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.