Bad News Customer Reviews

What use are Amazon customer reviews, or indeed the user reviews on any website? During Amazon’s first decade the company employed a team of freelance writers to review books, videos and DVDs. I was one of them. Crucially, our opinions remained our own. But we worked to guidelines which included being factually accurate, not committing libel and avoiding spoilers. Then Amazon introduced customer reviews, and the result is now a caveat emptor free-for-all.

While many customer reviews are excellent, Amazon imposes no quality control – some reviews are no worse than ill-informed and amateurish –  and no warning that one might at any time come across a massive spoilers. Amazon long ago gave-up proofreading customer reviews, and some Amazon users have no consideration for the reader or creative artist, and no idea of civilised reviewing etiquette.

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears

I have just finished reading the novel Stone’s Fall, by Iain Pears. This is an exceptionally long, intricately plotted historical thriller / mystery. It’s not perfect, but it is an extremely enjoyable and intelligent piece of work. Unfortunately, with 450 pages to go I decided to see what Amazon’s customers made of it. I happened to read a short ‘review’ by someone who admitted they had not read the whole book (they awarded it one star and described it as ’a waste of money’), but felt it their right to explain the central mystery of the entire narrative. Something the author chose to keep secret until almost the last page. It is a testament to Iain Pear’s skill that I remained engrossed despite knowing where the story was heading.

Not content with attempting to spoil the novel for the reader, the ‘reviewer’, hiding behind a pseudonym, also casually libeled Mr Pears, stating without evidence that he ‘must have stolen this idea for a book from some movie or book from the 1940’s or ’50’s’. I would like to see that stand-up in court.

So faced with the contemptible and unacceptable I have decided to stop looking at customer reviews before reading or watching any work of fiction. Meanwhile with some reservations I’d recommend Stone’s Fall. Clare Clark sums up the novel well on The Guardian without spoiling anything. Read the Amazon customer reviews at your peril.

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Adrift on the Sea of Rains — book review

Adrift on the Sea of Rains is the first volume in Ian Sales Apollo Quartet. Available as a limited edition hardback (75 signed copies), paperback and ebook, this science fiction adventure falls between alternative history and parallel world story.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains - Ian Sales

It is the late 1980’s, the Cold War has gone nuclear and all that’s left of the human race is the crew of the US moon base Falcon. Colonel Peterson is looking for a way home before the food runs out. Hopes lie in a partially understood piece of Nazi technology called the Bell.

To say more would be to give too much away – the story is only 43 pages long. Within this length Sales does a fine job of evoking the detached, almost mechanical efficiency of a team of men who, in the face of overwhelming tragedy have withdrawn into themselves. There is a starkness here reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke at his most nuts and bolts cool.

In what is essentially a hard science fiction escape story unfolded against a detailed and well imagined alternative military / space exploration history, and perhaps too much tec. / maths talk for some tastes, Sales gradually reveals that character is all. There is good reason Peterson is on the moon rather than the front line, and the conclusion is chilling. Anyone who liked the idea of the recent SF film Moon, but found the execution too silly, will much prefer Sales’ more rigorous story.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains comes complete with an extensive list of abbreviations (looking them up while reading the story does tend to break the narrative flow), a lengthy glossary of the history of the US space program (real and imagined), bibliography and online resource list. This extra material totals another 20 pages.

Sales has written a strong story, but it is an unusual approach to self-publish something so short as a self-contained book. At 17,000 words or so it doesn’t quite class as a novella. The author explains the reasoning behind his decision on his blog. Even so, while Adrift of the Sea of Rains would grace any collection or anthology I am not sure it stands out so far ahead of other stories as to deserve individual publication. That said, it is well worth reading and now that it has been published makes a useful addition to any serious SF reader’s library.