Archive for the ‘Transcripts’ Category

Transcript for Cheapskates 10: A Christmas Carol

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSleigh…I mean… sofa. My name is Adam, welcoming you to the Christmas edition of Cheapskates and bringing you reviews of free science fiction ebooks and audiobooks.
Yes, we’re changing up the theme music this week to make room for my favorite Christmas song… about despotic alien robots enslaving all humanity…
Well, Cheapskates there’s just <<Insert number of days here>> shopping days left until Christmas. And maybe, like me, the funds aren’t going quite as far as you’d like for all the gifts you’d like to give. So… I’m going to start off departing from my usual hints and review a few sites where you can earn a little extra Christmas scratch for the bibliophile in your life.
First is a site called Mechanical Turk at www.mturk.com. I could look up what a Mechanical Turk actually is, but I prefer my initial image of a Steampunk robot wearing a Fez. Don’t correct me. I don’t want to know.
Essentially this Amazon-connected company pays you for doing annoying, small or repetitive online tasks that aren’t worth the time for most people. And for the most part, yeah, a few pennies for the amount of tasks you have to do just isn’t worth it.
But, if you want some advice, working on the site just barely becomes worth it if you try the research surveys frequently posted to the site. After you do them for a while, you’ll recognize the legitimate ones. In the first place, the ones from a true college or university are never more than $10, and you’re usually flying high if you find one for $5. Mostly, though, the surveys worth doing range between a quarter and a dollar. Don’t ignore the cheaper ones. You can usually hammer those out a lot faster than the time commitment expected from researchers paying a whole dollar.
Also, never click blind – any task that tries to link using a site masker like bit.ly or the like is bad news bears.
A few of these are consumer or political surveys, but mostly you’ll be doing psychological surveys if you try this out. I’m sure I’ve distorted more than my fair share of graduate psychology students’ view of the mental landscape of the world by taking these surveys over the years.
You can also do OK with voice transcription, but these are more hit-and-miss. They often expect much for little reward, and more often than not the recordings are nearly indecipherable. To get a sense of how much you can make on MTurk – well, I’ve made just shy of $500 in the three years I’ve done tasks, and that’s with doing a few here and there over lunch hours – just slightly over 1,800 jobs, some big and some small.
You can either get the funds as a straight deposit to your bank account once you reach at least $10, or you can pull off an Amazon gift card with just a dollar. It’s a really easy way to buy some cheap Kindle books for the modern reader.
If you’re looking for something a little more passive, you can give SwagBucks a try. Again, if you’re not careful, you can end up signing on to expensive offers that aren’t worth the rewards. But if you’re patient, you can accrue points… I’m sorry… “SwagBucks” through some fairly benign methods – like doing searches, printing off and using coupons, viewing a few ads without obligation or playing some videos, which are easy to mute and ignore, or answering a poll that takes just a couple seconds. You can snag $5 Amazon gift cards for just 450 Bucks, $5 Barnes & Noble cards for 500 Bucks, and a surprising variety of eBooks and even eReaders – if you can be patient enough to let the Bucks accrue up to the five-digit range. There’s also the option to donate your bucks to charity, which I think is an admirable usage. It’s even a good gift to give to the person who has everything by helping out people who have nothing.
There’s also a wide variety of other stuff if you don’t care for books or… helping others, but we both know… that’s not the case, right?
My final suggestion is to try out Bing Rewards. This one is probably the safest of these options, as the main way to earn Rewards points is just to search using Bing. You can also get a few points by clicking on their sponsored links, but it processes pretty quick and you can usually just click and close. You can get Amazon gift cards, free Redbox DVD or video game rentals or – again – make a charitable contribution. By the way, I think it’s hilarious that Bing finds it necessary to shell out free stuff to get people to use their search engine. But if they’re giving it away, I’m willing to take it. Most of my searches are straightforward, and it’s not like Google’s going away anytime soon.
My apologies for the Amazon-esque leanings of these suggestions. It’s not necessarily my preference, but for whatever reason, Amazon seems pretty willing to associate itself with this kind of quote “easy money.” I should probably also give the disclaimer – I’m in no way being compensated for these suggestions by anyone. These are on the up-and-up and all based on my personal experience. Also this disclaimer: if you mess up and get your identity stolen, don’t come crying to me.
Hope these ideas help out with the holiday bills, just … be careful, OK?

All right, on to the good stuff. I thought with Christmas just around the corner, I’d review a free science fiction ebook with a Christmas theme. It was a little tricky to think of or to find a good one, though. And then I realized the perfect sci fi book was staring me right in the face.
I’m referring, of course, to that science fiction classic – “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
“Holy genre misclassification, Batman” – I imagine I can hear you all saying. But just… bear with me.
I’m going to trust I don’t need to give a plot summary, as infused as this is into Western culture in general and our holiday season in specific. But, just in case, here’s A Christmas Carol, in 16 words: Scrooge is a bad rich miser. Four ghosts change him. Now he’s a good rich man.
Theeee end.
What I want to focus on, instead, is making my argument for “A Christmas Carol” as a forerunner of modern science fiction and paranormal fiction.
First, there’s the obvious paranormal activity with the visitation from the ghost of Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. This might be easy to dismiss today, but I think it’s primarily as a result of the more cutsie-poo versions of the classic tale. These are particularly egregious when it comes to Marley’s ghost, the ghost of Christmas past, and the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. For example, the Mickey Mouse version put Goofy in the role of Marley and Jimminy Cricket as Ghost of Christmas Past. The Muppet version had two Marleys to accommodate Statler & Waldof doing their pun-laden knee-slappers. And a Sesame Street Christmas Carol had the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come played by a cute little robot called i-SAM, which was channeling the voice of Elmo.
El-mo!
Oddly, the 2009 computer animated Disney version – with Jim Carrey voicing scrooge AND the three ghosts -seems to come closer to the mark than most other films of recent days.
All of these trivial versions of A Christmas Carol, I think, has really distracted from some really creepy and brilliant description by Dickens in the original tale that’s nearly on a par with H.P. Lovecraft. Take this description of the Ghost of Christmas past, for example:
It was a strange figure— like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm. Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.

Then there’s this bit with Marley:
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

And finally this moment just after Scrooge meets Marley’s ghost, which is almost universally dropped from movie adaptations:
It beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley’s Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped. Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night. Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out. The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

Apart from this, there’s just a lot of examples where Dickens makes some really unsettling use of metaphor: like when he talks about the air laughing, or describes Scrooge’s now-grumpy house as having gallivanted around in its younger days.
But let’s proceed with my points: apart from the paranormal and the elements of horror, we also have early examples of time travel by Scrooge traveling with the ghosts to past and future. I’d also argue that there are examples of lost or compressed time – see: “The Spirits have done it all in one night.” – and, I would contend, even a moment of alternate timelines when Scrooge asks, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
There’s even a passing moment of possible telepathy, when the Ghost of Christmas Past appears to read Scrooge’s thoughts.
But even if you don’t buy it as science fiction… that’s OK, I wouldn’t truly classify it that way, either… you can’t deny that the work has been embraced by those working in science fiction in fantasy.
Take, for example, these books found with just a quick search on Amazon: A Zombie Christmas Carol; I am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas; A Christmas Carol of the Living Dead; A Vampire Christmas Carol; A Vampire’s Christmas Carol; Scrooge, the Vampire; A Christmas Carol & Steampunk Cyborgs; and Carol for Another Christmas… which apparently brings Scrooge into the digital age, this time as the moralizer.
All of these cost, so they’re not Cheapskate-worthy, but for the record… I wouldn’t pay for these anyway…
Prefer comic books? Well, there’s an issue of the “Batman: Noel” series that takes A Christmas Carol as its theme.
Not a DC fan? Fine: Check out the brand-spankin’ new “Zombies Christmas Carol” in the Marvel Zombies series released Oct. 31 of 2012, which apparently has Tiny Tim… eating… Bob… Cratchit.
Ew…
Not sure I can explain the apparently obsessive need to put zombies into Dickens, but, apparently someone’s buying.
If you’re wanting some quality, I’d recommend Tim Pratt’s excellent “The Ghost of Christmas Possible” – which you can hear for free over in the Podcastle archives.
Also, there was apparently an episode of Doctor Who in 2010 that used the Christmas Carol framework, which I have not been able to lay my hands on. The clips and reviews bode well, so it’s probably worth your time if you can find it.
And if you happen to be in Chicago around the holidays, you have got to check out “A Klingon Christmas Carol” by Commedia Beauregard – my apologies in advance for the pronunciation – at the Raven theatre. I know this sounds absurd, but those who have seen it say it apparently makes the transition well into Klingon, and it’s been popular enough to actually become something of a modern tradition for several years now.
In this version, rather than lacking compassion, Scrooge lacks honor and courage. This version is performed completely in Klingon with English “supertitles” and includes narrative analysis from the Vulcan Institute of Cultural Anthropology.
If you get a chance, I say go give it a chance.

Whether you buy that Dicken’s classic is proto-sci fi or not, you really need to give it a read. It’s short, and pleasantly clever and funny. I hadn’t realized that. You can hear it right from the beginning with the “dead as a doornail” section:
“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.”
Other examples are Scrooge worrying that his contracts would be worthless as a U.S. Security – that never goes away, does it? – and accusing Marley of being “more of gravy than the grave,” meaning that he’s the result of bad indigestion.
If I have any criticism of the book, and it’s hard to find anything here to nitpick, it’s that Scrooge seems a little too willing to go along with the ghosts and change his ways. He’s set up as too entrenched for such a turnaround. The reaction in the aforementioned story by Tim Pratt seems more accurate – in that version, he hired a paranormal investigator.

I’ll link to free versions of A Christmas Carol online, including versions that reproduce the first-edition illustrations – very cool. That’s on my website: cheapskatesreveiw.wordpress.com. I’ll also include links to free audiobook versions of the story – among them a dramatized version on LibriVox of surprising quality. Of course, I’ll give you links to as many of those crazy derivative works as I can fit in.
Well, that’s all today for Cheapskates. Theme music – this month – is from “Chiron Beta Prime” by the great Jonathan Coulton under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial license. You can find Jonathan’s work at www.jonathancoulton.com.
This is Adam, reminding you that free doesn’t have to mean cheap

Transcript of Episode 8: Frankenstein

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. My name is Adam, welcoming you to a special Halloween edition of Cheapskates and bringing you reviews of free science fiction ebooks, audiobooks and, this week, Internet television.

Yes, folks, last month, I discovered the joys of Hulu and in particular one fantastic free Hulu-exclusive web series with a deceptively dull title – “The Booth at the End.” And for folks over in the UK, it sounds like you can actually watch it on FXUK.

I’m not exactly sure what genre it’s in, as I’ve never watched a show quite like it, but Hulu calls it science fiction, so I’m going to run with that. The set is about as simple as it gets – a single interior of a standard, inexpensive diner – one of those holdovers from the 50s. But the simple setting belies the deep complexity of the plot and characters struggling with difficult moral issues.

Here’s the premise. At the booth farthest from the door of the diner – “The Booth at the End” of the title – there sits a nameless man with a book. People come to him and ask him for something they want. He cracks open the book, looks at it for a moment, and tells them what task they have to do to be certain what they want will happen. The only other rule is that they come back to him and describe the experience to him, while he takes copious notes.

They don’t have to do the task, it’s always their own choice. And not doing the task doesn’t mean what they desire won’t just happen on its own, either. The audio from this trailer gives a good sense for the flavor of the show.

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With this basic premise, there’s a lot of twisted stuff that happens and the characters are fascinating. There’s James, a man trying to save his son from leukemia who has been tasked with selecting and killing a little girl. Jenny wants to be prettier and must rob precisely $101,043 from a bank to make it happen for sure. Mrs. Tyler wants her husband cured of Alzheimer’s and must build and detonate a bomb in a crowed coffee shop to be sure to have him back. A detective named Allen has to kill a man to find the money from a bank robbery.

But not all of the tasks are so death centered, many are life-affirming, such as Melody who must befriend a shut-in and get him to go outside, Simon who must become a father, and Miss Carmel, who must get pregnant and have a baby if she wants to hear God talking to her again. I’m sorry, that should actually be Sister Carmel who has to get pregnant. This variety in tasks and their eventual outcome adds to the intrigue, because the motivations of The Man are all in shades of gray – you’re never sure if he’s good or evil, devil or angel.

As the story progresses, you discover the characters’ lives are far more intertwined than you might expect, and they run into each other – off screen, of course – in dramatic and compelling ways. It’s always interesting, too, to see how things turn out – sometimes the most innocuous tasks have the most disastrous results, and others asked to do terrible things seem to be judged on the morality of their actions than whether they actually do what they’re asked.

By far my favorite plot point and character is Doris – the full-time waitress at the diner with startling blue eyes.

Doris interacts with The Man after she gets off her shift and is done serving him coffee and pie. She seems to only have a desire to know more about him and foster a relationship. And this, intriguingly, seems to be the one desire that The Man is unable to fulfill with his ever-present leather-bound book. In the second season, her mystique deepens, as she seems to suggest The Man is a fugitive from a larger group with similar powers – powers which she seems to hold herself to some extent.

I once described “The Booth at the End” to a friend as “My Dinner with Andre” meets “Lost” and I think that was actually pretty close to the mark.

Each of the two seasons consists of only five episodes at about 25 minutes each, so it’s easy to take them all in across just a few days. And it’s just about the right length, too; there’s only so long you can watch this premise before it begins to feel a little repetitive.

I’ll post a direct link on my blog for you to find the series on Hulu – it’s well worth your time, and it’s sure to make you think.

 

Now on to today’s main review, which I need to set up a little before I get to the review proper. Some of you might remember in the Ray Bradbury memorial episode, I recommended joining a free online college-level course in fantasy and science fiction at a site called coursera.org. I hope that some of you were able to join it and that you enjoyed the experience. For myself, while I joined the course, I ran into the same problem that I had in my college Western Civilization course – namely that I not a fast enough reader to complete an entire book once a week and still live the rest of my life. In college, fortunately, if you attended the weekly lecture and group sessions and managed to get a decent idea of a book’s content, there wasn’t much need to read every last word and get the A grade.

On coursera, with no grade on the line, all that happened was I ended up not reading, participating or writing essays at all. That makes me sad, but at least it won’t wreck any grades or careers.

However, there was one book on the reading list for the Coursera class that was held in common with my old western civilization course – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” I’d always felt that I’d cheated myself by not getting around to reading the book, either during the class or afterwards, and I consider it a personal failing that the first book titled “Frankenstein” I read was by Dean Koontz, not Mary Shelly. Frankenstein has been cited as such a foundational book in the origin and development of science fiction that I feel I should not continue ignoring it.

So at long last, I have finally taken the step of reading – and now reviewing – “Frankenstein.”

A part of me trembles at the hubris of this act – nearly on an equal with that of Victor Frankenstein himself. Frankenstein is such a classic. Daring as an amateur reviewer to appraise this work that has been analyzed and critiqued to death – pun very much intended – seemed at first to be beyond me.

Still, like Victor, I heedlessly forge ahead.

I’m hoping, given this audience, that I can dispense with a lot of detailed background on the author and inspiration for Frankenstein – that Shelly wrote it at just age 18; that it originated as a challenge between Shelley, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron on a gloomy night in 1816 for them all to write a tale of the supernatural; and the standard correction of the common misconception that applies the name “Frankenstein” to the creature raised to life, rather than correctly recognizing it as the name of the scientist doing the raising.

I don’t have to do any of that… right? If you find you really need it, well, we have Google for a reason, yes?

All right, then, standard background out of the way, I’d like to approach “Frankenstein” in a similar way to how I took on “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs early on in “Cheapskates”  – with a clean slate, doing my best to remove myself from any bias and putting forward the disclaimer that because I’m approaching “Frankenstein” for the first time as an adult, I’m going into it without a lot of the standard nostalgia you might expect otherwise

“Frankenstein” begins – for more pages than you might expect – with pages of correspondence from a Captain Robert Walton – a character who seems all but forgotten in connection with the novel nowadays. Captain Walton begins by speaking of his own desire to reach the North Pole, possibly even finding an undiscovered paradise tucked away up there. That plot concept is intriguing in itself and it’s something I wish we could have held with a little longer. In fact, at some point, I think I’d like to do an alternate Frankenstein story exploring just that diversion from the narrative – Captain Walton making it to the North Pole and what he found there.

Um… actually, forget I said that. Delete… Delete… Ah, well, just… do me the favor and don’t steal that idea.

The narrative gets an extra later of intrigue after Captain Walton’s crew sees an enormous figure making its way by dog sled north across the ice sheet. Not long after, the crew picks up the title character of Victor Frankenstein himself, stranded on a melting raft of ice, and after he recovers from near death, we move in another layer into the frame story, with Frankenstein taking over the narrative.

Shelly loves playing with these layers, and I have to admit, I like this aspect, too. Somehow, drilling down and down like this seems to lend credibility and I enjoy how the style subtly shifts depending on the narrator. The rabbit hole does go pretty deep – at my count five layers deep at its farthest – so it’s best not to think too actively about it if it starts hurting your head.

As soon as Shelly starts with Frankenstein taking over telling the story in Chapter 1, however, I found my attention starting to drag substantially and I struggled to keep with it. After the delicious tease of the monstrous figure spied at a distance, Frankenstein starts his tale with “I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. My ancestors had been for many years counselors and syndics, and my father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation.”

For me, it was like meeting someone walking down Main Street, who is followed by a gorilla riding a unicycle. Then you ask his story and he starts with “Well, it all started when I was a boy back on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin” and you just want to say, “Hey, just get to the part with the gorilla on a unicycle!”

Yeah, it was kinda like that.

That is to say, it’s something of a slow burn for somewhere between the first one-third and one-half of the book, giving a lot of background of family, education and early life experience. This information ultimately ends up being essential to the rising conflict and climax of the book, but it’s a long haul in the middle of it. During this time, the style of language – archaic-sounding to our modern ears – can be a significant hurdle.

Your other hurdle might be sheer frustration with Victor and his behavior. You actually want to start off liking him. He’s intelligent, curious and ambitious – not at all the sadistic monster I’d half-expected based off of Dean Koontz’s version of the tale. But as he goes through his education, and especially after he discovers the key to the reanimation of dead flesh – you get pretty fed up with his irresponsible behavior. You’d think that after discovering the ability to build and reanimate a corpse he might – I don’t know – mention to one of his mentors, “Hey, by the way, I can make dead people live now.”

Instead, he just forges ahead and builds himself a man from scrap and never seems to stop and question whether this is entirely a good idea. He’s not so much a mad scientist as a reckless one. Imagine your teenage son going off to college and instead of getting in trouble with drugs and alcohol, he instead goes and starts creating life willy-nilly, then proceeds to abandon that creation and do everything in his power to forget he did it because he gets freaked out by what he’s done. That’s the image you should have in your head, and frankly I find teenager with power over life and death a more frightening prospect than the traditional mad scientist.

[Simpsons clip]

You really, really want to sympathize with Frankenstein. But he makes such astoundingly bad choices, is so mind-boggling oblivious to the consequences of his actions, and can’t properly interpret glaringly plain warnings from his creation – that by the finale, you feel that Victor got what he deserved, even if his friends and family got a raw deal. I, for one, actually ended up sympathizing more with Frankenstein’s monster than with Frankenstein – he starts out being kinder and more human than Victor, and ends up being smarter and more clever than his creator.

There is rather a lot of flowery text, especially when Victor gets into one of his self-pitying monologues. Victor himself seems to recognize how out of hand he gets at times, interrupting himself at one point with “But I forget that I am moralizing in the most interesting part of my tale, and your looks remind me to proceed.” He does, throughout the tale, do an awful lot of “alas”ing and “woe is me”ing.

However, there are many passages of astonishing, beautiful prose – my favorite being the description of Frankenstein’s monster awaking:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

Ah, you can just see it, can’t you?

Another aspect of the book that surprised me was just how much geography and nature plays a role in the novel – almost its own silent character. I found it beneficial to pull up images of the locations mentioned in the book as I read – everything from specific mountains located in the alps, to the frozen wastes of the Artic, to the wave-blasted shores of small islands off of Ireland. The scope and grandeur of these locations really enhances the epic plot – making the characters appear smaller against such a huge backdrop.

At this point, I’d like to talk a bit about genre. I find it interesting how this is considered the first work of science fiction. To a certain extent, yes, I can see the precursors of science fiction, especially because science and the scientist are taking center stage. But at the same time –to borrow an evolutionary metaphor – I see Frankenstein as more of a transitional form rather than the first of its species. Despite movie images of crackling electricity, beeping machinery and strange dials, there’s only the tiniest amount of science present. There’s the concept of being able to raise the dead to life, but the technical details are vague to the point of being basically nonexistent.

Truly, I think I saw more of the tradition of romance and melodrama in the work that the beginnings of science fiction. Again, to borrow an evolution metaphor – I never would have looked at this fish and thought it would end up as a man.

As I look at the overall work, I come to the conclusion that I ultimately enjoyed the plot, the format, the characters and the elements that would eventually steer toward science fiction, spare as they were.

But in the end, I didn’t enjoy what I saw as the book’s ultimate message – that science is a scary, dangerous thing and that some parts of nature are to be known by God alone. Speaking personally, I think that God has given us intellect and curiosity for a reason, and while there is such a thing as ethical and unethical science, we do the creator and the creation a disservice to classify areas of research as “not meant for man to understand.”

As usual, please feel free to get a discussion going on this either at the StarShipSofa forums or on my own blog site cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com.

One final note: I found it fascinating the number of scenes that I was just certain were in the book, but proved to be completely absent. For example, I thought for sure there was a scene where Frankenstein’s monster befriended a little girl, and they began to throw pretty flowers into a river. The monster, in his innocence, decides that the little girl is also pretty and would enjoy being thrown into the river. He does so with his unnatural strength, drowning the girl.

This entire scene is not there, and for the life of me, I have no idea where I picked it up.

And I could swear, just swear, that the book ended with a fight mano-a-mano between Frankenstein and his creation at the very top of the world in the arctic. Again – It’s not there and I’m baffled where I got the idea.

I think it reveals how much the Frankenstein mythos has dyed the fabric of our culture, and how beneficial it can be to go back to the source and judge the work on its own merits. For that reason, if nothing else, I’m glad I took the time for “Frankenstein.”

Frankenstein is about as much in the public domain as you can get, so the Internet is quite flooded with options for downloading ebooks. I’ll put up a few of the best on my site. There are also free audiobook versions on librivox.org, and these are all right, although the narration needs to have some stumbles and hesitations cleaned up.

However, I’m particularly looking forward to a full-cast production that appears to be in-progress at the site. I’ll link to that site as well so you can keep track of when it’s completed.

That’s all today for Cheapskates. Theme music is from “Re: Your Brains” by the great Jonathan Coulton under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial license, today with a bit of – uh – Halloweenification by yours truly. You can find Jonathan’s work at www.jonathancoulton.com. This is Adam, reminding you that free doesn’t have to mean cheap.

Transcript of Cheapskates #5 (more or less)

Monday, July 9th, 2012

This is the script I worked off of for Cheapskates #5: It’s more or less what I actually said:

Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. My name is Adam, welcoming you to Cheapskates and bringing you reviews of free science fiction ebooks and audiobooks.

Well, everyone, I know that I promised you Star Wars last month, but you’re just going to have to wait a month because something has happened. That something, put simply, is that Ray Bradbury died.

For those of you taking up residence under rocks lately, Bradbury is the author of such great works as Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked this Way Comes. He just happened to be one of the greatest writers of our time.

When I heard the news, I knew that I needed to honor him in some way with my own small segment here on the Sofa. So I changed my plans.

The trick, I quickly discovered, is just how I could possibly honor the man, given the premise of my segment – that I review 1) Free content available 2) On electronic devices – ebook readers and digital audiobook players.

The problem with the first criteria – free content – is that Bradbury is decades from having work in the public domain, which is the cheapskate’s bread and butter, and he never really used free content as any sort of marketing tool. Ray may be gone, but his creative legacy – wrapped up in hundreds of short stories, about 50 books and a trove of poems, essays , plays and even operas –  is going to yield profits for a loooong time coming. In fact, he currently has out a new paperback, two new hardbacks and another new hardback coming soon to stores.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s no good reason a Cheapskate shouldn’t enjoy Bradbury. You can pick up an old paperback of most of his works online for just a penny plus shipping. And it’s a pathetic library indeed that doesn’t have at least a few of his works available to borrow.

But it’s not… free…

Then there’s the second premise: that the content I review is available in electronic format. ‘Ol Ray seemed to have… a bit a technophobia streak, especially in his later days.

Phobia’s the wrong suffix, as he didn’t seem to fear it. He just hated a lot of it. A misotech, perhaps? And, well, while I don’t want to judge a man’s entire life by his bugaboos late in life, his thoughts on technology seem pretty heated and deep seated. Take for example this quote from the Los Angeles Times in 2010:

“We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many Internets. We have to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.”

Yeah, but surely he’s OK with a device that’s created just for reading, right? Uh, not so much… Quoting from the same article:

“I was approached three times during the last year by Internet companies wanting to put my books on an electronic reading device. I said to Yahoo, ‘Prick up your ears and go to hell.'”

Sorry, Ray, I… I really think you’d like ereaders if you gave it a shot… Um…

So, Ray, Why pickin on yahoo, you know they don’t do much with ebooks, so, uh…

Hey, uh, Did… did you know I can get Fahrenheit 451 on Kindle here now… So… so.. you weren’t completely against it forever but.

OK, yeah, still not a big fan, huh Ray.

OK, yeah, I can respect. You, uh, you did write all those great books, so, I’ll uh… yeah, no, it’s cool. Just… little help here would be nice…

Sorry for that, Ray…

So, to make a short story long, I don’t have a free Ray Bradbury story to review for you today.

But I just might have something better…

While he might not have been a fan of technology and ereaders, he was a fan of education – especially the kind you pursue independently, seeking your own passion. Quoting.

“I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”

Complete education… no money…

Now we’re talking.

My free Ray Bradbury content recommendation, then, is a free college-level online course from a site called Coursera.org. That’s C-o-u-r-s-e-r-a dot o-r-g. This site offers free online classes in a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, world history, and human-computer interaction, taught by professors at Princeton, Stanford, University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. In each course, you take classes in interactive online lectures and forums. I haven’t taken a class yet, but from what I understand it takes advantage of social interaction by allowing the best questions to rise to the top by letting people vote on them and using fellow students to help grade and give feedback on papers. You don’t get any actual credit, but you get self improvement and certificate of completion to use on resumes and such.

The class Cheapskates will want to take first is “Fantasy and Science Fiction: the Human Mind, Our Modern World” taught by Eric S. Rabkin of the University of Michigan, who won the Science Fiction Research Associations Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction criticism.

The course lasts 10 weeks and tackles a different subject every week, starting with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Lewis Carroll, and moving on to Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Poe, before ending with more modern science fiction authors Cory Doctorow with “Little Brother”, Ursula K. LeGuin with “The Left Hand of Darkness” and, you guessed it, Ray Bradbury with “the Martian Chronicles.” The great thing for cheapskates is that all but two of the works on the reading list – Bradbury and LeGuin – are available for free download.

The next session starts July 23, and I’m going to give it a try and see how it goes. Go sign up: Maybe I’ll run into you in class.

As for my book review, I wanted to make another selection off of the course list to read and review for you here today. Just before Bradbury on the reading list, the natural one to choose would of course been “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As you heard here on the sofa a few weeks ago in Tony’s interview with Ray, Burroughs was a huge influence on Bradbury. Well, here, I’ll let Ray describe it in this introduction to a 1977 audio series of Bradbury reading short stories and selections from The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man.

[Audio selection]

As this suggests, really, I should just have you go back and listen to that review of “A Princess of Mars”, so if you want to consider Cheapskates in StarShipSofa No 230 part of my tribute, please do so. It really should be.

But I also want to give you something new, so I decided I would go back and review that other great science fiction author so intrigued with Mars, that if you were listening closely you might have just heard Bradbury mention.  That is, H.G. Wells, the author of the famous “The War of the Worlds.”

I was a bit surprised to find “War of the Worlds” not on the list given the subject matter of much of the rest of the course, but a short story included in the required reading – H.G. Well’s “The Star” – will do just fine. After all, as you heard, “The Martian Chronicles” is essentially a series of short stories about the first explorers, settlers and eventually refugees to Mars, loosely connected together. A book of short stories seems actually more appropriate than a novel.

One free ebook anthology of Wells’ short stories that contains “The Star” is “Tales of Space and Time” published in 1900 and available for free on Project Gutenberg. You can also get volunteer-read audio books of “The Star” and a few others of the stories in “Tales of Space and Time” on librivox.com. I’ll provide links on my blog site cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com.

The collection as a whole in “Tales of Space and Time” boasts beautiful, if occasionally archaic and complex, use of language, and the strength of Wells’ imagination and his influence on the genre can be plainly seen.

As for “The Star”, it’s a surprisingly engaging if short read. The basic premise is that a previously unidentified planetary mass on an erratic orbit collides with Neptune, sending both fiery spheres hurtling toward earth. As the apparently new star grows in the sky, the viewpoint jumps from person to person – that’s a big distracting, but typical Wells. Then, at last, a mathematician finally runs the numbers. It’s not good: a near miss at best, a direct hit at worst.

The mathematician confronts the specter out his window as it grows in the sky. Quoting:
“You may kill me,” he said after a silence. “But I can hold you – and all the universe for that matter – in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now.”

The next day, he stands in front of his class in the most dramatic scene of the story.

“Circumstances have arisen – circumstances beyond my control,” he said and paused, “which will debar me from completing the course I had designed. It would seem, gentlemen, if I may put the thing clearly and briefly, that  – Man has lived in vain.”

The students glanced at one another. Had they heard aright? Mad? Raised eyebrows and grinning lips there were, but one or two faces remained intent upon his calm grey-fringed face. “It will be interesting,” he was saying, “to devote this morning to an exposition, so far as I can make it clear to you, of the calculations. Let us assume –”

He turned towards the blackboard, meditating a diagram in the way that was usual to him. “What was that about ‘ lived in vain?” whispered one student to another. “Listen,” said the other, nodding towards the lecturer.

And presently they began to understand.

 

The rest of the story is death and destruction, with an ending bringing in the Martians for a cameo and a bit of perspective.

“The Star” is a forerunner of basically any of the “earth destroyed by blunt objects from the sky” subgenre of science fiction, like the movies “Armageddon” or “Deep Impact” – although I prefer this story to those flimsy blockbuster films any day.

On to the other stories in the collection, we have “The Crystal Egg.” After some initial confusion about whose perspective the story is actually following, we finally settle on watching the owner of a curio shop who possesses, among his other treasures – an ordinary-looking crystal egg. When someone offers to buy it, he jacks up the price to a whole five pounds, then wheedles about another potential buyer who had been there this morning.

All most suspicious… And his wife and step children are furious when the egg is “lost” and their plans for the five pounds vanishe.

The shop owner has secreted it away to an acquaintance for safekeeping, and we at last get to learn of the egg’s curious properties – When viewed at the right angle, one can peer into a world of flying creatures and lofty cities – a world which they eventually determine is – you guessed it – Mars.

The setup and intrigue of the story promises much, but – at least from the perspective of a modern reader – delivers little. I think the story comes from a day when an interesting concept or image could carry the entire weight of a story. Picky readers today – Well, OK, me at least, want to know what “happens.”

The next two stories are connected – “a tale of the stone age” and “a tale of things to come.” They are also the longest in the book and probably the ones in this collection you can feel the least guilty about skipping.

That’s not to say by any means that they’re not quite good. Wells language is deep and rich, and at his worst he’s still orders of altitude above me at my absolute best. It’s just that for the payoff, you put in a disproportionate amount of time. There’s better Wells to be reading.

Still, we forge ahead.

“A Tale of the Stone Age” takes place in the land corresponding to ancient England – of 50,000 years ago. It relates the tale of the elder tribe leader Uya, the young upstart Ugh-Lomi and their mutual love interest, Eudena.

During the course of the story, Ugh-Lomi and Eudena escape from the rest of the tribe and fight a cave bear with their budding human ingenuity. Ugh-Lomi invents the first stone hand axe and is the first human to ride a horse (yep, same guy!) Armed with his new weapon, Ugh-Lomi returns to the tribe and dispatches Uya, after which they are hunted by the tribe in true “Lord of the Flies” fashion. Eudena is captured, offered as human sacrifice to a lion, rescued by Ugh Lomi, aaand so on. In the end Ugh-Lomi is triumphant, becomes the tribe leader and they live happily ever after, Wells suggests, or at least until the next upstart comes along.

I have to admit, I’m not a fan of this style of science fiction where there the “science” is purely prehistoric anthropology. My experience with these stories is similar to watching the actors in a horror movie for me. I want to shout at the screen, give them direction, say “Hey, why don’t you make that stone pointy already.” It is for this same reason that, to my great shame, I still have been unable to get past the first few chapters of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” You can only deal with primates on the verge of turning into something more gesticulating at each other for so long.

I know, it reveals a certain egoism in modern man, and probably tells a great deal about me. Still, I lose interest in this sub-genre quickly. I’m too disconnected by time, and don’t feel the tension, knowing that regardless of what happens to them, it all seems to come out in the wash in the long run.

The second tale is a bit more up my alley – “A Tale of Things to Come” – and it makes the story of ancient times more interesting in counterpoint. This tale takes place in the same physical location as “A Tale of the Stone Age” but 200 years into Wells’ future and 88 years into ours… in the year 2100.

I think I’ve always had a soft spot for writers who have the hutzpah to lay out their visions of the future, knowing full well that future will be reached and the inevitable comparisons made. In this case, Wells makes some intriguing, oddly close predictions – air flight is nearly correct, the decline of the written word Wells depicts seems to be moving on apace, and the multi-function “phonograph” described sounds oddly like a modern smartphone or high-end digital music player, even if it is the size of a Dutch clock. Other predictions seem to be correct in vector if not in degree – Wells correctly recognizes the migration into cities, but not to the same level. England, for example, is down to a mere four super-metropolises.

And then there’s my favorite predictions, the downright silly – most which are in the area of fashion, which when you come to think of it, is already pretty silly anyway. In this story, Wells has foreseen air-inflated clothing allowing for instant changes in body physique, a penchant for surgical removal of all body hair, and headgear shaped like a cock’s comb suctioned to people’s bald heads and filled with hydrogen. This last one had me laughing aloud and thinking of exploding roosters. Think about it, you’d be walking around with a mini-Hindenburg on your head.

The plot, however, is purposefully parallel to the story of man’s ancient ancestors. Here, our hero is a young man of little means named Denton who is in love with a genteel woman named Elizabeth – that’s Elizabeth spelled with a “theta” at the end. As in “A Tale of the Stone Age.” Their romance is also threatened by the elders of Elizabeth’s father Morris, spelled “Mwres” and Bindon, to whom Morris wants to betroth Elizabeth.

Their trials are decidedly more science-fiction, however. In the first section, Morris tries to hypnotize Elizabeth out of her love for Denton, in a way reminiscent of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” They then try to escape their own tribe in the opposite direction of Ugh-Lomi and Eudena – rather than moving toward greater “civilization” (I use that in quotes), they go from the city into the now-abandoned countryside, which they’re not able to sustain for more than a few days.

Returning and living off of debt, they’re soon degraded to the lowest rung of their society, the Labour Serfs, who complete undesirable jobs for room and board and a pittance of allowance. Conditions are awful, and Denton in particular discovers that even future man is just a few paychecks away from being reduced to scrapping and fighting for survival.

I would have liked a different ending – it’s Deux ex machine in the extreme – but I found these two stories together to be more than the sum of their parts. Wells seems to be communicating that underneath the surface, the basic condition of humanity remains the same, and that even though each person is a blip in the larger scheme, and humanity itself a blink in the cosmos, yet it all still somehow matters and has purpose.

The final short story is “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” It’s a quick, entertaining romp and is my favorite of the collection. It concerns a store clerk named George McWhirter Fotheringgay, who, while attempting to make a strong argument that miracles cannot exist, manages to create an impossible miracle. He then continues to perform miracles, small and large, as the story progresses. Think “Bruce Almighty” with better intentions and worse results. For example, he inadvertently sends a constable to San Francisco… by way of Hades. And then he… but, well, that would give it away wouldn’t it?

I’ll just leave off the book saying that the ending has an interesting paradox I found particularly delicious. See if you can spot it too. This collection ends the way I think life should close – with a smile.

A final note on “Tales of Space and Time.” From promotional wording at the end of the book, it’s obvious that “A Tale of Things to Come” is the basis for Wells’ full novel “The Sleeper Awakes” and that this slim volume of short stories was used to promote the longer work. I’d like to suggest that this small anthology filled the same role then as free short ebooks made available today for the purpose of selling a longer work – it’s the cheap bait used to land a larger purchase. Interesting how that strategy has remained essentially the same…

Before I leave you, I want to end out where I started this episode – by honoring Ray Bradbury. I’m going to let him have the closing thought here, also from the 1977 recordings. He’s talking specifically about The Martian Chronicles, but I think it’s a greater observation on humanity and its future in the cosmos.

[Audio Selection]

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury. May your stories live forever.

That’s all today for Cheapskates. This is Adam, reminding you… if I may depart from my usual outro, here… to be rich to each other.

Transcript of Episode 4

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. This is Adam, welcoming you to Cheapskates.

Well, my Kindle has gotten its first battle scar. Thanks to a drop out of my coat pocket into the space between the car seat and the center console, it now boasts several short but deep scratches in the upper corner, revealing the shiny metal beneath.

Ah, well, just makes me look tough, right? Like a nerd… with a nosering. Hm… maybe not.

Anyway the… injury… has put me in mind of battles and fighting, so I’ll use that to inform this month’s review on Cheapskates.

Two months ago, I reviewed Edgar Rice Burrough’s “A Princess of Mars” for you, which inspired the colossal flop film “John Carter.” So much of a flop, in fact, that it lost Disney $200 million, is quite probably the reason Disney Studio’s head, Rich Ross, resigned. The Economist termed it the “Worst Flop Ever.” As the public radio program “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” suggested, at least part of the problem was the name change from “A Princess of Mars” – which Disney thought would only appeal to girls – to “John Carter” – which appeals to no one.

So given that my last review keyed off of an undisputed loser film, I thought with this one I’d take inspiration from a movie hit – “The Hunger Games”, based on the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins. This movie, in contrast to John Carter, is expected to earn $300 million before it leaves theatres.

For the uninitiated, “The Hunger Games” takes place in a North America of the future – now called “Panem” – with clear haves and have-nots. Most of the nation is divided into 12 “districts” with each district specializing in a different service or commodity. For the most part, these districts live on a subsistence level – nearly medieval in their level of technology. In contrast is the much smaller, but technologically far superior “Capital”, located in approximately Colorado. These fop-like people are the “haves”, and most of them live a sheltered life of luxury.

As the book opens, nearly three quarters of a century have passed since a 13th district tried to lead a rebellion upon the Capital. The result was the devastating nuclear bombing of District 13 and the establishment of the Hunger Games. These are a demoralizing annual contest that throws a teenage boy and girl from each district (for a total of 24) into a fight to the death that’s part gladiator arena, part reality television show.

Into this scene we meet Katniss Everdeen – a de-facto master archer from her illicit hunting trips into the woods for food. Everdeen lives in District 12 – old Appalacia and home to Panem’s coal mining industry. As the book opens, Katniss must face the annual ceremony, where the so-called “Tributes” are chosen by the drawing of names. The poorest are at the worst disadvantage here, as subsistence food and water can be obtained by eligible teenagers if they elect to put in their name more than once.

I won’t ruin how it happens for you, but I’m sure it’s obvious by now that Katniss gets sucked into the games and finds herself fighting for survival.

It’s a story concept that’s chilling, and all the more compelling for that reason. Certainly worth your time to read.

But wait a minute, some of you might be saying by now, isn’t this Cheapskates, Mr. Adam? The last time I checked Amazon was selling the Kindle edition of “The Hunger Games” for $5. I mean… a whole… five… dollars.

Ah, you are correct, Mr. Strawman questioner, but have no fear, for now I shall let you know three ways that you can… legally… read an ebook copy of “The Hunger Games” for free.

Your first option is to become a proud, albeit temporary member of Amazon Prime. This is Amazon’s premium service that gets you two day shipping for free, free streaming of movies and TV shows, and – for our purposes – one free eBook from the “Kindle Owner’s Lending Library.” This last one basically lets you borrow one ebook from selected titles once a month, and “Hunger Games” is one of the most popular titles on the list. Everyone can get a free one-month trial and then cancel, meaning that you can at least snag Hunger Games to read for free. Don’t forget to cancel, though, unless you actually like and use the service, because you’ll be shelling out $79 per year for the service after the free month.

And sorry to everyone across the pond. From what I can see at the moment, it looks like you can only get this one to work in the states right now. There’s Prime for Amazon.uk, but all you get is free delivery. Maybe if you raise a bit of a ruckus about it? Worth a shot.

If you’re into something a little more socially based, take a look at Lendle. It’s at l-e-n-d-l-e dot m-e – No dot com at the end, no w w w at the front.

This site takes advantage of an option available through Amazon that allows you lend any book you own on your Kindle for up to two weeks. Hence, Lendle – Lend plus Kindle.

This option was originally meant for friends and family, I think, but Lendle lets you lend and request to borrow books from anyone signed up for the service. With the popularity of The Hunger Games out there, there are a lot of copies available to borrow, more than 1300 as of this recording.

Some drawbacks… The site lists books of all, and I mean all, kinds. It’s best to know what you’re looking for and search for it specifically if you want to avoid an inadvertent eyeful.

Also, not all books are lendable. Pretty much the entire catalog of Isaac Asimov, for instance, as well as the two sequels to “The Hunger Games.” The full trilogy, however, is lendable… who knows…

Another bummer: you only get the book for two weeks and the lender can’t read it during that time.

Also, each book can only be lent once. Also, in order to borrow on Lendle you have to have credits. You get two credits just for signing up, but to get more than that, you have to actually list some paid ebooks as available to lend.

So, here’s a trick to accomplish that but still not spend any money. Keep a close eye on the top free Kindle ebook lists on Amazon. It’s pretty common for a book that normally costs a dollar or two – sometimes even more – to go on sale for free. Download enough of these when they’re free and list them on Lendle, and it doesn’t take too long to accumulate more credits.

The site obviously involves a little effort and some patience – you’re waiting on another user to lend you the book after all. You can decide whether it’s worth saving the money.

Another pointer: Make sure your email address on Lendle matches your email on amazon or the lend will go nowhere.

The fact that I know this of course has nothing to do with any past experience I may or may not have had. Um… yes.

Again to those listening in the uk… this is still just an option in the United States. Sorry, blokes.

Finally, and this is my personal favorite, you can sign up for your local library’s elibrary service. Yes, this does involve getting out of your chair and making a trip to your local library, but I promise after that you’ll rarely have to see the light of day. Good news Brits. From what I can see, there’s a good shot this is an option for you, too, just check at your library.

Basically, here’s how it works: local libraries will sign up with a lending service for ebooks, digital audiobooks or both – among these are Overdrive, OneClickDigital and 3M Cloud Library. Once you’re signed up through your local library’s process for these services you can log into the site from the comfort of your own computer terminal, select one of the digital audiobooks or ebooks that you would like to read and borrow it from the library.

The drawback is that it acts just like a regular library book. There’s only as many copies available as a particular library has purchased, so if the one you want is already checked out, you have to place a hold and wait for it to come available. In other words, while free, this is not the best option for the impatient. However, it’s been my experience that there’s almost always something worthwhile available instantly to enjoy while you wait for your turn on the holds list.

Because of their popularity, “The Hunger Games” and the sequels “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” are nearly always available for borrowing from the library. This is, in fact, how I made my own way though the series in audiobook format.

But let’s say it’s not worth the hassle or the wait to get Suzanne Collins’ book in your hands for free. Or that maybe you have already read through “The Hunger Games” series. What then and what next?

If I may, I’d like to modestly propose “For The Win” by Cory Doctorow as the next free ebook you should tackle. The thick-bespectacled Doctorow is based out of the UK, has written New York Times bestsellers, been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Sunburst and Locus and won the Prometheus award for libertarian sci fi. He’s also truly one of the greatest friends for the cheapskate, as nearly the entire corpus of his work is available for free download from his site, www.craphound.com. That’s c-r-a-p hound. He goes into more detail about why he provides his hard work for free there, as well as in his introduction to the book. I’ll provide direct links on my new blog site at Cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com. (spell it).

Given his location in the UK and his friendliness to the free, not to mention the quality of his writing, you’ve likely heard his work here before right here on the sofa.

All right now, I’ve always found reviews that draw comparisons between two works to often be a bit of a stretch – existing more in the mind of the reviewer than from any real connection. So let me briefly describe where I see the similarities between Hunger Games and For the Win, then I’ll jump in and review Doctorow’s book on its own merits.

1)      Both have strong teenager protagonists with a story told from their perspective.

2)      A theme of games that are far more than games.

3)      A struggle against a larger power by oppressed underdogs – The Capital, in the case of the Hunger Games; Game companies, oppressive governments and Gold Farmer bosses in “For the Win.”

4)      Violence… So much violence.

The first obvious difference is that “For the Win” has an ensemble cast of protagonists, whereas “Hunger Games” is all from the perspective of Katniss.

“For the Win” follows a dozen or so young people working around the globe – primarily China, India, Singapore and the United States – in the virtual worlds of massively multiplayer online games. We’re slightly into the future, but you really have to be paying attention to notice it. Apart from the online games that don’t exist yet, you have little hints – a thumbprint lock on a case, an iris scan to start a car, and a referral to World of Warcraft as existing – a bit tongue in cheek – as “in the dawn of time”.

The ways that the characters make money in the games as varied as the people themselves – as straight-up gold farmers, so called “expedition guides” for rich clients, and mechanical turks working for the game companies to add human intelligence to the interactive experience. There are even hired hunters tasked with taking out rival farming organizations in-game – at least at first.

These were intriguing insights for me. I’ve heard of gold farming, of course, but the depth and complexity of this “game under the game” was fascinating.

Doctorow himself becomes a character of sorts, as the action of the story is regularly interspersed with essays. The topics include musings on “fun” as backing the value of virtual money, speculation on how equations might be able to predict the real-world value of digital items within a game and the single most entertaining explanation of inflation I’ve ever read. It includes a bedpan.

To a certain extent, the jumping from one character to another and the insertion of the essays can get confusing and distract from the rising action of the book. But Doctorow is such a skilled craftsman of language, you’ll hardly notice. Take, for example, this early passage describing life in big-city India:

“In the village, there’d been the birdcalls, the silence, and peace, times when everyone wasn’t always watching. In Mumbai, there was nothing but the people, the people everywhere, so that every breath you breathed tasted of the mouth that had exhaled it before you got it.”

Or this early description of a character’s independent gold farming venture getting shook down:

“One by one, the man dispassionately smashed all eight screens, letting out little smoker’s grunts as he worked. Then, with a much bigger, guttier grunt, he took hold of one end of the shelf and tipped it on its edge, sending the smashed monitors on it sliding onto the floor, taking the comics, the clamshell, the ashtray, all of it sliding to the narrow bed that was jammed up against the desk, then onto the floor in a crash as loud as a basketball match in a glass factory.”

As this last passage might suggest to you, playing games for a living is not all, well, fun and games. It’s surprisingly gritty, hot, exhausting, thankless work. And, from time to time, violent, bloody and even deadly. Because of this, the characters in the book are open to the message of Big Sister Nor, a former factory worker and union organizer who sees potential in unionizing the online workers – providing the incalculable benefit of organizing workers of all kinds across national borders. Bit by bit, they lay the groundwork for a game worker’s strike, struggling for fair wages and benefits both in game and out.

Labor unions and international finance might not sound like the most gripping read, but Doctorow draws you in with his vivid writing of the game worlds as if the people playing them are actually inhabiting their avatars in the game worlds. Anyone who has played these games can tell you – that’s what it actually feels like. In fact, at times the world of games seems to shape how book’s characters view the real world, describing events and environments within the frame of computer games. And for those who might question the importance of games as being worthy of unionization, Doctorow reminds us through a character that huge sectors of the economy are little more than pressing buttons and everyone agreeing to make believe that value has changed hands.

There are chilling moments of bloodshed and poignant moments of deep grief. Like this one, describing a pirate radio host in China, broadcasting after a personal loss related to the gamer strikes:

“After some futzing with the computer she signaled to him that they were live and commenced to howl like a wounded thing. “Sisters! My sisters!” she said, and tears coursed down her face. “They killed him tonight. Poor Tank, my Tank. His name, his real name was Zha Yue Lu, and I loved him and he never harmed another human being and the only thing he was guilty of was demanding decent pay, decent working conditions, vacation time, job security — the things we all want from our jobs. The things our bosses take for granted. “They raided us last night, the vicious jingcha, working for the bosses as they always have and always will. They beat down the door and the boys ran like the wind, but they caught them and they caught them and they caught them. Lu and I tried to escape through the back way and they –” She broke then, tears coursing down her face, a sob bigger than the room itself escaping her chest.”

Doctorow is well-researched and creative in his descriptions of the protests in the games. My personal favorite was protestors avoiding police retribution against loud demonstrations by instead buying ice cream and moving in a slow, organized circle as they ate it. It’s just brilliant and I’m surprised there hasn’t been a real-world parallel.

Compared to The Hunger Games, I think “For The Win” hits closer to home. It’s more contemporary and relatable. You realize how closely what’s described parallels the situation of real workers in the world today, in video game work or not.

As for weaknesses of the book, well, for me the ending just sort of… ended. I was hoping for more resolution on a number of the plot points Doctorow had set up. With any luck this just means that he’s planning on a sequel at some point in the future.

There were a few more copy editing and formatting issues than my hardwired copy-editor brain would care for, but I can’t truly complain. I am wondering if some of these were as a result of the fan-initiated conversion over to the Kindle file format.

Finally, a small oddity to note. Doctorow has chosen in the first half of the book to insert dedications to his favorite bookstores between chapters. I was trying to come up with an appropriate comparison to describe these, and was thinking of public radio sponsorship messages, but it’s not quite right. After all, there’s no monetary gain to him for doing it. He just wanted to.

In the end, I think it’s more like the dedication plaques you might see on park benches and statues – easy enough for the eyes to pass over, maybe sweet and heartwarming if you notice them, but ultimately I think they mean the most to the one who put them there rather than the one looking at them.

If you enjoy “For the Win” Doctorow asks that you actually not contribute directly to him. Basically, he doesn’t want to cut out the editors for all the work and contribution they made to the book. Instead, he asks those who want to support the work to make a purchase of a physical book with the purpose of it going to a school library. He also asks for libraries wanting one of these books to send in their interest as well. I have to respect this concept, that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

If audiobooks are how you roll, there’s also a free fancast available for download at audio.colbyjack.net, produced with Doctorow’s permission. The reading is professional and expressive, but there’s a music undercurrent throughout, and it becomes so complicated as to be distracting at times. I’ll link to it and the ebook from my site as well.

Well, that’s all for Cheapskates for today. Thanks for sticking with it, I know this one was longer than usual.

Tune in next time, when I’ll let you know how to get Star Wars novellas for free. Yep, Star Wars. Until then, this is Adam, reminding you that free doesn’t have to mean cheap.