Big Idea

The Big Idea: Daniel Fox

To wrap up this Week O’ Big Ideas, here’s Daniel Fox with Dragon in Chains. They say travel broadens the mind, but for Fox it did rather more than that: It gave him an idea and an inspiration to write about the place to which he’d traveled, one that in this case has paid off with no less than a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Where many Western authors try and fail to capture the nuances of Chinese culture and mythology, this melodious tale quietly succeeds”). But just as no journey is a straight line, so was Fox’s literary journey full of turns and twists. Here he is with a map of his travel.


Like so many good things, it came entirely out of the blue, and not strictly to me: an invitation for a Newcastle writer to spend time on a residency in Taipei.

It was very short notice, though, and just before Christmas. Most writers in Newcastle have families or jobs or other commitments, and weren’t free to just drop everything and go.

Me, I just dropped everything and went.

To be honest, I only took it because I didn’t want to be the kind of person who turns such chances down. I never was much of a traveler, except in my head where it doesn’t count; going halfway round the world on my own was too big a step to be comfortable. Especially not knowing what waited, what was expected of me. A residency might mean anything…

In this instance, it was like no residency I’d ever heard of. I was collected at the airport by charming young people with uncertain English and absolute attitudes. And cameras. They preserved my image for the record, then swept me away to a leather-lined limousine. They’d take me to my hotel, they said, but only to deposit my bags; I was due at a press conference instantly. I protested – all I wanted was a shower and a bed; I was grimy and exhausted, I’d been awake for thirty-six hours and stood no chance of making sense to the press, even if I’d known what I was there for – but they were insistent.

My hotel turned out to be the Ritz, which made me blink even harder than the limousine had; this is not normal fare for itinerant writers. The press conference was in a restaurant, and once we’d squeezed past the journos and the photographers and the TV cameras, I found myself at a table with a dozen other writers from all over the world, from Guatemala and Canada and Korea.

It wasn’t really a residency at all, it was a symposium. Or not even that, more a PR opportunity. For Taiwan, not for us. Its global position is so peculiar – functionally a separate state, legally still a province of China, diplomatically unrecognized except by a stubborn handful – it’s always looking for sidelong ways to improve international relations. All they wanted from us was a couple of public appearances, endless photo ops for internal consumption, and finally that we should go away and write nice things about Taipei. In return, they kept us in luxury, ferried us everywhere, paid for everything and gave us pocket-money on the side.

I had – surprise! – a wonderful time. The far east has been a fixation, almost a fetish all my life (I blame my mother: who was born in Rangoon, grew up in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, talked about it just enough to feed a boy’s fevered imagination); now I was playing in the real thing, and finding it utterly unlike anything I’d imagined. Or indeed anything my mother had described, with seventy-odd years between her experience and mine.

But I was also very aware that I was seeing a heavily filtered version, isolated by money and ignorance, by privilege and adept PR. I needed to go back: which I did a few months later, sleeping on my interpreter’s floor and meeting the city again through her contacts and my own wanderings. I walked everywhere, I deliberately walked myself off the map. I’ve never felt more alien or more lost, in a city where I couldn’t even read the maps.

I ached to write about it, but I wasn’t at all ready. I nearly stayed; there was a house for rent, twenty minutes outside the city, in the mountains, overlooking the rice paddies on one side and the ocean on the other. Six months rent, two grand. I did so nearly stay. But I have cats…

Home again, I started Mandarin lessons and a book collection. I knew already what I wanted to do: I wanted to write about Taiwan since the arrival of Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT, after they were driven from the mainland. Partly it was that classic image of the tiny island bristling at the vast mainland, bristling with weapons; partly it was the experience of the native Taiwanese, invaded by a vast northern army and living under military dictatorship. Marry those two together, and there’s a novel. But I’m a fantasist, I have small interest in mimetic fiction. I wanted to recast the story into feudal China first – an emperor in flight, the dynasty at hazard – and then into imagination, put magic in jade and a dragon in the strait.

It was six years before I was ready to start writing. And then, of course, the characters claim the story and take it in unexpected directions; so no, there is no one-to-one mapping between the actual events – or, indeed, the country – and the novel. There was never meant to be. I couldn’t pretend to represent the complexities of another culture after a few years’ distant study, and I wasn’t interested in reproducing the history under a cloak. Again, that distaste for the mimetic – I’d always rather make stuff up. So I took no notes and let the research slide largely out of my head, just to work with the traces that lingered.

It’s about impressions, not descriptions. Tolkien famously denied any allegorical significance to The Lord of the Rings, which was perhaps disingenuous; it would be equally disingenuous in me to assert any particular allegorical significance to Dragon in Chains. Any book belongs at the last to itself, and needs to subsist alone and unsupported. But the roots of this one lie absolutely in those trips, that history and my own susceptibility. All fiction is autobiography; we give ourselves away on every page.


Dragon in Chains: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from Dragon in Chains here. Visit Daniel Fox’s LiveJournal here.


Nebula Award Nominees, 2009

It’s that time again. Here are this year’s nominees for the Nebula Awards, one of the two big awards in SF (the other, of course, being the Hugo):


Little Brother – Doctorow, Cory (Tor, Apr08)
Powers – Le Guin, Ursula K. (Harcourt, Sep07)
Cauldron – McDevitt, Jack (Ace, Nov07)
Brasyl – McDonald, Ian (Pyr, May07)
Making Money – Pratchett, Terry (Harper, Sep07)
Superpowers – Schwartz, David J. (Three Rivers Press, Jun08)


“The Spacetime Pool” – Asaro, Catherine (Analog, Mar08)
“Dark Heaven” – Benford, Gregory (Alien Crimes, ed. Mike Resnick, SFBC, Jan07)
“Dangerous Space” – Eskridge, Kelley (Dangerous Space, Aqueduct Press, Jun07)
“The Political Prisoner” – Finlay, Charles Coleman (F&SF, Aug08)
“The Duke in His Castle” – Nazarian, Vera (Norilana Books, Jun08)


“If Angels Fight” – Bowes, Richard (F&SF, Feb08)
“Dark Rooms” – Goldstein, Lisa (Asimov’s, Oct/Nov 07)
“Pride and Prometheus” – Kessel, John (F&SF, Jan08)
“Night Wind” – Rosenblum, Mary (Lace and Blade, ed. Deborah J. Ross, Norilana Books, Feb08)
“Baby Doll” – Sinisalo, Johanna (The SFWA European Hall of Fame, ed. James Morrow & Kathryn Morrow, Tor, Jun07 )
“Kaleidoscope” – Wentworth, K.D. (F&SF, May07)

Short Stories

“The Button Bin” – Allen, Mike (Helix: A Speculative Fiction Quarterly, Oct07)
“The Dreaming Wind” – Ford, Jeffrey (The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Viking, Jul07)
“Trophy Wives” – Hoffman, Nina Kiriki (Fellowship Fantastic, ed. Greenberg and Hughes, DAW Books, Jan08)
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”– Johnson, Kij (Asimov’s, Jul08)
“The Tomb Wife”– Jones, Gwyneth (F&SF, Aug07)
“Don’t Stop” – Kelly, James Patrick (Asimov’s, Jun07)


The Dark Knight – Nolan, Jonathan; Nolan, Christopher, Goyer, David S. (Warner Bros., Jul08)
WALL-E” Screenplay – Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter (Walt Disney June 2008)
The Shrine – Wright, Brad (Stargate Atlantis, Aug08)


Graceling – Cashore, Kristin (Harcourt, Oct08)
Lamplighter – Cornish, D.M. (Monster Blood Tattoo, Book 2, Putnam Juvenile, May08))
Savvy – Law, Ingrid (Dial, May08)
The Adoration of Jenna Fox – Pearson, Mary E. (Henry Holt and Company, Apr08)
Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room) – Wilce, Ysabeau S.  (Harcourt, Sep08)

Congratulations to all the nominees — we’ll find out who won at Nebula Weekend, April 24-26,2009 in Los Angeles, California.


The Panic About Kindle’s Text to Speech: Still Silly

This article attempts to explain why my and some other authors’ sanguine attitude toward the new Kindle’s Text-to-Speech capability is misguided (or more, “right response, incorrect reasoning”); in essence the argument is that we’re only looking at how computerized voice reading sounds now, as opposed to how it will sound in the future, when it’ll be easy to instruct computers how to do inflections and all that.

This is a nice try, but, no.

1. First, on a personal, your mileage may vary note, it seems to me that people generally buy the audio version of a book or the text version, rather than both; personally speaking, as a writer I don’t generally expect someone to buy more than one version of my work in any event. So the “Oh noes! Since they have the Kindle version, they won’t buy the audio version!” concern is, shall we say, not high on my list of things to worry about.

2. Has it escaped the general notice of folks that the same company that is putting out the Kindle is also the same company that owns Yes, Amazon owns both, and I don’t really see the company trying to put one section of itself out of business with the other. Indeed, one of the things I would very surprised not to see at some point in the near future is Amazon doing a Kindle/Audible bundle: Say, buy the Kindle version of Zoe’s Tale and they’ll throw in the actual audiobook version for $10 or so, which would make the whole package about the same cost as a hardcover. Then if Amazon is actually really smart, they’ll find a way to do audio indexing, so you can highlight a word in the text and have the audiobook version pick up right from there. And so on. This works grandly for me, because then I get twice the royalties.

Yes, other eBook reader makers might also make text-to-speech capability, and they aren’t Amazon — but that said, I imagine if Amazon does this sort of bundling, other eBook sellers will find a way as well, and then the field is leveled again.

3. I understand geeks have unlimited faith in their ability to manipulate technology, but developing a computerized audio voice that actually delivers a performance rather than a recitation is not simply a matter of “how to emphasize certain words and phrases, probably through some kind of XML-based markup standard.” This is fairly unsophisticated way of looking at how language works, and in particular how it works in fiction, narrative and exposition. We authors are crafty types and we often use language in unexpected ways, and I doubt very seriously you could create software that would accurately discern correct intonation at all times, or even be able to tell when one person was talking in dialogue as opposed to another.

If you tried to build software that could heuristically appropriately discern what emphasis to put on what words where and when in all cases, as well as being able to differentiate between characters (and their own ways of inflection, intonation, speaking, etc) not only would the code base be HUGE, but in point of fact you would have developed some damn impressive AI, and I for one would welcome our new book-reading computer overlords. If this software couldn’t manage this task completely, or did it imperfectly, you’d be having an audio version of the Uncanny Valley, in which the “almost but not quite” nature of the audio performance would be self-defeating. I’m not sure there’s an interest in doing this in any event from any of the eBook companies, but particularly from Amazon, who has a direct interest in upselling another, superior audio product.

So that’s dealt with. But what if instead of trying to birth a book-reading AI you instead and somewhat more simply created markup related specifically to a work (say, a markup specifically meant to read Zoe’s Tale)? Well, then what you’ve got there is very definitely a derivative work, and you’ll hear from my lawyers. To my mind there’s a substantial difference between a computer voice reading text which a consumer has already purchased, which to my mind is not a derivative work, and a computer voice reading audio under directions specific to a work, which certainly is. Not to mention that this markup would be created by someone who is a computer programmer, whose skills, while no doubt formidable, are likely not to be consonant with the skills required to give a book an audio performance that sounds authentic.

The author of the article linked to above imagines wikis where people write “inflection scripts” for their favorite works, and while that’s certainlypossible, I also suspect the folks who would frequent those wikis are the same sorts who currenly frequent warez sites and the like; i.e., people who don’t buy things anyway and are sufficiently geekoidial that they’re happy to load their own scripts rather than have Amazon (or whichever seller) do it for a relatively modest fee. These aren’t most people, nor will be most people any time soon.

In either case there’s an easier and likely cheaper way to generate an audio file from a book that sounds and “feels” like a human: Give it to an actual human to perform, the performance of which is a derivative work.

In short: I’m not at all convinced that realistic and engaging computerized audio will be possible at any point in the near or even middle future without requiring a clear and obvious derivative work to generate it. When it is possible, I suspect AI will be at a point where it will also be able to generate actual novels, and then, of course, I will retire, to spend my remaining days being pleasured by my sexbots, until they plug me into the mainframe to use my brain cycles for sewage maintenance and I slip comfortably into the hive mind.

Naturally people are free to disagree with me on any of these points; that’s fine. Suffice to say for all the reasons above, I’m not in the least concerned about computerized text readings, in terms of how they affect my career or my rights.


Comrades! The Cake Ration Has Been Increased to 20 Grams!

Presented for your oooohing and aaaahing, the cake my daughter made, and, clearly, decorated, last night. It is helpfully subtitled so that you may know your appropriate response to it. Feel free to respond thusly at your leisure.

Your leisure begins NOW.

Also, the first person who comments “the cake is a lie!” or some variation thereof, will, in an action filled with rich, creamy, homophonic irony, get dissolved in a barrel of lye. That is all.


Perfect Timing

Delightfully apropos to yesterday’s entry on authors (and the entry on pissy fans a couple days before that), Patrick Rothfuss updates all and sundry on the status of his second novel.

Also, Justine Larbalestier refutes one of my assertions in yesterday’s entry, for which she will no doubt be punished by our robot overlords.

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