Wednesday 23 March 2011

Opinionated Speculations | The Curious Case of The Quantum Thief

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.

I'll wait.


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?


  1. Eh, the thing is that he qualifies the score within the first summing-up section attatched to the rating, and the review was very honest that he was rating his experience with the book, and the book itself.

    Should he have written or posted the blog? Probably not, since it was never adding anything of value, beyond that people who don't have much time to read won't enjoy the book. It would have made more sense to try and open a dialogue about the nature of novel reading experience and how external factors effect our enjoyment of a story, using his experience with QT as a jumping board.

    That said, I think us fantasy fans, as well as commentators and authors, have a tendency to go into all out crusade mode over very little things. It would not be worth strongly opposing this practise unless the practise is a common one, or at least semi-common. But can we really take an isolated incident and suggest it warrants a big fuss?

    Both discussions around rating systems, and I very much agree with what you said in this piece, and the relationship between enjoyment of a story and external factors could potentially be interesting discussions. Just decrying this one reivew, however, seems rather unnecesarry and unlikely to really go anywhere.

  2. When I first read that review, I thought it was full of poop, but then I thought more on it and I realized I at least respect his honesty. But, I wasn't thinking about aggregators and I think you make a great point here that the point system was not quite fair in this instance.

    Even though I for one am a fan of point systems, but with strong feelings that they should always be read within the context of the review unless you really really really trust the reviewer. Although in this case, that theory's a bit busted.

  3. A great book will entrance the reader and make him or her forget about troubles so while you can quibble about 2 stars vs 3 stars, the reviewer in cause just was not into TQF and that's fine since for once I sympathize finding TQF a vastly overrated book with promise but one I would give odds it will go the way Plenty did in the 90's - ultra-hype and then something light and forgettable

    The future will tell though of course

  4. John DeNardo is usually a very fine reviewer

    Is he? I've never seen any evidence of that and he admits so himself.

  5. This was my first experience with the review in question, and I'm not exactly impressed. A reviewer's job is to read the book, hopefully understand it, and then comment on its strengths and weaknesses. DeNardo failed at almost all of those, and while it's nice he bothered to explain why he did, it doesn't make his writing any more of a review. At a guess, I'd say it's more the rough draft of the apology that should have been sent to the site's editor when he was unable to turn in the review.

    All that being said, I don't really see what a rating system has to do with this. It would have been a poor attempt at a review no matter what symbol was stuck up top, and a well written review can be just as good with arbitrary numbers after the last line.

  6. I think my problem is much like yours, when the problem is really not with the book but with the time he had given himself to read it. In most cases I have enjoyed his reviews and had no problem with the rating.(Even though I too have decided I do not like one with a system.) But my real problem was with the posting of it at all, I felt that if he is saying I really did not give it a proper read, why would you give it a online review, just so you could get in on the bandwagon and say I have read it too. If you want to do that read the book properly, and with the American release still a month away you really do not be in a hurry to review it. I myself have read it three times and loved it each time, and actually got a response from Hannu on Facebook when I was questioning something and when I went and reread it that third time found what I had been missing. So my real problem is not with the bad review, hey it might be your kind of book but if you do not have time to review it properly, DO NOT POST THE REVIEW.

  7. The one positive thing I found about this whole thing is the instruction that readers should not read this book in small chunks. I normally do read in this fashion on public transport so I have found this a good warning before I read the book (I bought it based on good reviews by yourself and others btw). So while I agree with your points re the score I have found it a useful warning to not read the book in small chunks but in larger than my normal time allotments

  8. And another take on the curious case popped up over at Hal Duncan's blog earlier. That's here:

    I'd really like nothing more than to address all these comments - certainly that's part of the plan for tomorrow - but suffice it to say I've spent the WHOLE BLOODY DAY today trying to stink out a virus my folks managed to riddle their PC full of.

    Would you believe they honestly don't know the difference between iTunes and Limewire? I tell them, if you can't be proper pirates, you can't be pirates, period. Bet you that got through...

    Anyway. All tomorrow's parties, alright? Go read Hal's post in the meantime.

  9. I'll wait - but the parties better be FANTASTIC.

  10. They will be!


    Well, there's pretty pictures from A Game of Thrones to ogle in the erstwhile.

    What a total bait and switch! :D

  11. I am so glad you explained the virus situation. I really didn't want to make the "that's what happens when you download porn" joke.

    Holy crap... a short post from Hal Duncan? I never thought I would see this day. :)

    I'd weigh in on the situation, but when it comes to ratings I don't use them and don't like them. Although, if I were to use them, I would just have to throw random numbers on them... kind of like Pat.

  12. reminds me of one assessment of american idol tryouts, wherein people who can't sing are still given points for honesty and sincerity. the point of course is that even if you have honesty and sincerity, if you can't (or don't sing), then it doesn't matter-- you still can't sing. so while john de nardo's honesty and sincerity is praiseworthy, the question to be asked is: did he do a review of the book?