The comment-fiction challenge post-mortem

Almost a month ago I started the Readmill comment-fiction challenge. The idea was to add a secondary layer of back-stories to Knights and Necromancers 1 as comments in Readmill.

I explained the idea in more detail in my original blog post.

I uploaded the last comment-fiction earlier today.

The good news is that the entire thing was a lot of fun to do. The bad news is that I was probably the only one who enjoyed it. 🙂

I held back the last entry for a couple of days to see if anybody noticed. Nobody did.

It’s not a total loss. Turning 22 000 words of comment-fictions into a cohesive story shouldn’t be too much work. It’s something I can post as a freebie on the Heartpunk at some point.

In completely unrelated news, I have tweaked the design of the online version of Knights and Necromancers 1 and added a couple of navigation features (keyboard navigation and swipes for going to the next and previous chapters).

Fantasy, Collapse, and a sense of history

A few incoherent random thoughts on fantasy and progress.

One of the things that fascinated me as an adolescent reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was its sense of history.

The writing’s crap. It reads as if it were written by a pastoral poet who, on a particularly invigorating walk, decides that the rustic drizzle is gloomy enough to inspire him to write about war. The characters are simplistic and one-dimensional cyphers who serve mostly as structural building blocks and arbitrary plot engines. The story’s as insufferable to the adult Baldur as it was fascinating to the adolescent Baldur.

(I like the movies. The characters are more human and richer and by virtue of the medium we are blessedly free of Tolkien’s crap prose. The movies make for light-hearted blockbuster entertainment.)

But the story’s sense of history is fascinating to an adolescent: a long lost golden age, a second war repeating along similar lines to an earlier war. That’s not enough to make it rise above the tedious writing, but it’s enough to make a teenager’s mind spin.

As long as you don’t figure out that the entire thing is little more than reactionary and racist tory tripe lamenting the fall of the English upper class in world war one.

Even though most of Tolkien’s imitators don’t have his regressive political views (I know, I’m being charitable here and assume that they are aping him without thinking), they do manage to echo some of the basic themes, making them recurring tropes in the fantasy genre.

Even Moorcock plays with the idea, presenting a multiverse where chaos and law are locked in eternal combat, repeating their fight for dominance in an endless cycle of repeating history across the worlds. Of course, Moorcock is as progressive as Tolkien is regressive, but the trope is there.

The flip side of always having a non-mythological golden age somewhere in the histories of your world is the fact that you inevitably have societal collapse stitched to its hip. Grand, great, empires don’t go down silently. Even a great kingdom’s slow decline will inevitably be marked by bloodshed and chaos. History’s slate is wiped clean with blood.

Somewhere in the backstory of most fantasy worlds is a post-apocalyptic novel where magic plays the role of nukes and tech and Mad Max roams the countryside with a sword and a dog.

Fantasy’s view of history: What has happened before will happen again. Kingdoms rise and fall. You know there’ll be a promised one that’ll do bling to the blah because there was once a promised one that blinged the blah and lived happily ever after. If you live in a fantasy world, you live on a planet where prophesies come true with alarming regularity.

There’s something interesting about a genre that doesn’t buy into the myth of endless progress, that the arc of technology will continue ever upwards.

The myth of endless progress is the arch-villain of modern history, post Cold War. Scratch the surface of almost any environmental crisis or economic disaster and you’ll find the progress myth at it’s heart. Things will always get better. The real estate market always goes up. The stock market can’t fall again because we’ve finally figured things out. Global warming will be solved by technology. Peak oil will be solved by technology. Resource depletion will be solved by technology. Ocean acidification will be solved by technology. Onwards and eternally upwards. Immortality and godhood is humanity’s manifest destiny.

If you subtract the tory slant endemic to most fantasy fiction (corrupted bloodlines, aristocracy’s divine right to rule, unrepentant nostalgia, fear of change, impure races challenging the pure, etc.) you have a genre that believes things fall after they rise; that humanity can’t surpass the inherent limitations of the world around it.

Of course, ignoring the regressive politics that dominate the genre is almost impossible. Sure, you have Moorcock and his lot, who are unrepentant progressives and have a knack for fantasy, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

The belief that humanity can’t surpass the limitations of the world it inhabits is often saddled with the accompanying belief that humanity can’t surpass its own limitations, that qualities are innate and not learned, that you can’t change your lot through education, that all improvement is an illusion.

It doesn’t have to be like that. History is littered with examples of societies that rise to glory but then collapse because they ran out of resources or energy. In a world where we face exactly that risk, fantasy fiction has the potential to be one of the more progressive genres around, representing a playground of ideas on how progress loses momentum and arcs downwards into collapse.

Science fiction is always about progress, it’s locked in a constant dialogue on the concept, either progress triumphant or progress denied. Fantasy is a chance to play with the issues the world is facing without having to address the inevitability of eternal technological progress.

That is, provided it can rise above the execrable politics it grew out of, like a flower growing out of a turd.

Two questions on putting books on the web

I’ve put together a web version of Knights and Necromancers 1: Days of wild obedience.

You can have a look at it here. Read the entire thing online.

I decided to keep it simple, no javascript, just focus on making readable, linkable web pages.

So, I have two questions for you:

  1. What do you think about the design?
  2. What do you think about offering full versions of ebooks for free on the web while charging for the EPUB/Kindle versions?

I’m debating whether to put full versions of later entries in the series on the website (using the above-linked design) while still charging for the ebook versions of the stories on Amazon, iBookstores, and Kobo. I know of a few examples where that has worked and a few where it hasn’t, so I’m curious what people think.

Perceptions of society

Descriptions of a society is like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant; a partial insight is indistinguishable from a lie.

Iceland just had a referendum on its constitution. Over two-thirds approved and, moreover, over two-thirds voted in favour of specific reforms that they felt the new constitution had to have.

The story told about post-crash Iceland is almost like a fairy tale. A nation that threw out the banksters and cleaned up after being betrayed by its financial class. A left-wing government was voted into power. The debts of the public were written down. Financial crime was prosecuted and corrupt government officials brought to justice. A new constitution has been crowd-sourced and written by the people themselves. The government refused to kowtow to the demands of the UK, EU, and the IMF, and through unorthodox economic policies has returned to economic growth. The government has rejected austerity. They passed a media freedom/free speech law that was written with the advice of Wikileaks.

That is the story told about Iceland in foreign media.

And it’s almost entirely a lie.

Some small fry in the finance industry have been prosecuted and convicted. The big fish not only all got away but continue to own large chunks of Icelandic society. The so-called left-wing government followed the IMF playbook to the letter, receiving praise from the IMF for the work they’ve done. Most of the policies they have put into place would make Thatcher proud. Two officials were prosecuted. One got away with a slap on the wrist (no punishment). The other’s crimes were so blatant that despite the best efforts of various factions in Icelandic society, they had no option but to convict him for insider trading.

The rest all got off scot-free, despite receiving large amounts of money from the banks.

The debt write-downs were almost instantly rolled back by index-linking. Icelandic society is in the middle of the greatest mortgage crisis in its history. It’s a powder-keg waiting to explode.

The constitution wasn’t crowd-sourced but written by a committee appointed by parliament (itself largely composed of the same corrupt members of parliament who ran the place pre-crash). The committee draft, which is what the Saturday referendum was about, is non-binding. The referendum question was whether the new constitution (which will be written by MPs) should be based on the committee draft, not whether it should become our new constitution. The Independence Party, the likely winner of the election next spring and so the party that would have to implement a new constitution, is already claiming that it isn’t bound by the results of the referendum because they don’t feel like it. (Essentially, their logic is as tenuous as that.)

The Icelandic government has already paid most of the Icesave debts, despite what the media may tell you. The dispute between the UK, Iceland, and other EU countries is entirely about how much interest is owed, not about the validity of the debt itself. The supposedly left-wing government tried time after time to accept the UK/EU demands but were overruled as the President forced a referendum on the laws. Which is a Presidential power that is very likely to be dropped from the new constitution.

Yes, there’s a good chance that the gloriously democratic crowd-sourced constitution will be used to roll back the reach of democracy in Iceland.

By any calculation, the Icelandic government has engaged in unprecedented cutbacks in social services, healthcare, education, and support for the elderly.

The growth of Iceland’s economy is probably down to capital, trapped in the country because of the currency controls, overheating the real estate market.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative that was passed by the Icelandic parliament was a non-binding resolution, which is a handy way of disposing of things you never intend to implement. The actual media laws that were passed require the registration of every single media outlet, TV, print, radio, or website, that intends to deliver news and commentary to the Icelandic public. Failure to register will result in a fine. The same media law includes new provisions for blocking the IP-addresses of illegal content.

Most of the news you hear about Iceland is a partial truth that, like the blind man describing an elephant as a snake, becomes a lie.

The truth is that Iceland is a corrupt oligarchy that, unless it changes its course radically, is on the verge of collapse.

Why is this important to fantasy and science-fiction writing?

Because every story is composed of partial truths, a weave of limited perspectives that build a picture. Even an omniscient narrator can only describe one thing at a time.

A single society can be represented in so many different ways, can be shown to be so many different things. Who you choose to describe and follow, whose position and perspective is central in the story, is as important to world-building as the actual details of the world themselves.

The details of education and wealth won’t come into it if the lead character comes from a class without access to schools and money.

Interior decoration trends and detailed architecture is a sign of a high culture and a sophisticated society if your lead is a member of the elite but becomes an emblem of corruption and sleaze if your lead is an unprivileged labourer.

And, finally, a country can seem to be an utopia to outsiders who only stay for a few weeks when they visit, but feel like a confining dystopia to those who can’t escape it.

What I’ve been up to

I’ve been quite busy over the last couple of weeks. Some of it may interest you.

I wrote up a long post over on called ‘Is it safe?’ on some of the issues currently facing web and ebook development, especially focusing on the spiralling complexity.

Then I told the world about some of the things I’ve learned while setting up Studio Tendra, namely that all ebook publishing platforms are a joke

This was followed by a trip to the Frankfurt Bookfair and a talk at Tools of Change Frankfurt. The talk was on design and readability in ebooks. Presenting the talk with me was the fantastic Dan Rhatigan of Monotype Imaging, whose knowledge of type and typography is awe-inspiring.

One of the announcements at Frankfurt was that of Bookshout’s Importer where they ask you for your Amazon account details and password and try and import all of your Amazon books into Bookshout’s reader. I explained why this is an incredibly bad idea. Read my responses in the comments as well. Asking the reader for these details is never acceptable.

Finally, this week I posted a Design Features Grid from my Frankfurt talk with some explanatory notes. You can see the grid here and read the notes here.

This one’s older but still relevant. The first children’s book that my sister (Brynhildur JennĂ˝ BjarnadĂłttir, the other half of Studio Tendra) illustrated has been adapted into an interactive children’s book app. Intended for young children. My sister is a little bit embarrassed by this early work, and I’m not the target audience so can’t judge, but it seems to be getting good reviews. Go have a look at Perky Pranksters.

The comment-fiction challenge is continuing apace as well. I’m up to chapter 32 and have a few more to upload later today.

::looks up at the post::

Sheesh. That’s more than a little bit, isn’t it?

What have you been up to? Feel free to tell me in the comments.

The Readmill comment fiction challenge

From the challenge page:

Over the next twenty six days I am going to add a flash fiction piece to every chapter of Knights and Necromancers 1 as a comment in Readmill. These comment fictions will be 300 to 1000 words long standalone scenes that add some context and background to the the story.

Go read more about it on the comment fiction challenge page itself.

Each comment fiction will start with a § to signify that it is a piece of fiction and not a regular comment or annotation.

You can read the first two here and here.

The genesis of this challenge is in the suggestions people sent me a week ago when I asked for ideas on how to market the Knights and Necromancers series. The suggestions made by Tom Abba and Pablo Defendini reminded me of a few ideas I had several years ago during my PhD.

(I pitched this idea a few days ago to Tom. He was decidedly unimpressed. :-))

Most of you are probably not aware that I worked on (and finished) a PhD on ebooks, interactivity, and structure from 2002 to 2006. One of the basic ideas in the PhD was to divide ebooks into three types:

  • Plain ebooks that did little beyond preserve formatting and add the basic features you expect from conversion into digital.
  • Rich ebooks that integrate networked information into their margins but are otherwise identical to standard ebooks.
  • Deconstructed ebooks that give up on the pretence of preserving some sort of continuity with their predecessor forms and are fully digital.

Now, if I were writing my PhD now, I’d have used the terms standard, networked, and database ebooks instead, as I think those terms are more descriptive.

The basic idea was that one of the biggest changes that an ebook can have over a print book is that it can dynamically integrate its context over the network. Networked highlights, public comments, dynamic annotations, are all examples of framing structures that do that. (And, yes, I was writing about these things years before Amazon introduced the Kindle with popular highlights and public notes. Don’t dig up the PhD thesis though, it’s awful. I had a few good ideas back then but the overall execution and writing was ghastly.)

The comment fictions I’m going to write over the next twenty-six days provide a new context for Knights and Necromancers 1. They frame each chapter, comment on it, and re-contextualise it, possibly completely changing how the chapter is read. They do this without actually changing the story in any way, acting much in the same way as a frame does on a painting (putting a painting in a gilded frame changes our perception of it completely without changing a single brushstroke).

You should read the Readmill comment fiction challenge page itself to get the book, see the schedule, and following me on Readmill is probably the easiest way to see my annotation in the ebook itself.

And if you let me know on twitter, there’s a good chance I’ll follow you back on Readmill since I’m looking to add people on Readmill. (Not on twitter, though. Looking to cut down on the people I follow on twitter. No offence intended.)

So, I challenge you to keep up with me (two chapters a day) and my challenge will be to keep the pace.

Should be fun 🙂

What about other ereading apps?

I’ll be adding the comment fictions as public notes on the Kindle as well, just a few days later. I’m not too fond of the UI for notes in the various Kindle apps, though. Much prefer Readmill’s.

I’d also be interested in trying out Kobo’s Author Notes but the only info I can get on it is a vague blog post and a link to a blank page.

I can only assume that whatever program Kobo had going has been discontinued. I’d love to find out more about it but I don’t even have the first clue who to email about getting more information.