Plan P From Outer Space

The Plan B Brouhaha

19 May 1999

Well, I went overboard. I got pissed off—and I remain pissed off—at ballot stuffing. My ire, unfortunately, infected my rhetoric—an ill-tempered letter to Locus. Much more ill-tempered than the one directed at "hacks" and those who defend them. (This is a perfect example of why lawyers make poor litigants.)

A short summary, first: Locus has been conducting a survey/vote on 1998 speculative fiction. One book, Plan B, received a lot of votes in what the survey operator stated (and I agree, based on his statements) appears to be ballot-stuffing by parties unknown. Ballot-stuffing and other perversions of elections and surveys really piss me off. So I fired off a letter to Locus. In that letter, I remarked on the ballot-stuffing (defending Locus's method), and made a couple of less-than-adequately considered remarks about Plan B itself and its marketing.

I should have read the letter more closely before sending it (duuuuuuh). It made some improper implications that, I am embarrassed to say, were rightly criticized by Plan B's authors. It did so by conflating my ire at the ballot stuffers with the book itself.

First of all, some description of the book seems in order. Plan B is set in Miller and Lee's ongoing Liaden universe. I have been unable to put my fingers on a copy to review. This has been annoying for a number of reasons, the first of which is that the publisher (Meisha Merlin) generally puts out material with better physical production values than the industry standard, which makes it a worthwhile option. The second, and most serious, is the potential antitrust implications. But we'll leave that for another time, since the FTC and Department of Justice are still (as of today) examining the (in my opinion) improper acquisition of Ingram by Barnes and Noble.

The third reason is the most relevant to the survey.

In my humble opinion, after recently reading several of the earlier books,[1] the Liaden series prior to Plan B is an averagish to slightly above averagish science fiction adventure series of moderate (or less) literary ambition. As anyone who reads the reviews here can figure out, that's not going to get a very high rating from Your Faithful Servant.

What I meant to say was that readers who paid attention to literary characteristics and ambition would not find Plan B very satisfactory, unless Plan B was a significant departure in style, ambition, etc. from the previous Liaden books. Unfortunately, the authors of Plan B took what I wrote in the letter to Locus to imply that people who read their books are illiterate. While that was not what I intended to state, it is a permissible, and probably the natural, reading of that paragraph. It is a permissible, but slightly less than natural, reading of the entire letter. Either is unacceptable. I apologize for any such implication.

Finally, the heart of the matter: the ballot stuffing.

I did not intend to imply—and I believe, upon rereading, that I was successful—that either the authors or Meisha Merlin had anything to do with the ballot stuffing. I further categorically state that I have no reason to believe that they did. Unfortunately, in a letter format, there is little opportunity to clarify; there is little opportunity to expand. A quick or careless[2] reading of my letter might lead one to believe that I implied some connection among the reader, the authors, the publisher, and the ballot-stuffing. No such implication was intended, and I do not believe that a fair reading would support such an inference.

The next bone of contention involves an implication that the publisher of Plan B is not supporting the book very well. Mr. Miller and Ms. Lee take issue with that conclusion. It could have been more artfully worded. However, despite the examples that Mr. Miller and Ms. Lee listed in their response, I cannot agree that this is exemplary support by itself. Neither Borders nor Barnes and Noble here in town has supported the book (staff members are at a loss). The magazines listed do not exactly reach everyone, despite their efforts. Absolute Magnitude and Science Fiction Age have little (if any) library presence or public awareness (outside the speculative fiction community). I can't even get Absolute Magnitude here in a Big Ten college town without a subscription. That leads me to believe that there are a helluva lot of other places that don't, either. The SFA ad was there, but gets lost in all the other advertising. The vast majority of the potential audience did not attend the Baltimore Worldcon; clearly, not enough bookstore buyers did either. The implication I was attempting to make, a little less than clearly, was that relying on small-scale, traditional SF methods for marketing is not a reflection of a "best of the year" book, except if the publisher simply cannot go beyond those methods. The problems with book marketing (both generally and of speculative fiction books) are far too convoluted to discuss here;[3] suffice it to say that we have a difference of opinion on this issue.

Lastly, why do I care so much about ballot-stuffing in a survey? Because attempting to police the honesty of elections has gotten people killed.[4] Those who would distort elections, however picayune or meaningless, are the same people who would plagiarize an author's work, in however "minor" a fashion. Stuffing the ballot box and plagiarism are merely different manifestations of the same kind of intellectual dishonesty. I will not tolerate that.

But blaming Jodie Foster for John Hinckley isn't appropriate. I attempted to keep any such comparisons from my letter. I believe, upon a cold rereading, that I did; to be excruciatingly explicit, I did not intend any such comparison. One cannot predict what goofballs and stalkers will latch onto; apparently, at least one such has latched onto Plan B.

The line in the sand: I am not about to start defending gaming/media properties or ill-conceived paint-by-numbers series from some sense of remorse. I went overboard in that letter. That I went overboard does not change my lack of approval for the predecessors to Plan B that I have read. As I noted in the letter to Locus, we have surveys precisely because tastes differ. As an example, during the mid-1980s, I used Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as film barometers: I found that films that Gene liked and Roger did not were often worth seeing. The reviews on this site will always be honest. Once a book has been selected for review, I take a "warts and all" approach. Sometimes, the warts cover the skin pretty completely. Your mileage may vary. I attempt to use the most objective criteria available, but I've also been known to make mistakes (it's part of the human condition).

I'll 'fess up to (and apologize for) intemperate language and failing to allow Plan B to stand on its own merits, whatever they are, and apart from preconceptions based on reading the rest of the series. I will not, however, retreat from demanding that speculative fiction take itself seriously enough to try to be good. That goal almost always requires taking a literary, not Madison Avenue, approach.

So, I guess I "don't get" Liaden, if "don't get" means "don't like/appreciate" based on what I have read of it. Fine. I love Twain, but I dislike almost all of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I like Anthony Powell, but dislike Galsworthy. I like most of Asimov and Clarke, and dislike most of Heinlein. I like the early work of David Eddings, and dislike the later stuff. In my opinion, what I've read of Liaden is not even close to "best of the year." Although what I've read doesn't include Plan B, I tried to allow for the possibility of significant change.

I thought that the disclaimer toward the end of the letter would make it clear that the letter is my opinion. Apparently, it did not. For anything that unfairly implies otherwise, or unfairly conflates multiple issues, I apologize. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

  1. The series, only the most recent of which is currently available through Amazon, includes at least two books prior to Plan B. I have read those two during the past few months, borrowed from the local library. I am not relying upon years-ago memories.
  2. Persons who would purposefully read things out of context to make things worse than they already are are cautioned that I will take a dim view of such calumny.
  3. Basically, it's the old "molasses man in January" phenomenon. One can't build a big market for a book in this day of firing managers for a single down quarter without fairly heavy advertising. One can't finance or justify heavy advertising absent a huge market, as anticipated six to nine months before publication. The sticky bit is that the companies that can afford to sink money into advertising and let things grow over a period of time are precisely those that, due to the short time-horizon of the stock market and the securities laws, are under the greatest pressure to show high immediate profits. It gets a lot more complicated than this; taxes, foreign exchange, the economics of print runs, the inside/outside NYC problem, an economically inefficient and inelastic market, and the unsuitability of text materials for nontext advertising are just some of the other issues. Basically, it's going to take an extremely well-financed close-hold willing to hemorrhage for a decade or so (and unwilling to sell out) to break the current system. Either that, or a financial catastrophe. My money is on the latter.
  4. A former associate of mine was killed while acting as a neutral election observer. The irony is that the "biggest" office on the ballot was mayor of a fairly small town. It's not a funny irony.
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