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January/February 2012
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Judge, Jury, and Lexecutioner

"Fantasy author says he will 'mount the head on a spike' of Amazon employee who shipped copies of A Dance with Dragons early."
The Guardian, July 4, 2011

I ADJUSTED my robes, put on my best implacable Solomonic face, and entered the courtroom from the judge's chambers. Old Phil Bergen, my trusty bailiff for the past ten years, instantly brought the court reporter, the assembled lawyers, criminals, journalists, and spectators to their feet with his raspy bark.

"Hear ye, hear ye! The First Manhattan Lectorial Court is now in session, Judge Gilbert Harshner presiding! All rise!"

I ascended the dais and took my seat at the bench.

Phil instructed the crowd, "You may be seated."

Rustling, murmurs, keyboard clicking, slate tapping, and paper shuffling ensued.

I had studied the docket for the day already. An overpacked session. It seemed that criminal readers were getting bolder and more outrageous by the day in their assaults against the sovereign rights of authors. No amount of new legislation and strict sentencing seemed to deter the scofflaws. A discouraging prospect. But I had no choice other than to continue dispensing justice, and hope for the return of the readerly respect of yore, when consumers of books knew their roles and duties.

Looking out over the crowded courtroom, I saw the hard, embittered faces of repeat offenders, and the frightened, open faces of first-time culprits. Maybe at least in the cases of the latter I could make a difference.

"Bailiff, announce the first case."

"Idalina Sawyer, charged with abandoning a series after the fourth volume."

A fey-looking adolescent girl stood, all keyed-up nerves and Wet Seal-brand clothes. She pushed her glasses further up her nose and attempted a weak smile.

"Ms. Sawyer, your book buying records indicate that after purchasing four installments of the Doom Cataclysm of Beyondbounds series by Herman Westover, in hardcover, you neglected to purchase the fifth book within a month of its release. Surely you were aware that by buying the initial trilogy in that particular format you had legally committed yourself to sustaining this author's series with further purchases, until said author officially brought his saga to a close, or you yourself died, with an exception for prequels and spinoffs"

"I—I did know that, Judge. They teach us that in school. But you see, my parents both lost their jobs between volumes four and five, and I was too ashamed to ask for the money from them. Even with the Amazon discount, it was a lot! I was hoping I could wait for the paperback—"

I turned to the girl's lawyer. "Counselor, are these the facts in the case?"

"We have sworn affadavits from the state employment bureau, Your Honor."

"Very well. I'm surprised this case ever reached the court. The attorney general should have simply garnished the parental unemployment checks in monthly installments until the fifth hardcover was paid for, at the lowest possible price, not excluding legitimate used copies found on AbeBooks. I hereby so decree. Case dismissed."

Idalina jumped up and squealed. "Oh, thank you, Judge! I really did want to see how the story turned out! Count Spurmantle was just about to cross the Burning Lands—"

The atmosphere in the courtroom lightened, with mild laughter and grins. We were all readers of one stripe or another, after all, and could empathize.

But the next case was considerably darker.

Alvin Wiggs wore the shifty, defiant look of a perennial bad egg, all styling gel, body spray, and cheap suits. It was obvious to my trained eye that he was a hairy-palmed Habitual Amateur Reviewer. But the Internet Police had not been able to arrest him until he had been caught taking payment to post bad reviews of specified books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indigo Books & Music, and numerous other sites. So prolific was he that he was starting to rival Harriet Klausner, but in an evil, not bland way.

"Mr. Wiggs, you have been charged with seeking to destabilize the sales of over one thousand writers with your negative comments for hire. I will quote only one instance: 'Glinda McFadden's Bestial Bacchanal is the kinda werewolf-loving, sparkle-vamp crap that gives paranormal romances a worse stink than what you'd come up with if a Kardashian married some guy from the Jersey Shore.' Did you indeed post this, and the other items in the exhibits?"

Wiggs sneered. "Yeah, so what? We still got freedom of speech in this country, ain't we?"

"Your right to spew a factitious, purchased opinion, Mr. Wiggs, legally ends where an author's royalties begin. I am afraid I have no choice other than to find you guilty on all counts."

Wiggs burst out with invective. "Ah, go stuff it. There ain't no such thing as bad publicity, see! Why, all those mooks shoulda been glad they got me to post something sharp and funny about their snooze-bombs. After you read a hundred butt-kissing reviews in a row, something like mine adds a little balance to the picture, makes all the rest believable, like. I was doing a public service, and they shoulda shared their royalties with me!"

The courtroom buzzed and I had to bang my gavel for order. "That's quite enough arrogant self-justification, Mr. Wiggs. We'll see how a stretch in Sing Sing sits with you. My judgment is for six years to serve, with parole possible only after four."

The officers of the court took Wiggs away, cursing. "You see if I don't keep on reviewing from behind bars! I got friends on the outside with anonymizers and fast broadband. You just wait and see!"

After I had restored order, I quickly dealt with a blogger who had conducted an interview with an author, and then posted the dialogue with unflattering Photoshopped pictures of the writer; an employee of Publishers Weekly who had organized a boycott against a writer holding different political opinions from the PW staff; and a Twitter user who had set himself up as "@fake_john_scalzi." Then the morning's third major case stepped forward. The accused was a middle-aged woman of neat appearance and quiet demeanor, one whose surface presentation cried out "Soccer Mom."

"Ms. Farrah Manafort, I understand that you have accounts at both Shelfari and Goodreads. Is this correct?"

"Yes, Your Honor, I enjoy sharing my reading habits with my friends."

"And is it also true that you began willfully mis-tagging books on climate change with the genre label 'Science Fiction'? And books on President Obama with the tag 'Humor and Comedy.' And books by Oprah Winfrey with the tag 'Butch-femme.' And books by—"

Farrah Manafort let out a piercing shriek. "You lamestream, bleeding-heart judges are all alike! Enforcing your politically correct marketing categories on us little guys! Someday, Joe and Jane Trade Paperback are going to rise up and—"

I gaveled her silent. "That will be quite enough of your twisted ideology, Ms. Manafort. I find you guilty as charged, and hereby sentence you to five hundred hours of community service at the Norman Lear Center."

As Farrah Manafort and her attorney left the courtroom, suddenly I felt weary. Ahead of me loomed the case of a bookstore employee who had shelved some science fiction in the literary section of his store; the case of a talk-radio host who had failed to read a novel before interviewing its author; and, God help me, the cases of an entire community of repeat fan-fictionists.

"I'm declaring an hour's recess," I announced.

Then I retreated to my chambers to close my eyes and listen to an audiobook, being careful not to let any of my mental imagery trespass upon the likenesses of the actors in the recently released cinematic version of the tale.

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