Tag Archives: e-books

A Space Marine By Any Other Name

Space marines. I can’t speak for most people, but when I hear those two words two very distinct images come to mind, which have thankfully been drawn together thanks to this image I found on dorkshelf.com:

On the left, a Terran Marine from the popular Blizzard RTS franchise [real time strategy game] StarCraft. On the right, an Imperium of Man Space Marine from the universe of Warhammer 40,000, by Games Workshop. Yes, the are both traditionally depicted as wearing blue armour. It’s fairly common knowledge that Blizzard owes a great visually creative debt to Games Workshop while still branching out on their own, but that’s not the point.

The point is that author M.C.A. Hogarth wrote a novel called Spots the Space Marine. On January 3rd of this year he received an email from Amazon telling him that they had stopped selling his book due to Games Workshop accusing him of infringement on their trademark of the word “space marine.”

To quickly explain the legal nitty-gritty of all this, in the US Games Workshop owns a trademark on the term that covers “board games, parlor games, war games, hobby games, toy models and miniatures of buildings, scenery, figures, automobiles, vehicles, planes, trains and card games and paint, sold therewith.”

It turns out that in Europe they have a Class 16 trademark, which includes, among a whole slew of other things, “printed matter.”  With that in hand Games Workshop brought their complaint to Amazon Kindle Publishing UK, which then caused Amazon Kindle Publishing US to block the e-book in all countries everywhere. A later update states that since the company has since delved into e-books themselves, they own the trademark in that respect as well.

Now let’s put all this legal business to the side for a while and concentrate on what Hogarth has to say about the term “space marine” means to him personally:

I used to own a registered trademark. I understand the legal obligations of trademark holders to protect their IP. A Games Workshop trademark of the term “Adeptus Astartes” is completely understandable. But they’ve chosen instead to co-opt the legacy of science fiction writers who laid the groundwork for their success. Even more than I want to save Spots the Space Marine, I want someone to save all space marines for the genre I grew up reading. I want there to be a world where Heinlein and E.E. Smith’s space marines can live alongside mine and everyone else’s, and no one has the hubris to think that they can own a fundamental genre trope and deny it to everyone else.

Space marines have been part of the sci-fi cultural landscape for decades at this point, going as far back to Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers [later adapted into a film in 1997]. While Bungie’s Halo franchise concentrates on their Spartan supersoldiers, fighting alongside these technological titans are members of the UNSC [United Nations Space Command] Marine Corps. In Gears of War the protagonists are infantry soldiers known as Gears, clad in bulky armour and waging war against the same sorts of extraterrestrial terrors the aforementioned servicemen do.

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2, lines 43-44:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

Science fiction has long been about exploring what lies beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull, and where there is the unknown there often lies danger. To put together a military force similar to what exists here and now while using the same naming convention simply makes sense.

What Hogarth wants is for science fiction authors, video game creators, etc. to be able to continue use a term that was long made available to everyone. It’s like saying that Blizzard and WarCraft placing a trademark on a term like “paladin” or “shaman,” or Star Wars placing one on “bounty hunter.” Space marines should be free to defend humanity on Tarsonis, Sera, Reach, or Macragge, and go by that title if they wish.

Advertisements

“Science” Culture

Now that’s a lousy title, so let me kick things off by immediately clarifying what I’m talking about. This isn’t academia, or the world of contending theories and thirty-page papers on the finer points of psychopharmacolgy in relation to the mating habits of the Atlantic bluefin tuna. While this kind of world certainly does exist, it’s not what we’re talking about here. This is the culture not so much of scientists, as it is of science fans: those who are becoming increasingly invested in the idea that advancements in our knowledge is not only inherently awesome, but the solution to many, if not most or all, of the world’s problems.
“But Gordon, you striking portrait of wisdom and nobility,” you may be asking, “don’t we all fit that category?”

And to some extent, yes, we do. Even the most hardcore Luddite or primitivist will applaud the polio vaccine or HIV medication, but even so, there is a growing number of people who take things to the next level entirely. Check out this trailer:


Kind of a crazy premise- guy transfers his consciousness into a machine body. But still not too far off from the way many people believe we’ll eventually be living. “Transhumanism”, they call it, which, to grossly simplify it, is the general idea that the best (or even inevitable) course of human existence is to “evolve” beyond the confines of our biology. That with the progression of science and technology we’ll stop the effects of aging and be capable of improving upon our own minds and bodies. If you wanted to find a decent illustration of this kind of issue, try watching Battlestar Galactica (the new ones), or better still, Caprica. Now this is an extreme element of this culture, but a contributing element nonetheless. Major advances in prosthetics over the years, as well as films such as Surrogates, GamerAvatar, The Matrix, I, Robot (heck, any film or media dealing with the whole “what makes a person a person?” question) have all been instrumental in introducing transhumanist ideas. But of course, it’s more than just that.

It also has a lot to do with these guys:

These guys right here are arguably responsible for popularizing this entire culture, breaking down even dry subjects and making them compelling and (relatively) easy to grasp, even if only on the most basic level. You probably won’t go off to revolutionize the world of astrophysics after a few episodes of Cosmos, but chances are you’ll come away amazed. Would the recent Mars landing have had the same widespread popularity as it did without these guys? Would the cutting of manned space-missions have been met with the same outrage? Almost certainly not.

To some extent, the decline of religious adherence in the West may also be a factor in this culture. A growing number of individuals in the US are simply reporting themselves as being “without religion,” and the “science culture’s” emphasis on altruistic humanism (more on that in a minute) and skepticism offer a sympathetic atmosphere. The fact that many leaders (or at least, poster boys) for the culture are atheist (Mythbusters’ Savage and Hyneman, for example) or agnostic (Neil Degrasse Tyson) is also certainly a factor.

And perhaps the most fundamental element of all in this culture is the concept of “post-scarcity.” Quite simply, it’s the idea that we have progressed to a point where we no longer have scarcity of resources. E-books are typically used as an example, with adherents of the idea pointing out that with almost everything ever written in human history accessible in digital form, we could potentially give access to everything ever written to every man, woman, and child who will ever live without ever cutting down a single tree. The same logic is applied to film and music as well.

All of this combined creates and fuels a culture based ultimately on values of human welfare. In many respects, it’s the polar opposite of the “manly” culture discussed last week, emphasizing interdependence rather than independence, cooperation rather than competition, and progressive and postmodern social norms rather than traditional ones.

So what are the pros and cons of the culture?

Positives:

  • The fundamentally altruistic and humanistic elements of the culture are certainly something to be admired.
  • Money goes into scientific research, and cures and advancements come out; you can explain that.
  • Quite simply, the idea that we, as individuals and societies “aren’t done yet” creates a great atmosphere for experimentation, advancement, and general optimism about our conditions.

Negatives:

  • We could talk about playing God and paternalistic big-government and all that, but ultimately, the issue of the “science culture” is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way things actually are in the world. While it’s certainly true that there’s enough to go around, we simply aren’t a “post-scarcity” world. The vast majority of the planet is desperately poor, and their needs have to be met. The culture’s basic tenets also have the issue of seeming to assume that science is the answer to everything- that we can maintain our (general) levels of consumption and simply have our decadence off-set by the latest, greatest advance in clean energy. Now even if you assert that our problems can be solved by a use of technology to give us a surplus of everything we could ever possibly need, the same fact of the matter is that those technologies do not yet exist. The entire outlook is, quite simply, utopian, and while optimism should be applauded, it desperately needs to be tempered with realism.

And that’s it for today- be sure to check out Tuesday’s “Shame Day” post, and check in next time for our look at “internet/free information culture.”

Filling the Market Void: Why the E-Reader is not the End of the World


Some of the more literary types in my life (I am an English major so there are a quite a few of these) have been lamenting the demise of the good-old-paper-book since the very first e-readers appeared on Christmas lists. I cannot assuage the material frets of such people (What will hipsters put in their wedding photos if not piles of old books?), and it does seem sort of inevitable that paper books will go the way of vinyl. But as a movement in literature (if not material aesthetics), the e-reader does not worry me as much as it does some, who say that the Kindle and the Nook aren’t only the demise of nice-looking books but the quality of writing and fiction in general, touting the mass of self-published books and the hypothetically lower standards of publishers and editors.

There will always be a world of literature that is distinguished from books written and sold purely for entertainment, just as there will always be films made that are distinct from Hallmark TV movies, even though the same medium is being used to create the two things. This is the world that I am commenting on. The distribution of entertainment has always been fairly automatic – whatever medium is most popular will be used to make the most profit. Yaay, capitalism. There probably isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with this, but it’s important to remember that the hordes of paperbacks on the shelves in Walmart are not the front-runners of what’s being published right now – the most currently popular art will not necessarily be the most enduring.

Any media change creates a market void, and this medium is going to change, which means that there’s going to be a new horde of mediocre (and bad) material produced. I think that society tends to judge media change as culture-killing (or satanic or elitist or antielitist or condemning adjective of the day) (this generally only applies to media changes brought on by those in a younger age cohort than the complainer) and point to the “clear evidence” of the new medium’s depravity: the slew of obviously artistically empty new entertainment. But the fact is that artistically empty (unedifying, depraved, what have you) entertainment is like a cultural given – it has and will always exist. But I think that [maybe not all but at least some] humans are never going to fail to be surprisingly and inspiringly creative.

Barnes and Noble Partners with Wayfair.com, World Becomes a Sadder Place

Barnes and Noble: now your source for superfluously shiny things

Barnes and Noble will now be selling, among other things, popcorn makers, vacuum cleaners, and dehumidifiers via their website. The former sanctuary of all things book-related has prostituted itself out, it seems, to Wayfair, an online retailer. I may represent a non-objective opinion while relaying this information.

Wayfair is one of those frightening oh-my-gosh-we-sell-fricking-everything (like seven different types of bread boxes everything) websites where everything is in Helvetica (I watched that movie and am now a temporary font snob1) but all of the products elicit the same creepy feeling one gets from the idea of ordering cookies from magazines or packages of prepared meals from dieting programs. The kind of website that offers an ice bucket shaped like a crown for $517.49 and a Wonderbread plastic sandwich box for $3.99. That has 101 search results for the words “tissue box covers”.

So I weep for you, Barnes and Noble. I know that you were doing that thing where you tout overpriced polka-dotted notebooks under “Designed Exclusively for Barnes and Noble by [vaguely exotic name],” and I know that you were doing that thing where you partnered with Godiva, but at least the stationary was book-related and the chocolate was delicious. But furniture? Infomercial cookware? Who is going to buy their thermostat from Barnes and Noble, I ask you?2

I’m sure that there’s a grand marketing scheme going on here, and that by all calculations this will probably be a profitable move for Barnes and Noble, or the deal they struck with Wayfair was a steal enough for them to cut their losses if it doesn’t work. But the idea of like the internet-aged Wells Fargo catalogue just doesn’t make sense. Amazon and Walmart did not spend the majority of their retailing lifespans dedicated to a single item like you have, Barnes and Noble. Do not think that you can become them. You can’t. Borders is even gone, and you were doing way better than them anyways, on the internet front – you started earlier than they did and handled it a lot more classily (til now, that is). You kind of have the Nook thing going on, and if you get your act together on that front instead of diversifying your attention away, you could actually continue to matter in that market. Don’t let Amazon get you down!

Remember when you used to at least pretend like you were a friendly bookstore instead of a gigantic, impersonal corporation? You’re definitely failing at that with this move. I will just be interested to see what making yourself an unspecified and abstract retailer does to your customer loyalty.

1 I’m not even sure if the website’s font actually IS Helvetica, but it’s something trying to look Swedish, I can tell you that much

2 Weird upper-middle class people with too much mascara and blonde hair, that’s who, I’m pretty sure.