Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 October 2020
EM Foner Union Station Series & Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)
EM Foner Union Station does not fit my normal Classic SciFi inclination. As you would know from my Classic SciFi series, ten to date, I am a fan of old-fashioned classic science fiction and also would like to remind or introduce people to some of the best books.
My series of Classic SciFi is 1. James Blish A Case of Conscience, 2. Daniel F Galouye Dark Universe, 3. Avram Davidson Rork! 4-7 William Gibson Trilogy 4. Neuromancer, 5. Prophecy, 6. Count Zero, 7. Mona Lisa Overdrive, 8 Ursula K. Le Guin The Word for World Is Forest, 9 Isaac Asimov I, Robot & Killer Robots, 10 Arkady & Boris Strugatsky Roadside Picnic. There are many more to get around to.
In the articles I try to do slightly more than a conventional book review by providing a deeper background and some analysis.
Roy Lewis The Evolution Man is also labelled by Penguin as Science Fiction. I would label it more as humour and not what I call Classic SciFi; though I’d highly recommend it as a must read.
My preferred science fiction and use of the word classic are those books from the 1940s on that try to advance novel ideas and a theme that is plausible and pays lip service to scientific rigour whether from hard science or the social sciences and psychology.
Nevertheless, there are other genres and I have read works from many of them, including the occasional fantasy novel.
My liking of and slight addiction to EM Foner’s Union Station Series does not fit this model. It is unusual for me. Akin perhaps to an otherwise intelligent reader’s attraction to Mills & Boon or Westerns but this does not do justice to EM Foner. The categorisation with Mills & Boon and Westerns is also important. The story or the clothing of each type of writing falls within similar forms of ritualised convention. In EM Foner’s case this is quite clever, if somewhat unusual. The Union Station books are funny and subversively intelligent but quirky.
Union Station Series
There are 18 Union Station books to date published over the last six years. They are all of similar quality and their ratings average over 4 on Goodreads, which as a reader tends to be my preliminary criterion of excellence these days. When browsing books on secondhand shelves anything over 3.75 tends to be a reliable guide to my giving new authors a go.
I’ll cover the individual books in another article.
There are many so-called genres and sub-genres in science fiction. Though some books have to be shoe-horned uneasily into many of them. Examples are alien invasion, anthropological, social, cyberpunk, steampunk, space opera etc.
The Union Station Series doesn’t fit readily into any of them, as is made clear in the two interviews with EM Foner I’ve found (also dealt with in another article).
Kelly Frank is EarthCent’s ambassador on Union Station. A large portion of the universe is controlled by the Stryx — a race of AIs created millions of years ago by the Makers. They have a tunnel network of efficient transport through space. At each node is a huge artificial station hosting a hundred million or more individuals. There is a vast array of alien species, some with similar atmospheres to humans and others with toxic atmospheres, on each Stryx station and many other species that are beyond Stryx space. Most of these species have had faster than light travel for millions of years.
Within Stryx space, the Stryx run things. They have a tight business model and strict rules about conflict and behaviour in other species. The Stryx are akin to a benign dictatorship, with a hands-off approach, up to a point.
Outside of Stryx space is free for all and can be dangerous.
The Stryx contacted Earth ahead of economic collapse and of a potential invasion by at least one other humanoid client species — the Vergallians. The Stryx seem to have a soft spot for humans and are helping them as a backward species that has not developed space travel on its own. Humanity is on probation. This leads to some jealousies with other species, but the Stryx at least pretend to remain objective and even-handed.
On Earth, governments around the world have become irrelevant as have many professions. Humans quickly left the planet to hire themselves out as contract labour off-world. The Stryx set up EarthCent, a small underfunded agency on Earth, as the only human authority recognised. The Stryx select the employees and those for the diplomatic corps, by a seemingly random process that only they understand.
Most of the action occurs on Union Station itself amongst a small group of humans in the circle of Kelly Frank. There is an occasional visit to a planet or other place.
The stories or plot lines of the Union Station Series do actually deserve the term space opera (even though they are unlike space operas in the SciFi genre). The plots are always slightly ludicrous, as in mainstream opera.
The descriptions of the alien species necessary for the humans to interact with seem to leave something to be desired. This is not unusual in SciFi as it seems enormously difficult for us to imagine an alien species and to describe alien motivation. We have an almost innate human ability to anthropmorphise — attribute human characteristics, behaviour, emotions to things not human.
EM Foner disagrees with me on his description of his aliens. He certainly introduces their characteristics slowly and isn’t repetitive. My problem is that I can’t think of any science fiction that does sentient aliens well. Roadside Picnic is an exception, but as Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s aliens are as unknowable to us as we are to ants this is not saying much. (I expand my views on science fiction aliens in the Roadside Picnic article.)
I have no trouble suspending my belief with EM Foner’s aliens and I appreciate their role in his oeuvre.
Only certain Stryx ( in particular Jeeves and Libby) and Dring, the maker and the Farling Doctor, M793qK, develop beyond cameos. Although, one does become fond of other alien characters, they still don’t seem quite real. Nevertheless, the characteristics of the species are important as a mirror for humanity.
As well as the humour, satire and goodwill, there are sometimes quite intelligent observations of humans and human behaviour buried within, but this never detracts from the romp.
Each book starts with the last paragraph of Kelly’s Friday Report to EarthCent as dictated to Libby the Stryx Librarian.
What Readers Say
I’ve used Amazon (about EM Foner) rather than Goodreads, because these are general comments, whereas the Goodreads reviewers cover specific books.
What Amazon readers have said about the Union Station Series:
They have always left me somehow feeling better no matter what is going on in my life. The story is interesting but the characters are the real stars. Fae, Australia
The Union station books are my go-to sanctuary when life gets me down. The stories are all interesting and fast paced and … feel good. It is very cleansing to read about these very real seeming, normally flawed, people who have a great time while treating each other with decency and respect. Maddy, US
What I like about E.M. Foner’s writing is that he writes straightforward dialogue that includes a humorous undertone, with world-building layered in technical complexity – showing he has put a great deal of thought into the changes technology will bring to future society. The writing doesn’t shout these futuristic insights to brag how smart the author is, but these predictions are quietly woven into the story as basic background. Dianna, US
Each book is a self-contained story so there are no cliff-hangers. My main interest in the EarthCent universe, aside from the relations between people, aliens and AI, is imagining what happens with species who have had access to high-tech for, in some cases, tens of millions of years. Do they continue to work? Do they continue to care? Do they die out, go back to nature, try to elevate themselves to gods? How do the nearly omniscient AI deal with issues like monetary policy and rental agreements? (Name not given)
About EM Foner
EM Foner is an engineer from Massachusetts with a master’s degree. He worked as an engineer for three years before his postgraduate degree and in computers for a couple of years after. He earned his living for many years, however, writing technical how-to books about computers, which also gave him an inside view of the publishing industry. But, he says, around 2010 YouTube replaced the how-to industry for anyone under 50. His business began to decline and he began writing fiction as an escape from the rat race and to try to please himself by writing. This usually isn’t enough to succeed for most people, but EM Foner was one of those rare people who do succeed in this.
He admits to various mistakes in his career of the type that many of us have experienced, and to a minor mistake with his first book Date Night on Union Station in the cover and the title, because it sent the wrong message to a potential readership.
The universe of the Union Station series is set in had a gestation of many years, but the book series developed quickly. EM Foner mentions making many mistakes in the development of his career, including a minor mistake with his first book Date Night on Union Station in the cover and the title, because it sent the wrong message to a potential readership. But, with the Union Station Series his timing in the eBook market around 2015 was good. Although he says 2010 would have been better.
Certainly, Amazon’s KDP model was taking off about 2010 and some authors with previous experience took maximum advantage. However, to be ready to power ahead in 2010 probably meant some previous pain in conventional publishing and frustration with previously inadequate tools and ePublishing models. The period from 2010 to 2015 gave some KDP authors an early mover advantage but, as with EM Foner, gaining a readership isn’t easy. Ian W Sainsbury quoted below says: the readers decide whether the books are any good or not.
I asked EM Foner about his intense work ethic publishing a book every three months for six years. He said:
I’m super slow by Kindle Standards. Some of the big names on Kindle write a book in ten days, and a month per book is considered a bit slow.
About the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) Phenomenon
I’m a bit of an anachronism, I know this, but I fit well into EM Foner’s readership. He says: the majority of my readers were born before 1960.
I’ve also made mistakes of timing throughout my career. What EM Foner says of my blog is quite true. I’d have a much higher readership, if I’d begun it around 2000 rather than 2015. EM Foner said:
It’s been years since I’ve seen a blog with the kind of effort you put in. Back in the 2000’s, the Internet was full of interesting, personal sites, whether blogs or otherwise, but around 2010 Google changed their algo to direct traffic to commercial sites, and since then, the individual part of the Internet has really atrophied.
He’s right. But, life does this to us and I don’t care that much. If I’d wanted a much higher readership and a commercial blog: 1 I’d have limited the range of my interests, 2 written much shorter articles and 3 concentrated on marketing.
I would never have discovered EM Foner and the Union Station Series, except that I came across a rare collection of Union Station paperbacks (nearly all of EM Foner’s income comes from eBooks) in my favourite secondhand bookstore Canty’s, mentioned many times before. I bought the first three to give them a try and rushed back to buy the next eleven quickly. Of the remainder, EM Foner says that number 16 is a really good one and that I should purchase all three. I don’t have the right device but I will eventually.
I bought a Kindle way back and have used it ever since as a library for free eBooks and for travel. But, because of a run in with Amazon and an endless loop of phone calls, my Kindle won’t connect to the Internet. I prefer to read hard copy books, except when travelling or trekking. I’m also not a fan of Jeff Bezos or his business model. Nevertheless, I grit my teeth and buy things from Amazon occasionally. Hard not to!
Excuse the digression. Although aware of eBooks, without EM Foner I would not have been aware of the KDP revolution. If you know anything of the traditional publishing industry, apart from the rare best seller, the royalties aren’t great and you lose complete control of the process.
Amazon beta tested Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) in 2007 but the service took off slowly over the next few years. Amazon offers an easy path to self-publishing on the Internet and also offers 70% royalties to the publisher under certain conditions (within a certain price and length).
The royalties and conditions are excellent for those with decent book sales and though there is a fair amount of whinging on the Internet, the earning potential for popular authors is much more than in conventional publishing.
The model reminds me off Apple’s or Steve Jobs’ stealing of the music industry, and long term may create an enormous monopoly for Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Time will tell.
As EM Foner says:
For most indy authors, they [Amazon] are the only game in town, so what we think about their business model is irrelevant.
Two other popular authors I emailed about KDP concur:
Ian W Sainsbury says:
There’s good and bad, of course, but without it, I wouldn’t have this career. Whatever happens with indy publishing in future, and I’m sure the landscape will continue to change, we now have a way to get our stories to readers directly, allowing our work to be judged alongside traditionally published novels.
Andrew Mayne says:
I think the KDP model leverages the playing field for indie authors.
He is a fan of Kindle Unlimited (Amazon Prime) where readers borrow books and pay a flat monthly fee, while authors are paid per page read. Payment to authors is quick. Although the author is tied to Amazon by signing up with Kindle Unlimited. Mayne also thinks that if you have a best seller that sales of earlier books go up as well (more so than with traditionally published books).
I think Amazon has stolen the market here by being very attractive to authors. No one else has followed suit.
Andrew Mayne who has been frustrated over years by bad tools and business models says:
…every other attempt, even by big players like Apple and Google never put the focus and resources into helping authors like Amazon has.
EM Foner also says in an interview with KC Sivils about his own reading:
The Victorians had a way of writing about regular people in trying circumstances, usually poverty, which is more meaningful to me than the plot drivers of most modern literature. Despite the fact that my space opera includes faster-than-light drive and other demands on the suspension-of-disbelief to make it work, I try to keep the core focus on the things that make people get up in the morning and allow them to sleep at night.
EM Foner’s liking of the Victorians is pertinent for another aspect to Victorian literature the serialisation of novels in magazines. Although this occurred earlier, it surged in popularity massively during the Victorian era.
One aspect meant that Victorian authors, such as Dickens, were compelled to complete chapters under magazine deadlines and to break the novel into an instalment structure as part of the creative process. There was also no distinction in this period between literature and commercial fiction.
Some writers were unusually prolific, such as Alexandre Dumas, and many were masters of the serialisation genre. To my mind 19th century literature didn’t suffer.
Similarly, the eBook phenomenon and self-publishing by KDP or similar models may develop equally to be an innovative revolution.
Although I’m not a fan of Amazon or Jeff Bezos, Amazon KDP is an innovation that puts indy, Kindle or eBook authors in the driver’s seat for the first time. (Note that Amazon is also sneakily making Kindle a generic term for eBooks.) Amazon KDP makes it extremely easy for writers/authors to publish their work and to profit from it, if they are successful. Certainly, Amazon makes at least 30% per transaction. But for writers who had to pursue agents and publishers under the previous hard copy publishing system, with endless rejections and mostly pitiful royalties, no wonder KDP is a breath of fresh air. Like the music industry, perhaps even more so, it was terribly difficult for aspiring artists to break in.
The new industry is only starting but many authors have benefitted over the past ten years or so. 70% royalties are extraordinary if you become popular and allow middle selling authors to earn a living that was impossible beforehand.
This is a massive breakthrough and one must applaud Amazon for starting it.
I’ve only given you a taste of EM Foner and the Unions Station Series. In future articles, I intend to provide a detailed interview with EM Foner and a much more detailed coverage of the characters and plots to be found in the 18 books of the series, with further analysis and appreciation.
I’ve opened a dialogue with EM Foner by email which may or may not be a good thing. We differ in our viewpoints over some issues, not surprisingly. This may add some dynamic tension to the articles, perhaps. Perhaps not!
Key Words: EM Foner, Union Station, series, science fiction, genre, alien, Kelly Frank, Stryx, Jeeves, Libby, Dring, Farling Doctor, Andrew Mayne, Ian W Sainsbury, Victorian literature, KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing, eBook, Amazon, Jeff Bezos
EM Foner Overview
EM Foner describes his work on Goodreads
Readers comments taken from About EM Foner on Amazon
Interviews with EM Foner, 2017
The two interviews by Kathy Bryson in Teleport Magazine and by KC Sivils are good and worth reading. I’ll be using quotes from them in later articles and also interviewing EM Foner myself. How this will be presented is a work in progress.
Popular KDP Authors
I sent an email out to several KDP best selling authors. I received immediate replies from Andrew Mayne and Ian W Sainsbury quoted above and no others. This was helpful and I include their author pages with many thanks.
KDP — Kindle Direct Publishing
Wikipedia on KDP — Kindle Direct Publishing
Author Imprints 2020 Guide on Amazon’s KDP fees and royalties
This is the first time I’ve put Canty’s Bookshop Homepage in my articles though I’ve mentioned it plenty of times. I suspect that the website may be new and have something to do with the coronavirus lock down in canberra, but I’ll have to confirm this.
Steve Knopper Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age 2009. The book documents the spectacular rise and fall of the music industry over three decades. The industry focused its outrage on Napster, while Apple covertly took over its profits with barely a whimper. See Goodreads for more information. Amazon’s KDP could be a similar model to iTunes and the music store.
Posted in Canberra