I'm Starved For You (Positron), by Margaret Atwood. Published by Byliner. $2.99. Available for Kindle, Nook, iPad, and others.
Reviewed by Veronique Greenwood
There’s something a little bit retro about the scorn heaped, in some quarters, on ebooks: As Download the Universe overlord Carl Zimmer has noted, similar charges of cheapening the reading experience were once leveled against paperback books.
It’s fitting, then, that publishers of ebooks are continuing to rediscover the promises and perils of earlier publishing forms. Serialized novels are one of the latest experiments: In September, Amazon launched its Kindle Serials, and in August, Byliner, known primarily for long-form nonfiction, announced that it would be publishing several new novels, including Positron, by Margaret Atwood, in installments.
Remembered today mainly as the style in which Charles Dickens' novels were first published, serialization has gone in and out of favor over the last 150 years. Magazine serialization was attractive in the late 1800s because publishers could spread the cost of production out over time, and they could take advantage of the already well-developed distribution system of national periodicals. It grew less convenient later on, when people began to get their serialized stories through the TV or the radio, and publishers focused more on single-volume works.
Now, it may make business sense again. Each installment in Positron, the Atwood science fiction novel whose first section I read to take this serial thing for a test drive, costs $2.99. Depending on how many installments there will be, that could add up to a respectable sum for the whole novel--enough, maybe, to make ebooks a better investment of time for authors wary of writing for a dollar a pop. (The economics of Kindle Serials, on the other hand, are a bit more mysterious: one pays a one-time fee of $1.99 and then gets each new installment delivered free of further charge. Read more on that here.)
As far as execution goes, however, there are still some kinks to work out. When you go to Amazon to purchase the first section of Positron, there is little sign that this story is part of a longer book. Hence the reader reviews like “The ending caught me off guard” and “This story would've been great as a thread in a longer novel.” Within the book itself, there is no mention that it is a serialization—not at the beginning, and not, more’s the pity, at the end, when hungry readers might easily be shunted off to buy the next episode, had they any idea it existed.
And hungry readers there are. When I saw that another installment was available on Amazon, I yelped in excitement. The story itself, what I'd call an erotic dystopian potboiler, suffers from failings other readers have noted in Atwood's books—the characters feel flat, the world is frequently unconvincing, and the logic is sloppy. It is, nevertheless, weirdly gripping.
My mouse hovering over the “Buy” button, however, I hesitated.
When I was 12, I read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife in one delicious week. Looking for the third book in the trilogy, I was told by the librarian that he was still working on it. On the car ride home, my dad asked why I looked so glum. I said mournfully, "The book I want to read hasn't been written yet."
The biggest flaw in this model, I think, is a simple one, one that magazine serials dealt with easily (writers of epic fantasy trilogies, less so). With Positron, readers do not know how many parts there will be, and there is no schedule for their delivery. I am an avid webcomics fan, where stories are told in thousands of fragments, delivered on a consistent basis. But sitting there with my cursor on the button, considering the possibility of paying $2.99 an unknown number of times in the future, my enthusiasm flickered.
I can deal with sloppy-but-compelling storytelling; I can deal with having my satisfaction spread out over a period of months. I can't deal with all those things and not knowing when the next part will come. I clicked away from the page.
Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at DISCOVER Magazine. She writes about everything from caffeine chemistry to cold cures to Jelly Belly flavors, and her work has appeared in Scientific American, TIME.com, TheAtlantic.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter here.