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iPad 2: in lust all over again

I’m a bit late with my blog post today, as I was hoping to have some news of my own to announce. So, you’ll have to make do with some from Steve Jobs instead.

Today Apple announced the iPad 2: thinner, lighter and faster than the original model, it begins shipping later this month. Now, obviously I don’t need a new iPad – I only got mine in autumn last year, after I grew disillusioned with the limitations* of the Sony eReader – but boy am I tempted. Apart from the general improvements, it will have a hardware rotation lock, just as the original iPad did until the software was changed to make it a mute button. This is a change I protested about, so it’s good to hear that Apple listened to its customers.

When the iPad first came out I was unconvinced. I liked my eInk reader and didn’t see the need for an oversized iPod Touch. As with the iPhone, it wasn’t until some killer apps came along that I changed my mind and bought one. I now use it extensively, for reading ebooks and manuscripts, checking email and Twitter, making notes and mindmaps and book outlines. I even use it for my day-job, at least on business trips, because of its lightness and superior battery life.

I still prefer my MacBook Air for work that needs substantial amounts of typing or a more sophisticated piece of software such as Scrivener, but the iPad serves me well for lighter tasks. And I’m not alone. I saw someone mention earlier this week that the iPad is now the tool of choice in the publishing industry, presumably for reading manuscripts and staying in touch on the move. No more worrying about WiFi hotspots; these babies can be bought with 3G, and ten quid a month buys you enough O2 bandwidth to pick up emails, etc, on those odd days when you’re away from a WiFi network.

The other thing I love about the iPad is the iBook app. It’s much slicker than its Kindle equivalent, which I only installed because a couple of books I wanted were only available in that format. It’s much faster than an eInk reader; I can skim through pages much faster, almost as fast as with a paper book. I can buy books within the app or import ePubs obtained elsewhere, whether bought from a website or made myself by exporting one of my own manuscripts from Scrivener. And unlike a paper book, I don’t need a bookmark, a reading light, or a magnifier.

This latter is a huge boon to those of us whose eyesight is not what it used to be. In fact I reckon it’s not the younger generation who are going to be flocking to ebooks, but the older one. The price of paper being what it is these days, the type size in mass market paperbacks seems to be getting smaller and smaller, to the point where I have to check inside a book before I decide to buy it. I put a copy of George R R Martin’s A Clash of Swords back on the shelf in Waterstones a few months ago, simply because I couldn’t read the text comfortably, even in a well-lit shop. Once readers discover the sheer convenience of being able to resize text at will and adjust the light level with equal ease, I hope they will realise that ebooks provide a superior reading experience, at least for novels, and are worth paying a sensible price for. Not hardback prices; those are ridiculously over-inflated. But certainly around the price of a paperback seems to me to be entirely realistic.

Now, if only HM Government would see sense and exempt ebooks from VAT…


* Like, what’s the point in having built-in PDF annotation if you then forget to put a hyphen on the software keyboard? WTF, Sony??

Fantasy Noir – a genre for the new millennium?

It’s traditional to begin the New Year with a retrospective post about the previous one, but I thought – why stop there? Why not look back on the whole decade? So, here are my thoughts on what I see as the big fantasy trend of the new millennium.

Over the past ten years, a new sub-genre of fantasy has been gaining ground. Fantasy noir has been aptly described by SF&F website io9 as “magical cities in decay”, a phrase that sums up the combination of urban grime and sleazy glamour perfectly. From Scott Lynch’s Venice-alike Camorre, with its ancient, alien glass bridges over stinking, all-too-mundane canals, to an Elizabethan London haunted by implacable mind-raping fae in Mark Chadbourn’s new series The Swords of Albion, fantasy noir has brought a realistic and deliciously nasty flavour to a genre many outsiders see as a realm of idealised escapism.

Maybe it’s not an entirely new sub-genre – there were fantasy novels set in run-down imaginary cities before now (e.g. the sublime In Viriconium by M John Harrison) but, I think, never so many of them as in the noughties. So what is it that has made noir so popular with editors and readers alike?

One possibility is that modern readers just don’t click with the rural landscapes that dominate much of fantasy. We live in an increasingly technological world, and whilst some may long for the good old days of villages dotted across a wilderness, others may simply find such worlds irrelevant or even “sappy”. Also, describing a wild landscape well takes a lot of writing skill and more importantly, familiarity with the subject. As writers we are always being told “write about what you know” – and what most people know is cities.

Or perhaps it’s simply that, more than half a century after Tolkien, we have just had enough of mountains, forests and castles, of quests, noble knights and dark lords. Yes, there are readers aplenty who still flock to epic fantasy, as the continued success of Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson and George R R Martin prove. But for the rest of us, we seek new wonders, new ways to explore the fantastic. And when it comes to TV, we don’t just watch Buffy and Supernatural; we watch CSI, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood and all the other genres.

To my mind, that’s a defining element of fantasy noir. It’s not just about the rundown cities or the magic, but the introduction of tropes from other genres. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a heist caper; The Sword of Albion is a James-Bond-esque spy thriller. Noir is practically defined by its “mashup” nature, and that’s what our magpie culture loves. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Why the hell not?

Is genre dead, or at least dying? If it is, fantasy noir is right there in the vanguard. And I for one will be cheering it on and throwing flowers in its path. Vive la revolution!