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Understanding Reader Reviews

Reader reviews: we get them. And, mostly, we ignore them; because, like all other forms of fiction, 90% of book reviews are junk. And reviews by regular readers, as opposed to professional critics, are like the publishers' proverbial slushpile: a seething, shouting mass of logorrhea in which a few gems may be submerged, if you can bear to hold your nose for long enough to find them.

But for an author to make a habit of ignoring feedback is pretty much the first step on a slippery slope down into a mire of self-indulgent solipsistic craziness.

So how should you approach reader reviews in order to separate the ones you should sit up and listen to from the background noise?

My take on the subject is that if you're an author, you can get some useful clues to the relevance of your reviews by psychoanalyzing the reviewers.

We live in the age of social media; corporate entities like Goodreads or Amazon use our natural inclination to communicate to generate free reviews and raise a buzz around the content they're trying to sell. We've come a long way since 1999's Cluetrain Manifesto and the internet marketers have worked out that the best marketing tool out there is word of mouth recommendations. And because individual works of fiction are about the ultimate micro-targeted boutique product, word of mouth is about the only marketing tool that works reliably. So: reader reviews. How should we interpret them?

A sad fact, worth repeating, is that it is impossible to write a work of fiction that everybody will read and understand in the same way. Readers (authors included) all approach a text with their own baggage, and what may be unremarkable or even exciting to one reader may be triggery or otherwise unpleasant to another. Whatever you write, and however well you do so, 20% of your readers will hate it—often for reasons that have nothing to do with the text and everything to do with the babble of experiences and memories that reading the text causes to rise to the surface of their mind. (Read this 2006 blog entry on one-star reviews of famous works and weep—tears of laughter, I hope, rather than despair at one's fellow primates.)

Stories which are intended to induce cognitive dissonance—by setting up a sympathetic protagonist then exposing them as a murderer, rapist, and war criminal, for example ("Glasshouse") often trigger aversive reactions from readers who start out expecting a cosy escapist yarn that stays firmly within their comfort zone. (Ditto the Merchant Princes series, which starts out looking like a classic portal fantasy but ends very uncomfortably, when cosy portal fantasy collides with realpolitik.)

Another point, also worth repeating, is that many readers are incapable of separating their own emotional response to a text from the actual content of the text. "I do not like this" is isomorphic in their mind with "this is a bad book".

So: if your work is anything but a literalistic recapitulation of a traditional narrative theme, with sympathetic characters, clearly depicted antagonists, and a cosy sense of closure at the end that reinforces traditional cultural values ("and the prince married the princess and they all lived happily ever after") you can expect a fairy ring of one-star reader reviews to circle your work on Amazon. And the more challenging the novel, the more readers will feel the need to scream I HATED THIS! I DON'T UNDERSTAND IT AND IT MAKES ME FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE! THIS IS A BAD BOOK!

This is not necessary a bad thing.

(Personally, I think it's a good thing.)

Similarly: if you write and publish novels on a regular basis, you will acquire a core of fans, and they will do their five star cheerleader thing in the Amazon fora and reviews every time you emit a new fart, whether fragrant or otherwise. You should strive to ignore these reviews. No, seriously. While it's probably okay to indulge yourself and roll around in them if you're feeling down, you should not take them seriously. Just as 20% of the audience will hate any performance, another 20% will love it to pieces—often for reasons that have more to do with the contents of their own headmeat than the quality of your writing. (There's no accounting for taste.)

The readers you need to pay attention to are the 60% who fall in between these spectral extremes. And, in particular, those readers who can separate their own emotional reaction to the text from the text itself. They may not be experienced literary critics but they can tell you much about how the regular readers have received your work. And the telling clue is that their comments say things like "I had a bad reaction to this book", rather than "this book is bad", or "I didn't understand why [the protagonist did something]" rather than "the protagonist is unbelievable".

The 20/60/20 spread is also worth paying attention to. I pulled those figures out of my arse, quite deliberately: they actually vary quite a bit from book to book—in fact, Amazon provides a neat histogram for every item, in the shape of that bar graph ranking feedback from one star to five stars.

In an ideal world, we'd look at our reader reviews and see a single fat five-star bar with nothing below it. Failing that, a bathtub curve (lots of one star and five star reviews, fewer two and four, very few three) would be satisfying: it means people react strongly to the book. The worst is an inverse-bathtub curve: lots of three stars, some two and four, no fives or ones. It means readers didn't feel strongly about the book; the typical reaction was "meh". I might be sticking my neck out here, but I know no novelists who set out to write a book to which the typical reader response will be "meh".

So. Beware the curve with a fat belly. Dread the analytical reader who can distance themselves from their subjectivity and who still gives the book three stars. Ignore the five-star fans and the one-star butt-hurt trolls. This is the world we live in, and until we learn to clone John Clute and iterate him in parallel over every genre book that is published, this may be all the help we can get.



This post blew my mind! Best ever!


That's why I generally hunt for lengthy 4 star reviews - OK, you loved it, but you didn't give it 5, so I'm going to expect your criticisms to be somewhat insightful.

Also, thank you for acknowledging that trauma is a thing which doesn't trump the brilliance of art. Not that I thought you felt differently, but it's neat of you to mention triggers as something to appreciate rather than denigrate.


Great post. Takes a degree of self-awareness to react positively to both good and bad reviews, and it must help improve your output. Anne Rice, of course, famously failed this test, but then I guess she could afford to...

Appleseed by John Clute must be one of the most bath-tubby books ever written. I thought it was mesmerising. Fucked up, confusing, more-than-a-bit trippy, but mesmerising. Surely the ultimate 1 or 5 star book. *clickety* Yup, just 5-star, 1-star, and 2-star reviews on Amazon; none of those boring 3's and 4's.


I'm a bit confused because the actual argument you propound (which is very sensible) suggests that the 2s, 3s, and 4s are likely to be from the more thoughtful readers and are therefore the ones we want.


I need to re-visit "Appleseed" -- I bounced really hard about 2 pages in, because I started it at a point when I really needed some consolatory recreational reading instead.

Clute's reviews are consistently illuminating, and when he reviews one of my books I almost always learn something new about the inside of my own head that wasn't obvious to me before I put it on display and he anatomized it.


Lots of 2s, 3s, and 4s from perceptive readers can tell us something about actual defects in the product -- conceptual failures.

Whereas middling reviews from readers who react emotionally indicate a worrying miasma of "meh" but don't necessarily tell us why the reaction was "meh".

(I need to think about this some more.)

On re-thinking: the middling-reviews-from-non-analytical-reviews problem is hard to quantify because it may be indicative of background social/cultural events that are nothing to do with the qualities of the book itself.

Consider, for example, the probability of many readers (in 1994/95) giving a technothriller written in 1991-92 and published in 1994 five stars if it relied on the USSR/USA nuclear war trope? It might be a brilliantly worked character study by John LeCarre or Len Deighton but it would still be obsolete, overtaken by events, and the emotional resonance in the reader's head would be completely different.


The only quality rating I have on is a "best" selection (about 5% of the books reviewed) and a "excellent" one (about 10% or so). Apologies for freeloading on this thread, but I'm curious as to whether anyone thinks it would be better if I gave star ratings. (I'm also tempted to mark out my most negative reviews, if only because they are some of the more entertaining ones.)


Apology accepted. (Note to mods: I'm giving #7 a pass.)

Star ratings might be useful to regular readers if you're the sole reviewer on your site because once they've read enough of your reviews and the books concerned it'll let them triangulate on how they are likely to respond to a book -- for example, I know some reviewers whose judgement I can reliably trust: if they hate a book, there's a very good chance I'll love it.


I think this -- the ability to ignore both unfounded criticism and unfounded praise -- is probably another of those measures of a mature and serious writer; because to reach that point you have to be (I think I wrote this in a post a few days ago on one of Stina's threads) both your own worst critic and greatest advocate. I am also reminded of something that Ernest Hemingway said that I have seen other author's quote, that every writer must posess "an earthquake-proof bullshit detector".


Being a great critic doesn't always mean one is a great writer, of course, nor vice versa.

There's also the question of audience. Is Clute, acknowledged as he is as an important critic, going to be writing for fellow critics who will be able to see what he's trying to do? Is that going to weigh against writing something that the more general reader, one without the tools to deconstruct and analyse and so on, will appreciate? Is literary fiction and its techniques an elitist artform?

Oddly enough, I am reminded in this of Mitch Benn. He's a pretty good musician, and I like what he plays. But I disagree quite strongly with his musical taste: he strongly dislikes some musicians that I strongly like, and I suspect he's seeing stuff that I don't begin to discern. One of these days I might try and ask him what, for instance, he so dislikes about Florence Walsh.


if they hate a book, there's a very good chance I'll love it. ... and probably vice versa?

(Like film reviews: if the film poster has a quote by Paul Ross on it, then I don't waste my money on it.)


As a slight digression, I was almost quite put out because I picked up The Merchant Princes expecting some sort of gritty parallel universe adventuring and found myself staring at a portal yarn. Were I not already familiar with your work, I might not have made it to the realpolitik.

And I'd be the analytic reader who would leave 3 stars, if I bothered starring reviews, which I don't.

I also don't like to comment on a work unless I have actual structured ways to improve the work. For example, if I start in on the latest Batman film, I'll go off on padding, the fact that the character arc for Batman makes no sense in the film, and so on, building a new film as I go.

For something like the Laundry files, the worst I could really say is that sometimes the two tones- whimsical farce and unrelenting horror- don't always mesh as well as they could. I have no structured suggestion on how to fix that.

By the way, you'll have to let us know how the BBC version starring Arthur Darvill as Bob and Bill Nighy as Angleton is coming along. Shut up, this exists and is happening right now in my head.


"Like film reviews: if the film poster has a quote by Paul Ross on it, then I don't waste my money on it."

Ha. You know a film is bad if the only star rating on the poster come from Grazia and/or Nuts (actually that's almost always an 'or' for obvious reasons). Barrel-scraping at its finest.


My personal favourite is where the poster quotes one word from a several hundred word review, such as "Superb" (I often wonder if it comes from a sentence like "Superb special effects, but the film is a huge mess.")


I know this thread is about book reviews, but do you think the same applies to music reviews?

I asked this because I've actually had an artist pressurise me into removing a positive-but-critical 3-and-a-half-star review on the grounds that it was damaging sales.


True. And I do sometimes suspect that Paul Ross (as opposed to brother Jonathan) is but a slightly upmarket alternative to those.

Back on reviewing itself, a few years back I did a capsule review on my LiveJournal page for every (fiction) book that I read. It had an interesting effect: while I was reading, I had sitting in the back of my head a voice saying "What can I say about this apart from 'I liked'/'I didn't like'?" I ended up reading slightly differently, and I think it ruined some authors for me.


If you see a quote from Chris Priest on the back of a Stross novel in the near future, you'll know that practice has crossed over into book publishing ...


I find it is far more distressing (or rather, I am far more distressed, of course) to find truly awful books with good reviews. I don't know whether to weep at the thought that people might be fooled into buying them and thus encouraging the further creation of such tripe, or at the fact that there are people able to read who cannot recognise badly written dross when they see it.

This being the blog of an author, it's probably bad manners to give specific examples (except Dan Brown, of course - Dan Brown novels are clumsy, fatuous and boring, but if he should happen to come across this post I expect he'll cry himself to sleep on his millions and millions and millions of dollars), but I invite everyone to identify a really bad book, something that suggests the editor was a blind dog at a broken mid-eighties word-processor, and to then read the Amazon reviews. You'll be horrified.



"Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet."


"Stross writes ... energetically, amusingly, sometimes affectingly."

Yes. That would work.


I'm not ashamed to admit that some of your books fail to grip me either by lack of interest in the story or by simply being too cerebral. No to mention Hannu Rajaniemi... I'm still trying to figure out what the hell he's trying to tell me with all his psychedelic techno-babble. I'm sure there is a good story in there (as I'm sure there is in Glass House) but alas, I'm unable to find it. I think I need classic space opera or there about (I own every book by Peter F Hamilton, that should tell you something... ;)) What I wouldn't do however is going online and complain that the book is bad because it flies over my head, I just accept that my reading enjoyment requires a more traditional "non-threathening" narrative. Come to think of it, I should proably read Glass House again...


My working system for telling whether or not it's worth seeing a movie in the cinemas: is it advertised on anything to do with public transport (bus shelters, sides of buses, billboards near train lines, billboards at train stations, etc)?

If it is, I don't bother going to see it in the cinemas. It won't be worth the $20 for the ticket, and I'll probably wind up wanting those 90 minutes of my life back again. If I'm really keen on it, I'll wait for the DVD version to come out. So far, according to my partner (who has a vastly greater tolerance for paying money to waste his time than I do), it's held up pretty well as a judgement call - all the ones which fail the public transport test tend to be the ones he doesn't rate particularly highly).


I try to write thoughtful, although always personal of course, reviews. If there's a score/star ranking system I tend to use it. The ones that see the light of day are usually (unscored) film reviews and I don't expect anyone important (in the film creative team that is) reads them.

But my inclination would be a sort of rapid filter. Is this obviously an emotive response? If yes, then ignore. That might help you filter most of the fanboys and girls, the absolute haters, those that read it in a bad mood and so on.

Then a second filter of is there anything constructive here? Even if it's a thoughtful review it might not say anything useful in terms of later writing after all. I hope my reviews are thoughtful, but no DP is going to learn anything good - unlike a review of The Hobbit I read earlier that compares and contrasts the different formats in some very interesting ways. But the guy writing it trains DPs so he ought to have the right skill set to do that.

How do your reviews stand up to such winnowing Charlie? I'd imagine you could trim more than 40% on the first pass fairly quickly, and reading the rest becomes less of a challenge on your time?


Oh, I adore Hannu Rajaniemi, but that's because we both share very similar visions of what we expect the far future to look like. While the language gets a little flowery, the story is generally pretty simple until you find out that this character has been emulating this other character the entire time but has actually been trapped in a simulation anyway which is fine because they trapped the simulator in a simulation...

I take back what I said about simplicity.

Rajaniemi and Greg Egan are probably two of my favorite authors out there right now, but I can completely understand why many people wouldn't like them. Honestly, I have a hard time understanding how Egan gets published. I love his books, but holy crap, they aren't exactly about the sorts of things that most people like to read, but they're full of such big, crunchy ideas.


Things could be worse.

Back when I was writing for White Dwarf their reviews were... interesting, for some values of interesting. They gave stuff to their writers to review, and since everything reviewed was sold in their shops, and most reviewers wanted to be given more games and continue to write for the company, it was a given that nearly everything got rave reviews and high ratings. Readers had to learn to read between the lines to understand that a high score for e.g. complexity was not necessarily a good thing - if I was the reviewer it usually meant ridiculously over-complicated and/or incomprehensible.

While there are plenty of flaws with Amazon's system, it's a hell of a lot more honest.


Ahh.. So THAT was what is was about... :D But you should probably put a big *SPOILER* sign on that recap just in case... ;)


Two hints.

1) "Glasshouse" is British military slang for a military prison.

2) If you re-read it, don't take anything Robin/Reeve tells you at face value. The true story is happening in the background ...


Tx, Charlie. I'll do that :)


I'm probably one of the people who gives all your books 5 stars, sorry about that :)

There's the fact that stars aren't always equivalent - people don't always use them to mean the same thing.

The system I generally use is:

5 - this book has no flaws, would read again
4 - this book is nearly perfect, I don't regret reading it but I probably wouldn't put it on my bookshelf
3 - this book has flaws but is readable, I definitely wouldn't waste shelf space on it
2 - this book is bad but has some redeeming quality
1 - this book has no redeeming qualities

Consequently I've only given out a dozen or so 5's, a couple 1's and a lot of 4's and 3's.

So if someone else has rated a book a 3, what does that mean? Does it mean the same thing I would mean with a 3 or do they mean something completely different by it? Maybe they rate everything a 3 except for giving really exceptional books 5 and really terrible books 1 - I have no way of knowing.

That makes the rating histogram less useful, because not only can the stars mean different things but each mix of reviewers will be different.


You guys should be in the blurb-writing business. That one nearly resulted in a generous spray of coffee across the monitor!


You're an odd reader-reviewer, then: most folks who look at the number of stars as a guide to whether a book is worth reading ignore anything with four or fewer! You're grading well below the curve.


In the US Army, NCOs are regularly evaluated by superiors using a system called the NCOER (Non Commissioned Officer Evaluation Report). The "rater" is asked to assign a score in various areas such as Leadership, Competence, Responsibility and Accountablity, then support them with "bullet comments"--short one or two line comments that support the score given.

Mentors make it clear that an excellent numerical score is useless if unsupported by the comments. If you give the best possible rating in Leadership, and support it with "Kept boots consistently shiny" you might as well have said, between the lines, "Mediocre. Don't promote."

Here's the five starred review I gave Banks'
latest Culture novel.

"Each Culture book is unique. While sharing a setting, each is written using a completely different approach, which is part of what makes the series so excellent. And the style and construction of the story always kind of echo something within it. Excession was the most intense immersion in the Culture itself, and especially Minds. It's form and style gave some of the feel of how Minds are. Use of Weapons dealt more with a Special Circumstances associate with a convoluted past, and its form and style reflected that. Inversions, with just a hint of Culture, reflected the character of deep undercover.

"It's hard to discuss Hydrogen Sonata for fear of spoiling it. In fact the moral of the tale is a hall of mirrors about spoilers, really a Hydrogen Sonata of a thing. If you like the world of the Culture, its great to spend some time there again. The setting gets extended, details are filled in, adventures occur, Minds are witty and good. There will be a sense of flatness to villain motivation that suits what it must feel like to be part of a civilization about to sublime. But that also kind of produces an effect, highlighting the Minds as more vivid, and the Sublimed life as even more so. How else are you going to do that?"

Translation: I'm ever so glad he's writing these, but come on, do something new with it already.

And doesn't it matter that the stars go into an average that might impact readers when they make a buy decision? I know I don't look at that stuff. You can tell from the official synopsis if something worthwhile is there. Maybe if I'm really undecided as a reader, such as if the idea is intriguing but I have doubts about how well it might have been done, I'll look for a good reader review and a bad reader review. Between them you get a more three dimensional picture by what kinds of shadows are cast in different directions. It tells me what the book was LIKE: I'm not interested in how it affected the particular reader, that's just a clue to what it was like.

Having read this, I will try to do thoughtfull reviews of all your books and honestly explain how they struck me.

And I suspect this answers my question about what you do to recharge and prepare for new writing tasks.


Note that the first part is the genuine quote, by Priest on discovering that one of Charlie's books was up for an award while his own latest oeuvre was not. So there's an added flavour of sour grapes in there which isn't usually an issue with readers' reviews.

The full article is a breathtaking display of bile that left many with a bitter taste in their mouths. It basically came down to an "I don't like these, and I don't even like the people who like them" rant that was unworthy of his reputation. No man of his age should have been that immature.


I often find one star reviews really useful. Certainly as an initial filter on new authors.

If the one star reviews are mainly – I HaTeZ Tihs BooKZ - then I move on to the four and five star ratings looking for positive reasons to read the book.

But if the there are few one star reviews which explain why the book doesn’t work, with some suggestions of better treatments of the themes then I’m confident enough that there are sufficient flaws that I can not buy it and move on to something else.


In my context, Open Source Software, I've noticed that the quality of reviews are inversely proportional to the effort it takes people to produce them.

I wonder if you see the same pattern ?

For instance snail-mail (does that still happen ?) is higher quality than email, which is higher quality than amazon etc ?


I remember reading the Priest article. It was a staggering display of playground-level name-calling, and simian temper-tantrum-esque dung-flinging. (Although I must admit, that I was laughing at the sheer absurdity of it by the end.)


Re Amazon reviews:
I normally assume that most reviews with 5 stars are mostly a result of Fanboys and to be treated with scepticism.


Note that Amazon has a remarkable policy of banning authors who attract comments from other authors! This looks to be a misplaced attempt to clamp down on circle-jerks among the self-published, but it means that some categories of relatively insightful reviewers are barred.

(I don't generally review books, especially not in public, because I'd be dishonest if I couldn't deliver negative reviews as well as positive, and I'm not just Charlie Stross, Random Fanboy any more: a negative review with my name on it has the potential to hurt people. But even if I was an obscure midlist author, I'd have to be wary about reviewing books ... because I could accidentally get the target of the review de-listed due to that brain-dead policy.)


Stories which are intended to induce cognitive dissonance ... often trigger aversive reactions

Any time you go for shock value, some people will freak and some people will yawn. It's just the nature of the beast.


It doesn't even have to be shock value. Even providing a peaceful and introspective view on the reader's own society, albeit as seen from the perspective of a foreigner -- who sees things differently -- can be joltingly alienating. And the reader's reaction depends on what they're looking for when they pick the book up.


A stack of five star ratings and nothing much else may often be, if not the result of abuse of the system, a sign that the author's reputation (or perhaps the book's presentation) has pre-filtered the range of potential readers. Or perhaps, as others suggest, a sign of good "expectation management" (expensive books often seem to get rated largely down because of their price, for example). There aren't, one assumes, many reviews of the Laundry novels that compare them to In Search of Lost Time.


It sounds like expectation is a big part of a lot of 1-Starrers; as you say, when their expectations aren't met, they find it impossible to step back and be objective about whether the failure to anjoy is primarily the fault of the story or the fault of the reader (but *I* like reading, and I didn't like *this*, so it must be BAD!). It's almost like a child's reaction to expectations being confounded -- whatever the cause, the child will feel betrayed and lied to, and lashes out. (There's probably a huge topic to unpack here about extending childhood and refusing to grow up in today's society, and how the internet can enable this behaviour -- but that's a big rabbit hole, and I'm just going to take a step back.)


Oh Gracious Host, if I may turn your post on its head: what should us, the readers, think about your reviews of other books?

I bought Rajaniemi at your suggestion and was extremely satisfied (which lead me to Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls which is going well so far!). And more recently I was browsing a bookstore in a nearby city and saw the first two books of James S. A. Corey's "The Expanse" series (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War). Outwardly they looked "meh", but your review on the cover encouraged me to buy it. I've enjoyed reading them a lot.

I trust your taste and your analysis, but as you say, you have a lot of influence. For reviews you have written, do you write as an author or a reader?

(I am willing to admit that I may simply be a foaming-at-the-mount fanboy. :D)


It's very difficult to describe why you love something in a way that's not emotional or too subjective. I love all Stross books and would give many of them 5 stars but if I was to explain why, I would tell how they made me feel (joyfull, sad, angry, etc,). Very dull and not very insightfull. It's much easier to point at failures, because they stand out much more clearly. I could write long reviews on bad books but a positive review would be total gushy garbage.


Priest's rant is more amusing if you imagine it being read out by the singer Morrissey. Though I can't be sure, there may have been some ill-judged self parody intended? Maybe not.


Damn... I need to reread Glasshouse again. This has got to be the third or fourth time this year.


With the amazon reviews, does that use the same ratings as the recommendations system?
I tend to use my ratings to tune the recommendations system to give me better recommendations.* That results in a spread between 3-5 stars mainly, as I don't tend to buy things that I end up hating (or rather I don't hate things I've spent hard earned cash on), so there's only a smattering of 0 stars, plenty of 5's and a few 3-4's for things I liked but don't necessarily want to see more of.

When it comes to reviews for other people I wouldn't even bother, my tastes are pretty odd at times and I assume they wouldn't be of much use to anyone else.

*(I'll leave it up to the professional authors here to work out a way of writing that sentence without using the same word three times)


"I tend to use my ratings to tune the recommendations system to give me better recommendations."

You could remove the first occurrance of "recommendations" and the sentence would scan better and still make perfect sense -- the subject in the second half of the sentence qualifies the subject in the first half (sorry, brain has blanked on the correct terms).


Personally, I don't think it much matters whether you say "excellent", "good" (and optionally ..., "the print run for this work was a waste of a perfectly good sapling"), 5*...1*, or something else entirely as long as your criteria are consistent and you give us some information about why you felt that way.

For instance, if I'm looking at reviews on MZN (name disemvoweled; I've been wanting a reason to use that word) I'll look for 5*, 4* and 2* that have positive "useful review scores" and tell me something about the work. I can usually figure out from that combination whether or not it's a work I'm likely to enjoy or not.

For instance, a hypothetical review of mine for Rule 34 would actually start "Ok, I'm a fan of this guy, of near-future SF and geographically accurate police procedurals, so I was bound to like this. Now lets examine why in more detail."


Teknomanswer #23 - I too have sometiems had a hard time understanding why Egan gets published, because his characters aren't very interesting even to me, who writes stories (as yet unpublished) with characters who aren't so interesting and 3D as I'd like them to be. Hannu's characters are more life like, the problem with his stuff is that unless you've spent a great deal of time reading SF of various sorts and/ or a techie science background you won't really get them. Which wasn't a problem one reviewer had yet his review was total mince, the name of whom I won't mention because this isn't the place to do so.

On the matter of bad books and varying reviews, I read a book earlier this year, one of the ones on the tail end of the Da Vinci code occult thriller stuff. (Oddly I can't sere it on my shelf and I'm sure I didn't throw it out)
It was genuinely appalling. The characters spouted massive infodumps at each other in lieu of actual background or story progression; there was no real danger to them except once or maybe twice and at no time was it scary or anything; the baddy was destroyed by the 2ndary baddy doing something that he didn't seem to think would have the result that it did.
And yet some Amazon readers liked it.
As with Rand, a lot of people think with their gut rather than their head, and the words in the book conjue up some amazing images inside their head, as if the book has been shaped just for them. I still find it extraordinary.


I didn't like Appleseed.
I find Clute's critical pieces useful and interesting.
I agree with this piece.


'a literalistic recapitulation of a traditional narrative theme, with sympathetic characters, clearly depicted antagonists, and a cosy sense of closure at the end'

I'll take six of those.:)


"I trust your taste and your analysis, but as you say, you have a lot of influence. For reviews you have written, do you write as an author or a reader?"

I strongly suspect Charles sneaks around the Net using a name other than "Charles Stross" on occasions.


Reader reviews have been useful for finding a new author since often there's a large enough number of reader reviews per title to figure out what type of read I can expect.

What I look for ... interesting, new, well-thought out perspective(s) rooted in an understanding of human nature/society and because I'm specifically looking for SF authors, some science (not gadget)-related what-if premise. Reaction while reading should be: 'Yes, this could happen' because the human condition is clarified by the where, when, who, how, why, etc. that makes up the narrative. 'Human condition' can be broad/general or specific/central character but realistic, i.e., mundane day-to-day details, to provide a benchmark of how different/same the book's universe is from my present-day reality. A range of different but identifiably 'real' individuals and their consequent reactions to/interactions within the author's universe can make a story more interesting but isn't a deal-breaker.

Turn-offs: 'clever' writing, same-old-same-old, never-progressing stories (Jordan comes to mind here), stupid characters, etc.

Yardstick for a good read is whether I want to re-read it. Okay - there have been a very few books that were so good/powerful but whose tone/mood so bleak/upsetting that one read was enough to etch them permanently into memory.


Very good post.
This is exactly why I don't pay much attention to customer ratings that are one or five stars for anything online, not just books. I'm also convinced that some of the one star reviews are written by people either with an axe to grind, or they get some sense of power from it.

I've only really hated two books, for very different reasons.

I read "The Confessions" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in my early 20s, and couldn't stand the person it described, and kept thinking "It's an autobiography: the narrator is the author, and he's a complete jerk!" Later on I realized that if it had been a novel it probably wouldn't have bothered me as much, because it did have much of interest in it. I suspect that if were to read it now, nearly 20 years later, my reaction would be different*.

The other book was "The Voyage of the Space Beagle", which I read just a few years ago. I absolutely hated the writing in it. It had decent story ideas, but it was such a product of its time--the Pulp Mag era (not all of which was bad)--that I had to force myself to finish it.

*Similar to when I read the original "Dune" series at 18. The one book I didn't care for, and thought was boring and repetitive was "God-Emperor". I reread the whole series a few years ago, and my reaction to that book was the opposite. It was very different from what I remembered, and it's a favorite in the series now. "Dune Messiah" on the other hand now seems like filler.

Of Charlie's work, I've only had trouble with "Glasshouse". When I got toward the middle I kept wondering what was with the "50s housewife shit", but kept with it and saw what he was doing, and enjoyed the rest (though had some problem with the end). It's the one book by him that I ought to reread--not just for pleasure. I've gotten to the point where I just like reading him, his writing is always enjoyable as well as having a good story. No reviews necessary, probably true for most of us here.

now to go back and read the comments.


I think a lot of it has to do with how the books are marketed. Here I'm talking about the cover, the genre labels, the back cover copy, etc. When the customer sees a book on the store shelf, the purchase decision is based on all of that. The customer will naturally be disappointed if the prose inside doesn't ultimately fulfill the implicit promises made by its marketing department.

Similarly, I've seen Glasshouse on the shelves, but always assumed it was about some sort of panopticon, which didn't seem very interesting. I didn't know about the UK military slang meaning of the word until comment #26. If I'm typical, an alternate title for the US edition might have sold more books.


I guess that makes me the type of person Charlie doesn't want a review from, which is fine since I don't write them.

Though, if one of his books did disappoint, I'd likely say so here--if it came up.
Or I could follow his practice of not saying anything further about books he's mentioned reading, and did not like.


...many readers are incapable of separating their own emotional response to a text from the actual content of the text. "I do not like this" is isomorphic in their mind with "this is a bad book".

Likeability is important to some people. Example: US Presidential elections.

Reviews are funny things. When reading reviews of a blender, you can assume that ratings are based on common functional merits: how well it blends, how nice it looks and feels, how durable it seems to be.

Reviews of a book are a mix of each individual's functional merits (e.g. how well does it transport me from my dreary existence; how well does it stretch my brain; how much interesting party conversation does it give me) and artistic merit (how well it's written.)

All these figures of merit don't exactly align. Escapists hate books that break genre conventions. Neophiles love them. Loudmouths usually don't even notice. Literary reviewers merely note the quality and magnitude.

Don't get me started on motorcycle reviews...


I think you've hit on a couple of good points that generalize:

I tend to be wary of one- and five-star reviews regardless of the product, for much the reasons you describe -- five-star reviews often come from people who've just opened a box and not noticed any obvious defects, while one-star reviews disproportionately come from statistical outliers who had a bad experience with the product; people are more likely to post negative comments about something that made them angry than positive ones about something that made them happy.

Secondly, on your "And the telling clue is that their comments say things like "I had a bad reaction to this book", rather than "this book is bad"" point -- I think linguistic hedges that acknowledge the speaker's own biases are a sign of sophistication. Not to mention a good tool for avoiding conflict in general conversation -- the difference between saying "it is" and saying "it seems to me" in an argument can mean the difference between escalation and a sympathetic dialogue.

Plus, being able to say "I didn't like it but I think it's a fine example of the craft" is a good perspective to have. Plenty of brilliant books can be unpleasant slogs, due to subject matter, presentation, or both. (When I read Toni Morrison's Beloved in college, I wasn't the only person saying "This is a brilliant book I never want to read again"; I think that was nearly everyone else's reaction in the class, including the professor.)

Being able to say "It's not for me but you might like it if you like..." is a must-have skill for a reviewer -- or, for that matter, a salesman, at least if he's a salesman at a small business who expects to deal with the same customer again in the future. You don't want to trash your customer's tastes, but at the same time you don't want to kiss ass and claim to like things you don't actually like because once people catch on then your stated opinion becomes completely worthless.


Great way to treat reviews, Charlie. Love it.

Psychoanalyzing people who address you or your work online is generally a good idea, since most of them (if not all) have little to no clue about your true character or the mood you're in, so what they say is mostly a reflection of their own character & mood, and not an accurate remark about the subject at hand. This happens much more online than in real life conversations, where one automatically tunes into the body language of another.

I really enjoy your blog, and I'm definitely staying here. I've recently bought Glasshouse, which I can't wait to read over the holidays, based on the blurb (not the reviews). The fact that you've just said it's a book likely to cause cognitive dissonance with regards to the protagonist's character, makes me itch to read it! :D


What about those correlating things like Gnook and Amazon's "People who liked this book also liked..." function. Seems you could tell a lot about a book's reception by what other books it's often correlated with.


I now feel lazy...

I tend to read new authors because Mike at Transreal suggested that they were good; more than half the time, I'll try their other books.

When my beloved gave me an e-reader, I tried the Baen free library; somewhat milSF obviously, but at least it let me confirm my suspicions about Tom Kratman (somewhat 2D antiterrorist revenge porn, with some very dangerous and mistaken opinions about torture) while discovering that some of John Ringo's collaborative work is actually enjoyable, and that Michael Williamson is reasonably enjoyable, and interesting from a "challenge your opinions on libertarianism" PoV. I prefer Elizabeth Moon, mind you...

Lately, I've been relying on "authors mentioned on this blog"; I've enjoyed their work so far...

I like work that challenges tropes (hence OGH) or introduces new ideas. I'll read things that I disagree with, because otherwise I worry about staying too cosy. I want it to be well written, but I don't need to like the characters - I just need to believe in them.


@ 12
... two tones - whimsical farce and unrelenting horror Like the real world, you mean?

@ 20
Well, I've stalled completely on "The Fractal Prince" - I'm reading Taleb on BLack Swans instead - much more understandable, & FUN!.

Chalie @ 26
There's also the saying about people living in Glass Houses isn't there. (Apart from not stowing Thrones, that is - thank you Frank Muir)

3lucid @ 42
Thanks, I'll have a look at Corey.
One slight problem is this the latest name used by "Corwin" ....of Avalon?


I used to give talks on training courses at work. There was a feedback system where the course attendees rated each speaker 1-5 for content and ditto for presentation, and added a few words of comment if they wanted to. These were then collated and sent to the speaker.

I rarely didn't have at least one 5:5 and one 1:1 in my feedback. From talking to others, this was not uncommon.

Now I can easily understand how something could be at perfectly the right level for someone, and way over someone else's head, and trivially boring to a third - so a 1:5 range in content I can understand. But for presentation?

I've never trusted subjective ratings since.



Glad you're enjoying Black Swan. Thing that people miss is, given it's reputation as a "Big Book," is that Taleb's fun to read, especially if one appreciates a certain amount of sarcasm with one's stats.


Where I do find aggregate ratings of the kind produced by GoodReads helpful is in getting a hint as to where to start with an author I've discovered. Generally speaking, I've found star-ratings a good guide to the relative quality of an author's different works, though there is no doubting that reviewers of some genres are harsher than others. It has its limitations - really popular/renowned books sometimes end up with an artificially low rating because they are picked up by readers who wouldn't normally be interested. And sometimes I end up just not liking a book that is highly regarded by many others, without always even being able to explain why.

What I find more interesting, in a way, are the books which others have been unimpressed by, but which I enjoyed a lot or had a particularly strong impact on me.


I think it may be like "often bought with"; helpful if $author is typical of your tastes, bit not if they happen to be an outlier.


Those systems are only of any use if all the delegates wanted to be there. You don't say what you were doing courses on, but IME there's at least one person on any given H&S course who's bored by it because they can remember the whole conent from last time, and one who's only there to get HR and/or their line manager off their back. You can probably rely on them both to give you a donkey vote of all 5s or all 1s.


It's interesting how subjective a simple 5 star system can be. My wife and I have hashed out ours to a science: 5 stars are few and far between, reserved for only our desert island books. 4=liked very much, 3=liked it well enough, 2=didn't like it and 1= waste of paper/time. We almost never give 1 star reviews.

(the reason we codified ours is for the Netflix queue, and their wonky recommendation algorithms, but that's another post entirely).

I know several librarians who make a big deal of rating books, as it's part of their job to put together reader advisories. They never rate anything below a 4, even if they absolutely hated the book. Which of course makes the ratings pointless.


I had often heard that Clute's reviews were the bee's knees, so I hunted around for an example. I hit the one for The Warrior's Apprentice, which I remember as a paragraph or so listing the financial and social status of Miles and ending with something like "And why should I care about such a rich privileged teenager?" This seemed sort of unfair, so I decided that the reviewer and I were not likely to be simpatico. Are there any examples of Clute that I should read to get a different perspective?


Sometimes reading particularly negative reviews, I think of Nietzsche:

"Somebody remarked: 'I can tell by my own reaction to it that this book is harmful.' But let him only wait and perhaps one day he will admit to himself that this same book has done him a great service by bringing out the hidden sickness of his heart and making it visible."

"psychoanalyzing the reviewers"

...For when the hair-shirt no longer pains enough, and you don't want the bloodstains from the barbed-wire one!


Now I can easily understand how something could be at perfectly the right level for someone, and way over someone else's head, and trivially boring to a third - so a 1:5 range in content I can understand. But for presentation?

Some of us like stories/allegories. Others want "just the facts". Some respond to a climax with a supporting presentation. Others follow best if things build to a climax.

And if your presentation goes against their grain, they will have a hard time following you no matter how engaging the subject.


Nah, this is just a perfectly normal competitive streak, and IMHO it's a really healthy approach to it... It's up there with publicising defects that you've found in the software that you've written, and is all part of quality improvement.

If you meet an athlete after they've won a competition, you can occasionally see them looking a bit "down", because they may be happy with the result but disappointed with the performance. Even if they're happy with their performance, you'll see them starting to think about the things that they can improve. GB Cycling apparently do a constant analysis of things with a view to "accumulated marginal gains"; seems to work for them :)

For a counter-example, look at a politician after seven or eight years running a country - surrounded by yes-men and the power-hungry, somewhat out of touch, insulated from criticism, and believing their own propaganda. There's a good reason for term limits.

Unfortunately, OGH doesn't get someone holding a golden wreath above his head and whispering "remember that you are mortal" as he drives his chariot through Edinburgh in triumph...


Regarding "liking stories", ISTR research has found that facts are rendered twice as memorable when presented as part of a coherent narrative.

Parable-based instruction works; I've used it, and it's been used on me. You'll remember the story from the Darwin Awards long after you'd have remembered a rather dry safety briefing for microwave relay towers, the use of appropriate materials for vehicle fuses, or the safe handling of explosives in a rural environment.


heteromeles @ 64
I keep wondering if Taleb has read Banksie's "Excession", because he is talking about (small-scale) OCP's isn't he?

[ OCP = Out of Context Problem ... ]


Unfortunately, OGH doesn't get someone holding a golden wreath above his head and whispering "remember that you are mortal" as he drives his chariot through Edinburgh in triumph...

No one is riding a chariot through Edinburgh in triumph at the moment because of trams, gas works and Hogmanay.


Great post - liked it, with the caveat that what you suggest are general guidelines, which means there will always be exceptions.

I've done very few reviews because I know I have a personal reaction to what I read - for instance, I would not willingly read horror as I've seen too much of it in real life. Now science fiction with a whole load of techno-ideas I'd just love, and to me there are too few of these stories available - O.K. I'm greedy! See what I mean by personal reaction?

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year.


A very good point; low ZMN review scores by people who read/watch a lot of $genre tend to mean either "hugely misleading marketing, blurb etc" with the result that, say, you bought a horror story by mistake and felt that you had to point out that this work is actually horror, or "this specific work is irridemably bad".


IMHO rating systems (out of 5 or 10 or whatever) are inherantly flawed.

For starters they assume "goodness" is one dimensional. Then of course everyone has a different idea about what they mean. Some people never give top marks to anything on the grounds that nothing is perfect. Some people never give anything less than 6 out of 10 as it feels mean. There is also selection bias; typically people don't bother to review things unless they reacted strongly, which goes some way to explain the higher than expected proportion of min/max scoring.

Ask yourself this: should you rate every book in the top 20% of all books 5 stars out of 5, the next 20% 4 stars and so on to give a flat distribution? Or should your scores form a normal distribution?

Charlie, any favourite 1 star reviews of your books you'd like to share?


Para 2:-
Sentence 3 - I've had this argument at length with someone on DeviantArt; Look up my critiques on there if you're that interested.
Sentence 5 - I'll sometimes review stuff that I've had a "meh" reaction to, normally if I expected to have a strongly positive reaction. Typically I'd start "I wanted to like this a lot but..."

Para 3 - If you can only award positives range 1..5, it doesn't make that much difference; the closest approximation to a normal distribution you can get is 1 - Bottom 10%, 2 - Next 20%, 3 - Next 40%, 4 - Next 20% and 5 - Top 10%. It's more germane if you can award 10 different rankings, either 1..10 or 1..5 Step 0.5 like DA.

Para 4 - We already had this conversation; there's a link somewhere back up-thread. OK?


Re: (my) Para 3 my corrolary is that whatever distribution someone *thinks* they are applying, the reality of the ratings they actually give is generally completely different. This is partly down to selection bias again - after all, most people don't read a book unless they expect to like it (unless they are a proferssional reviewer or some other reason), which will tend to skew things towards the positive.

I think a good way to psychoanalyze the reviewer is to look at the distribution of their scores, should such data be available. Someone with a "bathtub" profile probably writes review in order to try and influence people. Someone with a normal distribution somewhere around the 7/10 mark is probably more intellectually honest.

Re: (my) Para 4. Really? I've reread (okay, reskimmed) the whole thread and can't see any such thing apart from the Priest puppy thing.


ref #79 Para 3 - I think we're more or less in agreement, at least as long as you agree that you can't get a proper normal distribution out of 5 discrete and adjacent scale values anyway. Certainly I'm aware of, and know that my reviewing has, self-selection bias. I'd even go as far as to say that the basic reason for this bias is that very few people will actually spend money on things they expect to hate.

1* Reviews - Annoyingly, I can't find it either, even using Google-Fu!


Not being an english native reader I've got other problems : sometimes Ijust can't read the book ! For example : I thank you a lot for putting "rapture of the nerds" online so I didn't have to buy it and be disappointed : techno-slang, welsh austrakian accent ... are just too much for me to approach nearby the story : I had to read it with the dictionnary open and often didn't catch the meaning of some sentence... so I will wait until it's translated (if ever... by the way : do you have any schedule of your next translations in french ? I really liked Palimpseste which had a really good translator, but I didn't even tried to read "Glasshouse").
The french translator of Terry Pratchett is a must : I read all of his books 2 times : one in english and the other in french just for the pleasure of a really good translator.
It's sometimes very hard to tell what you don't like in a book : the writer'style ... or the translator's one. I loved your laundry files so i bought "le bureau des atrocités" in french and found it poor. Just for check I re-read them in english and still found it good. So I went to amazon and you rate 2 stars for the laundry files and 5 for the prince-merchants ! IMHO this is due to the translator...

As for the stars : don't you think it strange that just when a lot of schools all around the world are dropping notes in class exams, everybody on the net seems to do exactly the opposite and range, star, note everything... sometimes I wonder where the modernity is ...


I trust reviews from people whose taste I trust. For instance, today I bought an e-book after reading a favorable review of it by Lois McMaster Bujold.


Regarding your paragraph 2, I just looked on Amazon UK, and the review scores for both the Merchant Princes and Laundry Files books run 3.75* to 5* with the Laundry Files scoring slightly higher, so I think you may well be correct about the issue with the French editions being a different translator.

For Glasshouse, as earlier in the thread, the word "Glasshouse" can (depending on context, and here this is the correct context) mean a military prison. If you're interested in the etymology of words, this is because the first British military prison actually did have a glass roof.


This reminds me of the Band-Pass filter I invented to deal with the SXSW MP3 dump. Some fool went to the trouble of rating and capsule reviewing all several thousand songs. I reasoned that if he (it was) gave something a 5, it might mean it was very good, or it might just fit his preferences closely. If he gave it a 1, it might mean it was objectively dreadful, or it might just not be his thing.

As I had no reason to assume our preferences coincided, I was therefore interested in both 1s and 5s.

Further, I theorised that anything really interesting had a good chance of annoying some people (so it had a chance of being 1d) as well as being 5d. So I took the 1s and 5s, and wonderfully, I couldn't tell which ones were 1s and which 5s.


Results: hxxp://


With AMZN reviews, I also check the reviewer's other reviews if they are 1 or 5 star. I've come across the heavy 5 star reviews which are made by reviewers who have never reviewed anything else, which invalidates those reviews for me. Are the 1 star reviewers mostly grouchy reviewers or not. What reviews have they given of books/movies I know/like. The readers ratings of the reviews are also very helpful, IMO.

In terms of finding good SF to read, this blog has thrown up books that I liked more consistently than any other venue. This is selection bias working for me. I would almost suggest that OGH does an annual "what do you recommend?" post.

I checked my AMZN reviews of Charlie's books and I surprised to see that I had only reviewed 2, Wireless and Saturn's Brood, both of which I gave 5 stars. I know that I would not have reviewed the MP series as they didn't engage me (I read four, but they felt like slogs and I gave up reading further). Had I reviewed any of them, they would have received low ratings but mainly because I just didn't like them, rather than for any analyzable reason.
It is interesting how different one can feel about books. I note that Glasshouse consistently gets commented on about how difficult it was, and yet I liked it more than the more successful series - Laundry (which I like) and MP.


Parable-based instruction works; I've used it, and it's been used on me. You'll remember the story from the Darwin Awards long after you'd have remembered a rather dry safety briefing for microwave relay towers,

For those of us who are easily distracted into chasing mental rabbits down holes, more than an occasional story in the presentation usually means we remember the stories but forget the point of the presentation.

Not all brains are wired the same way.


BTW, Charlie. Do you know who\what is behind the Curious Yellow worm? You don't have to tell us, of course.

Or is it just a world building device?


I am a peer-reviewed literary critic in our genres, in venues such as The Columbia Encyclopedia of American Poetry, and the Science Fiction Research Association Review, and say that critics are only able to see a reviewed work through their lenses. Some have diamond lenses, ground exquisitely for image clarity. Some have lenses with severe chromatic aberration, a type of distortion in which there is a failure of a lens to focus all colors to the same convergence point. Those critics may grasp your plot, but not your characters, or the characters, but not the setting, or the black humor but not the quality of language. Thus, Your Mileage May Vary. We see through a glass darkly. And if you write in frequencies that the lens can't admit, such as UV being blocked by glass, then they never really saw your novel.


Charlie, can you remove the link from my 87, or at least de-html it so people have to copy it? I'd like to post something on my blog.

[[ link defanged ]]


Excellent post. I wonder how many of your readers give wildly varying reviews across the different strands you hav, based on baggage? I could see someone who doesn't like hard sci-fi giving moderate scores for Glasshouse, but rave reviews for Halting State.
Sadly in my field, published articles don't generally have comments sections on the publisher's website, so we never get to experience the highs and lows of general opinion.


In defence of 1 star reviews: I recently gave a favourite author of mine, a poor rating for his latest book. This author is very popular and normally get 3/4/5 star reviews. However, his latest book in one of his series was well below standar. He co-authored this book - and there is probably the reason.

Issues of note - were characters behaving at odds with previous books in the series - especially the main protagonist, use of technically impossible technology, too many cardboard characters.

I hope the author does read the 1 star reviews and note the criticisms and not do whatever caused this book to happen again.


The last 2 posts got me to wondering various things, including "had I reviewed Rule 34"? I write just about enough ZMN reviews (under my real name) that I couldn't remember. Oh and I haven't.

R34 got 1 1* review, which wasn't actually a review, but a whinge about the pile of dry sticks edition being more than the paperback. It presently has 16 "this is not helpful" feedback.
It also got 1 2* review which starts (copypasta) "I have read the authors other book, it was good." Enough said about this guy?

The overall average, across 24 reviews, inculding those 2, is 4*.



I think The Glasshouse is the book I have most enjoyed from you... I'd probably have given you 5/5 stars on Amazon, so, eh, I guess that's not helpful in an absolute sense. Not taking your post for an invitation, but doing so anyway, having read most of your repertory, that particular novel included the best of your writing - tech-savvy, clever plot twists, and an approachable (if flawed) character. I really enjoyed it. I think sometimes you struggle with a female voice, so that was just perfect, having the female/male genderbender thing going on.


If one doesn't use * or ***** in a five star review process then one is actually using a three-star review process of -1, 0, +1. I prefer to rate such that anything above a sufficiently high level is worth five stars rather than reserving that rating for some Platonic ideal book that doesn't exist. If the highest rating I ever gave was four stars then four stars would actually be five stars and by a process of induction the only rating anything could ever get would be three stars :-)


Key question is whether Charlie's publisher(s) use these consumer ratings to evaluate him.


I think publishers are more likely to use "units moved" as a measure of $author's success and popularity (and of what sort(s) of books they should be publishing; maybe Charlie is actually working on a BDSM novel? ;-) ).


@98 and 99
Units moved are influenced by reader reviews, since readers read them to make buy decisions.

Also I would imagine he is looking for insight so he can make the units more appealing, sort of the equivalent to audience reaction for a stand up comedian. What doesn't get laughs gets removed from the routine. On the other hand, if the comedian sees that a particular audience reacts well to a particular kind of stuff he steers to that kind of material.


Conquest sales are affected by reader reviews sure. Other than "don't like"/"am bored with" $series views, do you see many of Charlie's regular readers letting something like the 2* MZN review I quoted from in #95 Para 3 stop them buying his current/next book?


Make that "...Other than them having pre-existing "don't like"/"am bored with" $series..."


So what is one to make of the reviews for Niven & Benford's "Bowl of Heaven"? Neither bathtub nor bell curve. The 5* readers seem to like the book, despite the flaws, the 1* readers panned the book for its apparently horrendus editing and poor plot.

For me, the far more frequent 5* reviews killed the book as a possible purchase. This is a case were the AMZN reviewers have done great service, because none of the problems would be visible from the blurbs, nor a quick reading of a few pages.


I see what you mean. The 2 MZN UK reviews are actually both 4*, and the in-depth one has killed the book for me, particularly for the apparent lack of an ending.

It has done something useful (for some values of useful) though: It has started me wondering exactly how one goes about building a true Dyson Sphere around a star. Do you start off by building a ringworld? if so, do you extend it into a bowl or a geodesic dome or something else?...


For me the concept stimulated the thought - "just how useful could the propulsion technique be, and would it be worth looking for such stellar jets as a sign of ETI?" Benford supposedly did the physics, but I would like to calculate just how effective such a 'star drive' would be, especially compared to the relative velocities of stars.


I just wish I had read the reviews on Iain Banks "Matter" before I bought it. Anyway, I had a rant here about it sometime back but the essence was that it was a very good promising book, right up to the last 25 pages. By the time I got there I was wondering how all the interesting plot lines were going to be resolved in such a short time. There weren't - monster is easily tricked, everyone is blown up. The End.
I could just imagine a conversation between Banks and his publisher with the latter shouting down the phone that the book is overdue and he better deliver or they want their money back. He really ought to write a sequel resolving everything that was left hanging. I might even buy it.


The UK reviews more or less ignored the drive, concentrating on the BDO, the problem that led the ship-borne to explore the BDO, and the (lacks of) likeable (to one of them anyway) characters and an ending.


I rather enjoyed 'Bowl of Heaven' - it was obviously the first in a series of books from the pacing and extensive development of various races and characters encountered along the journeys taken by the groups of
crew. New big not-so-dumb-object, exotic aliens unimpressed by monkeys with a cheap-jack starship, vassal races fermenting trouble for the overlords, vast transport and infrastructure tech - whats not to like?

Kept me reading to the end, looking forward to the next installment and reminded me a little of Charlie's Missile Gap with a potentially happier ending.

-- Andrew


I'm wondering if there's a correlation between the length of the review and the number of stars it receives. One- and five-star reviews seem to be shorter on average than three-star reviews, or so it has been my impression.

I point this out because I receive a hard copy of the anonymous student evaluations at the end of semester, and believe me, I do look at them to see how I could improve my technique. However, 'this teacher sux' or 'this teacher rocks!' aren't really doing much to modify my behaviour, and it is the longer comments that are the most helpful.

Maybe the three-star guys can console themselves with the notion that they have a better class of readers :-)


I'm sorry, but these days Niven is one of the Fallen Gods, to be avoided at all costs. Right up there with Heinlein and Hogan.


Larry Niven isn't at the top of his game these days, no - but if Robert Heinlein comes out with a new book in 2013 I'll buy it, if only to find out how he managed it.


Two words, Scott: Spider Robinson. Who, come to think of it, is also on my 'to be avoided at all costs list'. This was after, not before the 'Variable Star' debacle.

Weirdly, while I don't get much of a sensawunda these days, Charlie's 'Glasshouse' was among the mores recent stories to wring out those last few drops.

No, it wasn't the gates or the printers or anything like that. It was when the protagonist went into the air ducts (as it were), climbs up several levels, and realizes that they're on a spaceship. Holy Crap - the spaceship they're on is Rama. A Rama built by humans. And taken as pretty matter-of-fact tech at that. I must be getting too jaded when my sensawunda depends on past dialogue in sf.


but if Robert Heinlein comes out with a new book in 2013 I'll buy it, if only to find out how he managed it.

Ghost written by medium?

sorry, couldn't help myself.


I really suggest you don't mention Hogan ever again on this blog. Niven and Helinlein may have (had) their faults, but neither is so truly, poisonously, toxic as Hogan was.

Going any further will probably invoke Godwin's Law, and I don't want the moderators to have to deal with that.


You, forget yourself, Bellingham. Remember that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.


12? I suspect mine was about 14-18, when I read more Asimov, Clarke, discovered Herbert, early Niven, E E Smith, more Heinlein, and I'm sure some other authors I can't recall.


I assume you don't want Wagner mentioned either, nor anyone with obnoxious political views irrespective of the merits of their work.


I still like the prologue to Code of the Lifemaker.


Jim Hogan is dead.

So that other know whereof Alan speaks: Jim was a regular at a particular series of Irish SF conventions that Alan and I also went to, until his outspoken views got up so many noses that they stopped inviting him.

It wan't the Velikovskyism that did it, although his rant on the subject at a 10am panel that only he and I remembered to turn up for really pissed *me* off. (You know it's a bad panel when, afterwards, a member of the audience congratulates you for not punching the other panelist.) The young earth creationism, however, more or less proved that Jim had descended into the peculiar form of insanity to which engineers are prone -- I create things, ergo everything must have a creator (even when it doesn't).

But the *final* straw was Jim getting into holocaust denial.

I don't generally hold with speaking ill of the dead, but I feel it's important for readers of Jim's earlier books to have some context. He wrote interesting stuff; but then the Brain Eater got him. I just hope those words don't form part of my epitaph, too.


Note: I'm on the road with an iPad, and my Bluetooth keyboard threw a fault. I'll be home tomorrow evening, and should resume blogging on the 25th. I am thinking that gun control would be a good starting point ...


I only read one book by Hogan. It was "Minds, Machines, and Evolution." None of his fiction could hold my interest and a later non-ficion put me off, but that one book was a series of essays between short stories that demonstrated the ideas. The thing that blew my mind was this idea that technological revolutionaries fight to create a revolution, then once they get to they top they use all the power they can muster to fight off new challengers and suppress new technologies. The particular thing he was trying to sell was nuclear power, and he said the oil industry was funding the opposition to it (when in reality it actually has defects on the merits) but the principle was intriguing. Maybe it blew his mind too.

And Mr. Stross, in regard to your fears about the brain eater, I would ask you to please not become H.G. Wells. I think maybe your blog will be a good way to avoid that--lets you get your soapboxing done so you don't let it destroy your storytelling talent. Hogan never had any.


I am thinking that gun control would be a good starting point ...

Cue another server upgrade...


Thanks for the background Charlie.

Ref Velikovskyism, I have only one thing to say: fruitbats!


There seems to be a disturbing number* of people I've seen/ run into online who defend Velikovsky because they feel he was improperly monstered by the overreacting close minded scientists even if he was wrong on some things, or because they thing that his works were a brave attempt at opening up greater discussion in the area of ancient history or that the marketplace of ideas should be open to all and censorship was applied instead.
We see it somewhat with climate change issues or the mad professor who claims that intelligent design should be taught in schools, his argument being something to do with the need for alternative ideas to be considered and given traction so that people can properly oppose evolution with alternatives.

I suppose its a mix of people who strive to be open minded, those who can't deal with facts and prefer ideas and some other types I can't think of right now.

* i.e. more than one.


I think what annoyed a lot of people with regard to Velikovsky is that in many instances he made predictions that were correct, but for utterly the wrong reasons.


Gun control, again urrrrrr?
If that happens, I'm going to play NRA spokesnamn


"... I create things, ergo everything must have a creator (even when it doesn't)."

Would this be related to my belief in the simulation argument, specifically designed to raise us from the dead? With the caveat that if this is not the situation now we can make it so in future?


All I recall of the "correct" predictions was the idea of a super-hot Venus.

Velikovsky might have hit on a few things that hinted at some widespread catastrophe, such as flood legends in different cultures, but he was still a class A1 Loony.


All I positively know of his ideas is . Other than flood events occurring in multiple classical and pre-classical mythologies, good luck in finding support for any of them, particularly proto-Giant planet nova, and some of the orbital shifts and planetary velocity vector changes his ideas require!


Something many people cannot understand is how mathematics can doom seemingly good or obvious ideas.


I only have a lay understanding of orbital mechanics, and I still immediately (the sort of time it takes to skim a Wikipedia article) realised that this wouldn't be Dog playing dice so much as Him playing 8-ball pool! Quite aside from having a vague appreciation of the amount of energy a nova releases (2010: Odyssey 2 is rather too close for comfort in this universe).


In one way Velikovsky was a bridge - between the time before dating and the time after dating. We take it for granted now that artefacts and occupation layers can be dated with reasonable accuracy, and we know the age of the earth quite well.
But before that, they couldn't. Thus you could write something that smushed together lots of dates and happenings around the world since it just wasn't clear as to when they happened.
So 'worlds in collision' coming out in 1950 was just at the point science was taking over. Not that historians weren't applying decent methods and thoughts to history already, but the introduction of dating techniques made their life a lot easier.

It was also the time when the whole geological Catastrophism versus uniformitarianism battle, then over a century old, was being decided as "Both at different times and anyway it's stupid pressing everything into such a framework because you lose the nuances and details".

Getting published by a major publishing house obviously didn't help matters. There is an appetite amongst the public for material which ties together lots of "I didn't know that" with "Hey the big panjandrums are wrong" with a bit of awe and stuff to make the reader feel intelligent. Although I do think that many don't take it seriously; it's part of the problem society in general has with people not taking things seriously, which is fine when its an abstruse intellectual debate about the chicken or the egg, but not fine when it's a concrete matter of oceanic acidification affecting the food chain on which we all depend, or CO2 being a greenhouse gas.


Agreed. For example, the tsunamis that cause huge floods don't need a supernova. Or, if you're following Ballard's exploration of the Black Sea to look for the human impact of the flooding of that basin around 5000 years ago, it's worth realizing that this all happened due to ice melting and a large rock dam giving away. Something similar happened with Gibraltar and the flooding of the Mediterranean about five million years ago.

This is the point about math. All it takes is a few cubic kilometers of rock giving away to cause a huge flood, either by letting water in, or moving water into a tsunami.

Reworking celestial mechanics invokes forces that are billions of times bigger than this. It's like invoking a bulldozer to move a single grain of sand. That's where Velikovsky screwed up.


Just to clarify - Velikovsky was a bridge for the alternate history/ unscientific crowd, not the science crowd.
That's something else that gets up my nose, people arguing that challenging the accepted theory e.g. in velikovsky's case the dating of Egyptian Pharaohs, is a good thing in and of itself and that doing so helped crack open the fossilised ideas before. I've seen this sort of comment on other matters of history or science, and what it turns out when you look more closely is that the monolithic main idea had in fact been under attack for ages, or that everyone knew it was flawed, just nobody could come up with an alternative just yet.
And merely attacking something is not a good thing if you are attacking using the intellectual equivalent of slices of fruit.


Okay, let's talk in parables, possibly with some star reviews to keep this on topic.

I'm going to choose something non-controversial for this parable: legalization of marijuana. Let's say the National Marijuana Association comes into being to fight for the rights of red-blooded Americans to grow and roll their own. Well and good, and I don't think anyone here would object. I suspect the NMA would get about, oh, 4 million members after a few decades.

Let's further say that, in due course, the NMA gets a few, very wealthy donors, major marijuana distributors like, oh, Phillip-Morris. These donors are experiencing decreasing sales due to market saturation, and due to the younger generation's preference for other drugs.

To keep its donors happy, the NMA starts campaigning to promote marijuana as a healthy, wholesome drug. It holds gardening classes, cooking classes, even plant-breeding seminars for devoted hobbyists. They become the go-to organization for all knowledge about marijuana, and are respected for playing this key role.

Unfortunately, there's an uptick in lung cancer, especially among older marijuana afficionados, brought on by decades of smoking. Congress starts looking at regulating certain aspects of the marijuana industry to stem these cancers.

What does the NMA do? It can't afford to let anything threaten its sponsors' sales, so instead, it promotes the use of pot brownies as palliative care. Furthermore, it starts getting nasty, threatening anyone who speaks out against marijuana, going so far as to sue a woman who doesn't want any marijuana in her house, getting a ruling that she has no right to ban it from her premises.

Now, with school cutbacks, rising student loans, the necessity of having a high academic degree to run the robots in a factory, and so on, stress in schools is reaching new highs. The NMA is therefore strongly promoting the sale of pot brownies in schools, so that students can self-medicate their stress. It is working hard with its member congressmen from Kentucky and Tennessee to strike age bans, so that children can use marijuana (under adult supervision of course). These legislators have already banned CDC from reporting on lung cancer deaths, just as they have banned ATF from reporting on sales to minors.

Of course, many people will say that Phillip-Morris' quarterly profits should take a hit for the sake of public health. However, the NMA (which strongly plays down its industry ties) comes up with talking points for NMA members to repeat. These talking points equate any attempt to regulate marijuana, to publicize its real threats and benefits, with banning marijuana. Worse, NMA members are conditioned to become enraged if anyone tries to "ban" marijuana through any regulation whatsoever. Politicians fear this rage, even if most of the pot-heads don't realize how thoroughly they are being manipulated to increase Phillip-Morris' sales.

Now, in this absurd parable, is it possible that most people would support legalized marijuana, but at the same time have a big problem with the NMA?

What do you think? Three stars?


Sure, but I'm reasonably comfortable in saying that "his generation" did not think that Occam's razor was just what Occam shaved with! And that there are much simpler explanations of flooding events even without dating knowledge of the Gibraltar and Bospherus dam collapses than Dog playing a cannon with a couple of planets!


Yup, definitely. I'm kind of interested more in the reception normal people give than those who know about celestial mechanics already. And the responses of people who excuse quacks and cranks, it renders them suspect, or at least demonstrates the frailty of human rationality.


Ok, some time about 2 weeks ago I said I'd re-read EE Smith's Skylark series. I can't remember which was the original thread, so I'll put what I remember as being the original issue, and the results of my re-read, here.

As I remember it, people were having issues with the morality of Seaton and Co (S&C) committing genocide on the Chloran galaxy.
Firstly, some of the characters in S&C also had issues with the morality of racial genocide.
Secondly, the Chlorans were bent on not just galactic but universal racial cleansing and/or slavery, so it was "them or us" despite the fact that S&C would have happily shared, even co-operated, with them had they been prepared to do so in good faith. In point of fact S&C tried to avoid firing first, if at all.
Incidentally, my estimate of population was rather off; 149_319_297 Chloran systems in 1/4 of their galaxy (source Skylark DuQuesne, chapter 27, paragraph 5 in the Panther Granada printing).

To keep the thread sort of on track, I'd give the Skylark series a 4* rating as a slightly dated piece of space opera, but still a rattling good yarn.

And the reason it took so long to get around to my Skylark?:-
"The Iron Wyrm Affair" by Lilith Saintcrow (this is her 12th novel Charlie, so don't sweat the rest as spoiling her career). This was described to me as being "Holmes and Watson meet Steampunk". Well, maybe, if Michael Bay was an author rather than a director. To me it seemed to have the same cyphers rather than characters, and get tied up in flashy, noisy explosions and chases rather than a Steampunk mileau and/or Holmesian deduction. 2*


dirk @ 126
Like you tried to play "Intelligent design" spokesman, or "dream in the mind of god" or other playful little exercises recently, hmmm?
Keep up the good, err, controversial, err ... work?

guthrie @ 134
...and what it turns out when you look more closely is that the monolithic main idea had in fact been under attack for ages, or that everyone knew it was flawed, just nobody could come up with an alternative just yet.
Like the ongoing renormalisation QM_vs_Relativity slight problem, you mean?


Greg, maybe, although it isn't something I know much about.


Just remember, in the old days, cartographers used to decorate blank spaces on the maps with "Here by dragons" and other fanciful images.

These days, we've got the idea that 94% of the universe is unobservable, which is a great place for fantasists to decorate our maps of reality with faeries and dragons and alternate dimensions. The same goes for that little problem of the arrow of time.

Some day, of course, plebeian science will tell us what's in those blank spaces,* but that's simply life for you.

*Personally, I find myself hoping that Terry Pratchett is correct, that the 94% we can't observe is the paperwork and audit trail on the 6% we can observe. That would explain the arrow of time, and suggest that the universe is expanding due simply to the universe's accounting and audit mechanisms forcing everything else apart.


In real life, Curious Yellow was a hypothetical distributed hash table (DHT) poisoning attack postulated by Brandon Wiley. It was named after the Jeff Noon feather. I always thought infecting he A-gates with it was a cool application of the idea.


Choose something more desirable than pot, and that could make a very good story outline. Stem cell therapy perhaps?


Actually, I am a believer in intelligent design, except maybe the first time around. The infinite future (which may be our past) will be filled with it.


"The same goes for that little problem of the arrow of time." We experience time as one way because it is actually new creation. The fundament of Reality is that the sum of existence is comprehensive, containing everthing possible. Or to say it another way, possibility always manifests, concept and substance (containng the same information) are the same. Thus the totality of Reality is never complete because no matter how vast it is you could take it apart and put it together in a new arrangment. New copies of time lines are constantly being created orthogonal to the old ones. The history of each time line winds through this trying-to-be-infinite totality taking a right angle turn into a newly minted dimension each moment, yet maintaining continuity with those adjacent moments that make sense in an orderly way.

Nothing wrong with imagination and speculation, they just need to be humble and not confuse themselves for something they aren't.

Evidence is gathering against the Black Sea Deluge theory. The flooding was probably much less area and less sudden. Nevertheless, the neolithic Black Sea coast would make a great setting. You could put a civilization there that has all the technologies of any neolithic civilization anywhere and that begins to invent Chalcolithic technoligies right before the flood. They could have an almost medieval social structure so that when you tell the tale through the eyes of characters you use Fantasy like terminology, but the physical description is neolothic. Character says "castle" but you describe a crudely walled village. Character says "ship" but you describe a large canoe. Characters say "dragon" and "unicorn" but you describe a temperate anaconda and an asian rhino. I haven't read it yet, but it will be really good.


Amusingly, getting onto the Black sea flooding reminds me of a reader review example of something I read earlier this year.
The book being "Atlantis" by David Gibbins. I read it and struggled to finish it because of the outlandishness and silly ending and cardboard characters. I felt it was worse than a Dirk Pitt novel, although I havn't read the more recent ones, and almost nothing happened in the first half of the book except that the characters found some old information about Atlantis.

So I tootled over to amazon to see what others were saying. They were split, some saying it was mince, dull, etc. Others found it really exciting!
Gribbins has an entire series out now with the same characters, so he must be doing something right for at least part of the market.


Isn't that christmass day?


We're celebrating the 370th anniversary of the birth of a very great man.


"Nothing wrong with imagination and speculation, they just need to be humble and not confuse themselves for something they aren't."

Just the way your reply isn't? Eagerly awaiting the empirical evidence that supports your absolute statement about the nature of time, space and the sum total of reality.


Briefly back on the topic of MZN reviews. I was reading through reviews for peripheral-type items a few days ago, and there seems to be a common theme to the 1-star reviews. They are often in the form: "This product does exactly what the description says, but it doesn't have features X, Y & Z, so I am only giving it one star."

I can't help but wonder if the people leaving these kind of reviews often return clothes with a complaint like: "I bought these trousers here yesterday, but they don't fit over my head."


Re #133, #136 also refers.

It's not hugely uncommon to talk about these 2 dam collapses as vast inundations. Unless you happened to live near one of the dams on the "dry side" that wouldn't actually be what happened though. Consideration of the width, and even the present day depth, of the straits relative to the sizes of the basins (more so for the Med than the Black Sea, where there must have been a lake (or lakes) terminating the Danube, Dnieper, Rioni, Southern Bug, Kızılırmak, and Dniester rivers) strongly indicates that there would be a waterfall feeding a salt river and a growing salt lake. In fact, according to Wikipedia, there is presently a net movement of water from the Black Sea into the Med.


" We experience time as one way because it is actually new creation."
It cannot be as simple as that because moving observers see past, present and future differently.


I think that's actually a straw man; unless we invent time travel, neither the observer on the platform nor the one on the super-Shinkansen can go back to the moment of the lightning strike and watch the same strike twice.


That doesn't matter. You don't need one observer seeing the same event in two different ways when you already have two observers. Those observers can compare what they observed.


The point being that one person's past is another's future, and vice versa. Hence the idea that the future is being created is not tenable in a naive form.


Yes. Being a curmudgeonly sort, I make a point of ALWAYS working for a while on the anniversary of the birth of Our Saviour, Isaac Newton, even if it's only for an hour or two (and even if I decide that blogging constitutes "working" at marketing/communications).

I am currently torn between writing one of two blog posts: "gun owners: evil, or merely bad, wrong, and stupid?" and the ever popular "ten reasons why Yeshuah bin Yussuf (aka Jesus™) was the 1st century equivalent of Osama bin Laden". Throw another log on the yuletide flame war, it's damp and chilly under this here bridge!


#154 and #155 - I think you're both looking at this backwards. There was only one actual event, even though the 2 observers perceived it differently by virtue of their inertial frames.


There is only one actual event, but it occurs at no agreed time.


Do the Jesus one or I'll recount all my amusing gun anecdotes.


Shouldn't that be 'ben Yosef', unless you're going for Aramaic, then it might be 'bar Yusuf'?
And a more proper translation of Yeshuah would be Joshua. But I guess "Our Lord and Savior, Josh" doesn't have the same ring.

I was saving that for The Apocalypse Codex typo-hunt...but since it came up, and it's not actually a typo.

If the topic of guns comes back, I may stay away for a bit.


Well, brainstorming time:

1. Yeshua bin Yussuf (later renamed Jesus™ by those pesky greeks): middle-eastern guy wanted for terrorism by the hegemonic superpower of the day.

2. Born as the heir to a family construction business.

3. Bit of a mystic and a dreamer. Dropped out of the family business, took agin' the western capitalism/banking thing.

4. Wanted to get the imperial hegemon out of the holy places of his religion.

5. Attacked a major banking hub -- the Wall Street of its day -- in the shape of the money lenders in the temple grounds.

6. Preached subversive sermons, which were widely circulated among the oppressed masses under the imperial jack-boot.

7. Subjected to a grotesque execution to warn the masses (and his followers) what happens if you speak truth to power.

8. Followers multiply among middle-eastern folks pissed off at western occupation and exploitation of their holy places, despite organized clamp-downs and purges.

9. Followers are big on holy martyrdom.

10. ... Okay, I've run out of immediate similarities between Jesus and Osama bin Laden. Help me, somebody?


(Please note that the preceding piss-take should not be seen as implying that I harbour any sympathy for the beliefs of, respectively, Al Qaida or Christianity.)


... But I am wondering if by the 23rd century, there'll be a new schismatic religion in which Osama bin Laden is mourned as the martyred Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

The eschatological echoes are worryingly close ...


I got no similarities, but one difference is that Osama's existence is rather more verifiable.

And while I'm at it.
Re: various flood comments.

There's no reason that ancient floods had to be sudden and catastrophic. Over generations of telling the story it would be expanded upon, until it reached biblical proportions. Mediocre pun intended.


Whether the observers can agree the time of the event between themselves does not affect the fact that, since there was only one event, it can only have occurred at one time. I suspect that, were the observers to apply correct compensations for the differences in their inertial frames, they would concur as to the timing of the event.
BTW, synchronising timeframes between platforms that are physically remote from each other, and may be moving at different velocities, is part of what I do for a living.


Para 3 - That was sort of my point; unless you were unfortunate enough to be hit by the initial wall of water, the flooding could well be moving slowly enough that you could migrate away from it as long as you migrated uphill, particularly in the Eastern Med.


It might be even closer than that. I always wondered why US Christians missed this:

Revelation 18:11 The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more.
Revelation 18:19 They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out: "Woe! Woe, O great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!"


"Whether the observers can agree the time of the event between themselves does not affect the fact that, since there was only one event, it can only have occurred at one time."

The whole revolution of Special Relativity is that this is not true. There is no "one time".


One more:

Attacked a puppet regime of the dominant imperial power. In the case of OBL it was the House of Saud.


Mike Cotton @ 142
Erm “Curious Yellow” was a PORN film of an artistic bent, part of a two-series (at least) ..
“I am curious _ yellow” & “I am curious- blue” IIRC ahem.

@ 145
“The fundament of Reality”
Otherwise known as the Arse of the Universe?
Sorry, couldn’t resist a line like that.

Charlie @ 156
Bad/wrong/stupid for gun-owners – or most of them anyway.
[ & carefully not including people who have guns to shoot food like partridge, deer, rabbit, etc – Yule snackies!]

JPR @ 164
Like the siege of Troy & Odysseus’ voyage home, each of which only took one year, actually. ??

@ 166
Yes, I thought this was a given, but the big lake you live near to is rising at 1 or 2 cm an HOUR ……
You have to pack up & move, a long way.


There's some evidence in contemporary accounts for their being people called Osama -

However it's quite possible that the most direct references to a Bin Laden in the 20th/21st centuries are later inserts. A stylistic analysis of newspapers suggests that the press at the time were more interested in a now-obscure cult called X-Factor.


grrr. there/their. Sorry. I've had a few whiskies.


There may also be some confusion with a mythical sorcerer called Ozma.


Ref #166 - Really? Whole cm/hr?

I'll agree that this is fast, but the Bosphorus is only about 2_000 x 65m on average; The Black Sea has a surface area of some 436E9m^2. What sort of flow rate do you need to get 4.36E9m^3 of water through a 130_000m^2 duct? I make it on the order of 1000km/h!

That's my point; unless you lived on the proto-sea's lake shore, the straits are small relative to the modern-day seas in both cases.


On the Jesus topic:


>>>I am currently torn between writing one of two blog posts: "gun owners: evil, or merely bad, wrong, and stupid?"

Charlie, before you write your post, read this one:


I'm sober and will remain that way tonight; I've got a white Chateau-Neuf du Pape and an Ice wine lined up for the UKian festival of Turkeycide tomorrow though!


Some sources say just plain "Oz", and others say "Dorothy Gale".


I will grant you a case for allowing guns on firing ranges for target shooting as a sport.

I will grant you a case for hunting rifles and shotguns as actual working tools on farms and in rural areas.

But the second amendment, by any sane reading, is about providing for the defense of the nation -- unfortunately it specified defense by armed militias, because a standing army was seen as a threatening foreign innovation.

Separate out the defense-of-the-nation stuff and what you're left with is a nonsensical apologia for the widespread availability of weapons that result in incidents like this -- two firefighters shot and killed, two more injured, fighting a blaze in New York. Needless, futile, tragic, and evil. Also: kills nearly as many Americans in a month as died in the 9/11 attacks.

Again, I'll grant you that gun violence is symptomatic of a deeper cultural problem -- a culture of violence. I'll also concede that around 60% of those gun deaths are suicide rather than homicide. But still: I live in a country with a higher per capita level of violence than the USA, and a much lower murder rate. And guess what? A good chunk of that is because access to the category of tool that most significantly increases the likelihood of a fight resulting in a fatality is very tightly restricted.


There may also be some confusion with a mythical sorcerer called Ozma.

Ozma was the ruler of a sovereign nation! Some stories would have Ozma employing wizards, while gripes from enemies call Ozma a communist or socialist, and Ozma was certainly pro-immigration.


Hey, I'm pretty sure that's the obsessive person who didn't take my comment on their work well a few years ago. (Maybe 5? I forget) He basically had a long article about how evil Christianity repressed technical innovation in the UK, e.g. the late use of bricks in this country in the medieval period as compared to other places. He gave very late medieval dates, and when I pointed out that they'd been using bricks much earlier and it wasn't religious factors but socio-economic ones to do with no need for bricks and not enough money and why replace things which had worked well in the past and so on.
Oddly enough he rejected my argument...


Well, good thing I won't be reading this tomorrow, or possibly the rest of the week. There's something about Christmas that's always hard--seeing your beloved elders a year older, visiting people in hospitals, that sort of thing--that makes it very different than the greed fest commerce wants it to be. Kind of takes the gift giving to a whole other level, when you're trying to find something to cheer up someone who's in for a really crappy year.

Anyway, unless Al Qaeda finds its Saul of Tarsus in the next few years, I suspect Osama's going to be one for the historians shortly, just as most of the old Jewish messiahs are. It's not like Jesus was the only messiah, or even the most successful, in his lifetime. I suspect that, in a century, the only thing keeping alive Al Qaeda's fading memory will be a few martial artists trying to make a living teaching a bowdlerized version of their training regimens (cf ninjutsu, shaolin, defendu, etc.).

As for guns, yeah, whatever. Go ahead. It would be nice to have a different take, such as, how weird would the DIY movement have to get to make the original reading of the 2nd amendment relevant again in the US?

Oh well. Happy holidays, all, whatever you celebrate.


I'm bored, with only the washing up to look forward to.
Somebody say something interesting that I disagree with.


I really hope you're right wrt. ObL; he wasn't a nice man at all. But historical perspectives do weird things to our vision.

The gun thing is ... well, it puzzles and perplexes us foreigners, but it's not as weird as the constitution-worship that is used to justify it. Now that is just crazy talk! ("These guys said, 230 years ago, that this was how to run a nation, so we must follow their orders in perpetuity, even though they were writing a script for a country with 1/60th the population, no instantaneous communication and rapid travel, and their script pretty much explicitly denied the franchise to women and non land-owners and permitted chattel slavery to exist. But it's the constitution! So it's holy and inviolable!")


If I was living in the USA surrounded by armed people I would want some serious guns of my own


It is possible that there is a mix of cause and result here.

Namely, USA Constitution is not hard to change because it is worshiped. Rather, it is worshiped because it is hard to change.

BTW, Charlie, what do you think of Castle Doctrine?


While there is a lot of weirdness about it, I really don't like it being characterized as "constitution-worship."

It is the law of the land. All other laws are required to be based on it. And when interpreting laws -- which is what judges must do -- the intent of the lawmakers must factor into it.

Or do you prefer that the government simply ignore the laws which supposedly define it?


Castle doctrine: very, very dangerous depending on how you interpret it. Or not.

I'm all in favour of home owners (or occupiers) being allowed to use reasonable force to repel unwanted intruders.

But (a) the definition of reasonable force is questionable: does it include, for example, Tony Martin (who arguably turned his home into a trap, lay in wait for the local roma kids he expected to try and burgle him, then shot them in the back when they fled)? What about the Munir Hussein case (short version: repelled a burglar successfully -- he then assembled a posse, hunted down the burglar, and beat him so violently the burglar was found unfit to stand trial due to brain damage -- Hussein and brothers were jailed, then pardoned as the case became a political football, then it gets messy)?

And then there's the problem of what happens when the Castle Doctrine meets armed police and SWAT teams. Not to mention burglars disguised as armed police and SWAT teams.

It gets messy real quick, even before you spiral out far enough to get to the Trayvon Martin case.

(My opinion: I think "reasonable force" may include lethal force, but should be proportional to the perceived or actual threat posed by the intrusion: it is not okay to shoot 8-year-old trick-or-treaters. Nor, if the intruder flees, is it okay to shoot them in the back or pursue them with violent intent. That goes well beyond the scope of self-defense.)


Other countries manage to have working constitutional law without worshiping it. No, really.

"Lately, I've been relying on "authors mentioned on this blog"; I've enjoyed their work so far..."

On that front a "thank you" to whomever it was recommended the Steven Brust "Vlad Taltos" series. On the fourth book from the series now and being thoroughly entertained. Especially the little twiddles that occasionally hint that it might actually be SF not fantasy ;)


I'm not denying that. But, in the US, all laws are explicitly additions to the Constitution; it is not allowed for a law to contradict the Constitution.

And modifying the Constitution is deliberately difficult -- something I generally approve of, I'll admit.

To me, as a USian, it makes perfect sense that there is a never-ending debate about whether the Constitution should be interpreted based on current society, or whether we need to examine the original intent, and use that for interpretation.

What bothers me a lot more, honestly, is that the SCOTUS is essentially unchecked; I don't think that was the original intent (see how that comes off the fingers so easily?), and I am really annoyed that there is so much legal history that any decision you want can be justified by cherry-picking precedent.


Nor, if the intruder flees, is it okay to shoot them in the back or pursue them with violent intent.

I don't think my initial response of "preach it, brother!" is quite right, but you understand my intent, I'm sure.


The definition of reasonable force is one of those things that is probably better off being left not completely defined, because
A) it'll vary depending on circumstances
B) you can't therefore legislate for every occurence

The point of course is that people have to understand that sometimes it will take a court case, with people in the dock and everything, in order to sort out what happened that dark and stormy night.

Personally, I find it weird that people are confused about it all. No castle doctrine worshipper or gun nut or anyone else that I have ever come across has managed to find any example of someone being unjustly convicted for using unreasonable force when defending themself.
The Martin case doesn't count, as has been explained. Neither did the Hussein case. I've read of one or two others where someone died; one case the person involved was found not guilty, the other case the person was clearly guilty and IIRC found so, because oddly enough running after someone to stab them with a knife doesn't count as self defence.

It's very simple. Especially if you remember the phrase "I was in immediate fear of my life" when the police arrive, although it also helps if you havn't tortured them or stabbed them 15 times in the back on the public street outside. If someone dies from your attempt at defending yourself in the UK, there is a chance you will end up in court. But the chance of you being convicted and spending time in prison is almost nill. (That is, assuming that you did actually defend yourself)

Therefore we don't need Cameron and his political pals grandstanding for the Psychotic Mail to make it legal to attack or kill people you think might be a danger to you. It's already clear enough that you can defend yourself, except to fantasists and fascists.


@149 re suggested metaphysics and humility
It was an example.

@152 re relativity contradicting time as new creation
In the example I gave of overconfident theories,
every continuum is real and already existing. What works for a continuum still works for a continuum. At all but the most global possible level of all existence, the new creation of time is just production of new copies. Some kinds have more copies made so they become more predominant and thus more probable over, well, time. Thus subjectively there is still uncertainty and THAT is subject to influence by special antientropic forces. Maybe.

@179 Our Host
"the second amendment, by any sane reading, is about providing for the defense of the nation "
Actually it says "the state", not "the nation," which could be the individual state, such as New York. New York is about to do literal confiscations: the governor (who is also the commander of the militia) is planning to simply make it illegal to have any semiautmoatic firearm that holds more than 7 rounds. No confiscation squads, just "you are now a criminal if you don't get rid of it". Which means just take it to another state and sell it. His justification is that you don't need any more than that to go hunting. The hunting thing is a red herring. And the other side's crazy argument about fighting the Army is both scary and stupid.

The argument I'm trying to make to my State Assemblyperson, who will actually vote on it, is that the militia is the armed private populace. The purpose of allowing these people to "keep" arms is for the purpose of forming a militia to perform governmental functions when and where the government becomes unable to do them. Historically that meant on the frontier where (often justifiably) hostile native american tribes were an actual threat and the government really couldn't defend you. Of course that is not the case now. But historically governments have declined and lost control, and it almost certainly will happen again. I suspect the authors of the constitution had that sort of thing very much in mind. In addition to cultural memories of medieval ups and downs, Gibbon had just been published I think.

The constitution is the highest law of the land, the way our government is designed. The whole thing is madness if it isn't followed. It is deeply troubling when laws contradict it. It need not be worshipped, ie written in stone. It was designed with self modification in mind, and is perfectly possible (see Prohibition, Slavery, Income Tax etc...). The original need not be venerated because it is original, but because it is current. The whole must be venerated as it is because it is the highest law and laws that trifle with it autoinvalidate. It's like the assistant manager, whose authority came from the manager, telling you not to listen to anything the manager says. Conflict, does not compute.

I believe the arms drawdown of America should be done very carefully, or it could be analogous to the denationalization of the Soviet Union, which was a mess. The framework of the existing constituion will do very nicely for that. I would like the right to Keep to be maintained, and all sales to be outlawed immediately. That won't happen because it puts people out of business. There's a big hunting rifle manufacturer (Remington) in New York who don't make anything with more than a seven round capacity.

@186 "If I was living in the USA surrounded by armed people I would want some serious guns of my own"
Exactly. That's why the drawdown must be gradual by not adding any more, not by simply confiscating from law abiding moderates. When the Chinese call in the debt and we start running 1000 percent inflation and the oil runs out and can't pay the army and Bubba the Redneck is better armed than the police and thinks you'de be a good agricultural laborer you'll want to have a chance. It's for that. Not for hunting. Not for fighting the legitimate gov, no matter how misguided. The purpose is to maintain a resource for the security of a free state, the throwing away of which would be short sighted.

I think it's pretty easy to evaluate reasonable.
In the military (I think I can reveal this) we were taught to use the minimum force necessary to accomplish the mission. No need for an atom bomb when a firestorm will do (unless you just have to try out a new toy). In the Martin case, the defendant was having his ass kicked by an athlete so he shot to kill. Why didn't he shoot him in the leg? The guy intentionally chose to kill. The same principle should apply to home intrusion. One should use the minimum force necessary, should escalate if there is time from yelling and throwing things to wounding shots. Somebody fleeing is your mission accomplished, so the minimum force is none. Of course if I wind up on a jury, I'll go by whatever theory the judge tells me to, but that's my rule of thumb reasoning.


Re reply to #179

Show me where in the USian Constitution it says that individual states may not impose limits on the calibre and/or magazine capacity of weapons held be individuals.

While you're there anyway, show where there is any provision for the USA to have an Air Force.


In my opinion, the language of the 2nd amendment suggests that individual states can regulate their militias. That doesn't mean they should always do it the ways they do. The federal government runs something called the Civilian Marksmanship Program that sells M1 Garands to the citizens if they join any of an approved list of organizations such as a CMP club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or military retirees. I consider that to be a tacit suggestion that the approved firearm for those who want to have one for the intended purpose is the M1 Garand. Thus singling out that particular gun which has NEVER been used in any crime is a slap in the face, just because it's made in Massachusets. But I guess you could construe that as regulation of your militia to have something more obsolete that fires exactly the same ammunition (the 1903 Springfield). So, more guns get sold. (Salutes smartly).

The Air Force isn't specified in the constitution, but the statute that created it is in accordance with Article 1 Section 8
"The Congress shall have Power To ...provide for the common Defence"


Over here, suggesting that the federal government take away peoples' guns is like drawing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed: not unreasonable, but nothing good is likely to result.

The constitution-worship, as I see it, comes mostly from the right wing and is of a piece with the biblical literalism that's common here. The intellectual culture of the American right, such as it is, focuses on interpretation of sanctified texts. Others may disagree.


The second amendment says that "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

How that should be applied to various cases, including calibers and magazine capacities, is a matter for the courts.


Fair answer:-

Para 1 - Not always agreeing with legislation, or with how it is implemented, is part of "representative democracy". M1 Garand, as in WW2 issue, right?

Para 2 - AIUI, Congress and the POTUS only have those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution, "...all others being reserved to the states". Article 1, Section 8 specifically mentions a Navy and a standing Army; it does not mention an Air Force (or indeed a Coastguard, but they're arguably reserve or law enforcement rather than military).


When dealing with new technology, the US Supreme Court tends to apply the principles that the Constitution applied to the old technology. Therefore, freedom of speech and the press are extended to telegraphy, telephony, television, and internet. Children born by Cesarean section are accorded the rights that the constitution provides to naturally born citizens. When the US Army Air Corps was reorganized into a separate service, this was seen as a reasonable extension of Congress's power to raise armies and navies (the Coast Guard is just a second naval force).


Constitutional interpretation is a mess. That's said, if you want to make a case that the Constitution limits a state's right to regulate arms, here's one way to do it.

Start with the 14th amendment's section 1, which reads, in part, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States". The courts have, in the past, ruled that some of the rights granted in the Bill of Rights are among these "privileges and immunities", and that states are therefore barred from passing laws that abridge them. (Although so far, they seem to have stopped short of saying the Bill of Rights applies to state governments in toto; see

if you'd like to get more confused about this topic.)

The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Second Amendment does grant an individual right to bear arms. Given the above-mentioned higgledy-piggledy mess, that doesn't automatically apply to the states. But a subsequent ruling that it did, from the present court, wouldn't be a huge shock to anyone.

(I happen to think it would be godawful public policy, but that's another matter altogether.)


Well, that's okay, I don't get how you run a representative democracy with a queen and a parliament, without it dissolving into back bench hooliganism, but then again, I'm greatly ignorant. Speaking of which, when and if the EU hits its 200th anniversary, I'll bet it will be pretty darned hard to change whatever they're using as a constitution.

Still, you never know. As with electing senators and other issues, things can change quite drastically, if a majority of people are ready to support it anyway. RIght now, the NRA is still trying to demonstrate that it has a whip hand, but with a membership that's 1% of the US population, if the other 99% of the population gets sufficiently sick of the way the NRA acts, it may, quite suddenly, lose a lot of political power. This has happened recently to other 1 percenters, if I recall rightly. In my area, all four of the candidates backed by the NRA lost, and we're considered fairly conservative.

In any case, I'm going to be reading a great new science fiction book (All Yesterdays) instead of arguing gun control. Cheers!


Although some amendments specifically limit the power of the Federal government or of Congress, the second simply says that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed. As written, it would seem to limit the power of state and local governments, and to have done so even before the passage of the fourteenth amendment.


guthrie @ 194
Unfortunately, not true.
People have been held up in their own shops by weapon-wielding thugs, have defended themseleves, & then have had to stand trial.
There was a case, about 4 years back (difficult to find) where a man was convicted of manslaughter (I also think he had shit legal representation) as a plea-bargain.
He had killed a drug-crazed violent invader of his house.
And, of course, it's EASY for the police (such nice trustworthy people) to bring a case against a house or shopholder - they are easy to find.
So, unfortunately, it isn't entirely a daily Nazi hysterical fake campaign. Would that it were.

Paws @ 200
Until sometime after WWII (18/09/1947) the US did not have an "Air Force" it was the USAAF, actually.

heteromeles @203
EU @ 200?
The corporate feudal statelets of the EU by that time, surely?


Oops, missed that @ 203
Daren Naish on dinos & other extincts?
His blog, "Tetrapod Zoology" is worth a read - but, obviously, I haven't looked recently - another one for thr "to-buy" list.


As I said, some people do end up standing trial because the situation is complex. It sounds like the one you mention did have bad legal counsel since you don't have to agree to a plea bargain.
Also the CPS has always had a poor reputation. They even prosecute police these days for driving dangerously, never mind that they were in pursuit of a criminal at the time...


The secret is party machines, with the Prime minister controlling the patronage of who gets a ministerial position with the attendant money, power and ego boosting.
In fact there's so many ministers these days that the PM has massive power of patronage. Also the party itself (both tory, labour and lib dem) controls who gets to run as MP in the first place, so there's no chance for anyone who might cause trouble. It is noteworthy that almost the only troublemakers left are old people who slipped in when the party's were less centralised and controlling, 30 and more years ago.

Not that there was massive back bench hooliganism 50 or 100 years ago, because oddly enough, people who band together in a party, although they'll play politics, do have (well did have, less so now though because they're all apolitical power hungry bastards, except in the torys, who still hate the poor) some aims in common.


#201 - The First states that you have the right of free speech; it does not enumerate the means by which that right is exercised. Arguing that because the First automatically extends to new media as they are invented then other provisions must also do so is not logical.
Equally, saying that children delivered by C-section are full citizens is fair, but not necessarily the intent of the constitution; In Shakespeare's Macbeth, which pre-dates the American Revolution, the eponymous character is killed by MacDuff, who was born by C-section. Accordingly, it is clear that the technique was known when the constitution was written, and so it could be argued that the intent was to exclude those delivred by C-section from the presidency.
#201 and #205 ref #200 - I couldn't have told you the exact date, but the USAAC was constitutional, in part because it was an arm of the US Army, and subject to the same limits on funding etc. As I have just demonstrated, it is not a safe analogy to say that all provisions automatically expand to encompass new technologies

#202 and #204 - Is limiting the specifications of arms actually the same thing as infringing the right to bear arms?

#203 - That's ok; we're mostly mystified as to how you run one which is purpose designed to place the executive and the legislature at loggerheads, and yet allows them to appoint the judiciary!


This discussion reminds me of reading Dawn when I was a teenager, and being disgusted with the aliens' views on men. I obviously would have given the book a bad review, had I thought it worth reviewing.

(These days I consider Lilith's Brood among the best SF I've ever read.)


Re Iain M. Banks, the last novel of his that I read, Surface Detail, really bothered me - it seemed rather shallow, and even had a cartoonish villainy type. I kept expecting the book to throw me a curveball, and it never did; instead it read rather like mil-SF gone liberal.

That, to my mind, would be a three-star review... Though I'll keep open the possibility that Banks had ironic self-criticism in mind.


I've had similar feelings about Iain M for a while now; he's sort of gone off the boil a bit.


#209: The first amendment specifically protects freedom of the press in addition to freedom of speech, so it seems reasonable to assume that these were considered two separate rights.

How to apply the constitution when technology changes is up to the courts. Nobody has ever seriously claimed the right for private citizens to own hydrogen bombs; it just wouldn't work. The Supreme Court tends to reason by extension of previously defined constitutional principles, but exercises judgment in doing so.

And, of course, cesarean sections date back at least to Caesar, but they became much more popular once it was possible to put the mother back together.


"Freedom of the press" can be read as "the right to publish without censorship"; it does not imply "print media". You could argue that this makes the First tautological, but frankly the Bill of Rights is badly written, punctuated and full of ambiguous meanings anyway. See the "Newtonday Flame War" thread, where I come up with 4 different meanings of the word "militia" in respect of the Second.



The thing about IMB is that his SF isn't your classic literature-of-ideas stuff; it's about the people and their reactions to circumstances, with a heavy dose of literary metaphor thrown in. "Matter" was about, to some extent, the simulation hypothesis and nested worlds-within-worlds, and our reaction to discovering that our reality is a small thing embedded within a larger reality (and note the ending, wherein an intrusion from the larger reality knocks everything over). "Surface Detail" considered this in more detail, from a different angle, with its sub-plot about the war between the afterlives (and a hefty chunk of social commentary on the side, delivered in the shape of the big bad capitalist who's been buying up hells and running them as a cash cow: then we get all into IMB's regular stomping ground wherein any sufficiently advanced good is indistinguishable from ultimate evil, &c.). Finally, we get to "The Hydrogen Sonata", which is about ... well, no: it tries to pick up the themes of "Excession" but, for me, fell rather flat (but feel the texture!).

I don't see this as IMB losing his form or going off the boil. However, he's a subtle and misleading writer (has been ever since "The Wasp Factory") and sometimes he's too elliptical for his readers.


Would this be a good place to mention that I enjoy your hard SF, got what Hannu Rajaneimi was actually up to in "The Quantum Thief", enjoy all of IB except "Song of Stone" and therefore think you may be "faintly damning with distinct praise" if you say that IMB's being too elliptical for his readers?


I entirely agree that Iain M Banks has gone off the boil the last decade or so, but then I don't get elliptical stores so it's a good excuse. Not that things have to be made too obvious; I was shocked by how many people online were asking what happened to Neo after the 3rd matrix film, despite it being obvious.

We should form a club of people who think they understand what Hannu or Charlie are up to/ have written. Personally I'm amused by how much Friday Saturn's Children shows up the capitalist system.


Charlie @ 215
Disagree with you - in detail at least ...
any sufficiently advanced good is indistinguishable from ultimate evil ... Not quite.
What apprent or real evil might you/your group/your Minds have to commit, in order to avoid an even greater evil (By your judgement, of course)?
The WWII problem, in fact, especially in the European theatre of that war, where we ...(picking a few @ random) bombed cities flat, bombed Cassino, allied ourseleves with a dictatorship (almost) every bit as brutal & terrible as the Nazis, etc.
The problem of going to war in the first place, is it not?
Presumably why "Contact" & SC try to finesse things so that they don't have to do such things unless they are forced into it.
Then they end up hiring people like Staberinde.

guthrie - perhaps you can explain to this not-uneducated person what the hell Hannu R is on about?


Para 1 Sentence 2 - After Matrix2, I was surprised by how many people actually bothered to watch Matrix3, since the whole thing was clearly a rehash of the Gnostic heresy.


The whole Jesus thing gets done to death in Hollywood. I remember being completely disappointed in the movie Thor; they got martyr wuss religion all over my Norse mythology.


Not surprising since they mostly don't get Xianity right either. It's just the Billybob view of "religion" writ large.


Is there anyone here (who is not a russian speaker) that is familiar with the Noon Universe?


Well he seems to be writing stories. I don't know how much deeper meaning there is in them, but the first novel was set in a far future solar system, centuries after a singularity which has handed a great deal of power to certain individuals who just before it had lots of power/ money/ programming ability. Minds can be digitised, aliens have been contacted, copies of minds can be instantiated on different hardware etc.
And there's probably themes about identity, memory, the precariousness of relationships etc. I don't know enough computer science to know about the martian city stuff though.


That's alright; it's mostly about the effects of quantum computing and encryption (clue in the title but I missed that until I'd read TQT through). Since no-one has yet actually made a working quantum computer, no-one actually has a practical rather than theoretical understanding of this stuff yet.


5 qubit QCs have been built, and that's discounting DWave machines


My research suggests that these are not actual multi-state qubit based machines, but software simulations on binary processors?

My research suggests that these are not actual multi-state qubit based machines, but software simulations on binary processors

It depends on what your personal definition of "quantum computer" is I guess - but these aren't simulations.

There have been "real" multi-qubit systems since at least 2009 when Yale ran some very basic algorithms on a 2 qubit system (

In 2009 there was a 4 qubit system that factored numbers using Shors Algorithm (

I've not heard of a 5 qubit system, but it's not a field I follow so I can believe ones exists. - and I don't have the Physics to follow the is-it/isn't-it debate over DWave's stuff.


Ok, there are quantum computers then, at least for values involving 1-off technology demonstrators; let me know when I can play Space Invaders on one!


Haven't read the Fractal Prince yet, but I tend to class The Quantum Thief as a fantasy (sorry Charlie) where quantum computers and quantum cryptography take the place of magic. As magical systems go, it's pretty original, but Rajaniemi's got some serious problems with things like conservation of energy and the stoichiometry of reality, which is why it breaks to the fantasy side of my reading list. In my book, it's somewhat more science fictional than Vance's Dying Earth series.

As for the different player races, you've got people who are intelligent smart dust linked together by quantum cryptography (the Zoku), who take human form and remind me strongly of elves for some reason (perhaps because of their MMORPG culture), people who were uploaded into computers, loaded into robot slave bodies used to sort of terraform Mars, and later given life in more-or-less human bodies, in a system where the currency is lifespan units (The Oubliette), and S=1 (or possibly S=2) transapients straight out of Orion's Arm ( running around playing gods (The Sobornost). And a few others. There's actually a Wikipedia glossary of terms to sort out the players and the played.


"let me know when I can play Space Invaders on one!"

Read something yesterday. Looks like they're working on it in Australia. Something called a Boson Sampling computer, kind of a hybrid.


You see, I don't get this. I understand quantum cryptography means really serious encrpytion and that Martian society depends on really serious encryption and that if someone, possibly with a Black Hat, gets hold of the Master Keys then Bwah-ha-ha. But on the whole I thought the idea a bit flat and hard and not magical at all.

Speculating, I think the Zoku are quantum entities - 'quantum filth' - and necessarily use quantum encryption, quantum entanglement and quantum computing. All things quantum really. And as I don't really understand quantum stuff that all does sound a bit magical.

The Sobernost aren't trans-sapient, I think. Their attempts to achive trans-sapiense lead to disaster: Dragons. They can speed up, hand off tasks to instances and gogols but they aren't trans-sapient.

In my opinion.


Well I classify anything with uploaded minds etc as veering towards the "Science fantasy" side of it.
Yes, the effects of quantum wibbletech on society is part of it, but I don't understand this concept trans-sapience. I had a proper mental concept of the dragons when reading the book, but it has faded (partly due to illness and partly due to Hannu's writing being very slippery in definition)


I think that's fair enough. I had to google trans-sapience. As I understand it, the Sobernost can't go beyond some sort of mental limit and so remain comprehensible in human terms. Dragons have no limits, aren't conscious and are ferocious optimisers. They'll eat you. You're filled in more on Dragons in The Fractal Prince.


Interesting - in case anyone thought the "Space Invaders" comment was flip (not that it's unlikely that I'd be flip), I was thinking in terms of a usable graphical computer game being a fairly serious test of all-round programming capabilities rather than the optimised ability to solve specialised difficult sums.


wouldn't a sensible quantum space invaders machine simply tell you what score you were going to get at the end of the game having collapsed the wavefunction?

actually, an entangled nethack where you could superimpose Marvin on your own playing style, and derive a game where you ascended - with highlights of the game - without needing to spend time kicking beholders over fountains - mmm, that would be a useful contribution for those crazy quantum mechanists. Better than random teleportation, anyway...

[the Marvin who ascends 50% of the time he plays, not the Marvin who waits for all eternity for his two-headed friend]


Interesting in that I find the most reliable predictor of whether I will like a book (or movie) is similar to what you consider to be an encouraging pattern of responses--a divergence of reactions toward both the positive and negative extremes.


"Solving specialised sums" ??? (Breathes deeply) Ah-hah! It's the flame war in a can, redux! You won't catch me that easily...

(Flashback alert) Way back in the day, it wasn't Space Invaders, it was Microsoft Flight Simulator. And it wasn't a test of programming ability, it was a test of whether a particular PC clone was fully compatible... I'll just mention 640K once or twice now...

Strangely, specialised sums (even in radar signal processors) are often the easy bit. Granted, it can be fun tracking truncation errors and avoiding overflows when doing fixed-point arithmetic without benefit of standard libraries (or operating systems), but it's not that hard, IMHO.

What is hard is coming up with a model that allows you to map the real world to the abstract one you're writing. And then map back the answer - for every possible set of inputs... Every single time you say "but if this happens, then..." the number of paths through your system just doubled. If you forget about one particular combination of inputs, and your system doesn't cope, then you have a bug. If someone in marketing has a bright idea or a conveniently short memory, and declares "but we wanted it in yellow"...

The fun comes when "possible inputs" isn't just a static set of values defined at the start, it's when it varies with time, or it turns up in a different order, or there's some network latency, or a file that used to exist is now missing because the user decided (for whatever reason) to delete it or move it. You have to give meaningful error messages, you have to operate within a reasonable memory footprint and a reasonable response time, you shouldn't crash, and you should do all of this in such a way that you can prove it works to an acceptable level (testability) and that in a year's time you can still understand how you did it should it need to change (maintainability).

I've seen ...supposedly professional programmers... (thinks of the happy place) who thought that it was OK to just add clauses to a function until it was 600 lines of C++, containing 2^30 possible paths through the one function. Throw in multiple exit points, absent error handling, and some leaked memory, and watch me howl.

Not to worry. Flame wars have nothing on the holy wars that can erupt when someone in any organisation starts talking about creating a set of programming guidelines...


I suspect you're missing a deeper layer in Hannu's writing (hint: his PhD is in string theory) but I think we need the third book in the trilogy to make it clear.


Various odd comments:
In General relativity energy is not conserved globally, only locally.
DWave make a specialist quantum computer using quantum annealing. So far up to 1024 qubits. Google have run a neural net simulation on it to identify features in pictures.
While uploading may be fantasy Human level, and beyond, neural sims are probably less than a decade away. If it turns out that we don't need to model all the internal biochemistry of a neuron the singularity will be here before 2025


Paras 3 on - [looks balefully across office (or would if he wasn't on holiday) at safety assessment real-time system] Enough said?

Incidentally, I have one piece of software where a single sub-program contains 2_000 (two thousand) lines of Ada, which is clearly far too many, but most of them are already logic structure or sub-program calls. I have tried to simplify it, but reached the conclusion that I'd be creating sub-programs rather than removing multiple copies of the same lines of code.


dirk @ 239
If it turns out that we don't need to model all the internal biochemistry of a neuron the singularity will be here before 2025
BIG assumption.
Is it "good enough"?
Be very, very careful what you wish for .....

Byt "the singularity", I assume you actually mean "the next singularity", & that it will involve at least one form of AI though whether you are talking "self-aware" is unclear. Let's just hope it's not a Fredric Brown Answer -type answer to your question, then?

And, of course, it WILL be like powered flight or submarines - it'll fly, but it won't be, or look like, or behave like a bird: ... - it'll swim, but it won't be, or look like, or behave like a fish: ...

- it'll think, but it won't be, or look like, or behave like a human.



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