Great Year for My Reading Habit

Twenty Fourteen is shaping up to be a terrific year for my favorite authors and book series. Here are some of the books I can’t wait to read (in order of release date):

  • 2/20: Influx by Daniel Suarez – I’ve not read the most recent books by Suarez, but I loved the Daemon series and plan to read these Gibson-esque near-future novels.
  • 3/3: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson – I just finished the first Stormlight Archive novel (and it’s massive) and it is already one of my favorite fantasy series, with a very unique world and terrific characters.
  • 3/11: Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson – Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that the sequels/prequals/expanded universe novels haven’t been as good as the Frank Herbert novels. To be fair, not all of the Frank Herbert novels were on the same level, either. However, I’m such a Dune junkie, I eat these up with glee.
  • 6/17: Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey – A new Expanse book is also getting to be nearly an annual event, thankfully (of course, with two authors under one pen name, one would expect some turn around!). I started the series last year right on time for the third book, and I’ve been waiting for the fourth ever since about a day afterwards.
  • 7/15: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie – Okay, I’ve got a few books to read in this fantasy series to catch up to this one, but I really liked Abercrombie’s first books.
  • 8/5: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman – The Magician’s series has been one of the most refreshing things in all of fantasy in a very long time. I’ve eagerly awaiting the final(?) book in the series to see what ending befalls Quentin and crew.
  • 8/12: The Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb – Another series I’ve got to play catch-up on, but I really liked the first two novel of Fitz and the Fool.
  • 8/26: Lock In by John Scalzi – It’s a new storyline (and possibly a series; at least there’s a novella to precede it), but Scalzi’s wit is always welcome in science fiction. He’s already released a novella in the same world as this novel.
  • 10/7: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice was one of my favorite books of last year and I’m very happy that Leckie had the second novel in the series in the chamber (or she is an incredibly fast writer, which is rare but would be welcome). Her first book was nominated for almost every award imaginable and I sincerely hope she wins them all!
  • 10/7: Armada by Ernest Cline – I loved Cline’s first novel and can’t wait to see what he’s got next.
  • 10/21: The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chronicle of the Fallers by Peter F. Hamilton – A new Commonwealth universe book!
  • 10/28: The Peripheral by William Gibson – He’s back into the dystopian, distant future. Not that I haven’t enjoyed the future-of-10-minutes-from-now novels, either.
  • 11/18: Clakkers by Ian Tregellis – A new series starting in Tregellis’ coldest war universe.
  • 11ish? The Thorn of Emberlain by Scott Lynch – A new Gentleman Bastards book is getting to be like clockwork from Lynch. So far, he’s kept the characters rich and slowly pulling the curtain back on a much larger fantasy world. This one doesn’t yet have a firm release date, but I’m holding out hope.

Of course, it’s highly possible (actually, almost certain) I’ll not get all of these books read by the end of 2014, but I welcome the challenge gladly!

It’s tough to pick just one that I’m most anxious about, but it would probably have to be Ancillary Sword.

I was going to end this post with a pithy remark how if only Patrick Rothfuss and GRRM would release some new novels this year, it would be complete. Well, no new novels, but Rothfuss is releasing a novella in the Kingkiller Chronicles in October and GRRM is also contributing a Game of Thrones (actually, Song of Fire & Ice) short story to a fantasy collection (Rogues) out next month he is co-editing (which also contains other stories from many of these authors along with others I enjoy reading).

So, yeah, 2014 is pretty much shaping up to be a near perfect year for genre fiction!

That being said, Patrick Rothfuss and GRRM having until about midnight, December 31st, 2015 to get out The Doors of Stone and The Winds of Winter until I start pestering them.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

I recently listened to the direct-to-English translation of Solaris commissioned by Audible.com. While I could appreciate much of the novel, I frankly didn’t find it all that enjoyable of a read/listen. I felt guilty about my 3-star review on Goodreads.com until I noticed that Patrick Rothfuss gave it 2 stars.
SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love science fiction with truly ‘alien’ aliens. That being said, perhaps Lem went a bit too far in creating something we literally cannot comprehent or communicate with.

After having recently watched the Soderbergh film from 2002, I decided I’d like to read the ‘original’ (well, the recent Amazon/Audible-directed translation into English; not the Polish). Having read the book, I can truly appreciate what a let-down the movie was. While it was great movie, to paraphrase Lem, it was “love in outer space”, not “Solaris.” The film doesn’t show a single wave or surface formation and I barely recall them mentioning an ‘ocean’. It’s pretty important to the book, which reminds me…

…this is a book review, so I’ll discuss the book and why I felt compelled to give a widely-regarded masterpiece only three stars. I can certainly appreciate that the book is about the inability for humans to effectively communicate with a truly ‘alien’ species. But the complete lack of any real interaction between humanity and the planet was frustrating. People go there and occasionally die, but their exploration with this largely inert thing consists of fly-bys. However, an entire branch of science has been dedicated to the planet/being. This results in lots of dry descriptions of explorations which sum to nill knowledge. Again, I concede it’s the philosophical point Lem is trying to make. I just argue it doesn’t make for the most engaging reading. It feels more like reading a National Weather Center’s description of the history of hurricanes in outer space (*makes note for idea of future scifi novel*).

Further, I felt the inability of the scientists to get over the shame, guilt, etc. they feel about their visitors hard to connect with. There’s been a shift in common attitudes between 1961 Poland and 2013 America which perhaps makes it hard for me to grasp the attitudes of dedicated scientists. Kelvin clearly recognizes this issue and hopes to address it, but I never felt any sense of getting anywhere this nudge in attitudes.

As I stated, I truly enjoy alienness in scifi, and I would recommend this book to anyone who does as well. I just wished I could have enjoyed it more.


View all my reviews

The Windup Girl

I finished the audiobook of The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi multi-award winning novel about life in a dystopic Thailand after global warming and genetic engineering have wrecked much of modern society. Bacigalupi is a wonderful writer and it is an imaginative story, worthy of the praise and awards that were heaped on it after the book’s release nearly two years ago.

The Story

The story follows the intersection of a half-dozen-or-so key characters who have all found themselves in the Bangkok. While each character has a great deal of depth, it is really the city and—through the limited lens we’re allowed—the world that Bacigalupi describes that are the star.

Often, the story told in a novel falls into one of two categories: an epic tale starting from small events leading to world-changing epochs and their aftermath or (and this is case with The Windup Girl) we are given but a narrow window into a greater world. Bacigalupi gives hints at the various events that brought about the lives we are presented in this story though very little is given as to where those lives go afterwards. We are just presented with a glimpse on the crossroads of these characters. While I found myself wanting more of their stories, I want to know more about the rest of the world even more so. I want to know about the inner workings of AgriGen. I want to know just what went down in Finland. And I want to know if life in Japan is as luxurious as it sounds when compared to the rest of the world in The Windup Girl.

Audiobook

The audiobook is performed by the excellent Jonathan Davis. The first audiobook performance I listened to of his was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, one that remains a high mark of narration in my mind. His wide range of accents and voices truly feels like a cast of performers. Unfortunately, unlike Snow Crash, the pace felt too slow in The Windup Girl. Davis’ pauses and cadences went beyond dramatic and bordered on tedious at various points. The book isn’t a particularly long novel but yet the performed at such a slow pace, the audiobook was terribly long. For reference, Snow Crash is 480 pages and the Davis-performed audiobook just over 17 hours where as The Windup Girl is 361 pages and the audiobook by the same performer is 19 and a half hours long1. Though I’m a fan of Davis’ work and look forward to listing to more of his reading, this particular performance drug on more than I cared for.

Slow pace aside, the audiobook is good and the story is great. I highly recommend it and truly hope that Bacigalupi takes us back to this world again very soon.

  1. I’m aware page isn’t a standardized metric, but I can’t account for that increase in length other than very slow performance.

Star Trek: The Animated Series Online

When I was a kid growing up in the eighties, in a very rural part of the country, my exposure to Star Trek was somewhat limited. I was too young to the original series that much, opting for Lost in Space reruns if they were on, instead. However, when Nickelodeon began showing reruns of Star Trek: The Animated Series
, I was very much into it.

Unlike the original series (and, for that matter, subsequent ST series), this show had very alien-looking aliens1. Though some of the stories were cribbed almost line for line from the original series, some others were new and even more fantastic than anything with live actors. My wife is a die-hard ST: The Next Generation fan and I’d venture most folks either go for the original series or TNG. The Animated Series has always been my favorite.

So I’m very excited that CBS is streaming all of the episodes on StarTrek.com.

Decent animation, good stories, and voice acting from the origonal series stars (including, the wonderful James Doohan as Arex as well as his more famous character, Scotty)

I just watched the first episode over lunch and I can’t wait to watch more with the family. Given the very different budgetary concerns of animation, where special effects are cheap but each frame costs a lot, the show has little movement in any given shot but the shots are often dramatic. In fact, rather than looking as dated as one might expect, much of the show looks like a modern flash-animated series for those very same reasons. The stories are excellent; on par with a good science fiction novel and with less techno-babble than many series in the genre suffer from2. Though

  1. I have read that part of this was Gene Rodenbury’s desire to never cover the actor’s features. He seemed to feel that a more realistic portrayal of an alien’s emotions and facial expressions was more important that make-up and prosthetics. Admirable, though there is absolutely no reason to believe that alien species would express things in the same way as us (or even have the same emotions or logic), given that pretty much no other species on Earth does.
  2. The jargon used in the first episode is actually all pretty sound science and very little of it is just science-y sounding filler.

The Hyperion Cantos

Last night, I finished the final book in Dan Simmon‘s epic science fiction tetralogy1, the Hyperion Cantos. My immediate reaction to the series’ conclusion was that I only want to read it again. They are just that great of a read.

In fact, if anyone who knows me had read these previously and didn’t recommend them to me, we are no longer friends. I am sincerely angry that I didn’t read these as soon as they were published (though getting to read the whole series back-to-back is at least some compensation). I spent a portion of my college years looking for more novels like Frank Herbert’s Dune and, as it turns out, Dan Simmons was writing them at that same time.

In spite of my significant and legitimately earned geek-cred.2, I have to confess a lack of knowledge when it comes to some of the high literature of science fiction. I have done my best and was raised well3, but I had decided that I needed to really educate myself on scifi and fantasy literature. So, I added any Hugo or Nebula winning books to my audiobook wish list at the library. By luck, Hyperion happened to be one of the first that was immediately available.

I didn’t have to get too far into that book to see that it was going to be something special. Oh, at first, it seemed like a science fiction version of Chaucer, but I’m pretty sure Chaucer didn’t have a Shrike; a creature describe with such terrible details that actually found myself looking over my shoulder at night. Something can be said for any book that can elevate your heart rate.

And though the Shrike thing is undoubtable why many are attracted to the book, it is the sense of mystery and promise that something lies deeper. The reader quickly senses that there are layers here; that the story is unfolding in something other than a straight line. In fact, throughout the series, we learn that the events aren’t even simply parallel but truly nonlinear.

Simmons uses various writing styles and literary devices, but always with a sense of purpose. When it I first feared that Simmons was simply exercising, it would later see that whatever device was in play served the story rather than some writer’s need to experiment. What’s more, there is a real sense of closure at the end that can only come from a writer’s long planning and effort. Though at times, Simmons could have left a little more to the imagine of his reader rather than grab them by the collar and shake them, I never felt a sense that he forgot the previous events in this epic.

What’s more &emdash; and this is where I feel that the Hyperion Cantos is closest to the Dune series &emdash; is that even though this is an epic journey, with events spanning a millennium and detailing the evolution of the human race, the story focuses on a few key figures and remains a personal story of their journey. Journey, in the Hyperion Cantos, is a word which Simmons also embues with every meaning possible. Again, what feels like something which could have started as a creative writing exercise is place in perfect context to serve a greater story. I must not be alone as this is a series where each book was nominated for notable literary awards, with three of the novels winning one or more awards. Though this is truly a book that has all of the trappings of science fiction, the personal tales are the elements which make it great. I can tell you with no sense of shame that there were moments that brought tears to my eyes.

So, if it is clear: go read these books if you haven’t. I won’t be the kind of friend who doesn’t recommend them. And, if any of you have any similar recommendations for me, you’d better make them now before I find them on my own. Else, we’ll be having words, my (former) friend.

Which reminds, me I need to get back to my library list and see whatever great gems are out there that I have missed, including some others by Simmons.

  1. Though, it seems that Simmons feels these are really two novels, broken apart for publishing.
  2. Seriously, I throw down with you nerds any time. I was born a nerd and ain’t no Johnny-come-lately to this stuff just because skinny guys with iPods are cool.
  3. Some of my very first memories are of hobbits sneaking into Mordor, as my mom read Tolkien to my brother and me.

Pandorum

I watched Pandorum over the course of a couple of days this past week1. I really hadn’t seen or read a lot about the film, other than a trailer and a very short interview with Dennis Quaid on Leno (or some evening talk show). I wasn’t really sure what to expect; but whatever I was expecting, this film wasn’t quite it.

Needless to say, this is going to be filled with spoilers. You have been warned.

This poster of Pandorum makes sense. The one with the wiring in the man’s arm does not. The latter perhaps let to some of my misplaced expectations.

The film is really like two scifi films spliced together, with only a minimal attempt and bring the stories back together at the end. This, I think, was where I felt most disappointed in the film. And I mean disappointed. I really wanted to love this movie. The acting is really quite good, I thought. Quaid gave one of his stronger performances in some time2. I really liked Ben Foster as Bower. I couldn’t help but think that he reminded of a younger Edward Nortorn; and that is a very good thing. Cam Gigandet was truly un-nerving as Gallo and one of the highlights of the movie. The remainder of the cast were strong and all of the action was believable 3.

As a technical effort, this film truly shows off the German film industry exceedingly well and credit should be given because almost all scenes employ physical sets and real actors & monsters. That’s a rarity in the age of hyper-real CG films like Avatar; and this film looks great. I’ll certainly be watching director Alvart’s other films and would love to see him write/ direct more science fiction. If any were to be set of the planet of Tanis in the 32nd century, all the better.

But at the end of the film, I felt empty. I wanted something more out of this movie that I really wanted to like. It sort of stayed with me for the past few days. Namely, what I think this movie really needed was one strong plot. Instead, it had two weak ones.

In plot A, we have the protagonist who represents sanity and humanity fighting hordes of monsters4 with a few survivors to reach a goal and return. It is pretty classic scifi/ horror/ apocalypse/ survival stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that genre and this film does a modest effort at that.

In plot B, we have a physiological thriller as we try and figure out which of two characters truly suffers from Pandorum (aka – space madness), either the good Lt. Payton or the edgy Gallo. We soon find what passes as the story’s one novel twist in this plot line. That is, that they are Tyler Durden.

Some Issues

Pandorum’s treatment of hyper-sleep for sub-light speed space travel is scifi gold and is rightly used to advance the plot (both of them, actually). From the grogginess and “mild” memory loss to the absolute gross cleaning off of hundreds of years worth of shed skin5, it all really helped to give Pandorum a bit of its own style right from the beginning. It said to me that the writer and director had thought about this and were going to show us their own vision here. It really helps to set why a lot of these events unfold and was a bit of brilliance; and I really hate to see that not play out in the end.

We see the psychological effects of deep space travel as well, in the form of the film’s namesake illness. We get a school-book explanation from Payton early on as Bower asks about him about it. Later, we seen both men seeming to suffer from some of the symptoms. However, other than some weird looks and what we can only assume are hallucinations on the part of Bower, his issues are never really explored (Payton’s & Gallo’s are pretty well explained in full, bad guy monologue style). The polarity of Bower and Payton/Gallo as humanity versus insanity really could have been better dealt with in the film’s climax. We’re left with a sense of confusion. What caused Bower to be able to overcome the illness? What struggles did he face in doing so? Simply having him shake it off seems a bit weak for the illness which so important the film was named after it. Otherwise, we could have called the movie Space Mutant Hunters.

The biggest failure in terms of story is tying the two protagonists together in some meaningful way: Payton/Gallo and the mutant hunters. Just to say that Gallo slept and the hunters evolved is like trying to assume the butterfly effect as a plot device. Sure there may have been some dominoes from one that resulted in the other, but why not give us a bit more of a concrete relationship? This would have woven the two plot lines together, instead of just licking the back of one and hoping it stays on the other.

Some Suggestions

So, what would I have done differently? I mean, after all, I’m just throwing spitballs if I don’t offer something constructive, right?

I think the reactor core should have been related to hunter mutants in a more concrete fashion. There seems to be no rational as to why they all sleep there. It may be a trite scifi convention to claim that exposure to radiation causes rapid (and often horrific, backwards) evolution, but it isn’t so commonplace that it can just be assumed (if that is even what has happened here). So, in very clear terms we should state to the viewers that the ship decided to wake Bower up specifically for his expertise with radiation leaks in reactor cores (most of the flight crew are dead, so the ship has to wake up the one specialist it has left). Unbeknown to the ship and to Bower, some of the passengers closer to the core who were woken by Gallo centuries earlier began to get sick (Pandorum!) never went back to sleep normally. They began to try to use power from the reactor core, but instead damaged it. After generations (and having been given the evolution-enhancing drugs for settlers), they devolved into the hunters we see today. They live near the reactor core as they have learned that it mutates their offspring faster, making them more effective hunters.

As I said, the hunters and Payton/Gallo need a more concrete relationship, as well. Since it is stated that Gallo tried to act like a god, why have the hunters worship him as such. Fear of him and his whims is one of the few human-like thoughts they have passed on. The reactor core room could be strewn with cave markings (as opposed to the cannibal cook’s chamber) telling this story, which serves to tip off Bower6. In fact, they could see him as the destroy of Earth since he delivered the message to their ancestors and revere him as a hunter of whole worlds. To whatever extent the hunters revere him, in the final encounter with Payton/Gallo, the hunters can be sneaking in and just when Bower thinks they’ll do in Payton/Gallo for him, they refuse to and begin advancing on Bower. This would ad a huge level of fear for the protagonists as now both the antagonists are working together. Water & ejecting in a sleep pod due to hull breach would still be an acceptable end to stopping these unstoppable villains of the story.

Also, as stated earlier, seeing the difference in how Pandorum affected both Bower and Payton would have been satisfying. It would have made it clear to us the kind of struggles that both went through but only Bower could overcome. I think if Payton (while in his right mind) had given Bower the advice which allows him to overcome bits of anxiety/ Pandorum/ space-madness; but that Payton himself doesn’t/didn’t follow when he is Gallo. This would tie the two characters together while setting their paths apart in the story.

I would also have liked to have seen the symptoms of Pandorum, specifically the vivid hallucinations aspect, play a little more prominently into the story for Bower. Clearly, the hallucinations were a major component of Payton/Gallo’s story. So why should Bower only see one such hallucination for a short period at the climax of the film? Were more of his interactions actually hallucinations; maybe even ones which he and other human survivors shared? Not to go all deus ex machina here, but what if the whole hunter problem is just a shared hallucination brought on by paranoia and hallucinations of waking crew? Perhaps Pandorum isn’t a rare illness at all, but in fact the norm when a human has been in suspended animation for centuries? Just seems like a host of missed opportunities here in terms of ways to leverage what set this story apart; all given up in favor of the mutant attack movie.

Lastly, while I appreciated the hunters, I think the at some level detracted from the strong part of the story. Too much screen time was spent on them when the truly novel elements of the story were left for us to guess at. Though it pains to me to say it, I’d have actually rather had less killer mutant hordes in this film (and I am indeed a huge fan of killer mutant hordes, to be for sure). Instead, I’d rather seen more on the internal and human/human conflicts.

This notion struck me as a laid down to sleep the evening after having finished watching Pandorum. It wasn’t the hunters that made me take that one last glace over my shoulder before going to sleep. It was the thought of Gallo creeping up behind me. That’s a great villain.

And there it is. Some of the reasons of why I felt like this movie garnered three out of five stars. I wanted to really like it, but couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that in the enormous effort to craft such a well-styled film that much of the plot elements got left in the director’s notebook or on the editing room floor. It is a good scifi film and worth the time of any fan of the genre, just the same.

Note: I haven’t done a film review on this site in quite a long time and I sincerely regret doing so. I hope to get back into that and often it is a book or film such as this – where I felt that it fell just short of being great – that motivates me to do so.

  1. It’s really not Angela’s sort of movie, so I watched it over the course of two lunch breaks. One of the perks of working from home, I suppose.
  2. Though, given that this film came out around the same time as G.I. Joe, that’s a really low personal bar. I haven’t seen Legion, but I’m also not hearing anything positive there, either.
  3. Nothing ruins fight scenes like bad wire work for me. This film has some aerial, Hong Kong style fighting and it is all done well and blends into the film.
  4. The monsters are essentially the Reavers from Firefly/Serenity with a bit of orcs from Lord of the Rings thrown in to make them seem a bit more alien. That being said, they are creepy as hell and work well.
  5. Not that I’m wanting to be overly picky here, but how could Bower have had a thick sheet of skin to pull off and only the kind of beard I grow in a few weeks. I’d have gone with a crazy beard and hair.
  6. Instead, we have Payton’s wife. A memory of a character who is never explained, nor – for that matter – is Payton. Why is Gallo in his chamber? He sort of has to be for the story and yet I don’t recall any explanation of who Payton was or why Gallo would end up there.

Eight Years and Still Suffering

It’s been eight years today since the coordinated attack on New York and Washington D.C. in which almost 3,000 people perished. Most of us have gone on with our lives; I know that feels like a lifetime ago when I recall where I was and what I was doing. However, for many of the first responders and residents in lower Manhattan, life hasn’t gone on. I watched the documentary Dust to Dust: The Health Effects of 9/11 earlier today after thinking about these people. I suppose I had the impression that ill health effects from the recovery and clean-up efforts were limited to a few individuals. If this documentary is even half true1 (and it does seem legit based on some additional reading I did today), the effects were far worse than I imagined.

Dust-to-Dust-title

It is tragic how the people that the nation — and indeed the world — lined up to thank as heroes have been treated since. The documentary lays the blame at the EPA and the Bush administration for mishandling the health issues and rushing back to a sense of normalcy (something which was not without reason; though doesn’t justify the lack of safety precautions). Once we learn about the treatment of these people who ran toward danger and worked tirelessly to help, we all get to shoulder some of that blame, too. We cannot allow people who serve the public to be treated as throw-away tools. It is entirely disrespectful to their sacrifice and it ensures that no one will step up to fill these roles for future generations. I’ve not found anything that suggest these individuals are asking for handouts. They want to be treated with the respect deserved them, those responsible for placing them in unsafe conditions to be held responsible, and to get the care they need. That’s really not asking for much, in my opinion.

So, if you can find an hour to spare, I highly recommend watching this documentary. This isn’t some left- or right-wing political agenda film. It is a intimate look at how modern America, in her rush to get back to our normal way of living, has indeed forgotten about some of those we swore we never would forget.

Incidentally, he documentary is narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. Buscemi, as it turns out, was a former New York City firefighter and returned to New York on Sept. 12 to help aid in recovery efforts for a week. Though no mention is made of this in the documentary (nor if Buscemi himself suffered in ill health effects), he clearly is in a position to help speak out about such an issue.

  1. It is sad in light of such a tragedy that I feel the need to have to include this but I want to be clear that I am not some conspiracy theorist nor am I looking for something to complain about the Bush administration. This just strikes me as a very real and ongoing problem associated with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Free by Chris Anderson

In the prologue, Anderson mentions that his research showed two camps: those above thirty who remain skeptical of anything labeled "free" and those under thirty who think anything digital is generally free. This age definition has nothing to do with Tim Leary and everything to do with the timing of the digital revolution. It was my generation that really took the internets from a academic/ government experiment to the information behemoth that we know it as. These are the people that helped to create the new free and they watched and learned as others toyed with the idea. My position of "free is great so long as it pays" makes sense. I became an adult around this notion. My wife and I both have careers now that our users/patients don’t pay for directly but are added on to make our employers of greater value to the customers.

So, it is from this perspective that I can say that many (most, even) of the core points in Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson are absolutely crucial to business. Especially small businesses and artisans, where nimbleness is a advantage to be leveraged. But still yet it is one that must be reckognized by old, large media such as entertainment and news if they are to flourish going forward1.

emFree: The Future of a Radical Price/em by Chris Anderson (Hyperion)

Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson (Hyperion)

Free as a Concept

I think that there are many small concepts and examples that make the entire book worthwhile for most anyone. But I want to focus on a couple:

First, the idea of examining what is abundant and scarce to you and leveraging those. It is equally important to realize that what is abundant or scarce changes over time and this is why business of old long since died off. Sometimes a commodity may not be truly free, but so cheap as to not make metering it worth one’s time. Using something like this to draw in customers and then getting money out of them (or even a select few, as I’ll get to momentarily) is a key part of making a business on Free.

Secondly, if we are not going to measure something because it is free or nearly free, we can in fact being to waste this sort of commodity. When there is such and abundance of a commodity that we can afford to throw countless numbers into our business, some entirely new ideas can arise. Anderson provides many examples but suffice it to say that essentially everything we do on a computer these days would have once considered to be a frivolous use of precious resources. Thomas Freidman’s forces that flattened the world indeed have changed the economic landscape as well (ref. The World Is Flat).

And it is important to consider scale. Rather than giving away a free sample to sell most of your product, think about giving away the vast majority of your work in order to scale up to many, many customers. You may only be selling something to a few percent of your total customers; with the vast majority being freeloaders. But if that total base is large and your work costs little to make — or, more likely, costs little to reproduce — the business model becomes solid.

Lastly, make no mistake: free is tough to compete with. So much, it is really an entirely different market all together. From Anderson:

So from the consumer’s perspective, there is a huge difference between cheap and free. Give a product away and it can go viral. Charge a single cent for it and you’re in an entirely different business, one of clawing and scratching for every customer. The truth is that zero is one market and any other price is another. In many cases, that’s the difference between a great market and none at all.

Certainly, this sort of pricing psychology can be applied either way. But in terms of creating a large, new market almost overnight; nothing compares to free.

Free as a Book

Free is really a sequel to — or, more accurately, the logical conclusion to — Anderson’s first book The Long Tail (which I previously reviewed). I feel confident that Anderson, too, sees it this way. I think he covers the key concepts of that book here as well in order to provide context. Actually, a sizable portion of this book is context: history of free as a price and marketing scheme and how the digital age has revolutionized its application. There is also a number of examples of the application of Free in real-world businesses and culture. What there isn’t much of is speculation on the future of Free. Anderson spares us from telling us how Free will change the world and spends most of his time explaining what effect it has already had.

Furthering the case for Free as the son of The Long Tail, one of key ideas in Anderson’s first book which I pointed out was the importance of filters in making long tail businesses possible. Freeconomics takes the other side of this coin by assuming the long tail as commodity and the filtering as the scarcity; therefore making that again the key to success.

Anderson makes a solid case in other aspects of free, as well. At least as solid as one can to measure something that is inherently unmeasurable. After all, larger numbers times zero are still zero. He uses a few rough calculations to show a sense of scale. Some have wrongly criticized the accuracy of these, but as an engineer I see the value in these "back of the envelope" estimates to determine at least the magnitude of the issue, if not the precise value. Additionally, he uses numerous examples of how individuals and companies apply free to make money and earn reputation and attention (which can, with some creativity, generally be turned into money). He even has an appendix of sorts on applying the concept of "Freemium2;" that is, giving away part of the business but charging for a premium version for a select few (generally 5-10% of the users). Clearly, this is where Anderson sees the greatest opportunity from a business perspective.

Certainly some of Anderson’s examples are more convincing than others. However, no example of flourishing from giving away products is strong than that of Google. Just gawk at the raw scale of a company that gives away essentially every ounce of innovation it generates:

This has worked amazingly well. Today, ten years after its founding, Google is a $20 billion company, making more in profit (more than $4 billion in 2008) than all of America’s airlines and car companies combined (okay, that may not be saying much these days!).

Despite Anderson’s punchline at the expense of some of America’s last-century industries, I think in fact that this does say something quite substantial. Google realized that it had a number of commodities on hand from its search business: storage, bandwidth, computer horsepower; and saw to take advantage of it in anyway possible to extend its reach. Though many of its innovations were, in reality, acquisitions: YouTube, Writely (aka Google Docs), etc.; it has leveraged "cloud computing" to get its advertising cash cow in front of more and more people. And when is the last time you paid a bill to Google3.

Personally, I felt as though much of Free was tangential to the any argument of how to apply free tactics to a modern business. Most the chapters wander about in a very conversational style. The core of the book could certainly be boiled down into something much shorter4. Though some of these historical and economic tangents are interesting, they don’t do much to underscore the argument that free is important to business (not that that is the only purpose of the book, of course, but it is the title after all). Though Anderson attempts to create a taxonomy of free in business, it never really gels as to where various businesses fit in, other than the category of freemium; which, as previously mentioned, Anderson goes into great depth into and even sub-categorizes successful applications there-of.

I also would have liked to see more concrete evidence of Anderson’s argument that free is something of a natural law in economics. I think that this is a key argument in convincing last-century business that free is indeed the price of the future. More accurately, I suppose, that changing their business model to giving away something that used to be a profit source in order to see revenue elsewhere. I suspect there is validity to this “free is like gravity” theory, but this book leaves me wanting some more sound evidence one way or the other.

This book has generated some chatter and even controversy online5. Other than to acknowledge their existence, I don’t want to dwell on that. The book doesn’t exist in a vacuum but I’ll leave that sort of thing to others. Mainly because most of that has long since blown over by the time I was able to get around to finishing the text!

Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson on Hyperion books is available (for pay, in a spiffy bound edition) at most book sellers. True to his word regarding the research project nature of his book, it is also available free in ebook and audio downloads (with updated text).

  1. I do not believe for one second that entertainment or news are going way. Rather, if the old companies in these areas are to stay around instead of be replaced, they are going have embrace Free.
  2. I should note that I believe the word Freemium to imply the opposite of what is intended. It only makes sense in context of labeling a business plan and not anything from the consumer’s perspective. It is intended to represent a solution that includes both a free and a premium (for pay) option. However, from the consumer’s perspective, one would choose either free or premium and not select some hybrid, portmanteau solution.
  3. Unless, of course, you buy Google ads. Then you have the benefit of knowing you have some the best targeted ads ever created. Ultimately, perfect advertising is just information; and Google is closest anyone has ever come to delivering paid-for information on a large scale.
  4. Which of course Anderson did in a Wired article last year and will even do with a custom tailored message if you hire him for a speaking engagement.
  5. See the Wikipedia controversy, Gladwell’s scathing review and responses to it, as well as Anderson’s cranky interview with Speigel.

Terminator Salvation

I got the tip via Twitter the day prior to the film’s official release that my favorite local burger shop (Burgers ‘N Creme) was giving away free tickets to an advance screening of the movie (with a burger and fries basket — something I love for dinner, anyway!). It was part of a fund raiser for the Children’s Miracle Network and so attendees were also asked to make a small donation before the movie (again, something I was more than happy to do). Angela was cool with me going so long as I got Ainsley put to bed early. Angela’s not really a Terminator fan, so she declined a ticket with her meal and stayed home with the kids. I’ll spare everyone any further details on my sneaking out to the movies experience other that to say that I learned that this sort of thing goes on all the time (the preview screenings that is; and likely husbands sneaking out to see them). I owe Angela a night out and if I could get her and advance ticket to Harry Potter & tHBP, I’d love to.

General Review

Don’t worry; no spoilers here

Ever since I first read about this film in production, I’ve had my reservations. The director — McG (not a really big fan of professionally nicknamed people, but whatever) — wasn’t someone whom I really had much confidence in. My interest in the Terminator films (and their cultural significance) kept me reading more over the past year. I eventually decided that maybe McG does get what makes a film like this good (or, conversely, bad) and in the end I’d say he deserves credit for making a solid action scifi flick.

I know that there was a great deal of animosity towards the film and filmmakers online. Further, it’s been getting some pretty bad reviews ever since and hasn’t been a huge summer blockbuster. Frankly, I’m not really sure on what scale these statements are being made. The film stands on its own as (at least) a better-than-average action movie. The plot, while not overly complex, is far from dull. The main characters have a journey with a purpose. The special effects (both visual and audio) are top-notch. Lastly, it finds something to add to the ongoing story in the Terminator series. I’ll expand (of course), but I just wanted to point out that this is, in my opinion, the kind of film we should want more of from Hollywood.

So, my rating of four out of fiver stars that I tweeted the night I saw the film sticks. Probably even more so in light of all the undeserved flack this film seems to have generated.

This film is meant to serve as the first of a trilogy telling how John Conner — who we last saw as a homeless, jobless bum at the end of the world as we know — somehow manages to live up to the destiny his mother told him he would have: leader of the human resistance. He starts relatively small. He is well-known, if not universally liked or respected, due to his prescience 1 He feels as though he is floundering and fails to connect his current life with that he’s been told he’d lead. Enter the cast of this film, who help to connect those dots. The most important — and I hope I’m not spoiling anything as it’s been a Terminator franchise-staple since the second film — is a new Terminator version. This is done in what feels to be an original way while still recognizing the previous films.

Speaking of Terminator franchise staples, the entire concept and plot line of the films is a headache-inducing paradox. So, and let’s just get this out of the way, to complain about minor plot holes in a Terminator film really is a waste of time. It doesn’t stop me from doing it (see below), but to complain that they ruin the film is a bit far-fetched. The largest plot holes of the story were opened long before one ever got rolling (thank you, James Cameron) and as long as the characters keep the train rolling, I’m okay with it. We’re not trying to solve a murder case here; we’re just looking for some awesome robot vs. human action.

Of course, this film is both a prequel and a sequel. It tells how John Conner becomes the person we know he must be (or, else, paradox) while continuing the story of who he was in the previous couple of films. And, as it connects these to points, it is somewhat railroaded onto a linear and, at times, predictable path. But even then, the film manages to do something magical. At the very end of the film, despite knowing John Conner has to live (again, the other films would cease to exist … and my head hurts again); I still felt myself forget this fact for a few moments. The movie pulled me in enough to make me believe and that’s a cornerstone for what makes a good movie.

Some Other Bits I Liked

The movie contains loads of great homages to the series in here; particularly to the 1984 film. Lines like "Come with me if you want to live" and even "I’ll be back" are used to great (and even more impressively — subtle) effect2. They’re aren’t delivered in some sort of over-the-top fashion; but rather, they fall in with the plot and the dialog. It’s the sort of thing that could have ended up just feeling silly. Instead, the film makers and actors went to trouble to make it work.

There are many copies. And they have a plan. Skynet is a pretty smart cookie. It has near limitless CPU cycles as it has basically taken over every networked computer in 2003 (Judgment Day)3. So, this film gives us the solid impression that SkyNet spends a great deal of this time cooking up new ways to destroy humanity. It never sleeps. It never eats. It just. Keeps. Coming. Sound familiar? That’s right. The relentless onslaught that was portrayed by AS, et al. so well 25 years ago is shown to be inherited from a giant networked computer whose very existence is pretty much just that same trait. And with that much time, it’s Cyberdine division just keeps cranking out new models to try again. Like some sort of evil, soul-less Wiley Coyote.

The sound in this film is awesome. Imagine the sounds generated by an 80’s arcade machine (like Donkey Kong, for instance). Now imagine that being blasted at 180 dB from a 60 foot tall mech (aka – giant, scary robot) with a magma cannon. I know that it is just a low-frequency, clipped sine wave tone. But, the thing is it sounds terrifying and really works. The same general sound is used to great effect by many of the terminators other machines in the film.

Warning: Here be spoilers!

Arnold is back – and I mean that as in "that body-builder turned actor from the 80’s". Using a CG face of him from the 80’s was the right thing to do. Why would a machine age? Otherwise, we’d be wondering why a machine suddenly looks a quarter century older a decade before he is sent back to the past.

Some Bits I Didn’t LIke

Yep, still some spoilers here.

One huge issue that nearly had me shouting out loud is when John Connor (Bale) captures and re-wires a Moto-terminator to ride across the desert to SkyNet. Could someone please explain to me why such a machine would have handlebars for him to drive it? I’ve tried to rationalize it to myself (SkyNet copies more than it innovates and since existing motorcycles had handlebars …) but it just doesn’t work. If you’re a computer program who has any sort of efficiency concerns, you’re not going to waste effort to add handlebars on a moto-terminator in the same sense you wouldn’t waste time making reproductive organs on a T-600.

Why does the mainframe terminal screen which is making the great reveal to Marcus change faces the way it does? There is a flicker of a terminator-like skull as the faces change. The terminators are in the software, they are machines that go about doing its bidding. This felt a little silly to me; like a heavy-handed attempt to remind you of the connection between the two.

I’ve read some reviews panning Christian Bale’s performance as flat. I thought the insecurity of John Connor trying to live up to the prophecy of John Connor came across well. Further, not to say that Sam Worthington (Marcus) doesn’t put on a great performance, but his reversion to an Australian accent was a bit distracting to me. I’m not entirely sure why he couldn’t have just used his native accent throughout the film (its not as though no one in all of Southern California has a foreign accent; nor did a thick Austrian accent deter Arnold in previous films). I think in preference of a sound, consistent performance, I’d have asked the actor to have done so. There really seems to be nothing about the role that precludes it.

Summary

So, for those of you who longed to see more of that dark, desolate future world we glimpsed back in 1984 as kids where metal-skeletoned robots walked beside tanks lit by the spotlights of machine aircraft, this is a must-see. If you enjoy a solid, if linear, action movie then this is going to be your movie. I’m even going to go out on a limb and say that if you only watch one film this summer where giant robots attempt attach humans to take over our planet (and, yes, we actually have some choice in that regard), then Terminator: Salvation is going to be a little more fulfilling.

  1. Really, just reciting what his mother had always told him second-hand from his father.
  2. They wisely left out "Hasta la vista, baby" showing sound judgment that not everything should be shoehorned in
  3. Which wouldn’t have been nearly as smart as if it had waited until about now, what with our multi-core processors and widespread broadband. But, I digress …