Archives de Tag: Books

Beware the Eye of Mordor, er, sorry, of the NSA

This is cool: in a recent Slate-hosted blog post, two professors of English literature make the case that J.R.R. Tolkien, not Orwell, made the best literary depiction of the modern surveillance state. (Hat tip: Patrick Nielsen Hayden, of Making Light.)

« Tolkien’s most potent and intimidating image of centralized surveillance, the Eye of Sauron atop a tower, taking in the whole world, has resonated with those who are paranoid about government monitoring. But it’s Sauron’s vulnerability that has the most relevance for America today. »

And for any country in the world that cares about actual, effective safety for its citizens, not the appearance of such. Because we all know how the book ended: Sauron’s near-absolute surveillance was defeated in the end, by « a small group of dedicated subversives willing to sacrifice their lives », who

« slip in under the surveillance system of a great power, blend in with [its] population, and deliver a devastating blow […]. Far from being covert, much of this operation is conducted in plain sight, with the great power aware of its enemies’ existence, if not their intent. » (The Eye of Sauron is the modern surveillance state », by David Rosen and Aaron Santesso)

My emphasis. Because in our world as on Middle-earth, all seeing is not all knowing. In fact, the more information you amass, the harder it is to parse through it. Meta-data may contain enough information to pinpoint an individual in time and space, to reveal their politics and their sex life, but how do you know which set of data is relevant to national security in the first place? In the book, Frodo and Sam rely on their very insignificance, this state of « visible anonymity » of the needle in the haystack, to travel through Mordor, and even when they encounter a patrol of Orcs, they are seen but not discovered, because they look like just two more denizens of Sauron’s empire. As long as they don’t use the Ring, they are in effect invisible.

J.R.R. Tolkien's cover design for The Fellowship of the Ring, first part of The Lord of the Rings: the Eye of Sauron, within his Ring of Power

Tolkien’s cover design for his Fellowship of the Ring: the Eye of Sauron and the Rings of Power. (Source; Wikimedia)

By an interesting little coincidence, J.R.R. Tolkien effectively finished the redaction of The Lord of the Rings in 1949, the same year as George Orwell published his 1984. Both authors lived in an era marked by the rise of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, and both had experience of war-time censorship within England itself. The same generation produced also such writers as Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and Arthur Koestler. Not to mention Russian author Yevgueny Zamyatin, whose science fiction novel We closely prefigures 1984.

But when it came out in 1954, Tolkien’s book looked at first glance like escapist fantasy, a book for adolescents and dreamers. Too bad: he used his « secondary creation » (a phrase he coined, by the way) as a means to explore the same phenomenon: the accumulation of power into the hands of a tyrant, on a scale never ever achieved before in the history of humanity, thanks to technology. And his depiction of Sauron’s evil empire captures both the terror of living under a totalitarian regime, and the inherent flaws of such a regime, where paranoia at the top breeds distrust and inefficiency all down the line. It’s a very human nightmare, for all the Orcs and trolls and evil wizards and giant spiders that inhabit it!

Carl Hiaasen, bad writing, and the abduction of female characters

Grr! This annoyed me so much that I nearly got myself a LiveJournal account just so I could vent over at Canon Rants! And it’s all the fault of novelist Carl Hiaasen – or perhaps of Cory Doctorow, whose book review in Boing Boing enticed me to go read Star Island, Hiaasen’s most recent comic/absurdist Floridian crime caper.

The fact that I had previously liked a few of these books (especially the brilliant Basket Case) didn’t hurt, I have to admit. But this time, something threw me right out of the book.

Let me explain. But first, beware that spoilers lie ahead. If it bothers you, please don’t click on!

Lire la suite

When the e-book you want to buy is not available in your country

It’s very, very annoying. Trust me.

Or no, don’t trust me. Rather, witness this Twitter conversation between two serious book lovers and geeks who happen to express themselves in English, even writing professionally in that language, but don’t live in a dominantly English-speaking country.

Says Aliette de Bodard, a French-American sci-fi writer who lives in Paris, where she works as an IT engineer:

I’m getting tired of the ebooks I want not being available outside of the US or Canada…

Charles A. Tan (sci-fi writer, blogger and editor, in Philippines) answers:

and that’s the irony of eBooks; not available in areas that has demand for them

@aliettedb:

yeah, they really need to rework their rights model (geographical distribution shouldn’t apply anymore to books-maybe language?)

(Emphasis mine, as below.)

@charlesatan:

Language is fine. Unfortunately, companies and laws are still regional.

@aliettedb:

yeah, I know. Sucks for us, though…

Obvious consequence of such restrictions?

Enters @theefer (Sébastien Cevey, a French sci-fi writer who lives and blogs in London):

Time to put on your pirate helmet? (could buy paper versions and offer them to friends if you feel morally awkward)

@aliettedb:

I am seriously tempted, and not for the first time. This is bloody ridiculous

Indeed. That’s one of the reasons I dislike DRM « protection » so much on e-books. If the publisher wants to restrict the sale of their products to one geographical market (say,  North America), they have both the technical tools and the legal right to do so. And they have the on-line retailers like Fictionwise, Booksonboard or Amazon filter the buyers from their IP addresses.

If one is outside the rights-holder’s zone, the message received is a loud and clear: « Go away, we don’t want your money! Or go back to the dead tree era, you loser. »

Riiight.

(No pun intended.)

Now, compare with John Scalzi’s essay/rant: « On How Many Times I Should Get Payed For A Book (By Readers) »

Buy one paper book, download a DRM-free e-edition, and piracy concerns be damned?

Tempting, very tempting.

Obviously, this issue won’t be resolved by authors or even authors’ fans alone. But publishers should be concerned about the bad e-book buying experience of their customers, especially when these customers are bloggers, journalists or writers who can give it a wider echo.

And authors’ agents too should give it a chunk of their brain-time if they want to do what’s best, in the long run, for their book-writing clients.

The Book, an exciting wireless reading platform

OK, this is about a year old, but Penny Arcade pretty much nailed it:

Major features are the touch-based interface (the pages really turn), the amazing autonomy (you don’t even need a power plug), and a format that automatically adapts to your own shelves, not the other way around. Isn’t that neat?

I want one! Oh, wait…