About andrew

Andrew James Cornell reads, writes, sometimes sells books and cooks. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the differences between types of dashes. He will also lecture anyone who stands still on the importance of Dune (the book), 2001 (the movie), about how under-appreciated Paul Bowles and Italo Calvino are, and the correct way to make an Old Fashioned cocktail.

90 Percent of YA is Crap

Malinda Lo has written an articulate blog post on the way the internet continually reengages with the question of why adults read young adult literature. She sets about “unpacking” the various approaches to the question focusing on reception theory and shared cultural interpretations. I find her post both illuminating and well stated, but I’m also slightly irritated by its necessity. I find the question essentially not worth asking.

I am an unwavering proponent of Sturgeon’s Law.

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
—Theodore Sturgeon, March 1958 issue of Venture

But I also believe there is an important idea that should follow his revelation: crap can be fun and fun shouldn’t be taken lightly.

To me, the answer to the question of why an adult reads YA breaks down into two interrelated parts:

  1. 10% of YA is self-evidently as good as any other literature and should therefore be read by pretty much anyone; and
  2. Specific kinds of YA crap might appeal to any adult based on personal taste.

I might personally find Twilight or The Hunger Games derivative or annoying, but I can’t really condemn an adult for enjoying them while I have Battle Royale sitting on my bookshelf next to War and Peace.

At some point in our intellectual development, we all need to embrace the possibility that art can be objectively good* (or at least well executed), or historically important or culturally relevant and still not appeal to us personally.

I can intellectually assess Battle Royale to be a little junky as literature and still vastly prefer it to War and Peace, which is clearly a magnificent work of art, yet bored me senseless.

The concept of adolescence as a stage in human development didn’t really exist prior to the last half of the 19th Century. And I think it’s fair to question how much of the ghettoization of young adult literature as a genre—much like the divisions between science fiction, fantasy and horror—is a product of 20th Century marketing rather than an organic response to the preferences of readers.

That any reader would question the value of reading something like Ursula K. LeGuin‘s masterful Earthsea books because they’re often shelved with the YA is absurd to me. And the Earthsea books resemble something like the YA favourite Harry Potter series in that they are also made of words written down and distributed to readers—but the qualitative similarities thin out past that point despite some rudimentary plotting coincidences [coughschoolforwizardscough].**

As to the question of why cultural groups might embrace certain specific kinds of YA crap, you are more than welcome to explore the interesting ideas contained in reception theory and forms of groupthink. But before we wind down those academic paths, can we not separate out the really good 10% of YA first?

Don’t all genre classifications become immaterial when the quality of a given book rises to a certain level? Do we really care that The Lord of the Rings is so-called high fantasy or Brave New World is dystopian science fiction? Aren’t they both still great books for young adults regardless of where they get shelved?

We—the chattering class—probably need to spend more time trying to critically assess which books, out of the mass of those currently marketed as YA, are going to eventually be recognized as part of that all-important 10%,*** and stop judging people for enjoying crap.

——
*I’m asking the postmodernists and post-structuralists to just roll with me here, but I’m aware you’re out there and I have some sympathy with your point of view—some.
**Try not to bag on me about this point, the Harry Potter books are clearly very entertaining and I’m not really accusing J.K. of ripping off Ursula—being influenced by, maybe.
***Raise your hands if you’ve read The House of the Scorpion.

“…more gravel than pearls…”

Despite the evident reluctance to embrace new technology my last post might suggest, I’m cautiously optimistic about Oyster‘s attempt to build a Netflix for books.

I currently consume about twenty percent of my reading material electronically on an iPad, and I’m relatively comfortable with the medium. I found long stretches of reading a little unpleasant at first, but I’ve gotten over that challenge—largely because of using the iPad for business travel. Now that I’m acclimated, I almost enjoy my little screen as much as a book—almost.

For me, the decision of whether or not to buy a book electronically involves an instinctive (read: half-assed) calculus based on the following questions:

  1. Will I need to travel soon? (If yes, how small is a cheap paperback of said book?)
  2. How readily available is a cheap paperback?
  3. Did it just come out and can I not wait for a cheap used paperback?
  4. Does the method of printing & production greatly enhance the aesthetic experience of reading said book?

The intrinsic aesthetic value of the book still factors into my decision-making more often than you might expect, but not as often with novels per se. Novels I usually just want to read in the most accessible and convenient method available to me, which is often a cheap, used paperback I’ve acquired, or been loaned by a friend. There are certainly exceptions—lavishly illustrated volumes or signed copies or gifts—but they’re definitely exceptions. I have a small collection of signed first editions, but I didn’t really buy them as reading copies.

Cookbooks and art books, though, I almost always prefer a printed copy. I’m a sucker for fancy paper, glossy photos and intricate illustration. I have favourite fonts.*

So, based on this highly subjective “process,” the ebooks I pay money for are often recent novels I’m eager to read. Most of the China Miéville I’ve read—which is everything but his dissertation and latest YA—I purchased electronically the day it came out or soon after.

I also read a lot of free classics on my iPad; the most recent being The Metamorphosis by Kafka. And here we get to my one big concern with a monthly subscription to Oyster: there are a lot of free ebooks out there.

I love Netflix, but that’s because there is a lot of content on Netflix (Canada) that’s to my taste—television shows I never got to see before, obscure or weird movies, British stuff—but I have friends who dropped it after a month because the content wasn’t fresh enough for them (particularly the Canadian version of Netflix can be a little lean on new releases.) It helps to have a taste for B-movies, for example. What I don’t need from Netflix is every episode of Star Trek, because every version already airs endlessly on other channels.

What I don’t need for a monthly subscription from Oyster is classics I can find for free via multiple other channels. When I see, in sample images on the Oyster blog, the latest volume of Best American Short Stories, I’m intrigued. When I see Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London—a book I love dearly—I am less impressed.

——
*Futura (Kubrick’s favourite font) and Garamond especially.

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future”

Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
–Isaac Asimov

It’s hard for me not to have a negative reaction to the news that a “bookless library” has opened in San Antonio. Despite being something of a technophile, I have trouble reconciling the almost Platonic imagery in my head of endless rows and towers of leather and paper with a room full of screens.

I own an iPad, iPhone, desktop PC, PlayStation, Wii and two DVRs and should therefore be able to applaud the creativity of an underfunded public institution dealing with massive change. I should, but can’t quite manage to leap the emotional divide that exists for me between a cybercafé and a library.

Library is a word with resonance. Alexandria has a library. Niagara Falls has a cybercafé.

I grudgingly admire the attempt to create an enticing, physical, public space in the digital age, but it seems a little forced to organize that space around what are largely virtual tools. Wouldn’t this have been a better story if it had been about a library finding a creative way to reengage the public with the traditional forms of books? New gadgets hold a fascination for me personally, but the book has been a surprisingly resilient and adaptable technology since the 15th Century.

Paper books are still a thriving industry too. Just three of the top publishers in the world, Random House, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster, have earned a combined revenue of over $2.8 billion in 2o13—digital sales still represent less than 25% of total sales at all three of these companies.

And you know what’s a cheap way for people to read who can’t afford gadgets? Books. Penguin Books—with their iconic and often beautiful covers—was founded on the idea of making literature accessible and easy for the common man.

Maybe I’m destined to become some kind of crank, rocking on a porch somewhere, moaning about the decline of civilization since the loss of the book, but I think there’s still an inherent value in the book as a physical object and in the printed word in general.

I would prefer to see contemporary libraries find a balanced point between free digital access (a worthy offering) and a collection—even a modest one—of real books. To reject printed books as completely as this library in San Antonio has done, smacks of a marketing ploy.

The Island of Dr Moreau Redux

Charles Laughton in The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Despite repeated attempts to make a film or television show out of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr Moreau, I still feel that the book is somehow underrated—particularly considering how far the adaptations have strayed from the source. Some even drifting into incomprehensibility.

The latest attempt will apparently be from the creators of Hemlock Grove, a Netflix original program. Based on the involvement of Executive Producer Eli Roth of Hostel fame,* I gave the first couple of episodes of Hemlock Grove a try and quickly lost interest. I thought there was one interesting conceptual bit around a werewolf transformation, buried in a landfill-like dump of teen romance clichés.

And while the classic Island of Lost Souls displays an undeniably spooky power in some of its imagery, no film or television adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau has ever really completely satisfied.

The Island of Dr Moreau remains a remarkably fresh read. Its trendy, at the time, fascination with barbaric vivisection doesn’t seem to date the book at all. In fact, the emergence of genetic engineering and biotechnology as the technological revolution of our age adds an unanticipated relevance.**

While I am forced to reserve judgement until Roth et al have a finished product, I’m not optimistic. But, this new production, is a nice reminder to go back and read the source novel, which is a far richer and weirder experience than you might expect.

“The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe—I have thought since—I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.”
–H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr Moreau

——
*Hostile Fame is the name of my new post-punk band, FYI.
**Not to conflate the two too much. Obviously I like to think the sciences of today operate under more enlightened set of ethical standards than the late 19th Century…right?

OMNI Reboot-ed & The Starcrossed

Over this past summer, the legendary OMNI magazine has been revived as an online publication now called OMNI Reboot. I first became aware of the revival through this piece at Boing Boing.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, Editor Claire L. Evans is striving to honour the legacy of the mighty OMNI while simultaneously pushing it into the 21st Century.

One of the earliest articles posted on the new site was this good little interview with Ben Bova, a five-year editor at the dawn of the original OMNI, and a prominent writer and editor in the history of science fiction.

The Starcrossed

Mr. Bova was one of the most gracious and gentlemanly writers I had ever met at a convention. I was maybe 15 at the time and he was very patient and seemed entertained and bemused by the book I had chosen for him to sign: The Starcrossed.

The Starcrossed is a fictionalized account—set in the near future—of Mr. Bova’s experiences as a consultant on what is, without question, one of the worst television shows of all time, The Starlost.

Despite Harlan Ellison as the head writer, Ben Bova as a consultant and the godlike Douglas Trumbull as an Executive Producer, the production of The Starlost was crippled by bad studio decision making. (One quick example: the concept of the show involved a huge space-ark that would consist of a series of domes. Ellison and Bova had conceived each dome as so large that you could shoot a variety of material on back-lots or other locations, but the producers decided that their concept was “too big” and forced everything to be shot on sets, contributing to an overall cheap and shoddy look.)

At the con I attended, I asked Mr. Bova about The Starlost and he told a great anecdote about the star Keir Dullea (of 2001 fame.) Dullea, according to Mr. Bova, showed up to the set on the first day of shooting so high that he was incapable of delivering lines. To try and make use of the time, the crew decided to shoot a spacewalk scene. They hoisted Dullea up into the air in a spacesuit and flight rigging, which then failed so badly they quickly rendered Keir unconscious flinging him into parts of the set.

What’s particularly marvelous about The Starcrossed as a read is that Mr. Bova not only skewers the production of The Starlost, but he also uses the book as an opportunity to write an elaborate and loving parody of Harlan Ellison, under the guise of character Ron Gabriel. During the first meeting between Bova’s point of view character Oxnard and Gabriel in the chapter The Writer, Gabriel rants, fumes, call his lawyer to threaten someone with legal action at midnight, and parades around in nothing but a towel.

Is The Starcrossed an accurate portrayal of the behind-the-scenes story of The Starlost? It is clearly fictionalized, (and, as an aside, oddly predictive of the rise of 3D in Hollywood in a slightly different, imagined version of the tech) but based on what I’v read, and interviews I’ve seen with the man himself—not to mention Dreams with Sharp Teeth—the veil of fiction over The Starcrossed might be pretty thin.

Much like the thin line between science fiction and the real world of technological innovation that OMNI has long attempted to blur.

Albino Books Now Up & Running

Welcome to Albino Books. For more information on your hosts, please visit the About page.

Albino Books

Albino Books was founded by booksellers and fans who love Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Weird Tales, Hardboiled and everything in-between—as a venue for freewheeling discussion, genre-related news, reviews, criticism, and dealing in books & ephemera.

Worldcon '09 books display

The first sale we’ll have a booth at will be the next Geek Market in Ottawa, Canada this upcoming October 19th and 20th, 2013. Please come by and say hello.

As the site ramps up, we’ll have more information on how to buy books from us, but a significant portion of the content here will always be dedicated to news, reviews & editorials. Many of the books, comics, posters et cetera , that we show you pictures of will be for sale, unless otherwise attributed, so if you’re interested in purchasing something, just use the Contact page to let us know.

We we also be featuring the work of a select group of other contributors with a variety of of different approaches to genre culture—we’re trying to jump-start some conversation.

There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction.
—Franz Kafka

Science Fiction Book Meme

Who Goes There? John W. Campbell Jr

Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell, Jr., cover Malcolm Smith, Shasta, Chicago Illinois, 1951, 2nd Edition-2nd printing, movie tie-in with “The Thing from Another World

I couldn’t resist another little pre-launch appetizer. John DeNardo at SF Signal posted an excellent time-waster of a meme this past Sunday, which I am unable to pass up. My overlong answers to the original 17 questions follow below in italics.

1. My favorite alien invasion book or series is…?

I was going to pick The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which is unquestionably great, but it really isn’t as interested in the alien threat described in the plot as it is the “what-if” psycho social ramifications of unending conflict over vast stretches of space-travel dilated time.

For that creepy, existential-crisis, fear-of-the-other that alien invasions stories largely represent, it’s still hard to top Who Goes There?, by John W Campbell Jr.

2. My favorite alternate history book or series is…?

The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson—steampunk before there was such a thing, now canonical.

3. My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer: the perfect blend of fatalistic hardboiled noir and future shock.

4. My favorite Dystopian book or series is…?

There are a lot of great dystopian books, but 1984 is still the chilling pinnacle of this subgeneric hill. It even appeared on the bestseller lists again in the wake of recent privacy scandals. Orwell understood the inherent power of the perversion of language in service to control.

5. My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?

I struggled with this one—More Than Human, Fahrenheit 451, The Foundation Trilogy—all remarkable books. But Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination sticks in my imagination more than any other book from its period. As William Gibson noted, Bruce Sterling called it “a seamless pop artifact”—it pulses with life and accomplishes more in fewer pages than most of a bookcase worth of sci fi “classics.”

6. My favorite hard sf book or series is…?

This question lets me sneak in Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent Childhood’s End, which more properly should have been my response to the Golden-Age one above; in which case this space would go to Rendezvous with Rama. But no other work of so-called “hard” science fiction leaves me as simultaneously melancholy and hopeful as Childhood’s End.

7. My favorite military sf book or series is…?

Now I get to slip in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, excellent.

8. My favorite near-future book or series is…?

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge has it all: reverse-aging medical procedures, augmented reality, smart military tech—and a bone-chilling vision of libraries being devoured that still gives me nightmares…

9. My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. SF fans debate whether or not The Road represents a kind of literary-world dilettantism in the ghettos of genre, but no one who is a father can successfully refute this book’s power.

10. My favorite robot/android book or series is…?

My instinct is to go straight to I Robot, by Asimov—a juggernaut of the SF genre and influential even unto the real world of robotics—but I’m going to have to go with something of an oddball choice: Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (R.I.P.). Look to Windward examines the possible emotional consequences for artificial intelligences involved in an interstellar war. Banks’ great conceit is of a civilization shepherded by “Minds,” artificial intelligences with all the possible quirks that come from being sapient. The Minds extend themselves into android avatars and there are also independent probe-style robots here and there, so it counts. Worth the price of admission for the list of names the Mind-driven space ships christen themselves: You May Not Be The Coolest Person Here, Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again, Nuisance Value, Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall etc.

“O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

11. My favorite space opera book or series is…?

Again, back to the inimitable Iain M. Banks and his Culture. Start with Consider Phlebas, but the crown jewel in the series is Use of Weapons—avoid spoilers like a drunken uncle at the family picnic.

12. My favorite steampunk book or series is…?

My first thought was the awe-inspiring Perido Street Station by China Miéville, but although it’s rife with proto-steampunk tropes, it’s gnarly worldbuilding more easily fits into a kind of weird-fantasy crossover category than steampunk per se. So I’m going to step sideways into comics and pick The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore. Pure steampunk is, at it’s best, a reconfiguration of Victoriana, and no work does that more directly than League—Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey, Captain Nemo, steam, gears, historical figures, the Nautilus, airships, Moriarty—it’s got it all and mashes it all together brilliantly.

13. My favorite superhero book or series is…?

This is perhaps my most obscure choice, but I’m going to say Slan by A E van Vogt. Slan’s prose is clunky and much of it has aged poorly, but there’s still something weirdly engaging about the book. Slan’s artificially evolved superhumans in hiding prefigures the X-Men to a startling degree. The murky morality of the two principle slans, the increasingly frenetic parallel narratives, and the still gripping action make it a surprisingly readable pulp curio.

I’ve interpreted this question to mean traditional prose novels, but if I had to go straight to the source, comics, then it’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, hands down—dark, gritty and all that revisionist stuff, sure, but ultimately still heroic. And about heroes you’ve known all your life, which notches it above the wonderful deconstruction that is Watchmen.

14. My favorite time travel book or series is…?

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. No one even tangentially exposed to a Judeo-Christian upbringing can deny the impact of Moorcock’s exploration of the psychology of faith. What would have been a clever think-piece in the hands of a lesser writer, is a gripping emotionally-charged fable in the hands of the master.

15. My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?

It’s tempting to stray into fantasy works here, particularly the incomparable Ursula K. LeGuin, but I’m going to stay in SF as the question implies and say Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, which I actually enjoyed more than the adult-oriented Old Man’s War (still good, don’t get me wrong) in the same series. The perspective of a teenage girl on the events of a semi-traditional military science fiction story was really fresh and interesting.

16. My favorite zombie book or series is…?

I’m stretching it a bit here, but I’m going to say The Passage by Justin Cronin. Although technically about vampires, the images of hordes of uncommunicative monsters swarming out of the dark and wiping out most of humanity falls more easily into the zombie tradition. It’s also one of those books that creeps slowly into your consciousness and stays there until you have to finish it at two in the morning on a weeknight. A stealthy read that starts out feeling like a re-write of The Stand and gradually evolves into a weird hybrid of potboiler and properly literary experience—apocalyptic-ally elliptical.

17. The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan and another phonebook by Steven Erikson.

Feel free to reply in the comments below or to the original meme—or to debate the relative merits of my selections if you’re feeling argumentative.

“We must be bound to one another then…”

Elric

Elric: Song of the Black Sword, Michael Moorcock, cover Kent Williams, White Wolf Publishing, 1995

We’re not really ready to receive visitors yet—still fluffing cushions and straightening up—but sometimes synchronous events impose themselves and demand a hearing.

Karin Kross of TOR.COM has started a marvelous reread project of all of the Elric books by Michael Moorcock.

Ms. Kross also notes in her intro to the reread project that Gollancz has launched a massive reprinting of Moorcock’s work. It’s a great time to be a fan of both Elric and Michael Moorcock’s many other breathtaking works.

Albino Books is a general book-topic, book-selling and cultural opinion blog, but if we had a patron saint it would be Moorcock, whose willful blending of fantasy, science fiction, hardboiled, weird tales and the literary delineates an approach to genre that we share as both fans and booksellers: anything goes.

Check back for our official opening…soon…