Monday, 12 July 2010

The Noise Within by Ian Whates

My review of The Noise Within is now live on The Zone. This is a bad book, and hence a bad review. I hate bad books, and I hate it even more when I have to write a review of them - having wasted a week of my life on some crap it seems just to add insult to injury to have to spend even more time - valuable writing time! - writing a bloody review as well.

I didn't finish this book and I thought long and hard about writing a review at all. On the one had, I was clearly going to have to say some hard things about this novel, and I don't think there's anyone out there, really, who wants to hear that - not the author, not the publisher, not potential readers, not even Tony at the The Zone. On the other hand, I had accepted the free book and I felt I had an obligation to fulfil my half of the deal.

I hummed and hahed for a few days before almost accidentally scribbling out nearly three thousand words in my note book on a short train journey between Canary Wharf and Bank and back. In its raw form it had a lot of the sarky, sneery stuff you see in bad reviews on the internet, and are one of the things that I hate so much about bad reviews, so all that had to go, but there was still fifteen hundred words or so of pretty solid analysis about where this book goes wrong. I just had to sit down and sort it all out.

Writing a bad review is actually quite hard work. A review of a book you like is a pleasure to write, and what's more you can say any old thing and no one minds too much because you love it and everything's cool, even if you're wrong or can't support your observations. If you see "This book overflows with beautiful, vivid futuristic imagery," then by and large there's no one who's going to stop and ask you to prove it. Publisher, author, editor of the review site - everyone's happy.

Pointing out a book's flaws, on the other hand, requires more care. You have to be able to defend your points and make it clear that it's not just a matter of it not being your thing (that's another type of tiresome review, though) but that there are technical matters in the craft of fiction that go beyond taste, and that this book's got them wrong.

Oh, people will say stuff like "it's all just a matter of opinion, isn't it?" but that's horse shit. The craft of reviewing is separating out the bits of taste from the actual issues of bad writing. Certainly, I start a review from the very basic first principle of "did I like that?" but the next question is "why" and you have to be able to explain that stuff objectively. What a drag!

Books like The Noise Within cause me extra pain, though, because as an aspiring (which is to say, failing) writer it presents me with two rather disturbing possibilities.

The first, is that quality means nothing in terms of getting published, and it's basically a kind of lottery.

In fact, I think this is at least partly true; plenty of great books don't get published for one reason or another. But what burns me is that their places are taken not by other great books (and I'd lay money on there being a surfeit of great unpublished books out there if we just knew where to find them), but by shit books.

I suppose that's the way of the world, but I've always felt a writer has to start by writing the best book they can. Maybe that's bollocks, though. Maybe it's more important to meet the right people and do the right things - publish small press short stories and be part of fandom, in SF - and in fact you can do just as well flicking out any kind of lazy shit. That shows me!

The other alternative is that I'm not even this good. More hopefully, one could frame this as being that I'm just out of touch with what people really want from sci fi stories. I certainly get feedback along the lines of "nicely done but can't see the market for it," so maybe that's true.

I mean, take a look at these other reviews for The Noise Within, for example.

The Fantasy Book Critic says:
The Noise Within is an A+ for me and the series it debuts has a very high potential and I expect it to develop to be among the best space opera series around.
The Speculative Book Review says:
I also found the setting very captivating. Not only the history of the known universe but also the various planets, various technologies such as AI or union of organic and artificial life tickle the reader's curiosity. The details such as wric (wrist-information center), shimmer suits, intelligent gun unit, computer generated reality and the concept of "partials" improve the story's sense of completeness and create a satisfying degree of background. The story never becomes absurd and the futuristic concepts remain still familiar and believable.

A+? 9.5/10? Where do those scores come from? What do they see that I don't? Are my ideas of what makes a good book really so out of step with the rest of the world? Have I got the ridiculous wric all wrong?

On the other hand, if you poke around those sites you'll see an awful lot of As and 9/10s, and perhaps those particular sites need to haev their qualitative settings re-aligned.

Total Sci Fi Online and Space Time Industries are more circumspect in their assessments, but the former still gives this a 7/10.

But what's a review for? Is the kind of objective assessment that I'm attempting really serving any purposed? A review has to be able to place a book within the context of its peers, of course, but again I think this is a fairly objective process of thinking about a "good" book of this type (in this case, say, Banks's The Player of Games or Reynolds' Revealation Space) and then pondering whether the book under review measures up.

I still wonder if I'm really right for this gig, even after all these years (and in fiction writing, especially after all these years). Maybe I'd be happier in pottery or basket weaving, something where simple aesthetics weren't so openly flauted. Oh well. I'm used to being a lonely deluded genius. It fits me, I think.

Here's the song "Bad Review" by Half Man Half Biscuit, as comfort for maligned authors everywhere.


  1. I've got to admit it is easier to write a bad review of a non-fiction title where at least you can usually identify the factual errors while fiction is harder due to the subjectivity. I think that many online reviews are largely written by fans/friends of the author and that often accounts for a huge positive bias in the ratings given. In some ways the disadvantage of the ease of publishing online reviews is that there is no real experience required and reviewers will gravitate towards writing about what they like creating a bias towards positive ratings.

    Certainly I don't think that quality is a huge indicator for getting published or popularity of published fiction. After all Dan Brown is pretty wooden even in the blockbuster type genre that he writes and is massively popular in sales terms.

  2. Hi Dave,

    Well, fiction's not a totally subjective business - it's not totally improv, and the matter of craft is pretty well understood. A lot of online (and print, let's be honest) reviewers don't necessarily undestand it. It's not that complicated and hardly a new thing - Aristotle was at it back in the olden days, after all!

    Non-fiction, too, has craft elements, which are the sorts of things they teach at journalsm schools and what have you, and are not entirely divorced from fiction, and certainly more so since the New Journalism. (And I read you review of James's book, by the way - nice work, although perhaps a trifle harsh, I thought (although who am I to say such a thing!)

    I've always gone through edited venues and have had the occasional rejection, so there's a system of moderation in place there. What I do here is - consciously - different from actually reviewing. My motto here is "a book is a mirror" and I try and think about the ways I process and think about books, how they echo through my life and pretentious stuff like that. I've been kind of inspired but what David Marston's been doing, and been trying to it with books.

    As for publishing - well, I'm not really under any illusions, but I have a rhetorical position to maintain!

  3. True, I can recognise the amount of craft elements in publishing from having done the undergraduate degree at Oxford Polytechnic, both in editorial and physical production.

    I think that one thing I do strongly agree with Stephen King on is the amount of craft involved in fiction writing and in a good way that is something that I feel can be seen in his work.

    I wonder if an element of not wanting to give what might be percieved as an easy ride to James because of knowing him maybe made my review a little more strict that I have been on other authors.

    Certainly I feel blogs are a good medium for discursive discussions of books and how they affect the individual reader rather than always doing 'straight' reviews, which has been a reason for my visits here.

  4. "I wonder if an element of not wanting to give what might be percieved as an easy ride to James because of knowing him maybe made my review a little more strict that I have been on other authors."

    That's what I thought to myself when I read it!

  5. Your review I mean, still haven't gotten around to James's book.

  6. A week of your life? _The Noise Within_ took less than 48 hours of mine, and by the end I was roaring with laughter. The unstoppable Julia Cirese reappears in a bid to assassinate Philip Kaufman (surely she's heard the hit was called off weeks ago?) and she is sexier than ever! "This was not straight from the salon glamour but rather hair that had lived life and seen things, pulled back into a bun to keep it out of her eyes." Whatever, it's still getting her through the tightest security a multi-planet business magnate can buy.

    And Kethi has a message for Jim Leyton, which requires her to frock up and waylay him as he's having a quiet drink at a bar. Has the lass never heard of email? Or this newfangled wrist-information thingamabob? He'd spotted her coming in, figure-hugging, thigh-exposing dress and all, and had thought to get lucky with her. Knowing that she is there specifically to see him, however, is a deal-breaker. "'Fine, then say what you have to and then get out of here.' Out of the bar, out of his life."

    There are so many such moments of unintentional hilarity that I was glad I persisted till the end. I don't think I'll be looking for the sequels, though.

  7. Well, I'm slow reader.

    I thought the Kaufman bits were the strongest but had difficulty deciding if they were Dick-style uptight funny (in which case it needed to be a little broader) or just silly (no obvious solution presents itself!).

    Tell me, Varleyfan, are you perchance a fan of John Varley? I reviewed his Ophiuchi Hotline for the Zone sometime back (, and I felt that The Quantum Thief had a similar sort of feel to it, for reasons I couldn't quite pin down. You might want to give the latter book a try if you enjoyed the former - I'd be interested to hear what you thought!

  8. I do like John Varley, and was surprised to discover that I've never read The Ophiuchi Hotline. What an omission! (I'd done enough reading in the "Eight Worlds" universe to recognise Cathay the Teacher, however.)

    One of the best things about Varley is that his female characters come out of the Ripley/Trinity mold. No silly bimbos whose sole function is to serve as handbag to the hero. Often as not, the girl IS the hero. I like that.

    What you say about Varley's readership getting swept up into cyberpunk during the 80s seems about right to me. Gibson et al stood at a cool distance from the rest of the science-fiction cadre, and arguably this gave them extra street cred over their genre-stalwart brethren. Other SF authors had a harder time escaping the label.

    I agree with you that Varley's later work could be uneven. Steel Beach was downright depressing. The screen treatments of Millennium and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank disappointed; those stories deserved far better. The Gaean trilogy, though, was sublime.

    I enjoyed reading your reviews of The Ophiuchi Hotline and The Quantum Thief. The concept of character development through multiple iterations of the same person is intriguing; there's something so... Buddhist in the idea of doing it over and over again until you get it right.

    Ophiuchi leads to Quantum Thief leads to Altered Carbon leads to ??? It's enough to make a person wish she had several extra lifetimes to read it all.

  9. Thanks for the kind comments on my reviews! Ophiuchi Hotline is well-worth seeking out.

    And yes, time is the enemy. It's almost enough to drive one to a life of inter-planetary crime and a sentence in the Dilemma Prison so that all those multiples could get on with reading the great and lesser books of the world.

  10. Yesterday I was listening to a radio-show discussion about whether the Internet has rendered all of us incapable of deep & serious thought. I have no strong opinion either way, but note that 1. EVERY-damn-thing finds its way onto the Webs, from the sublime to the truly godawful, and 2. If it doesn't appeal, something that suits you better is only a mouse click or two away. Contrast this with the era in which I grew up, when content filters of all kinds abounded: editors' and publishers' discretion; the sensibilities of the school librarian; and so on.

    Sturgeon's Revelation: "90% of everything is crud." See for further details. While you're there, check out the TV Tropes "ReptilesAreAbhorrent" page; it had me in stitches!

    P.S. "The Ophiuchi Hotline" was every bit as good as promised. Now to get my hands on a copy of "The Quantum Thief"...

  11. Ah, varleyfan, I have posted before about the perils typing favourite band names into youtube search! After that Lennon Naked show on TV a couple of months back I must have wasted two nights listening old John Lennon tracks and live performances and interviews and God knows what.

    If you are a Tom Waits fan do NOT under any circumstances seach youtube for Tom Waits! You will never resurface. I live in fear of inadvertantly searching for, I dunno, Bowie or Bauhaus and never being seen again.

    It is a very different world to the one we (I assume from your comments you're my sort of age) grew up in. Yesterday, a colleague and I were explaining to some of our younger comrades the joys of telex and the days before every desk had a computer. In the olden days before the internet I used to slack off by doing the crossword! How analogue is that?

    Oh dear, I'm off on one. I've written a bit in passing here about the changing world. Bass player of Duran Duran John Taylor (of all people!) had some wise words on this, speaking at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of email (and I still can't figure out why you would invite the bass player of Duran Duran to deliver the keynote speech at such an event, but I just file it all the other things I cannot fathom ...)

    Anyway, really pleased you liked Ophiuchi Hotline! DO let me know how you find Quantum Thief. I reviewed this one for the Zone, but while I enjoyed the book a lot didn't quite engage in the review for various reasons and I'm a bit unsatisfied with that ... ah well, maybe I'll give it another shake one day.

  12. It's true, the Internet is the all-time number-one time waster of the universe. Youtube *alone!* ... that's where you discover that all your obscure cultural pleasures not only have other fans, but usually enough to start a decent-sized flame war.

    If I ever start my own blog (unlikely; I'm too much of a dilettante to sustain such an effort over the long haul) it would be chockablock with Stuff I Learned While Surfing the Web.

    Meanwhile I've been happily occupied with Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood and The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF. Good thing I'm not prone to nightmares!

  13. Ha ha, I started out doing quite a few "look at this cool thing!" posts, but between finding them and writing about them I was losing all the time to write anything else! Since my summer hiatus, I've been trying to keep a little more focused.

    Atwood's sci fi is on my radar! I'm reading A Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtenygart right now, then I have The Butt by Will Self and a few interesting non-fiction items, but around Christmas time I think I might seek out either Year of the Flood or Oryx & Crake (having seen the movie of A Handmaid's Tale, I'll probably skip that one unless the others turn out to be really compelling).

  14. No matter how much Atwood wishes to avoid the dreaded SF designation, she is One Of Us.

    YOTF and O&C are set in the same universe; even more than that, they cover the same time frame and events seen from the perspective of different characters. Thus they might be considered mirror novels to each other. Certainly I found the whole to be much more interesting than the the sum of the two parts. And I'm VERY keen to see where Atwood takes the narrative in the forthcoming third volume.

  15. Ah, thanks for the tip, I'll read O&C first.

    I think MA tries to differentiate between the inward-looking genre (Star Trek and all that) and the more outward-oriented stuff. I can sympathise, but it does sound like special pleading sometimes and some excellent writers can get marginalised due to category errors.

  16. I've just finished reading The Quantum Thief, and quite enjoyed it. The story behind the story (24 typewritten pages get into the right hands, eventuating in 3-book publishing deal) is just as fascinating in its own way. A lucky break for Hannu Rajaniemi, certainly, but his real fortune lies in the "honest feedback" he receives from his writers' group. Friends like those are the only kind worth having!

    Kudos also due HR for having the cojones to write in a language not his own.

    As for the novel itself, I liked that shiny new concepts such as gevulot, qupting, guberniya, spimes, gogols, etc. were sketched in on the fly, not weighted down by chunks of exposition. I loved the affectionate sendup of gamer culture in the zoku.

    And the characters? I agree that Jean le Flambeur feels incomplete. But I wonder whether a personality which has existed without a break for so many years (barring occasional discontinuity by gunshot wound) MUST necessarily live in visceral sensation from moment to moment, or risk entombment in endless contemplation of his own navel.

    I hope the ship Perhonen appears in future instalments. Now THERE'S a character!

  17. Hi Varley Fan, I'm pleased you enjoyed it. I'm pretty sure the writing group will have helped with the toned prose - there's no fat there at all, is there?

    I liked the zoku, too, and in fact it's full of good ideas, I would just have liked a better wrapping. I've come to the conclusion that a better book would have been a stand alone about Isidore, but maybe the thief storyline will come into sharper relief in later volumes - that's probably the intent, but well, maybe I would have preferred them to wait and publish it all as one fat book.

    My review of this is here, by the way:


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