Sunday, January 19, 2014

What I Think About When I Think About "Into The Out Of" by Alan Dean Foster (Briane Pagel)

When I was about 17 I first read the book "Into The Out Of," an Alan Dean Foster novel typically filed under fantasy but probably more better classified as horror.  This year, when I was 45, I re-read it -- and I re-read it in book form, rather than ebook, but this was not out of some sort of misguided nostalgia for books or any claims that the 'tactile response' from books helps enhance learning; I am not a Luddite so afraid of the future that I cling to the past like Rose to Jack's icy hands.

No, I read this book

 as a book because I wanted to re-read it and I didn't want to pay the $7.69 it would cost me to do that on my Kindle. Which is something I have complained about before but it bears complaining about again: WHY do e-books cost so much? I know the technical costs of putting an ebook onto the Kindle, and those technical costs are these: Pay a typist approximately $10 per hour to type the book and format it.  For a typical book, this would cost $80.

That is the cost of your ebook, in its simplest form.  There is no shipping costs, no infrastructure costs, no nothing. Ebooks cost $80 to produce.  Even accounting for higher wages in New York (why would your typist have to be in New York?) an Ebook costs $100.

Some say that you have to factor in an advance and advertising costs that the book has to make back to make money, and to those people, I say HA! This book was published in 1986 as a hardcover and a softcover, and that advance was paid out YEARS AND YEARS ago and likely has been made back.  It's not fair to assume that the publisher would only convert to ebooks those books that made money -- after all, the cost of conversion is a hundred bucks -- but let's assume that the ones that are profitable are going first, so the cost to the publisher of putting Into The Out Of on Kindle is a hundred bucks, because all the advertising was done years ago and is a sunk cost, and furthermore, Into The Out Of made it onto Kindle back in 2010, and I don't exactly recall an advertising blitz for the book, do you?

At $7.69, publishers are simply ripping us off -- and what's more, ebooks allow them to continue to do so because most books in real format eventually get marked down or go in the remainder bin or go on sale for $1 at my library where they buy seventeen jillion best sellers to have a bunch available to borrow at first but then are stuck with seventeen jillion books nobody wants, so this is the one downside of the ebook revolution, which I otherwise wholeheartedly endorse: It is making books more expensive, in the long run.

That's what I was thinking when I went looking last weekend for a used copy of Into The Out Of and couldn't find one, either: I was thinking that I never get to buy used books anymore, which doesn't sound so bad except that I never minded the books being used, and I liked the much-cheaper price.  I always have to pay full price for books now, which, again, wouldn't be so bad if it didn't feel like getting ripped off.

The average price for an ebook is about $7.77 according to this website, Best-sellers average a bit more, at $8.37.  The average price for a hardcover book, meanwhile, ranges from $20 (best-seller) to $11 (trade paperback) to a whopping $27 for YA fiction.  (The New York Times said it was $26 in 2009, in this article in which the Times pointed out that publishers make an average of $4.56-$5.54 off an ebook priced at $12.99, while making only $4.05 off a $26 hardcover 'real' book.)  Ebooks now make up about 30% of all book sales, which means that publishers' profits have been rising for several years (that Times article ran in 2009 and said ebook sales were 3-5% of all book sales.)

This has gone on longer than I expected, but it is, after all, something that I thought about when I thought about Into The Out Of, and it is simply impossible to get away from such thoughts if you are stuck balancing an unwieldy old hardcover library copy of a book because you couldn't find it used and you weren't going to pay $7 for a book you'd already read and just wanted to read out of nostalgia.  The upshot of it all is that for now, ereaders like me are subsidizing all the Ralph Waldo Emersonites out there who prattle on about how great it is to read real books: I am having to pay higher prices (even after the Justice Department finally stopped the price-fixing, which had already done the damage because Amazon now routinely charges more than $9.99 for a book) to support your love of unwieldy tree-killing monstrosities, 90% of which end up being landfill.

Your beloved childhood memories = someone else's warning not to drink the water in their house.
Your move, Stephen King.

Thanks for that, 'traditionalists'.



The story, which is quite good, involves an invasion of evil African spirits called shetani, who come from something called the "Out Of," so-called because everything comes out of there and into our world.  Clever.  These shetani are trouble-making demons that are poised to come through in huge numbers and set off a nuclear war (this was the 1980s, after all) unless the hole in the Out Of could be sealed up by a Maasai laibon (wise man), with the help of two foreigners, an FBI agent and an Eddie Bauer third-shift phone operator (seriously) and a late addition, a Maasai warrior who shows up late in the book to periodically save the day by being tall.

That is the setup, and they go through the usual adventures getting from Washington DC to the African plains or whatever, until there are four of them just outside where the Out Of can be entered and they are sitting and talking the night before they go invade (the mission is time-sensitive but that does not stop them from taking their sweet time getting to this hole, including a night at a swanky resort where they drink beer and watch the sunset and get in a fight with Italian workers).

So that is the setup: An old man with mystical powers, an FBI agent, a pretty woman he has a crush on, and a Maasai warrior who only just joined the party, are going into another dimension to stop the aliens.  This being a book and books being stories and stories having endings we expect, you know that they are going to stop the aliens, right, and you know that the FBI agent and the clerk are going to hit it off and fall in love, right?

Or, to put it the way I put it to Sweetie when we were discussing this: At the end of Star Wars, you didn't seriously think that Luke Skywalker was going to die, did you? You knew he'd blow up the Death Star and survive, you just didn't know how.

Masters of storytelling like George Lucas NEVER screw with an audience's expectations.

THAT is the secret to good writing, there: You KNOW Luke's going to win, but good writers make it suspenseful as to how he does it.  (WOW, I did an Andrew Leon-like segue into a writing tip, there, didn't I? I like being Andrew: WATCH YOUR GRAMMAR, FOOLS!  Whew. Better take a break.)  So when Han shoots the TIE fighter out and Luke hits the torpedo button, it's surprising.  The route to the ending is where a good writer surprises you.

BAD writing uses tricks to surprise you and this is where we get back to what I was thinking about when I thought about Into The Out Of: In that little talk the night before they go into the Out Of, the old man (Olkeloki) tells the FBI agent (Josh) that "By the readings I have been doing at least two will die as we try to enter the Out Of, and many more if we fail."

Josh asks him "which two?" But Olkeloki doesn't know, and they talk of other things and it is all very sad and noble, etc etc etc

And then they go into the Out Of and battle biker demons and Nazi ghosts and shetani and lions and cold fire etc etc etc and they come back out and they are ALL ALIVE and Josh and Merry (the clerk) get married right there on a dry riverbed.  (And I WON'T say SPOILER ALERT! because they always all were going to live that's how stories work.)

So what about the whole at least two will die thing?

Did Foster totally cheat to ramp up the suspense in the final chapter? YES.  And he cheats his way out of it, too.  A reasonable reader of this book would assume that Olkeloki, Josh, and Merry are going to live; they maybe assume that the warrior will die, as the designated late-joining redshirt.  Upon being told that at least two will die, a reader's expectations still shift: Josh and Merry are the stars, so you figure they will live, so Olkeloki's going to die, right, and look down on them from the clouds or something? Or maybe Josh or Merry dies but one of the others sacrifices his life and they come back.  Or maybe a real twist and one of the main characters DOES die, that would be surprising, too.

ALL OF THOSE might have been okay, especially given the warning/foreshadowing, but then Foster goes and does this:

Just before getting into the Out Of, the group's car gets stuck, and they are going to have to walk to the Out Of but another car -- a Subaru (the use of name-brands throughout the book made it feel like there was product placement going on, which I am okay with except that ads usually lower the price: you know, if books came with ads, they would be free and that is something I have long worked towards, once allowing people to advertise in my books. I LOVE advertising.)

So much so that my kids have already appeared in
MANY ads on Japanese TV.

 -- comes along and offers to help them, but they turn out to be poachers, who try to kill them, so Josh et al have to run from the poachers and are saved from them by the appearance of a massive shetani who eats the poachers and then chases them down and they escape by getting into the Out Of (which Foster explains by saying that the shetani maybe didn't want to come back into the Out Of?) and then they end up winning, and THAT is how all four live but Olkeloki's prophecy comes true, which is totally cheating, if you ask me.

I understand that Foster is playing off misdirection.  The reader is meant to assume that the prophecy of at least two dying applies to the group, rather than two random poachers.  But it's misdirection that serves only to emphasize the author's fear that he won't be able to hold your suspense if you don't think that something bad is going to happen, and it was totally unnecessary -- and made me feel cheapened by the outcome, because at first, I honestly just thought "Wait, weren't two of them supposed to die?" before remembering "Oh, yeah, the poachers, well, I guess."

The effect was to ramp up the suspense falsely and then undermine the ending unavoidably; it felt cheap and interfered with my enjoyment of the story as a whole, which otherwise was considerable: the story is one of those detail-rich books that manages to span the entire world and includes enough about the characters' lives to make you understand and empathize with them, but the beginning chapters which provide lots of that detail are never boring, and the book itself reads quickly.

The only other thing to comment on is Foster's occasional use of unfortunate similes, something I've started noticing more and more not just in his writing but in all writing.   Everyone harps on adverbs (he said, snarkily) but nobody seems to talk about overuse of simile, which to me is just as clumsy as overuse of adverbs.  Using too many similes can be like a cake designer adding on too many frosting roses, transforming an elegantly spare cake into a monstrosity festooned with overly-large, overly-sweet drooping decorations.


Worse than just similes or metaphors is when the simile is not only unnecessary, but also doesn't work at all.  Here is the one that so bothered me that I wrote it down, to save it for later and make fun of it:

Off in the distance, the thin white spear of the Washington monument stood out against the stark blue summer sky like a cloud that had been turned on its end and rooted in the earth.

SO MUCH UNNECESSARY.  I am not pretending to be an expert, here; it's easier to make fun of someone trying than to do it yourself, so feel free to find my own terrible comparisons, but let's parse that off:

First, describing the Washington monument as a thin white spear is only necessary for those who have never seen, in person or in picture, the Washington monument, and describing it as a spear is perilously close to having a metaphor pile into a simile like a car crashing into a train. (I know, I know, I just couldn't resist.)

As for the stark blue of the summer sky? WHY?

Stark can mean complete, sheer, bare, or Tony:

Iron Man 3, on Blu-Ray now! *cashes endorsement check*

I suppose Foster meant sheer, or perhaps that there were no other clouds in the sky?  Sheer and stark are tradeoffs, although stark sounds more dire, as if the sky is perilously blue (to keep on with my adverbiage.)

But my biggest gripe is the way he turns the Washington Monument -- a literally-rock-solid tower -- into a cloud "turned on its end".  Clouds have ends? Is the Washington Monument puffy and round and rolling, the way clouds are? Have you EVER seen a cloud that had sharply-defined, dare I say spearlike, qualities to it? The image changes from the Monument itself to some sort of geyser-esque tree thing.  A cloud rooted in the ground would also have to be confined to an obelisk shape and firmed up before it even remotely resembled the Washington Monument.

That unfortunate simile stuck with me throughout the entire book, and every other time Foster came up with a simile or metaphor I recalled the Rooted Cloud Monument and snickered a bit, which is probably not the effect he was hoping for.

If it sounds like I am disappointed in the book, I suppose I am, a bit; I recalled reading it as a teen and loving it, and the story more or less stuck with me for nearly 30 years; re-reading it now was probably a bad idea, as now I'm older and more sophisticated (?) and more apt to notice things like the cheating prophecy and the terrible similes and all.  It's still a solid book, and easily worth the $7-8 you'd pay for on an ereader, and don't complain that I've ruined the ending because if I'd simply told you the barebones plot of the book you'd have (correctly) guessed the ending anyway: books like Into The Out Of, mass-market fantasy/horror/thriller books, do not play with readers' expectations in the way that would allow anything but that ending.  Books like that give you a good story but the originality is in the details, not the plotline.

Briane Pagel is the author of several novels, and therefore is completely qualified to render opinions about anything that was ever written down by anybody anywhere.  He's got some ideas about improving the Declaration of Independence, too.

Read some of his short stories on lit, a place for stories, or check out his books, in each of which at least two major characters die per sentence, on Amazon.


  1. See, now, there are a few things I'd bring up.

    1) Oops - I've done it again. I've posted right after you. It wasn't on purpose, I do schedule these things in advance... but if I'd known you wanted to post something I would have moved mine until much later. They are all labeled with 'weekend filler' for a reason. It's not like I actually put tons of work into these. I just did several last week because I figured no one wants to post on the weekend because traffic it so low... but I also didn't want to have nothing up. I like the idea of things going up all the time so folks might get in the habit of checking back frequently. Er, that's the hope anyway.
    2) And ebook pricing is a major scam. I read something interesting recently about perceived value and all that, and how the .99 novel is telling the would-be reader that your work is crap, but $7.69 for an 30 year old ebook is impressively ballsy. The thing I've hated the most are these posts I've come across where the powers that be try to justify their crazy prices with all these bizarre, and untrue, arguments about how they'd be losing money no matter how much they charged, because the amount of work going into a ebook is infinite, but they can't charge infinity for an ebook... yet. But they should, because, that's the work.
    3) Similes are overused sometimes too. I think it's a more advanced kind of error though. You know, the kind of error that you'd find in an algebra class, but you won't see in basic arithmetic. And I'd imagine most of that adverb advice is thrown out for beginning writers then it's like telling a calculus user (You, in this case) to remember to carry your 1. But I enjoy reading a bad metaphor almost as much as I do a good one. I probably overuse them too, but I'm also reading a book that was on a few best of 2013 lists and I've noticed this author's overuse of simile and metaphor is dizzying. I mean, it's like every paragraph is 2/3rds metaphor and 1/3 actual story related thing. I am enjoying it though.
    4) Alan Dean Foster - I read a Star Trek book or two that he wrote, I remember liking them, but can't swear that I recall what he wrote. But to bring this back around to the pricing thing again, I did find some old ST books that I'd read 25 years ago that I loved at the time for something like .10 at my local used bookstore. I repurchased them all. It was glorious.
    5) Sorry again for the posting on top of you thing. Seriously.

  2. They cheated like that in an American Dad episode once where 100 people die but like 99 of them are in a bus crash and of course no one in the main cast died. Kind of chintzy to do that if you ask me. But then I do something like that in the last Scarlet Knight maybe it's not such a bad thing.

  3. There's a new(ish) book that I want and the Kindle edition is $17. $17! What the holy heck? So I'm going to pay $14 for the paperback, because WHAT THE HOLY HECK? $17 for an ebook of a midlist fantasy author?

    I used to read a lot of Foster. It all started with Splinter of a Mind's Eye, my first EU Star Wars book (not that it was called EU back then). He also ghost wrote the novelization of Star Wars (I'm pretty sure that's right, anyway). He was one of the authors I followed when I was a teen, especially his Pip and Flinx books. I never read the one you're talking about here, though.
    And, at this point, I'm scared to go back and read any of the stuff I liked when I was a teen, because I always come away from it disappointed.

    I agree with you about the simile stuff. I actually talked about an author's over use of simile in a review a while back. When the thing being used becomes distracting to the reader... well... It was distracting. And blatant. All of this stuff is like salt; if you use too much, it ruins your work.

    And, man, now you're Andrew Leon, and I really don't know who I am!

  4. I was I think only CHANNELING you.

    $17 for an ebook? That's highway robbery. Especially when the paperback is cheaper. It's almost as if publishers are trying to prop up paper books because paper books require a bookstore system that would then keep publishing as we know it essentially the same and...

    Wait a minute.

  5. That's conspiracy theory talk, you know.
    Hey, wait a minute...