The Nameless Horror


Like a proton torpedo streaking towards a ray-shielded exhaust port, I’m away. Which also means I’ve been reading. Some has been rereading - Gibson’s excellent THE PERIPHERAL and the also excellent (though I’d be interested in an updated version now 3-man defences are back at least partially in vogue, rather undermining one of its later arguments) INVERTING THE PYRAMID - and some has been delicious, fresh wordmeat. Short reviews follow.

Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)

Blood Meridian

Loved THE ROAD. Loved NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Gave BLOOD MERIDIAN up about halfway through. Not because of the violence (which, even if that sort of thing bothered me, is fairly mild, certainly compared to some of that in THE ROAD, even with the odd scalping), not because of the grimness (again, THE ROAD has it beat overall despite the bleakness of the desert), but because I was bored and had nothing invested in the main character, or any of the minor ones.

Moss et al. are great in NO COUNTRY, and the man and boy in THE ROAD are what keep you pushing on, hoping they’ll make it, but the kid here is a blank. He’s a borderline psychopath, unaffected by anything around him (the closest he comes to an emotional response anywhere in that stretch is getting angry when a Mexican tavern owner refuses to give him a drink after he’s swept the floor), and his detachment from events left me equally detached. Without any reason to give a shit about what he experienced, there’s nothing about the story to keep me going - it’s functionally a road trip through Texas, Mexico etc. with no underlying narrative to it; he just does whatever turns up as it turns up, just because.

And yes, people are monsters and times are tough. But without anyone to identify with, who cares?

The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi)

The Water Knife

Times are also tough in the Arizona (and other Colorado River basin states) of the drought-ridden near future, where states war over water rights and Phoenix is the next city to be facing extinction. Thankfully, in former blood-rag journalist Lucy, Texan refugee Maria, and ’water knife’ operative Angel, working for the ruthless ’queen’ of Nevada, there are three really strong, varied characters to experience the slow collapse through, and in the MacGuffin that gets one of Lucy’s friends brutally murdered - ancient senior rights that could see their holder switch off the taps for anyone anywhere along the river - there’s an overriding dramatic driver for the plot.

(Not that those rights are a perfect MacGuffin; I can’t see how anyone is able to claim them just by owning the paper they’re printed on when surely they’re a contract between the parties in question. Small quibble, though.)

The world created by Bacigalupi is harsh, violent and largely entirely believable, and there’s plenty of nuance to the characters and their situations. If I were to gripe, I’m not sure the final set of betrayals and standoffs at the end was entirely necessary - after a lot of such things already - and the climax is perhaps a little convenient on the whole. That’s splitting hairs, though. This is good stuff and well worth reading.

Next up, because I’ve somehow failed to forgotten to copy Jay’s latest onto my phone, is Don Winslow’s THE CARTEL. Apparently, terrible things on the US/Mexican border is a running theme. Won’t have as much reading time soon, though; back from break and back to work next week.

Writers' rooms

Clearing out old files and found this, written to be copy/pasted into a Facebook comment on, IIRC, a link to (mostly, but not entirely) the most staggeringly pretentious load of old toss by writers on their chosen environments. It deserves saving, I think. This, then, would be my entry, in the same style (in reality, I like the pub just fine, thanks) as the originals:

“The Crown hostelry in which I sit has probably been here in one form or another for the best part of a hundred years, and at least two of the barely-functional alcoholics snarling what’s either deep-seated political commentary or jokes about the other’s parentage in what I take to be a fantastic and near-dead language have, I suspect, been in it for most of that time. My desk is chipboard under an unconvincing walnut veneer and I’m sitting on a wobbly chair probably only moments from splintering and dropping me on my behind in a cascade of swearing and spilt drink. There’s a single tealight holder on the table - not a present from anyone, and certainly not antique, but nonetheless possessing an unmistakeable air of mystery: I’ve been in or walked past here on all nights and in all weathers, and never once have I ever seen candlelight. Occasionally my eyes stray for inspiration to the magnificent view of the fruit machine under the TV, and the dead, hollow eyes of Noel Edmonds staring back at me, challenging me, defying me once again to cross into that sacred realm where inspiration and pure words combine, the vast and singular well from which I draw, slowly, delicately, afraid lest each should fall and shatter against the scratched wood flooring, every phrase, every utterance of my award-winning dinosaur erotica.

The alcoholic laughs. Trina, the barmaid, suggests he do something unlikely with his proposition. Bubbles pop inaudibly at the pinnacle of my glass. Noel stares at me, unblinking and unswayed. I compose my fingers on the keyboard.

Challenge accepted, old friend.”

(John Rickards’ latest, ‘Boffed By The Brachiosaur’, in which a failed poet seeking solace in the Amazon gets more than she bargained for, is out now through Morning Cock Press.)

Reviewocalypse 2: Amazon is not a censor

So, this has been doing the rounds. An indie author, who also reviews books, has had reviews pulled because Amazon’s automated systems have determined through hidden and arcane means that they know the author in question. The author/reviewer is most unhappy about this.

There are several points worth noting here.

Firstly, Amazon’s TOS always barred reviews from people with personal connections to the product/seller in question. They just let it ride for years. (Paid-for reviews have also always been banned, though again enforcement has been spotty.)

Secondly, they started enforcing it for books, in ham-fisted fashion, after the sock puppet scandal three years ago, when reviews from accounts flagged as belonging to authors were deleted en masse and the TOS was clarified.

Thirdly, while “creepy!” is a common response to the way Amazon’s automated systems identify who knows whom, all this means is that those systems have gotten better since that first flood of removals. Amazon owns Goodreads. They allow you to link your Twitter and Facebook accounts to your Amazon page. Friend links and Twitter follows are publicly accessible. The fact that their systems are therefore able to identify links between people should be no surprise at all. You gave the company access to that data yourself.

Fourthly, their opaqueness as to how the determination was made should be unsurprising. Partly because they have always been annoyingly opaque as a company and asking for clarification from them has always been rather like yelling at a sheer concrete wall, and partly because even if they weren’t, they’re not going to reveal how the system works - even if a CS rep knew - because if they did, people would simply game the system in different ways, which, in theory, Amazon don’t want. They’re already changing review weighting to try to make them more useful and harder to cheat (whether doing so the right way or not).

Fifthly, if you’re now complaining that “we can’t ask our friends for reviews any more!” then good. No matter how honest you ask friends to be, they’re your friends and they’re always going to give you a good review (see answer to Q3) or nothing at all. If you’re part of an indie author review exchange network, doubly so. It’s hard to get early reviews for indie books, and I can entirely sympathize; I have skin in that game. But asking people you actually know to big up your work shouldn’t be the answer.

Sixthly, and most importantly, Amazon is not censoring you.

Really, I can’t stress this enough. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy hyperbole. I use a million tons of hyperbole every day. Particularly when I’m angry.

But Amazon is not censoring you. If reps were coming to your own website, demanding you take down reviews there, that would be different. (Even then, the strict definition of “censorship” involves the government, but I think we could give it a pass for anyone coming onto your property to shut you up.) They’re not. They don’t have to allow reviews at all. Buying something from a site gives you no right at all to say what you thought of it on that site. (Imagine, if you will, the chaos of customer review notebooks hanging beneath every book in a bricks-and-mortar store if that was a requirement.)

Things like this -

The Big Brother mentality Amazon is employing is appalling, and crosses an ethical line of unfathomable proportions.

- and this -

They are not God, and are censoring my passion for the written word.

- and this -

It is censorship at its finest.

- are just ridiculous. Laughably so. They make your argument - and there is an argument there, about the quality of reviews by people with a passion for books as writers as well as readers, the integrity of those writing reviews (and the implied slight in barring them), about whether it’s right to clamp down on reviewers who may follow an author on Twitter when one-star “never arrived so i hate this” shit-ticks are still allowed, etc. - seem ridiculous too.

While things like this -

I am shocked and appalled. At this time, I will discontinue writing peer reviews. I will complete my list of pending reviews, and will cease from posting them on Amazon.

- will, I’m sure, lead to a tiny, tiny violin playing somewhere in Amazon HQ while a single tear rolls down Jeff Bezos’ face.

As I say, there is a legitimate argument there. But moaning about censorship, or a lack of transparency, or about justification isn’t it. And saying you’ll now stop writing the reviews that they won’t let you post anyway and that were possibly always against the TOS they started trying to enforce three years ago isn’t much of a threat, to say the least. If you’re passionate about reading, review elsewhere; they’re not censors and no one will stop you. Link to them on Facebook. Those reviews will still appear on Google. Move on with your lives.