Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A tale of two online bookstores

     Now that Borders Books is defunct, I’ve been spending more time at Barnes and Noble bookstores. I even paid to become a Barnes and Noble “Member,” with 10 percent discounts on all purchases (or 10 percent additional discount if the item is already discounted or I have a coupon). The membership also grants me benefits with BN.com, its online store.
     Recently I received a coupon good for 50 percent off a purchase at BN.com to get me to try the service. I believe it was sent to all former Borders Rewards customers (they bought the email list, I think).

  Cover of Steampunk Poe from BN.com
         As it happened, there was a title I was curious about but hadn’t found in any store: “Steampunk Poe,” a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems with steampunk-influenced illustrations by Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac. It sounded like the type of high-concept title that bookstores would be sure to carry, but I’d been looking for months with no luck. I hadn’t ordered the book yet because I already had several Poe collections; the number and quality of illustrations would determine if I wanted another one. (You can see some of the illustrations online at BN.com,  if you have or create a BN.com account, or at Amazon.com without the rigamarole.)
      However, 50 percent off was a strong inducement, so I decided to order the book sight unseen.
     The book has now arrived, and it is an attractive volume. It measures 8-1/4 by 7-1/4 inches on high quality paper with 37 colorful illustrations. Common to most of the illustrations are gears, goggles and a man with a tall stove-pipe hat. Each of the seven stories has between three and five pictures, the six poems have one or two apiece.
    The selections are a mix of Poe’s greatest hits with among his most obscure. I miss “The Cask ofAmontillado” and “Annabel Lee” in particular. I’m sure Basic and Sumberac selected the tales and poems based on their steampunk possibilities, but even so I wonder why “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” gets five illustrations, since it’s a fairly static story, and four of the illustrations are awfully similar. Likewise, I don’t think the illustrations for “Murders in the Rue Morgue” depict a steampunk vision per se. 
     Despite these quibblers, it’s a fine book and I’m happy to have it at last.

Video from Youtube featuring images from “Steampunk Poe” 
     However the getting of it was a travail, and so we come to the tale of two online booksellers: BN.com and Amazon.com.
     At first, the BN.com experience was pleasant. It was no more difficult to order from than Amazon.com. Even better, the 50 percent seemed to apply to the online discounted price, not the publisher’s list price, so I was getting an $18.95 book for less than $8.
Then I made my first mistake. When it came time to pick a shipping method, I chose “Standard Delivery,” although my membership entitled me to free express shipping. (This was the first time I placed a BN.com order and I hadn’t noticed this.) I wasn’t in that much of a hurry to get the book anyway, and standard delivery was supposed to be between two and six (business) days from the time of shipping (express delivery was between one and three). I was told the book was shipping by UPS, and they also included a tracking number so I could check on the package’s progress online. I placed the order on Feb. 10.
     On Sunday, Feb. 12, I received an email informing me that the book had been shipped, so I expected the book by the end of the week (since UPS also delivers on Saturdays, that covered the six day estimated maximum), that is Feb. 18. 
     Midweek I checked tracking to see how it was going, and received my first glimmer that things weren’t going as advertised. The package had been transferred “at the shipper’s request” from UPS to USPS for final delivery. Basically, UPS takes the book as far as a local post office (Detroit, I think, though I live to the north of the city), then they let USPS deliver it to my doorstep. That sounded crazy to me. Why complicate the process by changing delivery service midway? I thought that sounded like a sure way to delay delivery and increase the odds of the package being misdelivered, misplaced or lost. I was a little reassured by the information on the tracking site that stated this usually meant the package would be delivered in another day or two. The package was transferred on Feb. 15, so I still expected it by Feb. 18.
On Feb. 16, I decided to order some other books, this time from Amazon.com. I had a credit with them, and in addition to a new book by one of my favorite authors, they had deeply discounted one of his older books as well. At this point I wasn’t thinking of this as a comparison of the two services.
     By Feb. 18, the BN.com book hadn’t arrived. OK, Valentine’s Day fell during this time period. Maybe that slowed things down a little. And, by the most lax definition of six “business days,” it wasn’t yet late really, since Saturday isn’t a “business day” (even though the USPS also delivers on Saturday, so for all intents and purposes it ought to be so considered). Still, I sent an email to service@BN.com. When my orders to Amazon.com had gone missing in the past, Amazon.com had responded by resending the order and asking me to return the original package or the replacement if both turned up. I thought BN.com would either locate the package and give me an estimated time of arrival or send a replacement.
     When  BN.com replied, the rep said it “expected” the package to arrive on or about Tuesday, Feb. 21, which could be construed as six business days after shipping, since Monday, Feb. 20, was President’s Day.
     On Tuesday, Feb. 21, the package did not arrive. BN.com had suggested I check with the post office at this point, so I did. They could not tell me if the package had arrived, if it was lost, or anything except that if it was shipped when claimed, it should arrive by the end of the week, Saturday, Feb. 25. (Maybe USPS was backed up due to Valentine’s Day and the President’s Day holiday, or by budget and staff cuts.)
     On Wednesday, Feb. 22,  BN.com sent me a customer survey, wondering if its customer service department had resolved my problem or been helpful. I decided to respond in the negative.
Meanwhile, the Amazon.com package was also in transit, via USPS alone, and I was curious as to which package would arrive first. Amazon.com’s tracking predicted its would arrive on Monday, Feb. 27. Both packages were now allegedly at the local post office.
     On Friday, Feb. 24, both packages arrived.
     So, to recap: An order to BN.com arrived after 14 days/9 business, three days later than its estimate, while an order to Amazon.com only took eight days/five business days, three days earlier than its estimate.
     Was this the fault of BN.com or of the USPS? It seems to be the fault of BN.com's demented practice of dividing shipping between two separate shippers. I asked service@BN.com why this was done, but received no answer.
     How long would the BN.com order have taken if I had known to choose express delivery? If I get another 50 percent off coupon, I might give it a try, but I’ll still “expect” it to take two weeks. That way, if it arrives any sooner,  I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Otherwise, as long the costs are equal, I’ll choose Amazon.com.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

All Wound-Up: Criticisms of Paolo Bacigalupi’s 'The Windup Girl'

     Everybody has an opinion, and, thanks to the rise of email, texts, tweets and instant messages, that opinion can be all over the blogosphere in seconds. That doesn’t mean we have to lend them much credence.
     When it comes to reviewing a book, the minimum requirement ought to be that you actually read the whole book, not stop after three pages or 20 or 80. If you can’t manage to finish the book, that’s fine, that’s what free will is all about, but you’ve forfeited the right to “review” it.
     If you’ve stopped after finding a factual error, you can point that out, impugn the author’s research or thoroughness, even suggest perhaps the author lacks intelligence, or honesty, if you believe the error is intentional. 
     If you stop because a philosophical point offends you such that you cannot continue, you may write about that, but it’s not a “review.” 
     If the work is fiction, you aren’t even allowed to impugn the intelligence, integrity or decency of the author because you can’t know if that’s what the author personally believes or espouses, and you can’t be sure the author doesn’t refute or demonstrate the error of that point later on.
     You can even disagree with the book on the basis of a disputed interpretation of “fact,” such as that Edward De Vere, the earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays ascribed to William Shakespeare, so long as you acknowledge at the start that you are an Oxfordian; if readers disagree with your premise, they can stop reading and move along, or choose to be irritated and continue.
     What’s put this topic in my mind, and now on this blog, is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I thought it was one of the finest science fiction novels I’ve read in the past five years, possibly longer. It’s also one of the most feted, winning all of the major science fiction awards for the year it was published, as well as earning a spot on Time magazine’s top 10 fiction books of the year. A vocal minority of critics, however, takes extreme umbrage with the book and its author. 
Cover art photo from Nightshade Books
      The Windup Girl is set in a future Earth with depleted oil resources, affected by global warming and genetically modified (GM) food plagues. Energy and uncontaminated food are therefore in short supply. Bacigalupi explored this world in a couple of his earlier short stories (collected in Pump Six and Other Stories), one set in the U.S. and one in Asia. For Windup Girl, Bacigalupi (who majored in East Asian Studies and traveled in Asia) moves the action to Thailand. In interviews, he’s explained this choice: Thailand is the only nation in Asia that was never  colonized by the West. Also, it is below sea level, so would be faced with tremendous difficulties if the ocean levels rose (in the novel, they built dams).
     Bacigalupi explores this world with multiple characters, chief of whom are:
     Anderson Lake is a Western “calorie man” and operative of AgriGen, a Western GM company. He’s there purportedly to run a kinetic spring factory (one of the odd things about the book is that one of the main power sources is from tightly wound springs, coiled by GM elephant-type creatures called “megadonts”), but actually to find uncontaminated food sources to exploit (the GM companies engineered the food plagues so people would have to buy their resistant GM seeds, but the plagues mutated and got out of hand), in particular Thailand’s seed banks. He’s the first character we meet.
     Tan Hock Seng is a Malayasian expatriate who used to be a wealthy business man in his home country, but is now an undocumented worker and manager of the spring factory.
     Emiko, the windup girl, is described on the publisher’s website as “an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich.”
     Kanya Chirathivat is a member of the Environment Ministry, charged with protecting Thailand from contamination by outside food sources that might spread the GM plagues. She is promoted to head of the ministry when Lake’s employers persuade the government to eliminate her predecessor, who was a bit too zealous in his duties.
     This is a complex story, without a traditional “hero” per se, just people trying to survive under difficult circumstances, succumbing to expedient but immoral means at times. The story is about the struggle for each character’s soul, Thailand’s soul, and the world’s.
     To what do the Windup Girl heretics object? With some, it’s the science (they don’t believe the springs are realistic or credible), or the politics (“Global warming propaganda!”), but the vast majority of the dissenters find fault with a Western writer setting his bleak future novel in Asia, making the windup girl herself a sort of android geisha, and to the character of Anderson Lake, a white Westerner, who (since he’s the first character we meet) is seen by some of them as the viewpoint character. A fair number of women object to the rape, too, stopping just short of saying no man should write about women being raped.
     One especially vituperative and infantile blogger (but with a large vocabulary), who goes by the name “acrackedmoon,” blasts Bacigalupi for many reasons, including that the supposedly Thai language excerpts in the book aren’t correct or even intelligible, but also for his general depiction of Thailand. The blog name is Requires Only That You Hate, and it’s not clear to me if the name refers to her, her readers or her targets, but she’s certainly hateful. She frequently uses all caps, so it seems like she’s shouting. Her hate is directed not only at Bacigalupi but at anyone who liked the book, particularly if they accept its depiction of Asia without extensively researching it or talking to Thai and Malaysian people before deciding if they liked it, or in any way disagrees with her opinion:
     “Bacigalupi is praised throughout the seething mass of suck that is SF/F fandom for his imaginative, authentic portrayal of Thailand. Nobody, not a single one, has ever contested this: it’s emblematic of how thoroughly the view of my country and culture has been shaped by condescending expats, “correspondents” and those gap-year backpacker scum. This is where I’m going to state right off that I judge harshly anyone who subscribes to this opinion regarding The Wind-Up Girl, since it shows that you have little clue about Thailand and have no interest in finding out more, but feel at liberty to pronounce how something is authentic and wonderful and culturally rich anyway: just like Bacigalupi you are a supercilious tourist, an ignorant outsider, and always you will remain so. You are not learned, you are not worldly, you have not a single solitary idea about anything and for this you should feel not at peace with yourself but deeply, painfully, incredibly ashamed every minute of every hour.”
     Wow. That’s despite the fact that this takes place in the future, and many of the “errors” she objects to could have been caused by or during the interim, and that it is a novel, not nonfiction and definitely not a documentary. She may have some valid factual criticisms, but she isn’t really trying to persuade fans of the book; she’s trying to bully them. She says she is of Thai birth and descent, and therefore anyone who’s Western has no right to challenge her criticisms (the old “ ‘Shut up,’ he explained” argument). She isn’t trying to reason, just to reach out to like-minded haters.
     If Bacigalupi’s Thai is inaccurate, I’m disappointed, but, by itself, it doesn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the book.
     Other critics are less incoherently angry, but still upset over the oddest things.
     Jaymee Goh (“Jha”) at Beyond Victoriana was livid that the Western “calorie man” was examining a fruit and didn’t know what it was called, when she clearly recognized it from the description as a rambutan. (Well, that was the point, that he didn’t know, and finding uncontaminated and unfamiliar foods was his job.) 
     Also, having been told the book was steampunk (it isn’t, although it shares a few iconic elements with steampunk, including a dirigible), Goh was puzzled as to how this alternate history version of the world came about in the 19th century (that’s when most steampunk is set).
     Jha also objects, as an Asian and as a woman, to the depiction of Thailand:
     “I hate it when authours do that to the culture they are writing whilst not belonging to it. It is one thing to do it for a dominant country like Britain or America, because there will be many, many positive depictions of them to compensate for other purely negative depictions. Thailand does not get much exposure by way of literature …”
     Again, this is a future fictional Thailand, and it’s not such a negative portrayal. The world has gone to hell, and Bacigalupi has portrayed how that affected the U.S. in an earlier story. Thailand has fared better, and the Thai people in the book are mostly presented positively, except for a few foreign devils and collaborators.
     Karen Burnham at SF Signal objects for what seems to me a far sillier reason:
     “How does this post-apocalyptic Thailand illuminate Bacigalupi’s message? If we are meant to be shocked and dismayed at the sheer quantity of abuses, on levels of sex, gender, power, class, race, ethnicity and any other form you can think of, why not write a book about people living in these conditions today? Why not write non-fiction, or make a documentary?”
     In the comment section, Dino Mascolo rightly objects:
     “At this point in the review Karen is no longer talking about the book that was actually written. And the only answer to this, in my opinion, is to say, ‘If you think a book like that should be written then write it’. The rest of the review is excellent, even though I disagree with it.”
     And “February Four,” a Malaysian, commented at Good Reads that he stopped reading the book fairly early on for a nationalist reason:
     “Here is my biggest problem with this book: the name of my country is MALAYSIA. Not Malaya.
     I hadn’t noticed that while reading the book, but is that seriously his “biggest problem” with the book? That would be like me reviewing a book titled “Steven Bitsoli, the Plagiarizing Terrorist,” and saying my biggest problem was that they spelled my first name Steven.
     For the record, in an interview with Bacigalupi in Electric Velocipede, quoted at SFF World (I haven’t seen the actual interview), Bacigalupi said he set the book in Thailand because “I’ve been to Thailand several times. One of my early trips stuck with me enough that I couldn’t get it out of my head. When I was thinking about writing the book, I set it in Thailand, and then tried to move it elsewhere because I was daunted at the task of writing about a country where I didn’t have enough grounding. I ended up doing a lot of research, spending some more time over there, and honestly, still feeling like I didn’t have enough grounding. But, you know, writing is an act of hubris. So I went ahead anyway.”
     As provincial and strange as I find many of the criticisms, Niall Harrison at  Strange Horizons sums it up well when he wrote of the The Windup Girl:
     “It is written with a feral conviction, and it provides fertile ground for discussion of many kinds, by many kinds of readers. There is little in it that, like Emiko, will not yield a different interpretation from a different perspective, and little in it that does not compell a reaction from a reader.”
     What do you think? Let me know. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Who is John Carter?

     Fans of “Atlas Shrugged” are fond of asking, “Who is John Galt?” Many cinema watchers may now be asking, “Who is John Carter?” Ads for the forthcoming (March 9) science fiction adventure film “John Carter,” starring Taylor Kitsch, are popping up with increasing frequency, but I suspect few viewers know who he is. From the title alone, you wouldn’t even guess it was science fiction, unless you’d already read his adventures.
AP Photo/Frank Connor, Disney Enterprises
     John Carter, a former Confederate soldier transported via astral projection to Mars, was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his first novel: “Under the Moons of Mars” (retitled “A Princess of Mars” for book publication) in 1912. The story was science fiction, an adventure, a romance and a big hit in its original magazine publication. That he isn’t better-known today is partly because he was overshadowed by the hero of Burroughs third novel: “Tarzan of the Apes.”
     Though Burroughs was a novice writer when he wrote this book, he was already a master storyteller. The book opens with a statement by Carter’s nephew, 21 years after Carter’s “death” and interment in a special tomb that can only be opened from the inside, with the bulk of the book Carter's story in his own words.  
     On Mars, Carter discovers he has greater strength and jumping ability due to Mars’ lighter gravity (one of the reasons given for Superman's abilities on Earth 26 years later). That’s fortunate, because he soon has to fight 15-foot-tall, four-armed green Martians and similarly sized and armed white apes, often unarmed or only with a sword. He also finds some human-proportioned “red” Martians (about the hue of Native Americans), including the beautiful Dejah Thoris, a princess of the nation of Helium.
     Burroughs’ Mars, known by its inhabitants as “Barsoom” (they call Earth “Jasoom”), is a once flourishing planet, now mostly desert, with remnants of super-science (flying ships) co-existing with medieval weaponry. Even the planet's oxygen atmosphere is artificially manufactured and maintained. The first book ends with the atmosphere failing, and Carter racing to save it. Before he learns if he succeeded or failed, he’s drawn back to Earth.
     (Of course, the film may not follow this scenario too closely; a 2009 direct-to-DVD version, titled "Princess of Mars," made Carter a modern-day sniper in Afghanistan.)
      I first read the books in the 1970s when the Science Fiction Book Club offered an omnibus edition of “The Gods of Mars” (book 2) and “The Warlord of Mars” (book 3), with a wraparound painted cover and black and white interior illustrations by Frank Frazetta. (For some reason, they waited a few years before getting around to “A Princess of Mars,” but eventually produced two-in-one editions of the rest of the series with illustrations by Frazetta illustrations, with a final volume illustrated by Richard Corben.)
     I enjoyed the books as a teen (I also was fond of Conan), though I haven't looked at them much since. I think I'd enjoy a well-done film version, but I'm not sure this is it. From the previews, it looks more like Conan meets Predator on Dune. The green Martians look like high-quality CGI though, more "Avatar" than "The Hulk."

     (For an earlier film proposal trailer by director Kerry Conran, with some demo animation and special effects, augmented by paintings and drawings of some of the main characters, visit Blastr.)
     Burroughs wrote nine novels of Mars, five novelettes and a novella of disputed provenance (Burroughs is listed as author, but it is widely believed to have been written by his son, Jack). In all, eleven books were published. The first five seem to be in the public domain, with multiple editions now available – paperback, hardcover and e-book, with or without illustrations, graphic novels and even a calendar -- to tie in with the film and to celebrate the centenary of the character.
     There’s even a new anthology, just published, allowing modern authors to play with the characters: “Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom,“ edited by John Joseph Adams (Simon & Schuster, $16.99).
Cover art photo from John Joseph Adams.com
      For more information and art, visit the John Carter of Mars website, read or listen to the first five books at Project Gutenberg or visit a bookstore and buy one of the books already.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Forgotten books remembered

The Man Who Wrote the Book
By Erik Tarloff
(Crown, 2000)
     Every reader must have a list of books that they loved, but which disappeared without a trace: no paperback reprint, no e-book, no movie adaptation.
     Sometimes the reason is a terrible cover, sometimes it’s bad timing, most of the time it’s inexplicable (although you might suggest that the reason is that the book is terrible).
     One of my favorite recent (as in the past 15-20 years; “recent” stretches the older we get) such titles is Erik Tarloff’s “The Man Who Wrote the Book.” 
     I found the book at Borders Books in Farmington Hills, after a meeting of a singles reading group. I’d read no review of it, and was completely unfamiliar with the author (he currently writes for the Atlantic magazine, and had published one previous book, “Face Time,” which I haven’t read), but the title (what man? what book?) and cover caught my eye,
     Beneath the title was a retro-style, pulpy paperback cover, with a reclining, lingerie-clad female such as Gil Elvgren might have painted, and the title “Every Inch a Lady” by E.A. Peau; “Peau,” of course, is pronounced “Poe,” so that caught my eye, too.
     The plot concerned a once promising poet, now teaching English literature at a small, academically unexceptional Christian college. Tenure seems unlikely, his on-again, off-again relationship with the dean’s repressed daughter is going nowhere, when an old college buddy invites him to L.A. over spring break. Said buddy turns out to be a  publisher of pornographic literature now, who gives him a contract to write a "dirty" book for $5,000. Inspired by his vacation experience, he does. To keep his identity a secret from his employers and colleagues, he adopts the “E.A. Peau” pseudonym. Then the book turns out to be a surprise, breakout hit, garnering mainstream reviews and accolades, and prompting a nationwide hunt for E.A. Peau’s true identity.
     Parts of the novel read like a Penthouse letter, but mostly it’s well-written and funny, and there are numerous side characters and complications. Another member of my reading group (a woman) borrowed it and also loved it. I hoped it would be a hit, and that Tarloff would write more in a similar vein.
     Alas, as I already revealed, it went nowhere. Although it has a four-star average on Amazon.com, it only has 31 reviews total, and is long out-of-print (although it is still available there through its associated sellers, for between 1 cent and $8, plus shipping). Tarloff has published no books since.
     Maybe it was too dirty for a general audience, not dirty enough for a prurient audience.  Maybe the academic intrigue only had resonance for a former English major such as myself. 
     I’m not suggesting that everyone reading this blog should go out and buy this book, or even read it (though there is a copy at the Sterling Heights Public Library, also available to members of the Suburban Library Cooperative), but if you have a favorite book that no one else knows and that didn’t do well, tell me about it.