The Trouble with Bad Reviews

I would like to shine a light on an issue that should be stopped, but is difficult to do so. The first thing to do is to identify what that issue and alert others, which is what this post is about.

A few years back a friend of mine privately complained to me about a bad review he had for his recently published novella. He was very upset by it, but being an author had to accept it on the chin. I then went digging in that critic’s other reviews – mostly 1 or 2 star ratings. That critic obviously had a bad chip on his shoulder about science fiction. I mentioned what I had discovered to my friend and although he did not say anything to me, I am sure he complained about that reviewer to the website’s management.

But the point is that because it was an early review, it biased potential browsing readers against buying what is actually a very interesting science fiction story. The author and the publisher both lost revenue because of that one critic and his damning review.

This can have a  knock on effects in all sorts of ways – lack of morale for the author to spur him to write more interesting science fiction, the publisher being reluctant to publish more novellas by the said author, a reduction in choice of science fiction works for the reader, to name but a few.

The critics are obvious to spot if the viewer takes time to go digging. And the websites can and do ban such destructive reviewers. But there are others who are more subtle in their approach and are harder to differentiate from the genuine review.

The first is the pedant critic. This is the type that spots typos and then complains about there being typos even when there are so few of them.

Let’s get one thing straight about typos – they happen. Even the best editors miss the occasional one, particularly if they are working to a deadline. Take any recently published novel and go looking. You’ll see what I mean. Typos should only be complained about in a review if they are frequent enough to significantly slow down the reading and hence the enjoyment of the story.

The pedant critic is the one who takes enjoyment from finding minor faults and telling everybody about them, just to show how clever he/she is. They would make a darned good line editor and maybe they should seek employment as such, but when they come to putting up their review they blow up these minor faults out of all proportion and make it sound like a disaster movie.

But again having such an early review which this kind of damnation has similar effects to the critics who just want to do any book down.

Then there is ‘this is not what I expected’ type of critic, the one who wants to write the story themselves. It does not matter what interesting and poignant aspects the author has to say, it is not the story the critic wanted to write.They will go on to say what should have been written instead. Therefore the book is damned.

Admittedly some readers will pick up a book thinking it is one thing and finding out it is something different. That may be the fault of the blurb or advertising, but the author is nevertheless harangued for writing the story his/her way. In this case they should point out where the fault really lies.

My answer to this type of unjustifiable critic is go write your own book and see how time consuming and difficult it is. Do not expect other authors to write your book because you are too damned lazy to write your own.

Like the damn-all-books and pendant reviews, an early ‘this is not what I expected from the author’ review is bad unjustifiable news certainly for the author.

Of course there are bad reviews of some books that are justified. But any reviewer should be able to point to the evidence or say why they are giving a bad review. They should be able to identify what went wrong with the book. These are the bad reviews to take seriously. Any decent author will recognise that such a review is fair and try to do better in their next piece of writing. It is the way the world works.

I have seen too many authors suffer from these unjustified bad reviews. Their morale and reputation takes a knock. They can’t say anything in public because it is not the done thing or for fear of provoking troll reactions.

It really is time to start standing up to these types of so-called critics. Being able to identify the types as I have started to do here is a first step. Authors and the reading public would then know which reviews deserve to be dismissed for the silly nonsense they are.

The really important point is that will also stop authors and their publishers from suffering from the damage they inflict on their creativity and business.

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Science Fiction Publishing in the Near Future

Various sources indicate that the science fiction publishing trade is being affected by the lockdowns due to the corona virus. As an example, the latest copy of Interzone does not have a bar code, so I guess it is not being sold in retail outlets. Another example has been the slippage of publication dates of various novels. Some science fiction genre staff have been made redundant in publishers. In the UK, a lot of the science fiction genre staff have been put on furlough. Plans by independent publishers who go to conventions to sell their stock have been severely affected to say the least. How much damage this will do the genre remains to be seen, but even now I can see it is significant.

In the meantime generous spirited authors and on-line outlets have published SF stories to listen to or read for free, which will certainly help some people’s morale.

On top of all this, people in general will not have as much money to spend, which means leisure activities will be reigned in, including buying SF books etc.

Publishers are not in as dire straits as the live performance arts who need to attract crowds to break even. In the UK a £160 million emergency fund for the arts has been set up by the arts council. See here.

[More information of what financial help can be had in the UK is here.]

So what can we authors expect coming out of lockdown?

There will be at least for a while fewer opportunities to sell novels an novellas to publishers because at best they will be catching up on their backlists. Unfortunately some of the changes in this marketplace are permanent and it will take a while for new enterprises to stand up and replace those that are no longer with us.

The short story markets that rely on the public buying their their magazines etc are still mainly publishing to schedule. But people won’t have as much money to spend on leisure activities as they once had, and unfortunately I expect some of these magazine publishers to cut back or even fold altogether.

What will be definitely still standing are those publishers that have independent financial means to continue or who have a financial policy of not starting new projects  unless they have the money in the bank.

Whilst not comprehensive, here is a list of UK science fiction novel publishers that I did about a couple of years ago and may now be out of date in parts.

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Please note that the large publishers may only be the parent companies of science fiction publishers. There have already been redundancies in the science fiction genre at Macmillan / Tor as noted by Locus Magazine.

I know some publishers where I would put my money on surviving. Not sure about the others and certainly have no idea what the state of play is with the big publishers.

But where there is change, there is also opportunity. I would expect maybe in year or two’s time to be some start-ups of new independent publishers. Where and when thy will appear is anyone’s guess. All I’m going to say is that it will pay the author to keep a look out for the new publishers in town.

Tomorrow’s Science Fiction

I’m detecting the first signs of spring after the corona virus winter, and I’m not talking about the easing of lockdown measures here. I’ve not said anything public about my predictions as sometimes making them public can undo the good work that has been done. (I’ve discussed one of them with a trusted friend before you say you don’t believe me!) But like the first snowdrops after a real winter, they put a smile on my face, even if there is some way to go with this horrible pandemic.

Of course the pandemic has drowned out a lot of other news and restricted activities. For instance the BSFA Best of Science Fiction awards will be announced online on Sunday instead of having been done as usual at EasterCon, which this year was cancelled. There have been some virtual science fiction conventions, but nothing that can match up to camaraderie of a real in-person one. Some authors have allowed their stories to be read online for free to help ease the tedium of being at home most if not all the time. Unfortunately, some of the publishing industry has already started bearing the brunt of the economic consequences the pandemic, and that includes the science fiction genre.

One thing is for sure, we will not return to the world of pre-pandemic ways. Some of the changes are already obvious: there will be more home working and a little less commuting to work; there will be more pedestrianisation and cycles paths through city centres and less roads; the effects of climate change will have slowed if only for a few months; and the gardens in the UK this summer will look at their tidiest in decades.

But what of the future of science fiction?

A lot of writers have been finishing their writing projects while they’ve been forced to be away from work. However, those who didn’t have projects well into the planning stage have had difficulty in imagining new ideas and stories – only natural as we go through the post severe shock cycle of emotions. So I foresee a hiatus in the output of science fiction output in the coming months – when depends on the medium of writing   – anything from two years for novels to three months for short stories. I am of course talking about the imaginative side of things rather than catching up with ongoing projects.

I also foresee some churn in the publishing industry. There will be business closures and these will in due course be ‘replaced’ by new start-ups. But where there’s churn there’s opportunity for the new. What that will be on the industry side of things I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see, unless of course you have time-travel abilities like Dr Who and can fast-track forward to have a look round.

But after the writers have gotten over their imaginative hiatus, they have an opportunity to push science fiction in new directions.

The politics of yesteryear so beloved in many parts of the genre will no longer be relevant for the reading public and we will stop seeing such politico-SF stories published. What of the new politics? Another matter. The pandemic is already showing up inequalities that have long since not been talked about.

It is almost inevitable we will see some major changes in the organisation of our medical services post pandemic (now is not the time to introduce those changes because everyone is doing their best to cope with what is going on). Medicine has become more technical over the centuries. I think we have now to the point where the  supply services to the medical needs needs to more organised to cope with pandemics better. The ability is there, but it will change the face of parts of the medical service. For instance there will be a push by countries to have their own in-country capability to manufacture vaccines. What is localised sourcing going to do to our economies and medical services? Please send consequences of the back of a roll of wallpaper to…

The food industry is also going to go through a localisation phase. We’ll eat more of our locally produced food and rely less on imports from other countries. I’ve invented recipes in the past – mostly out of necessity as I was stuck with odd bits of fresh ingredients and the shops weren’t open. So who’s going to come up with a recipe invention program where the input is the ingredients you’ve got handy? Sure is going help reduce food waste – granted only by a small amount, but nevertheless food production will not be so high per person. Again please consequences of the back of a roll of wallpaper to…

With localisation comes the chance for variety. One of the things of globalisation that has always concerned me is the lack of chances to take different paths into the future. This will become less so. And they do say variety is the spice of life and science fiction. If you’ve got a third roll of wallpaper…

What I’ve been trying to demonstrate with the above that there will be small changes that will lead onto bigger changes, which in turn, after you’ve mixed and matched those changes, will lead to worldwide changes. It is one of the jobs of science fiction to identify and discuss those. So in possibly a year’s time and certainly for the next decade after that, there will be a spate of near future science fiction to discuss where we as a race will be heading or wanting to head.

What of other subgenres of science fiction? We’re about to be hit with a wave of Space-Force-ralia coming as it does shortly on the heels of the setting of the Space Force in the USA. There will more near time science fiction about this and the competition to the Space Force along the lines of this is where we are heading to or don’t want to. Space opera will as a consequence take on a lower profile for a short while until the new near future starts feeding its ideas into the longer term space opera. It will happen – trust me – I have for a long time felt that a lot of our current space opera stories have become stuck in their part of vacuum repeating or bastardising the current themes.

The thriller SF will also change. It has to, to come in line with the experience of detecting where and when the pandemic started. Tomorrow’s detectives will be tech-savvy. The era of gumshoe detectives in a modern society will become implausible.

I can see no driver to change dystopias and because that theme has started showing signs of tiredness, I expect there to be less of those stories after an initial spike due to authors writing from experience.

As for the punks whichever variety tickles your fancy… they like time travel will still occupy the fantasy side of SF. They’re there for fun, gaming whatever, and will need that relaxation for a few years to come. But there will be a new punk on the block – the millennial-punk because nostalgia for the old era will inevitably set in. Life will be sufficiently different post pandemic to make the first 20 years of this century feel like an era in its own right.

Well, that’s a bit of a wild tour of SF from the near future… time take a breather and do some gardening me thinks… but before I sign off, I thought you might like this photo of Jupiter – it is the new look of the planet. You can recognise it, but it so different – the kind of way tomorrow’s science fiction will be compared to what is being published today.

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I Keep Six Honest Serving Men…

I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all i knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who,” so the famous quote by Rudyard Kipling goes. First published in Ladies’ Home Journal in April 1900 as the start of a poem, it is still true today as it was then.

What? 

What if…? is the prime question that generates of ideas for science fiction. It’s the idea around which you base your story.

Why?

Why? gives you the causality in your story. There are two types. There is the mechanical causes when one thing cause another, which can cause yet another, and so on like dominoes falling one after another. The other is the important one. What pushes that first domino? It is having a motive to overcome some sort of struggle. This gives you the story structure. This is not the detailed plot, but the outline strategy of our story.

When?

When do you start your story? The moment of greatest tension of course.

How?

The mechanics of the plot – the step-by-step guide that takes the reader through a reasoned progress of the story to its resolution, whatever the authors chooses it to be.

Where?

Where is the best place to highlight your story? It sets the story mood. Is it best to align or contrast the mood?

Who?

Flesh out the details of the who to reflect the story. Given your who a name that resonates with his main characteristic. Make them look the part as well as be the part/

These questions are in the order they should be done to develop a science fiction story. And they are in exactly the same order as Rudyard Kipling wrote them down in his poem. A coincidence? I think not. After all he was an exceedingly good writer in his day.

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Interstellar Visitors of the Science and SF kind.

Over the last few years we have discovered many interstellar bodies that have visited our Solar System. The most famous of them is of course ‘Oumuamua.

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First discovered in October 2017 and confirmed as being interstellar the following month, it has continued to fascinate scientists and the person in the street alike. There has even been planning work done on sending a mission – Project Lyra – even though it has now left our system. A lot more is now known about it – see here for a summary – and I’m sure research into it will continue for many years to come. But for the record it is probably best described as an interstellar asteroid.

August 2019 saw the discovery of an interstellar comet – Borisov. It reached with 2 astronomical units of the Sun before heading off out again. More information here. It added to the suspicion that there are far more interstellar objects visiting our Solar System than we once suspected.

Depending on your definition of the Oort Cloud’s size, we may even have had a visiting star 70,000 years ago – Scholz’ Star – a red dwarf. More background here.

Those are the objects that escaped. Some work has recently been done to show that some Centaurs – asteroids lurking between Jupiter and Neptune – may have been captured from interstellar space. See here.

The fact they will be around for some time means we have a chance of sending missions out to investigate them, so we can learn more about our starry neighbourhood. This is not going to happen any time soon unless they put money behind a reengineered Project Project Lyra to visit these permanent interlopers.

All these interlopers does put a different perspective on the way we view our Solar System. And of course the big question is what impact do they have on us?

We could go through the tail of Boris comet. Does it have any stuff that will make a difference to us? Certainly Scholz’s star will have had an gravitational effect on our Solar System all those years ago, but not having any recorded history from the time we can’t be sure what. ‘Oumuamua left very little if anything behind in the Solar System and like Borisov and the Centaur immigrants too small to have much gravitational effect.

But what a godsend of inspiration for science fiction writers… um… er… have there been any short stories about these types of interstellar objects published?

I know The Expanse has the premise that Saturn’s moon, Phoebe is one such interstellar immigrant, even though it was alien-made. Then there was Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C Clarke (also alien-made). That was before we started confirming such objects really existed.

David Wellington’s The Last Astronaut was published in July 2019 as a first contact story that starts out with an interstellar object arriving in Earth’s orbit.

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The Blurb:

A huge alien object has entered the solar system and is now poised above the Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate.

Out of time and options, NASA turns to its last living astronaut – Commander Sally Jansen, who must lead a team of raw recruits on a mission to make First Contact.

But as the object reveals its secrets, Jansen and her crew find themselves in a desperate struggle for survival – against the cold vacuum of space, and something far, far worse . . .

UK Amazon Link here.

But that is all I can put my paws during a short internet search.

There must be more to interstellar visitors to our Solar System than just aliens, surely? It is certainly a gap in the ideas in science fiction. Go write!