image: something appropriate to break up the text

I can’t decide whether contemporary skiffy (sci-fi, science fiction, whatever) is degrading, or whether I’ve got fussier.

I bought a batch of books (hoho) a few days ago, and have been struggling with them.

Let’s take one specific example, “Seeds of Earth” by Michael Cobley. It’s got a flash on the front by Iain M. Banks, a guy who’s books I devour: that publisher’s trick worked.

My trouble with the Cobley book is it feels it was written thirty years ago. It feels it needs mauling by a quality editor. It feels it’s the novel before the first novel, the practice before the published.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to show Cobley’s got potential. Scenes have real people facing real problems. The overall plot has real merit, the tension potential is juicy. The guy knows his political means.

But some scenes of super-duper futuristic hyper-wondrous technology are scenes of 1970s technology, with 1970s technology downfalls. Some souper-douper futuristic people are 1930s people making silly 1930s presumptions so the sooper-dooper futuristic 1970s technology can give them a shock. So much, so many scenes, didn’t carry me. The novel’s fear is 1970s fear of 1970s new technology.

I’d be interested in different fears from different times if I felt it was done intentionally. But I really don’t get that impression. The detail is dreadful: behaviour, things, all cliché and old hat. If no attention’s paid there, if only the dull tired is used, why should I believe the whole created is different, that this dull tired is fresh? Ok, this could be me the poet being over-fussy … but do strange beings from stranger worlds, different biology, different homes, really tremble and sweat when scared? Or was that just one of so many carelessly thrown sentences? This book desperately needed intensive red ink.

And this leads me on to what really worries me. Much of the music industry is failing because their publishers, the labels, have failed to grasp the internet, its power. They wish it away.

Today, anyone can, and does, put music out, and it’s a very very mixed quality (declaration of interest). Some music is superb, some is drivel, much is dull. The big labels used to identify the stuff to appeal to the average listener, edit it, make it work, bring it forward. They’re failing, dying, now. Their editing contribution is disappearing. They didn’t adapt to the now. They’re effectively blaming their customers for listening to adverts. This is not a sensible approach.

I was never an average listener of music, so the loss of the labels’ critical skills won’t really affect me. But I am an average reader of skiffy. I like what the publishers put out, generally. If I want literary literature, I read poetry. I read skiffy for the fun of it.

The internet is starting to bite the book trade. Literature is a long long way from music: until it’s as easy to rip your books as it is to rip your records (ho ho), until there’s an iPod for books, the traditional industry will survive. Ripping isn’t there, but the iPod equivalent nearly is. Are the publishers already failing, failing at editing, rather than readying their trade for the forthcoming now? I really don’t know, I’m not connected, I’m just a consumer, a consumer missing the absent editing.

It can’t be Publishing On Demand (POD). I really can’t believe POD will impact the mass publisher. POD is a long tail product, where the traditional publisher has no presence. Or have I missed something?

Iain Banks’s last couple of books needed the sharp red pen, especially The Algebraist. This book from Cobley does. Where are the editors?

I half suspect Cobley will turn out to be a big name author putting an early centime-dreadful out under another name. Cowardice would be a good excuse for the absent editing … or maybe weariness.

I hope authors won’t need to do what I’m doing as a poet, paying someone to edit my work; that balance of power is wrong, the editor subservient is the editor sheathed. Publishers, editors, we need your nasty red pens, keep them sharp, keep them used.