The Infernal Claw

(Would you trust this crazy lady? Would you? Really?)

From the LongPen Website FAQ:

How can you have a meaningful exchange with a robot that does signatures?
The LP device has an interactive image and voice, as well as the ability to sign. The author will be there, in real time. So the exchange is with the author, not the signing device…In fact, it’s quite possible that the screen exchange will be more personal than what exists now.

Upon reflection, this Frankenstein invention from Margaret Atwood strikes me as a kind of lunacy, the deranged dream of a person who just doesn’t have the fortitude for the litanies of the book tour: long, cramped plane flights, endless hotels, too much crap food, not enough sleep. It sounds, in fact, like a Bad SF idea, the kind of gimmick that might satisfy the techno-geek in some but that would hardly nourish more tactile readers. After all, if people just wanted the signature, they wouldn’t need the author’s presence at all, just the signed copy. Or they could write in for a personalized signature.

In our rush to remove all the visceral and tactile experiences the world has to offer, to simplify by making more complex, to save time by wasting it, I don’t think it’s too much to ask of authors to either get their butts out on the road and meet their readers, or just admit that the thought terrifies or defeats them, and live with that, without demanding a surrogate. I can guarantee you: Atwood will still be a bestselling author without a book tour.

Besides, I remember many, many times when being on the road has given me some of the most amazing and, yes, horrifying, moments of my life, much of which has gone into the fiction. Then there are also the random meetings and the random contacts and extended conversations that have nothing to do with the receiving line at a bookstore.

Of course, the lovely insanity and messiness of the real world will never be enough for some people. They have to come along with their crazy SF inventions couched in the logic of the prosaic and the sane.

Maybe, someday, Atwood will just be a brain in a jar attached to a mechanical arm, and every bookstore in the world will have an Atwood Booth that you can enter and sit there while the crane arm signs your book and the brain burbles a few platitudes, and still you sit there, looking at the video of the brain jar, and marveling the way one does at a carnie sideshow.

Or, perhaps, for a more visceral experience: the infernal claw attached to jarred brain, sent by overnight mail to every bookstore in the world for decades–a complex ballet of jarred brains, every soon-dead author pulling their weight until the end of their copyright, at which time they are decanted and laid to rest.

One can but hope.


(Postscript: Besides, wouldn’t a better application of technology be to allow bestselling authors to provide umbrella protection for lesser-known writers? In a sense, it would be like the affiliate endorsements that celebrities do for local network stations. You’d have a series of readings scheduled across time zones. The big-time author would stay in NYC or whatever. The event would also feature up-and-comers or mid-listers who wouldn’t normally get much of audience. Those writers would read and speak first. Then Mr. Big Time comes up on the video screen and does a reading and answers questions. People come to talk to Mr. or Mrs. Big Time, but it also would allow readers to become more familiar with other writers’ work, given them a boost. It might be a novelty that doesn’t catch on, but in the meantime, you’d get a ton of general publicity….And my fee for that idea is only $1,000,000 and my own…infernal claw.)

7 comments on “The Infernal Claw

  1. James says:

    I like the virtual headliner idea. Maybe national political figures could do the same thing when they’re out fundraising for local office holders. Then W could stay in Texas where he belongs.

    As far as Atwood goes, I always thought that she came up with this idea largely as a joke to point out the essential strangeness of the author tour and the general desire for autographs as proof of experience. Now she’s just running with it. Or maybe I’m wrong–never count on a Canadian to be anything but earnest, say my northern friends.

    Wasn’t it Steve Martin who used to (may still) hand out, in lieu of autographs, small cards that read something like, “This card certifies that the bearer has had a personal encounter with a celebrity?”

  2. Steve Dempsey says:

    I’m sure Ms Atwood wouldn’t mind being a brain in a jar with thousands of signing arms spread around the world, ready to leap into action at the mearest sign of anyone approaching. And also ready to tear them limb from limb should they dare to compare this to science fiction, especially of the Heath Robinson Golden Age variety.

  3. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    The weird thing is, I’m now tempted to write a story called “The Infernal Claw”. Except I rather think there probably is a story out there with that title already…probably by James Herbert…


  4. Matt Staggs says:

    I heard that Long Pen is sweet and delicious and tastes like pork.

  5. Michael Bishop says:

    At first I thought the photo was of Glenn Glose in “Fatal Attraction.” In any event, Jeff, go ahead and write your story. The world cannot have too many stories titled “The Infernal Claw.” Can it?

  6. Ian Rogers says:

    Personally I can’t think of very many authors whose signature I’d want badly enough to line up for it. But at the same time I still understand the fascination. I was sick the night Chuck Palahniuk came to Toronto for a reading/signing, and a friend of mine was kind enough to wait in line and get me an autographed book. My friend told Chuck my tale of woe and he ended up inscribing my book, “Get well soon, Ian.” Makes for an amusing story to friends, most of whom usually say the same thing: “There was a Fight Club novel?”

    Anyway, my feeling is if any other author had come up with the idea for the Long Pen, it would have fallen by the wayside. Atwood herself only came up with the idea when she was signing an electronic invoice for a delivery and thought, Wow, if only I could do this and not have to bother going on book tours. She wasn’t exactly Newton under the apple tree, in other words.

    I wonder what this will do for the collectors market. Will a book signed by a robot be worth less than one signed by the actual author? Will people line up to get a book signed by Autographinator?

    I’m sure the technology is very swanky, but the idea itself reeks of laziness.

  7. Fred says:

    I think, as a replacement for all in-store, in-person signings, the LongPen is a terrible idea. But for those authors who are physically unable (or, yeah, even simply unwilling) to endure the hardships of a book tour — or for the readers who, because of some quirk of geography or scheduling, wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to interact with authors — I think it’s actually a pretty good idea. Obviously it doesn’t provide the same kind of interaction of a face-to-face signing. And obviously the authors who rely on it simply out of laziness are missing out on the real benefits of a book tour and meeting fans face to face. But if I was an author who couldn’t travel, or couldn’t travel to certain venues, or I was a reader living in one of those venues, I’d much rather have this kind of interaction than none.

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