralizes strong foci of magical power, and Otataral, a magic-negating ore resulting from reaction to the cataclysmic unleashing of magic), he does not (yet) make the most of it.

Glen Cook’s influence is clearly visible, and is acknowledged by the author, although Erikson’s world is much vaster in scope and richly developed than Cook’s. The soldier-historian Duiker is clearly modeled on Black Company annalist (and later Captain) Croaker. The rough banter and grumbling of the Malazan legions would not feel out of place in a Black Company mess hall. The backdrop to the Malazan series, including the machinations of the gods and elder races, distinguishes it from the Black Company. Many of the most notable characters penned by Erikson are drawn from this back story and its criss-crossing story lines. It is hard to forget the warrior-mage-dragon Anomander Rake, leading his dying race in an effort to shake it from terminal ennui, or the cocky prehistoric T’lan Imass warriors who pledged themselves to an undead crusade against would-be tyrants.

The first four volumes in the series alternate two story lines, that of the beleaguered Malazan expeditionary force on the far-flung continent of Genabackis, and a brewing rebellion modeled on the Indian war of Independence of 1857 (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the “Sepoy Mutiny” by British Empire apologists). The fifth volume marks a break in continuity and tone. In some respects, notably the intrigues and market manipulations of financial mastermind Tehol Beddict, it reaches almost Pratchett-esque levels of comedy. A common trait with Fantasy series is that inspiration tends to flag with time and latter volumes are pale shadows of the originals. This is particularly flagrant with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time where basically nothing happens in over a thousand pages of the last volume. In comparison, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is very densely written. Little space is wasted on protracted narrative sequences or equivocating characters beyond what is necessary for character development. The action is gripping from cover to cover. All in all, a very promising series that ranks among the finest in the genre.

Update (2005-11-13):

I added links to volumes 2 and 3, now published in the US as well. Also check out some glimpses of the series’ future from Steven Erikson’s recent book tour.