Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Steampunk: Defining a genre

Steampunk definition, according to Wikipedia:

"Steampunk refers to a subgenre of science fiction and sometimes fantasy—also in recent years a fashion and lifestyle movement—that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. Although its literary origins are sometimes associated with the cyberpunk genre, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century's British Victorian era or American "Wild West", in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has maintained mainstream usage, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power..."

It goes on, but that's a reasonably concise summary of a genre that can be difficult to define. When I first wrote The Tinkerer's Daughter, I had a number of agents ask for a submission. In the end, I was always rejected because they didn't have any idea how to sell it. A few of them were familiar with steampunk, but didn't consider it commercial enough to sell to a big publisher. Those who were not familiar with steampunk didn't really seem to understand it, and didn't bother asking for an explanation. I also met rejection because those who did know steampunk had very different and subjective ideas about what it should be. One agent told me I downplayed the technology too much. The machines should have played a bigger role. Another said there was too much technology and it distracted from the story.

We've had steampunk-style novels there all along, going back at least to H.G. Wells, but nobody had classified them as such. These were just considered fringe sci-fi, or worse yet fantasy, because back then, fantasy and sci-fi were two vastly different things, and the prevailing attitude was never the twain shall meet. I'm not pointing fingers because I used to feel that way myself. I hated seeing a sci-fi novel in the fantasy section, or vice versa. I wanted my sci-fi with spaceships and aliens, and my fantasy with dragons and magic. The End.

But times have changed, and steampunk has gone through a lot of phases. It has recently become a sort of social movement like LARPing and renaissance faires. For some, it has almost become a lifestyle. But still, steampunk seems to be struggling with an identity crisis. Not surprising, considering that depending on who you're talking to the genre might be considered sci-fi, fantasy, Victorian, post-apocalyptic, or western, just to name a few. 

Steampunk has been slow to move into the mainstream for this reason. The most successful attempts seem to be novels one might classify as steampunk-themed romance. This isn't surprising, since romance is such a huge market and romance readers are more than willing to embrace new and different ideas based on the novelty alone. This is the same market where vampire horror, urban fantasy, dystopian and supernatural fiction all found broad acceptance over the last decade. This is a mixed blessing. The novelty factor means that more readers than ever are willing to give something different a shot. The downside is that many of those readers were introduced to the genre through romance, and without a heavy dose of it, they may be turned off. The same goes for steampunk that leans too heavily in the direction fantasy, sci-fi, or horror. Some readers will accept one but not the others. It's impossible to avoid. When I first published The Tinkerer's Daughter, one of the story's biggest criticisms was the fact that it defied certain principles of physics. Some people were happy considering it fantasy, but others wanted it to be hard sci-fi. You can't please everyone. I wanted to emulate some of the early steampunk-themed anime I had seen, but I wanted to take a uniquely western approach. That's why I opened the series in a frontier-like setting, sort of a combination between the American prairie and medieval Europe. It was a pre-industrial post-apocalyptic society of warring elves and humans on the verge of an industrial revolution. Try explaining that to someone who's never heard of Steampunk.

I left clues along the way; certain bits of knowledge that had been retained or rediscovered after the cataclysm. Certain tech that was similar to our own, but had evolved, or perhaps devolved. I can see how ten years ago, this must have made agents scratch their heads. Some of them probably still do. But that's okay, because today these stories have a chance to find an audience that never existed before. The gatekeepers -with their ledgers and marketing teams and disapproving stares- don't get to define what readers read and writers write. The definition of Steampunk will probably continue to evolve, but this time, this genre will not be defined by some anonymous board of directors in their fancy New York office tower. It will be defined by the readers. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Amazon Cracks Down!

From the Seattle Times:

"Amazon.com sued three websites it accuses of purveying fake reviews, demanding that they stop the practice. The suit alleges that the glowing product evaluations they provide deceive consumers and harm the sellers on Amazon’s site who don’t game the system.

The suit, filed Wednesday in King County Superior Court, accuses Jay Gentile of California and websites that operate as buyamazonreviews.com and buyazonreviews.com, among others, of trademark infringement, false advertising and violations of the Anticyber­squatting Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Consumer Protection Act."

This isn't exactly news. Amazon filed this suit a couple weeks ago, but I haven't had a chance to talk about it until now. Pretty much everyone knows these days that fake reviews are all over the internet. Online ratings services have caught people gaming the system numerous times and not long ago, a few writers were even busted posting fake reviews through "sock puppet" accounts. They weren't just promoting their own books with fake reviews; they were also slamming other books they considered "competition."  Talk about taking sleazy to a whole new level. Amazon cleaned up that mess by deleting thousands of reviews they considered suspect, no doubt removing quite a few legitimate ones in the process.

This time, they're taking a different tack. Amazon is going after the owners of several fake review websites. Apparently, these sites have explicitly offered to sell four and five star reviews, sometimes going so far as telling businesses to send an empty box to the "reviewer."

I don't know exactly what Amazon is trying to get out of this, but no doubt they will sue for a lot of money and try to make an example out of these people. Most of the articles I've read tend to focus on the above mentioned points, but what I find most intriguing about this case is something no one else seems to have mentioned. I'm talking about discovery. In case you don't know, that's what legal experts call the process of procuring evidence during a lawsuit. When Amazon sues, their lawyers will gain access to all of the files and records owned by these companies. And what do you suppose they'll find in those files?

Yep. They're going to find names, account numbers, email addresses and other identifying information of companies and individuals who have purchased these fake reviews. Interesting. I wonder what they'll do with all that information. I mean, obviously they're going to delete those fake reviews, but what then? A slap on the wrist for those people who abused the system? A fine? Lawsuits?

It seems likely that Amazon will send out warning letters notifying these sellers that they are in breach of the Terms of Service and could have their account deleted (if not worse). It will probably end there, unless Amazon continues to have a serious problem with this issue. But I wonder what Amazon will do with all that information. More specifically, I wonder what they'll do to writers. Because the discovery process might expose authors who've been buying fake reviews. What if their names are released? What if Amazon uses that information to further analyze their accounts, and learns they've been posting through sock-puppet accounts? In some cases, those writers may think they've protected themselves by anonymizing their I.P. addresses, but that's not necessarily the case, because even if they aren't caught in this lawsuit, they might get caught in the next one. Or, they might get caught when Amazon (or the U.S. Government) investigates the anonymizing service they used. Or, when Amazon starts taking individuals to court for their role in this. Discovery can be a nasty business because it shines a light on things that people will do when they think nobody's looking.

I'll admit, I'm a cynic. I've become a bit jaded in my old age. When I was a naive farm-boy from Montana, I made the mistake of judging the world based on my own values. Because I was generally good and honest , I assumed that deep down everyone else was, too. Over the years, I learned the hard way that this is not always the case. The truth is that there are a shocking number of people in this world who will do terrible things as long as they believe they won't get caught. They might do even worse things when they realize they're about to get caught.

The resolution could be simple. Amazon might sue these website owners, make examples of them, and then forget the whole thing. Or, they might not. We'll know pretty soon. Either way, Amazon has to do something because it has become public knowledge that their system is being exploited. Already, people are deciding that one-star and five-star reviews can't be trusted, if any can. If the public loses faith in Amazon's system, their business model will have a serious problem. Personally, I expect them to become more aggressive about this sort of thing, at least in the short term. After all, this is business.