The Three-Body Problem Is Out!

My first book launch (in English)!

On November 11, my translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, the first volume of a hard scifi trilogy, is officially released by Tor Books.

The book launch is garnering quite a bit of media attention. The New York Times has a write-up about it, as does the Wall Street Journal.

And Liu Cixin himself talks about the “big idea” behind the series over on John Scalzi’s blog.

You can now order the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online or local book stores.

And you should, because it is awesome.

The Xingyun (Nebula) Awards

Over the first weekend of November, I was in Beijing to attend the Xingyun Awards—one of the highest honors for Chinese-language science fiction. Besides honoring the best works of the past year at a gathering of writers and fans, it was also an opportunity for everyone to celebrate the release of the English edition of The Three-Body Problem. As the translator, I was invited to share in the joy. Guokr, which handled the logistics and organization, did a phenomenal job. Ji Shaoting and Yu Chunzi—basically the con runners—produced a seamless show and made me feel completely welcome.

It was an unforgettable experience.

Though I’ve literally been working with Liu Cixin on translating his scifi masterpiece for years, this was the first time I got to meet him in person. Nicknamed “Da Liu” (“Big Liu”) by his fans, Liu Cixin is a warm, unassuming man who exudes grace and wisdom. As the most prominent and popular scifi writer in China, Da Liu was mobbed by fans the entire weekend, many of them having traveled from other cities to see him. However, though Da Liu was stopped constantly as he tried to move from panel to panel and the long lines kept him far past his designated signing time, he always addressed each fan politely and tried his best to fulfill their autograph requests. When he spoke on panels, he was thoughtful and funny, and his answers were imaginative and insightful, delighting audiences who hung on his every word. Determined to nurture the Chinese science fiction community, Da Liu also devoted a great deal of energy over the weekend to support the work of younger writers (including mine).

I’d like to think all of us can aspire to such standards of behavior when we achieve success.

Besides meeting Da Liu, I had a weekend packed with amazing memories. I had the best time. The. Best. Time.

Some highlights (“some” because the full list would be way too long):

  • Having my first meal in Beijing in a greasy roadside dive noodle shop with a bunch of writers in a cloud of cigarette smoke—quite a way to get over jet lag.
  • Catching up with old friends and meeting new friends—many of them writers, critics, and publishing professionals I’d only corresponded with in the past. Also, learning lots of slang expressions.
  • Launching my second Chinese short story collection; seeing the cover for my third Chinese collection revealed; getting my Galaxy Award from Assistant Chief Editor Yang of Science Fiction World; signing books, lots of books.
  • Having Da Liu hand me a Xingyun Award for special contribution to Chinese SF on stage—they totally surprised me and I almost cried. I think I managed to mumble some words of thanks, hopefully in Chinese.
  • Seeing my friend Bao Shu win his first Xingyun Gold Award for his fantastic novel, Ruins of Time. I’m hoping to see an English edition soon (meanwhile, you can catch a novella of his, “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear,” in next year’s March/April F&SF, translated by me).
  • Going out at midnight with others to do shots of erguotou (“Chinese vodka”) until we were kicked out by the restaurant owner … This was research. Yes, research. If you read TTBP you’ll see I’m being 100% honest here.
  • Above all, meeting all the enthusiastic fans and interacting with them. Their passion and joy were infectious and the energy level was incredible.

I’m very much looking forward to getting the chance to go again next year.

Mercersburg Academy and “The Perfect Match”

I went to visit Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania last month to meet the students who were turning my short story, “The Perfect Match,” into a play. It was neat to see how the actors interpreted my characters, and it gave me a chance to see these characters in a new light.

I also got a chance to visit a few classes, share meals with some students, and talk to them about a scifi future (I told them about my visions of the robot apocalypse, since you know I’m such an optimistic guy).

It was a blast. Mercersburg Academy has a beautiful campus with excellent facilities, and the students impressed me with their maturity and insightful questions about my story. We ended up chatting about notions of privacy, and whether members of the younger generation really do have different ideas about online personas and privacy than older people.

I’m grateful that my hosts, Julie and Matt Maurer, gave me this opportunity for a visit. And I’m even more grateful for the hard work the students put into this production. I hope to see a recording of the production soon.

Research

You know what these are?

Research for Book 2 of the Dandelion Dynasty. If you know what these are, you’ll have a hint of what’s coming. I hope you have as much fun reading this as I’ve been having writing it.

And yes, the shocks do hurt.

Cover Reveal for The Grace of Kings

At long last, the cover for The Grace of Kings can be revealed!

Sam Weber, the cover artist, did an amazing job. I think it looks gorgeous.

Publication date: 4/7/2015.

You can read about Saga’s launch titles (works by Lee Kelly, Genevieve Valentine, Zachary Brown, and me) here.

You Can’t Quit

Apropos my review of the book about Amazon, there’s this NYTimes article about a customer’s attempt to quit Amazon in protest over its attempt to squeeze Hachette by delaying shipment of Hachette authors’ books.

As she found out, quitting isn’t easy:

“I’ve certainly missed Amazon. I bought three bird-watching books from Barnes & Noble about a week ago. So far, I’ve received one. I need to consult Amazon to make decisions about what I want to order because the customer feedback is so weak at B.&N.”

“I’m convinced that Amazon will not make any effort to regain me since they can rely on getting me back due to the magnetism of their efficiency and their massive stock of everything,” she wrote. “So, feeling as isolated as I do in my feeble protest, I believe I’ll call it quits soon if there is no prospect of it making a difference to anyone.”

Seems like Jeff Bezos was right about his flywheel.

The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters, is a mystery set six months before a six-mile-wide astroid strikes Earth, an extinction-level event. With the apocalypse looming, why would a detective bother solving murders?

Featuring snappy dialogue, a distinctive narrative voice, and excellent building of suspense, the whole book is written in first person present, which works really well. The core murder mystery, using a Two Body Plot, is enhanced by a bigger background mystery that presumably serves as the plot arc for a trilogy, of which this is the first.

What I admire most is the way Winters doles out just enough information to allow the reader to make the necessary deductions at the right moments — I know, standard mystery technique, but surprisingly hard to master.

The Everything Store

I read The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon on the way home from San Jose, and really enjoyed it.

I was a bit skeptical about this book, as there have been accusations from MacKenzie Bezos (Jeff’s wife) and others that the book contains numerous factual inaccuracies. The edition I read appears to have corrected some of these inaccuracies (e.g., MacKenzie objected to the assertion that Bezos read Remains of the Day before deciding to leave D.E. Shaw to start Amazon in order to minimize regret because Bezos didn’t actually read the novel until a year after starting Amazon; in the edition I read, this assertion was deleted), though I suspect that such changes were minimal.

I can’t say if the book is factually accurate — like most works of nonfiction and journalism, there are no doubt numerous points of fact on which the participants disagree and which the writer might have gotten wrong. It is also true that Stone is trying to tell a story about Amazon, and the narrative fallacy is something all readers must keep in mind. To Stone’s credit, he explicitly notes that Bezos highlighted the narrative fallacy, and Stone acknowledges the danger and suggests that writers must nonetheless do the best they can to tell a story. Our species is wired for narratives, readers and writers and subjects alike, and I don’t know if we can ever be free from their distorting effects.

On the whole, I came away with the impression that the book is sympathetic to Amazon and Bezos and tells a story that feels true in light of the evidence. Bezos is driven, smart, and like some hero out of an Ayn Rand novel, holds an abiding faith in creating value for customers, eliminating inefficiencies, and rewriting established rules to accomplish worthy goals. The story of the rise of Amazon is a good one: the dream of a retailer that sells everything the customer might want survived the dot com crash, the exodus of engineers and executive for “cooler” companies, the financial crisis, and Amazon emerged as one of the most powerful technology platform companies in the world (think AWS and all the companies that rely on it) as well as one of the greatest retailers in the world. Brad Stone argues that Amazon is an extension of Bezos the way Apple was/is an extension of Jobs, and Bezos is a missionary as well as a mercenary. When he talks about being customer-focused, he is 100% sincere. This assessment seems fair.

There were many things that I found fascinating about the Amazon Way as explained by Stone. One of the key factors in Amazon’s success is Bezos’s belief in the “flywheel” — drawn from Jim Collins’s Good to Great — in which a virtuous cycle allows growth to beget more growth: lower prices led to more customer visits; more customers led to higher sales volume and more commission-paying third-party vendors selling on the site; Amazon then got more leverage out of its infrastructure and fixed costs (fulfillment centers, AWS) and could apply more pressure on suppliers to lower prices, so that it could lower prices further.

Amazon’s self-interest and missionary zeal are aligned in offering the customer a bigger selection and lower prices — these are the inputs to accelerate the flywheel. Keeping this principle in mind explains practically everything the company does. It is ruthless in its dealings with partners and suppliers and employees because only by squeezing them can Amazon offer lower prices to its customers and a better customer experience. In at least this sense, Amazon really is customer-centric: it believes that customers always want lower prices and greater selection, and whoever gets in the way of Amazon accomplishing these goals for its customers should be rightfully crushed.

In one key passage, Stone notes that the idea that in a business negotiation both sides should emerge happy is deeply “un-Amazon.” Amazon does not care about its business partners and suppliers and it must emerge as the winner in any negotiation because only by winning can it pass on the savings to customers in the form of lower prices. Amazon is not interested in helping its suppliers and partners succeed but in squeezing them and eliminating their inefficiencies so that customers can pay less. If this means Amazon must hide key deal terms from the suppliers (e.g., Amazon’s intent to lose money on ebooks by pricing them low so as to drive down customer expectations and apply pressure on the publishers) or break the ethical norms of business negotiations (e.g., reopening negotiations after key terms have been completed to extract more concessions), then so be it.

The book publishers — a group I’m sympathetic to, not the least because I’m publishing through a traditional publisher and I like the people I work with, who really are in business because they love books — were blindsided by Amazon because that is just not how they think. You can view publishers as inefficient or naïve — plenty of ink and pixels have been spilled on the subject of how the book business does not serve the reading public or authors well — but it is certainly true that Amazon plays by a different set of rules.

Amazon’s belief that it is acting in the best interest of the customer is sincere but disputed. Disruption is always going to create some new winners and losers. Take the book business: does the customer only want lower prices and greater selection? The publishers, in exercising their gatekeeping function and editorial role, keep prices high and the selection limited, which benefit some authors (authors who don’t earn out their advance) at the expense of others (bestselling authors and authors who don’t get published), help some individuals and businesses survive (especially employees of publishers and bookstores) at the expense of others, and make some customers happy (customers who like the editorial taste of the publisher, especially less popular books) at the expense of others (customers who can’t find what they like to read).

Amazon’s relentless push to lower ebook prices and to bypass the publishers so that authors can directly reach readers through Amazon will not benefit every customer (and will certainly not benefit every author), but it will certainly benefit Amazon and some authors and some (perhaps most?) customers. People do vote with their dollars, and if Amazon wins, ultimately it’s because the customers — as a whole — have spoken.