As Libya is on the verge of shrugging off the chains of the most comic-book of the villainous Middle Eastern dictators, I thought it would be fun to look at some slightly more fictional varieties of Gaddafi et al. With his elite guard of female killers and penchant for a fancy costume and ranting speeches, I reckon he’d fit in nicely amongst this lot.
I’m thinking out loud here, so please do indulge me.
Adrian Faulkner tells a story on his excellent blog about a work colleague with a newly acquired e-reader, and his attitude to the cost of content for the device. In short, he thinks e-books are overpriced, and has taken to torrenting. Adrian recoils at this, and I agree. But at the same time…
I’m in the same position as his workmate John. I received a Kindle as a birthday gift, and love it to bits. But I was immediately struck by the disparity of pricing on the online store. Like most people with a new Kindle, I zealously hit the free or dirt cheap options, grabbing the complete works of Dostoyevsky and Dickens for less than I’d pay the lovelies at AMT Coffee for my morning cup of joe. But there were also Penguin editions of the same works that cost exactly the same as the paperback editions. There will, granted, be differences in translation, and of course e-books are liable to VAT, but apart from that I can’t see how that justifies a 700% difference in price point.
Modern authors also exhibit this disparity. Stephen King’s Under The Dome is a whopping £16.99 in the Kindle Store. You’ll pay half that for the paperback. I love Stephen King, but I’m caught in a bad place here. I don’t want to lug a breezeblock sized brick of paper around with me. That was a prime factor in buying an e-reader in the first place. At the same time, I’m buggered if I’m paying the thick end of £20 for it. Thus the dilemma that John has easily solved by merrily downloading his books for free. I don’t agree with what he’s doing, but I can kind of see his point. (In my case, I shall get the book out of the library, assuaging my conscience and supporting an essential public resource at the same time).
Part of the problem is the perception of worth. John thinks e-books are worth less than a hardback book. He sees craft and manufacturing cost in the heft and weight of a fat wodge of paper. He seems unaware of the fact that the paper is simply a carrier for the important stuff, the words on the page. But it’s not surprising he’s confused. There’s no consistency of pricing. A best selling CD, book, or DVD will cost you different amounts depending on where you buy it. And frequently when you buy it. Wait a few months after release, and a lot of titles suddenly have a huge discount applied, or turn up in twofer deals. Or sometimes free on the covers of newspapers.
Here’s a challenge. Given the choice between a vanilla DVD title in a cardboard sleeve with no extras for nothing, and a “normally” priced copy of the same thing with all the extras, I will lay money that the majority of people will plump for the freebie. I’m not talking your film buff or cineaste here. I’m talking about the man in the street. The sort of person that doesn’t want a director talking over the top of their Saturday night movie. The sort of person who doesn’t care about deleted scenes because if they were any good, they’d be in the film, wouldn’t they?
Of course, these films aren’t free. They’re promotional items, and you pay for the newspaper to get them. But they have the word FREE all over them. In the same way, musicians are now expected to put tracks online for free, again as promotion for full works. And here’s the problem. There’s already confusion over an object’s perceived worth. The idea of not paying anything for your entertainment has become an encouraged, acceptable option, regardless of the intention behind giving it away.
Neil Gaiman has extolled the virtues of this approach, citing the uptick in sales after doing just that for an audiobook of American Gods. Thriller writer Stephen Leather has done the same thing, putting his early work on the Kindle store for under a quid a shot. Again, this has been highly successful. But these are established artists, able to control the pricing structure of their material. If you’re a struggling author or film-maker, the appearance of your work on a torrent or Rapidshare feed chews up your revenue stream in a moment. If the film or book is all there is, if there’s no back catalogue for which you can use that free item as a loss leader, then the strategy seems to have failed.
That sounds incredibly negative, I know, and there’s no easy answer. Once people get used to the idea of free, then it’s really tough to change their minds. It’s easier than ever to get your work out to an audience, and much more difficult to get them to pay for it. It’s completely doable, of course – look at the success Amanda Palmer has had. She completely gets the vital role in keeping her audience sweet. She works incredibly hard at connecting and communicating with her fans.
There are ways of turning negatives into positives, too. Steve Lieber’s “Die Hard in a cave” comic Underground was merrily pirated by fans on 4Chan. Instead of complaining or issuing lawsuits, Leiber went on the site, and began chatting with the fans of his work, pointing out that the book was available as a print edition. Net result: a massive spike in sales. Similarly, fantasy author J.S. Chancellor asked people who had downloaded her work to leave reviews of it on Facebook and Amazon. It worked, and again, an uptick in sales was the result.
Self-pub and self-distribution is a tricky business to get right. It takes imagination, guile and a lot of effort to make a buck in this new marketplace, and the strategies that work for one artist are more than likely not going to work for another. Persuading your public that your work has value is more than half the battle, but if you can win that battle then good times approacheth. The Johns of this world can be talked into paying for their books and movies, if you talk to them in the right way.
(EDIT: to correct the schoolboy error JS Chancellor pointed out in the comments.)
This is not a review. This will not be fair, or balanced, or even particularly well informed. It will be full of spoilers. I’m not here to measure the virtues against the flaws.
I’m here to talk about the idea behind Never Let Me Go, why it patently, clearly doesn’t work and how dressing up a core SF trope in literary clothes is a dirty trick.
The story, as brought to us by the chronicler of the English mind Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in an England where cloning for body parts is legal and accepted. Of course, we’re not told that all at once. Instead, we’re introduced to the student body of Hailsham, a secluded boarding school. They are your usual bunch of artsy upper-middle class wet sponges, who flop about making doe eyes at each other, without the faintest idea in their heads that something is remiss here even when teachers keep bursting into tears and rushing out of the classrooms. They are educated, sent out into sheltered accommodation, and when the time is right, harvested. All of which they accept with a stoic, bovine acquiescence. There’s no sense that they can escape their fate, that they can find a life outside their defined role.
The idea of a society that would openly sanction or even allow organ harvesting is intriguing, and leads me to wonder what that world would look like. It would be a very different place.. The very idea that we would tolerate bags of spare parts that looked like Keira Knightley wandering the streets is one that takes a bit of a stretch. We’re squeamish at the best of times. We allow factory farming because it is convenient, cheap, and above all out of sight. The butcher’s counters at Tesco tend not to have attached abattoirs. Let’s face it, if scientists came up with a talking cow, the numbers of vegetarians would spike overnight
At the end of the story, Hailsham is revealed to be a failed experiment – an attempt to show that clones have souls. It’s never made clear why the school was closed. Was it that, like Philip K. Dick’s replicants, the Hailsham kids don’t show emotions, but rough approximations, fakes, large-scale autonomic reflexes that just happen to look like fear or love? Or, more likely, that the clones are indeed human, and that we don’t care? That if the program were to be shut down then the crisis that forced us into the position of creating the clones in the first place could reoccur, putting society back to square one? All of these questions are never addressed, which is a shame, because the society in which Hailsham exists deserves a second look. Never Let Me Go seems to depict us reverted to a slaver’s past, a time when we could quite easily look on certain creeds and colours as resources, as tools. But we never see this world beyond the narrow focus of the Hailsham kids, and they’re all too drippy to give a toss about.
None of this is new, of course. The nature of humanity is a core concept in SF. One of the formative books of the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, deals with that very issue. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep brings us Roy Batty, rebelling against his nature and destiny to find his humanity despite the cruellest of barriers – a shortened life span. The Clonus Horror, a 1979 SF movie takes the whole idea of clones and organ harvesting and gives it a pulpy spin. Michael Bay’s 2005 clunker The Island takes the same tack, mirroring the Clonus story so closely that it led to a lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement. Both films pitch the clone factory as a conspiracy that, once revealed, brings the whole edifice down. Never Let Me Go doesn’t bother with that kind of closure. The characters simply shrug and carry on, plodding onto the killing floor with uncomplaining docility.
The primary disconnect for me comes from the idea that the clones need to have feelings and emotions in the first place. Surely if we have the technology to create something like that, it would be far more cost effective to make them obviously non-human. It’s just the organs we want, after all. Build something with a rudimentary brainstem, or the capacity for self-awareness of your average squirrel, make it mobile enough that it can feed and water itself without the ability to run away, and there you go, job done. If you can sort out a resealable zipper so you can pop out the organs you need, so be it. A farm animal, effectively.
Or, if we absolutely positively have to have intelligent, self-aware bipeds, we could quite easily condition them to embrace their position in life, so that they see their eventual sacrifice as a good thing. I’m thinking the way the lower classes in Huxley’s Brave New World are so happy with their lot that the idea of rising above their station fills them with nausea. I’m thinking the Ameglian Major Cow from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, so happy with it’s fate that it cheerfully points out the best cuts to potential diners. The one problem I always had with Duncan Jones’ masterful Moon was that Sam had to have memories of his “past life”. Why would he not simply be conditioned to be happy where he was, even to the point of tidying himself away at the end of his “shift?”
I can deal with Never Let Me Go, just, barely, if I look on it as a kind of satire both on factory farming and a very British kind of stoic resignation to one’s fate. Otherwise, it’s simply too ridiculous a concept to take seriously. The idea hangs together if you treat it as a life-extending plot committed by the rich and powerful that will be busted and brought down by our clone heroes. But Ishiguru ties a Swiftian-style Modest Proposal to a very English love triangle, and it’s simply too unwieldy a prospect to float. The fact that it’s been sold to the public as a love story from the writer of The Remains Of The Day is dangerously close to misrepresentation. It’s a bleak account of a particularly nasty kind of dystopia that doesn’t even have the guts to give the audience a dose of closure.
Needless to say, I won’t be seeing this one. I think a rewatch of The Island might be in order. There’s a film that knows it’s stupid.