Friday, 25 October 2013

A Science Fiction Writer, an Astrophysicist and a Blog Writer Discuss “How Important is Getting the Science Right, in Science Fiction”

Oct 15, 2013 Dodecahedron Books Media Centre, Edmonton Alberta
Part One – The Place and Scope of Science within Science Fiction

Writer:  Helena Puumala (Kati of Terra series, Witches Stones, Northern Gothic short story collection).

Astrophysicist:  Scott Olausen ( PhD student, several papers in The Astrophysical Journal).

Blogger:  Dodecahedron Books blog writer (also a statistician in his day job).

Blogger:  So, first question - does it really matter if the science in Science Fiction (or Speculative Fiction in general) is right  or wrong?

Writer:    It depends on how wrong the science is.  Common knowledge should be correct, but once you are out of the realm of “regular science”, everything is fair game.  People will generally go along with you, if the story is good.

Astrophysicist:  It depends on how difficult the Science Fiction is.  You don’t have to be perfect.  What is more important than accuracy is verisimilitude.  It should feel right, or seem plausible.  For example, the movie “Gravity” had some issues about space stations being too close to each other, and too easy to get to with the tools that the characters had at their disposal.  The orbital mechanics were all wrong.  But if you weren’t aware of these things (or could ignore them) it was scientifically plausible.  The visuals were spectacular, the sense of weightlessness was well done, and the technology seemed reasonable if you didn’t know too much about it.  If the science was 100% accurate, you wouldn’t have had the same story.  But if the science is unnecessarily sloppy, then you don’t cut it much slack.  It would seem like they don’t respect the audience’s intelligence or didn’t bother doing their homework when it came to common science.

Blogger:  So, basically, it sounds like you are both getting at the idea that it’s ok to get the science wrong as long as that doesn’t get in the way of the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief and immerse himself or herself in the story.

Here’s a converse of the first question.  Can the science be too accurate, so that it isn’t really Science Fiction anymore?

Writer:  If you stick too close to today’s science, it’s a novel or other entertainment with a scientific angle, but not SF.  It’s contemporary fiction that happens to be about space or science.

Astrophysicist:  .  It might even be non-fiction that has been fictionalized to an extent.  As they say, “based on a true story”.  That would probably cover books like Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” or the movie “Apollo 13”.  A movie like “Gravity” is a little harder to say - it’s fiction, but it could almost be true.

Blogger: Science Fiction is supposed to inspire the emotion of awe or wonder.  Perhaps those events are just too close to us, historically speaking, to have that effect.   So, lets look at the other side of the Speculative Fiction continuum.  Science Fiction versus Fantasy - where’s the boundary?

Writer:  Dragon sex is definitely well into fantasy.

Blogger:  I guess you are referring to some of the books in the Sci-Fi Romance section, that get kind of kinky.  For the record, Kati of Terra is sweetly romantic, with very little that crosses into what could be regarded as explicit sex, though there is some ribald humour.

Writer:   That’s true about Kati of Terra.  But some books in the Sci-Fi genre do get kind of out there.

Blogger:   So, a book can get into too much sexual fantasy, which detracts from the science fiction story?

Writer: I think so, but everyone’s tastes and boundaries vary, I suppose.  Leaving that aside, one difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy lies in their relationship to time.  Science Fiction tends to be futuristic, while Fantasy is the opposite of that - often medieval.

Astrophysicist: Yes, Toklien and the like are often medieval-ish, with magic in the forefront rather than science.

Blogger:  Sometimes Buffy the Vampire Slayer and stories like that get referred to as Science Fiction.  What do you make of that?

Astrophysicist:  Thinking back on Buffy, I liked the series, but I would hardly consider it Science Fiction.  But the boundary between Science Fiction and Horror can be flexible, too, I guess.  At the one end you have monsters and magic.  At the other, you have aliens and advanced technology.  And as we all know, a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, at least to those who don’t understand it.

Blogger: Yes, Arthur C. Clark said that, I believe.  The X-Files is an example of something that nicely spanned that Horror and Science Fiction boundary.

Writer:  I call my books Science Fiction, but I admit that a lot of people would call some elements of my fiction Fantasy, or fantastical.  For example, I have characters with ESP and I posit planetary spirit life forms.  So, the boundary between Science Fiction and Fantasy can be porous.

Blogger:  No doubt about it.

Astrophysicist:  We should also keep in mind that some stories that typify the phrase “Science Fiction” in the popular mind have plenty of the things the writer just mentioned.  For example, Star Trek has Spock’s telepathy, Troi’s empathic abilities, and Odo’s shape-shifting, to name just a few.

Blogger:  That raises the following question.  When you are reading novels or watching TV or movies, do you put them through a scientific credibility filter?

Astrophysicist:  I guess I reserve my scientific credibility filter for The Astrophysical Journal, and the like.  I don’t demand scientific accuracy from Dr. Who or Star Trek.  I accept the fact that they fiction and for fun.  Every script doesn’t have to be passed by an astrophysicist.  Internal consistency is important, though.  All that being said, really poor science is hard to accept.  Take “Battlefield Earth”, please.  Somehow, radiation from nuclear weapons was supposed to have ignited a planet’s entire atmosphere.  Umm, there would have been solar radiation and cosmic rays all along, which would have done the job eons earlier.  Besides, what reaction, chemical or nuclear was supposed to be going on in that atmosphere?  It just didn’t make sense.

Blogger: Yet, weirdly that book spawned a religion called Scientology.  I guess that just goes to show, be careful about believing labels.

Writer:  When I am writing my stories, I do try to put them through a scientific credibility filter.  Obviously, mine will be a lot different filter from that of an astrophysicist.  But I want to avoid errors about science that aren’t necessary to carry the story.  I don’t want people coming to me and saying I screwed up.  When I do something unscientific by today’s scientific standards,  I want to give some kind of explanation or at least acknowledge the issue.  For example, if I need interstellar travel (and it’s hard to do much Science Fiction without it), I want to at least hand-wave a technology into existence to explain it.  In the Witches’ Stones series, for example, I posit something called Omega Space, which facilitates interstellar travel.

Blogger:  I liked Omega Space.  It struck me as kind of mathematical or Platonic or something.   So, to summarize, I think we could say that getting the science at least plausible is important, though it’s not essential to conform completely to the standards of today’s science.
Part 2 next week

Friday, 18 October 2013

A Long Look Back at Science Fiction Book Prices (1970s to 2010s)

Books are interesting economic artefacts.   For the most part, they contain information about the year they were published and the price that they were expected to be sold at.  So, anyone with a reasonably large collection of paper books going back for a few decades can construct a nice time series showing book prices over the years.

I collected a sample of books from our home library going back through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010’s.  There are even a few from the 1950s and 1960s.  For the sake of consistency, I focussed on Science Fiction books written by mid-list writers of those periods (e.g. Andre Norton, Jo Clayton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula LeGuin, Kim Stanley Robinson), published in the mass market paperback form (i.e. the 4 inch wide by 6 inch long format that we usually think of when we hear the word paperback).  I used both Canadian and U.S. prices, where the distinction was possible, and tracked them separately.

The main result is that the price of mass market paperbacks went up, a lot.  Average prices by decade were (also see the attached graph):

1950s     $0.40 (number in sample, N=1) Canadian, $0.40 (N=1) U.S.

1960s     $0.75 (N=2) Canadian,  $0.75 (N=2) U.S.

1970s     $1.60 (N=4) Canadian, $1.60 (N=4) U.S.

1980s     $3.71 (N=12) Canadian,  $3.63 (N=12) U.S.

1990s     $7.13 (N=11) Canadian, $5.54 (N=9) U.S.

2000s     $10.25 (N=23) Canadian, $8.20 (N=22) U.S.

2010s     $10.50 (N=2) Canadian, $9.00 (N=2) U.S.

Of course we all know that there was a lot of inflation during this period.  So, to account for that, I have used the Canadian and U.S. consumer price index, as published by each country’s statistical agency, and re-computed prices into constant dollars, using 2013 as the base year.  You can think of this as the price at any given time, relative to today’s purchasing power.  This is a standard thing to do in economics, when comparing prices over a long time.  Here are the prices, after adjusting for overall consumer price increases (also see the attached graph):

1950s     $3.44 (N=1) Canadian, $3.44 (N=1) U.S.

1960s     $5.56 (N=2) Canadian,  $5.56 (N=2) U.S.

1970s     $6.75 (N=4) Canadian, $7.06 (N=4) U.S.

1980s     $7.87 (N=12) Canadian,  $8.53 (N=12) U.S.

1990s     $10.21 (N=11) Canadian, $8.89 (N=9) U.S.

2000s     $11.86 (N=23) Canadian, $9.90 (N=22) U.S.

2010s     $10.62 (N=2) Canadian, $9.18 (N=2) U.S.

As you can see, the CPI adjusted price of books has also gone up.  In Canada, adjusted prices went up nearly 80% between the 1970’s and 2000’s, while in the U.S. the increase was about 40%.  If we compare prices of the 1950s/1960’s to the 2000s they have approximately doubled (the numbers in the sample for those years are small, so we have to be extra careful about those results).

Actually, this data probably downplays the real situation.  There was a tendency to release more books in the trade paperback form (usually 6 inches by 9 inches) as time went on, and fewer in the mass market paperback form (4 inches by 6 inches).  At least that seems to be the case from looking at my bookshelves.  I would estimate that the trade format generally costs from 5 to 10 dollars more than the mass market format.  So, switching to the larger format would tend to increase the average price of books, if they aren’t also released in the smaller, cheaper format.

So, what accounts for the big run-up in prices, after adjusting for inflation?  Over that time period, many more media options opened up to absorb people’s time - cable TV, video games, and the internet chiefly.  The lower end of the mass market for books may have gone into other activities and the book industry may have responded by abandoning that audience, going after the upper end of the market.  So perhaps book prices went up as the book reading population became relatively more concentrated in the highly educated and well paid sector of the economy.  But that’s just a hypothesis.

 Where did the money go?  Well, most mid-list writers of the period would probably tell you that prices didn’t go up because they got significantly bigger advances or royalties.  If anything, they would say that their bargaining position declined.  Printing technology became much more efficient over that period, so the extra money couldn’t have gone to that, either.  Bookstore employees weren’t exactly raking it in, so that’s not it.

I suspect that the increased profits went to management and stockholders of the big publishing corporations as ownership became more concentrated in fewer hands.  The same is true of  the big bookstore chains, where management and shareholders would have used their quasi-monopoly power to increase the price of books, pocketing most of the surplus for themselves.

Interestingly, the trend to rising prices seems to have stopped and has even reversed itself.  Prices in the 2010’s are cheaper than they were in the 2000’s, after taking inflation into account.   I suspect that is a result of e-books entering the market in a big way, and independent writers being able to offer books at lower price points, due to having much smaller overheads.  That has probably brought down the price of the mass market paperback, in an effort by the big publishing houses to compete at a price that people were willing to pay.

The increased variety of writers has probably also begun to bring back some of the population to reading, that had been written off by the publishing industry as just not interested in books.  Independently published writers do tend to specialize in genre writing - romance, science fiction, crime, action/adventure - the sort of thing that the publishing industry tended to think of as slightly grubby and not very profitable.  The audience for those books, by and large, can’t afford twenty dollar trade paperbacks - they are a natural market for inexpensive e-books, once they have invested in an e-reader.  But the publishing industry has realized that it must try to stem the erosion of their paper book base, so they have dropped the price in an effort to compete for that end of the market.  Indeed, we may be seeing the rebirth of the low priced paperback, at least until the e-book has completely taken over from paper books, assuming that’s the way things play out.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Another Visit to Chapters (and a historical look at the price of Alice Munro’s books)

I wrote the draft of this blog a couple of weeks ago, but since it focuses comparing the prices of books I thought this might be an interesting and topical little addendum.  Alice Munro’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature (yay Canada) motivated me to look around the house for some of her books that we own.  I found a paperback book  that she wrote, that was printed in 1979 (Who do you Think you Are?).  It’s cover price is $C2.25.  A more recent trade book of by Alice Munro that we own (The View from Castle Rock) cost $C20.00, bought around the year 2010.
I checked the Consumer Price Index on the Statistics Canada website.  For 1979 was 40 (with 2002=100), while for 2010 it was 116.5.  So, that’s an escalator of about 2.9 times.  Given that, the price of a paperback should have only risen to about $6.55 between 1979 and 2010 (2.25 times 2.9).  Instead, it hit $20.  Granted, there is some difference in quality between the 4 inch by 7 inch paperback of 1979 and the 5 inch by 8 inch 2010 trade back book, but it’s not enough to account for such a big difference between the increase in book prices and the increase in overall consumer prices during this time interval.

Interestingly, recent e-books seem to be settling in at about the $4 to $10 range, so the e-book revolution  may just be returning matters to their historic norm.  A quick check of’s website, however,  shows that the kindle version of “Who do you Think you Are?” is going for $C13.99, the paperback for $C13.72.
And now, to the original blog:
So, we made another weekend trip to Whyte Avenue Chapters in Edmonton, this time in late September 2013, again on a Saturday late morning.  Things were a little busier, maybe because people are more into reading, later in the fall.  At any rate, the store was somewhat busier than our last trip, though only moderately so.
One interesting development was that they had a local writer, Andrea Carter, selling and signing books at a table upstairs (the book was Hardbed Hotel).  I decided to buy one, a $16.99 paper book (I later noticed that the ebook was $3.41 at Amazon, the paperback $14.40, not that I am complaining about that).  She said that her paper books were outselling her e-books.  That was interesting - Dodecahedron Books hasn’t done any print-on-demand paper books yet (working on it), but most writers on the internet that I have noticed say that their paper books only sell about one copy for every ten e-books.

 As for the book, I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say much about it.  She seemed like an intelligent, thoughtful woman, though.  I will leave an Amazon review when I  am done.
Judging from the book cover, it doesn’t appear that she is being backed by a major publisher, or perhaps even a minor publisher.  Createspace is listed as publisher on Amazon.  I don’t know how she got the Chapters book signing gig, but good for her.   The store loudspeaker would let customers know about her presence at 15 minute intervals or so.  That was noteworthy, as I had read many writers who had done book signings at stores in the past complain that they were treated rather shabbily, and basically ignored.  So, perhaps big book chains are desperate enough to actually give local writers some love.  Many people say that this is the “value added” that a bricks and mortar store can provide over on-line book shopping - the actual physical/social connections that only an honest to goodness bookstore can provide.

I also picked up an astrophysics non-fiction by Niel DeGrass Tyson (Space Chronicles, publisher Norton) and a SF novel by Kim Stanley Robinson (2312, publisher Orbit).  Here’s a price comparison (Sept 28/2013 Chapters, Sept 29/2013 Amazon on-line prices). I should note that I have a Chapters card, so I earned some points that can eventually translate into roughly a 3% discount):

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312:

·         Chapters paperback - US$10, C$11.00,

· - paperback $7.99, kindle $8.90

· - paperback $5.91, kindle $8.99

Neil DeGrass Tyson, Space Chronicles:

·         Chapters paperback - US$16.95, C$18.00

· - paperback US$12.16, kindle US$11.66

· - paperback C$ n/a, kindle C$12.02

So, a few observations from this small sample:

·         Chapters books store prices are still higher than on-line shopping, even the mass market paperback straight-up comparison, by an average of 25% (using the US prices).

·         The big publishers are charging about the same for the e-book as for the paperback (a little more in one case, a little less in the other).

·         Paperback prices are pretty quirky between and, but e-books are pretty close.

The Neil DeGrass Tyson book seems pretty good, from the first 30 or 40 pages, but I found myself wishing I was reading an e-book version, as the paper seemed to make my hands a bit itchy.  In the old days I just ignored that, but now it makes me want to read on my Kindle, Kobo or iPad.    I haven’t had time to look at the Kim Stanley Robinson, yet, but he’s reliably interesting.  The paper seemed a bit on the cheap side too.  Interestingly, Andrea Carter’s Createspace paperback seemed to have higher quality paper than the other two “traditionally published” books.
The service was good that day.  I got help pretty quickly to find a mini-Kobo charger.  The cashier asked me if I wanted to make a donation to a reading related charity along with my payment.  I declined, and gave a few bucks to a panhandler and some young women collecting for the Navy League outside the store instead.  I have my doubts about these corporate charity shakedowns.  I am glad Amazon and Kobo don’t do that when I buy on-line.

All in all, I feel a little stupid for paying too much money for my books and for getting paper books when I prefer e-books.  But I enjoyed the chat with a live, local writer and it gave me the chance to discover someone I probably wouldn’t have, otherwise.  So, call it a draw between Chapters vs. on-line shopping that day.

Friday, 4 October 2013

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series - Romance in Science Fiction

Sept 17, 2013 Garneau Pub Patio, Edmonton Alberta
Part Ten – Romance and Science Fiction – A Hybrid Genre
Question:  You are currently writing primarily in the hybrid genre loosely known as Science Fiction Romance.  That’s a genre that combines the adventure and speculative nature of SF with the relationship focus of romance.  Would you agree with that definition?
Answer:    It’s seems alright.  The blend can vary a lot - sometimes it’s mostly romance with a little SF thrown in to carry the plot , sometimes it’s mostly SF with a little romance thrown in to round out the characters.  Sometimes there’s a significant helping of erotica thrown in.
Question:  Where would you place yourself on this spectrum?
Answer:  Somewhere in the middle, I suppose.  I like that SF allows me to speculate on substantial themes and subjects, but that the romance element keeps my characters grounded in very human realities.  I prefer to keep the romance content more on the emotional than physical level, but a little bit of bawdy humor can be fun too.
Question:  The SF/Romance genre is kind of a new development, that seems to be a lot more prevalent since the e-book and independent publishing transitions.  Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?
Answer:  I think that probably is true.  I think that it may be due to the fact that women are reading more SF, and they have always been more interested in the romantic side of human interactions, whether in a SF environment or not.  Not to say that they don’t like adventure too.  That’s one of the reasons that they read Science Fiction.
 Question:  You have been reading SF yourself for some time.  Would you say that the romance side of the genre has always been nascent, but is now manifesting much more due to the lessening of the gatekeeper function in publishing, which may have emphasized typically male tropes, stereotypes and interests in the past?
Answer:  It’s hard for me to say, as I was a voracious reader in pre-ebook days, but now my time is more focused on writing than reading, so I may not be a great judge of changing trends.  Having said that, I am inclined to think there may be something to the idea.  I recall reading writers like Andre Norton, who more or less ignored romance, even when I, as a reader, thought it  was imminent in the story.  But she seemed unwilling to deal with it or to develop the idea fully.  There were times in reading her books where I thought they ended before they should have, because she never confirmed the likely romantic feelings of the characters.  But you also had writers like Ann McCaffery, who had a lot of romantic interaction in her stories.
Question:  Ann McCafferey had a lot of romance or she hinted at it?
Answer:  No, she had flat out romance and love, though not erotica.
Question:  Going back to Andre Norton, she’s an interesting example.  When I was younger and first read her, I just assumed that the book was written by a male writer.  Do you think she may have shied away from developing the romantic potential of her characters because she didn’t want to let on that she was a female writer, and male writers just didn’t go there, according to the thinking of the gatekeepers of that era?
Answer:  I don’t know that she was hiding her gender or anything, but I don’t doubt that the publishers were happy with ambiguity, since they thought of the SF readership as primarily male.
Question:  Moving on to some other well known SF characters, we have the Mulder/Scully or Doctor Who/Female Companion relationships.  In those cases, the romantic possibilities are always in the air, the viewer or reader is teased, if you like.  Do you think that the writers were unwilling to consummate the relationships because it would take away that frisson of sexual tension that was there?
Answer:  Maybe.  With a continuing series, you have to keep the tension going, and you are constrained by the difficulties of keeping a relationship going, keeping it fresh and interesting to people who are outside of the relationship itself.
Question:  Plus, it means that the main characters can’t flirt and canoodle with anyone else, unless they are cheats, and that detracts from their likability.
Answer:  Yes, I have had to deal with this issue myself, where I had Kati and Mikal consummate their relationship before the end of the first book.  Then I had the problem of keeping things fresh and interesting between them, from the reader’s point of view.
Question:  So a “happily married couple” just doesn’t cut it.
Answer:  No, I am assuming that a happy couple can cut it, since that’s what Kati and Mikal are.
Question:  How do you handle it, then?
Answer:  One way I do it, is to split them up for at least part of the book.  That way they can each deal with different aspects of the adventure for a while, which allows me to develop two parallel subplots, which eventually mesh together.  That can include a nice romantic reunion.  It also allows them scope for a bit of flirtation with others, while they are separated.
Question:  You say that there are parallel subplots, but if they eventually meet they can’t really be parallel.  Not in a Euclidian story-space anyway.
Answer:  I guess this is some other story-space, where parallel subplots can meet.
Question: And meet with a bang.
Answer: And plenty of sparks.