by Don Sakers
Analog readers, like others with a taste for hard SF, are accustomed to wrapping our heads around some of the most complex mysteries that modern science has to offer. We cut our teeth on orbital dynamics and nuclear physics; rocket science holds no terrors for us. Dark matter and energy, quantum entanglement, the intricacies of epigenetics, the nature and origin of life . . . old hat.
We routinely speculate on topics as diverse as the Fermi paradox, the meaning and mechanics of consciousness, other universes, the advantages and disadvantages of different political and economic systems, and the ultimate fate of intelligent life. We’re not afraid to tackle the most perplexing or intricate questions of sociology, philosophy, or theology. Free will? Identity? Epistemology? Life after death? The nine billion names of God? No problem.
Given this background, I think it’s right and proper to discuss in these pages one of the greatest inexplicable puzzles of our age: What in the world is going on with the prices of ebooks?!
My current crop of books for review offer a perfect case in point. Hardcovers range from $24.95 to $28.95 or six to eleven cents per page. Trade paperbacks are $14.95 to $34.95 (five to six cents/page). For ebooks the range is bigger, $2.99 to $28.99 (one to nine cents/page).
In School Library Journal’s latest annual survey of nationwide list prices for adult fiction books, published in May 2020, the average hardcover was $27.02 (down from $27.80 the previous year). The average trade paperback was $16.84 (down from $17.71). And the average mass market paperback cost $7.72 (up from $7.43). These numbers should look familiar to regular book shoppers; most list prices are generally within a few dollars of average.
Getting accurate numbers of ebook prices is somewhat more difficult than finding evidence of life on Mars. Big publishers consider those numbers trade secrets. The best I’ve been able to find is a 2019 Publishers Weekly estimate of $8.00 per copy. Anyone who routinely purchases ebooks will tell you that prices vary so much that the very idea of an average price is ludicrous. Ignoring all the public domain books available for free on sites like Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org), one can pay anywhere from .99 cents to $30 or more.
Why such a spread? Let me count the ways. . . .
As with any scientific problem, it helps to look at the extremes. In one direction we have the so-called “indies,” made up of individual authors and micro-presses, most run by one or two people and more focused on ebooks. In the other are the “traditional” publishers, primarily the five publishing conglomerates—Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin/Random House, and Simon and Schuster—enormous corporations that have been in the publishing business for generations, who primarily concentrate on print. In between are any number of “small presses” with staffs of various sizes, generally dealing with print books.
As it turns out, this dichotomy, between indie/ebooks and traditional/print, is a key to understanding ebook pricing.
The typical indie publisher is an author, new or established, who owns the rights to the books they publish. These might be older titles long out of print, or original titles recently written. The author may be supporting themselves on book sales, or they may have some other source of income. For these authors, the expenses of publishing are relatively small: cover art, layout, editing, and other essential services can run anywhere from zero to several hundred dollars.
The economics of indie publishing are such that an ebook selling for $3.00 can bring in more money than a $10.00 trade paperback, while selling more copies. In addition, an ebook copy costs the publisher only fractions of a cent for digital transmission, while producing a print copy costs at least a few bucks, more for longer books. If a book is not successful, it doesn’t lose money; it simply doesn’t make any. The best indie strategy, then, is ebooks with low price and high volume. Some indies don’t even sell print copies of their books.
The situation in traditional publishing is opposite in many ways. Traditional publishers have enormous overhead: not only do they have many people on staff, but they’re part of corporate conglomerates which demand a relatively high return on investment. From book sales must come funds for printing, in-house editors, marketing, advertising, shipping, paying authors, and endless other second-order expenses of any big business: rent, custodial staff, human resources, accountants, lawyers . . .
The traditional business model revolves around producing print books. Any disruption to that model is extremely risky . . . and ebooks represent a huge disruption. If your company is barely scraping by with $25.00 books, the concept of selling ebooks at $3.00 each is obviously an existential threat. So maintaining the price levels of print is imperative.
There’s a lot more to the history of traditional publishers and ebook prices—if you’re interested, you can start by looking up “agency model” and the 2012 case United States v. Apple—but what basically happened is that traditional publishers are more comfortable with ebook prices comparable to those of print books.
One more wrinkle is that retailers can give discounts on print books, but are legally prevented from altering the list price of ebooks. That’s why you’ll sometimes see ebooks selling for more than print copies.
Now let’s turn to something easier, like *highly advanced technology.
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The Godel Operation
James L. Cambias
Baen, 288 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (ebook)
Genre: Far Future/Clarke’s Law,
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The world of computer programming has the useful concept of a “weirdness budget.” In this scheme, users approaching any new program or language will only accept a finite amount of strange, unfamiliar, or exotic elements before they get confused and turn away. This is similar to the notion of a “learning curve,” in which initial obscurity may dissuade people from making the effort to master a procedure or area of knowledge.
In science fiction we deal with weirdness budgets all the time, especially in stories set in the far future and dealing with technology advanced enough to be, in Arthur C. Clarke’s phrase, “indistinguishable from magic.”
Any advanced far future must include elements that today’s readers find unfamiliar, if not downright bizarre. We know that time brings change. Any world of future millennia in which everything is just like today just isn’t convincing.
At the same time, a future world with too much change borders on the incomprehensible. . . . Indeed, some cross right over the border. If we’re going to be honest, a realistic depiction of a society thousands of years in the future would be foreign in language, culture, technology, and a thousand other variables. It would be at least as hard for a present-day reader to apprehend as are Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Authors of far future SF must tread a thin line: Exceed the weirdness budget and lose readers, or use too little weirdness and bore them.
In The Godel Operation James L. Cambias hits the balance just right.
The Tenth Millennium is a golden age for humanity and the Solar System. Thanks to artificial intelligences and advanced technology, there are now a billion worlds orbiting the Sun, and incredible diversity of terraformed Earthlike planets and artificial habitats of all types and sizes. Fully a trillion intelligent beings go about their ordinary lives and business every day.
One mobile AI called Daslakh is having trouble with its young human, Zee. On a quixotic quest for a love he’s never met, Zee encounters Adya, a human woman being pursued by a gang of no-goods. Before Daslakh knows it, they’ve rescued Adya. One thing leads to another, and against Daslakh’s better judgment the trio find themselves deep in a search for a legendary ancient weapon called the Godel Trigger, a weapon that could easily bring about the end of civilization.
Daslakh soon has its hands full with paranoid super-intelligences wielding world-destroying lasers, criminal felines, history’s most notorious thief . . . and Zee’s mysterious lover. Along the way, Daslakh struggles to preserve reality, keep Zee’s libido in check, and at all costs to keep anyone from learning the real power of the Godel Trigger.
A rollicking good adventure with just the perfect amount of weirdness, The Godel Operation is another winner for Cambias.
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Speculative Los Angeles
Edited by Denise Hamilton
Akashic, 272 pages, $25.95 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $16.99 (ebook)
Genre: Cities, Original Anthologies
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Akhasic Books is a prestige publishing house whose mission is “to make literature more part of popular culture, not just a part of elitist culture.” They’re best known for publishing Adam Mansbach’s 2011 book for frustrated parents, Go the F*ck to Sleep, as well as the long-running “Noir” series of anthologies (beginning with Brooklyn Noir in 2004 and continuing with volumes for just about every major city in the world).
When such a publisher turns its attention to speculative fiction, it stands to reason that the result will be something delightful.
Speculative Los Angeles is the first in a new series of city-based original anthologies filled with science fiction, fantasy, and associated stories. The volume is dedicated to Octavia Butler, which tells you right there that they know what they’re about.
The fourteen authors included in this volume all have personal connections to Los Angeles, the majority of them natives and/or current residents. They come from the more literary side of the tracks, with NEA fellowships and work featured in The New Yorker, in Slate, on NPR, and in The Los Angeles Times. (One possibly-familiar name is S. Qiouyi, whose fiction and poetry have appeared in genre magazines such as Asimov’s, F&SF, and Strange Horizons.)
Don’t let any of that dissuade you. While these stories are different from the usual Analog fare, they’re still good tales of worlds and people beyond the normal.
The stories are divided into four sections. First is Changelings, Ghosts, and Parallel Worlds. Alex Espinoza’s “Detainment” is the poignant story of a parent whose child was separated from her by immigration officers. The boy returned to her looks and acts like her son, but she knows it’s not him . . . and something strange is going on in detention.
The next section is Steampunks, Alchemists, and Memory Artists. “If Memory Serves” by Lynell George is a captivating tale of cyber-espionage agent Diane, hired to retrieve from the wreckage of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory some fragments of a blackboard, which may or may not contain traces of a world-changing equation.
Section 3, A Tear in the Fabric of Reality, features Francesca Lia Block’s haunting “Purple Panic,” in which an ex-Valley Girl learns the disturbing truth about an old girlfriend. And the last section is Cops and Robots in the Future Ruins of L.A. One of the stories is “Sailing That Beautiful Sea” by Kathleen Kaufman, where an AI nurse programmed for compassion and empathy learns something important about pain.
If you’re looking for something different yet fun, look no further.
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Screams From the Void
Flame Tree Press, 231 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (ebook)
Genre: Alien Beings, SF Horror
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Anne Tibbets is a former television producer and scriptwriter who turned her hand to writing SF. Under her own name she authored two post-apocalyptic titles in the Line series, Carrier and Walled (both 2014). Under pseudonym Addison Gunn, she produced two post-apocalyptics in the Extinction Biome series, Invasion (2016) and Dispersal (2017).
Screams From the Void is a bit of a departure, an SF horror book set aboard a deep-space freighter. It’s a claustrophobic, tense, and action-filled story just begging to be made into a movie . . . a worthy successor to Ridley Scott’s Alien, just as scary and yet fresh and new.
Raina is a mechanic aboard the space freighter Demeter, and she’s never been this bored in her entire life. For two years the ship has been on a survey mission to collect and study botanical samples from other worlds. It sounded exciting at the beginning, but that didn’t last. Her boss is a petty martinet with a heart of ice. Worse, her abusive ex-lover is part of the small crew, and the ship is so cramped that it’s impossible to get away from either one.
With repeated requests for transfer denied, Raina daydreams of jumping ship at the next opportunity.
Things change abruptly when a hostile creature sneaks aboard the ship and attacks violently, leaving fear and havoc in its wake. Paranoia grips the crew, and Raina learns she can’t trust any of them.
If Demeter is going to make it out of this mess, it’s up to Raina. This challenge will take all her courage, determination, and mechanical ability.
Author Tibbets manages suspense well, ratcheting up the tension in a masterful fashion, giving enough opportunity for readers to catch their breath before barreling into the next crisis, leavening the whole thing with well-placed humorous notes. If you’re in the mood to be scared, this one is an excellent choice.
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Creatures of Passage
Akhasic, 304 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $25.99 (ebook)
Genre: Alternate History, Magical
Realism, Psychological/Sociological SF
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Sometimes a novel transcends genre, drawing elements from science fiction, fantasy, and horror into a dynamic fusion that appeals to many diverse readers. Creatures of Passage is one of those novels.
Author Morowa Yejidé, native of Washington, D.C., is a literary writer. Her 2012 novel Time of the Locust, a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize and a NAACP Image Award nominee, was another genre-blender.
The book is set in 1977 in “the capital,” an alternate Washington, D.C. Bordered by the two Kingdoms of Virginia and Maryland, the capital is part of the United Territories, a monarchy ruled by a series of elected kings.
Nephthys Kinwell, resident of the poor Anacostia neighborhood, runs a taxi service in her rickety old Plymouth. Her passengers are a motley group of lonely, desperate, lost souls; she strives to take them where they most need to go. Meanwhile, she ignores the drama of her own dysfunctional family.
Years ago, Nephthys’s twin brother Osiris was lynched, his body thrown in the muddy, mist-shrouded Anacostia River. His daughter, Amber, sees visions of the future and sends her prophecies to a local newspaper. Amber’s ten-year-old son Dash takes to visiting the river, where his conversations with a make-believe man help him to deal with the trauma of witnessing a horrific act of child abuse at school.
When the abuser turns his attention to Dash, threatening him not to reveal what he saw, Nephthys is compelled to defend her grand-nephew from the vengeance of the living and the wrath of the dead.
Creatures of Passage unfolds gradually, each character adding a piece to the puzzle. It confronts multiple issues of contemporary society—racism, grief, child abuse, poverty, violence, police brutality—from a very different perspective, and asks what positive elements regular folks can use to combat them.
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A River Called Time
Akhasic, 464 pages, $28.95 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $28.99 (ebook)
Genre: Alternate History, Dystopian SF,
ESP/Psionics, Inside & Outside/Fortress City
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Courttia Newland comes to us from the world of literary fiction, where his most recent novel, The Gospel According to Cane (2012) was named a Publishers Weekly Notable African-American Title. He’s an award-winning playwright and screenwriter.
Now Newland takes up the tropes of science fiction (although the publisher, in order to avoid scaring off literary readers, uses the term “speculative fiction”) and does a fine job. A River Called Time is a well-realized alternate history, a powerful dystopian tale, and a meditation on the universality of human inhumanity.
In an alternate Earth that developed without colonialism, Markriss Denny lives among the poor residents of the Outer City of Londinium. Markriss aspires to earn admission to the Ark, the sealed Inner City of the rich elite. Every year the Ark admits the best of the best from the Outer City, and this year Markriss makes the grade.
Inside, Markriss discovers the truth about the Ark: the elite within are sustained by a disenfranchised underclass who work in inhumane conditions and have few rights. The population is controlled by high-tech pods that give artificial dreams.
Markriss, though, has an ace up his sleeve. Since childhood, he’s had the ability to cast his mind loose from his body. Now he uses this talent to resist the pods. He journeys among other alternate versions of Londinium—including the London of our universe—in a quest to find an evil entity that corrupts all the realities.
With a cosmology based on Egyptian mythology, the multiverse that Markriss explores is a powerfully mythic place. The alternate worlds are detailed and fascinating. Newland eschews a simplistic story about the evils of colonialism, and instead gives us a complex, nuanced treatment.
Markriss is a sympathetic character thrown into a world bigger than he imagined, forced to re-examine his beliefs and certainties. Readers, moving through this adventure with him, may find themselves doing the same.
* * *
Christopher L. Bennett
eSpec, 238 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $2.99 (ebook)
Series: The Arachne 2
Genre: Alien Beings, Adventure SF, Bigger Than Worlds
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Christopher L. Bennett last appeared in these pages in the November-December 2018 issue with “Hubstitute Creatures,” a novelette in his Hub Gates series.
Since then he’s been at work on a new series, The Arachne, of which Arachne’s Exile is the second book.
In the previous book, Arachne’s Crime (2020), the crew of the colony vessel Arachne awaken from cold sleep to find that they are in the custody of an alien police force, charged with the destruction of an alien habitat and the murder of all its inhabitants. The ship’s AI, attempting to defend the Arachne, eliminated the habitat. At trial, the human colonists are found guilty and sentenced to a lifetime of exile and labor to atone for their crime.
Arachne’s Exile opens with the colonists displaced across the galaxy to an enormous inhabited structure built around a neutron star. As they struggle with the terms of their exile, they begin to learn more about their alien hosts, the Chim.
It turns out that the Chim are agents of a vast conspiracy spanning thousands of years . . . a conspiracy that reached as far as Earth and had tremendous influence on human history.
To gain their freedom and defeat the aims of the conspiracy, the Arachne crew must carry out an ambitious and dangerous heist. If they fail, they stand to lose everything, but if they succeed, they’ll have struck a blow for freedom that will have effects throughout the galaxy.
There’s only one problem; for all the colonists know, it may all be a set-up. Their enemies may be maneuvering them into committing another, worse crime . . . and this time the punishment may well involve the entire human race.
A different treatment of the relationship between humans and aliens. Arachne’s Exile is a fun, exciting read.
* * *
eSpec, 386 pages, $18.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $4.99 (ebook)
Genre: Pariah Elite, Young Adult SF
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Ty Drago is the founder and editor of the online speculative fiction magazine Allegory. As a writer he’s best known for his Undertaker series of humorous children’s zombie novels.
Dragons is a young adult novel that falls into the tradition of what Rox Kavaney in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls “Pariah Elite”—that is, stories of a gifted but feared and persecuted minority hidden among the general population. The archetypal example is A.E. Van Vogt’s 1940 classic Slan.
Teenage Andy Brand is a Dragon: a mutant race of pyrokinetics, with the psionic ability to create and control fire. For centuries the Dragons, known to themselves as the Kind, have lived by the creed, “Conceal and Protect,” hiding their true nature from the normal humans around them, coming to each other’s aid when necessary. For the Kind have enemies who will stop at nothing to destroy them.
Since his childhood, Andy’s parents have trained him to keep quiet, never to stand out, and above all to resist attempts to trick him into revealing himself.
Then he wakes up in a strange place, a sterile cell in which a mysterious authoritative voice wants only one thing—for Andy to set a piece of paper afire. With no matches, lighter, or any other way to make a flame, Andy knows that to comply is to reveal his true nature . . . something he’s determined never to do.
In time he contacts another prisoner, a teenage girl named Miranda. Without knowing for sure, Andy suspects that Miranda is also a Dragon. And when she suddenly stops communicating, Andy is torn between his two directives: Conceal his identity, or act to Protect Miranda.
Soon Andy and Miranda are deep in a labyrinth of secrets, lies, and betrayal, not knowing whom they can trust or what they should do. Andy knows one thing . . . lives are at stake, and saving them is going to take all his power and brains.
* * *
The 18th Race Omnibus
David Sherman & Keith R. A. DeCandido
eSpec, 554 pages, $34.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.49 (ebook)
Series: The 18th Race
Genre: Alien Beings, Military SF
* * *
David Sherman, ex-Marine, is one of the big names of military science fiction. He’s best known for the Starfist series, written with Dan Cragg, and the Demontech military fantasy series.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is a multi-talented, prolific author who works in novels, comics, games, and media tie-in books, both novelizations and original titles. Andromeda, Buffy, Doctor Who, Farscape, Spider-Man, Star Trek, Stargate, Supernatural, X-Men . . . it’s hard to think of a major genre property that DeCandido hasn’t written.
The two combine their talents in the 18th Race series, and the result is pure fun. This omnibus edition collects all three 18th Race novels—Issue in Doubt, In All Directions, and To Hell and Regroup—plus a short story, “So (Not) Like Dogs.”
Since going into interstellar space, humanity has found the remains of seventeen intelligent species. In all cases, these species were destroyed before they managed to travel into space.
When the semi-autonomous world Troy is attacked and devastated, a Marine Force reconnaissance platoon goes to investigate. They barely survive an encounter with aliens called Dusters—the eighteenth race, which is responsible for the destruction of the previous seventeen.
On Earth, the North American Union begins to assemble the biggest war fleet in history. But on Troy, the few surviving Marines must make a last stand to defend the planet against the arrival of a new Duster fleet.
In twin narratives, the story follows events on Troy, where a band of Marines struggles to defeat an invading force—and on Earth, where scientists work to develop weapons to defeat the Dusters.
A great, rip-roaring adventure in the classic style.
Please note: If the price tag is a bit more than you can handle all at once, the three titles are each available separately in trade paperback.
And now, I do believe I’m out of space. See you next time.
Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, the Rule of Five serial at rule-of-5.com, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit http://donsakers.com/sw/.
Copyright © 2021 Don Sakers