Circling the Bowl

From “The Island” (2009), by me:

“Because you can never predict the behavior of a system more complex than you. And if you want a project to stay on track after you’re gone, you don’t hand the reins to anything that’s guaranteed to develop its own agenda.”

From Bowl of Heaven (2012), By Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, p302:

“I suppose the message here is, just remember that you can never predict the behavior of a system more complex than you. And if you want a project to stay on track after you’re gone, you don’t hand the reins to anything that’s guaranteed to develop its own agenda.”

They say it’s the sincerest form of flattery, but I’d regard this as homage rather than imitation; you don’t cut’n’paste something word-for-word  if you’re trying to obscure the source material. I’ve chatted with these guys at cons; my wife even went on a date with Larry over in Nantes. So, yeah. I’m going with homage.

Either way, I’m more than a little invested in this title, and not just because it’s a collaboration between genre giants. Bowl of Heaven resonates with me, not so much as a work of fiction but as an artefact of the publishing industry. If you look at the jacket copy you’ll see a blurb from me (I’m described as the “Author of Starfish” — perhaps Blindsight is still a bit of a sore spot with Tor’s publicity department) — and it is, in fact, the only blurb I have ever negotiated, on conditions.

It didn’t start out that way. When I was first approached to blurb the Bowl my reaction was nothing short of ecstatic:

For this I’ll make time. I seriously doubt that those two need my stamp of approval to sell — kind of like getting some small-town southern preacher to blurb a collaboration between Jesus and Mohammed — but if it gets me an advance peek at the damn thing, sign me up.

Having actually read the ARC, though, my reaction was a little more muted.

My misgiving is embedded in the second-last line— because the subtitle notwithstanding, this isn’t a complete novel. There’s no dramatic resolution of any of the plot lines. It doesn’t end; it just stops.

I’ve had a bit of a bumpy history with you guys over this exact same thing: Tor split my book Behemoth into two volumes. We reached an accord insofar as I was allowed to put an author’s note at the beginning of each volume, clearly explaining that the reader was only getting part of the story and they’d have to buy another volume to get the complete tale. But barring such a PSA, readers could have easily felt cheated after buying what they thought was a complete story, only to find out they’d have to pay all over again to find out how it concluded. Tor had made a habit of doing that, and I had to fight for those author notes. I think I burned a bridge or three in the process.

I grew up on Benford and Niven. I’m happy to praise The Bowl of Heaven (even though the title is dangerously vulnerable to a certain scatological typo, especially with that “knothole” thing at the back end). And of course, it’s not my place to dictate (or even suggest) what Tor’s marketing strategy should be. But the cover of this book does say “a novel”, and I’d look like quite the hypocrite if I jumped on a bandwagon that did the same thing I raised such a fuss over in the past. So you’re more than welcome to use that quote, and even to edit it for greater punchiness if you like — but if you do, I’d ask that the line about waiting to see how it turns out remains intact. I’ve phrased it in a positive can’t-wait-for-the-next-book kinda way, while at the same time conveying that the story continues. I hope this works for you.

Also, I hope I’m not coming across as a complete dick. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition over a stupid blurb, and in all honesty I feel kind of stupid even bringing this up. I’d much rather not. But, you know. It’s kind of a matter of principle to me.

As you might have noted, Tor accommodated; my blurb, while effusive about alien biology and alien technology (and strangely mute on the subject of character development), appeared with caveat intact. But I kept an eye on Amazon, curious as to how this half-novel would go over following its October release.

The results have been telling.

Bowl of Heaven seems to have done just fine with the advance reviewers. Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, Analog, Locus, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly — they all rave. And I’m not the only author (or the most prominent, by a long shot) to pimp the product: David Brin, my (intermittent) buddy Karl Schroeder, and old-wave maestro Rob Sawyer all weigh in on the jacket.

Everyone seems to love it except the actual readers.

As of this writing, Bowl of Heaven nets a mean score of 2.5 stars from 109 customer reviews. That’s a pretty dismal return for something written by not one but two genre giants. Almost two thirds of the reviews listed within the first month of release gave the book 1 or 2 stars. Of those, almost half complained explicitly about the fact that Bowl of Heaven was, well …

“…a trick to get people hooked on a series”

“…witten[sic] or[sic] one purpose, to sell the sequel.”

“Publisher and/or Amazon should have had the decency to tell us…”

“One half of one real book.”

“Nothing about the book description, nothing in the dust jacket flaps, nothing on other book selling sites … suggests that this is anything but a complete story except the last page which proudly announces that volume two will appear soon.”

“For crying out loud, let people know what they’re buying ahead of time.”

“A novel without a climax…This Bowl should be flushed.”

“I wanted to like this calibration between Niven and Benford. If this had been had been release as one volume instead of two I would have. As it stands, I feel ripped off by either the authors or the publisher or maybe it was a joint decision to shaft their fans.”

“It suddenly dawns upon the reader that this is intended as book one of some series, but the publisher decided to withhold that tidbit from us buyers. There’s not even a cliffhanger.”

“…perhaps you could warn us during the purchasing procedure that this is not a complete novel…”

“…if we are going to spend money on your products, you need to tell us when A BOOK IN [sic] UNFINISHED”

“This book rips people off by not telling them up front that it is volume one of who knows how many sequels.”

You get the idea.

It’s not the only complaint folks express about the book. Thirty percent of Bowl’s Amazon reviewers complain about poor character development, which is hardly surprising — Niven was hardly hailed as a master of subtle characterization even at the top of his game — but by that very token, the fans should have known what to expect. (You don’t go to a vegan restaurant and then complain about the lack of bacon-wrapped sirloin on the menu.) More seriously, in terms of reader expectation — in terms of what readers have a right to expect — 27% of the reviews complain about sloppy editing and continuity errors. I noticed this myself when reading the ARC — it was rife with typos, and there’s at least one spot where a character appears to be in two places at once — but I chalked it all up to the inevitable rough edges in any prerelease manuscript. It never occurred to me that those errors would end up in the final product.

That practice of stealth-splitting, though — that’s a piss-off, with me as well as all those Amazon readers. I suspect the antipathy is even stronger than the raw numbers would suggest. A number of folks reported themselves unable to finish Bowl of Heaven, for various reasons; if they had, I’m betting that the number complaining about the fact that the novel itself didn’t finish would be even higher.

Speaking of Behemoth, here's the cover of the just-released Polish translation. Pretty gorgeous, huh?

Tor has defended their policy — to me at least, and to the New York Times — as an unavoidable necessity of hardcover publishing in the current economic climate. There’s a certain balance between price tag and page count; it just isn’t profitable to sell a big hardcover novel by a small author. (The “small author” in this case was me. Obviously, neither Niven nor Benford are small authors — which to my mind, makes the decision to split even less defensible.) Back when βehemoth was on the table I suggested releasing it as a trade paperback — after all, other publishers weren’t feeling compelled to split their books, so maybe it all came down to Tor’s pricey everything-in-hardcover policy. My suggestion didn’t fly. βehemoth came out in two hardcover volumes, and it tanked. Maybe it was just a crappy book; certainly a lot of folks regard it as the weakest of the trilogy. I did, however, note that critics who treated the novel as a single work tended to return more favorable reviews than those who reviewed each volume separately. I think it made a difference then; I think it might be doing that now.

I consider myself a long-time fan of Niven and Benford. I obviously liked Bowl of Heaven well enough to blurb it, and the thing I primarily liked was the artefact at its heart. Half a Dyson sphere beedling through space using a tame star as its engine? A literal stardrive? Don’t tell me that’s not cool. They got my blurb just on the strength of the thought experiment.

At the same time, though, I came to the Bowl from a different perspective than the average fan. I could brush off the “terrible to nonexistent” editing as an ephemeral production artefact. I’d mentioned the whole to-be-continued thing in my blurb, so I didn’t feel like I was misleading the readers — and besides, I didn’t shell out a penny to read the damn thing, so there was no reason to feel ripped off.

I’m pretty obviously in the minority on that score, and you can see it in more than pull quotes from the reader reviews. There’s something odd about Bowl of Heaven’s rankings over time.

The standard pattern I’ve come to expect for online reader ratings is that they start high and then decline. This makes sense; the earliest sales are predominantly to fans who know your stuff and are jazzed for your next title. There’s a favorable bias in those early returns as a result.

Eventually the book starts getting read by people who aren’t fans, but who were lured in by all those glowing early reviews. They may not know who Peter Watts is, but they’re willing to take a chance based on how much everyone else seems to like him. And of course a higher percentage of those people won’t like the product, may in fact be repelled by the very meat-hooks and chrome that draw in hardcore fans like moths to a bug-zapper. So these later reviews tend to be less flattering; the mean rating goes down.

The exact opposite happened to Bowl of Heaven. It started out with largely shitty reviews, which gradually improved over time. (The line represents a distance-weighted least-squares nonlinear fit whose confidence limits tend to wobble depending on where you are along the axis — but a quick-and-dirty linear regression confirms that the overall slope is significant at P=0.05.)1 There’s a bump in positive reviews about 25 days post-pub, and another around Christmas (the green line). A few Amazonian cynics, commenting on some of the more effusive reviews, have suggested that these represent Tor plants bent on damage control, but the numbers don’t really support that. The total number of 4- and 5-star ratings actually goes down over time; it just doesn’t decline as fast as the number of 1- and 2-star reviews.

Basically, the haters really piled on for the first couple of months and then just — went away. The likers, in contrast, plodded steadily along near the X-axis, also posting less frequently over time but without that precipitous decline after the second month. Of the 48 ratings that appeared in the first month of release, bad outweighed good by more than 3:1 (ignoring 9 tepid 3-star reviews). Four months later overall activity had plummeted and a measly seven people weighed in either way — but five of them waxed positive. (The bars to the right are overlayed, by the way, not stacked: meaning that, for example, 18 people wrote 1-star reviews in the first month, not 18-minus-ten.)

How to explain this inversion of the usual trend? At first I thought that maybe Tor’s zealous promotion — contests, a book tour, a payoff that saw BoH squeak briefly onto the NYT Bestsellers list — might have backfired, drawn in early (and less forgiving) readers from beyond the usual fan base. But rifling through reviews from those first two months I see that 49 out of 81 — 60% — make explicit mention of their familiarity with the authors’s previous work, frequently describing Niven and/or Benford as personal favorites.

Maybe the field has moved on. Maybe in this post-punk New-Weird YA slipstream age there just isn’t the interest in yesterday’s classic old-wave science fiction. But no, these reviews weren’t tendered by fans of the Dresden Files who’d wandered onto the wrong page; these are folks who like the old ways, who long for them. Some of the most excoriating reviews hailed from self-declared longtime fans.

So the usual bias seems to have manifested after all. The early reviewers were largely fans who sought this title out, who were wetting themselves at the prospect of collaboration between two of their favorite authors. But something happened when they got there. It wasn’t just disappointment. Disappointment is one thing; even giants underperform sometimes, and both these guys are in their seventies. But reading the comments you can tell these fans aren’t just disappointed. They’re feeling angry, they’re feeling used.

They’re feeling betrayed: by a trusted publisher who couldn’t be bothered to ensure that its product was ready for prime time before foisting it on an unsuspecting world at $25.99; by bean-counters who tricked them into shelling out for a complete meal, only to give them half of one. It wasn’t cool back in 2004, it isn’t cool now, and I guess people are just pissed.

I can’t say I blame them.

 


1 I’ve jittered the data points to give a sense of density; otherwise a single datapoint at a given X/Y would be visually indistinguishable from a dozen points at the same coordinates, since they’d all line up behind one another.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday March 01 2013at 04:03 pm , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

46 Responses to “Circling the Bowl”

  1. Hi Peter!

    I was excited by the prospect of this book. Benford and Niven as a writing tag team? That sounds right up my alley.

    Early word about how the book just stops without resolution is why I ultimately decided not to shell out any money for the book or hit up SF Signal for its review copy. Why do I want to read half a book? That sort of thing annoys the crap out of me. Tor did the same thing to Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes novels and it pissed me off no end. So I decided to pass on Bowl of Heaven for now. Maybe it’d be worth getting on the cheap if the Kindle version came on sale, but otherwise not worth the money. Plenty of other things to read instead,

  2. Well, d’oh. Of _course_ Benford & Niven’s book isn’t finished. To judge by the start of your posting, they’re waiting for you to write more material for them. Get on it, man – don’t keep the fans waiting.

    Speaking for myself, I always loved Niven’s “Known Space” series, but was far from a fan of his collaborations with Jerry Pournelle. I was able to tell myself that everything I didn’t like about the books was Pournelle’s fault, but perhaps it’s more general than that. Perhaps he’s not at his best when working with another author?

    Although you are gracious enough to pin the blame for the weaknesses of “Bowl” on the publishers and not on the authors. Clearly their flattering ‘homage’ has turned your head …

  3. Wow Peter, publishers should be hiring you as a consultant on Amazon book reviews. If they really want to sell more books then devising strategies that only look at the bottom line isn’t going to cut it. The overall satisfaction of the readers needs to be taken into account.

    I also have an observation on the issue of publishers splitting books down the middle. Shouldn’t an author be prepared for such an event and write the inevitable split into the story? Around the half way point start leading up to some major/minor event and create a decent cliffhanger. Ive seen books transition from Part 1 to Part 2 within the same book…

    That’s just my ‘non-writer’ opinion.

  4. I agree about the fact that it felt unfinished. I didn’t feel ripped off, per se – I got it from my library, and though I incurred a late fee, it still felt worth the time and money invested – but I’m mostly annoyed that now I have to wait to see how the story ends, or at least develops.

    But, I’ll basically read anything that Niven puts out – I didn’t like the Ringworld sequels, but his Known Space tales have made a life-long fan out of me. At this point, he’d have to write Star Wars/Star Trek slash fiction to lose me as a fan.

  5. I’m a reasonably solid in-genre consumer, certainly familiar with Tor (and on their mailing list), and a regular lurker on this blog. I’d never heard of this book until now.

    I’ve no idea what that means w/r/t your analysis, but their marketing can’t have been that good. Much the better for me, apparently.

  6. Great post, though I’m surprised you’re taking the plagiarism so lightly. Was it just those two sentences?

  7. I love SF and have been a devoted reader in one form or another since I first experienced Retief outwitting the Grocai as an 8 year-old. Unfortunately, though, trilogy-shock has become a malarial fact of life for SF readers. There are some authors who I am familiar with, and who consistently deliver great, well-written stories, that I will cheerfully pay hardcover prices to jump into a new trilogy series with (Peter F. Hamilton, Richard Morgan, etc). Otherwise, however, I just wait until the whole thing is out in mass market or cheap e-book, or I just move on in my browsing.

    It’s no exaggeration when I say that my most frequently voiced complaint about SF in recent years has been “Goddammit! Doesn’t anybody just write stand alone novels anymore?” As a reader, I don’t always want to invest the money and time in a trilogy, I just want a good, meaty, complete story between one set of covers. Now take that attitude and pull some marketing bullshit where I buy a book thinking that it’s a complete novel, only to find that it’s the first part in an ongoing series, and I am likely to get bent completely out of frame.

    I’ll read Benford and Niven’s books, but I’ll wait until the entire series is out, and I’ll probably buy them in paperback, and/or used because fuck you Tor, fuck you up the ass with a table lamp.

  8. Peter, You are certainly entitled to your opinion of what Amazon comments mean, what reviews mean, and how Tor publishes. You and I have argued some of this before and may again; But as to the editiing, I edited the manuscript with some care, and if there remain errors in the printed book, after copyedit and proofreading, let me know what they are so we can correct them in the next edition. At the moment, I am still waiting for Larry & Greg to deliver the second half, which they promise this month or next.

  9. AngusM: Although you are gracious enough to pin the blame for the weaknesses of “Bowl” on the publishers and not on the authors. Clearly their flattering ‘homage’ has turned your head …

    When the whole book-split thing happened to me, I had no control over it whatsoever. As I’ve said, I had to fight even for the privilege of informing the readers that a split had even occurred. So I’m more than willing to give the authors the benefit of that doubt, at least.

    I’ve had more control with my overseas editions. The only publisher who even suggested splitting one of my books was Ars Technica is Poland (for Behemoth as well). I told them I’d be willing to cut my advance in half if it would help them keep the novel in a single volume, so that’s the way we went with it.

    I’m probably not competent to judge the economics of book-splitting; maybe that is the only way to make a profit for some titles. Fair enough. What I object to is lying to your customers about the fact that you’re doing that.

    Jeremy: I also have an observation on the issue of publishers splitting books down the middle. Shouldn’t an author be prepared for such an event and write the inevitable split into the story? Around the half way point start leading up to some major/minor event and create a decent cliffhanger. Ive seen books transition from Part 1 to Part 2 within the same book…

    I was lucky enough for that to be the case with Behemoth; there was a clear narrative breakpoint between the two halves of the book. Bowl of Heaven, on the other hand, might as well have ended with the captain sitting on the john doing the morning crossword, for all the dramatic impact involved.

    Peter:
    Great post, though I’m surprised you’re taking the plagiarism so lightly. Was it just those two sentences?

    Pretty much, although I note one of the Amazon reviewers also opined that the Bowl also stole a couple of other lines word-for-word from a Heinlein juvenile (Tunnel in the Sky, that was it). But again, I don’t regard this as plagiarism, not in the pernicious sense. Greg Benford and I had a couple of drinks at the after-Hugo party where “The Island” had just won for Best Novelette, for crying out loud; he was obviously familiar with the story, and it’s not as though the Bowl’s plot hinged on those two lines or anything. Neal Asher once named a hotel after me in one of his novels; I regard this as the same kind of call-out. I mentioned it up front not to complain, but to brag: Larry Niven and Gregory Benford read my stuff!

    David G. Hartwell: But as to the editiing, I edited the manuscript with some care, and if there remain errors in the printed book, after copyedit and proofreading, let me know what they are so we can correct them in the next edition.

    David, the reader review ranked “most helpful” on BoH’s page — submitted by Scott Crittendon on Oct 20 — lists five fairly substantial issues, and one of the folks who comments on his review lists a half-dozen others. See also Michael Voss’s Oct 23 review. On Oct 25 Ruchard Mohr has problems with what he perceives as inconsistent origins stories for the Sil (offhand can’t remember whether he’s right or not) and also had some fun (as did a few other reviewers) with the “green cork tamales” typo. Elisa Baker presents another list of problems on Nov 5, at which point I stopped checking because the in-laws are about to arrive.

    And these are only those reviews from the first couple of weeks that provide specific examples; a number of others just complained about the editing without citing specifics. One popular hypothesis is that two not-entirely-compatible drafts were stuck together and not checked for consistency.

  10. First off, it’s always nice to see yourself getting quoted exactly, but some attribution is usually nice, as in “Murphy’s Law”. This might be termed “Watts’s Law of Complex Systems” though you might want to try to tune it up a bit though it’s fine as it stands. Still, attribution would be a better kudo.

    Secondly: I feel the pain and it’s one reason I’m a bit put off from buying books. I recently shelled out to get on the advance list for a new Vernor Vinge “Zones of Thought” novel, and found that while it was a good half of a book, it was still half of a book. It was, in my opinion, also a highly padded half of a book which could have been pulled off on about half the page count with some really good editing and a bit of time. Rather, it seemed almost as if it had come to the publisher in a tight form and the publisher had sent it back and said “pad it to twice the length so we can split it in half and people will look at the page count and not think they’ve been sold half a book, then we can sell them the other half later”. I felt robbed. Not sure I’ll even read the other half though I suspect it’s probably going to be good.

  11. Mr Non-Entity:
    …I recently shelled out to get on the advance list for a new Vernor Vinge “Zones of Thought” novel, and found that while it was a good half of a book, it was still half of a book. It was, in my opinion, also a highly padded half of a book which could have been pulled off on about half the page count with some really good editing and a bit of time. Rather, it seemed almost as if it had come to the publisher in a tight form and the publisher had sent it back and said “pad it to twice the length so we can split it in half and people will look at the page count and not think they’ve been sold half a book, then we can sell them the other half later”. I felt robbed. Not sure I’ll even read the other half though I suspect it’s probably going to be good.

    Are you talking about ‘The Children of the Sky’? I started on that when it first came out but lost interest when he started getting into the politics, Ive been meaning to try and finish it. So are you saying its a 2 parter? Where can I get info on the second part if so? Thanks, Jeremy

  12. Peter Watts: … I don’t regard this as plagiarism, not in the pernicious sense.

    I wouldn’t presume to tell you how you ought to feel, but as a reader (and an aspiring writer), my feeling was that Benford & Niven’s “homage” crossed a line. It’s one thing to borrow ideas or even to rephrase someone else’s thought in your own words – great artists steal, and all that. Reproducing someone else’s well-turned phrases verbatim without any hint that it’s not your own work? We do have a name for that.

    I realize that there’s a long tradition of that kind of thing. (Oscar Wilde: “I wish I’d said that.” Friend: “You will, Oscar, you will.”) Even William Faulkner wasn’t above putting himself into his novel “Mosquitoes” as a character and then having the character deliver some choice lines taken from Ambrose Bierce. Alasdair Gray borrowed widely in “Lanark” and then included an Index of Plagiarisms in which everything he used is not merely listed, but even classified by type (‘direct plagiarism’, ‘indirect’, ‘diffuse’ etc). But while there’s precedent, I don’t think that what Messrs Benford & Niven did should be encouraged, and certainly not on the grounds that one party is made up of “genre giants” while the other is a “small author”. Quite the contrary, in fact: noblesse oblige. But that’s just my opinion.

    Kudos to you for accepting it graciously; shame to them for what I still think is an ethical lapse.

  13. @Jeremy: that was indeed “Children of the Sky”. Actually, the pace and complexity do pick up significantly right before the Stop (can’t call it “the end”), so much so that one wonders why so much padding came before, could have been a lot tighter. It would have read a lot more like old-school Vinge.

    I have no notion as to any follow-on. Actually, at first I had some concerns about Prof Vinge’s health; I couldn’t imagine him letting that work off of his desk unless he thought he was near his deathbed and just wanted to have it “finished”, even if it clearly wasn’t.

  14. Mr Non-Entity,

    Its a shame too, I fell in love with AFUTD in high school and later Deepness came along and did not disappoint. His earlier Realtime series were outstanding too.

    After having heard you say that Children of the Sky does pick up eventually I will have another go at it with that in mind.

  15. Peter Watts,

    Peter,

    I accept the references to reviewers as the help I asked for.

  16. Peter:

    Excellent piece!

    I wish I had the time to do such analysis of my books’ performance. I learned from this.

    I think you’re generally right about dividing novels, but there are reasons that forced us into it:

    1) We wrote an outline and Larry’s agent ran an auction. Tor won but the new Macmillan contract appeared and it took her 9+ months to get it negotiated to not include outright grabs and indentured servitude. By that time Larry & I realized, partway in the ms., that this thing kept growing. It’s far harder than Ringworld, with a long history and the need to show the builders as well, indeed, to explain the purpose of it all. So midway we knew it had to be looonnng…leading to:

    2) The break point for profit keeps changing as a function of length. BOWL OF HEAVEN + SHIPSTAR will be something like 215,000 words, and in one volume would be hard to make a profit from. So what to do? we thought.

    3) A two volume novel. Plus it was harder to write, with many threads. We paid Don Davis to do 4 paintings just so we could get a feel for the artifact. It took years and we’re still not done, though will finish within a month or so.

    4) We thought Tor would indeed tell everyone this was the first of two. But they didn’t. Too late for us to do anything, sigh.

    I hope the reaction to BOWL doesn’t come from our general decline–yes, we’re in our 70s. But still kickin’! (I still have NASA grants. & see STARSHIP CENTURY, a big original anthology, due out in May for further innovations.)

    You make a good case that the BOWL ratings are rising, unusually so. I hope that means people are giving it good word of mouth. Larry may chime in here with his observation that there is a pretty large fraction of Niven fans who don’t like him collaborating, and he sees that with every one of his collaborative novels. It goes with the territory–and I had no idea that was true until BOWL appeared. They want to push him into writing stand-alones.

    Thanks for all this thought. It’s really stimulating. I did indeed take your comment and use it in direct tribute — it expresses a profound truth, one that fits BOWL quite well. I hoped you’d see the tribute!

  17. “Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”
    -Paul Gauguin, French Post-Impressionist painter (1848-1903)

  18. Доброе время суток, мистер Уоттс.
    Я тут прочел в вашей книге Blindsight, следующее: “Мне, как многим любителям фантастики, надоели гуманоидные инопланетяне с шишковатыми лбами”
    Или: “Like many others, I am weary of humanoid aliens with bumpy foreheads”, чтобы вам было понятнее.
    Но ведь гуманоидный проект характерен для всей нашей галактики, а возможно и для доброй части вселенной.
    А еще, я не нашел у вас ни в одной работе, упоминания о волновой генетике, о торсионных полях, о пирамидах.


  19. Kudos to you for accepting it graciously; shame to them for what I still think is an ethical lapse.

    A couple of sentences in a book can be excused. What’s the proper way of doing it, putting a footnote there?

    There’s been a real joker of a writer, from NYC who wrote a spy novel that was almost completely plagiarized from other spy novels. It was reportedly hard to find a part that hasn’t been stolen.

  20. Predator,

    Why did you paste in a Russian translation of Red Alien’s comment on the The Darwinian Dead?

  21. Predator:

    А еще, я не нашел у вас ни в одной работе, упоминания о волновой генетике, о торсионных полях, о пирамидах.

    Do you actually expect a scientist to write about torsion fields? I don’t think that would be on the same level as conjuring up a plausible basis for vampirism.

    Jeremy,

    Probably because they are the same person and he thought that his English translation was not legible.

  22. Wow! Gregory Benford. Awesome, and the explanation gives me a lot of (additional to Peter Watts’s) insight into what remains of the traditional publishing industry.

    @Jeremy: I forgot to mention, possibly because I hadn’t yet got my glasses back from the shop, that I found some of the politicking thread in COTS to be some of the most interesting. I know that “Tines” are a major draw in AFUTD’s word-of-mouth though my own tastes were more to the epic space opera stuff around The Blight, especially the UseNet-style intermissions. The politicking among the humans in COTS resonated a chord with something going on in my personal life at the time, dealing with the fact that kids (teens/young adults) can be positively brilliant in terms of knowledge and the ability to organize, but can let their sociopath-like self-centeredness — especially when forming age-based peer groups — get squarely in the way of long-term survival, or even medium-term success. Following the one character who is the only actual adult (however young an adult) was an interesting study, I thought. Yet all of this could have been done with a lot less (IMHO) padding. But it develops that this is now the nature of the industry, and hence the art.

  23. Predator:
    Доброе время суток, мистер Уоттс.
    Я тут прочел в вашей книге Blindsight, следующее: “Мне, как многим любителям фантастики, надоели гуманоидные инопланетяне с шишковатыми лбами”
    Или: “Like many others, I am weary of humanoid aliens with bumpy foreheads”, чтобы вам было понятнее.
    Но ведь гуманоидный проект характерен для всей нашей галактики, а возможно и для доброй части вселенной.
    А еще, я не нашел у вас ни в одной работе, упоминания о волновой генетике, о торсионных полях, о пирамидах.

    Тролль тоньше, кисо.

  24. Ensley F. Guffey:

    It’s no exaggeration when I say that my most frequently voiced complaint about SF in recent years has been “Goddammit! Doesn’t anybody just write stand alone novels anymore?” As a reader, I don’t always want to invest the money and time in a trilogy, I just want a good, meaty, complete story between one set of covers.

    I agree with that completely. Many of my favorite SF novels have been stand alones (LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed” and Orwell’s “1984” come to mind), and thats actually one of the things I liked most about Blindsight. When I first read it, I thought there was no sequel intended and I thought to myself “Wow, here’s a deeply though provoking novel that has thoroughly explored the theme of intelligence vs consciousness” (ok, it sounded less cheesy in my head). It felt complete to me. Now I am torn, because on one hand, I can’t wait to read something new from Peter, and on the other hand I feel like I have closure on the whole Rorschach story and want to hear something completely different.

  25. Matt,

    Sequels are one thing; nothing wrong with revisiting a familiar world. Endless series (or they seem endless, anyways) of interlinked “novels” that can’t be read in isolation is quite another. To be blunt, I will not begin anything that smacks of trilogy (or worse) by any author other than one I already read and enjoy, and if I got hosed into buying a book that looked like it would be self-contained but ended up being part of a larger whole, I’d be some pissed off.

  26. Plagiarism is plagiarism. I’d fucking sue the bastards….

  27. A couple ofsentences in a book can be excused. What’s the proper way of doing it, putting a footnote there?

    I’ve seen it done a few times, here and there. . . Citing sources and so on. You’d think some authors are trying to encourage people to like what they like, learn what they learned, and develop love for the lore.

    And, I agree with Mr. Non-Entity about calling out Children of the Sky. I fell for it for lack of knowing anything about publishing, and I missed the Usenet posts.

  28. Mr Non-Entity: some attribution is usually nice, as in “Murphy’s Law”. This might be termed “Watts’s Law of Complex Systems”

    Actually, the essence of that sentiment has already been codified as “Ashby’s Law” — it’s been thumbnailed as “The dimensions of a proposed solution to a problem must match the dimensions of the problem”. The Chimp-Artificial-Stupidity thing in “The Island” was kind of a special case of that.

    Gregory Benford:
    I wish I had the time to do such analysis of my books’ performance. I learned from this.

    Wow. Thanks for dropping by. I’m honored.

    We wrote an outline and Larry’s agent ran an auction. Tor won but the new Macmillan contract appeared and it took her 9+ months to get it negotiated to not include outright grabs and indentured servitude.

    Oh boy. If it took 9 months for guys with your clout to get a decent contract, the rest of us are royally fucked. Self-publishing’s looking better every day…

    We thought Tor would indeed tell everyone this was the first of two. But they didn’t. Too late for us to do anything, sigh.

    That’s the issue for me. I can buy the whole one-volume=no-profit argument (at least in principal — although it does seem odd that other publishers, presumably struggling in the same market, don’t feel the need to split their books so far as I’ve heard), but not being up-front with your own customers doesn’t even strike me as an especially bright business decision (laying aside the obvious ethical scumbaggery). You trick a few extra people into handing over money in the short term, but you alienate the hell out of them in the long.

    Larry may chime in here with his observation that there is a pretty large fraction of Niven fans who don’t like him collaborating, and he sees that with every one of his collaborative novels. It goes with the territory–and I had no idea that was true until BOWL appeared. They want to push him into writing stand-alones.

    Really? They hated “The Mote in God’s Eye”? They hated “Inferno”?

    No pleasing some people…

  29. 01: Тролль тоньше, кисо.

    Боже ж ты мой, каждый хомячок теперь, когда сталкивается с чем-то разрывающим ему шаблон, сразу вопит о троллях. И ведь считает себя после этого, охрененно умным…..

  30. Predator: Боже ж ты мой, каждый хомячок теперь, когда сталкивается с чем-то разрывающим ему шаблон, сразу вопит о троллях. И ведь считает себя после этого, охрененно умным…..

    Маловато ты еще разрывать, волновое ты наше. Песдуй обратно в атсрал

  31. Uh, yeah, you know what? New policy: comments to be posted in English. All others deleted from here on in.

  32. Peter Watts: Actually, the essence of that sentiment has already been codified as “Ashby’s Law” — it’s been thumbnailed as “The dimensions of a proposed solution to a problem must match the dimensions of the problem”. The Chimp-Artificial-Stupidity thing in “The Island” was kind of a special case of that.

    Hmmmm, Peter, doesn’t our good friend the toxoplasma violate this law ? Toxoplasmas inhabiting a rat, both individually and as a “population”, are many orders of magnitude less complex than a rat by pretty any imaginable metric, and yet they reliably succeed at getting the host exactly where they need it, at the very least 😉 as long as the host is a rat.

    Just a thought.

    Peter Watts:
    Uh, yeah, you know what?New policy: comments to be posted in English.All others deleted from here on in.

    That was a little unfriendly exchange with a trollish person who appears to have a thing for various outrageous pathological science. Nothing to see there ^_^

  33. Yeah, but it’s not a single Toxoplasma solving that problem: it’s the whole clade, together with all the rats and other host species intermediate and definitive, together with all the environmental mutagens than tweak genes and and and…

    It’s a whole metasystem evolving over time that solved that problem, and if you drew a flowchart of that metasystem in all its glory it’d be way more complex than a single rat. Your mistake, I would argue, is in regarding Toxo as the solver of the problem. It is not the solver; it is the solution.

  34. But can’t same kind of argument (but there’s a vastly more complex meta-system involved!) be arbitrarily applied to any agent, anywhere ?

    Examples can range from complex activities (no one, not even me :-) can be said to “be in charge of”, say, a department from that perspective – the SOPs, the know-hows, the data, are not the product of a single agent) to simple ones, like writing this comment (after all, I did not develop English language, or WordPress, or Internet…and I think a solid chunk of this argument is something I heard someplace else… 😉 )

    Thus, if we allow ourselves to include various social and evolutionary contexts (such as “clade across time” or “people who wrote the libraries one used in his program”) as “meta-systems”, “Ashby’s Law” becomes unfalsifiable. Which is bad.

  35. You’re right, it becomes trivially broad when applied to the unrolling of blind physical processes (although the whole field of Digital Physics takes that interpretation very seriously). But I think that Ashby’s Law was meant in terms of cognitive problem-solving — i.e. we should be applying it in the context of engineers rather than entropy. The principle is true across the board; but it’s nontrivial when brains are the solvers.

    At least, that’s my take; but it’s been a long time since I wrote that, I I never delved deeper than I had to to justify the reference. So I could be wrong.

  36. Well, it doesn’t get much better if you limit it to brain-like problem solvers (My comment example above… can I even be said to be writing the comment in question, given that I use so much external infrastructure, and that so many of my thoughts and knowledge are not a product of mine?)

    Or, remember the “angry turing” test I mentioned about a year ago on this blog ? The one where a mind-numbingly stupid program successfully fooled people into thinking it’s an actual person because it portrayed a somewhat rude, assertive personality (one could say, a troll) that was believable in the extreme ?

    I think it would be unfair to say that the coder was more “complex” than the people who have fallen “victim” to the machine’s trickery (IIRC, those were usually folks from the same institution). And the program was outright offensively simple.

    And yet it got several normal people exactly where it was designed to get them. They believed it was a fellow human being.

    (there was also a bot emulating a sexually aroused teenage girl, which was also offensively simple – and vastly successful)

    I think that there seem to be… Exclusions to Ashby’s Law.

    That some complex systems have, well, weak spots, so to say.
    Elements that allow another system – even a “dumber” one, to “assume control” 😉 via some relatively exposed exploit in the complex system’s design.

  37. reliably succeed at getting the host exactly

    Isn’t it more like decreasing a rat’s life expectancy by a couple of months?

  38. Well, the “point” of toxoplasma’s effect is decreasing the rat’s life expectancy specifically via exposure to cats, as opposed to other methods, no ?

  39. 01,

    I’d say that’s a hack, make someone angry or horny and you’re no longer dealing with their frontal lobes. It still requires a human to model the interaction in the 1st place

  40. Nestor:
    01,

    I’d say that’s a hack, make someone angry or horny and you’re no longer dealing with their frontal lobes. It still requires a human to model the interaction in the 1st place

    Yeah, it’s a hack (I used term “exploit” above for a reason), but so what ? Emotionally subverting the jury into believing that they are talking to a human is a perfectly valid route to formally pass the Turing test.

    After all, within the scope of this discussion, “Ashby’s Law” doesn’t have any “fairness” stipulations, if I understand correctly.

    And while designing a chatbot like that (in this particular case :) ) indeed required a human (of equal complexity to people who were fooled by the bot), the bot itself is still offensively simple. No way around that. (And if we count the complexity of forces that have brought about an agent towards the complexity of agents itself, we’ll run into unfalsifiability as demonstrated above)

  41. Also, why am I spamfiltered again, Peter ? : ‘ (

  42. 01:
    Also, why am I spamfiltered again, Peter ? : ‘ (

    You’re not — at least, not consistently. That got through just fine. The previous few got held. I have no idea why.

  43. Well, then I guess it’s time for my monthly 19-year-old virgin sacrifice to the Glorious Machine God.

  44. A am not troll, i am a new scientist

  45. LOL ^^ Then I am the new pope.

    In regards to the whole Ashby’s law thing, I’ve looked through my old notes (cybernetics were part of some cert course I took long ago… Like, really long ago – the notes are handwritten on paper, believe it or not :-) ) and it appears that Ashby’s law is formulated more permissively.

    Specifically, it has caveat for buffering constant, buffering being, basically, all the passive methods of resisting perturbation (not sure if it helps our little toxoplasma example here).

    There was also some discussion about how the fundamental assumption of AL (only variety can eliminate variety) is not foolproof, but my notes, and ability to read handwritten text, are somewhat degraded so I’m not sure I’m ready to discuss this finer point without making some embarrassing blunder.

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