Not so long ago at all, in a galaxy practically next door to our own, John DeNardo sparked off quite the conversation over at SF Signal with his review of The Quantum Thief. Before we get any deeper into this, check out the post in question - and be sure to stick around for the comments.
So two stars from five.
Not to be utterly reductive, you understand, but that's the sole reason there's been this controversy. And in turn, that's the sole reason I've avoided any sort of scoring system here on The Speculative Scotsman. Because the numbers are essentially meaningless, to my mind: an arbitrary statement of how awesome, on a scale from 1-5 or hats out of ten or percentiles out of a hundred or whatever, a book has been. In your opinion. Your inescapably personal and utterly subjective opinion.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
What happened was, John DeNardo didn't really do The Quantum Thief justice. He admits that real life repeatedly intruded on the time he'd meant to spend reading Rajaniemi's debut, and of course that's fine; it happens. It will continue to happen until critics are locked away in sensory deprivation tanks for the duration of their respective reading experiences.
John acknowledges that. In his review he goes so far as to stress that "this [was] a reader fail, not necessarily a book one." He iterates the same opinion again in the comments. He saw in The Quantum Thief all the things other reviewers - myself included - have spoken of in such glowing terms: its grand-scale imagination, its very involved worldbuilding, its meticulous and addictive plot... and so on. Then he gave The Quantum Thief two stars from five.
Which isn't reader or writer fail, if you ask me. It's reviewer fail.
Two stars from five might seem a fair and representative review of John's reviewing in this instance, but of the book itself? I find myself hard pressed to sympathise. Because how is it in any sense reasonable to hold a text accountable for factors far without its purview? Does a dodgy cinema audience prone to juggling popcorn affect the quality of a good film? Should I take umbrage with a television show because the content of the ad breaks are inappropriate?
Of course not.
Now on the one hand, scored reviews are anathema to me in the first instance. At best they're short-cuts - easy outs for folks who can't be arsed to read the actual text of a given review; at worst, however, you can see in them the beginning of the end of bona fide criticism. Look at what happened to the video game industry in the wake of Metacritic and its ilk, sites founded entirely on the principle of aggregating all the aggregates to come up with one mega-aggregate to rule them all. These days, entire livelihoods often depend on developers achieving a certain aggregate threshold. Largely arbitrary scores are costing people their jobs, and all that follows.
So the numbers game bothers the bejesus out of me personally. Especially when the numbers in question seem so utterly at odds with the content of the review, as in the curious case of The Quantum Thief. On the other hand, however much I might differ from the following folks, I appreciate that there are those individuals and organisations to whom such scores matter a great deal. To each their own and all that.
But in both cases, the result of John's two-star review is a knock on The Quantum Thief. A knock, moreover, utterly unjustified; that's the heart of the matter here. Whether I believe these numbers hold any water or not, there needs to be some correlation between review and rating, surely, and an account of someone's personal circumstances does not an argument of the merits and demerits of a certain piece of entertainment make.
That said, SF Signal is an important resource to the community, and John DeNardo is usually a very fine reviewer. I'm not having a go at one or the other here. I simply don't think this sort of ill-conceived criticism should stand unchallenged, particularly given the ever-increasing prominence of certain score aggregators.
Because it can't be right to punish a book for your own shortcomings, can it?