Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Hugo Nominations Are Again Filled With Garbage


Well, boys and girls, the Hugo nods are out again. And they're slightly less fucked than last year! I don't want to recap the situation too much, but here's a short primer. The Hugos are the most prestigious speculative fiction awards. Last year, some gross, conservative bigots found out they could manipulate the system to get their garbage nominated. These are the Sad Puppies. Some even grosser, fascist bigots latched on to this, and got their barely-literate screeds nominated. These are the Rabid Puppies. All the nominees (most of which are terrible, some of which are innocent bystanders placed on the list without their consent) placed below "No Award Given," which is basically the equivalent of the Leonardo DiCaprio presenting at the Oscars and saying, "You know what? All the acting this year sucked. I'm not going to give this to anybody."
Select a bunch of high-profile writers who would have been nominated anyway along with a bunch of puerile trash ... It's called Poisoning the Well.
I was really hoping the Puppies would have gotten bored of ruining someone else's party to make some sort of point, but they're back again and show no signs of quitting. As Mike Glyer outlines, 64 of the 81 recommendations on the Rabid Puppy slate made it to the ballot. As Donald Trump would say--sad!

The biggest problem with this mess is I'm genuinely unsure which nominees are deserving, and which are simply there because they were on a slate (or a "recommended reading list" which is just a broader fucking slate), or because they were sticking it to the ess jay double-yous. Vox Day's submissions are obvious, but the rest are up in the air to anyone who isn't following this catastrophe on a daily basis.

For instance, let's look at the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Four out of the five nominees appeared on the Sad Puppy list, which makes me immediately skeptical of their talent and really hesitant to read, let alone actually purchase, anything they've written. But! Let's just take one example: Alyssa Wong. By all accounts, she seems to be a talented writer who has been published in multiple prestigious magazines and who seems to be generally supportive of diversity in fiction (which is something the puppies vehemently oppose). So, a false positive! I'm looking forward to reading her stuff.

But are we expected to do this for every single nominee? Will the casual Hugo voter? Probably not. Which is entirely the point of this year's insidious campaign. Select a bunch of high-profile writers who would have been nominated anyway along with a bunch of puerile trash like "Safe Space as Rape Room," an offensively inaccurate piece of work that appeared on both Puppy slates. It's called Poisoning the Well. The thought is that, since the nominees aren't all hateful, self-published nonsense this year, people either won't notice or care about the trash that did make the list. The truth is, of course, that these nominations will utterly fail to place in the actual awards. My only hope is that writers like Ms. Wong aren't unduly punished in the wake of it.

The silver lining, I suppose, is that a rules change set to take effect next year may mitigate some of this in the future. The bigger problem, though, is that several of the Puppies themselves make the circuit within the speculative fiction convention fandom, despite being actively toxic. Saying 'Hugo nominated' puts you quite far ahead of most panelists, so there's plenty of damage done that will be hard to repair. We will continue to fight against this, but it's clear this is a hissy fit that's not going away any time soon.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Star Wars and Fanservice

IT'S THIS WEEK, YOU GUYS! Yes, this Friday (even earlier for some of you lucky ducklings!) we're finally going to be watching a new installment of the Star Wars saga. I couldn't be more excited, even while trying to temper that with the knowledge that, even if it's good, it likely won't be as monumental or life-changing as the original films.

But God, let's hope it is at least good. There's no need to rehash the drama about the prequels, though I will say that they are in some respects both underrated and overrated, aside from Episode II which is borderline unwatchable. We've gotten some hints as to whether The Force Awakens is going to join them as critical anathema, or whether it'll be seen as a resurgence for the series. Several acclaimed filmmakers, from Kevin Smith to Steven Spielberg, have claimed that Episode VII is powerful, emotional and easily worthy of standing among the original trilogy.

But of course, The Phantom Menace got similar praise. Smith is known for heaping accolades on just about everything (which is a fine attitude, but not useful for gauging quality), and Spielberg is close friends with George Lucas -- he's not about to criticize something of this magnitude.

So let's talk a little bit about Lucas. He recently saw the movie, and from most news reports, enjoyed it. However, one line sounded particularly worrisome to fans:

“I think the fans are going to love it,” he said. “It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.”
To an outsider, it sounds like a boring, polite compliment from a mostly-uninterested old man. To those in the know, though, it brings up old memories of a director with a complicated relationship to the fans he created. The subtext is, "I'm an artist. I make films for the artistry, for the story, not to please fans. This film is a hackjob."

On Fanservice 

I'm going to use the term fanservice throughout the article, so it's helpful to define what I'm talking about. In general, fanservice is a piece of an artistic work that isn't there to serve the story or characters, but instead to make fans already familiar with the artist or series squeal with glee. It's often invoked in terms of anime, where it's defined as something like a panty shot or jiggling boobies. Fanservice doesn't have to be strictly sexual, but it is always gratuitous.

Are there moments like this in The Force Awakens? Surely. Here's an easy one: the second trailer ends with a shot of Han and Chewie on the Falcon.

To longtime fans, this was a moment to cheer. I got the shivers. To those who have never seen the film, though? This shot added absolutely nothing to the trailer. It was a half-second shot of an old man and a weird dog creature on a nondescript background.

You can find a worse example in Star Trek: Into Darkness, when "John Harrison," the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, reveals himself to be Khan. Star Trek fans immediately recognize the significance of this. The characters, however, have absolutely no idea why this would matter. He might as well have said "You thought my name was FooBoo. But actually, it's BooFoo!"

This is the definition of fanservice. Something that fails to add, or actively detracts, from the plot, and is meant to make followers of the universe grin.

The Problem

Fanservice is not necessarily a bad thing if used in moderation. Having Bones mutter "Dammit, Jim," in the new Star Trek movie is hardly a sin. But we start to recognize a problem when a film gets so burdened by the past that it's incapable of telling a new story. This was the defining failure of Star Trek: Into Darkness. The director of that film? J.J. Abrams. Who, incidentally, is also directing The Force Awakens.

Hmm.

So perhaps there is reason to be worried. Maybe Lucas correctly identified a film in need of a voice, too afraid to strike out on its own. However! It's hard to fully buy into this narrative for a few reasons (beyond simply hoping that Lucas is wrong). The first is that Abrams and Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy have gone out of their way to say that Episode VII strives very hard to tread new ground and tell new stories. The original trilogy characters, it seems, are cameos, handing off the universe to new characters. The fact that the trailers and merchandising have featured Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as opposed to Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford supports this.

But a bigger issue is that George Lucas is hardly blameless when it comes to valuing fanservice over story, regardless of his words. To put it another way -- he's one to talk.

Nostalgia, Moichendising and Winking

Let's be honest, here. Star Wars, especially the original film, is hardly a bastion of original storytelling. It's well-made, imaginative in many ways and a breathtaking accomplishment of visual effects, but it's basically just the hero's journey, and it's not even particularly camouflaged. Lucas conceived of the film in reverence to the old Flash Gordon serials of his youth. It was designed specifically for the fans of that genre.

And it didn't change as Star Wars grew up. Lucas made the wise decision to trade much of his film profits for the merchandising rights, and as the series progressed, the need to sell toys drove much of the writing (too many, Ewok-haters might say). I don't necessarily want to throw Lucas under the bus for this; he was responsible for a massive corporation at this point, and those gears require a fair amount of grease to keep turning. But all of the Ewoks and Gungans do make me raise an eyebrow at his insistence that Episode VII is some sort of banal fan tribute, whereas his films -- especially the prequels -- were high art with nary a thought about the fanatics. Do you really think the reaction to Boba Fett, who was originally just a henchman, didn't drive Lucas's decision to make him a crucial character in the prequels? Do you think fan squealing had nothing to do with the absurd Yoda lightsaber battle in Attack of the Clones?

We'll Know Soon!

Can we draw any real conclusions from Lucas's reaction? Probably not. He's not an idiot--he knows his words are being parsed by fans and media alike. But he's also not unbiased. He's struggled to deal with the monster franchise he created, and he's surely a little bitter about how he exited. His refrain has always been that the prequels were unappreciated because they lacked fanservice, though as noted above, it's hard to buy that. 

My prediction? His "the fans will like it" line refers more to the continuation of the central Skywalker storyline. Several sources, including the fantastic Secret History of Star Wars, imply that Lucas had several ideas for characters and plots that had nothing to do with Luke or Anakin. In addition, the scuttlebutt about the newest movies suggests that Lucas's treatments dealt with much younger characters, which would indeed have provoked a negative reaction from fandom. Perhaps dealing with young adults like Finn and Rey, just like the original trilogy did, is the form of 'fanservice' Lucas disagreed with.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Oyster, the Netflix of books, is done. I'm not shocked.

Insert your own pun about Oyster being fried, or failing to produce a pearl.
Most of you probably haven't even heard of it, but Oyster, the self-proclaimed 'Netflix for Books,' has been operating for a little over a year. It debuted to some pretty bad reviews and worries about the business model, but so did Netflix originally.

Of course, Netflix was adaptable, and proved that their ultimate vision was one consumers shared. Oyster? Not so much. It's shutting down.

The aforelinked IBT article feels prescient, but being a consumer and producer of written stories, I think there are a few simple reasons why Oyster failed, and why future startups with the same model likely will as well.

Books Aren't As Consumable

This was the big killer, and it was obvious to pretty much anyone in the business. As the IBT article says, none but the most voracious readers can finish more than a few books a month.  Add to that the fact that books are already sport a fantastically high time-to-cost ratio -- you can purchase anywhere from 3-9 Kindle Daily Deal books for Oyster's $9.99 subscription price -- and it's hard to see where Oyster's value proposition is.

Publishers Are Conservative and Fearful

Book publishers hate change. Of course, so do network and film executives. But the publishing industry has been particularly slow to embrace the digital age -- see all their petty fights with Amazon and Google about eBook pricing, archiving, etc. Oyster, from all the hearsay, had a a rough time getting some publishers on board, and though all the Big Six minus Amazon did eventually put titles on the service, even at the end the list felt anemic. The store is bulked up by entries that are actually just purchase links (imagine how infuriating it would be to click on a Netflix title only to hear that it'll cost you an extra $12.99). New releases are nonexistent, and even many older, popular books are unavailable (Want to read the original Game of Thrones, released in 1996? That'll be $6.99!)

There is Already a Netflix of Books -- And It's Successful

Thing is, we have a company that provides a service similar to what Oyster was trying to be. It's Audible, the largest audiobook provider (some would say monopoly). An Audible subscription isn't quite a buffet, but that's okay -- we rarely binge on books in the same way that we blaze through an entire season of a television show in a day. A single audio book often has a running time longer than thirteen hours, and the 'power user' audible subscription gives two books a month, which I'd equate to anywhere from one to three seasons, depending on how big of a doorstop you choose. That's plenty for all but the most dedicated Netflix viewers.

Some might claim that Audible is far less relevant to the publishing industry than Netflix is to the television industry. I kind of doubt it. As proof, I submit to you John Scalzi's post from a few months back showing that audio sales were fully half of his total sales. Not revenue -- sales. Audible has become a major player in this space, and while Scalzi's previous books might have grown him a bigger audio audience than normal (and his famous narrators don't hurt!), I suspect this is not wildly out of line with what other authors are seeing.

So what now? Well, as the article says, many from the Oyster team have jumped ship to Google (Alphabet?) Play Books, leading to some speculation that Google is going to start a book subscription service. I kinda doubt it. Google would have to overcome the same problems Oyster faced, and while they certainly be able to throw a ton of money at the problem, money doesn't change consumer habits by itself. And convincing publishers to participate might actually be harder given that industry's distrust stemming from the book scanning fight.

I think what's next is the status quo. eBooks, eBooks, eBooks, with a growing dominance of audio as well. Given Kindle's success, consumers seem pretty happy with the way books are purchased right now (unlike in the days before Netflix, where your only choice for rewatching a show was buying $40+ physical DVD sets). Until that changes, there's probably not much room for disruption.