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Children’s Crusade: Memoirs of a Teenage Radical by Philip de Gouveia

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Evie, a phenomenally bright but socially marginalised fifteen year-old, has had it with Western Civilization. Self-educated in the ideas of the Luddites, Mao and T.E. Lawrence, she wants to launch a mission against technology and the damage she believes it has wrought on the human race. She’s taken a look at human history and decided it’s time things changed. For good. But can she get her mobile-addicted classmates to join with her?
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This 45 minute audiodrama was originally broadcast as one of BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Dramas in February 2011, and is now available on Audible & iTunes; de Gouveia’s play is rather more political than most of those produced by the BBC, to the point of essentially being a radical manifesto aimed at youth.

de Gouveia’s central thesis is that technology has taken over our lives, that we are driven by it rather than driving it; that we are, to use the catchphrase of our protagonist Evie, the tools of our tools. The teenage Evie is a radical anti-technologist who has read Marx, Freud, and more, and understood it, and in de Gouveia’s hands this is not only believable but very compelling; she is the intellectual rebel outcast, the girl who stands in the corner of the playground and proselytises her low-tech philosophy to no one because she doesn’t know how to make friends. Her soliloquies are articulate and fascinatingly contrarian – theives as critiquing the idea of property, for instance – although at times ill thought through (“porn makes love impossible by damaging men” is neither contrarian nor true), and her tactics rather impressively grand, growing from manipulating her mock GCSEs to create an anagram of “DEFACED” to masterminding a full civil insurrection by teenagers.

Children’s Crusade: Memoirs of a Teenage Radical renders itself surprisingly plausible by using others to mediate Evie’s message, more popular teenagers conveying it outwards; and the consequences of her increasingly dramatic resistance are not what she expects or desires, but are effective all the same – something we can recognise, perhaps, in the current demonstrations against racism in the police forces of the United States. By making teenagers not instantly acolytes of Evie, de Gouveia has the excuse to convert them and therefore us to her point of view; and by allowing them to resist her arguments, he makes us also question them, although the drama inevitably falls down on her side, marking her out as philosophically right.

It’s a well-executed 45 minutes, with only a little slack – the conversation between Evie and her father serves to suggest that rather than genuine belief, she is motivated by issues around her parents; but at the same time it ranges over a variety of issues, with a burgeoning romance between Evie and Mikey portrayed absolutely fantastically, and a range of teenage characters all shown, including the prejudice of youth (“they’re emos, it takes them half an hour to get their trousers on”) and their potential and intelligence.

All in all, despite being a little heavy-handed, de Gouveia did an excellent job with Children’s Crusade: Memoirs of a Teenage Radical, packing an awful lot into three quarters of an hour, and I heartily recommend it to you all.

Cast
Evie ….. Leah Brotherhead
Mikey ….. Luke Treadaway
Carlton ….. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Kathy ….. Georgia Groome
Heather ….. Christine Kavanagh
Stuart ….. Nicholas Boulton
Eve ….. Sally Orrock
Adam ….. Iain Batchelor

The Grass King’s Concubine by Kari Sperring

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Kari Sperring’s first novel was a finalist for the Crawford Award, a Tiptree Award Honor Book, a LOCUS Recommended First Novel, and the winner of the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Now she returns to the same amazing and atmospheric world with an entirely new story set several hundred years after the earth-shaking events of Living With Ghosts.

When a wealthy young woman, obsessed with a childhood vision of a magical Shining Palace, sets out with her true love to search for a legendary land, she discovers the devastated WorldBelow – the realm of the Grass King – and the terrifying Cadre, who take her prisoner, and demand she either restore the king’s concubine… or replace her.
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Kari Sperring’s second novel, The Grass King’s Concubine, is a much more intimate novel than her first, Living With Ghosts, in some ways, and in others much more grand in scale, with a whole cosmology in the balance; and stylistically, the two are clearly from the same author. So what does that add up to?

For a start, an incredibly corporeal novel. Sperring is deeply engaged with all the senses in this work; things are described in terms of feel, taste, smell, and touch as well as sight, and in terms of emotional feel as well; each of these tend towards lush, elaborate or detailed description, rather than impressionistic generalities, creating very precise feelings of how Sperring experiences the world of The Grass King’s Concubine. At times, this can become repetitive, as separate viewpoints encounter the same things or the same viewpoint character runs into the same thing in a different place, and gives the novel a certain plodding ponderousness, but Sperring’s descriptions of the taste of the air especially are very effective in conveying not just the physicality but also emotional resonances to that physicality, giving an additional layer to the novel.

That ponderousness is only reinforced by the languor of the plot; The Grass King’s Concubine unfolds over the course of almost five hundred pages, but much of that feels like it isn’t advancing the story much, as viewpoint characters overlap, cover the same ground as each other, and even at times repeat themselves; while certainly building up the detail in the novel it at times feels almost oppressively heavy as we read over the same scene multiple times. On the other hand, once it gets going, the two main plot strands – following Aude and the Cadre, and following Jehan and the twins (plus the twins’ memories of Marcellan) – work well in concert, building up a tension that really draws the reader through the second half of the novel.

It is unfortunate, then, that that second half bears little relation to the first half; The Grass King’s Concubine seems to start by being the novel of Aude realising how unfair the world is and coming to a sort of socialism through her exposure to the poor, but Sperring pulls back from this to instead tell the story of the Cadre and the Grass King, which is less character study and more Orphean monomyth. Either story would have been excellent, and if both had been better or more smoothly brought together, it would have been a fascinating story to read, but as it is one feels rather like it simply ends without resolution in order to give way to the other which picks up as if from nowhere, rather frustratingly.

Sperring’s real strength, then, comes in her characters. The Grass King’s Concubine has a core cast of four but a further cast including ten more major characters, and each of these is painted with beautiful attention to detail and an eye for voice. Each chapter is clear, from the style in which Sperring approaches it, whose viewpoint we are following, and each has a different sense to it, from the youth and stubborn naivete of Aude to the playful impulsiveness of the twins; hence within a few sentences we are already situated in each chapter and know the kind of voice, and kind of story, we are going to be told. Characters aren’t one-dimensional, either, even those who one might expect to be such as the elemental guardians of the Cadre; The Grass King’s Concubine complicates and challenges our expectations, in part through a very strong focus on and examination of love and the consequences – in terms of choices made, and of the impact of love itself.

In the end, The Grass King’s Concubine is a novel that weighs itself down unnecessarily, but Sperring, by bringing the reader some truly amazing characters and an interesting discussion on love, keeps one interested and makes this well worth reading.

Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine

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It takes a certain type to crew a ship that drops you seven years at a time into the Deep. Kite-class cargo ships like Menkalinan get burned-out veterans, techs who’ve been warned off-planet, medics who weren’t much good on the ground. The Gliese-D run isn’t quite the end of the line, but it’s getting there. No cachet, no rewards, no future; their trading posts get Kites full of cargo that the crew never ask questions about, because if it’s headed for Gliese-D, it’s probably something nobody wanted.

A year into the Deep, Amadis Reyes wakes up. Menkalinan is sounding the alarm; something’s wrong. The rest of the crew are dead.

That’s not even what’s wrong.
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Genevieve Valentine’s Capclave 2014 offering, Dream Houses is a limited-run printed volume; despite a whimsical-seeming cover and title, the tagline for the novella gives a clearer impression of the kind of story it is: a sort of isolation in space, disaster tale in the tradition of Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To….

The key difference is that Valentine’s protagonist is in total isolation on the cargo ship she is awoken on; the only person to survive an unknown disaster that killed the rest of the crew. The story of Dream Houses intersperses her strained relationship with her brother with the present time as she slowly succumbs to the inevitable madness brought about by isolation for years on end; this is a dark tale that revels in its darkness, a story that uses isolation to get into the head of its protagonist and really dig around there.

The twist on this is that there is a companion for Amadis, in the form of Menkalinan’s on-board AI; the way Valentine plays with the relationship between human and machine intelligences – their different understandings of the world, perspectives, and constraints – is a fascinating thing to see as it develops across the course of Dream Houses; watching the relationship change and change again, as revelation after revelation comes out, and as time passes, is beautiful to watch as it keeps shifting the story beneath one, changing the parameters subtly and less subtly with an incredibly deft hand that really conveys the tragedy and humanity of our characters.

The other strand of the story, the relationship between Amadis and her brother, is a similarly slippery one; Dream Houses jumps around in that relationship rather than taking a strict chronological approach, and again slowly unfolds the layers of the relationship back to a core defining event. As it does so it changes our perception of Amadis and her brother, each time altering how sympathetic we are to each of them, changing our understanding of their character, and completely rewriting what had gone before in a really simple yet effective way.

Dream Houses, then, is a complex and beautiful novella of interlocking parts, and Genevieve Valentine has created a really wonderful science fiction character study here.

The Just City by Jo Walton

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One day, in a moment of philosophical puckishness, the time-travelling goddess Pallas Athene decides to put Plato to the test and create the Just City. She locates the City on a Mediterranean island and populates it with over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult from all eras of history . . . along with some handy robots from the far human future.

Meanwhile, Apollo – stunned by the realization that there are things that human beings understand better than he does – has decided to become a mortal child, head to Athene’s City and see what all the fuss is about.

Then Socrates arrives, and starts asking troublesome questions.

What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

This review will contain SPOILERS
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I am a Classicist (well, ancient historian) by academic training, so when Tor said they were bringing out a book based on the idea of Plato’s Republic (perhaps his most famos dialogue) and featuring among other characters Sokrates, Athene and Apollo, I jumped at the chance to review Jo Walton’s The Just City.

That may have been a mistake; that training is the only prism through which it was possible for me to read the novel, and that resulted in a certain level of cognitive dissonance at times.

The Just City is a novel about consent, about – as it puts it – equal significance and volition; choice, and the importance of equal weight being placed on the choices of all parties. It opens with Apollo asking Athene why Daphne would prefer to become a tree to having sex with him; when her response is “volition and equal significance”, he decides to incarnate to learn about these things – and is sold to the Just City, founded by Athene with people taken from history who had prayed to Athene to live in Plato’s Republic. Of course, Plato’s blueprint being rather incomplete, there are areas around the edge where things have been changed, and it is founded on Santorini so that no evidence will be left of Athene’s experiment except stories of Atlantis.

So far, so good; the problem comes when actually looking at the Just City. Built and maintained by robots brought back from the future, it is full of such anachronisms to Plato – the Republic was written before, among other things, antibiotics and safe birth, yet Walton treats both of these as a given, and no woman appears, in the three clusters of births in the novel, to die in childbirth, despite the reality of the ancient world; similarly, Santorini is presented as a haven where all resources are present, from marble (without any apparent quarries) to cotton and wool, despite the reality of the uneven resource distribution across the Mediterranean and, indeed, the lack of certain resources completely. The Just City could be forgiven those problems, perhaps, if it even acknowledged them and simply allowed Athene to smooth them out; as it is, instead, Walton simply pretends these issues do not exist and are not a problem.

A further, and significant, issue is anachronism of attitudes. It is perhaps inevitable in a novel like this that some characters will have anachronistic beliefs and attitudes but at the same time, the extent to which Walton engages in such practices is extreme. The Sokrates of The Just City is perfectly willing to debate with, and consider as intellectual equals, women, and believes in the standard understanding of the Greek gods; given the attitudes of his time and culture towards women – which we have no evidence he did not share – and the very reason he was sentenced to death, this seems to be a significant break with any meaningful sense of history. Meanwhile, later Romans – including, in fact, Cicero himself – are presented as having absolutely no time for the opinions of women; as if Athens in the fifth century had more respect for women and their views than Rome in the first century. The Just City takes this to further levels of anachronistic attitudes in its discussion about slavery; while obviously a novel about consent, it still seems inappropriate and unseemly to suggest that slavery in Athens was less common a status than that of freedmen, and that it was really rather liberal (p240). The way The Just City constantly backs away from the brutal reality of ancient slavery is rather horrifying, and while it is good to note that Walton does not do so with American slavery, erasing the awful history of slavery in the slave societies of the Classical world is rather more than distasteful, it is horrendous.

Walton also appears to have failed to have done some basic anthropological research; in response to Plato’s model of marriage and childbirth, she treats random assignation as abhorrent and doomed to fail, and the idea of raising children in common as incredibly hurtful to women. The Just City treats it as if there is some mystical bond that has been true in all societies and cultures across history between mother and child that requires personal raising; this is troubling given historical communities that have engaged in perfectly healthy common-rearing policies and societies where the mother had no engagement with their children until their later years, and Walton is erasing that reality completely.

Finally, Walton’s portrayal of Sokrates is almost Platonic in its hero-worship of him. Sokrates is portrayed as incredibly wise, knowledgeable on every subject, able to pick up anything – including Arabic numerals (called zeroic numerals here, for some reason) and the idea of artificial intelligence – in mere moments, and always able to talk to anyone and convince anyone to let him do what he wishes. While some of that makes sense in the context of a society of Platonists, The Just City treats Plato’s portrayal of Socrates as an incredible human being as unquestionable truth, made most clear at the close of the novel where Sokrates debates Athene on the Just City and the idea of justice itself; Sokrates, as in Plato, lays rhetorical traps, but for the reader they are obvious and poor, and that Walton’s Athene cannot engage with him seems to be suggesting that Sokrates is a better debater than the goddess of wisdom herself, a rather ridiculous assertion.

I have mostly argued with this book, and that’s for good reason; it’s a book begging to be argued with – but on the evidence provided in The Just City, Jo Walton has no time for anyone who argues with her views in it, and that’s a real problem. This is an interesting book, but it’s seriously let down by Walton’s inability to hold to the problems of history and reality.

DoI: Review based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, Tor Books. The Just City is released in the US & UK on January 13th.

A Passage of Stars by Alis A. Rasmussen

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Lilyaka Hae Ransome answered to no man. Born to a powerful clan on the storm-wracked colony world of Unruli, she’d grown up wilful, independent, strong. The only person who held her respect was the enigmatic man called Heredes, who tutored her in history and the martial arts.

So when alien bounty hunters kidnapped Heredes, she threw away her heritage and set out after him on an awesome odyssey through the unknown reaches of space.
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Alis A. Rasmussen, now better known by her pseudonym Kate Elliott, entered the science fiction scene in 1990 with this, her second novel; in the following two and a half decades, she has since written over 20 more books, including two novels and a short story collection coming out in 2015. So how does this early offering hold up in the second decade of the 21st century?

In some ways, A Passage to the Stars is a coming of age story; Lilyaka – Lily – may be 25, but that is below the age of adulthood in her society, and she doesn’t have any sense of a path or of her future; a large part of the novel’s arc is about her coming to terms with herself, and with those around her – moving from being a drifter without any real anchors to an emotionally stable, solid sense of self to having a much more concrete idea of who she is and where she is going. That renders this an absolute bildungsroman, this first book of the trilogy having a very personal arc as well as a broader one; Rasmussen handles the combination of the two arcs beautifully, ensuring plot and character-development go hand in hand, and neither feels unnatural.

The rest of the cast are less centred in the novel; they have huge impact on the events of the plot and on Lily herself, but they aren’t themselves impacted in the same way – Kyosti remains mysterious and unknown, although the mysteries around him are increasingly being revealed; Heredes is perpetually the father-figure for Lily, protective and somewhat aloof; and the remainder of the ensemble tend to not even remain long enough for significant impact, largely passing through the life of Lily and impacting on her, rather than us seeing much of the impact of her on them in A Passage of Stars.

Rasmussen’s plot is harder to explain in terms of science fiction; it feels almost like an epic fantasy plot, in fact, in its approach. Started by Lily’s witnessing of the kidnapping of her mentor, Heredes, it proceeds somewhat episodically in a series of dramatic encounters with different powerful forces in the universe who are in conflict with each other and who each have their own interest in Lily and misconceptions about her. A Passage of Stars manages to make this feel organic and natural, as we travel from place to place and see Lily meeting these key figures in the Highroad universe; it feels a little like this first book is setting all its pieces in place for the real events of the trilogy, making sure the reader is introduced to the key players and factors which will come up later, tied together by the aforementioned coming of age story for Lily.

A Passage of Stars, in some ways, feels very modern for a 24-year-old novel; in a world where SF doesn’t acknowledge the agency of women often enough, it is a novel with a female protagonist and a significant female cast; in a world where SF can’t handle sexualities outside heterosexuality, Rasmussen has included a lesbian couple, open relationships, polyamory and indeed asexuality, something that even now is very uncommon to see in SF. It’s really refreshing to see the way that Rasmussen doesn’t see this as strange or unexpected or abnormal. On the other hand, the racial commentary, in the form of the “tattoos” or Ridanis, is rather heavy-handed and obvious; worthwhile perhaps, but A Passage of Stars somewhat falls down on this front in making it a little too blunt, though with a Ridani character joining the main cast at the close of the novel hopefully this will be further addressed in later novels.

In the end, A Passage of Stars is a very enjoyable first entry in an SF trilogy which holds up very well today; Rasmussen’s approach to storytelling centres characters in such a way that they remain readable well after their publication. I recommend the novel.

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Keeper by Greg Rucka

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For Atticus Kodiak, professional bodyguard, the object is to keep people alive, and there is no margin for error. Dr. Felice Romero hires Atticus and his team of security specialists to protect her and her daughter, Katie. As administrator of the Women’s LifeCare Clinic, she’s accumulated a thick file of anonymous death threats. With the approach of the Common Ground Conference, designed to forge a compromise between pro-choice and pro-life groups and end violent protest, the threats have escalated in number and ugliness. Even as he defends the doctor’s right to speak, Atticus knows that protecting the doctor at the conference will be logistical nightmare. Soon it becomes not only a matter of keeping her safe during the conference, but to keep everyone, including his own team, alive until the conference.
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I largely know Greg Rucka’s work as one of a group of comics writers, also including Ed Brubaker, who really brought noir sensibilities into modern superhero stories in works like Gotham Central; so going back to his first novel, I expected something noirish and interestingly crunchy. Keeper gave me one of those in spades. This review will contain SPOILERS for some major plot-points in Keeper.

The one it gave me was crunchy. This is a thriller-type novel about a man acting as a bodyguard for a woman and her daughter. So far, so mindless. But the woman is an abortion provider scheduled to speak at a conference trying to find common ground between pro-choice and anti-abortion groups, receiving death threats and in fear for her safety; the bodyguard meets her because he has just taken his girlfriend into the clinic for an abortion; and the daughter has Down’s Syndrome and is one of the best depictions of that in fiction I have ever seen. Keeper doesn’t flinch from this; while it’s clear that Rucka is himself pro-choice, Kodiak has doubts and those allow Rucka to discuss the debate around abortion. Similarly, the violence of clinic pickets and the disturbing tactics used by anti-abortion campaigners to harass and persecute abortion providers are laid out in bare and grim detail, without any sympathy for them.

That grim detail is something that carries across the whole book, but is sustained by Rucka’s emotional honesty. Keeper sees Rucka portray bigotry towards a teenage girl with Down’s Syndrome; sees racist and sexist abuse poured out at her and her mother; and, in Chapter 10, about a third of the way through the novel, in one of the most heartrending and brutal passages I have ever read, Rucka kills the girl. It’s something which has consequences for the characters and the reader that last for the rest of the book; it sets a painful, harsh and truthful tone about the realities of the situation. Emotionally, it hurts, and this reader had to stop reading for a while at the end of that chapter in order to recover; Rucka refuses to pull his punches, and it works.

Really, that’s what is at the core of Keeper; refusal to pull punches. Every character is fleshed out, human, and reacts painfully realistically to the tragic and horrendous events of the story; watching Rucka write Dr Romero as she goes through the various traumas and tragedies of the novel, and how she reacts to those around her; the humanness of her reactions to those who slip through the net Kodiak casts, but also to Kodiak and his associates, is really acutely observed and speaks to a lot of empathy and research on Rucka’s part. That Rucka doesn’t have the same sympathy for the frontman of the anti-abortion group is very clear; he is portrayed as not caring about the consequences of his words, as a fanatic perfectly willing to incite (although not participate in) violence, driven as much by misogyny as a genuine anti-abortion faith. Keeper does, in that regard, get a little close to Rucka preaching his own beliefs, but at the same time there are sympathetically written anti-abortion campaigners, and Rucka balances that reasonably well.

Keeper, for all that it isn’t a political thriller in the conventional sense, is a very political thriller. As much about the politics of abortion and the vile tactics of the anti-abortion movement in the US as it is anything else, this is a really emotionally brutal novel, and an incredibly strong debut from Rucka; it’s no surprise to see how good his later work has been if this is where he started.

ESSAY: The Value of Art

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“Art” is a broad category, especially for a blog which largely discusses literature – so let us be up front that novels are a form of art, but a peculiar one. As such, I intend to start by setting out some general principles, and then applying them to the valuing of novels and literature more specifically; I am sure the arguments I intend to apply there also apply to other forms of art, such as film and comics, but I don’t know as much about the nature of the contracts and ins-and-outs in those instances. It’s also worth noting that a certain amount of acceptance of the underlying realities of a capitalist world are implied by the arguments of this post, despite a personal disbelief in their actual merits.

The price of artwork is often determined by a combination of the cost of materials involved in the creation of that art – especially true of jewelry and textile art – and a degree of standard capitalist supply-and-demand balance; while each artwork is unique, that does not mean they are not also to some extent exchangeable for each other. This is true despite the huge range of pricing one can see in any artform; this is in part driven by perceived status (an Etsy seller rarely has the cachet to charge the prices standard at top-of-the-range high street jewelry stores, despite in many cases being of at least equivalent standard).

Part of the pricing of art by dealers is often neglected by direct sellers, and it is in fact the most important part: time-cost. To use the standard parlance, there is an opportunity cost in creating art; it takes time, and that time cannot then be spent on other things. For instance, two hours spent producing a pencil sketch of a cathedral are two hours that cannot be spent producing a watercolour of a picturesque bridge, and this is a calculus that commercial artists consistently have to deal with; time spent on non-creative work is seen as priceable, but often, the work of artists is not.

This is especially true of the work of novelists, as discussion about the appropriate pricing of ebooks demonstrates. Ebook pricing debate largely focuses on the difference in “value” between an electronic and a physical, paper book; and that difference is in the physical artefact and the logistics involved in getting that physical artefact from printers’ warehouses, to distributors’, to the homes of individual consumers (via, in many cases, the shelves of bookshops) – a nonzero cost involving employee time and physical resources (space, among others) at each and every step. Charles Stross’ series of posts about publishing, archived here, explains why the cost of producing ebooks is actually very close to the cost of producing physical volumes; but that still leaves out one crucial point.

That is the payment of authors. Typically, authors are paid advances by publishers; Tobias Buckell’s survey of authors, albeit conducted a decade ago, suggested that the average advance for a first novel (hence, the novel of a writer of low expected sales potential – the advance reflecting the “value” of the work produced, not huge sales) was around $5,000. That’s a nice round number, so it’s what this post will work with to keep things simple. If we assume a book, from start to finish (including edits), takes around 200 hours to write (that’s a little over an hour a day for six months), the publishing industry values the work of an author as a moderately skilled job – around $25/hour (if an author works full time on their book, that is around 5 weeks work; it’s the equivalent of a comfortable annual salary of around $50,000).

The reason we pay what we do for a book is that we’re paying that money. We’re paying the author for their novel; initially for that basic time input of 200 hours and then a performance-based bonus (royalties). The big benefit brought by publishers is spreading that time out across all buyers of the novel; one commissioning individual does not have to pay $5,000 for a piece of art, instead, each buyer of the book pays $10 for it, but the author still receives their dues for creating art, something which – as aforementioned – is valuable labour.

So let’s stop slamming publishers for overcharging for books, and start thanking them for saving us from having to pay $5,000 for that copy of Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear or Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison or Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie or Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Because that distribution of cost is what makes it possible for writers to write full time… and for readers like me to buy books at all.