Mal Peet

Mal Peet died yesterday.

I never met him. I dearly wish I had. I wish every possible comfort on those who did.

Life: An Exploded Diagram was the novel that opened YA up for me. It blew the doors off the field. It was everything I wanted a book to be and like nothing I’d ever read before.

Life, Keeper, Tamar. Again and again, Peet’s writing – his language, the shape of his stories, the sheer, true power of them – left me awestruck. It was a joyful awe that inspired me to try with my own.

He left us seven incredible books. I hope you’ll read them, they’ll make your life better.


Talking and Living

To be honest, posting this scares me.

I want to tell you about this one specific Wednesday a few months back. There have been other days like it since, but I made notes about this one, so I remember the details better.

The day started out innocuously enough with a couple of slices of toast and a bowl of bran flakes, but then I had a row with a friend and before I knew it, I’d bought, chewed and swallowed two brownies, a bacon sandwich, a packet of crisps, some carrot sticks and a flapjack the size of the USS Nimitz.  Over the next forty five minutes I added a bag of chocolate buttons, a tuna baguette and a tub of some kind of red and white pudding that looked like someone had pureed a brain and forgotten to pick the skull out. When buying all this, I alternated between a café, a shop and an oh-so-sweetly non-judgmental vending machine, so as not to attract attention (the guy at the shop was like “Buying for friends?” and I was like “Ha ha yes.”).

I honestly couldn’t tell you what any of this tasted like, by the way. Only my hands, my jaw and the prehistoric Lizard bit of my brain were involved, my tastebuds were asleep at their post.

By now I was sweating, my hands were shaking and I had a pounding headache. I drank about a litre and a half of water, and then I went and had lunch.

A kind of mental dam burst during the afternoon, and I carried on in much the same way, systematically eating my way through everything in the house, then curling up in bed, then getting out of it in a panic to go to the shops to replace everything so my wife didn’t find out.

When I’m like this, what’s driving me isn’t hunger, or even the need for comfort, it’s the fear that I lack the power over myself to make a binding decision to stop eating. On bad days I feel I can’t trust myself, any more than I could a stranger.

The following day I wake up early, feeling like an evil toddler is squatting on my chest. The first thing I do is go for an eight mile run.  At lunch time I hit the gym and do push-ups and burpees until want to vomit (but I don’t).

I remember the first time a doctor told me I was bulimic. Ironically, I thoughthe was nuts, because I haven’t successfully made myself throw up for more than ten years (apparently I have no gag reflex, and yes, I’ve heard all the jokes.). I told him this and he said the purge half of my cycle is handled through exercise.  However you characterise it, my relationship with food, my body and the level of control I feel the need to exercise over it, is dysfunctional, I also get bouts of depression, am in weekly therapy, and have been on anti-depressants at various points since I was fourteen.

So why am I telling you this?  Partly it’s because I count most of the people who read this blog as friends, and it’s both good, and much harder than it ought to be to talk to your friends about this stuff, but every time you do, it makes it a little easier, so that’s one reason.

The second reason is, I’m about to start doing some work as an ambassador for these guys. Talklife  – essentially a safe online space to talk about mental health issues – is a really good idea, being put into practice by really good people. I’m glad they’re around.

There’s still a culture of silence around mental health, a taboo on talking about your illness that only applies when the part of you that’s ill is above rather than below the neck. This taboo is stupid, dangerous, and it pisses me off. Suicide kills more men my age and younger than anything else in the UK, in large part because most of them never feel like they can tell anyone. The only way to change a culture, is to act like it’s already been changed, to talk about it openly, like it’s normal, (because it is, it’ll hit a quarter of us this year, chances are it’s happening to a friend of yours at the same time it’s happening to you.)

So this is me, talking.

A lot of the time though, when people do talk about it, especially celebrities, they cast it as a long past event, a dark episode in their lives (“My year of bulimia hell” etc). It’s the dip in their story arc, a single crisis struggled through in pursuit of their inspirational journey.

Maybe that is what it’s like for them, but it’s not what it’s like for me. For me it’s more like a chronic thing, diabetes say. Severity varies from day to day, it comes and it goes, it needs thinking about, and consciously managing, but I can live with it, and live well. I’ve written and published three books in the last four years and I got married in 2013 to a woman I’m crazy about.

So here’s the plan: once a month on the Talklife blog, I’m going to write about how that’s going, stuff I’ve written, read, seen, places I’ve been, and how the glitches in my head have affected it. Sometimes the answer will be ‘a lot’, sometimes (hopefully usually) the answer will be ‘not much’, but either way I’ll try to be honest, and if there’s anything I find that’s helpful to me, I’ll say. Over time, a picture should emerge, a picture of someone living with and around this bug. Meanwhile, this blog, and my twitter feed will remain pretty much what they have always been: bad puns, monsters and economics – i.e. me.

Like I said, I’m scared of posting this. I’m scared people will take the piss, I’m scared they’ll think I’m attention-seeking, I’m horrified that they might think I was making this up. Most of all, I’m worried that people will treat me differently to the way they did yesterday.

But if on bad days I don’t feel like I can trust myself any more than a stranger, then on very rare, very good days, I feel like I can trust strangers as much as I can myself.

So here goes.

“Take it, brave York…”

Ten points for the house of whoever recognizes the reference in the title (twenty if it’s Hufflepuff, I’m biased…)

Friday to Sunday this week, it’s FantasyCon at the Royal York Hotel in, well, York.

Here’s what I’m doing:

Friday 5th September

08.40: Reading! – Not sure what from yet, maybe Our Lady of The Streets, maybe even some new stuff. 

Saturday 6th September

10.00am – But Does It Make Sense?
Economics of fantasy systems. If Smaug holds all the gold and it gets liberated, what does that do to the economy?
Leila Abu el Hawa (m), Kari Sperring, Kate Elliott, Tom Pollock, Anne Lyle

(Happy about this – given my epic one-man campaign to become Chief Economist to the UK SFF scene.)

3.00pm – The Chosen One
From Neo to Barack Obama. Many works of SFF place the fate of the world on the shoulders of a single, pre-ordained hero, who often possesses some magical trait. The panellists discuss ideas and subversions of the One in SFF and beyond. Are there echoes in real world politics? Is the concept stale and regressive, or can it be redeemed by a more diverse range of Chosen Ones in pop culture? Gillian Redfearn (m), Tom Pollock, James Oswald, Joanne Hall, Frances Hardinge, Helen Marshall

(On a panel with Frances Hardinge.  I may forget how to form consonants)

5.00pm – Who’s Missing?
A discussion about some authors you should be reading, but probably aren’t.
Glen Mehn (m), Tom Pollock, Gillian Redfearn, Sophia McDougall

(A chance to plug to a captive audience. Eeeeeeexcellent)

6.30pm – Mass Signing
If you’re about and you have something you want me to sign I’m happy for you to grab me in the hallway, but a bit of company at a signing’s always nice.

Sunday 7th September

10.00am – WORKSHOP: Worldbuiding
Kate Elliott, Tom Pollock

 How cool is this? Giving a worldbuilding class with Kate Freakin’ Elliott. I think this is a sign-up-when-you-get-to-the-con-thing, aimed at writers. Working on a fantasy novel? Indulging in a touch of terragenesis? Like making up words like ‘terragenesis’?  Come along!

And that’s it for me, rest of the time I’ll be hanging out in the bar, I expect. If you’re going to be in York there’s a ton of cool stuff happening. Hopefully catch you there.




Something in the Water

Fancier Shoes

Imagine there’s this shoe factory on a river bank, and the shoes it makes are a work of art:  supple leather, long-lasting, comfortable like you wouldn’t believe. Plus, they’re just-straight up, jaw-droppingly beautiful.  People write fan letters to the designer of these shoes.  They have conventions about these shoes where they cosplay as these shoes, all the while wearing these shoes.

The people that work at the factory have no complaints either: the pay’s good, the benefits are great and best of all there’s this genuinely lovely work culture that means everyone really enjoys their time together. They’re proud to be involved.

At its stated purpose of making kick-ass footwear, this factory is a roaring success. Such a roaring success in fact, that other companies are copying its process wholesale, setting up near identical factories all along the river.

There’s only one snag: as part of the tanning process for the leather, the factory uses a bunch of chemicals and then dumps them into the river. Most of these compounds are benign, but there’s one that can be toxic. It affects people’s brains and in high enough concentrations, it can make them hallucinate that they’re in Star Wars.

So you go to the factory owner with a sample of the river water, and say ‘Hey, you make great shoes, but I’m a bit worried that this stuff you’re putting into the river is getting to dangerous levels.’

And the factory owner says ‘But we make great shoes.’

And you say, ‘I know you make great shoes, I just said you make great shoes, but the chemicals you’re putting in our drinking water made my brother crash his car into the side of a 7-Eleven last week because he thought it was a Super Star Destroyer and his Ford Fiesta was an X-Wing.’

And Factory owner says, ‘How do you know it was us? The chemical you’re talking about, if it’s dangerous at all, is only dangerous in high concentrations, and we only use a teeny tiny bit.’

You: ‘But a load of other shoe makers are using it too.’

Factory Owner: ‘I only think about my factory, my workers and my customers. And they all love me.’

You: ‘But this chemical, you don’t even need it. There’s a bunch of factories in the next town over making shoes just as handsome and durable and comfy, and their tanning process is completely benign. It’s not even more expensive!’

Factory owner: ‘Good for them. I like our way. Say, those shoes look really good on you. Would you like a pair in brown? ‘


The shoes are our stories, their comfort, durability and looks are the depth of characterization, dexterity of plotting and the beauty of the prose. The water table is our culture, our shared public consciousness.

And the chemicals? They’re tropes.

Plenty of tropes, like plenty of chemicals, are both useful and harmless. Some however – like always having the women in your story be helpless or passive or always casting the black guy as the drug dealer – are… not so harmless.

Using these tropes doesn’t necessarily make the story less gripping, suspenseful or moving. Employed skilfully enough, they can even enhance those qualities – watching a hero rescue a damsel in distress is exciting, that’s how it became a trope – but that doesn’t change the fact that, like the chemical, when they leak out into the environment, they’re going to have an effect.

That effect may of a single story may be very small, like the contribution from any one factory is small, but when hundreds of thousands of them are pumping this stuff into the atmosphere, it adds up.

And I don’t think it’s crazy to believe that the fact that we have these kinds of tropes floating around in our narrative water table is not merely indicative of, but contributes to^ a culture where unarmed black kids can get shot because ‘they look threatening’ and women earn seventy-seven pence for every pound that men earn**.

Using these tropes doesn’t necessarily make for a bad book, any more than tight plotting necessarily makes for good one. Books are complicated, and what makes one good or bad will depend on the reader, which is why we shouldn’t let an unresolvable argument over whether X is a good or bad book obscure the fact that it contains these tropes, and that they have an effect.

A couple of hundred years ago, there were near enough no such things as environmental regulations. We thought factories were there to make goods and make money, and that was it. Slowly we came round to the idea that the people that made things bore some responsibility for in the incidental, as well as the deliberate products of that creation, and that the air we breathed and the water we drank needed a bit of looking after. We made an effort to find cleaner, greener ways to make the same stuff, and a lot of the time we found them.

This is where the analogy breaks down* of course, as all analogies eventually do. We definitely don’t need legislation to protect our public consciousness from damaging story tropes – that way lies crazypantsville – but is it really asking so much to take a little more care with the chemicals we’re pumping into the cultural water?

Because if we don’t, we’ll all wind up swinging kitchen-knives while making lightsaber noises and chopping family member’s hands off, and that’s no way to live.



* (The other place the analogy breaks down is that the use of these tropes isn’t incidental to the reading experience the way the production process for the shoes is to the wearing experience. Their inclusion can make these texts actively hostile to the people who are poorly represented. Anne Leckie has a great analogy for this here

**Originally this said ‘that men earn for the same job, but then I traced the source to this report. Indebted to M. Amelia Kafjord for the correction.

^There’s evidence for this here., and some discussion of the mechanism by which it happens. 

Skynet and Sneezy Pandas: The Economics of Automation

This video by internet stick-figure legend CPG Grey is very cool and interesting, I recommend you watch it. If for whatever reason you can’t, here’s a very sketchy summary:

The machines are coming for your job. We already have technology that makes it cheaper and more efficient for machines to do many of the manual labour jobs that employ large numbers of people in the economy. Tech that supplants people in white-collar, professional and creative industries is in various stages of development and all of this technology is only going to get faster and cheaper.

In Grey’s words, automation –  this tool for producing abundance with very little effort – will render the majority of humans unemployable. Obviously, this will create a huge problem unless we’re prepared for it, which we’re not.

I want to think about that problem a bit, because seems pretty clear that at core it’s a problem of distribution. After all, there’s still going to be abundance; indeed more abundant abundance than we’ve ever had.  The tricky thing is working out who gets how much of it.

At the moment, if you live in some kind of market economy (and if you’re reading this on the internet you almost certainly do), then your share of the world’s pile of saleable stuff is, at least in theory, determined by the value or ‘price’ of your contribution to that pile*, which is how much you get paid. Obviously, in a world where most people’s contribution to that pile is zero, this model won’t work anymore, but the pile will still be there. So what will we do?

Obviously, I have no idea, futurology being a mug’s game at the best of times, but just for fun, here are three scenarios:


Maybe your first response to being told ‘in the future no one will be able to work for a living’ is to say ‘woo hoo! In the future, no one will have to work for a living!’ After all, if machines can take care of all the food production and the house-building and the accounting and even the medical research, doesn’t that free us up to spend our time doing… whatever the hell we want?

This might sound utopian, but it’s really just an extension of a trend that started with cave painting and ran straight through to lolcats. The more technology frees us up from making things we actually need to keep ourselves breathing, the more we can spend our precious seconds on this earth engaged in more satisfying, creative pursuits like playing an instrument, making sneezy panda videos, or writing Sherlock fan fiction.

Grey actually tackles this in his video, but points out that because success in the entertainment industry is based on getting others’ attention, you can’t have an economy where everyone makes a living in the arts. Of course, here in Pandatopia it doesn’t matter if only your five best friends read your Sherlock fan fic because no-one’s making a living. The machines are making our living for us.

There remains the prospect of the machines also writing better Sherlock-Moriarty slash than us and out-competing us that way, and that’s certainly possible, but then again when it comes to recreational activities people are weird. In a lot of ways we aren’t interested in ‘the best’.  We impose all kinds of restrictions on ourselves. Just look at sports. Usain Bolt would run way faster if he juiced up on every steroid under the sun, but we don’t let him.  We aren’t interested in how fast a man can run, we’re interested in how fast a man can run without artificial help.  It’s not too hard to imagine a culture where people only want to read stories, or listen to music that they can verify only come from a human source.

Still, there are at least two problems with a plausible Pandatopia. First – scarcity. Any 101 economics textbook will tell you that there are three inputs to production: capital (technology), labour and raw materials. Automation may be able to make lots of the first and render the second redundant, but it can’t produce unlimited coltan or clean water or stop climate change chewing up the atmosphere. If we keep breeding sooner or later we’ll hit a scarcity constraint.

The second, and bigger problem with Pandatopia is how do we get there? It’s hard to imagine a transition path to this new world from the market economy we have now. After all, in lots of ways, we already have abundance, but we’re terrible at portioning it out, hence the infamous rising rates of obesity and planned obsolescence in developed economies, while in other countries vast resource deprivation and malnutrition prevails. Even inside the developed economies, the amount wasted by the rich could easily improve the living standards of the poor. This cheery thought leads us to scenario 2:


This is the path that feels most likely in the short to medium term, if only because it requires the least change.  More and more people drop out of the workforce, and their economic power dwindles to zero. The world’s pile of saleable stuff gets more and more concentrated in the hands of the remaining workers, and increasingly, the owners of the machines who are doing the work.

This is kind of the tone that Grey’s video takes, and it seems pretty plausible, after all income inequality in developed countries is on the up anyway, but it isn’t sustainable. For one thing, there remains the question of what the new plutocrats will do with all their shiny abundant new stuff: there are only so many cheeseburgers one person can eat and so many cars they can drive after all. (They might just give the surplus away, which in a world of plenty puts us in a weird version of Pandatopia, where everyone has everything they need but only a tiny handful of people control what gets made. Perhaps we’ll call this ‘Commandatopia’.)

More pressingly, though without a reasonably well paid mass population, it’s hard to see where the demand driving the production of all this stuff would come from. Capitalism needs consumers.  The more you think about it, the more it seems that the automation Grey’s talking about has to break our current economic model somehow.

(There is a very scary possible dynamic equilibrium here: where economic power’s concentrated with the owners of the machines for long enough that most people to drop out of the economy, at which point the machines’ owners just stop making so much food and clothing, because the market’s telling them there’s no demand for it, and lots of people freeze and starve. But that would require the machine’s owners to act a lot like machines themselves, which leads us onto…


So obviously, if we’re building machines to do the work in the economy, and machines to make the decisions that direct capital in that economy (see: stock market algorithms), and if we say, as Grey does, that the human brain is really just a very complicated machine in the first place, then sooner or later we have to ask: “what happens when the machines are in charge?”

What happens when the intelligence directing the tools that are creating the abundance isn’t human any more, but artificial? Would our new machine overlords feed and clothe us? Would they exterminate us? Would they simply ignore and work around us? We can’t say without knowing what a machine intelligence like this would want, and we simply don’t know.

Of course, if the human brain is just a machine then we do have one model for a world economy governed by machine intelligence: our economy.  AIs could wind up thinking just like humans, and that just raises the question all over again.

*There are a whole mountain of caveats to this, including social security, people who make their living from renting out capital, inheritance etc but still, mostly…

In Defence of Sparkly Vampires

(This is the first in a series of posts I’m going to write this week on topics discussed in panels at 9 worlds and Loncon.)


I’m just going to come right out and say it:

Edward Cullen is one of the most effective vampires ever written.

I was on a couple of monster-related panels at Worldcon this past weekend. On one of them, the moderator opened by asking us what monster we’d like to be and why. I said a sparkly vampire, and the room laughed and booed. I won’t lie, I knew that would be the reaction, that’s why I said it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t serious: The Cullen clan are a phenomenally badass pieces of monster-writing, here’s why:

Monsters are usually metaphors for something, they’re human emotions clothed in skin or scale or feathers (or all three!) That’s how they work, because we feel those emotions when we read about them. Werewolves are about our fear of and attraction to rage and loss of self control, demons tantalise us with our fear of the arcane and vampires, vampires are all about sex.

So far, so obvious, right? Except that when you work with established creature types like these three, you almost inevitably find yourself writing in dialogue (‘in conversation’ as Cat Valente put it) with the way those creatures have been written before.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It leads to some fantastically inventive twists on the mythos (one of my favourites is in China Miéville’s The Scar where he recasts it as a disease: ‘photophobic haemophagy’) but it makes reading your monster a more intellectual game, and also a more exclusive one. You need a knowledge of the genre and its tropes to come play. It becomes an invite-only party, an inside joke and even while you’re appreciating the cleverness of the punchline, it can get increasingly hard to retain the raw emotional power of the initial symbol.

But Twilight – and I know how weird this is going to sound to some of you – Twilight took the vampire back to basics. In a sense, Twilight is the Nirvana of Vampire fiction – stripped it back to its core elements, no room for pretension, an emotional shot in the arm to a generation of teenagers.

One of those core elements was sex. Sex, and the withholding of it, are some of the dominant themes in Twilight, and Meyer handles them in a way that, rather than consciously being ‘in conversation’ with a hundred years of vampire fiction, speaks directly to the lives and emotions of its readers. The desire, frustration, and uncertainty of getting into your first sexual relationships are acutely captured. Twilight wasn’t the first book to do this, but even so there’s no denying the impact that had on the emotions on millions of readers, and it’s no coincidence that these books exploded through the genre barriers when embracing their audience.

So there’s my case: emotional power, accessibility, and the idea that the hundred and fifty million people who love it might actually know what they’re talking about.

All that, that and they’re shiny too. And my scalp gives me natural empathy with shiny people.

(Aside: the scale of Twilight’s fans’ love for it is sometimes used to dismiss both the books and them. Speaking as a fan of a ton of stuff, and also as a writer whose primary goal in writing his books is to make people feel things, I find this straight-up nuts. We give far too little credit to the teenagers, former teenagers, and – specifically – teenage girls who love these books, and you don’t have to like everything in the books, or even like anything in the books to see that.

And yes, I know that the relationship between Bella and Edward sets off creepy stalker klaxons, and where teens carry the message that this is normal and romantic over into real life, that’s harmful. But think how often we rave about behaviour in stories that would be straight-up idiotic in the real world.

In Empire Strikes Back, when the doors open onto that Bespin dining room, and Han sees Vader and immediately starts shooting, we think ‘fuck yeah, man of action!’ not ‘Best case scenario Vader blocks the shots and they get captured, worst case he pisses him off enough the surrounding Storm Troopers execute him and all his friends. He at least could have tried to talk their way out. Thank fuck it’s Lawrence Kasdan writing this and not George RR Martin.’

I’m not saying Han Solo isn’t a badass, but I am saying we seem to be willing to give enough credit to the audiences of most stories – including ones we show to children – that they can distinguish fantasy from reality. We seem reluctant to accord this credit to Twilight fans. I don’t know why, but I suspect it has something to do with a lot of them being teenaged and female, and that’s bullshit. Aside ends)

Be like Han

UPDATE: Folks on twitter have expressed reservations about the star wars comparison: they say that the Twilight is more harmful as a part of a broad spectrum barrage of messages that tell women that abusive relationships are normal and they should stick with them.  These people know this subject better than me and are likely right.



Ink, Paper and Gratitude

Well, we did it. Three books down.

This might sound strange, if we’ve never met, but if you’ve read any of The Skyscraper Throne books, I think of you as a colleague.

We might be friends too, I’d like to think we’d be friends. You obviously have excellent taste in books, and that counts for a lot with me.

About five years ago, I had an idea for a monster of the city, whose fingers were cranes. Railwraiths and Pavement Priests and electromagnetic spiders, followed soon after, and then a boy who’d been raised to believe this strange world was his inheritance.

And I signed with an agent, who made those ideas better, and she hooked me up with a publisher, who made the book better still. And together we took those ideas and turned them into little black marks on white paper, bound them, and sent them into the world.

That got us half way.

You did the other half. You turned those little black marks into ideas. You lent us your imagination. We gave you nothing but ink and paper and you made Railwraiths and Scaffwolves and oil Soaked traders.

You trusted us with your money, your time, but most of all the handful of cubic inches inside your skull you devoted to imagining with us.

And that – I can’t be flip or cynical about this – that is awesome to me.

A book isn’t a book until its read. A story’s not a story until its felt.

If we ever do meet in person, pull up a chair, it’d be awesome to make your acquaintance.

But in the meantime, thank you, it’s been a pleasure working with you.


Insulin and Empathy

A man dies alone in his flat, in the dark, because he’s diabetic and his insulin spoiled in the fridge, because his power was cut off, because his benefits had been stopped in the seventh richest country in the world.

At the same time, the lights and fridges and respirators go out in Gaza as Israel bomb the power stations there, in response to the flight of three-thousand rockets flying in the other direction, some of which Israel maintains are launched from near schools that are the next thing to get blown up: all in a war Western empires laid the foundations for sixty years ago, whilst in Syria and Iraq, ISIS butcher thousands in a war the West laid the foundations of a mere decade previously, as if to prove it still had the knack.

In non-war news, resistant strains of TB develop and we continue to rely on the market for drug development even though the supposedly all-knowing market can’t get it’s arse in gear to incentivise research into new antibiotics ahead of fucking Viagra.

These are complex issues, and I know my prejudices are showing. I know the ninety-second radio spots and thousand word news articles that have alerted me to them haven’t really informed  me about them, but even so, it’s hard not to conclude that the world is a little short on human empathy, right now.

That’s not an original thought, or even a radical one. It seems blindingly, almost embarrassingly obvious, that if you see someone as a human being like you, understand that they have an inner life like you, and a working brain and parents and children and pets like you, then it gets that much harder to shoot them in the back of the head or cut off the money that’s keeping their insulin cold.

And reading fiction raises empathy. Studies have shown it improves our ability to see other people as people. And if you don’t think we sometimes have a problem with that, I invite you to spend 20 seconds on the Daily Mail website.

I don’t want to overstate the case here.  I know we won’t get world peace just because a few more people read Harry Potter or The Handmaid’s Tale,  but I was trained as an economist, so I also know that a small act, like buying or voting or reading and writing, when repeated day after day, by person after person, can reshape human societies like nothing else.

This isn’t just a reason to make art though. It’s a reason to do so diversely. After all, the reason we need empathy isn’t to help us relate to people who are exactly like us in every way, but to remind us how much we have in common with people who maybe don’t look like us, or worship like us, or are lucky enough to have a job like us, or think about gender in the way we do.

Think about George Zimmerman, the man who killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in the US last year. Imagine if Zimmerman had grown up reading books and watching movies where black guys were cast as doctors and lawyers and romantic leads as often as they were cast as drug dealers. I don’t know if he would have acted differently in that world, neither do you, but I think it’s pretty plausible he would have been less inclined to see Martin as a threat.

There is serious, immediate work that needs to happen in Gaza and Syria and Parliament and Pharma companies and a thousand other places, I don’t want to minimise that, and this is no kind of substitute. I wish the people on the spot in those situations as much luck as I can, and if I’m honest, I feel a huge whack of guilty gratitude that I’m not in their place. But for the rest of us – if enough readers read and enough writers write, and enough directors cast with as much compassion and empathy and open mindedness as we can, will it make a difference?

I don’t know, no one does, but it can’t hurt. Worst case scenario we get some damn good stories out of it, but best case, long-term? We could change the world.

P.S. This post was prompted by Nick Harkaway’s brilliant piece on Fred the Giraffe Nick finishes the post asking ‘who wants to take a swing at some of this other stuff?’ and this is me thinking about what part of such a swing would look like.

P.P.S Again, I am very aware that these are complex topics and this is a skating gloss at best. Happy to talk about/apologise for and correct any areas where I’m horribly off the mark.

Amazon, Consumers, and Melting Polar Ice

I’m gonna wade into the Amazon/Hachette quagmire real quick, because I feel like there’s something obvious that’s not being said. I’m trusting you guys to let me out alive.

Background: and Hachette (one of the world’s big 5 publishers) have been bashing out the terms of their latest trade deal. Amazon have been playing hardball, stripping the buy buttons from Hachette author’s books and removing them from searches for leverage. Hachette’s been crying foul. (Full disclosure: Hachette recently bought my UK publisher Quercus, so there’s that.)

So, if your major interest in books is buying and reading them (and I don’t mind telling you that I love you), if you’ve noticed the kerfuffle at all, you may have thought something like this:

“My heart is a barren place where the fucks I gave once did grow/Amazon may be a ruthless profit-hungry corporation but surely Hachette is no less so?” *

And I wouldn’t blame you. Amazon is of course, considerably larger than Hachette, but Hachette is only a tiny piece of €8bn French megacorp Lagardere.   Seeing this fight play out can feel a bit like watching one of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies:  two colossal inhuman entities punch each other over and over again, making a huge amount of noise, and yet you just don’t care. Which is why I’d encourage you to stop thinking about the relationship Amazon has with Hachette, and start thinking about the relationship it has with us:  the people who buy, and read books.

At the moment that relationship is… pretty good, actually. Okay, they might not pay as much tax as we’d like, and there are some ugly stories going around about how they treat their employees, but still.  They’ve been really good to consumers. There’s a wide range of products (not just books) they’ve made it easier (and in some cases possible) to get access to. Most importantly, they give us what we want, they give it to us fast, and they give it to us cheap. For now. Why do I say ‘for now’, in that menacingly portentous way? Well, because of the following facts:

1)     Amazon has a huge market share. Around 30% of the total US book market, and judging by Hachette’s numbers, 60% of all ebooks sold in the US, 70% in the UK.


2)      Amazon benefits from market conditions that make it difficult for other companies to compete with them. One big one is DRM law. Cory Doctorow gives a good rundown on this here, but the gist is only Amazon can legally remove the software that locks kindle ebooks to your kindle.  If you switch to a Nook, or a Kobo so you can start buying e-books from someone else, you face either losing access to  the kindle library you’ve already built up, or breaking the law.

3)      Amazon is seeking to create more of these market conditions.  The deal it’s trying broker with Hachette apparently includes a ‘Most Favoured Nation’ clause, which would stop Hachette from allowing its books to be sold cheaper than on Amazon.  Anywhere.  No-one would be able to take customers away from Amazon by undercutting them.

4)      Amazon actually isn’t making as much money from us as they could be. Yet.  Believe it or not, Amazon actually reported a loss in 2012, and barely scraped a profit in 2013, because it’s kept its margins so low while it hoovered up the market. Even so, investors continue to pile money into its stock. The financial markets not being known for their altruism, those investors are presumably expecting (and will demand) that those margins eventually rise.

Taking all that together, you don’t need a degree in economics to see a future where Amazon can put the price of books up to pretty much whatever it likes, where it faces significant shareholder pressure to do so, and we just have to suck it up. This isn’t a moral statement. It’s just the economic reality: the more we buy from Amazon the more other book retailers go out of business, the greater Amazon’s power to set the range and price of books becomes.

If all this sounds to you like the paranoid ramblings of a fantasy author with an agenda, well, fair enough, but I’d point you back at one of the tactics Amazon’s been using in its scrap with Hachette – removing the ‘preorder’ buttons. The only way this exerts any leverage on the publisher is if there are people who want a book, and who would buy the book from Amazon, who won’t or can’t buy it from anyone else. That’s the definition of monopoly power, and Amazon is already using it.  So I guess the question is, in a future where they have more of it, why would you expect them to stop?

Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean Amazon is evil, it doesn’t mean that if a publisher was in a position of market dominance it wouldn’t behave exactly the same way.  Amazon’s just doing what big corps do, pursuing its own interests. Hitherto, those interests have aligned pretty closely with the consumer’s, but things change. The reason this is important though, I mean really important, isn’t actually about Amazon. Whisper who dares, but it might be even more important than books.

Here’s why: Consumers – i.e. we – wield a huge amount of power in today’s globalized economy.Look at it this way:  if you live in a democracy you probably get to vote for your government every four or five years, but in the meantime, every dollar you spend is a vote for more of what you spent that dollar on. It’s  a vote for more of the company that sold it to you, and for more companies to act the way that company did so they can get ahead. That’s just the way the world is now, we don’t get to choose whether we vote with our wallets, the only choice we have is whether or not we’re going to do it consciously and effectively. It’s maybe the single greatest source of power we have in the modern world and we have a tendency to be… a little short-termist with it.

Look at global warming. Every climate scientist under the sun is lining up to tell us that unchecked, the economic choices we’re making are going to end the world as we know it. I wish that was hyperbole but it’s not. The best experts we have on this stuff tell us were staring down the barrel of increasingly severe floods, droughts (and hence food shortages) and enforced mass migration, but we’re still flying, driving and burning as merrily as we ever have. Why? Because the worst of the problems are likely to fall a few decades into the future, while cutting back would cost us now.

I’m not saying Amazon’s dominance of the e-book market is a problem on that scale.  It might not even be a problem at all, I mean:  ‘available fast and cheap’ is pretty persuasive, as Amazon’s market share bears out. But I do think it’s important to take the power we have through and over markets seriously, and to get into the habit of considering the impact on the future of those markets when we buy. These kinds of decisions,  the ‘where should I buy my books ‘ and how ‘where should I get my fried chicken’  decisions, are the paddling pool where we can develop that habit,  before we launch into the full-on transatlantic swim of tackling climate change. Intuitively, I think most of us understand that trying to get as much as we can as cheap as we can right now  can endanger our ability to get what we need in years to come.  But we need to start buying like we understand it, and to be honest, I think we need to do it fast.

*Forsooth and verily, poetry is not my forte. +I know there’s a hefty whack of economic privilege inherent in this perspective, and it’s certainly true that for many people not choosing the cheapest, most immediate source of a good simply isn’t an option. But I don’t think that makes it any less of an imperative for those of who can afford to take a longer term view to do so. Quite the opposite.

CORRECTION:  31/7/14 Amazon didn’t remove buy buttons from Hachette physical books, but it did  remove the pre-order buttons from them, as well as not stocking them so they took longer to arrive.

The Long Con at Loncon

Loncon is a-comin’ round the bend. Here’s what I’m up to and when. If you’re around in the Excel, do come say hey!

Fresh Beasts

Thursday 15:00 – 16:30, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)

YA writers seem particuarly keen on supernatural monsters. Have we mined out the traditional ones — the Vampires, demons and zombies? What fresh angles would breathe new afterlife into them? Or do we need a whole slew of fresh beasts to keep the reader’s interest?

Oisin McGann, Tom Pollock, Sarah Rees Brennan, V. E. Schwab, Catherynne M. Valente

YA Books Set in London

Thursday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)

Dark alleys, cocky cockneys, a stewpot of cultures from every corner of the globe and layer upon layer of history… London is the perfect setting for adventures of every sort. What are the best YA books that London has inspired? Have any of them added to the city’s mystique? What can the viewpoint of a YA protagonist bring to the reader’s perception of this magnificent city that an adult viewpoint couldn’t?

Tom Pollock (M), Edward James , Ian McDonald , Gillian Polack , Liesel Schwarz

Urban Fantasy: London

Friday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

The early twenty-first century commercial explosion of urban fantasy — first person, coexisting supernatural creatures, often noirish — was, at least initially, driven by the American market and American writers. Increasingly, however, writers such as Kate Griffin, Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell are writing contemporary urban fantasy set in the UK and, in particular, in London. How has crossing the Atlantic changed this subgenre? How is it similar to or different from older forms of British urban fantasy?

Gillian Redfearn (M), Tony Ballantyne , MaryAnn Johanson , Suzanne McLeod, Tom Pollock, Russell Smith

Reading: Tom Pollock

Friday 20:30 – 21:00, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)

Okay, so this is a half-hour reading slot. Which is INSANE. I I will read briefly from Our Lady of The Streets, but to make the time I will also read from anything you want to bring a long for me to read from: my personal brownie recipe! Your book! Dinorotica (depending on the age group and appetite in the room)*

*I reserve the right to refuse things if they’re offensive and or copyrighted against this sort of thing. Also to ask for help with dialogue from the audience. (if there still is one.)


Who misplaced the Monster Compendium?

Saturday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

When was the last time a fantasy novel had a golem or a cockatrice? How long is it since someone fought a giant, flesh-eating beast instead of another dude with a sword? Where did all the monsters go? With quest plots out of fashion, deus ex machina ditched, treasure-hunting too economically simplistic, and stories more likely to lavish pages on their heroes’ motivations for fighting than on blow-by-blow battles with deadly creatures, is the monster still relevant in today’s fantasy?

Julie Crisp (M), Tom Pollock , Adrian Tchaikovsky , K. J. (Kirsten) Bishop , Rjurik Davidson


Sunday 15:00 – 16:00, London Suite 4 (ExCeL)


Tom Pollock, Michelle Sagara