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.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Star Wars: Aftermath Discussion and Review

Aftermath is a controversial book. The reviews on Amazon make it clear: lots of five star reviews, and lots of one-star reviews. Let's be honest, though -- this is a Star Wars book. I love Star Wars (to the point where I think it's actually the defining American myth), but in the end this is still a licensed novel, and really not worth of the hemming and hawing that accompanied, say, .

I feel bad for Chuck Wendig, which is weird thing to say about an author who is at the height of his popularity and has no doubt brought in a nice chunk of change from this novel. He's waded into a fight that's not really about him, and he's born the brunt of the attacks in recent weeks. Detractors say it's because he's a bad writer, or because the book just doesn't feel like Star Wars, but that's not really the issue. The issue is that a subset of Star Wars are staunchly conservative.

Now, I don't mean politically conservative. Some of them are that as well, but the overall problem is that these fans simply can't accept change. In any form. And change is here, oh yes. The biggest and most infuriating, from the perspective of these "fans" (I don't like to put quotes around that word, but can we even call people who hate the property "fans?"), is the EU Apocalypse which relegated all the Star Wars stories told prior to the Disney-Lucasfilm merger to the dustbin of history. There's been plenty of dicussion of the necessity of this move (and yes, it was necessary), but none of that will convince the EU fanatics. To them, saying the EU is finished (or worse, not "real") is equivalent to retconning the original films. If you claim that Han and Leia don't actually have a daughter named Jaina, you might as well claim that Luke wasn't actually Vader's son.

All that's bad enough, but there are real-world changes to Star Wars as well. Wendig is a new author to the universe; if Disney had chosen to hire Timothy Zahn, the originator of the original Star Wars EU, some of the old school fans might have swallowed the change easier. Aftermath is also written in a very modern style -- very urban fantasy, which is something that hasn't often been seen in the tentpole Star Wars novels (though the degree to which this is new and mindblowing has been vastly overstated). It also contains not one, not two, but -- *gasp!* -- FIVE gay characters! If you think I'm exaggerating how big of an issue this is, I welcome you to browse some of those one-star reviews. CTRL-F 'gay' if you like, and see how many hits you get. The accusation is that the mere existence of LGBT characters (there is no sex, not even any kissing or same-sex hand-holding) is 'shoving it down our throats.'

Some people have accused me of conflating all of these complaints, but I think they generally stem from the same discomfort.

The organized effort to sink Aftermath has been operating under the assumption that if the book fails to sell, Disney will reverse course, bring back the old no-gay, Jaina-and-Jacen EU to canon status (or, more realistically, continue to release new stories in the Legends universe). This, of course, is not even an option. But assuming it was, the diehards have failed. Aftermath hit the NYT Bestseller list two weeks in a row. Force Friday was an amazing financial success. The change in the Star Wars universe cannot be halted anymore than the change in our universe (LGBT characters aren't going anywhere anytime soon).

And you know what? You're free to be mad about it. The appropriate response to those feelings might be, "You know what? I liked the EU, I'm not a fan of how they've changed it. I think I'll back my bags and move on to a different thing to get my nerd on about." Boycotting is always an acceptable course of action. The inappropriate, juvenile response is to throw a temper-tantrum and dedicate a non-trivial portion of your day to trying to sink the book and its author.

So is it any good? Yep, it is. The stream-of-consciousness does take some getting used to, but it only took me a chapter or so before I was immersed. Random-ass excerpts posted on Reddit do not do *any* written work justice, and this one suffers more than most from being digested out of context. Many of the new characters are some of the best I've seen in Star Wars in a long time -- I particularly loved the continuing development of Imperial Admiral Rae Sloane, as well as the introduction of the Imperial "loyalty officer" (read: torturer) named Sinjir. The vingettes interspered between the main narrative chapters give us a great glimpse into the post-ROTJ galaxy, and also provide neat little hooks for future stories.

Aftermath probably won't blow your mind, but it's easily the best Star Wars book to come out since the Disney purchase, and it's well worth the time of any Star Wars fan. If you refuse to try it, it might be time to accept that you're no longer a Star Wars fan. And that's totally fine.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Kerrigan and Consent

The following will contain plot details from Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm.

Sarah Kerrigan has long been one of my favorite video game characters. I love her design, artistically. Her voice acting has always been spot-on (who doesn't love Tricia Helfer, Galactica's own Number Six?), and I've always been a fan of the Zerg, Starcraft's ruthless race of quasi-insectoid creatures whom Kerrigan commands. Worth mentioning is her role as an unapologetic female villain. All too often, while lauding representations of strong female heroes, we forget that antagonists are equally important, especially ones that can manage to break the standard mold of "insanely jealous" or "a woman scorned."

Of course, Kerrigan tiptoes awfully closely to the latter. She certainly has the standard 'tragic anti-heroine backstory' box checked and double-checked. For those unfamiliar, Sarah Kerrigan was a soldier in Arcturus Mengsk's rebel army until he left her to the Zerg after a failed mission. Infested, Kerrigan becomes the Queen of Blades and devotes herself to spreading the Zerg's dominance across the galaxy, and getting her revenge on Mengsk in the process.

Not the most innovative motivation, but it is refreshing to see a female character who isn't afraid of her own strength. The anti-Elsa, so to speak. But even fierce, audacious Kerrigan has a major problem: consent.

The issue of consent crops up in two places. The first is obvious; her entire character arc depends on it. Kerrigan does not choose to become infested, and even though she takes advantage of her abilities as a paragon of the Zerg, it's never completely clear how much is Sarah, and how much is the result of the Zerg Overmind's meddling in her psyche.

But given a lack of evidence one way or the other in the narrative itself, it's easy to give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that Kerrigan's identity is perfectly consistent from her Terran self to her Zerg. While her transformation remains non-consensual, she owns her resulting identity.

There's a second issue of consent that pops up at the end of Wings of Liberty, however. Assuming that Kerrigan is fully aware and in-control of her Queen of Blades identity, it means that Jim Raynor completely subverts Kerrigan's consent when he uses the Xel-Naga artifact to turn her, once again, into a human.

Now, this course of action isn't solely personal. The Queen of Blades is still responsible for millions of human deaths, and any way of neutralizing her is acceptable through that lens (after all, just outright killing her is also a betrayal of her consent). But there's something deeply troubling about how the game frames this as a Big Damn Hero moment for Jim. At best, this is a sad but necessary action. Kerrigan was not a damsel-in-distress, and Raynor didn't rescue her from a big nasty dragon.

Suffice to say, I was worried about how Heart of the Swarm would portray Kerrigan. The first few missions did not make me any more optimistic. Kerrigan is lovesick for Mr. Raynor and mostly thankful (though a little conflicted) for his actions.

But, a few missions in, Kerrigan inevitably becomes the Queen of Blades once again. Her motivation in this is pretty iffy -- she thinks Raynor has been killed, and wants to use her Zerg powers for revenge. But even though the development is trope-heavy, there's something important here. Kerrigan chooses to become Zerg once again. There are now no assumptions to be made about how accepting she is of her transformation; Sarah Kerrigan is fully, consensually, the Queen of Blades.

This is not trivial. It's arguably the most important concept to Kerrigan's arc, and the one thing that Heart of the Swarm needed to do to successfully advance her story. Starcraft 2 certainly had storytelling missteps. But affirming Kerrigan's consent makes up for the hiccups. I'm assuming that her character growth is finished, for now. The game's finale, Legacy of the Void, focuses more on the Protoss, and Kerrigan's desire to exterminate the big baddy in the sky is a lot less interesting to me than what she's done before. Still, if this is the last we see of her, I'll be happy enough.