Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Night Spotlight - The Wertzone

In exchanging posts through forum boards, I have come to realize that the sf&f community has an encyclopedia - Adam Whitehead. I have seen challengers come and go, but one thing I have yet to see, is someone challenging Adam to the facts of a matter and come out on top. It's Sunday Night Spotlight and we're in The Wertzone.

PW: Recently, wotmania shut down. In previous interviews Pat (Fantasy Hotlist) and Ken (Neth Space) spoke about the “early days.” Can you give those of us in the second generation of sf&f online a summary of wotmania and those early days? What was the attraction that drew so many there?

Adam: Well, I was just a lurker for most of those early days and didn’t start posting there until 2005, although I’d visited on and off since its founding. As the first forum I frequented I remember it being a very optimistic and friendly place at the start. This was before the Wheel of Time series veered heavily off-course with the later books, Steven Erikson and Scott Bakker were still years away from releasing their first books and even George RR Martin only had one Song of Ice and Fire book out. Back in those days (starts smoking pipe) Wheel of Time was widely regarded as the best epic fantasy series out there, despite grumblings over the length even back then with ‘just’ eight books out. There was an awful lot of enthusiasm and energy running around. When the books started going off the rails a bit more, that energy got transferred to the new ‘Other Fantasy’ department, where people like Ken and Larry did an excellent job of promoting other authors and getting people fired up about other books. It was a very interesting and enjoyable community back in those days.

Unfortunately, the attitude of some of the people running Wotmania over on the overall site design/administration side meant that the Other Fantasy section never fulfilled its potential (in particular with regards to getting authors involved in the community), despite sterling work by the mods, and a lot of other websites like Westeros and SFFWorld leapfrogged it. After that we saw Wotmania start to deflate, and a lot of people started posting elsewhere.

PW: Can you relate the origins tale of The Wertzone?

Adam: Although I was not on the Internet regularly prior to 2005, I’d been posting reviews to Amazon for some time prior to that and been writing reviews and articles for my own amusement for some time. After going online and seeing the work people like Pat and Stego (who ran the much-missed ‘I Hope I Didn’t Give Away the Ending’ blog) were doing, the blog seemed like a natural evolution of stuff I’d already been doing for a number of years and getting some feedback on it.

PW: I regularly follow The Wertzone, specifically the reviews on books, games, movies and television series. Can you give your number one, all-time top recommendation for each category?

Adam: That’s a tall order. For TV, if we’re talking non-genre I’d say The Wire. If we’re talking about something SF-related, then Spaced, which is a fantastic and very funny examination of geek culture. More people also need to watch the 1998 vampire mini-series Ultraviolet, which is superb.

In film my favourite SF movies are depressingly obvious choices like
The Empire Strikes Back and Aliens, but among more recent movies I think Danny Boyle’s Sunshine definitely didn’t get the attention it deserves. Best SF imagery and music since Blade Runner.

Computer games are also very difficult. I’m replaying
Far Cry at the moment which has fantastic replayability, whilst for sheer nerve-shredding tension, every SF fan needs to play Freespace 2 at least once. If you put a gun to my head and demanded on answer, it would have to be Planescape: Torment just for its tremendous depth of story and character. Probably the closest computer games have gotten to the status of literature.

As for books, that’s completely impossible but Hamilton’s
Reality Dysfunction, Pratchett’s Small Gods, Christopher Priest’s The Separation and Martin’s Storm of Swords have to be contenders.

PW: What was your greatest personal moment behind the curtains at The Wertzone?

Adam: Probably getting an email out of the blue in early 2007 from Simon Spanton at Gollancz asking me if I wanted some free review copies (after a recommendation from Pat, so many thanks to Pat for that). Up until that point, I hadn’t imagined anyone was paying any attention to the blog. After that it would be going to a publisher’s party and finding a lot of people there actually had read the blog. Finally, the day Neil Gaiman left a comment on the blog was pretty impressive as well.

PW: What is the most comedic tale you have to relate from The Wertzone?

Adam: Getting The Name of the Wind, which I’d given an early positive review to, signed by Pat Rothfuss, and then getting an immense bear-hug. The photo of that from the blog has gone round the houses a few times, I can tell you.

PW: Have you ever been frustrated enough to entertain the temptation to walk away from The Wertzone? What keeps you coming back?

Adam: The frustration usually comes from the cyclical nature of arguments on the Internet. No sooner does one argument die down then it seems to flare up again. The two particularly annoying contenders on that score this year have been the debates on Martin’s handling of A Dance with Dragons and Sanderson writing the final Wheel of Time book(s). There’s only so many times you can read the same ridiculous and ill-informed comments by people too lazy to do a Google or Wikipedia check on the situation before wanting to switch off your computer and never turn it on again.

However, that’s more the Internet in general than the blog in particular. There are months when I haven’t got much to say, when I’m reading a lot less and am pursuing things not related to the blog, and then there are months where there’s lots going on, lots of books to read and lots of exciting news to relate. So the number of entries per month might dip up and down, but I’ve never been tempted to ditch the whole thing altogether. In general what keeps me coming back is people’s enthusiasm and passion for the genre.

PW: I’ve seen you around in other online locales (e.g. sffworld and westeros). What trends do you see going forward for the online sf&f community?

Adam: E-books are clearly going to become a bigger and bigger part of people’s reading patterns, with perhaps disastrous consequences for bricks-and-mortar bookstores. That’s going to be a major issue a few years down the road. For the community itself, I think we’re going to see increased fragmentation. SF&F is no longer an isolated, ‘niche’ pursuit and with more and more books being sold in their millions, I think we’re going to see the epic fantasy, hard SF, space opera, steampunk, magic realist, New Weird, urban fantasy, alt-history, paranormal horror, young adult and other subgenres start to pull away from one another much as SF&F has already done from the mainstream. We’re already seeing that on some blogs and review sites where people seem to only be interested in one type of books and nothing else, which I think is a crying shame.

PW: How about the sf&f blogosphere? What trends or patterns do you see developing out there?

Adam: The blogosphere is already starting to fragment in the manner I cited above, which is, to my mind, not a healthy development. Having blogs that review nothing but say, urban fantasy is limiting your appeal, especially a few years down the line when something else comes along and urban fantasy suddenly drops out of favour. I think embracing a wider range of books from the start is a better way to go.

Another worrying trend, one that’s been brought up several times recently, is the number of blogs (particularly newer ones) which you fire up and are immediately greeted by a monolithic block of competitions (or announcements of winners from other competitions), with the actual content buried deep under a wall of marketing. I’m not a fan of that at all. I also strongly believe that if you are offering a competition to win a product, then you are endorsing that product, which in the recent case of the number of blogs offering copies of the
Winds of Dune book (although the bloggers cheerfully admit to loathing the new Dune cash-in books) seems to be hypocritical.

PW: Regarding games, do you forsee any future installments to the Dark Forces or Knights of the Old Republic Star Wars franchises?

Adam: LucasArts are under new management and seem to have a long-term strategy for a return to the game genres that made them great in the first place. They’ve already strongly hinted that they will be looking at a return to the adventure genre – although the lower development costs involved in adventure gaming versus say a 3D action game I suspect are more of an attraction there – and I suspect it won’t be long before they start looking at new shooters in the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight vein. I suspect that any new games in that vein will be a new franchise using a new name and probably not involve the characters from that series, but you never know.

PW: If you will, please give your boldest prediction for sf&f for 2010.

Adam: Depending on how everything falls out, 2010-11 will be the big years for A Song of Ice and Fire. A new book in the series, a new Dunk ‘n’ Egg prequel novella and, towards the end of that period, the new companion book and of course the TV series (which I suspect will debut in early 2011) will take the book series to a new level of popularity and success. Based on what I’ve read so far (the four preview chapters and a number of sample chapters read out at conventions), A Dance with Dragons looks like being a substantially better book than the previous one in the series, and I think will win back some wavering readers.

My other, considerably less bold, predictions are that fans are going to be extremely divided by both Steven Erikson’s
The Crippled God, the long-awaited conclusion to his Malazan series, and by Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm and its successor, which will be out in late 2010. The deep divisions in the fan community we’ve already seen forming over a single sample chapter I suspect will be further increased by the books themselves, and an awful lot of genre internet chatter is going to be about that subject in the coming year.

All thanks to The Wertzone's creator, Adam Whitehead for stopping by and being interviewed. I promise that I'm still reading James Barclay's Nightchild, although at a much slower than usual pace. There will be a review........eventually.


Ty said...

Nice interviw, I think Wert is right on the year of Martin. I would assume he would release the next installment along with the new HBO series.

Alec said...

That was a fun read.

Adam, I was hoping you could expand on your point about the mountains of marketing. Is it that you don't like blogs that do giveaways/contests, or simply the fact that they focus too much on them? I am incredibly tired with the Monday's this and Tuesday's that setup--were you referring to that trend as well or is that a different issue?


Adam Whitehead said...

One of the criticisms of blogs is that they can descend into being adjuncts of the publisher's book marketing department if you are not careful. Magazines have had the same criticism for years as well. Some critics out there have even said that just using ARCs 'compromises' the integrity of blogs, although I wouldn't go that far.

So I think competitions are fine in moderation and it's also better if the competitions are tied in with other content, such as reviews or features. I've also long thought it's weird when blogs and magazines do competitions for a book/computer game/DVD or whatever, and then review that same product and saying it's crap. SFX Magazine, for example, has a long and honourable history of doing competitions for certain products and then, sometimes in the same issue, slagging it off. It's very silly to say, "Hey, win this piece of crap!" to your readers (Ken wins points for doing this quite openly with the recent DUNE competition situation).

What's interesting is that competitions actually don't benefit us (the bloggers) at all. They may generate some more hits, but if Pat can't monetize the Hotlist with its far higher hit-rate than mine, then that doesn't really mean anything.

Mark Chitty said...

I think you have an excellent point Adam - competitions are all well and good if they're in conjunction with a review/interview, but in my eyes constant competitions can devalue a blog. Your blog is one of the best review blogs out there simply because of the range it covers and the quality of the posts. Despite the higher hit count of other blogs, they can't match you for consistency.

Peter - great interviews, looking forward to see some more in the future!

Neth said...

Wind Bags of Dune was just such an obvious pun to use I couldn't turn down the giveaway.

Another great interview (and much more interesting than mine). Thanks for the shoutout as well.

Jebus said...

I'm a big fan of The Wertzone and Adam's reviewing methodologies.

I agree about the stupid debates that sometimes "rage" across the Interwebs. I know I've dropped a few stupid comments here and there about GRRM taking so long on ADWD but when someone blogs about it with such biased vitriol (I'm thinking of that atrocious attack by Shawn Speakman a while back) it is just so silly. 2010/2011 will see GRRM rise above his critics and we'll all no doubt be drooling over the books and series (if it gets picked up).

SF&F fans can be so utterly precious about things entirely out of their control sometimes that I'm amazed they have the intelligence to consume some of the great works out there. I'm also a big believer that if you've only read recent SF&F then you're missing out of tons of great literature.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree about competitions taking over the blogs - not just the integrity, but that they water down the content too much. Though I love Pat's blog, you have to scroll down through endless comp. announcements and results that nobody really cares about - not to mention the enormous preview chapters pasted in full.

I like your blog's nice simple layout with the reviews down the side, and good meaty content.

One thing I would personally like to see more of is actual discussions of books, rather than spoiler-free reviews - kind of like what Yahtzee does for video games. I tend to want to research my books after I read them more than before. Maybe a spoiler-free review followed by more in-depth analysis(clearly linked and labelled) would be the way to go.

- Jon

PeterWilliam said...

@Jon - I've been thinking more and more about it. I'm considering changing the layout of the posts so that I can get detail specific, but in the portion of the post below the fold (i.e. the default post cut-off) so people actually have to click to read the rest and then, Reader Beware.

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