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From the hemline index to the vampire/zombie ratio: SF/F by the numbers

It's a truisim in fiction publishing (as well as movies) that nobody knows anything about what the next big thing will be. The best we can get is some vague entrail-reading on the part of editors, who see far more hopeful monsters cross the transom (or arrive in their submissions email queue) than you or I can ever expect, and who therefore may have a slightly tighter grasp on the zeitgeist than those of us who form our judgements on the basis of new arrivals in the bookshops—arrivals which were commissioned or bought 2-3 years ago.

But what if we could make testable predictions about trends?

The hemline index is a half-humorous theory propounded by the economist George Taylor in 1926. Taylor suggested that the hemline on women's dresses rises or falls in line with share prices. When the market is booming, skirts shorten (for example, during the boom years of the swinging sixties): and when times are bad hems can drop overnight (as with the maxi and midi skirt appearing during the oil-shocked, stagflationary seventies).

There hasn't been much actual research in this field because it's not a useful predictive tool, and (aside from some highly dubious prognostication about mate-seeking behavior that panders to the conservative addiction to sociobiological just-so stories that shore up traditional gender roles) there's no clear mechanism for it. However, a non-peer-reviewed paper from 2010 titled The hemline and the economy: is there any match? concluded that, based on a historical retrospective there is a correlation, with a lag time of about 3 years—and went on to predict that the aftermath of the banking crisis of 2007/08 would lead to ankle-length skirts becoming fashionable by 2011-12. Obviously many women these days prefer trousers or reject the dictates of mainstream fashion—but long dresses do seem to be a thing this decade.

Now, earlier I mentioned editors who get to read a lot of submissions, some of which go on to become part of their imprint's commercial output a couple of years down the line. Back in January, I did lunch with my agent and a senior editor at a major New York publishing house. Part way through, her eyes lit up as, in the tone of a hanging judge pronouncing sentence, she declared, "urban fantasy is dead!" in tones that brooked no objection. "But, uh, I write urban fantasy? You know, the Laundry Files?" I replied. "No you don't," she retored. "Urban fantasy is ..." (insert hand gesture here) ... "athletic young women with swords and a big tattoo in the small of their back having to choose between the vampire and the werewolf in their love life, that kind of thing. Patricia Briggs, Laurel K. Hamilton. They're okay, they've got their following. But writers just starting out don't stand a chance: the market for urban fantasy is overflowing and overdue for a crash."

It occurs to me to ask: do other analogous metrics exist that might allow us to correlate the popularity of SF/F subgenres with the broader economy or other historical trends?

It's difficult to do casual research into such matters from a home PC (and especially so if it's a quarter of a century since you last did any work that involved a university library or actual, like, formal research), but bear with me. We have, thanks to google, a powerful tool in the shape of the Google Books Ngram Viewer. This tool lets you graph the frequency of two or more words or phrases against each other, over time, using a huge corpus of books. What can suitable word choices tell us?

Let's start with urban fantasy and see if we can work anything out about its popularity as a function of the economy. Vampires and Zombies are ubiquitous in the medium (although the paranormal romance area is obviously keener on Romanian counts than rotters, notable exceptions notwithstanding). Both tropes are heavily overloaded metaphors.

Vampires are stereotypically rich, attractive, sophisticates with mesmerising powers of mind control and an unaccountable degree of sexual attractiveness. (They're placeholders for: predation, psychopathy, class-ridden inequality, individualism (while outwardly conforming to the behavioural and dress codes of the ruling class), rape, fatal and untreatable disease, and these days for BDSM. Also for the worst excesses of investment bankers.)

Zombies are stereotypically penniless, hideously ugly, mindless, repulsive, and leave me at a loss for words to describe their lack of sexual attractiveness. Rather than being individualist, rare, and elitist zombies shamble around in hordes, pull down anyone who is too slow to get away, and make them over as one of their own. They're a middle-class metaphor for the faceless horror of the impoverished lumpenproletariat, the glacial catastrophe that follows you always, never sleeping, waiting to tear you down.

(Indeed, we are to vampires as zombies are to us; and in some contexts, authors playfully invert this metaphor, or otherwise bend, spindle, and mutilate. But I digress.)

Let us posit that during good times, when the stock market is rising and mini-skirt sales are booming, vampires exemplify the familiar excesses of the age. And during great depressions and economic disasters, when the market is in the tank and austerity is fashionable, everyone is afraid of falling under the shuffling horde of pursuing zombies.

What does ngram viewer tell us?

That graph runs from 1960 to 2008 (more recent data is unavailable, dammit). We need to apply smoothing of 1 (year), otherwise it's too coarse to tell us much—publishing runs on an annual cycle, after all.

A couple of features are notable. Vampires rise steadily through the 1960s, then gain rapidly after 1968 before peaking and crashing in 1976-77. (Remember the oil crisis of 1973?) We tend to forget these days, but there was a second energy crisis in 1979, due to energy security fears in the USA after the Iranian revolution, and there is indeed a trough in the vampire index from 1980 through to about 1985. From 1985 onwards vampire futures look bright, although there is a brief decline from 1988 through 1993, reflecting the recession at the end of the 1980s. And there's a sudden decline in vampires tantalizingly close to the end of available data, around 2008. I can't account for the drop in vampires from 1995-1999: does anyone have any suggestions?

Zombies are notably less popular, although they rise during the latter half of the 1970s and spike suddenly from 1997 to 2003: possibly trailing fears of millennial disaster and the Y2K bug. Fear of a zombie planet seems to have plateaued during 2002-2004, but subsequently began rising again ... and that's all the data tells us, because the big test of the theory has got to be how it holds up against post-2008 application of austerity theory by the IMF and, especially, the British government. In fact, a real pain in the arse to zombie/vampire theory is the lack of discrimination in Google's data corpus between British and American publications, and also post-2008 publications. (Britain went full-tilt for austerity from 2010 onwards, while the USA was somewhat sheltered from the storm.)

I've tried looking at some other suggestive ngram tuples. The dragon/elf/wizard index is ambiguous. Dragons and elves both grow in popularity, and elves notably take off around 1970 and again in the 1990s, but from a low level. Dragons have an initial spike in popularity around 1975-80 before a trough, then grow rapidly from 1994 onwards. Wizards ... are an anomaly: their growth in popularity from 1995, peaking in 2002 then rapidly declining, does not correlate with the Harry Potter phenomenon (the books appeared from 1997-2007, the movies from 2001-2011). The trouble is, while dragons and elves are almost unambiguously mythopoeic, the word "wizard" has non-magical connotations—we talk of stock-market wizards, or web wizards, and so on.

Where can we go from here?

Well, this is a brief blog essay, not a research project. I don't think Google's ngram viewer is going to take me a lot further because the data isn't usefully tagged by, for example, nation of publication or sub-genre. What I'd like would be something like this tool, only for making comparisons across words found in books by title and sales rank within Amazon's category tagging system. Amazon sure as hell have that data and could tell us an awful lot about how genre tropes vary in popularity over time if they wanted to open up for academic data mining. But I don't see a business case for them to do this (other than as a decision support tool for acquisitions editors at 47north). Nor would it do the heavy lifting of correlating trends in genre trope popularity against external quantifiable metrics—for example stock market performance, unemployment figures, or reported religious affiliation per census figures.

260 Comments

1:

I think the rise and fall of Anne Rice's career and perceived coolness account for the 80s-90s Vampires, and the film Lost Boys of 1987. They were otherwise uncoolish for a while.

2:

I appreciate you don't really want to do the research, but if you did, you could ask Apple nicely for more recent data, suitably anonymised of course. They might say yes just to annoy Google.

If you're really interested, you could try to engage a linguistics professor, it might make a nice final year project. Lynneguist, who runs the blog Separated By Common Language is one with a web presence that I know about. She's based in Brighton. Have your research done for you by someone that knows the ins and outs of the business!

3:

Yeah, but what accounts for the rise and fall of her career? That's what the question is here.

4:

Sure you can distinguish between American and British English on Ngram, just use the pull down 'corpus' menu.

As for the 'vampire' peak in about 1995, is this a Buffy effect?

5:

"Yeah, but what accounts for the rise and fall of her career?"

Her first book, Interview with a Vampire, took her years to write and it was polished to perfection. A real literary gem. The others were pot-boilers.

6:

You might be able to do a little better replacing google ngram viewer with IMDB and adjusting by first week revenue, combining the profits of all vampire movies and of all zombie movies

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7:

I like it! Taking it seriously, there is a lot of statistics that
indicates it's very plausible, hard to do well, and unreliable at
best. Long-term correlation is common even in the absence of any
underlying causality, not least because ARIMA models often lead to
apparently cyclic effects (which probably accounts for sunspots,
El Nino etc.), and ones with similar time constants will correlate
for a long time and then drift out of sync. So good luck,
everyone :-)

8:

Worth bearing in mind is that the zombie of this model was not formerly known as a zombie. Prior to Romero,

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9:

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10:

As for the 'vampire' peak in about 1995, is this a Buffy effect?

The corpus is derived from Google Books, not the web; anyway, Buffy ran from 1997 to 2003.

11:

NOT INTERESTED IN FILM OR TV. Interested in books. Books. Books.

12:

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13:

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14:

ADMIN WARNING: Let me repeat: no film or TV vampires or zombies may be referenced in this topic before comment #100.

Further non-book vampire or zombie comments will be deleted for derailing the discussion.

15:

But what if we could make testable predictions about trends?

We've always been able to make testable predictions about trends. The trouble is that people who wait to move on the trend until it's clear the trend has legs find themselves part of a huge crowd of followers.

The main reason Laurell Hamilton has a following is that she was writing urban fantasy in 1993 when it wasn't cool.

16:

Nice tool. I also plotted "mummy" and "werewolf" on the first chart. 1960 thru late '80s vampire and mummy pretty much moved in synch, with mummy about twice as popular, until vampire took off in the early 90's. Zombie and werewolf moved almost exactly in synch (from a low base) till the late 90's when werewolf declined a bit and zombie took off.

What does it all mean? Unclear, except clearly I should have shorted vampire in 1995 and invested in mummy.

17:

Yeah, but what accounts for the rise and fall of her career? That's what the question is here.

Her change of interest? She went from ridiculously popular Vampire novels to Mummy and witches etc. (not counting pseudonymous porn in between), to Jebus, then crisis of faith and wherever she is now. Or something.

18:

On one hand, about the "notable exceptions, consider A. Lee Martinez' Gil's All Fright Diner": neither the king of vampires nor the duke of werewolves are someone you'd want to spend a lot of close time with (unlike the waitress).

For another: the millennial disaster - do you mean the funnymentalist The World Is Coming To An End, or do you mean the collapse of the tech bubble, which hurt a lot of folks?

And on the third hand, I think you're trying to push me to do the same research... on astronauts/cosmonauts (though I can guess how a lot of that time period goes).

mark

19:

"But writers just starting out don't stand a chance: the market for urban fantasy is overflowing and overdue for a crash."

I'm screwed if that's the case. Maybe by the time I'm finished with my current one it'll be coming back. Meanwhile, how 'bout Mundane SF/Post-Cyberpunk novels? Right now I'm also trying to write up a synopsis of that one.

20:

I'm just waiting for the resurgence of intrusive telepathy / Psi, as a metaphor for the surveillance state...

21:

One possible explanation of the vampire phenomenon is political
correctness - and now I am about to be seriously sexist - moderators
please delete if I go too far! Let's skip the defects of the human
male, and consider just the female. There was a serious research
paper (which I now wish I had tracked down and bookmarked at the
time) that indicated that women tended to marry men who treated
them kindly, but put out more for ones who treated them harshly.
Hence the rotter and semi-rape themes, which USED to be popular.
But that became disfavoured, hence the vampire metaphore. No, I
can't remember the rise and fall of political correctness over that
period.

I have NO idea how to relate that to werewolves, zombies, mummies,
gelatinous Things etc.

22:

It may not have been cool in 1993, but it was by no means unprecedented; vampire fiction goes back a long way. LKH did two things -- firstly, she innovated by pushing a bunch of BDSM metaphors that allowed SWM readers to vicariously explore aspects of their sexuality that would have been firmly closeted (this was largely pre-internet for that group, remember), and secondly, she tackled an under-populated area.

Looking at trends, I think the thing to go for is perennial areas that went into eclipse a few years ago, and to hybridize with topics that are represented nowhere but of ubiquitous interest (prurient or otherwise). Oh, and to identify sub-genres that are overheated and inflating towards a bust, which might be obvious to the commissioning editors ploughing through the submission queue but which is still a couple of years out from being obvious to the people pumping material at the other end.

23:

From 1998 onwards (according to Amazon at least) Buffy will include books. There is official spin-off fiction, spin-off guides to Buffy's high school years and the like.

24:

Was there much Zombie fiction, outside of movies, until recently? I can't think of any novels about them from more than 10+/- years ago. But I've never been into zombies, so probably wouldn't have noticed them.

As for Dragons, Elves & Wizards; always blame Tolkien. Between his books periodically coming back, and 'new' books being released, there's all the copycats that have been coming out since the 70s.

25:

Personally, I enjoyed LKH's first few books but quit a few books in as she amped up the sexual content. I simply wasn't into it.

Still, she seems to sell books, so I guess part of the trick is to figure out what an audience wants and adjust accordingly.

26:

Zombies (actually, reanimated corpses) are at least as old as
vampires, and were far more common before the modern era. What
they never did was become a fashion.

Tolkein may be the main recent driver of dragons, elves and
wizards, but many people were brought up on stories of them that
owe nothing to Tolkein. Don't overstate his influence.

27:

Sorry Charlie! I didn't mean to discuss movies at all though - I was talking about the history of zombies as a cultural creation, which surely is relevant? You mentioned a big boom in zombies in the 70s. I was hypothesizing that a literature search for zombies earlier than that time would not deliver relevant results anyway because the zombie-as-ravening-undead is a recent creation. Earlier zombies (in western literature) were based on Seabrook's sensational stories of Haiti, and the subtext there is different (the powerless being controlled even after death by a terrifying secret master, with strong racial overtones of course). That might still respond to trends but not in the same way, as it's a different narrative. Actually... I can imagine that 'hidden masters' could be a trend-sensitive narrative theme.

28:

All these genre tropes are prone to reinterpretation as time passes.

Dracula was very much a metaphor for syphilis and sexual promiscuity (an 1890s problem -- no antibiotics, remember), along with tuberculosis and fear of strong women (another Victorian cultural issue).

Earlier vampires? Carmilla was a mimic, almost (in modern terms) a psychopath. More recent vampires ... there was a whole flood of mid-to-late 1980s stories in which vampires discover AIDS, or vice versa. (Zidovudine and subsequent antivirals pretty much killed that one.)

So of course the significance of zombies changes over time. Early versions can easily be framed as a slavery metaphor. Later on, well, we don't talk about the working poor as "wage slaves" without justification ...

29:

“I can't account for the drop in vampires from 1995-1999: does anyone have any suggestions?”

I’ll take a stab at this. 1995-1999 is the period of the Dot Com/Tech boom/bubble.

Book wise: In 1995 "The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman tops the list. In 1996 "A Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin is very popular. And of course between 1997-1999 the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are as you say a phenomenon.

Between 1995-1999 the adults are being distracted by everything that has to do with the Internet and technology (new media), while the young adults are immersed in the world Wizards. Vampires just can’t compete and fall out of popularity during this period.

30:

Zombies (actually, reanimated corpses) are at least as old as
vampires, and were far more common before the modern era. What
they never did was become a fashion.

Until Byron and the Victorian Vampire novel fad, there wasn't much distinction between reanimated corpses and vampires. The idea of zombies as flesh-eating reanimated corpses seems to only go back to "Night of the Living Dead", which doesn't call them that. Before then it referred to the Haitian Vodou idea of revived dead used as slaves.


Tolkein may be the main recent driver of dragons, elves and
wizards, but many people were brought up on stories of them that
owe nothing to Tolkein. Don't overstate his influence.

Yes, they've been around for ages, but Charlie is talking about modern novels and mentions their popularity taking off around 1970, that's what I was referring to.

31:

"Until Byron and the Victorian Vampire novel fad, there wasn't
much distinction between reanimated corpses and vampires."

Eh? There was a HECK of a lot of distinction! Vampires start
in the 18th century, and were taken from central European
folklore. Reanimated corpses are as old as fabulous tales and
occur in most mythologies, both when under the control of a
wizard and when arising to finish some business (often revenge).
I agree that the flesh-eating is new.

It is extremely unclear whether Tolkein was a major factor in the
increase being discussed, or merely the vanguard of a change in
the fashion. Either explanation is possible, though I agree that
many modern works derive from him. But others derive more from
his immediate predecessors, even today (e.g. C.L. Moore, Lindsay
and many others).

32:

Charlie, FYI, you can use formulas in google Ngram. Check this out. Zombies and vampires are in perfect anti-correlation. It's scary!

33:

My maths brain has pretty much atrophied due to disuse, but -- when you've got two variables that sum to unity, wouldn't you expect them to mirror each other? (i.e. if A increases, B must decrease, and vice versa ...)

34:

"Reanimated corpse" is a pretty generic term, covering a wide variety of folkloric creatures, including some; under various names, described as reanimated corpses feeding on the living. Sure, the name vampire dates to the 18th century, but the stories go back much further. The modern idea of the aristocratic vampire (which I think is what most people think of) dates to Dr. Polidori's "The Vampyre" which was modeled on Byron, before then they were fairly mindless monsters.
So call vampires, or whatever you want to call 'em, a subset of reanimated corpse. Okay, done with this now.

35:

Set the starting year to 1900. It's really weird, looks like as soon as zombies arrive (as a concept) they begin to compete with (the older concept of) vampires...

36:

LOL, of course. Scratch that thing.

37:

OK, how about this: a simple vampire/zombie ratio, which keeps falling from the 40s to the present.

38:

Charlie, I'd say you kind of made a case against vampires being about AIDS. If books take years to see print after they've started, a dip in vampires in the late 1980s would seem to be against the idea that the books are in response to fears about AIDS.

Actually, what might be useful is seeing how high vampires rank as a proportion of books published. Then you might get an idea of whether some meme is spreading, or whether the market as a whole is spreading or contracting.

In other news, I'd gotten the slight impression that lower back tattoos aren't cool anymore, and after Hunger Games, girls are more into bows anyway. I can't entirely blame an editor for passing on novels that heavily featured these two tropes.

Now a novel about reanimating recently dead libertarians to run some sort of pyramid scheme, that might be a book to start writing about now...

39:

Who's reading what ... IPSOS did a report on newspaper readership which basically found that you are what you read. Should be possible to reframe this for fiction. So just based on demographics ...

a) Which demos/segments are increasing?
b) What are their defining attitudes?
c) What are their likeliest upcoming issues (simply because of life stage progression)?
d) What are the taboos associated with each of those life stages?


a) Boomers are on their way out (next 20-30 years) and the overall shape of the age distribution chart is going from looking like a snake that swallowed a cow to a snake that's been noshing fairly regularly but on nothing larger than a rabbit. What this means is that consumer buying (economic) power will be fragmented ... sellers will have to start chasing multiple segments instead of just one motherlode segment. Consequently, success/fail benchmarks will have to be redrawn ... or you risk losing a viable product/service over the long-term.


b) Boomers' key issues probably center on entitlement and/or broken promises. These folks were born immediately after WW2 when hopes were high and it didn't help that their parents spoiled them rotten. They were raised to believe that anything is possible, and that they deserve to have it all. Their key issue/fear is not dying in the gutter, i.e., not outliving their savings. Now tie this in with senile dementia ... effective dementia treatments like jetpacks are still about 30 years away.
(Basically, boomers can be both zombies and vampires. I'm guessing that the echo generation is probably a lot more into zombies and vampires than the boomers: they've gotten used to the idea that just because it looks like a human, doesn't mean it is a human. Echoes have learned how to spot a monster and put it down.)


c) Key issue is that there are fewer kids to look after the old, failing old folks, none of the universal health/social security safety nets are likely going to be sufficiently robust ... so what does this mean? How do you pull the plug on people who've outlived their usefulness? (Coincides with the rise of the right-to-die movement. For society as a whole, it may be preferable to leave such a decision in the affected person's own hands. That is, preferable to forcing your kids/grandkids to off you. Imagine the guilt ... )


d) Right to die is still considered 'suicide', and in most cultures and situations, suicide is still taboo. There may be a work-around though ... the boomers were the first generation to really get into planned parenthood (vs. the previous generations' every sperm is beautiful ethos), so who knows, boomers might see right-to-die as a logical extension of this. (What kind of spins are likely for right-to-die based on POV? Could definitely be compared to planned parenthood in terms of overpopulating the planet, resource allocation, quality vs. quantity of life, etc.)


In terms of story-telling potential, plenty of inter-generational, cultural and religious conflicts.


A question: Where would you put robots? Are robots vampires or zombies? (Because robots could easily be built to either spec... and they're already here.)

40:

I think the thing to go for is perennial areas that went into eclipse a few years ago, and to hybridize with topics that are represented nowhere but of ubiquitous interest (prurient or otherwise).

It's working tolerably well for the Sad Puppies, not to mention Fox News. I wouldn't say the desire to return to traditional social roles is ubiquitous, but it's probably more widespread than closeted homosexuality on a numbers basis.

41:

As usual, Bruce Sterling got there first in his Shaper/Mechanist series.* Speaking of which, someone who revives that set of memes could have some real fun.

*Everything's in Shaper/Mechanist. And I didn't even see it until the 1990s. Published 1982-1985? Sheesh.

Anyway, back to zampires and vombies and literary trends. Sucks that we're still dealing with retreads of the 1970s and 1980s. Would that there was some real creativity around...

42:

Narcissism is at a record high ... which helps explain the popularity of sparkly vampires. So yes, Echoes would pull the trigger on Mom & Dad. (Unfortunately, I can't find what the current batch of high-schoolers are thinking ... that's the group you really want to look at.)

Wikipedia:

"The University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" study of high school seniors (conducted continuously since 1975) and the American Freshman survey, conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute of new college students since 1966, showed an increase in the proportion of students who consider wealth a very important attribute, from 45% for Baby Boomers (surveyed between 1967 and 1985) to 70% for Gen Xers, and 75% for Millennials. The percentage who said it was important to keep abreast of political affairs fell, from 50% for Baby Boomers to 39% for Gen Xers, and 35% for Millennials. The notion of "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" decreased the most across generations, from 73% for Boomers to 45% for Millennials. The willingness to be involved in an environmental cleanup program dropped from 33% for Baby Boomers to 21% for Millennials.[32]"


Have you considered comparing published fiction vs. music trends? Music is a lot quicker to market.

43:

Shame the data runs out in '08. There has been a huge boom in zombie novels from about '06 or so - since WWZ was published... those appalling Del Toro books with the zombie/vampire hybrid thingies, the abysmal Brian Keene and awful Justin Cronin - both bestsellers IIRC, about a million knockoffs of every micro-genre.

Tricky to think of anything actually good that came out of it all... the new deadwardians was a laugh, girl with all the gifts had a bit of novelty, but in general its all ranged from forgettable to wish-it-was-forgettable.

I'd say the trend is definitely on its last legs now after winding down over the last couple of years, which may support the theory.

44:

I wonder if decreasing Eurocentrism* in publishing is a hidden variable in here? With zombies being derived from — in the lingo of the 1960s, when the data set begins — "third world" cultures, while vampires are derived from European aristocracy, the increasing acceptability of non-first-world settings/cultures for anything other than exoticism might be skewing things at bit, especially at the edges where those Prohibited-Because-This-Won't-Be-Comment-100-or-Later vehicles from other narrative forms overlap and raise awareness/interest.

* It probably hasn't decreased "enough"... but it's certainly less than it was a century ago.

45:

The other thing to look for is changing archetypes. I don't know enough about the connotations of vampires and zombies in the 60s vs. today, but I would be mildly surprised if there wasn't at least some change.

46:

The robot/nanomedicine real world trend suggests revisiting Frankenstein may be in order, but this time as a self-made monster. (Jekyll & Hyde optional.)
This would also fit the narcissism/loner mentality of the younger cohort. Of the old world monsters, I think Frankenstein was the only one-of/loner. Then toss in an IOT connection: Imagine you just upgraded your (organ of choice here) with the latest Pomme app ... then either the monthly update doesn't come through, has a bug in it, or has been hacked. What would happen? Could work as a conspiracy/thriller, SF/horror or spoof.

47:
Narcissism is at a record high
Millenials know they're being surveilled from all sides. Is it narcissism to pay attention to what the watchers will see?
48:

After Rice, and especially in the 1990s, the vampire went from scary, foreign, and threatening to superhero. The "eating people" thing went from "definitely a mass murderer" to "hardly ever actually eats people, but broods a lot about eating people and has a good reason to act aloof and mysterious".

49:

Added "alien" to Ngram and there is a substantial rise between 1995-2000. And "wizard" of course shot up during the same period. Books with "robot" had a large spike around 1984 (hmm, I wonder what caused that?).

50:

“I can't account for the drop in vampires from 1995-1999: does anyone have any suggestions?”

Asian Market crash/start of the Japanese financial crisis? It was overshadowed by the dot com growth but it happened

51:

I predict at least one book built around the theme of Millennial conflicts with our parents generation, mediated via vampire tropes. What do you do when the elder generation hogs up all the money--and then decides not to die, gleefully damning their children to lives of toil and destitution? "Hey, I'm 71, I'm entitled to my social security free ride, even if I now look like I'm 20 and am literally sucking blood out of the younger generations!"

52:

Millenials know they're being surveilled from all sides. Is it narcissism to pay attention to what the watchers will see?

Interesting aside: the email attached to this account just got frozen (aka "we want you to prove who you are" followed by "No, I don't think you are that person *nudge* *nudge* *wink* *wink* when the false data was presented.), as did a couple of others that have no real connection to this one unless you've got some serious pulling power. (Aka you can access visa/mastercard data - if I was that sloppy it wouldn't be a marker, now would it? Meta - you're not good at it).

About as subtle as a brick through the window. No real harm apart from annoyance and the lack of tradecraft; the passwords can be cracked in under 25 minutes so it's more about the message than anything else. (Hello Harvard: no, I still think the fox joke was funny, and I'm seeing the TTP stuff lighting a fire or two. How's the meeting going? Got a statue of Europa handy this time?).

@host

Since we're sticking purely to books, the obvious stuff about MLP and Otherkin fandom won't get included (although they'll probably influence trends in about 2-4 yrs).

However, there's a massive difference between a grassroots trend (example from the low fruit tree: Harry Potter) versus an astro-turfed trend (50 Shades of Grey - no, despite what you've read about the fanfic angle, there were some sharp pointy teeth who thought that shaping the narrative to make their type sexy was worth a punt. Not even joking. The money was just the money-shot, as it were. I'm suddenly reminded of Destiny again).


What's going to be big, next? Probably Fae / mind / morphing / hybrids / chimeras.

Read over Queen of the Dark Things last month, it's passable, but hitting the 'there' on certain vibes. It has a talking dog, which is always a plus. (Ahem (Imbd link, safe)).

~

But, definitely - the question needs to be asked:

Do you mean an African or European Swallow?

What's organically going to trend is a shaman type predictive field; what's going to be pushed with the not-so-velvet-glove is a lot easier to find out.


Hint:

World War Z, book was good, if slight. Film? Produced by 'Plan B', work it out.

53:

"Narcissism is at a record high ..."

Is it?

"which helps explain the popularity of sparkly vampires. So yes, Echoes would pull the trigger on Mom & Dad."

Or maybe we'd have legit gripes with a generation that raised us to expect trophies for participating, then mocked us for carrying that expectation into young adulthood? Who impressed all of us with the importance of going to college, but then stood by while the prices jacked up and we got smothered with non-dischargable debt?

If there's a vampire metaphor here, I don't think it's the one you're talking about.

54:

"no, despite what you've read about the fanfic angle, there were some sharp pointy teeth who thought that shaping the narrative to make their type sexy was worth a punt"

Assuming you're not talking about literal vampires, this seems a bit unlikely. Pretty much all the commentary about FSoG from BDSM types has been "this is an absolutely terrible depiction of BDSM, and generally terrible in every other respect."

55:

And before the conspiracy types in the peanut gallery get too excited, check their produce. Some very good messages in there, 12 years a slave and so on.

The lesser known rule 35. (Text link, safe).

56:

Pretty much all the commentary about FSoG from BDSM types has been "this is an absolutely terrible depiction of BDSM, and generally terrible in every other respect."

I'm was really not talking about BDSM types. That would be organic grassroots level, which 50 shades really is not.

Some due diligence is probably in order, check who pushed it through.

(sigh)

To make this obvious: who benefits from a narrative where a sexy, sociopathic billionaire is the sexual alpha male that society needs to view as an aspirational figure?

Hint: not the people in your local kink club.

57:

Without trying to derail onto films, I do wonder about echo booms from hits, and whether there's enough of a correlation to make it worth people hacking out me-too works on popular topics or not.

One would naively assume that any big hit would be followed by wannabes in the next 2-5 years or even 1-5 years. Does that work out?

The nice thing is that we've got three data sets really: best selling books that have never been filmed, best selling books that were filmed, and well-liked movies that were never novels. It's possible that someone could analyze these three sources and sort out which one is the most predictive of future novels. The novels that have been filmed acts as a bit of a control, because you can see whether the novel or the film had a bigger effect. In a case where a best-selling novel led to a film that tanked, it might be possible to see whether this had a negative effect on novel sales on similar subjects (especially on vampire movies that truly suck).

The black swan in the room is that the also-rans are rarely as likely to be as popular as the original, which almost certainly was a black swan. Still, a fast, facile writer might be able to pull off echoing hits with extruded novelizations as a career.

58:

I'm pretty sure evil billionaires didn't cook up 50SoG to make themselves look good, if that's what you're getting at. It's development history as Twilight fanfic with a harder edge is well known and extensively documented.

59:

I'm pretty sure evil billionaires didn't cook up 50SoG to make themselves look good, if that's what you're getting at. It's development history as Twilight fanfic with a harder edge is well known and extensively documented.

Up until the point at which money came in.

If you need pointers, I'll point to the Tea Party. Originally a grassroots organic mimetic trend, then suddenly the Koch brothers dumped $50 mil on it.

I'd suggest looking into the transitional period. She made bank, they got what they wanted in narrative terms.

And no, since this thread is about Vampires, and someone just chucked a brick through my internet portal, I'm tempted to take the gloves off. But I won't, rules is rules and all that.

"that single embodiment of a world crippled by its legacy of recent cruelties and a self-lacerating worship of the proceeds of selfishness and greed."

60:

Up until the point at which money came in.

If you need pointers, I'll point to the Tea Party. Originally a grassroots organic mimetic trend, then suddenly the Koch brothers dumped $50 mil on it.

I'd suggest looking into the transitional period. She made bank, they got what they wanted in narrative terms.

Or Hollywood saw that Twilight was cleaning up at the box office, and 50SoG was selling with numbers comparable to Twilight, and decided to give it another shot. There's no grand conspiracy required, only the application of Hollywood's current modus operandi. Given how fond they are of "the same but different" it'd be more of a wonder if 50SoG didn't get at least a script in development.

61:

The spike in "dragons" from around 1975 to 1980 corresponds pretty well with the arrival of the Dungeons and Dragons game, while "wizards" from 1995 to 2002 could be with the phenomenal growth of the card game "Magic the Gathering" by games company Wizards of the Coast.

Do gamers (NOT computer gamers, tabletop gamers) buy more books and thus influence publishing?


62:

Glad you raised this point ... the dark side of the parental generation's ideals/wishes for its progeny. Consider that the boomers were promised a war-free future, and a 20-hour work week.

I only thought about the insane cost of tertiary education after posting. Maybe this survey is actually picking up on that - now more than ever before - the kids going to college are those motivated by money, who come from money, the idealists can't afford college and/or feel that college has become a business. (Colleges are no longer for educating/discussing grand ideas but just another profit-making enterprise.) Further, if undergrad curricula no longer require at least a passing familiarity with core humanities (philosophy, history, lit) then undergrads may never find out that aspiring to money is not the same as having ideals.

63:

Further, if undergrad curricula no longer require at least a passing familiarity with core humanities (philosophy, history, lit) then undergrads may never find out that aspiring to money is not the same as having ideals.

Now that is dead on. Some most of the computer science students I met when I was at UCSC were on the undergrad-to-Silicon Valley pipeline, and were all very impressed with their own cleverness of choosing a computer science program that was like RIGHT NEXT to San Francisco, Cupertino, etc. (Networking, dude! It's all about networks!) They were a happy little band of sociopaths-in-training, and when pressed on anything related to the humanities (which, by the way, were UCSC's specialty when it was founded) they would inevitably present a deer-in-the-headlights look before falling back on sniping bluster about how they make things and are the new industry and God shut up with all your WORDS!

I don't know if the other sciences had a similar problem. I didn't have as much contact with them for various reasons. I can say that the life sciences departments seemed to be divided between militant eco activists and the pro-vivisection lobby.

64:

who benefits from a narrative where a sexy, sociopathic billionaire is the sexual alpha male that society needs to view as an aspirational figure?

Oh, I know this one!

It's sociopathic billionaires who're so creepy that being billionaires isn't enough.

65:

There might be a double spike, D&D and Pern. Dragonsinger, Dragonsong, the White Dragon, and Dragondrums came out in 76-79, and AD&D, the basic set, Greyhawk, and the original set were all around in the late 1970s.

The only thing that doesn't quite compute is that I don't know when D&D-inspired novels started getting popular. Was it that early?

66:

What does “spindle” mean?

67:

Spindle? In this context, it means a sharp spike on a heavy base. In the pre-computer era, it was common for office workers to store papers temporarily by pressing them onto the spindle, thus preserving them from blowing away in the wind from the strong office fans that might be in use where central air conditioning had not yet been introduced.

Spindling an item of paperwork damaged it slightly, leaving a hole the size of a toothpick.

Then along came computer punch cards. For a time, these were widely circulated in office environments for various reasons. They commonly had the phrase "Do not bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate" on them because if they were damaged or had "extra" holes punched into them, bad things happened when they were fed through card readers as a data entry process.

68:

50 Shades of Grey - no, despite what you've read about the fanfic angle, there were some sharp pointy teeth who thought that shaping the narrative to make their type sexy was worth a punt.

Not so sure that happened in the trade publishing phase of the parasitic life-cycle, but what happened inside "Twilight" fanfic and the subsequent self-pub breakout phase was disgraceful. Hard to critique our Alien Overlords for locking onto such a juicy nugget of profit-source and exploiting it thereafter. (Question: was "Twilight" originally fanfic based on something else?)

One interesting phenomenon I haven't referenced yet is that steam engine time is definitely a Thing in fiction and creative media; because we creative types are all just chewing on the zeitgeist cud and regurgitating our own reflections on the present, we're prone to picking up on the same ideas and recycling them the same way if the signal is strong enough.

69:

Assuming you're not talking about literal vampires, this seems a bit unlikely.

Not BDSM; think finance-focussed sociopaths. Everyone wants to imagine that they're irresistibly sexy, no matter how depraved their income stream. If you pick up on the vampire/banker metaphor again, 50 Shades has it nailed, amirite?

70:

The only thing that doesn't quite compute is that I don't know when D&D-inspired novels started getting popular. Was it that early?

Nope. As I remember it in the UK: original D&D was first published in the USA in 1974 or thereabouts. It took a long time to sneak out. I first met Basic D&D in a local games shop when I was 12, in 1976. The Monster Manual, AD&D first edition book 1, came out in 1979 or thereabouts, and the original AD&D set of core manuals weren't complete until 1981. White Dwarf began publishing in the UK -- back when Games Workshop was a shop run by enthusiasts in London -- as a quarterly black and white 24-page not-much-more-than-a-fanzine in 1975; GW held the TSR Hobbies UK franchise with Don Turnbull running it from around 1977, which is where the Fiend Folio supplement came in (it compiled most of the D&D monsters published in White Dwarf circa 1976-79 in one volume -- my teenage self was responsible for about 10% of it).

Around this time RPGs underwent a gigantic pre-Cambrian explosion. We got space trading games like Traveller (the legacy of which is still clearly visible in Eve Online and the Elite family of games), funnies like Tunnels and Trolls, procedural nerd games like Chivalry and Sorcery (I seem to recall it had an entire chapter on the rules for foraging for food while a party of adventurers was traveling cross country, complete with tables and dice rolls for what species of fish might be found in what variety of stream/lake/sea using which fishing techniques), and so on. But the choose your own adventure game books such as Ian Livingstone's Fighting Fantasy series didn't really show up until the 1980s, along with the first wave of really polished separately-sold dungeon modules/supplements (previously third-party adventures tended to be magazine features in fanzines or mags like White Dwarf or The Dragon).

NB: it wasn't until the mid-1980s that the Citadel Miniatures crew held their putsch, took over Games Workshop, fired the hairy hippy RPG enthusiasts, and turned GW into the corporate profit machine with a pocket money extraction storefront on every high street that it subsequently became.

71:

Not sure you can get that one Charlie - book, movies and TV form a symbiotic, or maybe just parasitical, relationship. What's hot on film creates TV interest and both create the book market - which then gets picked over for new films. Volumes you see in one market cannot be consider in isolation. It would be like that tory trick of considering crime without considering unemployment, deprivation, and thus government policy.

Anywho.

Can I suggest with the rise of workforce automation, and the consequent unemployability of large chunks of the current workforce, we are likely to see the rise in two areas of fiction.

The first is the zombie hoards and the unstoppable masses of brain eaters - beaten off by our lantern jawed and devastatingly intelligent hero. Will go down well with the libertarian crowd, even though they are, of course, with the unemployable hoard. I expect a thread of mass culling of the zombie hoards - forget picking them off one by one, the emphasis will be mowing them down in swathes (with the obvious subtext message).

The second however is the pod people - simulacra taking over the roles of normal decent humans with automaton-like efficiency (shades of Vinge and 'focus'). Here the everyman hero is fighting for humanity as friends get replaced by these pod people, controlled by aloof and distant criminal masterminds.

I don't see much call for media where they all work together for the greater good and 20 hour work weeks.

72:

The power of data minding to predict trends. You can bet that the people who are most into this are the least likely to talk. Intelligence agencies, City traders, investment bankers...

73:

If you pick up on the vampire/banker metaphor again, 50 Shades has it nailed, amirite?

I read all of the first volume and slogged through part of the second.

The hero's focus is ending world hunger. Because he suffered hunger as a child and he doesn't want any child to be hungry. When some of his employees are in danger he drops everything else to get them rescued.

He is entirely a good guy who suffers from this disability, this disease, because of the abuse he got as a child and as a teen etc.

The heroine is sure that her love will cure him.

I haven't read anything about why the BDSM community hates it, but I'm not the least bit surprised that they do.

74:

Not sure you can get that one Charlie - book, movies and TV form a symbiotic, or maybe just parasitical, relationship. What's hot on film creates TV interest and both create the book market - which then gets picked over for new films.

It's nothing like as tight, or as dominating, a cycle as you suggest.

For one thing, the feedback loop from books to TV/film is glacial: it literally takes decades, except in the rare circumstance of a sudden runaway bestseller that spawns a franchise. The obvious examples are Harry Potter, Twilight, and 50 Shades, but you'll note that these occur at 5-10 year intervals across entire industries. More realistically: this dude called George Martin published his first SF novel in 1977, worked in Hollywood for a decade as lead scriptwriter on a sitcom, and it wasn't until a decade after his breakthrough novel "A Game of Thrones" was published in 1996 that the TV production actually got rolling, and it still didn't air until 2011. He began writing AGoT in 1991. So we're talking about a two decade lag, even for a wildly successful international bestseller.

(This suggests that if you're waiting for a Laundry Files TV show to arrive, you ought to set your alarm clock for 2019 at the earliest. I should be so lucky.)

Nor does the cycle work any faster in the other direction. The first Star Trek novels began to show up years after the TV show was cancelled, and were still a minority pursuit until the late 1970s, which is why we have a legacy of Trek novels by the likes of James Blish, Vonda Macintyre, and John M. Ford (none of them exactly known for hack-work). (Mind you, we also had first series scripts by Harlan Ellison and David Gerrold, so ...) Over the next decade and a half Trek fic mushroomed into an entire shelf category, just as Dr Who novels did in the UK. Similarly, Star Wars spawned a book franchise (to go with the TV cartoon series and comic books and plush toys). By around 1995 these media tie-in franchises amounted to 25-35% of the SF/F genre market, a level at which they peaked. More recently, they've been joined by computer game spin-offs (you know about the Halo novels by the likes of Tobias Buckell and Greg Bear, right?). But it's very hard to say that this segment has cross-fertilized with the rest of the genre SF/F field -- the franchise owners typically keep a very tight grip on their IP rights, and while the work for hire payments are generous and there may be a royalty arrangement as well, copyright is owned by the corporations and all in-universe works are vetted for compatability by full time paid continuity geeks.

75:

Yep, the people who grab the data and are responsible for things like missing the collapse of the Berlin Wall, various bubbles and pops. Remember the derivatives market, and that little Black-Scholes equation that seemed to accurately predict the risk associated but actually was misleading in many of the ways it was used? There was a point when the guys who published it were being pushed for a Nobel Prize. Fortunately the market collapsed first.

It reminds me of the published 1970s study of unicorn metabolism. It was a critique of early time series analysis, and what the researcher did was to take a random number table and assume that each number represented the metabolic activity of a unicorn each hour of the day, through 5 days (120 numbers). This was something other researchers were doing to study circadian rhythms. In any case, analyzing the random number table using the standard method quite clearly showed that unicorns had a metabolic peak around after midnight and a low in the afternoon. Data processing, done thoughtlessly, can find patterns just about anywhere.

That's the problem with trendspotting. There are other studies that seem to show (or actually show, I haven't seen the math) that there's a huge amount of randomness in the movie business and probably in the fiction publishing business too. Certainly there's little randomness about authors who consistently produce best sellers, once they're many books into series and have developed their audiences, but predicting who these people will be in the slush pile stage can be difficult to impossible.

While I don't blame anyone for trying to cut down on the randomness, the problem with assuming there are hidden patterns out there if you just find the right technique is that there are all sorts of techniques that will give you patterns that are apparently full of meaning. Heck, that's the basis for divination. The much harder task is determining whether any of the pattern generators have predictive value, and so far, they generally have little value if any.

That shouldn't stop us from seeing if we can find something more meaningful for Charlie, but at the end of the day, the buyer's gut instinct and word of mouth are still going to be the best sellers.

76:

It's worse than that in some cases. For example multiple groups of people building models to try and predict how the other groups will behave, taking into account their (secret) models.

77:

For example multiple groups of people building models to try and predict how the other groups will behave, taking into account their (secret) models.

The key to success at this is to find ways to build self-fulfilling prophecies. Or at least prophecies that you can fulfill by hook or crook.

And for gods sake don't make self-defeating prophecies. If announcing your predictions will get people to do things to keep them from coming true, you'll look like an idiot.

78:

In general the earlier you invest resources in following a trend, the higher the rewards but the higher the risks. For example, companies looking to license superheroes for movies were able to cut much better deals in the 1990s than in the 2010s. The flip side is that they made films like Steel, Elektra, and Catwoman before they figured out how to do it right.

Later on when the trend is getting played out and heading toward a crash, the risks are high but the rewards are low.

79:

I should have mentioned the "cash cow" phase of fairly certain but moderate returns in between the early and late phases of the trend. That's pretty much where urban fantasy has been for maybe five or ten years now.

80:

"That's the problem with trendspotting. There are other studies that seem to show (or actually show, I haven't seen the math) that there's a huge amount of randomness in the movie business and probably in the fiction publishing business too. Certainly there's little randomness about authors who consistently produce best sellers, once they're many books into series and have developed their audiences, but predicting who these people will be in the slush pile stage can be difficult to impossible."

The biggest fallacy - thing that gets overlooked in this model - is that the decision-makers age, change jobs/studios/die, and are replaced by other people who grew up under slightly different conditions. The initial conditions for the next 'new market' are constantly changing. So you need to understand the curve, but also allow for some leeway as to where the next curve is going to start. (Combination of Bayesian, stochastic plus other stats modelling all mixed up together).


Not aware whether publishers ever bother to test-market books.

Pharma is another industry that's tossing money into modelling/algorithms. Think rare diseases: What do you need to spot someone with a rare disease. Now how do you make this faster with fewer false positives/negatives. The current approach takes forever as most front-line medical staff are trained to think 'horses' not 'zebras'.


81:

>sudden decline in vampires tantalizingly close to 2008-

Fred Saberhagen died in 2007. Saberhagen's The Vampire Tapes is the only really good vampire book I've ever read. Saberhagen's Vlad series stayed pretty good to the end. Talent matters. If another writer as good as Saberhagen or the first couple chapters of early Ann Rice came along, there'd be another vampire trend.

Dracula is a scary foreign gent. He can be a metaphor for anything, but he's a scary foreigner.

82:

Never read that one, will look it up - thanks!


Silly notion - origins and mundane facts concerning elves and vampires:

Elves are usually described as vegans - don't recall ever reading about elves sitting around a campfire waiting for roasted rabbit. Plus, they're allergic to iron. So, would this explain why elves are only found in northwestern European folklore? That is, elves couldn't live around the Mediterranean because too many people there have thalassemia, which often results in iron overload, therefore would be toxic to elves. A modern-day urban elf might be a crack researcher in thalassemia (or related iron metabolism diseases), provided he/she didn't also have any clinicals to do.

For the same reason, elves also avoid cruciferous veg ... too much iron. (Wonder if that's why Pterry situated his vampires in the cabbage belt - so his vampires could have a balanced diet.)

83:

Not aware whether publishers ever bother to test-market books.

They used to, in the UK. Typically they'd buy a shedload of titles, push them out as hardcovers with a small print run of 1000-2000 copies, and sell them to the libraries. Six months later the intern would slog round the libraries with a clipboard listing titles, and tally up the number of withdrawals since the book hit the shelves. As library loans spread by word of mouth, they could take the top 5% and push them out as paperbacks with marketing muscle.

This model died some time in the 1970s, IIRC.

You can't realistically do it today because production costs mean that it's about 50% more expensive to punch out 20,000 mass market paperback and 5000 trade hardcovers (plus ebooks) than it is to publish 2000 copies for the library trade; and product life cycles are way-way-way shorter (bookstore shelf life of a new hardback is either 90 days or 120 days depending on credit terms).

It kinda-sorta happens when the Marketing Director gets an itch and orders up 10,000 Advance Reader Copies (review copies released ahead of a major launch) but they're really a promo gimmick -- if the book's going to flop badly, there's probably not enough time to cut back the actual production print run on the basis of feedback from the ARCs.

84:

No comment.

(Let's just say I'm writing the Laundry Files elf novel at present, and they've just escalated to shooting down airliners ...)

85:

Would think that they could easily market-test using ebooks ... and then rollout likeliest sellers into hardcopy. Or, is there some fear that like movies, e-books would be pirated?

Ooow Laundryversified elf-lore! Sounds intriguing.

86:

Would think that they could easily market-test using ebooks

I can see it. You send your test audience the first half of five ebooks, and they get to pick which one they want to see the rest of. Something like that.

If the first half of the winner gets pirated, that's just fine.

87:

I predict at least one book built around the theme of Millennial conflicts with our parents generation, mediated via vampire tropes. What do you do when the elder generation hogs up all the money--and then decides not to die, gleefully damning their children to lives of toil and destitution? "Hey, I'm 71, I'm entitled to my social security free ride, even if I now look like I'm 20 and am literally sucking blood out of the younger generations!"

Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire fits that bill quite nicely. Published in the mid-90s (roughly a generation ago) so not a new idea…

88:

"Urban fantasy is ..." (insert hand gesture here) ... "athletic young women with swords and a big tattoo in the small of their back having to choose between the vampire and the werewolf in their love life, that kind of thing. Patricia Briggs, Laurel K. Hamilton. They're okay, they've got their following. But writers just starting out don't stand a chance: the market for urban fantasy is overflowing and overdue for a crash."

Odd. I thought urban fantasy was fantasy with magic and whatnot set in a contemporary city. The kind of stuff Charles de Lint has been writing since the mid-80s. Moonheart, Mulengro, Yarrow, Jack the Giant Killer, Drink Down the Moon, Greenmantle…

Not certain if I'd include Svaha as urban fantasy, as it's more cyberpunk-with-magic (and oddly, published just before Shadowrun which it rather resembles).

So if your editor has decided that "urban fantasy" is now restricted to "Paranormal romance", what term does she use for what "urban fantasy" used to mean?

89:

(Said at the same time):

Таким чином, ці ельфи є з нашого боку світу?

Таким образом, эти эльфы из нашей части мира?

90:

She was talking about UF as a marketing label, not what the lit. crit. faculty mean when they talk about it. PR is ... well, it has it's roots in that subset of UF that sprang from the romance genre rather than the fantasy genre. There's no hard boundary other than marketing, but it's definitely a spectrum disorder.

92:

So we're talking about a two decade lag, even for a wildly successful international bestseller.

It doesn't have to be the one-for-one type of read across. More important is the "X is hot at the moment, what do we have that we can push out to exploit it". So Harry Potter doesn't only begat its eventual movie juggernaut, it begats 1001 young wizard books, and twilight, and it also begats "Merlin" etc. on TV.

And it's not just these three interconnected media, the news can push things too (Apollo programme creating "2001" etc. and the death of sexy manned spaceflight killing space SF).

If what you are looking for are trends that link SF/F subjects and societal metrics - that level of effect drowns out what you are looking for in 'hemlines' to noise. You are probably better off picking the fastest moving, shortest generational mass media and just spotting what's getting interest today. In other words data trawl through reddit, twitter, tumblr, and facebook to spot the metathemes, and more particularly the change in them, and be able to react quickly to catch the crest of the zeitgeist wave with a nice new mass market franchisable property.

As you point out, books are neither as fast in turnaround as they should be (1 year) nor as mass market (outliers excluded). Blockbuster movies are better on the mass market front, but slightly longer on the gestation (1-2 years). It's probably TV, and particularly the Netflixes, where you have the best combination of factors - although I can see a situation where 3D computer graphic cartoons might eventually get in there.

Coming back to the example I gave above, we can see a spike in the interest in automation and guaranteed mincomes - largely in response to Piketty and the 50% figure in the news. A near future SF TV franchise, riffing off that tension, would likely continue to resonate for many years to come. Hell, you could consider the narrative in "Kingsman" to be drawn from the same societal driver - prols as a problem to be eradicated.

93:

Ukrainian and Russian, respectively, for "So, these elves are from our part of the world?"

Echoing Mister_DK (50): The Asian market crash and Japanese slump had repercussions in the US at least. There was also the early-90s recession in the US that got exacerbating by massive military cutbacks and base closures. That's when I lost my engineering job and was unable to find another. So the lagging plunge in in the vampire index in 1995 makes sense to me.

94:

In the US certainly I think people forget how frothy and shallow the dot-com boom was, the money was all in tech, finance and housing. While the real economy was limping along underneath - the overall numbers looked good because there was lots of investment and money moving about and people could get low doc loans which pushed property prices up, but I could imagine the average reader (outside the tech field anyway) feeling quite personally insecure.

95:

The housing market in San Francisco took a noticeable dip in about 1997 (right when I needed to sell, which is why I remember).

96:

@host - it's a poor taste joke. (Badly) translated into both Ukrainian and Russian, both of them saying at the same time "So, the elves are from our part of the world?". i.e. both sides are blaming last year's airliner tragedy on the elves. (And elves / fae creatures are like the American 'spooks' in certain languages' slang making the double meaning stronger).

97:

Regarding the original question, you could tweak some social network analysis tools (such as Pajek / Maltego) to trace ideas / memes and unleash it on the contents of ebooks.

Google has a lot of work done on analyzing all their scanned material, I've no doubt they've got in-house tools that already do this on social media etc.


Whitehall gives contract for real time analysis of social media - 4th June 2015

98:

Zombies seem to have changed meaning a number of times over the years. I gather the original zombies were mindless slaves who had no humanity but their ability to work which makes sense given that Haiti, their country of origin, was founded after a bloody slave rebellion. They don't show up much in the literature, except maybe for some Haitian background color, until the Romero movies in the 1960s. They were originally associated with the communist hordes, but quickly became symbols of mindless consumption. I assume they'd show up during periods of high conformity and lots of consumerism. I'm guessing in people's late 20s.

Vampires were always sexier. Look at Bram Stoker's take with all those guys trying to get their stakes into Lucy's, ahem, heart. Vampires were also immortal. I'm guessing their appeal is to those a bit younger, late teens to early 20s.

Stephen King wrote some essays on this in his "Danse Macabre". He talked about people's fears being reflected in fiction, and I suppose he should know, but how did Communist hordes turn into Capitalist drones at the peak of the Cold War? Was it the kabuki of the missile crisis? What are we afraid of when we read about vampires? Is it being used as food, immortality, having sex? For straight women, especially, having sex means getting close to someone likely more dangerous and prone to violence than you.

Personally, I think the cycles are just artifacts. Someone writes a good book about a new kind of terror. They write a sequel. By then, publishers have dozens of works on that kind of terror coming out. The market gets saturated. There are only so many spins an author can put on a particular terror. Vampires at least seem more flexible than zombies, so I'm guessing that vampires predominate for longer periods, but eventually there are too many authors, too many spins and readers want something new. That's why good publishers keep their eyes open and sometimes publish some serious WTF.

P.S. Want to see something neat. Look at "dragon" in ngrams, starting back around 1800. There are 20 year cycles that seem to peak with the cycles of boom and bust, at least in the US. They rise slowly through the Long Depression of the late 19th century. You can see the crisis of '07 and the real estate bust of '26 that led to the Great Depression. Then dragons sort of drop out of sight. Sigfried, Rhine gold, World War II?

99:

Originally (per Wade Davis Serpent and the Rainbow), zombification was a punishment for people who were the kind of cold-blooded, sociopathic jerks who didn't support their families or communities.

They were given a poison including tetrodotoxin, they were induced into something like suspended animation for a few days, during which they were pronounced dead and buried with last rites. Tetrodotoxin is a weird poison in that, if it doesn't kill a victim, it allows people to stay aware, even though their breath and heart rate are effectively undetectable without instruments, and they are totally paralyzed. It is very much like a living death, in other words.

Anyway, after a day or two, as the tetrodotoxin wears off, the zombie (who's been in a casket underground) is dug up and revived. One of the counteragents for tetradotoxin are alkaloids like scopalomine and atropine, so part of the cure involves administering a potion that includes a hefty dose of datura, aka jimson weed.

This puts the zombie on a rather different trip than what they've just gone through. Once they come through that (usually not with all facilities intact) they are sold as slave labor somewhere else.

The point of this kind of death sentence is to destroy the target's free will and to make them a slave again. In both Voudon and Haitian society as I understand them (and I'm an outsider to both), the loss of free will and human agency is considered a very harsh punishment.

A lot of the zombie story was told to Wade Davis by Clarvius Narcisse, who was given the zombie treatment, somehow retained his mind intact, later escaped slavery, and then returned to his old community, which unanimously (IIRC) ostracized him, as they had when they'd sold him to the bokor to become a zombie in the first place. He moved to another part of the island and lived out his life as a peasant, with a scar on his face from where one of the coffin nails hit him as they interred him.

Personally, I'd wouldn't be upset to see the bokors let loose in the financial districts of the world. Unfortunately, we don't have the Haitian social system, which is what makes zombification such a potent punishment in the first place.

100:

Charlie, one thing about 1995-9 is that it's the era of "welfare reform" in the US, when Republicans and triangulating Democrats destroyed Aid to Families With Dependent Children and screwed up other pieces of the system. (The consequences continue: claims on SSI, for permanent disability, have skyrocketed since in part because it's one of the very few reliably long-term support mechanisms left.) The story of the mass suffering that followed is almost always ignored in talk of how good things were under Clinton, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen, and I'm ready to believe it affected reading and buying habits.

101:

"(Indeed, we are to vampires as zombies are to us; and in some contexts, authors playfully invert this metaphor, or otherwise bend, spindle, and mutilate. But I digress.)"

The example given is of vampires as the unwashed masses; I'm curious as to what the zombie inversion would look like. My first lazy thought is that when mind uploads first become available it is only the ultra-rich who are able to afford them, but that they want to keep their flesh bodies around for when they rejoin the meat-world. As such, the company which provides the mind-upload service does some wizardry on your body so that it staggers about the world according to a set routine, so that you can download your mind to it whenever you want to play around in meatspace. Imagine something like a 'zombie' walking into a board meeting, at which point a mind downloads itself into the body for the duration of the meeting, and then departs to cyberspace leaving behind the 'zombie' husk. Better yet, imagine a zombie rocking up to an appointment with an escort...

Zombification then becomes something of a status symbol, where enterprising young adults pretend to stagger around in order to confuse their friends into thinking they've made it as an investment banker or somesuch. Of course, something goes wrong with the aforementioned wizardry that makes all this possible, and it becomes contagious. Or perhaps mind-uploading just becomes cheap enough that the world is mostly made up of zombies, and people who are disdainful of the whole process begin attacking these zombies (which react with hive-mind like retribution).

102:

"market-test using ebooks"

It's already being done, by smaller houses and individuals, in
slightly different ways. Some of the eARCs (as in Baen), sample
chapter releases etc. are followed by cancellation, not completion,
and I should be flabberghasted if none of that was due to poor
takeup. I agree that it is likely to be picked up by the larger
ones, and made more systematic.

103:

That's an interesting take, of course if you're rich why not more than one zombie body - say a horde of clones to confuse an assassin, or better still rent poor people's bodies to hop from boardroom to beach to restaurant...

104:

Hmm. I vaguely remembered something, have just done a Web search,
and am highly amused at your terrible double entendre :-) Good
luck, and I look forwards to it.

105:

It doesn't have to be the one-for-one type of read across. More important is the "X is hot at the moment, what do we have that we can push out to exploit it".

While that sort of "what's hot or not" fashion-following does happen, as often as not it can be inhibitory rather than stimulatory.

For an example close to home: Harry Connolly's excellent high fantasy series with no boring bits™, which he eventually self-published earlier this year after his agent was unable to sell it. Disclaimer: his agent is also my agent, so I got a bit of the back-story. What Harry did was actually quite original insofar as he identified a hole in the market for epic fantasy fiction -- he wrote a trilogy, but with only two viewpoint protagonists and no 100-page-long pastoral idyls to break up the per-book 300-page-long action plot. The result is fast-moving and fun for those of us who don't want to wade through seven 1000 page doorsteps in a row.

Unfortunately Harry finished this and $AGENT shopped it around just as season 2 of Game of Thrones broke really big, taking the series from you-gotta-watch-this status in-genre to being OMG-this-is-the-biggest-thing-since-star-trek breakout territory.

The immediate effect of this was that marketing managers in all the big publishers told their editors, "find me something just like A Game of Thrones, only BIGGER!!!!11!!!ELEVENTY!!!", because they'd fixated on giant huge word-count as the distinguishing factor of GRRM's epic rather than, say, GRRM being epic. (We're talking a guy who was winning Hugos and Nebulas in the 1970s and kept getting better, now writing his master-work.)

Because Harry's trilogy was the opposite of AGoT in that key respect, it got knocked back everywhere. So, faced with a choice between self-publishing, or letting 18 months of work molder on the shelf for a decade until the feeding frenzy wore off, Harry self-published (reasonably successfully).

The point is, these fads are much like the thing you see in recruiting companies in the IT sector. Suddenly Haskell is perceived as hot because startup.horse (a six month old startup by two dipshit brogrammers who believe in type systems) has just been purchased for sixteen bazillion dollars by facebook. In consequence, every job ad you see for the next year adds "Must have ten years Haskell experience!!!" added to it. And because the job ad sites lead to regular expression filters rather than sane human beings who know what the job really entails, anyone who doesn't (a) lie like a rug or (b) have a hard-on for type systems won't get a look in.

As you point out, books are neither as fast in turnaround as they should be (1 year)

That's because books in general, and fiction in particular, are the ultimate exemplar of Brooks' Law. It's bad enough adding authors to an anthology/collection project, but in some non-fiction sectors it's just about possible to edit/through-write/paper over the cracks enough that the committee-manufactured camel doesn't have too many humps. But in fiction, every author you add to a book typically increases the workload by about 150%, because the overheads of coordination swamp the gains from adding grunt labour, because books aren't about grunt labour, they're about intricate interdependencies.

In principle, if you dropped a shitpile of money on me so I didn't have to worry about being paid ever again, I could write books and self-publish them on the internet unedited and unproofed, more or less in first (or at best second) draft. This would reduce the latency in the pipeline, but it wouldn't enable me to write them any faster. Occasionally you'd get a bumper year in which an attack novel squeezed itself out between two regular projects ... but without Process it would look a bit lumpy and unfinished, and the quality wouldn't stand up.

"The Annihilation Score", the book coming out next month, went through two major drafts. The first draft extruded itself in 18 consecutive days of frenzied keyboard-pounding (followed by a week in bed). It ran to 109,000 words. The second draft was created a year later, and took 3 months. It lost the last 9000 words of the first draft -- the original ending -- and rewrote it from scratch, topping out at 136,000 words. (There was also a lot of polishing earlier on in the MS, but nothing as obvious as totally replacing the climax.) I can't really release the first draft, but I'm pretty sure if you read both drafts back-to-back you'd agree that the final one is a big improvement. Unfortunately, time is part of the process: I couldn't have gotten it right first time round, or indeed have turned around and done the re-write immediately after I finished that first draft -- I needed the time to get some perspective on the work and be able to coldly evaluate its weaknesses.

The only way to produce books faster is to make them shorter. Which is okay, or even good in some circumstances -- not all books want to be long -- but conversely, there are topics you can't tackle in a short work because they're inherently complex. (To do full justice to "Neptune's Brood", which took me a year to write, I could really have used another year and another 200 pages.)

106:

I am afraid that I get irritated by the combination of neo-realistic
fantasy, close to human elves (especially interfertility), and the
extreme iron tolerance, in the same way that I am irritated by a
lot of the 1920-1970 science fiction that relied on a single genius
inventing miracles. It's a gross breach of continuity, at best,
because there is Just No Way that it makes sense - in the context
of the knowledge of the day. I don't mind WHICH one is dropped, but
please drop at least one of them! Compared with that nonsense, a
large, flying, fire-breathing dragon is almost within our ability
to create, today.

On the topic of this thread, I believe the reason for those in the
1920-1970 era was that there were a lot of people in the USA and UK
at least, who more-or-less regarded science as magic. They saw
things done that seemed miraculous, didn't understand the principles,
and couldn't see why there should be limits. A lot of people have
the same attitude to biology and computing today, which I believe
is the reason that we see so much of that sort of nonsense in
stories based on those :-(

Now, there IS a link to the economy, via the education system and
people's attitude to education. But it's not simple, it's not
direct, and I can't guess exactly what the effect is or where it
will go from here.

107:

That's because books in general, and fiction in particular, are the ultimate exemplar of Brooks' Law.

Not so much saying it's a bad thing (although I think that publisher pipeline could be tightened quite a bit), but more that if you are interested in a 'fast follower' model, you need to turn around from data analysis to mass market in a short timeframe - hence why I think TV might be a better bet. Timeframe can be relatively fast, and the market is much more 'mass' than books. A badly received series still gets more eyeballs than a successful novel.

And as for Harry Connolly's high fantasy series with no boring bits™ - it just backs up what I've said is the real take home of JK Rowling; and in particular her being knocked back 12 times with Harry Potter - the publishing industry really doesn't know how to identify a winner, even when it has it's hands on one. Value adding gatekeeper my arse.

108:

"identify a winner"

My record of predicting future directions, mostly in IT but some
other, is pretty good - but what I persistently fail to do is to
account for fashion, including people changing what they think of
as their requirements. That is not amenable to logical analysis,
at least with the current state of psychology and sociology. So
the publishing industry will continue to get it wrong. What they
have failed to learn from are the lessons of the past, which is
that they best approach is to use the bottom line ONLY to choose
the editors, select a proportion of speculation, and then leave
it up to the individuals. But that approach isn't fashionable :-(

109:

"...topping out at 136,000 words."

Had you considered the possibility of bulking these out to 250k blockbuster size? Some people like doorstops.

110:

"...in the same way that I am irritated by a lot of the 1920-1970 science fiction that relied on a single genius inventing miracles. "

More likely it was because scitech of that era was littered with individuals who did make a huge difference. Almost every major invention/breakthrough had a name attached to it.

111:

No, it was not. Nor was it in my time, and I can speak from the
inside on IT innovation and close to it on biomedicine. Other areas
are pretty similar, too.

Forget the detail that the name attachment usually just means that
he beat others by a short head, every single significant PRODUCT had
a long development path from initial idea to usability, and relied
on a large number of enabling innovations, both externally and of the
form of turning theory into practice.

A theory can be produced by just one individual, but it is very, very
rare for it to be either a major advance and not already being thought
of by several to many other people, let alone both. And the same
applies to theories that can be turned into products without a lot
of development.

113:

Why stop there? There have been novels of over a million words,
published as single volumes, and some have even been popular.

114:

I was thinking along those lines, that middle-class types might supplement the cost of their mind uploads by agreeing to time-share the use of their physical bodies out to the rich. I think there are enough dramatic implications from such a set-up to make for an interesting story, even if you'd have to soft-ball the science for the mind upload/downloads to work.

115:

Done reasonably well in Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books.

If you have a mind-backup device constantly running, then killing the body the normal way doesn't kill the person. You need to smash the device, too. If that happens to be, say, a memory-diamond writer at the back of the skull, even traumatic brain injury won't necessarily work. You've got to decapitate and then burn the head in a nice hot fire, scattering the ashes to make sure you've got no big lumps.

116:

In terms of extended co-existence with humanity, vampires more than elves or werewolves defy any rational explanation. Mind you, I'd enjoy a good origin story for any.

Vampires feed on blood, so where does the mass go?

Never hear of vampires pooping iron pellets. Although that might explain why the villagers - usually in mountainous therefore likely mining communities - don't object. ('Cor, did you see that motherlode ... sure to keep the smithy busy makin' us more pitchforks!')

How do vampires manage to fragment into bats, fly long distances and completely re-assemble themselves into exactly the same vampiric shape/mass. (So no loss of mass when energy is expended in flight? Nice one that ... probably a few physicists and energy CEOs would love to see this in action. Or, the biological origins of nano/robotech?)

Blood as a food/rejuvenator ... okay, so let's assume that vampires have hollow teeth, similar to vipers. Now, if the teeth are directly linked to their own circulation systems then stem cells might be absorbed .. this would explain the vigor and youthening/extended life span.

Back to the iron ... instead of silver to off a vampire, it'd be a lot cheaper to just throw some hot charcoal at the vampire to mess up the magnetic field. (Bram Stoker was a contemporary of James Clerk Maxwell ... he would have heard about EM theory.)

Urban fiction means that your vampire tale takes place in the present day therefore you have to address 'common knowledge' ... this means biology/medicine, genetics, physics, etc.

117:

"The Day the Icicle Works Closed"

118:

I'm going to annoy you a lot, then: Laundryverse "elves" are elves for the same value of elvishness that Equoids are "unicorns". In other words, they're an unpalatable underlying reality that the myths represent a garbled misperception of.

Put it another way: imagine you're J. Random Alien Entity. You are trying to reconstruct US beltway foreign policy before making first contact. Unfortunately your sole source for information is garbled verbal reports (at second hand) received from illiterate Afghani hill farmers who were abducted by US Special Forces and interrogated in an undisclosed location (Kandahar) before being released when they were found not to know where Osama bin Laden was hiding. Now try to imagine coming up with appropriate diplomatic protocols for contacting the US State Department. Believing the legends without reservation is a great way to get Seal Team Six sicc'd on your ass ...

119:

Well, yes, but check what I said. I said explicitly "neo-realistic".
I have no problem with the author choosing any fantastic universe
variation, though I can't always relate to it, but it's the attempt
to provide and often rely on a pseudo-scientific explanation that
sticks in my gullet. Actually, I find many of the professional
scientists who write 'realistic' science fiction as bad, for very
similar reasons. If it isn't plausible in their contemporary science,
they should either omit it or make it an axiom of their fantasy (and
admit that they ARE writing fantasy, not pretend to be writing an
alternate history).

120:

"I'm going to annoy you a lot, then ..."

I doubt it! Equoid didn't. Yes, there were implausibilities (e.g. the
ability to mimic intelligently), but you made them axioms. It's the
pseudo-scientific nonsense that annoys me. And the one thing that we
DO know about unicorns is that the mythology is a garbled mixture of
fact and fiction.

121:

Sorry about the extra post. What I should also have explained is that
the completely implausible combination is being close enough to
humans to interbreed (or whatever), together with iron being a
virulent contact poison. And my objection to that is it being
combined with relying on a neo-realistic background, not that
combination per se. Very like your blog about colonising the
galaxy, only more so, because it doesn't just need new science,
it needs throwing away what we have! Have I clarified anything?

122:

Vampires feed on blood, so where does the mass go?

IRL, vampire bats feed on blood, and that blood is mostly water. So they drink enough that they're completely full, and then they piss out most of the water. Then they drink more, and piss. When they're ready to go they're still so full they can barely fly, and they piss their way home.

And that's where most of the mass goes. It isn't all that romantic.

123:

"Euhemerism is an approach to the interpretation of mythology in which mythological accounts are presumed to have originated from real historical events or personages" (from the Wikipedia page on the subject). It's an approach that's been around since the axial age.

I agree that euhemerism isn't quite what writers do when they take old weird stories and try to make them logically consistent for the sake of modern tastes. Still, I wanted to point out that this is an ancient mode of thought. When it runs into a system of stories that wasn't meant to be internally self consistent in the first place, silliness often results.

As for dropping the silliness, can we talk about the various blood colors on Star Trek, and what that means for interbreeding? In general, I'd say that science fiction gets it at least as wrong, at least as often, as fantasy does.

Personally, I think it's fine to be totally not okay with this, but it's so pervasive that perhaps it's a feature of the field, not a bug. Empowerment through creative ignorance, perhaps?* If nothing else, it's a way for people who don't want to spend a decade diving into the labyrinthine inner workings of our civilization a way to still write stories and make a living.

*This also gets to why I respect masters crafters more than I respect most modern artists. The artists seem to be into making statements that come off as sad and crude, compared to the work of the crafters who spent years figuring out how to make things that were functional and beautiful.

124:

And the iron? (Unlike bears, vampires supposedly didn't sh*t in the woods.)

125:

Yes, though I dissent about some modern artists. I don't watch or read Star Trek, so can't comment, there. But my point was more the "thud and blunder" one as applied to the biochemistry of any species compatible with eukaryotes rather than being a standard bearer for euhemerism.

I don't see the problem with the diet of vampires, though, because few stories lay much stress on urination and defecation. It's the other aspects mentioned by SFreader that are pure fantasy.

126:

I wrote a long impassioned post explaining why you're wrong in several key areas, and the blog ate it because my session timed out. Woe to be me. Let's just say: wrong wrong wronggity wrong. Short version:

Publishing is a production line and it has to move at the speed of the slowest workstation, the emeritus 80-year-old who writes with a quill pen on vellum. Go faster, invite conveyor belt stalls. The one year interval is a local optimum fine-tuned by long practice.

TV: crap medium for a firehose-of-ideas vendor, and you have zero creative control without committee oversight. Not my thing.

On crapness at detecting bestsellers: no, that's a false negative issue. What you don't notice is that publishers are very good at rejecting the crap you never see (and thereby avoiding expensive false positives). The evidence is visible in Amazon's self-published slushpile, if you sample it at random rather than looking for folks you've heard of.

127:

No can do. The limiting factor is the cost of saddle-stitched binderies in the US market, because there's a quantum leap from the cost of binding a 416 page book block to anything fatter -- production costs roughly double. Only guaranteed bestsellers are allowed to exceed that page count in my genre. (I don't write high fantasy, where 900 pages is the minimum you're allowed to get away with.)

128:

Note that I will not get a significantly different advance for a million word novel than a 110,000 word novel.

I'll just get RSI and stomach ulcers.

129:

In terms of extended co-existence with humanity, vampires more than elves or werewolves defy any rational explanation. Mind you, I'd enjoy a good origin story for any.

You haven't read "The Rhesus Chart" yet, have you?

130:

You wouldn't be the only one with the RSI :-) I and other people often
read holding a book in one hand, which is why I would prefer smaller
fonts than the modern hardcover norm, even for books of a sane length. The longest novel I have read and whole-heartedly enjoyed
was Tom Jones (Atlas Shrugged was dire), at about 380,000 words,
and that was a bit of an ordeal even at my speed of reading.

131:

That's why I bought the goddamn Baroque Cycle twice over -- first edition hardcover, then again in ebooks so I could actually read them without breaking my wrists.

132:

Actually, we probably agree on artists: some modern artists are very technically sophisticated, and more power to them. As an example, about a decade ago a LA museum ran a modern art exhibit with the theme "hallucinogens." A few were well-made surrealistic or psychedelic pieces, there was a room full of fairly crudely made giant plastic amanitas suspended from the ceiling, but then there was the 10'x10' area cordoned off in one room, where the "artist" had merely dumped two vials of mixed pills in a scatter on the floor and called it art. Brilliant.

As for elves hating cold iron, well, cold iron and especially cold steel is what got used in weapons (iron heated repeatedly in a charcoal forge picks up a lot of carbon and gets to be too brittle). There might be a reason why elves don't like seeing it around that has nothing to do with their physiology.

133:

I am sure there was a wonderful single novel in the Baroque Trilogy...

134:

Thanks for the book recommendation.

I think killing the body would be an issue while the technology is still young, and only available to the ultra rich. Elon Musk, for example, might be able to figure out how to upload/download his brain between the internet and his own body, but not be able to download it to another person's body.

Meanwhile, if the technology develops where killing the body doesn't kill the person, I don't think that's a narrative issue either. Conceivably, you might have protestors maim a zombie even though they understand it won't really harm the uploaded person, in the same way protestors today might dent a BMW knowing its owner can afford the repairs.

135:

Iron and Elves.
My hypothesis is that iron disrupts magnetic fields. The effect of rapidly changing geomagnetic magnetic fields (Northern Lights, magnetic storms) on the Human psyche is a matter of conjecture, but one ancient Nordic way of warding off the evil spirit (or bad dreams?) was to hammer iron nails into the woodwork.

136:

#74 - I completely overlooked GoT for years because I looked at the author and thought "isn't he just that guy I wasn't reading in the seventies?" (Memory is fallible - actually he's that guy I wasn't reading in the *eighties*.)

Phyllis Cast started writing about vampires because her agent suggested it - and this isn't dishing the dirt; she cheerfully volunteered this information at a signing I went to (on behalf of my son, who appears to have been the only male "House of Night" fan in England). What this says to me is that by the mid-00s the vampire market was heading for a crisis of over-supply and/or readerly satiety.

Third random unconnected point: a weird quirk of contemporary zombie dramas is that they never seem to use the Z-word. If zombie print fiction has the same trait, the Ngram viewer is going to have problems - unless you include "the undead", "the infected", "the walkers", etc, etc.

137:

That's shockingly close, but on a macro level instead of the actual biochemical level.

Think more of it this way: heavy metal pollution in general causes this issue, but iron is certainly up there:

Oxidative stress and prevention of the adaptive response to chronic iron overload in the brain of young adult rats exposed to a 150 kilohertz electromagnetic field

- take away:

EMF impairs the adaptative response preventing iron-overload toxicity.


Neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation — Clinical syndromes and neuroimaging

However, if inappropriately managed, the transition metal is capable of generating neurotoxic reactive oxygen species. A number of hereditary conditions perturb body iron homeostasis and some, collectively referred to as neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation (NBIA), promote pathological deposition of the metal predominantly or exclusively within the central nervous system (CNS).

Google: "iron Alzheimers Parkinsons" if you want to scare yourself.


Now, can you think of areas in the West where such pollutants are less common in the water table and where there's perhaps a little more sympathy for a non-materialistic view of the world? (ignoring the occupational flouride poisoning)


(Currently living in a house with lead water pipes. The irony is real)

138:

THAT aspect is fine, even in the most realistic of fantasy - it's
specifically the combination of 'physically realistic' stories,
interfertility or whatever, and iron being highly toxic on contact.
Iron disrupting magic and elves recoiling from it because of that
is very reasonable.

It's like the fifty pound sword issue. Fine, IF it is a troll or
similar nonhuman that is swinging it. But a human who can do that
during a long battle is simple nonsense.

139:

Iron and Elves. My hypothesis is that iron disrupts magnetic fields.

Sort-of. In the Laundryverse, iron (and steel) effectively block their combat magic, i.e. death spells. As you can imagine, they take a dim view of us sub-human urük using the stuff, but it's what their own soldiers use by way of armour ... it's not their fault the escaped serfs misunderstood!

(And that's the last spoiler I plan to give you for a novel that won't be published for another 13 months.)

140:

That's how Pratchett had it work, in Lords and Ladies. Elves used magnetism as one of their main senses, which meant that iron (and especially magnetized iron) messed with their heads.

141:

The little baby bugbear on elves hating iron because of magnetism is that our planet is roughly 32.1% iron by mass, and (fortunately for us) that iron generates one heck of a magnetic field to keep us safe from those angry high speed ghosts zipping around in the vacuum.

Worse for the myth, there are many red-blooded species with magnetic senses that take advantage of Earth's magnetism to navigate all over the planet. If it's possible for something in the hominid line to develop advanced magnetic senses, that would be such an advantage that any species that did not develop such senses would probably be driven to extinction neanderthal style (i.e. with a lot of interbreeding on the way down).

142:

Not really, because the same thing happens in physical experiments.
Magnetism follows an inverse cube law[*], so it is only iron in close
physical proximity that causes major trouble. Some people will have
done experiments with magnets and iron filings at A-level, and even
that simple experiment will show up the distortions caused if you
have a chunk of iron in the immediate vicinity.

[*] Except when you have a packet of monopoles handy, of course.

143:

To throw some bicameral mind fluff in, there's an interesting turn between bronze age and iron age religions. e.g.

The Eternal One (`Olam) has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.
And all the sons of El,
And the great council of all the Holy Ones (Qedesh).
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth.

Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Frank Moore Cross (warning: that's a PDF, and it's the entire book. You've been warned at the size).

Everyone is hung up on elves being organic bodies with the only difference being pointy ears, which is certainly a modern invention. (JRRT) Islam doesn't share that view of them, per se. Peri or Piri

Obligatory (YouTube music, but it tickles me)

144:

@Heteromeles

In Geek culture embedding subdermal magnets into finger tips etc to give a basic version of this sense is old news.

145:

If the iron skeletons of don't cause pigeons to lose it, and if the iron hulls of ships don't cause sharks to lose it, then I'm hard put to find any evidence that iron would bug terrestrial elves.

My personal theory du jour is that it's a mis-translation: elves can't stand irony, especially the presence of cold irony. They're literally too sensitive to deal with our modern society, because words have power and stuff.

As for elves not being physical beings, yes, one of these years, I'll finish that fantasy. There's at least one really fun way to deal with cold iron that you all haven't figured out yet.

146:

Er, but it do.

Anthropogenic electromagnetic noise disrupts magnetic compass orientation in a migratory bird

Here we show that migratory birds are unable to use their magnetic compass in the presence of urban electromagnetic noise. When European robins, Erithacus rubecula, were exposed to the background electromagnetic noise present in unscreened wooden huts at the University of Oldenburg campus, they could not orient using their magnetic compass.


The argument would be that pre-iron age bicameral minds were structured differently and the modern version is too noisy / damaged / borked to engage with.


It's the same reason that Vampires died out - hipster irony killed their heightened fashion and sexual allure, and veganism as a life choice lead to them dying out.


What We Do in the Shadows (YouTube film trailer - watch it if you can, funny stuff)

147:

To format the argument structurally:

1) "Elves" are EM entities / use EM entanglement to engage from other dimensions ('the hidden' of Islam and other iron age religions)

2) Iron + other heavy metals + EM fields = damage to human minds

3) Technology / culture that uses said metals frequently (iron age onwards) has much higher levels internally than the base rate

4) "Elves" find their interactions scrambling minds and/or said minds are already damaged to prevent it (c.f. lead discussions)

5) 20th Century (wifi / radio / tv) is genocide for them


And so on.

148:

I liked The Rhesus Chart, but its explanation of vampires was more of an artful handwave than a rational explanation.

149:

I rather suspect "elves" were originally Picts, Celts, or someone similar. They would have shared the usual human weakness to iron weapons and, lacking iron weapons of their own, come to despise iron.

In a similar manner, Voudou* based many of its religious symbols on decorative motifs from iron gates and fences of the slave plantations of Haiti. The gate was power of a very tangible sort; the imagery was appropriated by the slaves to lend its aura of power to their rituals.

*Spellings of this word are all over the place, since the people who invented it were not literate. This one is, for these purposes, as good as any other.

150:

Probably worth thinking deeply about the deep discrimination and ignorance underlying idea of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. The central problem with it is that there wasn't a bronze age. There were many bronze ages, they lasted several thousand years in the areas where they were replaced by an indigenous iron age (Middle East, Europe, China, Thailand), and more critically, they started and ended at different times. Europeans actually ran into the last two: the Aztecs and Inkans.

There are also a lot of people who never got to deal with bronze. For instance, subsaharan Africa never had a bronze age. They went straight from stone to iron. So did the Japanese.

The bottom line is that if you're going to assume that people's brains had to change before they used iron, you have to realize just how absurd this is in terms of history. Taking it seriously requires some serious blinkers.

The simplest explanation is also correct: the differences we see are about metallurgy, not biology. Iron was used as a flux in smelting bronze starting somewhere before 2000 BCE in the Middle East, and elemental iron was a result. There's archeological evidence of smiths making iron articles for over 1000 years before the iron age started. During that time, iron was treated as is modern titanium--it was a nuisance to work with, few people took the time to learn how to make things with it, and most uses were for ornaments, rather than tools. The problem is that iron requires hotter temperatures to smelt and work than bronze does, and that in turn requires things like kilns, charcoal, and so forth. Generally this technology was first developed for making things like fired pottery and lime, and then adapted to metallurgy.

Bronze is copper plus some combination of tin, arsenic, and lead. Under normal circumstances, tin and copper occur in very different geologic contexts, so you normally don't see them near each other. For instance, in North America, there are large copper deposits around the Great Lakes, but the nearest big tin deposit is in Oaxaca, and traders from the two regions never met.

Bronze ages started in places where copper and tin (or arsenic) were relatively close to each other around eastern Turkey and somewhat later in China and Thailand. The Old Copper Culture of North America went into their chalcolithic around the same time as the Anatolians did, but without any tin around, their culture died out without making bronze. The Middle Eastern bronze culture expanded into Europe and to Afghanistan and probably Pakistan. The Middle Eastern bronze age collapsed starting around 1177 BCE, and some time in the dark age that followed, European smiths switched over to working iron. Iron's a lot more common than copper or tin, so if you can work it, you can avoid the long supply lines that probably contributed to the collapse of the European Bronze Age.

In China, there was no bronze age collapse, but what seems to be a more steady switch to iron that didn't correlate with any dynastic change. I don't know the story in Thailand, but bronze artifacts from there have been found all the way to New Guinea, and it's possible that some of their people were among the ancestors of the Polynesians, along with the Taiwanese. Korea had a distinct bronze age, but Japan went straight from stone to iron.

About 1,000 years later, the Wari and the Aztecs started making bronze (they apparently figured out how to make lime and fire pottery much later than did people in Europe), and the Conquistadors ran into a couple of bronze age cultures that were bigger than Spain and in some ways more sophisticated.

Hopefully you can see that this part of history isn't about human evolution, it's about technological development and the availability of raw materials.

151:

The bottom line is that if you're going to assume that people's brains had to change before they used iron, you have to realize just how absurd this is in terms of history. Taking it seriously requires some serious blinkers.

The word "fluff" denotes a derogatory disposition to the bicameral mind theory. I thought this was obvious.

However, all you've done is point out that smelting technology is highly dependent on local ores / traditions.

Hopefully you can see that this part of history isn't about human evolution, it's about technological development and the availability of raw materials.

Yes, it is, quite clearly.

I've presented serious scientific papers (here, and on other threads) showing how humans are only just working out the biochemical impacts of certain compounds. Lead is a good one: it's long been known that it's a neurotoxin (Rome etc), but the actual mechanics of it are far more important.

So, yes: smelting, the use of charcoal / coke / coal, the introduction of purified ores (and their waste products) and so forth present a very real effect on the genetics of the populace who use them. It doesn't matter if it's bronze or iron: you're missing the point.

Lastly, you totally ignored that anthropomorphically generated EM fields do do that thing you so casually denied ever being possible. i.e. muck up magnetic processes (which we still barely understand).

~

So, ahem. Next time you want to lecture, just drop a link and assume I'm on the ball.

152:

To wit:

When I mentioned iron, it was under the aegis of our elf conceit.

However, cadmium is far worse and prevalent in copper smelting:

Cadmium is primarily found in zinc-containing ores, but it may also be found in lead and copper ores

https://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/toxic-metals/more-metals/cadmium-faq.html


I suggest looking into the science of EM field interactions with not only iron as I linked, but other heavy metals I mentioned.


So, yep: way to miss the point.


Cold. Irony.

153:

"If the iron skeletons of don't cause pigeons to lose it, and if
the iron hulls of ships don't cause sharks to lose it, then I'm
hard put to find any evidence that iron would bug terrestrial
elves."

Er, you DO understand what the inverse cube law is, don't you?
A manacle has about the same effect as a (large) iron ship at a
distance of ten metres.

154:

It's a world in which setting charges on electronic components in a specific pattern alters the rules of physics -- the explanation for vampires in that setting was very rational. (Far more rational than most, for sure.)

(It doesn't explain why they have all the physical attributes they do, but realize that the parasite has access to countless worlds, and could either have evolved, or been designed by something, to have those traits, long before it encountered humans in the laundryverse.)

155:

Let's just say: wrong wrong wronggity wrong.

Yes, I know your statements on the issue, let's just say I think you're 'wronggity wrong', not necessarily on the specifics of what is, but on the reality of what needs to be/what will be. It's akin to the farmer at the gate saying "you can't get there from here".

... it has to move at the speed of the slowest workstation

You know that that doesn't have to be the case, and even that it's not likely to be the case once print is an auxiliary market to ebooks. You also know the benefits of shortening that cycle time and changing the paradigm from one stuck in 1800.

Even manufacturing has moved away from the conveyor belt for flexibility and mass customisation.

... you have zero creative control without committee oversight. Not my thing.

I've got the impression you didn't fancy the screenwriter gig before - but I was talking on a more general viewpoint of following the zeitgeist.

Thought experiment: Imagine you could generate x hours of TV entertainment for the same cost and in the same timeframe as a book. Which would find greater audience acceptance; the book or the TV series?

For all the 'pictures are better in books' you know what the answer is.

What you don't notice is that publishers are very good at rejecting the crap you never see

Question is not "can they reject crap" - anyone can do that, for various valuations of 'crap'. Question is "can they spot winners"? To which the answer seems to be "nope". Which is a bit of a problem if that's the job. It's akin to a stock market analyst that's no better at spotting winning stocks than a dartboard, or at least Jim from accounting.

All of which, coming back to the discussion that's been had before, means there are undoubtedly going to be different models for this whole 'publishing/producing' game that are better than the status quo, for values of 'from whom is it better' - and they will probably get explored moving forward as technology changes.

156:

the use of charcoal / coke / coal, the introduction of purified ores (and their waste products) and so forth present a very real effect on the genetics of the populace who use them

I'm aware that the compounds you describe can influence the human phenotype in various ways, most of them horrible, but heritable genetic changes are a very different matter. Moreover, simple compounds should interact with DNA (if at all) regardless of what the DNA codes for, so I wouldn't expect brain function to be influenced more severely than nose shape, hair color, or any other genetic trait. I'm having a hard time believing this one. References?

P.S. I'm an inorganic chemist by training.

157:

Ian S wrote
Question is not "can they reject crap" - anyone can do that, for various valuations of 'crap'. Question is "can they spot winners"? To which the answer seems to be "nope". Which is a bit of a problem if that's the job. It's akin to a stock market analyst that's no better at spotting winning stocks than a dartboard, or at least Jim from accounting.

I'd say the book publishing industry has a very good record of spotting winners - at least in comparison to TV and film. We've all heard the stories about JK Rowling being rejected umpteen times, but she did get published.

Thought experiment: Imagine you could generate x hours of TV entertainment for the same cost and in the same timeframe as a book. Which would find greater audience acceptance; the book or the TV series?

Oh, TV of course. But this is currently akin to the thought experiment "suppose we had safe compact fusion reactors" because TV is fantastically more expensive to produce. Even with the technological developments Hugh Hancock talked about in his Best Medium post.

158:

The Tea Party was/is basically the Republican base - conservative affluent middle aged and old white men & women who are against big government except for Social Security, Medicare, defense spending, farm subsidies and any other government spending they personally benefit from. Koch & Co just provided PR.

As for FSoG, I'd say the following points explain the appeal:

1. People in the United States have experienced increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility over the past couple of generations. It may finally be sinking in to the minds of ordinary people that they are unlikely to rise very far on their own.

2. We just came off a nasty near depression and most people are still feeling the after effects. So that probably underscored point #1.

3. Underneath all the BDSM crap FSoG is about some emotionally wounded Prince Charming saving the heroine and being healed in turn. The Prince Charming fantasy is still socially acceptable for women and given points #1 and #2 probably very appealing right now. By comparison, "Pretty Woman" became a hit during the recession of the early 1990s.

So no conspiracy theories - just a fantasy that's very appealing to some women in the modern economic world.

159:

Effects on genetics? Not really. Effects on epigenetics? Probably, but only for a few generations. It's not at all clear that this has had lasting impacts. Part of the problem is that we never to my knowledge see hundreds of generations of humans affected systematically by a single mine or process. Indeed, mines seem to get played out in a few generations. These may pose strong selection pressures for the few generations while the mine's active, but when it falls apart, so does the supporting community, and they move elsewhere, have different livelihoods which mark their epigenomes in other ways, they marry outside their mining community, and life goes on, with no net genetic change.

That's one of the humorous parts about reading essays about future human evolution. They all start with the fallacious assumption that humans have done any one lifestyle consistently for enough generations for the results to show up in our genes. Only rarely are brief events so traumatic or transformative that they mark our genes. The big ones are pandemics, and they seem to overshadow even things like lactose tolerance. The effects of things like mining and technology are only starting to exercise selective impacts, and they're pretty wimpy. My ancestors 4-6 generations ago were miners, but their kids were farmers and their grandkids were professionals. What's the selective pressure there? Even lactose tolerance has only been around for perhaps 8,000 years, and you can see how far it's spread in that time (~35% of the world population now). This is an unambiguously beneficial mutation that enables its possessors to spread widely and even survive in habitats where hunter-gatherers cannot, yet it hasn't become the normal state even in a few hundred generations.

160:

All true, or near enough.

I do recall reading that when distilled spirits first became available in Europe, their effect on public health was disastrous. Ditto infant mortality; babies don't do well when Mom is blackout drunk. That may have been a rare example of a technologically induced selection pressure that was strong enough to produce something like a selective sweep, in that alcoholism and the associated genes went from >>50% to ~10% incidence in European and related populations in only a few centuries.

161:

Since distillation showed up as a technology in the late Middle Ages, there may be some reasonable data to support that. You just have to scratch out the effects of the Black Death and the purported beginning of the Anthropocene in the early 16th Century, with the General Crisis over the next century.

And we always have to watch out for confounding effects. For example, alcoholism is a serious issue on Indian reservations, but is that because they are still genetically naive to alcohol, or because of the social conditions on most reservations? You've got to eliminate the latter before you can test the former.

162:

They all start with the fallacious assumption that humans have done any one lifestyle consistently for enough generations for the results to show up in our genes.

You give examples and then discount them. Lots of adult humans can use lactose, after probably only 8000 years. They haven't all been subject to selection pressure for that. Lots of humans are tolerant to gluten. Lots of humans are tolerant to soybean toxins. Lots of humans are resistant to malaria, often with distressing side effects.

We adapt pretty well over hundreds of generations, and hundreds of generations ago we were adapting to a wide variety of ecological niches. And it's hard to tell what's going on. Traditionally Inuits have had small noses, particularly the women. Inuit men considered small noses a particular mark of beauty. Was it selection by the environment or sexual selection or coincidence?

I made up a Just-So story that humans are not very hairy because for a long time we have been tending fires, and if you get a burn on an arm or a leg it's good if your fur isn't so thick the fire spreads. Possibly women tended fires more than men and wound up beardless and slightly less hairy.

I think it's a very nice Just-So story but I can't imagine a way to test it. (Unless it were to turn out that animals with thick fur tend to not have it catch fire, and that in fact it provides better fire protection than thin fur like ours. Then I would be just obviously wrong.) If a genetic change did spread fast and almost completely, how would we even test that it had happened?

I tend to agree with your conclusions, but I think the reasoning you use to justify them is weak.

And yet, my JustSo stories fit your conclusion. If men become miners and tend to die because of it, what genes are selected? I dunno. Poor people tend not to reproduce very well. (Nor do rich people, but that's an entirely different story.) Whatever genes tended to keep them poor enough that they had no better prospect than be miners, are the genes that would be selected. Once they're poor, it doesn't matter whether they get jobs carrying nightsoil out of cities and getting exposed to diseases, or mining, or being sailors, or the cheapest soldiers, or just dying in famines. (Where starving people aren't very resistant to epidemics.) Their problem is poverty.

It's only the selective forces that affect people who aren't poor that will matter much. That's my Just-So story and I'm sticking to it.

163:

On the origins of elves, I came across a thesis on-line a while back (link lost) which looked at the original Anglo-Saxon stories, and argued from them that elves are basically a mythologised version of that village nearby which is better than yours.

Thus elves are depicted as much like humans, only better. Their arrows never miss, their horses are faster, their women more beautiful, etc.

This thesis makes elves pretty much the other side of orcs/goblins/etc, which are a mythologised version of the neighbours you're prejudiced against, rather than envious of.

164:

I'm aware that the compounds you describe can influence the human phenotype in various ways, most of them horrible, but heritable genetic changes are a very different matter.

I'm not really sure why I'm bothering to have an argument that DNA damage isn't a real thing caused by heavy metals.

My mind is boggling.

Nickel, cadmium, chromium all induced oxidative stress with both similar and unique genes and pathways responding to this stress. Although all three metals are known to be genotoxic, evidence for DNA damage in our study only exists in response to chromium. Nickel induced a hypoxic response as well as inducing genes involved in chromatin structure, perhaps by replacing iron in key proteins. Cadmium distinctly perturbed genes related to endoplasmic reticulum stress and invoked the unfolded protein response leading to apoptosis.

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0027730 (2011)

And lest we think that this is new, here's a 1973 paper called: Genetic analysis of resistance to cadmium-induced testicular damage in mice

http://www.genenetwork.org/images/upload/Taylor_1973.pdf


Yes, if it damages your testicles, you can be fairly sure your little swimmers aren't functioning quite as expected.

Or, perhaps here:

Cadmium is an environmental toxicant, which causes cancer in different organs. It was found that it damages DNA in the various tissues and cultured cell lines... It was observed that cadmium alone did not cause DNA damage. However, it caused DNA damage in the presence of hydrogen peroxide, in a dose dependent manner, because of production of hydroxyl radicals... From this study, it is plausible to infer that cadmium in the presence of hydrogen peroxide causes DNA damage probably by the formation of hydroxyl ions. These results may indicate that cadmium in vivo could play a major role in the DNA damage induced by oxidative stress.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17366568


And I didn't even mention fun stuff like mercury, which bio-accumulates.

Hint:

There are also trace amounts of mercury in coal. Mining mercury or burning coal results in releasing mercury.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_cycle

or

Burning of coal is the largest single anthropogenic source of mercury air emissions, having more than tripled since 1970.

http://www.unep.org/chemicalsandwaste/Metals/GlobalMercuryPartnership/Coalcombustion/tabid/3530/Default.aspx


Sorry chaps, but it's a fact: once you start burning coal you're fucking your brain up.


Or is anyone going to argue that mercury doesn't cause DNA damage?

. Similar to X-rays, HgCl2 has also been shown to cause the formation of superoxide radicals and the depletion of reduced glutathione in intact cells. The binding of mercury to DNA was shown to be very tight since it resisted extraction with high salt and chelating agents. The binding to DNA depended upon the polynucleotide structure of the DNA, because degradation of DNA to mononucleotides resulted in the release of bound 203Hg. Methyl-HgCl has been compared with HgCl2 for the induction of DNA strand breaks in cultured rat glial cells, human nerve cells (HTB), and rat or human fibroblasts

http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-4757-9071-9_16

Using the comet assay, blood was analyzed for genetic damage and apoptotic cell frequency. The seasonal survey showed greater DNA damage in the Hg-contaminated area for all sampling seasons excluding winter. The temporal variation pattern of DNA lesions was: summer approximately autumn > winter > spring. Fish caged at Laranjo also exhibited greater DNA damage than those caged at the reference site, highlighting the importance of gill uptake on the toxicity of this metal. No increased susceptibility to apoptosis was detected in either wild or caged fish, indicating that mercury damages DNA of blood cells by a nonapoptotic mechanism.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19458991


~

Frankly I'm surprised that an inorganic chemist doesn't know these things.

165:

But yes: if I'm seriously reading commentary that doesn't immediately go:

"Ha! You think cadmium is bad, what about all that mercury from the coal they burnt?!"

I know that either people are ignorant or are arguing from a biased position.

Stating that long term (4,000+) DNA damage "doesn't exist" would require data that we just don't have (and are rapidly running out of). However, since mercury doesn't magically vanish, you can be sure that it had a continued and long term effect on DNA expression in populations.

The reference to alcohol and aboriginal peoples is noted though.

Quite why you imagine your mercury / lead polluted minds would be considered any differently is mind boggling in it's blinkered thought.

/derail over

166:

"For instance, subsaharan Africa never had a bronze age."

When the Bantu migrated around the Congo and southwards, they
lost almost all of their technology. Unless things have changed
recently, it is unclear whether they had ironworking until the Arabs
arrived. Certainly, in many parts, before the Europeans arrived,
ironworking was done by the residual Khoisan peoples and not the
Bantu. So it's an anomaly (whatever the normal range is!)

167:

Yes. And all of those effects are long-term, often caused only if
the metal is already chelated; most metals are toxic under those
conditions, and DNA damage is not rare as a result of poisoning.
But it's a red herring, as it is completely unlike the mythologies
of elves and iron.

168:

"Lots of adult humans can use lactose, after probably only 8000
years."

Probably a bit longer, actually, but what the hell! You can add
'white' skin, which is a clear genetic aberration. There are many,
many others known - a badly written, but interesting and informative,
book on that is "The Survival of the Sickest".

169:

If we want to take a reductionist view, elves would have been whatever indigenous people who lived in Ireland before the Scots, and who tended to lack iron weapons. Bronze was far more expensive and would be available only to the overlords.

And so we get the story that the elves sued for peace and offered to give up half their island, and the scots replied OK, we'll take the half that's aboveground.

Surviving elves would of necessity be good at invisibility etc.

170:

Loss of pigment is not unknown in other animals though. Since it appears to be an advantageous adaptation for humans away from the tropics, and since the mechanism is (I presume) merely to derail the normal genetic pathway to melanin production, I wouldn't be surprised if it has happened more than once.

(I wonder whether the ancestors of the Indians managed to regain their darkness, or whether they reached India before they lost it.)

Lactose tolerance is a bit more interesting, since we are naturally all lactose tolerant as infants. The question then is at what age it wears off. AIUI, the human body would stop producing the enzymes required some time after weaning because it was advantageous to drop even that small a biological load if there was never to be a reward. Then things changed so that there might be a benefit. I suspect that at that point it became advantageous to delay the intolerance longer and longer.

Anecdata: a colleague has recently become lactose intolerant at about age 50. She's from China, about a day's train journey inland from Shanghai, so not a lot of European genetics.

171:

It would be interesting to know how many people bought Buffy spin-off books (except as presents) without first having watched the Tv series. I suspect the number will tend to 0.

172:

Allow me to present the Unseelie Court and the Wild Hunt? ;-)

Anyway, read and enjoyed Equiod and The Rhesus Chart (including LOLs at some of the latter).

173:

That technique has been used in fiction, very obviously in Mercedes Lackey's Serrated Edge series.

174:

All that still ties in with the starting point of all this. And all gets into arguments about the significance of correlation. We're the species that sees patterns and tries to use them to explain things, and maybe some of us are getting to the point where we can see the difference between correlation and causation.

There's a correlation between environmental lead levels and crime. Lead in paint and in car exhausts is diminishing, and crime, despite all the media scare stories, is also falling. That's the sort of coincidence that Charlie started the thread with, but it doesn't mean that lead causes crime, or an excess of bankers cause vampire stories.

And what's been said about the possible reality of elves or vampires that inspired the legends is hardly something that finds a cause.

Compared to that, the impact of lead on the brain is a piece of rock-solid reality.

So lets be a little silly. Is the zombie fiction correlated with levels of lead and other brain-damaging pollution?

But so much of all this can be linked to the ideas of subjective validation, which is a big part of why such things as cold reading works.

Subjective validation is the process of validating words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate because one is able to find them personally meaningful and significant. Subjective validation explains why many people are seduced by the apparent accuracy of pseudoscientific personality profiles. Subjective validation deludes everyone from the housewife who thinks her happiness depends on her blood type or horoscope, to the FBI agent who thinks criminal profiles are spot on, to the therapist who thinks her Rorschach readings are penetrating portraits of psychological disorders.

The pattern's that Charlie sees are at least relevant to his profession. It may be no more accurate than "seeing" a tiger behind a particular tree, and not going near the tree, but how much do you lose by eating apples from a different tree?

Well, we have something better than thinking we've seen something stripey lurking in the orchard. We have with lead, and so much else, used science to pin the tail on the tiger.

But look at enough trees, and you'll still see something stripey lurking.


175:

Anecdata: a colleague has recently become lactose intolerant at about age 50. She's from China, about a day's train journey inland from Shanghai, so not a lot of European genetics.

ISTR that lactose intolerance is actually more common in ethnic Han Chinese than in other groups for some reason.

176:

Even manufacturing has moved away from the conveyor belt for flexibility and mass customisation.

Yes, but manufacturing tends to be about churning out thousands to millions of widgets to the same design, with minor variations thereon, using well-understood machine tools or robots.

The problem with books is that while you might think they're standardized -- we print in bulk, right? -- they're not; the actual volume of SKUs shipped by a publisher may be in the millions but there will be hundreds to thousands of different books involved, with individual volumes in the high hundreds to tens of thousands (and a very small number in the hundreds of thousands). Moreover, these are not minor variations on a customizable design: these are all radically different designs. Worse: the editorial process is already about as automated as it can get -- which is to say, it relies on artisan labour by freelance contractors with erratic and weird requirements, and if you don't want to make allowances for their weird requirements, then tough shit.

(Don't want to work with the author who writes using a word processor that runs only on CP/M or MS-DOS and that is supported by one retired programmer after the company that sold it went into liquidation in the early 1990s -- and which, never mind not being able to export RTF, isn't even unicode-aware or ISO8859/15 compliant)? Great: you've just ditched one of the current top 5 bestsellers in SF/F specialist bookstores, and a multiple award winner. (Not GRRM: GRRM's addiction to WordStar is vastly more mainstream than this person's continued use of Protext).

It may be worth spending hundreds of thousands to retool a production line for flexible variations on well-known products. But the money just isn't there in publishing; about all you can do is throw resources at specific bestsellers, e.g. let the author pick their own editors and pay extra to have them standing by when the author delivers.

Question is not "can they reject crap" - anyone can do that, for various valuations of 'crap'. Question is "can they spot winners"? To which the answer seems to be "nope".

A quick look at the bestseller list will tell you otherwise. Hint: Harry Potter did find a publisher, as did Thomas Covenant. So did A Game of Thrones. 50 Shades is a bit different insofar as it started off self-published -- but there's some evidence that E. L. James deliberately leveraged the fanfic community's loyalty to generate self-pub sales in order to cut a better deal when she took her IP trad-pub.

The question isn't generally whether the publishing biz spots bestsellers these days; the question is whether they get in on the ground floor while it's cheap or have their hands forced when it goes viral.

177:

There's a correlation between environmental lead levels and crime. Lead in paint and in car exhausts is diminishing, and crime, despite all the media scare stories, is also falling. That's the sort of coincidence that Charlie started the thread with, but it doesn't mean that lead causes crime

Ahem: I think you'll find you're wrong on that point. Lead can't be causally linked to any one specific criminal incident, but there's a rock-solid link between blood lead levels, brain damage and intellectual impairment, poor impulse control (which correlates with the previous symptoms), and levels of violent crime in communities. And because lead additives were removed from petrol at different times in different countries we should be able to do a horizontal comparison to see if the reported incidence of violent crime starts to decline at different times, too.

There's a complicating factor in that brain damage is for life, and most crime is committed by young males, and imprisonment removes young-males-with-criminal-convictions from society (where crimes are committed) but that should be something we can control for.

The other suggested mechanism for the drop in violent crime since 1970 in the west is the availability of legal abortion and birth control (the theory is that unwanted children are more likely to grow up in poverty and neglect, hence more likely to end up marginalized/abused/resorting to crime) -- but I think this is somewhat more tenuous: it's not as if abortion was unavailable when it was illegal, or as if family planning services are universally available where they are legal. (Indeed, this seems to me to be a dangerous just-so story insofar as it reinforces that dangerous religious social anti-pattern that the successful are godly and the poor/unsuccessful are sinners or the fruits of sin.)

178:

And all of those effects are long-term, often caused only if the metal is already chelated; most metals are toxic under those conditions, and DNA damage is not rare as a result of poisoning.

I'm fairly sure that's not what the papers on atmospheric lead I posted in an earlier thread stated.

But it's a red herring, as it is completely unlike the mythologies of elves and iron.

Really?

Magnetite biomineralization in the human brain.

Using an ultrasensitive superconducting magnetometer in a clean-lab environment, we have detected the presence of ferromagnetic material in a variety of tissues from the human brain. Magnetic particle extracts from solubilized brain tissues examined with high-resolution transmission electron microscopy, electron diffraction, and elemental analyses identify minerals in the magnetite-maghemite family, with many of the crystal morphologies and structures resembling strongly those precipitated by magnetotactic bacteria and fish. These magnetic and high-resolution transmission electron microscopy measurements imply the presence of a minimum of 5 million single-domain crystals per gram for most tissues in the brain and greater than 100 million crystals per gram for pia and dura. Magnetic property data indicate the crystals are in clumps of between 50 and 100 particles. Biogenic magnetite in the human brain may account for high-field saturation effects observed in the T1 and T2 values of magnetic resonance imaging and, perhaps, for a variety of biological effects of low-frequency magnetic fields. - 1992


Magnetite Minerals in the Human Brain: What Is Their Role?

Although the exact role of magnetite nanocrystals on human cerebral physiology has yet to be determined, we suspect that it plays a significant role in the nervous system. - 2013


Magnatite in Human tissues: a mechanism for the biological effects of weak ELF magnetic fields - Warning: PDF


Are we all sure that big metal boats and metal cans and cars have no effect? Yes.

Are we all sure that the current EM soup we're living in has no effect? Debatable (phones being the hot research topic with politics on both sides of the debate, per usual).

~

I'll leave you with thoughts about the nervous system.

179:

My surprise was that she'd been lactose tolerant that far. Adult lactose intolerance is the default state for humanity, and particularly so for the population she comes from. But I'd assumed it was something that usually cut in during late childhood, and not in middle age.

180:

How strong is the causal link between testosterone and crime?

181:

I said "often", not "always", but I suppose that I could have also
said "or when it is breathed in". Mercury is like that, or else
those of us with a lot of large fillings would be as mad as
hatters. And the 'elf+iron' mythology is not compatible with
long-term poisoning effects. I was not discussing the magnetite
possibility, as that IS compatible with dislike of iron and/or
it blocking magic.

182:

That sounds like a plausible account for the origin of elves in Irish folklore, but I didn't mention Ireland. I, and the thesis I mentioned, was talking about elves in English folklore, and more broadly, in Germanic folklore.

It's possible that there was some cross-fertilisation between Anglo-Saxon and Irish folklore, but the two cultures could easily have invented their somewhat different notions of elves independently, and quite probably did.

It's like the way both Europe and China have myths about dragons. To the best of my knowledge, neither culture got the idea of dragons from the other. Rather, when they came into contact, they said 'your creatures resemble the ones we call dragons, so we'll translate the name like that, despite the many differences.'

Anyway, whatever the origins of elves in folklore, the stories about them today do fit with the thesis I'm paraphrasing from memory. They generally are depicted as roughly like us, but better, with superior crafting/technology/magic - the neighbours we're jealous of, not the ones we despise.

183:

It depends on whether you define crime as the sort of thing
primarily committed by young males. My understanding is that,
when you have removed the age and sex effects, it's marginal.
Whereas the fact that atmospheric lead causes crime is solid.

184:

In the British Isles, and possibly other parts of Europe, the
picts were displaced by the gaels long before the latter were
displaced by the germanic peoples.

185:

How strong is the causal link between testosterone and crime?

How strong is the cultural link between our social definitions of crime and the activities typically engaged in by males?

(For the same of this chew-toy let's explicitly exclude sex crimes that don't involve violence, coercion, or lack of consent.)

186:

Rather, when they came into contact, they said 'your creatures resemble the ones we call dragons, so we'll translate the name like that, despite the many differences.'

That certainly makes sense.

It seems to me the chinese dragons are fearsome but more sedate than the european dragons. Less likely to steal people's gold or eat them as a regular snack. So we might hypothesize that maybe when dragons reached a certain age they left the nest and went to europe, and then went to china after they reached a certain maturity.

Anyway, whatever the origins of elves in folklore, the stories about them today do fit with the thesis I'm paraphrasing from memory. They generally are depicted as roughly like us, but better, with superior crafting/technology/magic - the neighbours we're jealous of, not the ones we despise.

Yes, that makes sense. Thank you.

187:

Interesting...

It sounds like you're baiting the hook for a discussion around social compliance and the understanding of commonly accepted norms of behaviour; namely, "what constitutes anti-social behaviour".

Young men have traditionally "caroused" noisily, without necessarily becoming involved in your excluded areas of violence, coercion, or lack of consent. Being plain gobby and insulting are traditional; drinking to the point of incapacity likewise.

What is less traditional (well, apart from the Maenads of Greek legend) is young women behaving equally noisily, to the point of green-inked righteous fury on the part of the Daily Heil.

It's not entirely class-based in males, either; you'll find 19-year-old drunken morons wearing either Burberry or dinner jackets. Perhaps the correlation lies in the aspirational parts of society - if you're aiming to climb the social ladder (rather than being satisfied with a position nearer the top or bottom), perhaps the strictures against "abnormal" behaviour are stronger?

188:

It's like the way both Europe and China have myths about dragons. To the best of my knowledge, neither culture got the idea of dragons from the other.

There's a suggestion that both cultures came up with the idea of dragons independently based on dinosaur fossils, or whale skeletons. Not knowing what these enormous creatures were and seeing that they resembled snakes or lizards, they developed their folklores around them. Sorry if that's obvious/well known.
I've wondered how much folklore has similar origins, the Cyclops being another example.


apologies to Elderly Cynic, if the end of my last comment was taken as rude, I should have said that I didn't think it was worth arguing about, but was in a bad mood for various reasons.

189:

Most of the papers you show basically say that toxic metals are toxic and show some of the effects of their toxicity. But we've known them to be toxic for a long time. If you are so worried about metal-poisined brains why haven't you replaced your lead pipes?
A warning if you do rplace them. If lead pipes are replaced by copper piping there is a temporary increase in the lead content of tap water due to the lead in solder.

190:

If you want, I can dig out the nature article, but according to the archeologists, Africa went straight from bronze to iron. As for the Bantu losing your iron, the Bantu peoples migrated all around Africa from their west African homeland all the way south, and I don't think they ever lost their iron, any more than they lost their cattle. The continent is swimming in unique sword designs and other weapons. Google African swords and dig in for a lot of reading. Perhaps you've confused the Khoisan with the Bantu?

191:

"How strong is the cultural link between our social definitions
of crime and the activities typically engaged in by males?"

A specific one here, that causes immense harm, is child abuse.
I once saw some claimed evidence that almost all convicted sex
offenders had been themselves abused as children, often by their
mothers or other female relatives. The current crusade very
much targets physical abuse as against psychological, whereas
children are probably more vulnerable to the latter. And there
is (almost certainly) an association between the type of abuse
and the sex of the abuser.

Like most people of my background and age, I was beaten with
canes as a child (belts and the taws were also used), including
once that left welts for a week. But the only one that made me
really unhappy was a much lesser one where I was punished for
something I hadn't done. And other psychological ill-treatment
hurts to this day. Speaking to other, similar, people about
such things, we all agreed on the above. Now, which of those
comes before the courts as child cruelty today?

192:

"If we want to take a reductionist view, elves would have been whatever indigenous people who lived in Ireland before the Scots, and who tended to lack iron weapons."

The problem there is that we do have a group in our mythology who are probably a representation of the pre-Celtic population of the island, and they are not Elf-like at all:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fir_Bolg

If anything, they sound more like the Dwarves in Pratchett.

The other thing is that the entire corpus of Irish mythology comes to us from manuscripts written by Christian monks in the first centuries after the Christianisation of Ireland. Therefore, it must be the case that some if not all of that corpus was rewritten to make it consistent with Christian systems of thought, ideology etc.

193:

I wasn't questioning whether heavy metals could effect DNA. I was questioning whether the changes would be heritable. If heavy metals accumulate in your (say) liver and screw up your liver's DNA, that probably sucks for you. It probably won't directly influence your children, unless for some reason you cloned them from your liver cells. Similarly, it's well known that mercury accumulates in the brain to cause hatter's madness, but as long as you children don't eat your brain they should be OK.

No matter what you do, the cells in your body accumulate damage. As you age, more and more of them cease functioning as productive cells of whichever organ. Heavy metal exposures can certainly accelerate the process in various ways.

Is there any evidence that populations three or four generations removed from the original environmental stress see ongoing heritable effects? I realize that's a hard question to answer, but it is the relevant question.

194:

Um, no. People can eat small amounts of soybeans (e.g. edamame in the Japanese restaurants), but so far as I know, every human would die if that was their sole diet. Soybeans have to be processed to be good human food. That's why everyone who grows soybeans makes something like tofu, tempeh, natto, or miso out of them (the last three are fermented, the first is processed). Similarly, gluten allergies are massively overblown in the media, but it is true that people do better on bread than on whole wheat berries. Again, processing helps. On a slightly different note, the thalassemia and sickle cell anemia aren't perfect protections against malaria, nor do they match the ranges of that group of diseases anywhere near as well as one might think.

I'm not go into the body shapes, because if you look around, you'll find that some Africans have short noses too, while some northern Europeans have huge noses. The just-so stories about facial shapes, skin colors, and hairiness rapidly head into racial stereotype land, and quite honestly, the evidence that supports those is somewhere between questionable and total crap. People have argued both that east Asians have short noses due to the cold of Siberia and that Neanderthals had huge noses due to the cold. At a first guess, both of these are false.

Rapid selection does happen in nature, but even there, it is on a multi-generational time scale. The best way to think of humans is that we have two inheritance systems, genes and culture. While genes do change, culture changes much, much, much more rapidly. As a result, our adaptations tend to be cultural, not genetic.

What we see in humans, repeatedly, is that culture adapts very, very quickly, while genes adapt much more slowly. For example, with epidemic diseases, behaviors like medicines and public health procedures spread far more rapidly than does genetic resistance to the pathogen. With mining, safety measures spread more rapidly than does genetic tolerance to mining conditions.

Even with something like lactose tolerance, behaviors like cheese and yogurt making spread more rapidly than have the at least three lactose tolerance genetic variations.

195:

"Is there any evidence that populations three or four
generations removed from the original environmental stress see
ongoing heritable effects? I realize that's a hard question to
answer, but it is the relevant question."

Yes. Malnutrition and size takes several generations to recover
from. 7 generations has been observed in rat experiments. There
was a result recently where environmental factors led to
hereditable epigenetic effects, but I forget the details. Come
back, Lamarck - all is forgiven!

196:

Getting back to the original topic, I keep thinking about our faith that there are hidden patterns out there, and enough data crunching will reveal them. I did this quite a lot in grad school, and the question is always whether the pattern is real. In many cases, subsequent research fails to find it again.

My suspicion is that, to the extent that there are predictable trends in genre publication, editors are tuned into them like male moths are to pheromones. Humans are generally too good at spotting patterns, and even without a statistical analysis, they've spotted the obvious awhile ago. Indeed, editors seem to be good at knowing when they're in trends, and when trends have over-stayed their welcome.

In other words, the stats would be confirmation of what the editors had already figured out. The problem is finding the next big thing before anyone else sees it, and that seems to be a crap-shoot.

As an example, JK Rowling scored huge with Harry Potter on her 19th try. Then, as a really wonderful experiment, she wrote a totally different book under a pseudonym. Despite a starred review, it went nowhere until someone noticed the writing similarities, did the textual analysis, and outed her as the author, at which point its sales spiked. I tend to think Rowling's a good writer regardless, and her experiment is a good example of how random success is.

197:

And we always have to watch out for confounding effects.

There are always confounding effects in interpreting history, and there's usually no way to eliminate them. As a result, this sort of understanding is inherently less reliable than the sorts that can be repeatedly tested by properly controlled experiment. It is what it is.

198:

I was trying to get past the epigenetic effects with the three or four generation lead time. Perhaps I should have used seven or ten.

199:

[i](Question: was "Twilight" originally fanfic based on something else?)[/i]


It started its life as Harry Potter fan fiction IIRC

200:

No, I am not. Perhaps a great deal of new evidence has come up
since I last looked (which was, admittedly, some time back), but
it looks very much as if you are confusing West Africa with the
savannas to the east and south. My sources had all failed to
find any evidence of pre-Arab iron working, and the usual Bantu
weapons were spears and occasionally bows.

West Africa was entirely different, and was arguably as advanced
as Europe during mediaeval times.

201:

Um, no. People can eat small amounts of soybeans (e.g. edamame in the Japanese restaurants), but so far as I know, every human would die if that was their sole diet.

I had seen claims which I'm not ready to search on the road, that some asian populations are more resistant to soybean poisons than europeans are. I didn't see primary sources and it's possible somebody just made it up.

Similarly, gluten allergies are massively overblown in the media, but it is true that people do better on bread than on whole wheat berries.

Similarly I saw claims that some populations which don't have a history of eating wheat lack some gluten adaptations that europeans have.

On a slightly different note, the thalassemia and sickle cell anemia aren't perfect protections against malaria, nor do they match the ranges of that group of diseases anywhere near as well as one might think.

They are thought to help. They don't have to be perfect protection to be selected. And with both people and disease moving around and not staying in the same ranges, we shouldn't expect the ranges to fit all that well today. This is similar to the fallacy that plants that cooperate in plant communities should be expected to all have the same ranges, if the communities existed.

I'm not go into the body shapes, because if you look around, you'll find that some Africans have short noses too, while some northern Europeans have huge noses. The just-so stories about facial shapes, skin colors, and hairiness rapidly head into racial stereotype land, and quite honestly, the evidence that supports those is somewhere between questionable and total crap. People have argued both that east Asians have short noses due to the cold of Siberia and that Neanderthals had huge noses due to the cold. At a first guess, both of these are false.

Lots of arctic animals have smaller appendages, while desert and tropical animals tend to have larger appendages. It wouldn't be out of line to suggest that might work for humans too. I don't right off follow the claim about the large noses, it goes against this reasoning but there might be something more subtle about the claim that would keep it from being total crap. I don't know whether neanderthals had big noses. Various people who lived with inuits remarked about their small noses, and various people pointed out they consider it a sign of beauty. My point is that if it's true that the correlation is there, I don't know what to make of it -- it could be selection over a long time, or sexual selection, or coincidence.

Rapid selection does happen in nature, but even there, it is on a multi-generational time scale. The best way to think of humans is that we have two inheritance systems, genes and culture. While genes do change, culture changes much, much, much more rapidly. As a result, our adaptations tend to be cultural, not genetic.

Maybe both. We get slow genetic change due to the things the culture doesn't stop genetic selection about.

202:

Similarly I saw claims that some populations which don't have a history of eating wheat lack some gluten adaptations that europeans have.

Ireland has a long history of wheat and barley cultivation, and a large incidence of gluten intolerance in its population (about 30%, IIRC). The gluten intolerance causes lifelong pain, but not death, so it didn't get wiped out by natural selection. This seems to be a major reason that the Irish adopted the potato so readily once it was imported from the Americas.

203:

But potato consumption in Irish society had a big class dimension: it was peasant food, a crop that could feed the base of society almost on its own. (Seriously, the normal diet for an Irish farm labourer pre-Famine is documented. It's potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, some butter and buttermilk, and one or two meals per year that include meat.) The potato's huge productivity was a significant influence in its adoption.

204:

J Thomas also manages to recapitulate the myth of the claiming of Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Danann in a later comment (the Dé Danann were over time played down into the fairies of Irish folklore - they likely started off as gods).

205:

I'd be interested to know where that figure comes from. I would have thought that if that high a proportion of the population was gluten intolerant, gluten-free bread and similar would be nearly universal. I will concede that it's a couple of weeks since I last went shopping in an Irish supermarket, and then for sausages and beer rather than bread, but I think I would have noticed.

(And given the number of Irish people I was cooking for, I think it would have come up anyway.)

As for the potato, my understanding is that the Irish smallholders cropped it in preference to wheat because it gave a better yield in calories per acre when not blighted. The big downside to potatoes (apart from that blight) is that they're tricky to store compared to grain - one bad potato and you lose the entire package. Which leads to wheat being the cash crop.

206:

I'm not disagreeing with you. Clearly the productivity matters.

I'm half Irish (more or less, it's a bit complicated), and my mother, sister, and maternal aunt are all gluten intolerant. They didn't know it until about ten years ago; they'd just been in pain for much of their lives. It wouldn't surprise me if the pain was a major contributor to the Irish reputation for bellicosity; when Mom misses a pain pill we usually figure it out before she does.

207:

Wheat has only rarely been a major crop in Ireland - it's too wet
for it, plus it was then long staple, and very prone to being
flattened by wind. I agree that it got high prices. The previous
staples were barley and oats, but both had been replaced by
potatoes. Hence the problem.

208:
The big downside to potatoes (apart from that blight) is that they're tricky to store compared to grain - one bad potato and you lose the entire package. Which leads to wheat being the cash crop.
Potato storage is actually a plus for tenant farmers & smallholders - you don't need a granary or other community-level specialized store; you just need a hole in the ground.
209:

There are other reasons wheat wasn't a huge crop in Ireland for a while: want to guess why?
(TL;DR: tendency of colonial masters to ban or tax exports if they competed with English goods.)

210:

Yep - one way is leaving them in till you want them. (And planting them at staggered start times, so the harvest can be staggered too.)

I should have made it clear that I was thinking about commercial storage and transportation. Grain, you can pretty much just build a big room and pile it in there. As long as it's dried off it shouldn't rot, though you do have to worry about beetles and rats and the like. It's got much better capability for multi-year storage. Potatoes on the other hand are much more seasonal; not to the extent that you can't eat them all year round, but there is definitely an old-crop/new-crop thing.

Hmm, I wonder how neaps and beets of various types compare for storage.

211:

"(And planting them at staggered start times, so the harvest can
be staggered too.)"

Sorry - it doesn't work that way. Later planted ones will just
crop less, and earlier cropped ones will have less starch. It's
the early versus maincrop situation.

"Grain, you can pretty much just build a big room and pile it
in there. As long as it's dried off it shouldn't rot, ..."

Grain needs drying off after harvest, even in East Anglia, in all
except the most exceptional years. That is one of the reasons
that crop failure was so common.

"Hmm, I wonder how neaps and beets of various types compare for
storage."

Better in many ways, but with even less starch.

212:

I dunno, we used to plant earlies before the mains, and not all of a variety at once. But it's the varieties that matter most for that, and there were presumably fewer varieties in the past.

These days I've gone back to buying them from shops. Veg growing is too much hassle, particularly if you have to follow the Soil Association rules. And I don't need to worry about the bl**dy rats so much.

213:

Is there any evidence that populations three or four generations removed from the original environmental stress see ongoing heritable effects? I realize that's a hard question to answer, but it is the relevant question.

Not three generations yet, but give it time:
http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/142195/beyond-dna-epigenetics

Tjis article reference "many generations", but doesn't give a number:
http://io9.com/how-an-1836-famine-altered-the-genes-of-children-born-d-1200001177

In the case of the Dutch Famine, the effects have passed on to the grandchildren. Epigenetics is cool, and not something covered in standard biology lessons when I was a wee sprog.

214:

I'm never entirely sure how much of these effects to ascribe to epigenetics and how much is just plain old natural selection. After all, one would expect people with fat genes to differentially survive a period of famine. That's what fat genes are for.

215:

After talking with the Family Statistician...

If you have enough data (this is why trials with small numbers of subjects can be so toxic) you can split it into multiple subsets at random. And if the patterns are real they will be consistent across the subsets. In the 1970s there was a lot of tedious arithmetic in doing that. And here we are with desktop computers with enormous amounts of calculating power, by the standards of the 1970s.

In the 1970s, almost every film that needed to use a real rocket to put a character into orbit was using stock footage from NASA.

Now you can make your movie using a computer game.

216:

The key thing with epigenetics is that it's not just the genes that make a difference. Natural selection works on more than just genes, after all.


Here's a useful (and accessible) summary:

http://www.nature.com/nature/supplements/insights/epigenetics/

Genetic mechanisms alone cannot explain how some cellular traits are propagated. Rapid advances in the field of epigenetics are now revealing a molecular basis for how heritable information other than DNA sequence can influence gene function. These advances also add to our understanding of transcriptional regulation, nuclear organization, development and disease.

(Emphasis mine.)


Biology is cool. Consider something as 'simple' as sex. XY or XX, right? But it turns out to be more complicated than that. For example:

http://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943


Apologies if you already know this, but I find a lot of people don't realize how much the field has changed since they were in school. And "what everyone knows" is often wrong (or, more politely, outdated).

217:

Only if you didn't have access to a suitable computer. Ordinary
desktops became powerful enough for almost all statistical purposes
in the late 1980s, because there is no point in being fancier than
the data will justify! But there has been a communication failure
in your family :-) The problem is not checking whether the
association in the data is significant, which can be done that way,
but in whether the association is purely a matter of chance because
the two time series happen to behave similarly in that time period.

218:

And don't even think about what plants get up to :-) Sex and
reproduction in even the flowering plants simply beggars description.

219:

Potatoes have a lot of lovely adaptations for peasants:

--they're highly productive
--they're pretty nutritious if you eat the skins (potatoes and whole milk is fairly close to a complete diet).
--they keep well underground. The problem with grains is that landlords, thieves, and others can steal/confiscate/appropriate the grain. If an army wants your potatoes and you left them in the field, they have to dig 'em out first.
--the lazy beds the peasants used were just the thing for breaking horse legs, so cavalry charges across potato fields were supposed to be problematic, and this provided a bit of defense in some circumstances.
--And you can clone the little buggers out of their eyes, so you don't have to buy seed every year. This, of course, led to the potato famine in Ireland, because it turns out that having a highly diverse potato population is a really good idea.*

*In the Andes, where the potato blights all originated, there are hundreds of potato varieties cultivated. Potato blight isn't a major issue for them. In Europe and North America, where potato monocultures are preferred, blight is a big problem.

220:

"If we want to take a reductionist view, elves would have been whatever indigenous people who lived in Ireland before the Scots, and who tended to lack iron weapons."

The problem there is that we do have a group in our mythology who are probably a representation of the pre-Celtic population of the island, and they are not Elf-like at all:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fir_Bolg

For what it's worth, the story says that the Tuatha de Danaan conquered the Firbolgs pretty much like the scots conquered the Tautha de Danaan.

221:

(Don't want to work with the author who writes using a word processor that runs only on CP/M or MS-DOS and that is supported by one retired programmer after the company that sold it went into liquidation in the early 1990s...

Hang on Charlie. You can't say that the publishing industry has to deal with the weirds and wonderfuls, so it can't change; and also say at the same time that you have to use MS Word because that's the standard.

And it's not really the bit I was getting at. The conveyor belt is the slow/tortuous process between the author finishing their draft and the release date (1 year hence). If you are going to have customised dealing with the 'Protexts' of this world then there is no great reason for the rest of the timewasting. Create a default workflow that's optimised to turn manuscripts around faster (and with less handrolic effort) and bolt-on extra elements to deal with the weirds who only export RTF as extras (extra time, extra cost, etc.)

For all you hate them, Amazon have it much closer to right in their default workflow.

A quick look at the bestseller list will tell you otherwise. Hint: Harry Potter did find a publisher
But the point is not that they found a publisher in the end, but that the sift process DIDN'T work, in that they didn't get grabbed straight away. Dartboard time.

Given the success rate, it looks very much like a better process would be for a publisher to publish EVERYTHING they get, as an eBook, no advance, pure automated process, 'you fit in with us', etc. and then spot interest being taking in it (via views, sales, etc.) and swoop on the author with a nasty contractual term that says they will print and market a paper version of the book etc., and isn't that author lucky?

Using the market to spot the winners.

Which again, sounds very like a certain S. American river's publishing model.

222:

"My sources had all failed to find any evidence of pre-Arab iron working"

I am only personally aware of the situation in north-western Tanzania, because I used to live there. For this area the source you want to look for is the archeologist Peter R. Schmidt. He excavated iron kilns from the first millennium B.C. in the 1970's. There is a controversy about his theory that the iron kilns excavated in Kemondo Bay (western shore of Lake Victoria) could produce higher temperatures (and therefore better iron/steel) than the contemporary furnaces in Europe.

With a quick search I found this excerpt from a review of two books about iron technology in East Africa, which describes some of the findings and conclusions:

A series of papers follows which discusses the extent to which a distinctive and innovative iron smelting technology developed in north-western Tanzania. The idea that placing the greater part of tuyères inside the furnace allowed the air introduced to the furnace to be pre-heated (and so increasing the temperature reached inside the furnace) was first put forward by Schmidt and Avery in a 1978 article in Science. This is reprinted here with a few extra clarifications. This is followed by an updated version of a 1985 article by Schmidt and Childs on the excavation of early iron working sites along the western shores of Lake Victoria (originally published in African Archaeological Review, 1985). A critique of the 'pre-heating hypothesis' by Rehder and a reply by Avery and Schmidt from the Journal of Field Archaeology (1985) are reprinted here as a single chapter.

This is followed by further criticisms by Killick and defence by Avery and Schmidt. Schmidt and Avery propose that a technologically advanced mode of iron smelting arose in north-western Tanzania in the first millennium BC. Archaeological evidence from the early Iron Age sites at Rugomora Mahe and Kemondo Bay indicate that iron smelting slags were formed at temperatures of at least 1350°-1400° C. This is at least 100° C higher than that implied for European bloomery furnaces. The appearance of the tuyères from these sites (reduced and vitrified on the outer surfaces) suggested that the greater part of the tuyères had been placed inside the furnace and thus allowed the air being forced in to be pre-heated. Pre-heating allowed higher temperatures to be attained, which ensured more efficient reduction with less use of fuel, as well as the reduction of relatively poor ores. A bloom was also excavated from one of the Kemondo Bay furnaces. It was placed in what must have been a ritual context in a small pit dug into the base of the furnace. Metallography showed that this bloom was of steel rather than iron. The pre-heating hypothesis put forward by Schmidt and Avery explained the nature of the used tuyères, how the slags were formed and why steel rather than iron was formed. Schmidt and Avery were aware that their findings had considerable ramifications for the way in which iron and steel production in Africa was viewed: they demonstrated that Africans were capable of considerable technological achievement.

223:

Thank you. Most interesting, and I will look into it further; it
seems that I was holding onto a disproven hypothesis. I said I
last looked a while back (!), and my references were all older and
more for the Zambia and Zimbabwe areas.

224:

You keep saying Scots; if you're relying on the mythology you should be saying Galicians.

225:

Sure, that's what they say. They also say that the gaels who took ireland were closely related to the gaels who took scotland. Their rulers sometimes visited each other, sometimes provided military aid, sometimes tried to conquer each other, etc etc etc. Like squabbling relatives. Some of the online stuff I looked at day before yesterday called them scots, and I liked it for showing the existing relationship, more than I liked the origin myth.

Thank you for providing more depth.

226:

Scoti was the Latin name for the Irish raiders that attacked Roman Britain and did things like carry off a young man named Patricius to slavery; it's a job description. Calling the Gaelic culture of the time 'Scots' is like calling the Norse 'Vikings,' except more confusing.

Their rulers sometimes visited each other, sometimes provided military aid, sometimes tried to conquer each other, etc etc etc.

Closer even than that, at times.

227:

A lot of the reason blight is so serious in Great Britain is the
humidity, which I believe is less prevalent in most of the
original areas. I may be wrong, because you are certainly
correct that many of the original varieties are far more blight
resistant.

228:

Resampling is something that can certainly help, in some circumstances. I even used it when I was learning cladistics, where resampling is a standard way to gauge the strength of cladistic relationships.

Still, we've got the problem of description vs. prediction. Here, we're attempting to answer questions on the order of "it appears that books with certain topics are more popular at some times than others. Is this the case, and if so, why does it happen?" Then we turn this into some sort of keyword search, see whether there are swings in popularity, and then test correlations with other material or events, time-lagged by 2-3 years, to see what has the best correlation with the observed pattern.

This is all descriptive statistics. Where it becomes predictive statistics is when we use the patterns we've discovered to try to predict which books will be popular in a few years. My prediction is that most of these attempts will fail, because this is the classic black swan fallacy, that description enables prediction. I'm not arrogantly mocking such efforts, because everything from ecology to history and economics are plagued by and hobbled with this problem. Knowing the past does not always enable you to predict the future.

It could be worse. Imagine that the publishers actually had statistical models that their upper level managers believed in, and these models dictated what they would buy. This would favor extruded fantasy product above all else, because they'd be after things that met keyword and structural criteria, even if they were about as fun to read as any annual report. It would be formula fiction taken to its logical extreme, and we'd all be reading samizdat out of sheer disgust.

229:

No-one is asking the real questions:

What caused the great dragon / fairy crash of 1924-6?

Sure, the Cottingley Fairies were passe by then, but the decline is dramatic. If you take just dragons, they crash in 1906 for a low in 1914, and prior to that in 1888 (Tibet?).

From this it seems quite clear that dragons are key to world peace: when dragons crash, disaster follows. Happily both dragons and fairies are on the rise currently.


(But, really: anyone got any idea? the falls mirror each other pretty convincingly although fairies are somewhat delayed).

230:

There's a reason oomycetes are called water molds. Their dispersal forms have flagellae (technically, they're kelp, not fungi), and when there's a lot of water, they can swim further.

As for Great Britain being moister than the Andes, you've got to be a bit more specific, since the Andes include some of the driest and wettest parts of the planet.

The basic problem with potatoes in northern Europe are the relative paucity of potato varieties and great conditions for late blight to spread in (actually, just about any place where you grow potatoes is a great place to spread blight). One really good way to defeat this is to plant a bunch of different potato varieties. In the Andes, they even deliberately let wild potatoes grow on the edges of fields and try planting the resulting seeds. This can be dangerous, as potatoes are nightshades and the results can be really poisonous. Still, if the resulting cross is non-toxic, occasionally it has properties that the farmers take and use to make yet another potato variety. Still, millennia of Andean farmers seem to be doing it better than we are.

231:

What caused the great dragon / fairy crash of 1924-6?

Historians aren't sure, but the consequences were severe. There's convincing evidence that Hoover engineered the stock market crash of 1929 (and the resulting depression) for an excuse to get off the gold standard. Gold is a necessary element of draconic mating behavior, and it was needed to breed the robust population of dragons that was considered necessary for an adequate naval defense.

232:

No, oomycetes are NOT kelp, even if they are closer to brown algae
than true fungi (which is still a matter of debate), and late
blight is not an aquatic form! In my posting, I said "the original
areas", clearly meaning where potatoes originate from - not the
Andes as a whole. Late blight needs the combination of fairly high
humidity and fairly high temperatures to spread and, in places like
Ireland, the former is almost always the case - though the latter
isn't. Without data on the climate in the places potatoes came
from, there is no way to tell if my understanding is correct or not;
I can't remember where I picked it up from, and can't vouch for its
reliability.

233:

There's little debate that both oomycetes and kelps are stramenopiles, but you're right, oomycetes aren't kelp.

In any case (and this is from memory), I think there are multiple wild potatoes, so the question of "what's the potato's home range" gets a little weird. I also remember that, in the Andes, they have to deal with a much higher diversity of Phytophthora in the native range (Phytophthora infestans is the blight-causing oomycete). Late blight on potatoes isn't just a problem in Ireland, it's a problem throughout northern Europe and much of the US. Indeed, seed potatoes in the US are specially reared in isolated areas away from the P. infestans, just to slow its spread. That's what makes the comparison difficult: instead of the many genotypes of pathogen X many genotypes of host X many microenvironments situation in the Andes, where they domesticated potatoes, you've got a few pathogen genotypes X few host genotypes X many microenvironments problem everywhere else. Comparing the two is not as straightforward as one might like.

234:

Haldane had it right: "Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is
not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

235:

Blight resistant potatoes are available now. Sarpo Mira is almost completely immune but unfortunately most people dislike the taste. I grow Cara which has one blight resistance gene as a maincrop and it has been OK when other varieties on my allotment site have failed. Blight resistance genes have been added to several varieties but there is still public resistance to genetically modified crops which has disrupted trials.

236:

Given that any pest, when confronted with a single resistance gene, is under selection pressure to overcome that resistance gene, I'd suggest that the better trick is to find multiple resistance genes (or, for all I know, plant tomatoes in there too--I have no idea how they respond to blight), just to make the selection landscape as complex as unrewarding as possible for whatever blight is present.

As an aside, we're finding in California that there are a lot of Phytophthora species lose in the landscape, due to crappy nursery sanitation practices. These organisms don't just affect potatoes, and some (like P. ramorum) can kill dozens of plant species. If they'd talked about Phytophthora diversification in Interstellar instead of the BS organism they came up with, it would have been a scarier and more interesting movie.

237:

"Ahem: I think you'll find you're wrong on that point. Lead can't be causally linked to any one specific criminal incident, but there's a rock-solid link between blood lead levels, brain damage and intellectual impairment, poor impulse control (which correlates with the previous symptoms), and levels of violent crime in communities. And because lead additives were removed from petrol at different times in different countries we should be able to do a horizontal comparison to see if the reported incidence of violent crime starts to decline at different times, too."

There's a Mother Jones cover story on lead. The researchers, being competent, approached the issue several different ways (animal studies, neighborhood studies, individual studies, time series). It looks solid to me.

238:

There are more resistance genes and several of these are used for genetic modification. I don't know the details but I do know someone who is working on this.

239:

In the British Isles, and possibly other parts of Europe, the
picts were displaced by the gaels long before the latter were
displaced by the germanic peoples.

CORRECTION

In the British Isles, the Picts were assimilated by & merged with the Gaels (Assuming, of course, that the "Gaels" really exist as a separate people - another whole can of worms that I'm not going near right now ...) & they in turn had the "Germanic" peoples arrive & settle & (usually) mix in.

The whole idea of the previous people's being wiped out, or moved over en masse is simply WRONG.
As has been shown by study of people's DNA, both X & Y chromosomes.

Oops.

240:

Well ...
For this year I have:
Foremost, Epicure, British Queen, Sarpo Mira & Golden Wonder in the ground.
I'm eating stored Sarpo Mira from last year (Lifted early April - left in ground over-winter) which are stored in a cool, dark place ( The garage )
However, I expect to eat the first "Foremost" within a couple of weeks, yum!
[ Oh & a few "Charlotte" for salad-spuds ]

However, modern (as in past 100 years) selective breeding has improved the storage & flavour properties of many spuds, compared to previus times.
I'm told that, by present standards, the Irish "Lumper" was vile ....

241:

As we have no source that we are confident is purely pictish, the
exact situation will remain in doubt. And notice that I said
"displaced", which is the best word that I can think of that covers
both possibilities. We do have reliable sources of nearly-pure
celtic genes but, even there, exactly what happened during the
germanic invasion remains very unclear.

242:

Actually, the real authority for the Picts / Scots / Irish ( or even the Gaels ) is ...
"1066 & all That"

243:

Well, I don't - I think it makes BRILLIANT mash (!)
Even better with raosted garlic butter added as you mash it, OINK

244:

exactly what happened during the
germanic invasion remains very unclear.

Judging by the genetic results, an awful lot of fucking, actually ....

245:

Well, yes, but it's not entirely clear who was doing what and with
which and to whom! One of the curious aspects is that so few
Celtic words got into English, even in most dialects, but so many
place names did. This is a reference to how the gene data could
be explained, but it doesn't explain the linguistic one.

http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/07/who-killed-the-men-england

246:

That sort of thing happens a lot. For example, in the US (Wikipedia reference), the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawai'i, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and possibly Idaho and Oregon are all names taken into English from native American or Polynesian tribes or nations.

The bottom line is that conquerors tend to adopt place names, but dictate the dominant language.

247:

Back to the headline topic for me.

The corpus appears to be entirely books so we can discount magazines, newspapers, fan fiction and websites. e-books are an open question.
If we're on the later corpus then it contains 6% of all published books. But there's no explanation as to how they're chosen; so it could exclude all fantasy books (unlikely) or have other systematic biases. I guess we hope its representative.

"This story is not about vampires, werewolves, zombies or ghosts..." gets you one mention. As do metaphorical or adjectival uses; "zombie" is particular prone to this (zombie processes, philosophers' p-zombies, and here's George Monbiot mentioning "zombie myths") but obviously there are "vampire bats" and bands that stick "Vampire" in their name. (The raw corpus has "part of speech" tagging which may solve some of this.) And how often does a book with vampire protagonists mention vampires? Does it spend most of the time calling them "Edward" and will that skew the results towards vampire antagonists?

I also need it explained why capitalised "Vampire" has a sharp peek in 1995 that it never recaptures. "Vampire" needs an article so its fairly hard to get it capitalised at the start of a sentence; this means the peak is probably connected with something with "Vampire" in the title. When you switch to the entire "British English" corpus the "Vampire" peak shifts from pre-1995 to post-1995 and is virtually 1:1 with "vampire". And the whole English corpus is different again. If the corpus included newspapers I might explain this by the media obsessing over a non-literary property. There could still be a correlation with other media through tie-ins, since Harold Page states that franchise novels "...have satisfyingly fast turnaround times....Franchise writers can see our work in mere months..." And there are compilations of film reviews and show guides which might also reflect a property's popularity in other media.

FWIW, my memory of the 90s was that, during the first half, Vampire: The Masquerade was phenomenally popular; then, as others have notes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer came along and sucked the life out of the scene.

248:

Ugh. Scratch e-books. The corpus is scanned works.

249:

The immediate effect of this was that marketing managers in all the big publishers told their editors, "find me something just like A Game of Thrones, only BIGGER!!!!11!!!ELEVENTY!!!", because they'd fixated on giant huge word-count as the distinguishing factor of GRRM's epic rather than, say, GRRM being epic.

It's funny, because the Song of Ice and Fire is one of the last survivors from the wave of giant fantasy doorstop series that followed in the wake of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. WOT never hit Harry Potter levels, but it was the biggest thing going in fantasy in the mid 1990s, It sold massive numbers of hardcovers at full price, and lots of authors wanted to be the next Jordan. Most series, including Jordan's and (in my opinion) Martin's, petered off after five books or so because the plots had become too complex. The demands of keeping all the pieces in motion while actually writing an interesting plot and developing characters were too much for, well, anybody really.

250:

Historians aren't sure, but the consequences were severe. There's convincing evidence that Hoover engineered the stock market crash of 1929 (and the resulting depression) for an excuse to get off the gold standard. Gold is a necessary element of draconic mating behavior, and it was needed to breed the robust population of dragons that was considered necessary for an adequate naval defense.

This is clearly CIA propaganda.

As the statistics show, the great Dragon crash occurred in 1926.

Obviously what happened was that the Dragons needed paying off after the horrors of WWI: they simply didn't want to know our species and as such large bribes were needed. Of course, this means gold. Wall Street knew this, and so the great crash of 1929 was a direct response to their fears that in the future the Dragons could not be counted upon to help America, due to payment issues.

FDR solved this with Executive Order 6102, but at great cost: gold was secured, but it paved the way for the Bretton Wood Dragon Accord to be broken by a rogue actor.

Again, America angered the Dragons, and in 1971, Nixon was forced to use the remaining gold in Fort Knox to bribe them once more, so disgusted they were with Vietnam and the illegal culling of their (lesser but still draconic) forest brethren. Added to this, Chinese Dragons were becoming active (c.f. Mercury and Terracotta Armies) and the Dragons were becoming less interested in the affairs of humans.

Fast forward to 2010 and the Germans (and Texas) are asking for their gold back from Fort Knox. What they don't know, of course, is that Fort Knox is empty, due to Dragon bribes.


WAKE UP DEEPLE!

251:

The good example of this is Torpenhow Hill where each of the invaders added their own word for hill to the previous name.

252:

April_D wrote in part:

They were a happy little band of sociopaths-in-training, and when pressed on anything related to the humanities (which, by the way, were UCSC's specialty when it was founded) they would inevitably present a deer-in-the-headlights look before falling back on sniping bluster about how they make things and are the new industry and God shut up with all your WORDS!

Wow. When did you go?

When I was at Berkeley and coming down to UCSC for the parties, it was the computer community throwing the parties.

253:

If I remember correctly, the Y chromosome results cannot differentiate between Anglo-Saxon and Danish. Considering how heavy the percentages are in the Danelaw, it suggests that the Danish replacement may have been more thorough than a lot of other waves. There is not a single region of the British Isles, however, where the original "Spaniards" are not the majority, slim in the Danelaw, 98% in parts of Wales.

254:

Cheddar Man
Like I said ... an awful lot of fucking .....

Well over 9000 years ago & descendants still living in the same area ... as well as lots of other places ....

255:

NOT "just" Y-chromosome results.
Now that X-chromosome testing is also fairly routine, similar results are being obtained.
Um.

256:

Hang on Charlie. You can't say that the publishing industry has to deal with the weirds and wonderfuls, so it can't change; and also say at the same time that you have to use MS Word because that's the standard.

Yep. Upshot: people like the friend I refer to are the reason why big chunks of publishing, even in the age of electronic workflow, still takes place with red ink on lumps of dead tree. (She won't use word, and she's an award-winning high seller, so the lump of grit in the gear results in a persistent squeak that the bean counters aren't allowed to oil.)

Note that from an author's point of view, Amazon treat us (and our products) like cabbages -- interchangeable commodity items of more-or-less uniform quality. This is not a great incentive to work with them. Neither is the small print in their publishing contract. (If a major publisher said in a book contract "we reserve the right to vary any of these terms unilaterally by giving one weeks' notice on a website somewhere" they would be laughed out of court very fast indeed. But it seems the novelty of the internet is considered sufficient justification to permit any number of abusive/illegal business practices to flourish without challenge.)

257:

Trust me, I am fully aware of how hard it is to grapple with multi-volume story arcs involving an army of viewpoint characters.

Merchant Princes/Empire Games series: 9 volumes, ~930,000 words. (It's not cheating to include the written-and-on-their-way-into-print books, right?)

Laundry Files series: 7 volumes plus shorter works to date, ~850,000 words. (Plans call for at least 2 more novels and 2 novellas, ~250,000 words.)

There are a couple of methods for keeping it all moving.

1. Every few books, plant a stick of dynamite under the series -- e.g. the endings of "The Trade of Queens" and "The Rhesus Chart" respectively. The story can go on, but the cast has been pruned back to manageable size and a bunch of sub-plots have been terminated with extreme prejudice.

2. Pull the camera back from tight focus on one character or another to take in the big picture, then zoom in on someone new (this is the trick I'm pulling in "The Annihilation Score", which is told by Mo, not Bob, and in "The Nightmare Stacks", which is seen from Alex's point of view).

3. Reframe the entire shooting match -- reveal a big new context around the previous sandpit that directs the reader to focus on something new. E.g. the Laundry starts out as Bob in Spy-land, but by book 4 it's all about Case Nightmare Green, and by book 8 CNG will be a bit old-hat, so ...

258:

"Harry Potter" -- What made the books so successful was that they appealed to people who weren't used to reading for fun. (Also to other readers, of course.) Which is rather hard to predict.

As for "But their getting published proves the system does work" -- we don't know what books which could have sold as well never got bought. Might be zero, might be thousands.

259:

As for "But their getting published proves the system does work" -- we don't know what books which could have sold as well never got bought. Might be zero, might be thousands.

That's important.

Lots of successful books get lots of rejections before they get published and get successful.

However, just because a book will be successful doesn't make it a good fit for a particular publisher. So authors have a responsibility to carefully choose the best publishers to send their works to.

Madeleine L'Engle claimed her first published book A Wrinkle in Time was rejected at least 26 times (in 3 years!). She threw a Christmas party for her mother and an owner of a publishing company came to the party and told her to see him for a personal interview. He published the book although his company did not publish children's books until hers. This was probably not a "casting couch" situation.

Around 30 years ago I read that the custom was that an author should send his manuscript to just one publisher at a time, and wait for that publisher to reject it before sending it to a second one. It might take a year or two for a publisher to reject it. L'Engle presumably achieved a turnaround of about 3 weeks. If it might take a year to find out you chose the wrong publisher, it makes sense to put almost as much effort into choosing who to approach as you do into writing in the first place.

Meanwhile, publishers have no obligation to publish all the great books that come out. There is a strictly limited market for great stories. If they publish too many of those, none of them will do well.

So I guess if there happens to be a surplus of novels that would do well if they were published, it makes sense that some of them must be unpublishable. Like if farmers grow too many perfect tomatoes, they can't sell them all.

260:

And also Jay@231: *applause!*

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 12, 2015 3:50 PM.

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