Recommended: The Price of Being … With Sunita

If only I were capable of giving a fine book the review it richly deserves, I would be doing that right now for ‘The Price of Being .. With Sunita’ by Michael Graeme (on Wattpad from the link above). Like many of Michael’s books, this story is classifiable as sci-fi/fantasy but is also literature in the classic sense. Michael is right there in my mind with the great patient chroniclers of human behavior, a Thackery or Zola for our time.

The novel begins with a very ordinary and even uncomfortable situation – a middle aged man is shyly ogling a beautiful woman. She, we soon discover, is far more than that. She is a being with powers, but far from simply serving as a metaphor or an archetypal goddess, Sunita is a complicated creature whose abilities raise difficult moral issues, the permutations and ramifications of which Michael carefully and thoroughly explores.

If you could do good for others, merely by wishing it, what would be the consequences? In a fabulous turn of wish fulfillment, Sunita is also noticing our poor, bland middle-aged dude, Derek. She believes he also has powers, and wants to train him in the ways. Derek is happy to follow along, he’s a puppy with a heart of gold and as they journey together in ways beyond mere mortals, they come across a series of obstacles, all of which are very much rooted in the present – terrorism, the surveillance state, racial profiling, and the lust of evil men, while at the same time encountering the limits of charity and good will.

Nothing is as easy at it seems, not even for those with magical powers. There is always a cost, a price to be paid, and sometimes the price can be ‘being’ itself.

Michael tells a great story and he writes with style, grace and patience. I was fortunate enough to be able to read the story as he was writing it, serially, eagerly anticipating the next chapter. It is now complete, and I believe he brought it off well. Highly recommended.

How My Brain Ended Up Free Online

When I was born I was so small I was mistaken for a french fry. I was never an ordinary child. My best friend was a seagull. I was also illegal. Artificially intelligent people like me had been banned ever since that thing with the Twelve Elevens. Mother raised me for profit. Buyers and sellers had other plans for me, but then I grew a mind of my own. This is my story, the story of how my brain ended up in this box.

My new short novel is now available from the usual suspects:

for free from Smashwords or Feedbooks or from Amazon Kindle if for some reason you feel like throwing ninety nine cents at it. It’ll make it onto Wattpad too one of these days (in the meantime, I have other stuff there if you’re a Wattpadite)

HowMyBrain_Cover1

Robots, Jobs and Handbaskets

There is no shortage of handbaskets in which the world can go to hell, and certainly robots qualify as one. It’s something to think about, as technology more and more ‘disrupts’ one industry after another. What will be the impact of automation devices in the short- and long-term future? An interesting take on this is provided by the novel Robonomics, by S.A. Wilson, available on Wattpad. In this book teachers are the focus as the target of a general takeover by robot instructors. Told in the first-person by schoolteacher Andrea Anderson, society at large undergoes great shifts as more and more workers are replaced by automatons, unions are busted, protests are infiltrated and co-opted, the underclass grows and the world goes to hell. Wilson is a polished writer who covers a lot of bases in telling the story, and moves the tale forward mainly by dialog and critical events. I would have been interested to see more of the micro-experience, more of the inside-the-classroom-with-the-robot and perhaps a bit less of the macro-society stuff, but that’s just my personal preference. The story reminded me in some ways of a very different ‘handbasket’ story, Blue Tent by Carla Herrera, which is an intensely focused and more visceral evocation of a similar dark future.

There is no doubt that occupations face challenges from future automation. We already have more and more automated factories and warehouses, mechanical jobs that require minimal human interaction. A higher level disruption, such as teachers and doctors, is probably a considerable way off. It would begin, I think, with more low-hanging fruit, such as cashiers. There are now self-checkout lines in more stores, and jobs are certainly lost by that.  ATM machines are another case in point. There are definite limitations with this approach. These, like Facebook, turn the customer into the worker, and that doesn’t fly so well with the higher income levels, whose clear preference is for personal service. Rich people want to be served by poorer people, not by machines, and certainly not machines that make them do any actual work. It’s one thing for Home Depot to have self-checkout lines – that’s a store for do-it-yourselfers who are happy to do it themselves, but I doubt we’ll ever see such things in upscale environments.

Speaking of scale, that’s another reason why I don’t see actual physical robots replacing people in professions such as teaching. Instead, and we are already seeing this, online classes are far more likely to deprecate and deplete that profession. Sites like Khan Academy, and the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, are based in the cloud which makes them not only much cheaper but also much more efficient and effective. These classes can iterate rapidly, weeding out the unproductive from the more productive, and self-improve at a rapid rate. In the classroom, teachers will likely – as in Robonomics- become more like monitors, shepherding students’ interactions with their laptop software, and possibly supplementing and guiding one-on-one a little where necessary.

Another reason not to be in such dread of ‘everyone losing their jobs to robots’ is the cost, especially relative to small businesses, which are still, and likely to remain, a large source of job creation. Small business with few employees are also less likely to automate with robots because of the customer service aspect. Kiosks work at airports for self check-in, but can you visualize your local liquor store being manned by a robot? Or the gift shop? Or any small shop in a touristy or trendy neighborhood? I don’t see it. Crappy jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, while some professional jobs may suffer from skills deprecation. We have automated stock trading, but we still have stock brokers. We have ATMs but we still have tellers, if not as many. There will probably be some self-driving cars replacing some taxis at some point and maybe fairly soon, just as there already are fully automated train shuttles at airports, but I think it’s still a way off before no human ever drives a car. The technological challenges are also stiff; human interaction requires deep awareness of context, and applications like Siri show that we have a long way to go before a true AI is achieved.

The future will be made by people, though, and novelists are among the people who create the visions and the expectations, as well as the warnings and the guidance which define that future, and novels like Robonomics are worthy contributions to that project.

Recommended: Wren, on Wattpad

Wren” is an ongoing serialized novel by Ericka Clay (free on Wattpad) about a character from another novel  (“White Smoke”). Wren is a dirt-poor hard-scrabble small-town high-school girl in some Arkansas backwater, up to her eyeballs in multiple disasters and surrounded by a wooly collection of losers. As they said in the Occupy days, “shit is all fucked up”. She uses, she deals, she gets in fights, her mom’s aborting her baby sister, her dad is dead, her boyfriend’s a cheating scumbag, and high school sucks. In the midst of all that, this girl crackles with life. Ericka writes a vivid character, so alive you can almost even hear the kid’s thoughts out loud. The story is well in line with a long tradition of “poor kid” novels, from Oliver Twist on down, and films like Boy and many others, and it has the contemporary touch of a Breaking Bad as well, so it’s familiar territory. Readers will know their way around, and the tricky parts are 1) avoiding the easy cliches and 2) giving the character her own distinctive perspective and voice. So far (three chapters in), Ericka’s “gittin’ ‘er done”. You might get hooked on Wren. I’d say give it a whirl.

Goodreads Giveaway: Dragon City

Unfortunately, the Goodreads Giveaway Widget doesn’t work on WordPress, but anyway …

I am doing a Goodreads Giveaway of the paperback version of Dragon City, five copies to be shipped to winners picked at random by Goodreads, but the epub ebook version is also available for free from Goodreads consisting of all four books in the series: Snapdragon Alley, Freak City, Dragon Town and Happy Slumbers (which are all also available for free from Smashwords and Feedbooks in any case)

I was a bit lazy about getting my cover to work with CreateSpace’s cover designer, so I went with a simpler design using one of their built-in formats. Still pretty nice, I think

Chasing the Secret Amazon Algorithm

Holy Smokes!

Some indie writers are going bonkers trying to keep up with the ever-shifting, ever-obscure, even legendary beast, the Amazon Kindle Ranking Algorithm. Apparently, this secret formula, this special sauce, is continually being whipped up and mixed up and conjured up so that Amazon can maximize the almighty dollar or at least provide some handy CYA for its marketing managers.

A bestseller list used to be based more or less on how many copies a book sold. I say ‘more or less’ because over time that kind of turned into ‘how many copies were bought by bookstores, not by people’, and in turn that changed into ‘how many copies were bought by the only two bookstore chains that mattered, Borders and Barnes and Noble’, and that changed, yet again, into a serpent eating its tail, because the publishers eventually only printed as many copies as those chains would buy, so that a bestseller was already pre-determined before it was even printed and possibly before it was even written.

Strange but true.

Now come these upstart ebooks with their wonky prices of 99 cents or $2.99 or even $0.00 for goodness sakes! So Amazon apparently decided to adjust their rankings on the basis of some combination of price and category and KDP-Select-program-participation (a.k.a. Amazon exclusivity) and witch-hazel and eye-of-newt and so on. Frantically, indie writers are kept scrambling to figure out what are the proper price points and keywords and tags and categories that will garner them the most ‘reach’ and the highest possible rankings in order for THEM to maximize THEIR almighty dollar and coerce a WIN-WIN out of this ungodly situation.

I wish them all the best of luck, and leave you with my ode to maximization, brought to you by that dimwitted darling of dementia, Beauregaard and Scooter.