Can you judge a book by its cover?

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The new episodes of It’s Lit are finally making it to YouTube. In this episode, Lindsay Ellis discusses book covers.

It is interesting that everyone in the reading industry* talks about not judging a book by its cover. Yet the entire industry is built around judging books by their covers.

We have the publishers and their creative team designing covers to attract readers. We have the readers browsing the stores and picking something that catches their eye. There are plenty of statistics around showing the improved sales based upon book placement in stores, whether they are face out or not, and whether they are in big piles – which makes all sorts of subconscious suggestions to shopping readers.** All of these factors are about presenting us readers with the cover of the book in the hopes that we’ll be interested enough to buy it.

But don’t judge it by its cover!!

*I honestly think we should stop using the term publishing industry and refer to the end user instead. I think we lose sight of who matters at times.

**Online stores have similar sales statistics related to cover design. Indie authors will often talk about the success of changing covers and improving sales.

Book vs Movie: Starship Troopers – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at one of the more blatantly different book adaptations: Verhoeven vs Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

The first time I watched Starship Troopers all I saw was a cheesy B-grade action movie. This was also what many movie reviewers thought at the time. Many years later I finally read the book and it clicked.

Verhoeven’s film only made sense to me after I’d read the book as it is as much a critique of the material as it is an adaptation.

“I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,” says Verhoeven of his attempts to read Heinlein’s opus. “It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing. It’s a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be eat your cake and have it. All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?’ Source

The cheesy propaganda segments riff on the heavy-handed philosophical lecturing Heinlein does. The proud militarism is given consequence by utilising Heinlein’s own references to disabled veterans and by showing horrible training injuries and battlefield scenes. The fascist elements are played up for farce in the uniforms and sequences mirroring actual Nazi propaganda films.

Michael Ironside asked, “Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?”
Verhoeven replied, “If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me. So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking Bugs!” Source

Now, I did actually enjoy the book. It is very interesting and many of the ideas were challengingly different. The portrayal of future warfare was, at the time, as imaginative as I’d come across. So Verhoeven’s reaction to satirise the book – one that Heinlein dashed out as an angry response to the US stopping nuclear tests – was probably overwrought by his childhood in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. But if the movie adaptation had been faithful we’d probably have seen the worst elements of Heinlein’s ideas paraded around like something produced by the Ministry of Enlightenment.

Well, either that or a schlocky B-grade action movie about the military killing alien bugs.

Is cyberpunk dead or being revived?

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It was only recently that I read Neuromancer. In my defence, I’ve seen all the different cuts of Blade Runner, which has to count for something. Right?

Anyway, there was an interesting video essay from Just Write that I thought I’d share. It discusses the cyberpunk genre and how the aesthetic has lost its relevance.

I actually quite enjoyed the Netflix series Altered Carbon, based on Richard Morgan’s novel of the same name. There were some interesting comments about inequality and inherited wealth that is often overlooked in discussions about living longer. But I have to agree with the video’s comments about the cyberpunk aesthetic of the show being off.

Not that it didn’t fit, but that it didn’t feel that different from what we have now, as the video stated. How can we watch a troublesome/dystopian future that is essentially our now?  These aesthetic elements then undermine much of the narrative comment by reminding us that many of the plot points have already happened. It is a little bit hard to have a cautionary tale of where we are headed in the future when we have already arrived at that point (e.g. wealth isn’t made but instead it tends to be inherited unless there is some sort of inheritance tax in play or dissipation – 1, 2, 3).

So does that mean that Mr Robot and other contemporary cyberpunk stories are the way forward for the genre? Are there other ways to update the genre? Do we need another Blade Runner movie?

Some things to ponder.

Works Cited:

Lessons from the Screenplay. “Blade Runner — Constructing a Future Noir.”
Extra Credits. “The Witcher III: Wild Hunt – Best Detective Game Ever Made.” Taxi
Extra Credits. “William Gibson: The 80s Revolution.”
Abrams, Avi. Dark Roasted Blend. “Epic 1970s French Space Comic Art.”
Sterling, Bruce. “Mirrorshades: the cyberpunk anthology.” New York: Arbor House, 1986.
Walker-Emig, Paul. The Guardian. “Neon and corporate dystopias: why does cyberpunk refuse to move on?” October 16, 2018.
NAZARE, JOE. “MARLOWE IN MIRRORSHADES: THE CYBERPUNK (RE-) VISION OF CHANDLER.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 35, no. 3, 2003, pp. 383–404. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Karen Cadora. “Feminist Cyberpunk.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995, pp. 357–372. JSTOR
Sponsler, Claire. “Beyond the Ruins: The Geopolitics of Urban Decay and Cybernetic Play.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, 1993, pp. 251–265. JSTOR
Nixon, Nicola. “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1992, pp. 219–235. JSTOR
Whalen, Terence. “The Future of a Commodity: Notes toward a Critique of Cyberpunk and the Information Age (L’Avenir D’une Marchandise: Notes Sur Cyberpunk Et L’Ere De L’Information).” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 1992, pp. 75–88. JSTOR
Senior, W. A. “Blade Runner and Cyberpunk Visions of Humanity.” Film Criticism, vol. 21, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1–12. JSTOR
Usher, Tom. Vice. “How ‘Akira’ Has Influenced All Your Favourite TV, Film and Music.
Giles, Matthew. Vulture. “Taxi Driver, Girls, and 7 Other Big Influences on Mr. Robot.
The United Federation of Charles. “What is Cyberpunk?
The ‘Self-Made’ Myth: Our Hallucinating Rich by Sam Pizzigati

Importing books onto your iPad now that iTunes doesn’t support ebooks

I have been a devoted Kindle user for my e-book reading addiction. Unfortunately, my Kindle has become lethargic and prone to wasting valuable reading time. I could buy a new Kindle or one of the competing e-reading devices, or I could turn to the devices I already have.

No, I’m not talking about the stack of unread paper books on my shelf, I’m talking about my phone and tablet. Although, I probably should reduce the size of that stack before they feel unloved and attempt to move house without me.

So, having decided to utilise my iPad, I plugged it into my Windows* machine, booted up iTunes, and discovered a decided lack of Books to transfer.

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A tad hard to transfer books to my iPad when the Book category has been removed. Now, if I was still using a Mac the problem would be easily remedied, as iBooks has taken over the role of synching books to the iPad. But on a Windows machine, I can only really transfer my books from the store to my computer.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find an article explaining how to transfer books. So I did what every computer user does when something doesn’t work: I kept clicking until something happened. After replacing the CPU, I tried the sideloading technique some Apps utilise. You open iTunes to the place you want the file (Books) and then open a File Explorer window to the directory that contains the books you want.

Transfer

As you can see in the screenshot, I’m transferring some Project Gutenberg books to my iPad. Just click and drag the files into the Books frame of iTunes and they will be copied. The transfer will begin once you hit sync.

Hopefully, this helps some other readers who want to transfer their e-books to their iPhone or iPad using a Windows machine. The same process works for adding books to other reading Apps, or other files to other Apps – I’ve added beta-manuscripts to the Kindle app this way.

*Yes, yes, deride Windows all you want. It works better than my broken Mac and Linux machines.

Scarface Claw – Too Serious

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Scarface Claw: The Toughest Tom In Town.

This time last year (2017) my family and I attended the book launch of the latest instalment in the Hairy Maclary (from Donaldson’s Dairy) series by Lynley Dodd. Hairy Maclary and his friends have been entertaining people, particularly younger people with an as yet undeveloped world-weariness, for 30 years. The latest book in the series is titled Scarface Claw, Hold Tight! and I’m left with some very important questions.

For those who aren’t aware, Scarface Claw is the toughest tomcat in the town where Hairy Maclary and his friends live. Which town this happens to be and the relative toughness of the other tomcats living there is not explored in any detail in the series, which could be regarded as an oversight. Scarface Claw has, on more than one occasion, threatened or utilised violence against the cats and dogs in town. This has seen scatters of paws and clatters of claws from Schnitzel von Krumm with a very low tum, Bitzer Maloney all skinny and bony, Muffin McClay like a bundle of hay, Bottomley Potts covered in spots, Hercules Morse as big as a horse, and Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy.

Obviously, this nasty, violent, and abusive cat makes for an ideal protagonist in a children’s book. Scarface Claw, Hold Tight! marks the tomcat’s second outing as the hero.

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This adventure sees our cranky and crotchety hero sunning himself on top of Tom’s car. Somehow, Tom manages to not see the rather large black tomcat sprawled on the roof of his red car and hurries off to somewhere very important – another detail unexplored by the narrative. Since this is the inciting incident of the story, you would expect it to be more believable. Are we to seriously believe that Tom doesn’t notice old Scarface? As we soon discover, literally everyone else in the town notices Scarface Claw clinging to the roof of the car, so either Tom should be required to acquire prescription lenses for driving or he knew Scarface Claw was there all along.

That Tom knowingly drove around town with a cat on his roof is not inconceivable. Scarface Claw has a long and infamous history, particularly amongst the resident town pets, so mistreatment of the tomcat may be a common occurrence. It may be that this mistreatment is what makes Scarface Claw the nasty cat he is. Maybe with extensive therapy, Scarface Claw could become a lovable and friendly cat who would be invited to Slinky Malinky’s house in a tail waving line. We can only hope.

We also have to question why everyone in town noticed Scarface Claw clinging to the roof and wanted to “rescue that cat”. Presumably, the townfolk recognised Scarface Claw, so either they are more kind and caring than Tom – plausible given my previous points about potential mistreatment – or they are starved for excitement such that waving a sock at a driver with a cat on his car roof would make it into a lifetime highlights list. But that doesn’t excuse the next issue.

I know that many animal lovers would support the use of police and fire and rescue for animal emergencies, but you have to question Constable Chrissie’s response. Did the Constable honestly have nothing better to do with her time than pull Tom over? What laws has he broken? If Tom has broken some laws, why wasn’t he charged with an offence? And why didn’t she call for a licensed animal controller, such as the Ranger, instead of relying on the ever conveniently helpful Miss Plum?* Does Constable Chrissie suspect that Tom is an abusive pet owner and is wanting to compile a list for a potential animal welfare case?**

There are so many questions left unanswered, so many details not covered, that I am left at a loose end. I can only hope that future books in the series will address these issues in some way.

*Miss Plum has a long habit of helping the town pets out of their adventurous mishaps. She seems to always conveniently arrive in the nick of time. A more suspicious person would suspect that something more sinister is at play here. Is Miss Plum stalking the town pets? Is she behind the pets’ misadventures? Hopefully, these questions will be addressed in later instalments in the series.

**Or at least intervene where possible to stop animal abuse events.***

***And it is possible that Constable Chrissie keeps an eye on Tom and his activities – possibly Miss Plum does as well – because she suspects Tom’s animal abuse may morph into something more serious. Best to catch a killer early.

How speculative fiction gained literary respectability

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Biologists are gathering evidence of green algae (pictured here in Kuwait) becoming carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious, due to increased carbon dioxide levels. As science fiction becomes science fact, new forms of storytelling are emerging.
Raed Qutena

Rose Michael, RMIT University

I count myself lucky. Weird, I know, in this day and age when all around us the natural and political world is going to hell in a handbasket. But that, in fact, may be part of it.

Back when I started writing, realism had such a stranglehold on publishing that there was little room for speculative writers and readers. (I didn’t know that’s what I was until I read it in a reader’s report for my first novel. And even then I didn’t know what it was, until I realised that it was what I read, and had always been reading; what I wrote, and wanted to write.) Outside of the convention rooms, that is, which were packed with less-literary-leaning science-fiction and fantasy producers and consumers.

Realism was the rule, even for those writing non-realist stories, such as popular crime and commercial romance. Perhaps this dominance was because of a culture heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richard Lea has written in The Guardian of “non-fiction” as a construct of English literature, arguing other cultures do not distinguish so obsessively between stories on the basis of whether or not they are “real”.

China Miéville in 2010.
Pan MacMillan Australia/AAP

Regardless of the reason, this conception of literary fiction has been widely accepted – leading self-described “weird fiction” novelist China Miéville to identify the Booker as a genre prize for specifically realist literary fiction; a category he calls “litfic”. The best writers Australia is famous for producing aren’t only a product of this environment, but also role models who perpetuate it: Tim Winton and Helen Garner write similarly realistically, albeit generally fiction for one and non-fiction for the other.

Today, realism remains the most popular literary mode. Our education system trains us to appreciate literatures of verisimilitude; or, rather, literature we identify as “real”, charting interior landscapes and emotional journeys that generally represent a quite particular version of middle-class life. It’s one that may not have much in common these days with many people’s experiences – middle-class, Anglo or otherwise – or even our exterior world(s).

Like other kinds of biases, realism has been normalised, but there is now a growing recognition – a re-evaluation – of different kinds of “un-real” storytelling: “speculative” fiction, so-called for its obviously invented and inventive aspects.

Feminist science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has described this diversification as:

a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously … not only in terms of race and gender, but in terms of what has long been labelled “genre” fiction.

Closer to home, author Jane Rawson – who has written short stories and novels and co-authored a non-fiction handbook on “surviving” climate change – has described the stranglehold realistic writing has on Australian stories in an article for Overland, yet her own work evidences a new appreciation for alternative, novel modes.

Rawson’s latest book, From the Wreck, intertwines the story of her ancestor George Hills, who was shipwrecked off the coast of South Australia and survived eight days at sea, with the tale of a shape-shifting alien seeking refuge on Earth. In an Australian first, it was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, our most prestigious literary award, after having won the niche Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction.

The Aurealis awards were established in 1995 by the publishers of Australia’s longest-running, small-press science-fiction and fantasy magazine of the same name. As well as recognising the achievements of Australian science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers, they were designed to distinguish between those speculative subgenres.

Last year, five of the six finalists for the Aurealis awards were published, promoted and shelved as literary fiction.

A broad church

Perhaps what counts as speculative fiction is also changing. The term is certainly not new; it was first used in an 1889 review, but came into more common usage after genre author Robert Heinlein’s 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.

Whereas science fiction generally engages with technological developments and their potential consequences, speculative fiction is a far broader, vaguer term. It can be seen as an offshoot of the popular science-fiction genre, or a more neutral umbrella category that simply describes all non-realist forms, including fantasy and fairytales – from the epic of Gilgamesh through to The Handmaid’s Tale.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh


While critic James Wood argues that “everything flows from the real … it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream and so on”, others, such as author Doris Lessing, believe that everything flows from the fantastic; that all fiction has always been speculative. I am not as interested in which came first (or which has more cultural, or commercial, value) as I am in the fact that speculative fiction – “spec-fic” – seems to be gaining literary respectability.
(Next step, surely, mainstream popularity! After all, millions of moviegoers and television viewers have binge-watched the rise of fantastic forms, and audiences are well versed in unreal onscreen worlds.)

One reason for this new interest in an old but evolving form has been well articulated by author and critic James Bradley: climate change. Writers, and publishers, are embracing speculative fiction as an apt form to interrogate what it means to be human, to be humane, in the current climate – and to engage with ideas of posthumanism too.

These are the sorts of existential questions that have historically driven realist literature.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, 60% of the world’s wildlife disappeared between 1970 and 2012. The year 2016 was declared the hottest on record, echoing the previous year and the one before that. People under 30 have never experienced a month in which average temperatures are below the long-term mean. Hurricanes register on the Richter scale and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has added a colour to temperature maps as the heat keeps on climbing.

Science fiction? Science fact.

A baby Francois Langur at Taronga Zoo in June. François Langurs are a critically endangered species found in China and Vietnam.
AAP Image/Supplied by Taronga Zoo

What are we to do about this? Well, according to writer and geographer Samuel Miller-McDonald, “If you’re a writer, then you have to write about this.”

There is an infographic doing the rounds on Facebook that shows sister countries with comparable climates to (warming) regions of Australia. But it doesn’t reflect the real issue. Associate Professor Michael Kearney, Research Fellow in Biosciences at the University of Melbourne, points out that no-one anywhere in the world has any experience of our current CO2 levels. The changed environment is, he says – using a word that is particularly appropriate for my argument – a “novel” situation.

Elsewhere, biologists are gathering evidence of algae that carbon dioxide has made carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious. So the plankton that rely on them to survive might eat more and more and yet still starve.

Fiction focused on the inner lives of a limited cross-section of people no longer seems the best literary form to reflect, or reflect on, our brave new outer world – if, indeed, it ever was.

Whether it’s a creative response to catastrophic climate change, or an empathic, philosophical attempt to express cultural, economic, neurological – or even species – diversification, the recognition works such as Rawson’s are receiving surely shows we have left Modernism behind and entered the era of Anthropocene literature.

And her book is not alone. Other wild titles achieving similar success include Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, shortlisted for the Aurealis, the Stella prize and the Norma K. Hemming award – given to mark excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability in a speculative fiction work.

Kneen’s book connects five stories spanning a century, navigating themes of sexuality – including erotic explorations of transgression and transmutation – against the backdrop of a changing ocean.

Earlier, more realist but still speculative titles (from 2015) include Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and Bradley’s Clade. These novels fit better with Miéville’s description of “litfic”, employing realistic literary techniques that would not be out of place in Winton’s books, but they have been called “cli-fi” for the way they put climate change squarely at the forefront of their stories (though their authors tend to resist such generic categorisation).

Both novels, told across time and from multiple points of view, are concerned with radically changed and catastrophically changing environments, and how the negative consequences of our one-world experiment might well – or, rather, ill – play out.

Catherine McKinnnon’s Storyland is a more recent example that similarly has a fantastic aspect. The author describes her different chapters set in different times, culminating – Cloud Atlas–like, in one futuristic episode – as “timeslips” or “time shifts” rather than time travel. Yet it has been received as speculative – and not in a pejorative way, despite how some “high-art” literary authors may feel about “low-brow” genre associations.

Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017.
Neil Hall/AAP

Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, told The New York Times when The Buried Giant was released in 2015 that he was fearful readers would not “follow him” into Arthurian Britain. Le Guin was quick to call him out on his obvious attempt to distance himself from the fantasy category. Michel Faber, around the same time, told a Wheeler Centre audience that his Book of Strange New Things, where a missionary is sent to convert an alien race, was “not about aliens” but alienation. Of course it is the latter, but it is also about the other.

All these more-and-less-speculative fictions – these not-traditionally-realist literatures – analyse the world in a way that it is not usually analysed, to echo Tim Parks’s criterion for the best novels. Interestingly, this sounds suspiciously like science-fiction critic Darko Suvin’s famous conception of the genre as a literature of “cognitive estrangement”, which inspires readers to re-view their own world, think in new ways, and – most importantly – take appropriate action.

A new party

Perhaps better case studies of what local spec-fic is or does – when considering questions of diversity – are Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius.

The first is a distinctly Aussie Handmaid’s Tale for our times, where “girls” guilty by association with some unspecified sexual scenario are drugged, abducted and held captive in a remote outback location.

The latter is another idea whose time has come: an apocalyptic act of colonisation. Not such an imagined scenario for Noongar woman Coleman. It’s a tricky plot to tell without giving away spoilers – the book opens on an alternative history, or is it a futuristic Australia? Again, the story is told through different points of view, which prioritises collective storytelling over the authority of a single voice.




Read more:
Friday essay: science fiction’s women problem


“The entire purpose of writing Terra Nullius,” Coleman has said, “was to provoke empathy in people who had none.”

This connection of reading with empathy is a case Neil Gaiman made in a 2013 lecture when he told of how China’s first party-approved science-fiction and fantasy convention had come about five years earlier.

Neil Gaiman.
Julien Warnand/EPA

The Chinese had sent delegates to Apple and Google etc to try to work out why America was inventing the future, he said. And they had discovered that all the programmers, all the entrepreneurs, had read science fiction when they were children.

“Fiction can show you a different world,” said Gaiman. “It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.”

And when you come back, you see things differently. And you might decide to do something about that: you might change the future.

Perhaps the key to why speculative fiction is on the rise is the ways in which it is not “hard” science fiction. Rather than focusing on technology and world-building to the point of potential fetishism, as our “real” world seems to be doing, what we are reading today is a sophisticated literature engaging with contemporary cultural, social and political matters – through the lens of an “un-real” idea, which may be little more than a metaphor or errant speculation.

The Conversation

Rose Michael, Lecturer, Writing & Publishing, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.