May 282008
 

I’m a big fan of Project Gutenberg and related efforts like Manybooks. They collect older, out-of-copyright books and create electronic versions of them, free for everyone, without restrictions of any kind. They make sure that older, almost-forgotten books are preserved, and make the great works available for easy reading and reference.

But.

My biggest frustration with the free eBooks projects–and this is certainly something that is not at all their fault but rather has to do with overzealous intellectual property laws–is that the books they post are, well, classics. As in old. As in works from a century or more ago, ones with dated language, well-explored ideas, and viewpoints that don’t always translate well into modern terms. Particularly in the Science Fiction genre. If you want to read the complete works of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, or all of the adventures of Allan Quatermain, you’re in luck. But if you’d rather dig into some SF written within the past few decades, forget it.

However, that is changing. And to me, this change is both pleasing as a reader and disturbing as a wanna-be SF writer.

Now some of the greats of Golden Age SF are starting to pop up:

And while many of the currently available books are fairly obscure, some of them are the true masterworks of early-modern science fiction. And more are brought on-line every day.

As a reader, I am thrilled to see this happening. My “to be read stack” of eBooks is growing faster than the real-world stack on my nightstand. With all these classics to burrow through, why should I spend money on the new stuff being published? Especially considering that a lot of the new stuff is the classics, just repackaged, rederived, and rehashed.

As a writer, this makes me wonder: Is SF in danger of dying? Of being killed off by the very technology that it trumpeted? Perhaps. Or perhaps SF is moving beyond the traditional printed form, and reappearing in more interactive media, such as video games. When I think of the overall story arcs of the Marathon and Halo series, which explore the idea of “insanity” in an artificial intelligence, and the implications when the AI is far more intelligent, subtle, and capable than its creators, I find new approaches to familiar terrain. Better still, rather than presenting an unchanging tale with a predetermined arc, the game hands the reins of the protagonist to the player, and plunks him down right in the middle of the mess created by multiple AIs trying to outgame each other.

There are other games which have strong and interesting SF themes. Bioshock explores the results of a failed attempt at technological Utopia. Half-Life gives us the ability to play with SF’s more interesting gadgets.

There is something comforting about the idea of SF changing forms. Because that’s what SF has always been about: change. What will the future look like? How will it feel? Why will the differences matter to me? It only makes sense that the SF genre would be the one that would pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.

 Posted by at 5:50 AM
May 162008
 

Given how things are swirling around the OLPC project nowadays, I figure it might not be a bad idea to quote the list of non-restricted eBook sources from the OLPC News Forum (many thanks to the OLPC News and Auntie Mame for compiling and maintaining this list!):

  • ManyBooks has Project Gutenberg (hereafter PG) text in a wide variety of formats. XML
  • Google Books public domain books
  • Resources-DKM works by Daniel Keyes Moran
  • Project Gutenburg PG. the Granddaddy of public domain books. all available in “plain vanilla ASCII”, some in HTML. You have to convert to PDF for the XO reader. XML
  • Baen Books A sci-fi publisher put some of their copyrighted works online here for free download. XML
  • Overdrive a service that lets you “check out” a PDF book and it expires in a couple of weeks. Very recent content here…
  • UPenn Digital Library University of PA online respository. XML
  • Magic Keys kids stories inHTML. You’ll need to convert to PDF for the XO
  • Starfall has some downloadable “learning to read” PDFs
  • The Archive has links to many ebook sites
  • Scalzi works from sci-fi writer John Scalzi
  • Craphound Corey Doctorow’s works
  • Planet PDF some very nicely formatted public domain books
  • UA EText Library collection of ebooks for adults from University of Aelaide, Australia.
  • Childrens’ Books Forever
  • FeedBooks. Project Gutenberg texts that are reformatted. You can choose a cusomt size for your pdf (112mm x 155m). XML
  • PSU eClassics Penn State Electronic Classics
  • Wowio a commercial site that offers free ebook downloads. ebooks are ad supported (you will receive and ad along with the book) Appears to be a consortium of small presses. XML
  • LibriVox provides a large collection of free eBooks in audiobook format. XML
  • Telltale Weekly offers many free eBooks in audiobook format.
 Posted by at 9:49 PM
May 162008
 

This post on Lifehacker made me slap my head. I had recently spent a while trying to figure out how to automate having the Mac “read” a book–use its excellent built-in Text-To-Speech system to convert an eBook into an audiobook. The Mac voices aren’t going to replace Derek Jacobi or Bob Inglis for nuanced and powerful reading of great books, but they will get the job done when there’s no other option for creating an audiobook short of reading it aloud yourself.

My first attempt at automatic eBook-to-audiobook translation was to use Automator. I created serveral Workflows, one per speaking voice, with the following Actions:

1. Open Finder Item (the eBook in
text format) with TextEdit.

2. Get Contents of TextEdit. Send
output to:

3. Text To Audio File. Save as
“vickispeak” (for voice “Vicki”)
on the Desktop.

This works quite well, but is a little slow. To run it, I right-click on the input text file in a Finder window, then select Automator from the pop-up menu, and the desired voice’s Workflow from the Automator submenu. It creates an AIFF audio file called “vickispeak” on the Desktop. It does exactly the same thing as the single ‘say’ command, which can be run with much less theatrics from Terminal (type this in all on one line):

say -v Vicki -o ~/Desktop/vickispeak
-f ~/Desktop/ebook.txt

The options to ‘say’ are:

  • -v voiceName
    One of Agnes, Kathy, Princess, Vicki, Victoria, Bruce, Fred, Junior, Ralph, Albert, or one of the many “novelty” voices; there are supposed to be more and better voice options under OS X 10.5. If not specified, the current “System Voice” is used; this is set under the “Text To Speech” tab under “Speech” System Preferences.
  • -o outputSoundFileName
    If not specified, the input text is spoken aloud.
  • -f inputTextFileName
    If not specified, the text to be spoken can be listed as arguments on the command line.

Further details on ‘say’s arguments can be found by typing this in Terminal:

man say

But that’s not the end of things. You can import the resulting (potentially huge) AIFF file into iTunes and convert it to MP3 format (and use very low-quality conversion options to save disk space). You can then copy the (much smaller) MP3 file to your iPod or other portable music player, and play your new audiobook back while commuting, etc.

And you can add some useful commands at the top of your eBook text file that will instruct the Mac books to speak more quickly or at a different pace. According to the Apple Developer’s website, these commands are deprecated, so they may not work under OS X 10.5. The handiest one I’ve found is to add this single line at the very top of the eBook text file:

[[rate +40]]

I’ve found that when using the Vicki voice, “+40″ makes her speak much faster, but she’s still comprehensible. This is completely a matter of taste. To make the rate of speaking slower, use a negative number instead of a positive one. More details on the speech commands you can embed in your text files can be found at this Apple Developer webpage.

Now, of course, all of this presumes that you’ve got an eBook in a raw text file or in some format that can be converted to text. You can find these kinds of books at websites like Project Gutenburg that sponsor copyright-free and otherwise non-restricted texts. A handy list of these sites is on the OLPC News Forum.

Note that if the eBook you want to convert into an audiobook is only in PDF format and not in raw text, using the Automator Workflow instead of the ‘say’ command may make things easier, as Automator has an “Extract Text From PDF” Action built-in, which makes dealing with PDF files relatively easy. More details can be found in this Apple Support discussion.

Note that there are commercial / shareware / freeware applications which will help you create audiobooks more easily and with greater control than these DIY methods:

  • GhostReader is an audiobook recording suite; it even includes more voices.
  • Audiobook Builder will help you organize your audiobook recordings into chapters, and convert your sound files into audiobook formats that iPods and some other MP3 players support bookmarking and other enhanced playback capabilities for.
  • Charles Kelly’s Text-To-Speech to MP3 free application combines all of the steps outlined above into a single step.
  • TypeIt ReadIt is a shareware app that can convert text files to MP3 audio files, and can help visually challenged readers with other tasks.
  • Wizzard / AT&T Natural Voices Text-To-Speech SDK helps you create your own multiplatform applications.
  • iSpeak-it converts many document types, including web pages and RSS feeds, to spoken audio files.
  • MaxPod converts web pages to spoken audio files for use on your iPod.
  • Narrator helps you script your audiobooks by changing the speaking voice, pitch, and other qualities.
 Posted by at 8:47 PM