Transfer Orbit Roundup: every day should be World Book Day

The week of March 1st

Happy Friday!

Yesterday was the first of two annual “World Book Days” — this one celebrated in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and which is funded by local publishers as a way to encourage reading and literacy. The bigger World Book Day will take place next month, on April 23rd (formally known as World Book and Copyright Day), which is administered by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and coincides with the day(ish) that Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega died in 1616.

It’s a good thing to celebrate and honor — reading is important! It’s a good activity, and one that we should all partake in regularly. (I really don’t need to tell you that, do I?)

The other cool thing this week came from SpaceX. My feelings about private spaceflight aside, they do do some cool things. This week, the company was testing out its latest Starship prototype, and stuck the landing during this week’s test flight. It blew up right after it landed, but it’s a nice, step forward.

What was cool this time was the incredible shot that they captured while it landed (open in the browser if the gif doesn’t work in email).

Damn.

My jaw dropped when I saw that. It’s really amazing, and looks as though it’s like something out of The Expanse. There’s been a bunch of people yaking online that this was CGI’ed, but doing a little digging, it looks like this has been a pretty persistent claim from folks.

Onto this week’s news.


The Week in SF/F

Oh, the books you won’t find on shelves

This week’s big book news: Monday was Read Across America Day, an initiative from the National Education Association (NEA) that “focuses on motivating children and teens to read through events, partnerships, and reading resources that are about everyone, for everyone.”

President Joe Biden issued a proclamation for the day, which sums up my thoughts about the importance of reading nicely:

“The key to developing young learners into engaged, active, and innovative thinkers is instilling in them a love of reading at an early age. Reading is the gateway to countless skills and possibilities — it sets children on the path to a lifetime of discovery.”

This particular day coincides with the birth of children’s author Dr. Seuss (pen name for Theodor Seuss Geisel), best known for Oh, The Places You’ll Go, and Cat in the Hat and hundreds of others, and it’s been the nexus for a lot of conservative hand-wringing about the late author this past week.

This seems to have gotten its start last week when The Daily Wire wrote about how a Virginia school district was dropping its annual Dr. Seuss Day celebration in light of some of the embedded racism in his works, and began sounding the trumpet that the author’s been “canceled”, providing a rundown of a couple of studies that highlight the racial disparities within the books (sort of proving what they’re arguing against.) Fox News picked up the story, and it’s filtered out through the usual sources and has since become a thing. Since then, the school district has pushed back on this story, saying that they haven’t actually banned his books — just that for a couple of years, they’ve issued guidance about how they’re to be used in the classroom, and that it isn’t necessarily in conjunction with the day.

Compounding that, Biden didn’t mention Seuss in his proclamation, something that President Barack Obama did in his proclamations, and something President Donald Trump did.1 And earlier this week, the company that holds Seuss’s works said that they’re pulling a handful of books after some study because they hold some racist depictions.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetIf I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s QuizzerThese books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. [Emphasis mine]

This isn’t actually a new thing: Seuss has a long history of racist caricatures in his cartoons, and it’s one of those things that’s existed as a low-level boil for a number of years now. He supported the Japanese internment during WWII, and there were other examples that included people of African, Arabian, and Asian descent, especially in those books. At the same time, Seuss notably pushed against antisemitism. That’s not an excuse for his work, but it does highlight that he’s human, with all the contradictions that come with the condition.

Slate published an interview with children’s literature scholar Philip Nel (who wrote Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books) earlier this week that has a good quote to keep in mind:

Some people look at that and think, “We just must be wrong about Seuss.” That’s because they see racism as an either/or—like, you’re on Team Racism or you’re not. But you can do anti-racist work and also reproduce racist ideas in your work. And Seuss wasn’t aware that his visual imagination was so steeped in the cultures of American racism. He was doing in some of his books what he was trying to oppose in others.

Here’s the thing: when authors put their works down in print, it’s a snapshot, one that cements part of their legacy. Given the reckoning that we’ve been going through when it comes to racial justice, a lot of those legacies are undergoing a bit of a review from all sides. Writing is a powerful — genuinely magical thing — when it comes to forming consensus, passing along information, and setting one’s opinions. It sets what were once-nebulous battle lines in place.

Going back to examine where those lines were set is a cornerstone of history and academic study, deconstructing the decisions and actions of the past to better understand it. This is a good thing, and it’s overdue.

That’s essentially what Dr. Seuss Enterprises did: they decided that Seuss’s work here causes some persistent problems, and they’ll pulling them from sale, which last I checked, doesn’t mean erasing them from the face of the Earth. Seuss’s heirs aren’t the first to do this, either: Hergé’s estate opted (rightly) to pull Tintin in the Congo over his depictions of Africans.

But while these actions are commendable, I wouldn’t go out of my way to go and congratulate them too much. The New York Times pointed out that where Seuss’s biggest sellers like Green Eggs and Ham or Oh, the Places You’ll Go! will move anywhere from 500,000 to 300,000 copies a year, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street sold only 5,000 copies, and the others have sold negligible amounts. “Putting the merits of the books aside,” the Times points out, “removing “Green Eggs and Ham” would be a completely different business proposition from doing away with new printings of “McElligot’s Pool.”

Yeah.

The raucous yelling about “cancel culture” is a red herring and bad faith argument: an opportunity for conservatives to yell and cry about the degradation of culture, ignoring that they’re essentially advocating for keeping those racist attitudes. Let’s also remember that these cries generally aren’t heard when it comes to books being challenged or banned from libraries. According to the American Library Association, “most challenges to library resources in 2018 focused on materials and programs associated with issues of concern to those in the gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer communities, most notably drag queen story hours and books affirming transgender youth, like Alex Gino’s George.”

And for all the yelling, they miss the really important issue at the core here: when racism is embedded in print, it lingers, influences, and persists. This is why we need to revisit, revise, and review those legacies. Michael Harriot of The Root had some excellent things to say (read the entire thread), particularly this point:

That’s why we can’t just brush this away as “oh, that’s just what normal thinking was then” and “we shouldn’t judge the past by modern standards.” Those excuses don’t — and shouldn’t — wash.

Let’s go back to Biden’s proclamation to understand why this is important: reading is a tool to help develop children into “engaged, active, and innovative thinkers” — future adults that will have vital critical thinking skills who can understand how to treat their neighbors and fellow people with respect and dignity.

So maybe the cries over “cancel culture” aren’t quite on the up and up? I think McSweeny’s put it best earlier this week: “I’m all for letting the free market decide things unless it decides to stop publishing racist children’s books.”


Bad © takes

Former Vox Editor Matthew Yglesias (and perpetual bad-take machine) decided to hang a new bad take out for readers on Twitter:

It’s an stance that’s gotten a ton of writers up in arms, and for good reason. I’m not entirely sure what prompted this, but it’s a monumentally bad idea for those working as writers, especially those with a huge body of work.

Here are the basics of copyright as they stand now: the US copyright office defines it as “a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for "original works of authorship", including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations.” — an author’s right to own their creation and do with it as they will.

The goal of copyright protections is to encourage and incentivize authors / musicians / artists / creators to create original work and profit off of it, but also allow those creations to enter a broader public ownership after a set period. For example, The Great Gatsby (published in 1925) just entered the public domain, allowing F. Scott Fitzgerald and his successors to profit off of it, and now, the general public can use it: there’s already a new prequel novel, Nick, an animated movie, a TV series, and NPR’s Planet Money even devoted an entire episode to reading the book — because they can. Imagine being an author and seeing your 30-year-old-book taken away and adapted because you don’t own it anymore. It’s a horrifying concept.

Currently in the US, the duration for copyright protection is the life of the author, plus 70 years: generally, once an author dies, the clock starts. (There are some exceptions around works written prior to 1978 which weren’t published or which didn’t have their copyrights registered). Other countries have slightly different standards, so it varies from place to place.

Yglesias’s desire to see books published 30 years ago entering the public domain in digital form has a host of problems, because it deprives authors of their creative property within their lifetimes.

Say there’s an author who publishes their debut at the age of 30, and it’s still in print and selling well by the time they’re the age of 60: they’d lose that income stream, which undermines one’s entire lifetime of work. Under that rule, John Scalzi would lose the rights to his book Old Man’s War in 2035 — which isn’t too far from now, and is apparently still a big seller. Orson Scott Card would have lost the copyright for Ender’s Game in 2015 and would lose Xenocide this year. Stephen Baxter’s debut novel Raft would enter the public domain this year. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is coming up on the 30 year mark in 2026.

A book might fall out of print in 30 years, but the author can still resell it — there could be new formats, new interest, new markets, etc. As Silvia Moreno-Garcia pointed out, she originally read Ellen Datlow’s anthologies when they came out in hard copy, and again when ebooks became a thing. (Read her entire thread starting here.)

Even of his plan is only for “digital form[s]”, that’s still highly problematic: if an author is selling a hard copy of the book, buyers immediately have a disincentive to purchase it, because there’s a freely-available version out there. And just what does “digital form” encompass here? Ebooks, sure, but what about digital audiobooks?

And if there’s a split in an author’s ownership between forms, what happens if a film studio wants to option that work? As we’ve just seen with The Great Gatsby, an author who loses that ownership of a work could theoretically see Hollywood take that work within their lifetime and profit off of it — leaving them hung out to dry!

One thing that might explain the arguments over this is who’s making them. The folks that I’ve seen saying “yes, this is a good idea” (anecdotally) are writers, but they’re the folks who’re writing books that you’d find in the Current Events or Political Science sections in your local bookstore. Unless you’re writing something that’s blowing everyone out of the water, I don’t really see those books as having a super-long shelf-life before they’re rendered obsolete as new books come in to replace them.

On the other side, I see a lot of fiction authors going “yeah, no.”, because their works might simply last longer on the shelf. I know I’ve picked up science fiction and fantasy book that are decades old, and while I do pick up the odd nonfiction book here and there that’s around the same age, they’re usually fairly specific in focus and aren’t generally in print.

One of the latest ones I picked up? Thomas Whiteside’s The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business, and Book Publishing, published in 1980. A quick glance at Amazon shows it’s out of print, and the Wesleyan University Press website doesn’t even have it listed. So, maybe that’s the context that they’re immersed in. Which — I can understand your reasoning here, and nonfiction publishing is pretty different than fiction, especially when it comes to intellectual property rights. But that’s not a great foundation to make for upending copyright law.

And this is what has me really frustrated: this argument — even just throwing it out there on Twitter — only serves to devalue one’s work. I’ve got a nonfiction book that I’ve gotten written up: I put a lot of work into it! (You’ll get to read it at some point!)

The tl;dr version of this is that it’s a monumentally bad idea for authors, and it’s a good example of where not every idea that enters a pundit’s head necessarily translates out into something that should be written down for the latest hot take, especially when they have a huge audience. It’s also keeping with my frustration about how much of the bigger opinions and conversation of the day is driven by people who genuinely don’t know seem to know what they’re talking about.

That said, there are genuine arguments to be made about the limits of copyright law. Life + 70 is a long time for creative works, and really only serves a handful of entities that vacuum up IP. (Looking at you, Disney, Warner Bros., etc.) The public domain is a good thing, and the opportunity for creators to reimagine, remix, or redo creative works is a valuable thing: it keeps those ideas moving along within the public zeitgeist, and keeps us as a society, more creative.


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Currently Reading

This week has been a week of reading nonfiction SF/F stuff. I’m working my way through Abraham Riesman’s Stan Lee biography True Believer, and I picked up James Hibberd’s Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Official Untold Story of the Epic Series. I don’t have a lot of concrete thoughts on True Believer just yet (I’m enjoying it), but Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon is a really interesting read: how the series came together is really something of a long shot, and I’m impressed to see how close it came to not happening.

I’m also working my way through Eliot Peper’s climate change novel Veil, which I’ve been reading and listening to on walks and while out and about. It’s something I’ll be writing about later, but it’s interesting to see how it parallels Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.

I’ve got some other books that I’m picking away at: Mike Chen’s We Could Be Heroes, as well as some others that have just come out (Machinehood and A Desolation Called Peace).


Further Reading

  • Another year of no cons. On Monday, Comic-Con International announced that it was canceling this year’s big conventions, WonderCon and San Diego Comic-Con, and would instead hold free virtual conventions in their places. The organization says that it’ll hold an in-person event in November, although that’s presumably dependent upon the state of the country when we get there. Most other big conventions aren’t likely to run this year either.

    What a difference a year makes. Last year around this time, the COVID-19 pandemic was a growing threat, but never would I have imagined that it would have gotten to the point where we wouldn’t have those regular conventions to meet up at.

  • Defiance’s missed opportunities. Earlier this week, I sent out a longer report on the background of the Syfy channel’s short-lived series Defiance, which was a pretty bold experiment: work alongside a video game developer to release a TV series and immersive game at the same time. Good idea, not-so-great-execution. The series ended after 3 seasons, and the video game is being shut down next month. This one was an offering for paid subscribers. (Subscribe here!)

  • Discovery: the streaming service. The New York Times has a profile of Discovery +, a new streaming service for the network, which just came online, much to Megan’s consternation, who’s been yelling about how it’s sucked up all the good programming as exclusives. The Times talks about its impact in the larger “streaming wars,” and how its offerings of an enormous catalog of reality television will make it appealing to new subscribers.

  • Heinlein Influences. Jonathan Lethem talks with The New Yorker about how Robert Heinlein and science fiction influenced him as a writer, and how some of those tropes play into a recent story of his.

    “Heinlein’s verve and inventiveness still attract me—he’s like the Chuck Berry of science fiction. But he might be the most American writer ever, and risks being a disastrous influence if you take his politics, or sexual politics, seriously.”

  • Introducing R.A. Lafferty. Jason Kehe over at Wired has a review of a new Tor Essentials release, The Best of R.A. Lafferty, which provides a great introduction to the late author and his legacy. It’s a good encouragement to check this volume out.

  • Kelly Marie Tran post-Star Wars. The Hollywood Reporter has a fantastic interview with actress Kelly Marie Tran, who we all got to know as Rose in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. She talks about her upcoming role in Raya: and the Last Dragon (which comes out today on Disney+), and the abuse she suffered online in the aftermath of The Last Jedi.

    Tran, as the franchise's most prominent newcomer and first woman of color in a lead role, bore the brunt of the haters' ire. (John Boyega and Daisy Ridley faced similar harassment when they were introduced in Episode VII.) They polluted her feed with racist and sexist insults, she deleted all her posts, and by the time The Rise of Skywalker premiered in December 2019, the girl who happy-cried her way down her first red carpet two years earlier had been replaced by a woman who stared down the cameras at the El Capitan Theatre, lips sealed in a defiant pout.

    That abuse was a goddamn shame, and it’s a horrific stain on fandom. The interview is a good look at the importance of representation and a good look at who she is as a person. (She seems delightful!)

  • March books. In case you missed it, here’s my roundup of SF/F books hitting stores this month. I try not to play favorites, but Machinehood, A Desolation Called Peace, and 2034 are at the top of my list.

  • Reckoning at A03. Vox’s Aja Romano highlights an ongoing problem at Archive of Our Own, the internet’s biggest fanfiction database, and one particular work that’s causing problems for its users. The site has been acclaimed for how it’s organized, and the volunteers that help keep it usable, using a sprawling network of tags. One work, “Sexy Times With Wangxian,” has been abusing the tag system, adding more than a thousand tags, which is making it harder for other writers and readers to navigate. With it comes commentary about how site users get along with one another, and how these types of sites require a broad good-faith effort to operate effectively.

  • Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeep. Sweden has a governmental initiative that provides audiobooks for accessibility purposes, and Vice’s Gabriel Geiger notes that there have been some problems cropping up: they’re really low-quality, and narrators have been adding in their own commentary or even fall asleep whilst recording. That’s not a good thing, especially if it’s one of the few resources out there that a certain population is depending on. Geiger doesn’t go too much into the weeds, but it’s a good example of a systematic failure on the part of the agency, on that seems as though it simply doesn’t have the resources to carry out its mission — in this case, editorial oversight. That’s certainly a lesson that can be applied elsewhere. Hopefully, the resulting outcry will help prompt some fixes.

  • Survival of the Alt-Weeklies. Sophia June at The Daily Beast has a report about the pandemic and alternative weekly papers that have been struggling around the country. Included is a look at Seven Days, which is one of the best newsrooms here in Vermont, and where I’ve placed a couple of pieces over the years. There are some good lessons here about the importance of journalism on this local level.

  • Trouble at Gimlet. Podcasting studio Gimlet was acquired by Spotify a couple of years ago, and with any small startup that ramps up quickly, there are friction points. One employee, James T. Green, worked there as a contractor, and wrote about his experiences, and they’re incredibly depressing: how he and other workers of color broke their backs working for the company, only to suffer for a variety of the usual reasons. This piece struck me particularly hard: startups and companies that essentially treat their workers as disposable, good for only as long as they’re able to put in the long hours. This sort of thing and my experiences looking at the tech world has really shaped my view of how work is conducted.

  • Trouble in Anime. Speaking of, here’s another example of that in action: anime as an artform is booming, but animators are not reaping the benefits.


That’s it for this week, thank you for reading! As always, let me know what you’ve been reading in the comments — I strive to read and reply to everything that comes in.

Andrew


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1

Interestingly, Trump’s statements are “Presidential Messages” and not “Proclamations” (as Obama’s are), and thus aren’t in the Federal Register, which is a weird, pedantic distinction, and I wonder why that’s the case.