Monday, September 12, 2011

Anti-Copernicus (II)

Continuing from here a piece on Adam Roberts' E-published work Anti-Copernicus.


Adam sent me this text through Email, as a .docx Office 2007 file. When I first read it, it looked fine. When I read it a second time – the read I'm doing now for this piece -- it had changed. I was using a newer iMac, and OpenOffice instead of NeoOffice, and a strange corruption had set in. There was now a gap after every apostrophe. Spaces between paragraphs had de-spaced, changing the page count that I remember from the original 32 to 21 pages. The file hadn't even gone through a save-and-restore sequence, but it appeared wholly different.

A book doesn't read the same with a different font, with different cover art, different margins. These things normally do not change for a particular instance of a book; they are physically stable. E-publishing brings out a Lovecraftian lunar madness, a mutation of form that depends on the (programs used by the) observer, not the observed. Books that are published purely electronically may well become unreadable in time, just like so many electronic records have whose formats become disused.

But we don't have to wait for decades. I'd guess that within a month, or a day, someone is going to look at the sentence in Anti-Copernicus “At a cafĂ© she decided to respect the e-acute and ordered herself a lattĂ©” and see strange, unreadable symbols whose meaning can only be gained through context. I hesitate to write much about it since it is so well known within the group of people likely to read this, but electronic text is firmly centered on English, more specifically on the 94 printable characters of ASCII. Even within the symbols in ASCII, people managed to somehow mess up the tab and the apostrophe. Going beyond English, even to any kind of accented character, puts you into a wasteland of varying implementations of Unicode.

I'm not trying to write yet another screed bemoaning the supposed death of printed books. The logic of electronic publishing is inescapeable. And in an environmental sense, there are obvious disadvantages to cutting down trees, bleaching wood pulp, shipping the product all over the world etc. Although, as Bruce Sterling pointed out in the Viridian list, bits are not metaphysical, abstract entities. They require hard drives, backup tapes, electricity. For you to read what I'm writing now, coal is being burned in a electric power plant somewhere. Still, since we're all connecting to the Internet and using some computing device near us anyways, the additional marginal cost of one E-published book must be fairly negligible.

But E-publishing is, again, currently in a Lovecraftian mode. “I'm seeing indescribable symbols that people were not meant to see!” and all that. The cultural imperialism that goes along with it, written into its most basic set of codes. Even its inevitabilitty.

As the text's readability suffers a strange decay, certain formal qualities become weirdly apparent, like lunar features not screened by atmosphere. How many words does a particular book contain? At the beginning of the book, no one knew, without an obsessive act of counting. Then when books began to be typeset, perhaps the typesetter knew. The publisher. The author, once authors used word processing software. When you get a file as an Office document, the reader knows. Tools → Word Count → there are 13,115 words in this work.

Science fiction, as a genre, has an obsession with word count. Possibly because of the Hugo Awards, possibly because at heart it was a magazine-based genre during certain formative years, with pay by the word and stories cut smaller or fixed-up larger as space allowed. It is the only genre to really care about the definition of the “novella” and “novelette”. If you look up these words on Wiki, the SF definitions are the only formalized ones, and they are formalized to word count. Therefore, this isn't a Dwarf novel as Adam jokes, or a mini-novel. A novelette, in SF, has a word count of between 7,500 and 17,499 words. This is therefore a novelette. The formal classification of this work is scientific. Anyone can see it. The book has lost its physical center, but its word count is a rock.

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