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The Reference Library by Don Sakers

One of the biggest themes in science fiction is the effect of technological change upon individuals and societies. In the last decade, art and life have become entwined, as technological changes in the real world cause social and economic changes which, in turn, affect the science fiction field itself.

I’m speaking, of course, about e-books.

Science fiction has always been rather indifferent regarding the future of books and reading. To be sure, books and reading usually had their place in our future worlds. One convention of the field, stretching back at least as far as the 1930s, is that of quotes from fictional books, be it the authoritative Encyclopedia Galactica, the venerable Orange Catholic Bible, or the irreverent Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Books might change their format—microfilm was popular in postwar SF, supplanted by tapes, discs, memory crystals, even hand-held devices like the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Every so often, a character emerged—usually a wise old eccentric—who preferred “old-fashioned” books printed and bound on paper.

Despite the technological trappings, most SF pictured future books as little different from traditional ones. No matter what the format or display, a “book” would be a discrete object containing written (or possibly spoken) words; so far as anyone could tell, books would be published and distributed through channels essentially unchanged since the 1930s. (Last century’s audiobooks, whether cassette or CD, fell into this vision perfectly.)

Some writers (Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov spring to mind, although Murray Leinster was probably there first) went so far as to divorce bytes and atoms, and picture a future in which a reader could call up any desired title on a single display screen—but the implication was that those books were still published by traditional means.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Arthur C. Clarke wrote of the “newspad,” essentially a modern tablet combining newspapers, magazines, and television news in one package. Ben Bova’s Cyberbooks (1989) was a masterful satire on the publishing industry; the cyberbook of the title was a fairly good approximation of Amazon’s Kindle twenty years early—but the novel was primarily an action-filled story that didn’t explore the cyberbook’s impact beyond the publishing industry.

So now that the e-book revolution is here, how is it affecting SF?

First, here’s the simple matter of availability. In the past, most books had a short shelf life. An average SF book would be on sale at general bookstores for a few months, a year at most, before it went out of print. If you’d just discovered an author and wanted to read all of their previous books, you’d be haunting used book stores.
E-books, however, never go out of print. Only discover an author after her twelfth book? No problem—just go online and buy the previous eleven. Nearly ninety years worth of SF books have been published; authors and their agents are working furiously to put much of that into e-book format.

Then there’s the matter of length. Last month I talked about the forces that have led SF novels to grow in length over the years—but e-books are independent of length. A short story can be made just as available as a gargantuan eight-hundred-page novel. History has shown that SF writers will produce whatever lengths the market wants: in the future we’ll certainly see a greater range of lengths.

Another consequence of e-books is removing traditional publishers as gatekeepers of content. This has both good and bad implications for SF. On the positive side, much more good SF will be published. The age of the mass market is fading; in a sense, we’re entering the age of the niche. To be sure, some niches are larger than others. There will always be big-name authors—but now, we’ll also have medium-size names, small names, tiny names, microscopic and nano-scale names, all equally available to readers.

The bad news is that the same expansion will result in enormously more bad SF. No one reader has the time to wade through thousands of unsuitable books in search of the one or two that are suitable.

Perhaps the solution to the unsuitable books problem lies with another change that has come with e-books: smart recommendation algorithms. Today’s “Other books you might enjoy . . .” will surely become tomorrow’s “Here are four new titles you’re guaranteed to love.”

Like all good science fiction technology, the e-book revolution is sure to bring additional, totally unpredictable changes. All we know for sure is that the entire publishing world is in flux, SF included, and in ten more years the face of the field will look completely different.

What a great time to be reading SF!

Near + Far
Cat Rambo
Hydra House, 300 pages, $16.95
(trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $7.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-9848301-4-3
Genre: Short SF

Near + Far

As e-books grow more popular, what’s to become of print books? To survive and thrive, they will have to offer the reader something that e-books can’t. Near + Far is Cat Rambo’s attempt to answer this need, to make print books which are (in her words) “objects that are aesthetically pleasing or entertaining in their own right, and which add something to the text they hold.”

This is a beautiful book, attractively laid out and enhanced with delicate abstract drawings and dingbats. In design it recalls the beloved Ace Doubles, two volumes bound back-to-back, upside-down with relation to one another: flip the book over and you’ll find a second cover and another book. In this case, one half is Near (stories of the near future) and the other is Far (far future tales). It’s a clever conceit quite nicely executed, and absolutely impossible to carry over to e-book format.
All of this clever design would be pointless if the stories were no good—fortunately, Cat Rambo is a great storyteller. These stories have appeared in venues as varied as Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and New Scientist. Rambo specializes in what used to be called “sense of wonder”—her characters and worlds are skewed along several axes of imagination at once, familiar as old friends yet strange as figures from dreams. Her stories often pack an emotional punch or two, an ability to reach into a reader’s guts and twist or squeeze.

Among the two dozen excellent stories, there are a few particular standouts. “The Mermaids Singing, Each to Each” involves Lolo, a young ship pilot on the verge of choosing a gender, yet afraid to make the choice—and Lolo’s relationship with the AI ship Mary Magdelena, inherited from the uncle who sexually abused Lolo as a child. “Therapy Buddha” explores the darker side of artificial intelligence, especially when it’s not as intelligent as we think. “Zeppelin Follies” concerns a young woman named Addie who goes into a store to get her prosthetic body tuned up, and emerges with more than she bargained for.

Rambo follows each story with a note talking about the genesis of the story.
If you want some really excellent stories, get the e-book. If you also want a physical object to warm the heart of any print-book collector, go for the paper version. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Fire Season
David Weber & Jane Lindskold
Baen, 287 pages, $18.99 (hardcover)
Baen Ebooks: $6.00 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3840-0
Series: Star Kingdom 2
Genre: Adventure SF, Animal Companions, Teen SF



Fire Season

In A Beautiful Friendship (reviewed in the November 2011 issue) we met plucky teen Stephanie Harrington and her telepathic treecat companion, Lionheart. Stephanie—ancestor of David Weber’s swashbuckling Navy officer Honor Harrington—lives on the bucolic world Sphinx, a world that she helped rescue from a rapacious corporation.

It’s dry season on Sphinx, the season when forest fires sear the landscape. The encroachment of human colonists has led to bigger and more catastrophic fires, and during dry season everyone does their duty keeping inferno at bay.

Stephanie, of course, soon finds herself in trouble. First she and a friend are off to rescue two stranded treecats from the midst of a raging fire. Then she loses her heart to a newcomer to Sphinx, Anders Whittaker. It isn’t long, though, before Anders vanishes in the forest—and Stephanie is first in line for the search party. Unfortunately, a lightning strike causes another blaze in an area that Stephanie’s responsible for protecting. She can’t abandon her post . . . but she can’t abandon her new boyfriend either.

This time around David Weber has teamed with Jane Lindskold, a well-respected writer of young adult fantasy. The mix is a good one: Stephanie and her friends ring true as teenagers, yet the trademark Weber adventure and plausible tech is present as well. If they can keep this up, I think Stephanie is going to have a long and successful string of adventures.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen, 432 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
Baen Ebooks: $6.00 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3845-5
Series: Vorkosigan Saga
Genre: Adventure SF



Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Throughout the Vorkosigan saga, poor Ivan Vorpatril has essentially been cast in the role of lovable comic sidekick to his more famous and successful cousin, Miles Vorkosigan. We’ve seen Ivan bumble along, full of good intentions and displaying an uncanny talent for making things worse.
Now Ivan gets to be the hero of his own story, and it’s a fun tale from beginning to end.

As the book opens, Captain Ivan Vorpatril is minding his own business at his duty station on the planet Komarr, when his calm is shattered by the late-night arrival of Imperial Security agent Byerly Vorrutyer. Before Ivan knows it, he’s committed to spying on a mysterious and beautiful woman.
The woman, Tej, is accompanied by an equally mysterious companion named Rish. Soon Ivan’s hiding Tej and Rish in his apartment, then smuggling them offplanet. He slowly learns that they are refugees of great importance to the interstellar balance of power, pursued by all sorts of nefarious characters.

Thrust into a very sticky situation through no fault of his own, Ivan manages to rise to the occasion, becoming (in his own way) a hero and a credit to his family.

Lois McMaster Bujold is at the top of her game here, producing a high-energy, action-filled comedy of errors with language that sparkles and fizzes. This book is a pure delight to read.


Shh! It’s a Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide
Daniel M. Kimmel
Fantastic Books, 194 pages, $14.99
(trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-6720-733-4
Genre: Humorous SF, Satire SF


Shh! It’s a Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide

Jake Berman is a publicist for Graham Studios, a foundering movie studio. Like everyone else, he was transfixed by the news images when an alien spaceship landed on the lawn of a Catskills resort in New York. He watched with wonder as the aliens, the Brogardi, appeared before the United Nations to state their peaceful intentions and appeal for scientific and cultural exchange between Brogardi and Humans.

Jake’s seen enough sci-fi films to wonder if the aliens are really as peaceful as they seem, but he’s a busy man and soon forgets his doubts. Until one of the Brogardi—the chief ambassador’s son, in fact—shows up at the studio with an interesting offer. The alien, it seems, has decided he wants to embark on an acting career, and he’s chosen Graham Studios to make his dream come true.
Jake shepherds his charge through the endless process of making a movie and becoming a star. A plot is chosen, a script produced, a leading lady found. In order to get the jump on other studios, the project is kept secret—Jake the publicist is thrown into the position of using all his talents to avoid publicity.

Finally the film is done, and there’s a star-studded premiere. That’s when an unforeseen quirk of Brogardi society raises its ugly head: the Brogardi prize truth above all else, and they class all fiction as lies. And lying isn’t just immoral, to the Brogardi it’s criminal.

How Jake gets himself, his studio, and his planet out of this mess is a true joy.

Daniel M. Kimmel is a film critic and professor of film. His nonfiction book Jar Jar Binks Must Die (reviewed in the July/August 2011 issue) was a Hugo Award finalist. He knows Hollywood inside and out. Shh! It’s a Secret is his first novel. Let’s hope there are more to come.


Caliban’s War
James S. A. Corey
Orbit, 833 pages, $15.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-316-12906-0
Series: The Expanse 2
Genre: Space Opera



Caliban’s War

In the first book of The Expanse, Leviathan Wakes, we were introduced to a future in which humanity has spread throughout the solar system. The stars are still out of reach, so through mega-engineering and genetic alterations humans have settled on Mars, Luna, the asteroids, and the outer moons of the giant planets. The rivalry between Earth and Mars is the main conflict of the system, with the Outer Planets Alliance struggling to remain neutral.

We also met James Holden, ice miner become military leader, and we learned of an alien protomolecule of great destructive power, which subsequently infects Venus but is kept quarantined.
Caliban’s War continues the story. A station on Ganymede, breadbasket of the Outer Planets, is attacked . . . not by Earth or Mars, but by some monstrous third party. The incident nonetheless sparks war between the two planets, a war in which Ganymede is ruined. In the scramble to evacuate, a botanist named Prax loses track of his daughter, Mei. It soon develops that Mei isn’t the only missing child—there are 15 of them.

Enter Captain Holden and his crew of Outer Planets peacekeepers. Prax appeals for help, and Holden grants it. As the search for the missing kids proceeds, Holden is horrified to find traces of the alien protomolecule. And as war between the various human factions becomes more heated, Holden begins to suspect that this is all a distraction from the real enemy. . . .

James S. A. Corey is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. In The Expanse series they’ve given us a huge, sprawling saga set in a fascinating future. Despite the title (and the warship on the cover), Caliban’s War isn’t primarily military SF. There are no detailed descriptions of space battles as choreographed by Admiral Nelson, no loving portrayals of weapons technology. The conflicts are as much political and emotional as military, and there’s a strong flavor of Victorian horror about the whole series. Characters grow and develop as time passes. No, this is space opera—and particularly good space opera at that. Definitely recommended.

And that’s the end of my space. E-books or print, this is a wonderful time for science fiction. Enjoy!

Don Sakers is the author of Dance for the Ivory Madonna and A Rose From Old Terra. For more information, visit

"The Reference Library" Copyright © 2013, Don Sakers

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