The Other Kind of Analysis

By Shamus Posted Thursday Aug 22, 2019

Filed under: Projects 100 comments

Earlier this year I released my most recent book. It performed very poorly. I haven’t had the guts to open up the sales figures for the various storefronts and get a final count of copies soldAmazon makes this process so hopelessly convoluted I’m seriously wondering if the obfuscation is deliberate., but I’m willing to bet it’s less than 1,000 copies.

Certainly some of this is due to my half-hearted attempts at marketing. I hate doing it and it’s always tough to see the result. Some of it is no doubt due to the fact that Witch Watch got some free exposure from The EscapistWe did a giveaway and one of their daily quizzes promoted the book. and TOKoL was only promoted through my blog and a few cheap Google / Amazon ads.

Well, there’s no point in crying about it now. I’m reasonably sure the low sales don’t mean the story is terrible. It was reviewed well by the few who bought it and I think it had quite a few fun moments in it. It was a blast to write and it’s still my favorite bit of worldbuilding.

However, I’ll readily admit it’s not a perfect book. Like all fictional works, you can find problems if you pick at it. Since I spend so much of my time picking on flaws in game stories, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to do the same thing to my own work. This isn’t usually done, but there’s no rule saying you can’t do it.

Before we get started, I should repeat what I said a few months ago: I’m a big believer in the idea that the text is the text and everything outside the text is fanfic, even if it was written by me. If something isn’t explained well enough, then making up shit later doesn’t fix that. If part of the book doesn’t work, then this article can’t fix that. This should be viewed as an explanation of what I tried to do, but it doesn’t (and can’t) serve as a post-launch hotfix for plot holes and other nonsense. None of this is canon. It’s just my usual nitpicky analysis with a better-than-usual understanding of what the author was trying to accomplish.

So below is a list of gripes and flaws that I wish I’d handled differently. Total spoilers ahead, obviously…

Exposition via Inner Monologue

I personally dislike when a book is in such a hurry to get started that it leaves out key details we need to envision the world in our mind’s eye. Like, a book is set in a typical medieval kingdom, so the reader reaches for stock imagery of stone castles and knights. Then somewhere around page 150 the author gets around to letting us know that the castle is made with pink stone. Great, now I realize I’ve been picturing it wrong and I’m probably going to continue to do so because the image has become ingrained.

I also hate when this happens:

The book kicks off by saying the protagonist is running from someone in sheer terror. I don’t mind not knowing who’s chasing him right off the bat, but I am bothered by the fact that I don’t know where this chase is taking place. I have absolutely no context. Are we in a field on a sunny day, or a dark alleyway at night? I don’t know, so I’ll just assume he’s running down the street at night. Another paragraph rolls by and the author gets around to telling me about florescent lights. Okay, that means we’re indoors. This place must be big because he’s running really fast, and it has florescent lights, which implies some sort of institutional setting. Maybe a university or hospital?

After a few more paragraphs of fear, hard breathing, personal regret, and a description of our protagonist, we run into  a sentence that mentions footsteps echoing as they strike the concrete. So we’re on concrete, which rules out the institutional settings I’ve been picturing. At this point I’m getting frustrated at these constant mental retcons. I’m going to hazard another guess and picture a parking garage.

No wait, the protagonist is running past rows of shelves. So I guess we’re in a dark industrial warehouse?

No wait, the protagonist has reached a set of automatic sliding doors, and that doesn’t sound very warehouse-ish. Finally we get outside and it’s revealed all of that took place inside a Sam’s Club.

Would it have killed you to clue me in on that about a page and a half ago?! The constant confusion and frustration worked against the fast-paced opening you were trying to create.

I hate when books do this, so I work very hard to make sure the reader has the basic information to visually construct the world before I have anything serious happen.

The problem is that the world in this book is complicated. It’s only one city, but that city has a lot of history, drama, factions, and moving parts. Since it’s not based on a real-world city, the book needs a bit of up-front exposition. I can’t just tell the audience to picture “Chicago, but tropical” or “São Paulo, but high tech”. I need to tell the audience about the main character and the world, and I need to do it as quickly as possible so the story can start.

At the start of the book, career criminal Maxwell Law is released from prison. The prison is on some sort of platform out on the ocean, so the opening has Max approaching the city on a ferry. He rides the ferry to the port, then walks into town. He notices a lot of things have changed while he was away. This sequence gave me a great excuse to fill in the details of the city as the place comes into view. Max thinks to himself about what he’s seeing, and that gives the audience the needed information to build their own version of Rivergate in their head. I also used this section to put in a lot of important historical / cultural information.

The problem here is that it’s just too much. My editor warned me that my exposition via inner monologue was too long. I knew she was right, but I couldn’t bear the thought of tearing apart the opening chapter and rebuilding it in dialog. As it stands, nothing meaningful happens in the story until page 24 when Max meets Blackbeard at the local Moon ShotA franchise brothel, like the McDonald’s of whorehouses. and sets the first of our plots threads in motion.

Of course Max ends up in a fistfight over old debts, because that’s the kind of story this is. From there Max gets kidnapped by corporate goons. He’s taken to Landro the executive, where he learns that robots have been murdering people in broad daylight. Landro wrongly thinks that Max is an expert on the topic and asks him how the murders were done, since this sort of thing is supposedly impossible. Max tries to play along so he can swindle his way into a corporate expense account by offering to “solve” this crime. Landro takes him up on the offer, and sort of counter-swindles him so that Max has to solve the crime.

This is all great stuff, but as soon as it’s over Max goes back into inner exposition mode.

There’s too much of this, it goes on for too long, and it’s packed too close together. It’s not strictly wrong, but it’s also not the most interesting way to tell a story.

During his pages-long introspection, Max recalls how he was framed and thrown into prison by cops that he refers to as the Three Little Pigs. The TLP act as a sort of background tertiary villain for most of the story.

The Three Little Pigs

The TLP were probably inspired by news stories of real-world crooked cops that get away with flagrant crimes far longer than seems reasonable or plausible. Rivergate has a lot of corruption in the form of bribes, confiscations, and selective enforcement, but the TLP represented an extreme breakdown where a few guys got together and mistook the lax rules for NO RULES.

The problem is that the TLP never felt like a credible or interesting threat to the reader. They seemed to pop up at random and behave in such a cartoonishly evil way that they felt sort of out-of-place in this otherwise grounded world. They were supposed to be a looming background threat, but people seemed to stop thinking about them the moment they left the scene. TLP weren’t creating tension via an ongoing danger, they were just interrupting our story for random bullying that seemed unrelated to the action at hand.

All of this stems from the fact that I didn’t reveal their motivation up front. They come off as cartoon villains because it seems like they’re just picking on Max for giggles. It’s eventually revealed that they’re actually deeply in debt to someone dangerous. These guys aren’t untouchable bullies hurting people for laughs, they’re three conspirators in a death spiral. They pushed things too far and now the system is turning on them. They’re stuck in a narrow space between the criminals they’ve betrayed / exploited and the cops who resent the problems they cause for the rest of the force. The TLP are desperate, which makes them really dangerous.

This is all fine, except almost none of it made it into the book. I did finally get around to hinting at it, but that’s not until the last time we see them. That’s way too late, which means that these guys are boring until their last scene, when they stop being a problem.

This is all backwards. I should have made their situation clear the first time we meet them, and then hinted at the other details as the story went on. Also, the TLP vanished from the story for a long time. It was so long that readers seemed to feel like the story had grown beyond them. Once we’re solving grand conspiracies and unravelling the nature of AI, the drama with the TLP feels so pedestrian.

I think it would have helped if I went out of my way to make sure the reader understood these pieces were still on the board. The TLP should have popped up a couple of times in the middle of the story or otherwise gotten in Max’s way to show that he was going to need to deal with these guys before the end.

I even missed a perfect opportunity for this! Late in the book, Max and Jen Five are on the way back from Precision Circuitry in the Wall District. It’s the middle of the night. To follow their next lead they need to go to the port and break into someone’s storage locker. When they arrive at the port, the police are doing some sort of raid. Max doesn’t want to drive through a police blockade on the way to commit a crime, so he just goes back to the hotel and they decide to pick things up the next day. If I’d just placed the TLP at the scene, I could have kept them relevant and blocking the protagonist’s goals without needing to change the story at all.

The Farm

As his first step in solving the robot murders, Max drives out of the city and crosses the vast expanse of automated farms. He tracks down a scientist who can explain to him how AI works.

This scene was really important to me. I wanted to loudly signal to the reader that this book wasn’t another tenth-generation knockoff of Asimov’s Three Laws. Those stories are so well-known and so influential that I felt I needed to make it clear that I was headed in a different direction. In Three Laws stories, it’s sort of taken for granted that robots will want to harm humans, but then be restrained by the pesky three laws. A lot of the storiesParticularly the ones written by people building on Asimov’s ideas. involve a bit of rules-lawyering and mental gymnastics on the part of the robots as they try to circumvent the laws.

In my book, I needed to make it clear that the murders weren’t about a robot that found a loophole in the rules that allowed it to kill people. Whatever the problem, this wasn’t about haggling over interpretations of the phrase “protect humans”. We think of robots as being governed by hard rules and logic gates, and organics as being governed by a web of fuzzy stimulus / response interactions.  I wanted to say that my robots were more like the latter, but at the same time I wasn’t going to be doing any of that Ultron / Data-Lore / CLU 2.0 / AM shit where a robot becomes malicious because it wants love / acceptance / friendship / religion / sex / fatherly approval or other biologically-minded desire. In my story, the robots are appropriately alien.

The problem is that a lot of people said this entire section felt sort of pointless. This scientist isn’t a suspect, isn’t involved with the crime, doesn’t know anything unique about the killings, and has no stake in the story. There’s almost no tension here. This scientist is just an oracle to reveal things to our protagonist / audience.

(Also, yes, I used this section to explain where food comes from in my world. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)

Even after all these months, I don’t see a good way to fix this scene. I suppose I could have made the scientist more immediately interesting by pointing some red herring clues in his direction? Then again, I don’t like that idea since it might confuse the reader. We needed to know this exposition is true, and thus it had to come from someone we trust. I’ll admit that this scene doesn’t advance the plot, but it does contain a ton of important information.

There was probably a better way to do this, but it’s not coming to me. I can’t think of how to fix this that wouldn’t break something else. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the reader wasn’t naturally curious and eager to hear what the character has to say. It’s not just the author’s job to explain things, it’s also their job to get the audience to want to hear the explanation.

Max Seemed Too Slow

Lots of people were a little annoyed with Max because he solved the crime about a chapter later than they did. In particular, the scene where he looks down at the haunted circuit and says, “We still don’t know what this thing does.” struck people as being uncharacteristically thick-headed of him.

I don’t like mysteries that you can solve right away. I also don’t like mysteries that are just a big pile of nonsense where the audience isn’t given enough information to figure things out. It shouldn’t be trivial, but it also shouldn’t be impossible. The best mystery is one where most people don’t get it until the Big Reveal, where they slap themselves in the forehead and say, “Of course! That makes perfect sense!” That’s nice if you can pull it off, but it’s not easy to outwit a majority of the audience. How can you know you’ve calibrated the mystery correctly?

I had four people read the book prior to release. Exactly half of them figured it out. I figured that was just the right mix of “mysterious yet solvable”. Of course, my test readers were mostly fans of mystery novels, and this book was actually a technology puzzle. This wasn’t really a whodunnit so much as a howdunnit and a whydunnit. I think this threw off my genre-savvy test audience. That made me overestimate just how well the story would hold up to general analysis.

In any case, I think a 50% solve rate is perhaps too easy. If it’s that easy, then why didn’t anyone within the world sort it out?

To fix this, I wouldn’t really make the mystery harder. I just needed to have Max “get it” a little sooner.

Saturn and Jupiter

At one point, Max goes to see Jupiter, some sort of super-hacker. Again, this character is an oracle. Like any oracle, he needs to be distant, hidden, hard to reach, and eccentric. Examples include Mr. Universe in Serenity, The Oracle in the Matrix movies, or that idiot covered in pigeon shit in Hitman AbsolutionHe’s not a well-executed example of the trope, but he’s still an example!.

I didn’t want to play this trope too straight and I didn’t want Max to have too much help. An oracle character is a standard trope in cyberpunk, but it doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense in a mystery story. It’s no good having a mystery if the protagonist can just visit someone and get the answer.

So it turns out that Jupiter is in jail, and his junkie son Saturn is running the place. So then we get this exchange:

Saturn nods. “Okay. But in the future use the network. I don’t do this face-to-face stuff like my dad.”

“Jupiter is your dad? That means your names are backwards.”

“Backwards? What?”

“Nevermind.” Max says.

In mythology, Saturn was a Roman god and the father of Jupiter. The problem is that this story isn’t set in our world. This is a different world with different countries and different cultures. So then the reader runs into this section where apparently this other world has our Romans in their history books. It’s like finding historical references to Victorian London in Star Wars. It doesn’t fit and it takes the audience out of the story.

What I’d imagined is that this world had dead religions and mythologies, just like our world does. I don’t want to stop and explain one of those dead religions and put it into historical context. Instead I borrowed Jupiter / Saturn to act as a stand-in for the equivalent mythologies in this world. At some point in the past they had a belief system with father / son deities, and for convenience I slapped these familiar names on them so the audience could get a feel for how they worked without me needing to burn a couple of pages explaining what these mythologies said, who wrote them, how long ago it was, and why people still talked about them centuries later. I imagined the actual story of my Jupiter and Saturn would be different from the ones the Romans had, but the general gist of the things were similar enough.

That saved me from boring the audience with fake mythology from fake history that was unrelated to the plot. The problem is, this borrowing of names as shorthand is not at all obvious to the reader and it’s completely unreasonable to expect them to make that leap. The most obvious explanation is that their Saturn is the same as our Saturn, and this other world is more alternate timeline than alternate reality. It’s a needless confusion for the reader. I could have just given them fake names and skipped the mythological references. It wasn’t really needed.

Silly blunder.

Slightly Confused Ending

The final problem was that there was an awful lot going on at the ending. All the different plot threads concluded in the space of a few pages. The Three Little Pigs were dealt with, Max managed to placate the Royale brothers, he cleared things up with Blackbeard, he finally reconnected with Claire, he solved the mystery, and defeated Landro. A lot of stuff was going on, some of it was really complicated, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice any of this wonderful momentum to stop and explain what had been happening off-screenIs it really “off screen” in a book?. Specifically, a few people lost track of all the different versions of the robot. The clues were there, but it’s nice to make sure everything is clear by the endOr if it’s supposed to be a mystery / puzzle, then it needs to be clearly acknowledged as a mystery / puzzle.. For people who were confused, here is the untangled chain of events:

At the start of the book, there are two robots we’re interested in:

  1. Halona is Landro’s robo-receptionist. She is a simpleton with a first-gen brain retrofitted to fit in a latest-gen body. For convenience, I’ll refer to this particular body as the Winstead model, for reasons I explained here.
  2. Andrew is Dr. Kvenst’s favorite robot. We don’t know what body Andrew was using at this point, except that it was male.

Once the adventure gets started, Kvenst decides she wants Andrew to help out. So she has Andrew swap over to a Winestead body. When this robot meets Max, he names it “Jen Five”.

So now we have identical twins Halona and Jen Five. Halona is just barely smart enough to serve coffee and Jen Five is… well, we don’t actually know how smart she is. That’s one of the questions the book asks.

About two-thirds of the way through the story, Jen Five’s body gets destroyed at the protest march. Max hauls the wreckage back to Kvenst and leaves.

While he’s gone, Jen Five’s brain is moved to a new Winstead body. However, at this same time, a backup copy is also made. For convenience, I’ll call this backup Andrew. (The text doesn’t explicitly say so, but there are hints that possibly even more copies were created. Kvenst would probably have wanted at least one copy to remain with her at the lab.)

So now we have three robots all using the same form factor: Halona, Jen, and Andrew. Jen and Andrew are mentally identical at this point, having the same brains with identical memories. Andrew and Halona are physically identical at this point, having the same body with the same cosmetic options for eyes and hair.

Max reunites with Jen and they resume their adventure. Meanwhile, Andrew wants to keep an eye on Landro. So Andrew returns to the city and (somehow) takes Halona’s place. We don’t know if violence was involved, but we do know that Halona wound up near the dumpsters in the basement. From here, Andrew spent the next few days pretending to be dum-dum Halona and keeping an eye on Landro.

At the end of the story, Max sends Jen away. He wants to confront Landro by himself. Jen follows him secretly and slips into Landro’s office while the power is out. There’s a three-way standoff between Jenn, Max, and Landro. Jen is killed.

After the standoff, Lando lets his guard down in the lobby, since he assumes the receptionist is Halona. Except, it’s actually Andrew, who disarms him.

Mentally, Andrew is an exact copy of Jen, except it spent the last couple of days sitting at the reception desk making coffee for Landro instead of finishing the investigation with Max.

This is made more confusing by the fact that Max refers to this last surviving robotThat is, the last of the robots involved in the story. There are plenty of robots left out there. as “Halona”, because he doesn’t quite follow the chain of body-swaps right away. Andrew goes along with it because Andrew doesn’t care about names or genders or faces. From Andrew’s perspective, swapping bodies is no different than being assigned a different company car and swapping names is as trivial as changing your profile picture. It just doesn’t care.

I know that’s confusing. I didn’t want to break the flow of the story to explain things in the moment. It also wouldn’t make sense to ruin the surprise by explaining things ahead of time. I think the correct solution would have been to have a couple of clarifying lines in the final exchange at the end of the book. It’s fine if a few people are a little confused about ancillary details during the climax, as long as the central mystery is made clear. It’s fine to do a little mop-up exposition after things calm down. But I didn’t, which means people were still a little confused when the story ended.

It’s a pity. It feels great to nail an ending.

So those are the things that bugged me about the book.

If – for some unfathomable reason – having the story criticized and spoiled made you want to read it, then you can get the Kindle version of The Other Kind of Life. Or if you really have it in for trees you can buy the print version.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Amazon makes this process so hopelessly convoluted I’m seriously wondering if the obfuscation is deliberate.

[2] We did a giveaway and one of their daily quizzes promoted the book.

[3] A franchise brothel, like the McDonald’s of whorehouses.

[4] Particularly the ones written by people building on Asimov’s ideas.

[5] He’s not a well-executed example of the trope, but he’s still an example!

[6] Is it really “off screen” in a book?

[7] Or if it’s supposed to be a mystery / puzzle, then it needs to be clearly acknowledged as a mystery / puzzle.

[8] That is, the last of the robots involved in the story. There are plenty of robots left out there.



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100 thoughts on “The Other Kind of Analysis

  1. Jack says:

    I’m surprised by how few copies the book sold; it was one of my favorite reads lately.

    That said, while I understand people’s gripes with the TLP plot and the mystery being too easy, I loved the inner exposition and the farm scene. Different strokes, I guess.

    1. Same here. I think in medias res is way overused.

  2. Grey Rook says:

    Sad that it sold so poorly. I kinda liked it, though I seem to have mislaid my copy somehow.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      Digital FTW! Although a bit disappointed I’m locked to Kindle with this one. Did Shamus release a DRM-free version after the initial Amazon release?

  3. Husr says:

    I definitely think your lack of marketing was behind a lot of the lackluster sales. Particularly the fact that you didn’t even really promote it on this site significantly. There was almost no warning, and then immediately after subsequent posts were already talking about it like a failure (of exposure) which wasn’t super inspiring. That and present tense is kind of an immediate turn-off. And it matters less for this blog where you’re providing more detail anyway, but both the title and cover suggest something far more generic and therefore less interesting than the actual product.

    But past those barriers I really enjoyed the actual book! The mystery was fun, the worldbuilding was really developed and provided a nice contrast with Asimovian robotics, and with Max i think you managed to pull off writing a character who really wasn’t based on you and still making him feel developed (I haven’t read Witch Watch but Deck from Free Radical was hardly a huge stretch by comparison). There were just a lot of barriers to get through to get me actually reading it, and I think they weeded out a lot of your potential audience.

    Like, you have random Sunday posts on whatever you want. In the months leading up to it being finished you could have easily posted some of the spoiler-free stuff you mostly put out after the release to get people excited like the Rivergate schizo-tech (and even make them aware you’re writing a book. That much wasn’t clear until it was already out basically.) Marketing isn’t fun when it’s not what you want to do, but you don’t get to have it both ways. If you don’t put a lot of effort into it you shouldn’t be surprised when not a lot of people see your stuff. It might be easier if you think about it more like the little columns you do on programing sometimes: these are the thoughts you’re having while working on something. Rather than the aggressive Like, Comment, Subscribe stuff that it seems you really dislike.

    1. RCN says:

      You’re on point with the title. The title doesn’t hint AT ALL that the “other kind of life” is cybernetic life. In the past science fiction writers had the luxury of doing esoteric, mysterious titles for their work. But today it is a saturated medium and you have the catch the reader from the very first glance.

      What the book probably lacked was a dedicated publisher to iron those things out. They’d at least implore for (and offer several options of) a better title. Ranging from “Full-silicon Body” to “I Live in the Cloud”.

  4. GargamelLenoir says:

    (this will be only my opinion, phrased as absolute to save time)
    – The farmer should absolutely have been involved in the plot, maybe he consulted on how to make the robot malfunction happen. He was a big enough deal to both be called upon by the bad guy and be recommended as the person to talk to to Max. He could have also mentioned why it’s impossible to fool a robot’s vision into attacking someone human to lead Max (and the reader) away from what happened. There shouldn’t be an exposition scene that doesn’t further the plot.

    – The three little pigs shouldn’t have been taken out at the end of the book, because it felt as if they were twice as pointless. They should have been foiled (perhaps survived the shooting and now being investigated by AI?) as a tease of something more with them.

    – Maybe only half the early readers figured it out in advance, but it is unimaginable that Max and Jen Five couldn’t conceive something as simple as “fool the robot about what it’s seeing”, especially in a novel that is so detail oriented. They should have considered it, discarded it because of some red herring (potentially provided by our friendly farmer), and then looped it back at the end when they realize that what made it impossible in the first place was actually circumvented.

    – I thought the ending was excellent as it was though (except the TLP part)! Maybe a little confusing in the specifics but clear and satisfying overall. Even if I couldn’t write an exact flowchart of which Jen was which, I knew what had happened in general and loved it.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      General agreement on all these points. Just wanted to add that I guessed wrong about the details of what happened at the end of the book, but correctly clued in to the foreshadowing that Halona might not be what it appeared.

      My head canon is that Jen 5 co-opted another Winstead model into swapping her cores with Halona’s, told the other Winstead to suicide down at the dumpsters, and then sent Halona in (wearing the Gen 5 body) to get killed by Landro. That way makes it a lot more believable that the robot in the Gen 5 body wouldn’t have been able to take full advantage of its capabilities to disarm Landro, because it was an unfamiliar chassis.

    2. Mistwraithe says:

      Largely ditto. I certainly found the farmer section interesting, but then I guess I was also interested in getting a feel for how the wider world worked (ie I’m happy to have the where does food come from question answered!).

      1. GargamelLenoir says:

        Interesting interpretation Paul!

        @Mistwraithe Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the farmer section, it’s the kind of content I follow this blog for and I think that’s what really sold me on the book. But it still needed to be anchored in the plot.

  5. Grimwear says:

    “I’m a big believer in the idea that the text is the text and everything outside the text is fanfic…”

    J. K. Rowling would like to know your location.

  6. Redrock says:

    So I didn’t read much of the post because I fully intend to read the book and don’t want to see any spoilers. I have to ask, though, is the EPUB version you mentioned still in the works? Or should I just bite the bullet and get the Kindle one?

    1. Alarion says:

      Yeah, I’m also waiting for the DRM-free EPUB, since someone (Heather, I think?) mentioned it was coming. Maybe that contributed to the poor sales? :-/

      1. Alastair says:

        That was also what I was waiting for, since the only option here in Canada currently is the Kindle version. I would have brought the print version, but it’s unavailable.

    2. MaxEd says:

      I’m also still waiting for epub :(

  7. Mephane says:

    This is all great stuff, but as soon as it’s over Max goes back into inner exposition mode.

    There’s too much of this, it goes on for too long, and it’s packed too close together. It’s not strictly wrong, but it’s also not the most interesting way to tell a story.

    As an introvert, I found nothing wrong whatsoever with these sections. It felt entirely natural to spend so much time (pages) in inner monologue, thoughts, musings etc, so it’s kind of a surprise to me that this is being brought up as a negative point. ¯\_(?)_/¯

    1. Lino says:

      Not only that, in such a cold, cutthroat world it makes perfect sense for someone to have a lot thoughts they wouldn’t want to share with anybody else (doubly so if you’re a loner like Max).

      1. Echo Tango says:

        I agree, that this cutthroat world Max inhabits, would lead to a lot of not-shared thoughts. The whole opening section seemed fine to me. In addition to Mephane’s comment about being introverted, Max has spent a long time in prison, and I think he even mentions solitary; Presumably, he’s learned to think first, and speak carefully.

    2. RFS-81 says:

      Yes! Constant inner monologue that takes every excuse it can get to go off on a tangent is basically Representation for me.

  8. Dev Null says:

    Not to argue with the author about his own book, but… a few minor points, all IMO:

    The three pigs did not bother me at all. I took them as scenery, rather than plot, so I never expected them to do anything much. And their bits of intervention served to pull the reader back from explication and into the world (which was really one of the strongest points of the whole book, I thought.)

    The Jupiter / Saturn thing did not bother me at all, and dropping in the names of made-up deities – and then a whole aside where you had to explain who those deities were, just for a one-off jest that wasn’t terribly important and wouldn’t now be funny anyways after being over-explained – would have driven me up the wall. As it is it frames the character of the son concisely and with humour. And your world clearly has _some_ things in common with our known Earth anyways, so a little ancient history reference hardly breaks it. I had more trouble with the language being called “Local” (also not a big deal, just weirdly jarring to me.)

    As it is, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I’ve long suspected – from a few other close interactions, if never from personal experience – that 99% of book sales is marketing and luck, not quality. Self-critique is a way of improving, and never a bad thing. But don’t judge the quality of your writing based on the sales numbers; you done good with this one.

    1. Lino says:

      The other option for Saturn/Jupiter would have been to call them something mundane, but then that would have taken away from their flavour, and it would have made them less memorable.
      Also yes – sadly popularity and sales don’t always correlate with high quality…

    2. Echo Tango says:

      I also didn’t mind the Three Little Pigs at all – I thought they successfully showed how depraved and callous Max’s world has become. Today only some corporations are cutthroat and some police are corrupt – you turn that up to eleven, and you get the future Max inhabits.

      On the other hand…

      It’s eventually revealed that they’re actually deeply in debt to someone dangerous.

      I didn’t notice this at all, or forgot. The TLP still worked for me, as explained above. :)

  9. Bloodsquirrel says:

    Seeing as how the people who read it mostly enjoyed it, I think the real failure of the book can be laid at three things:

    1) Marketing, obviously. You mostly relied on the blog’s readership and whatever random exposure Amazon might have given you. The former was never going to have 100% conversion rate, and it’s not like you have hundreds of thousands of readers. Just like you mention in your “This Dumb Introduction” video and gets mentioned around here whenever content breakdown comes up, you have readers who won’t listen to podcasts, readers who don’t watch videos, people who won’t read the Escapist article, etc. And those are all free, available-on-click forms of content. So the blog readership just isn’t large enough to generate significant numbers of book sales. Amazon, meanwhile, is only going to help market what isn’t already successful. Without enough pre-generated interest to put it in a spotlight, it’s just going to get filed away with the rest of the gigantic heap of self-published books.

    The guys who know what they’re doing seem to consistently stress the importance of email lists. Tom Wood’s market website might be worth looking at. The guy was successful enough to turn one of his podcasts into a yearly cruise. A lot of the advice/methods are definitely the kind of thing you hate doing, but that’s marketing for you. It’s a lot of work, and it requires us curmudgeonly introverts to crawl out of our caves and do annoying things that we don’t understand why anybody responds to, but that the data shows is how you sell things to people.

    2) The title and cover. I kind of regret not making a bigger stink about the cover at the time. I suppose I didn’t want it to sound like typical internet “toxic” criticism, but covers are important, really, really important, and I think this book’s cover was awful. It looks amateurish, doesn’t tell us anything about the book, and whenever I see it I get the impression that it’s a low-grade erotic novel. Maybe it would have seemed inappropriately bossy from a blog commenter to demand that you change it, but I don’t think any publisher would have let a book go to print with that cover.

    3) Present tense. I was excited about the book until I read the sample and found out it was in present tense. It’s a huge turnoff for a lot of people, myself included, and it’s what me skip the book. Certain commenters here being pointlessly belligerent about people having different stylistic tastes, unsurprisingly, didn’t engender in me any desire to beat my head up against the wall of trying to read a book when the basic form of the text prevented me from becoming engaged with it.

    1. BlueBlazeSpear says:

      I never know what to make of the cover discussions because I’ve read tons of wonderful books with awful covers and have attempted to read plenty of terrible books that had fantastic cover designs. I’ve learned to literally never judge a book by its cover. But I guess that something has to catch the “drive-by” readers, right?

      And I don’t know if I want to call this particular cover “bad”? All kinds of weird things have to be considered when deciding on a cover. “Will this look good as a thumbnail, or just look like a muddy mess?” “How will this scale between thumbnail, Kindle cover, physical cover, etc.?” “Will this design screw with the bar code on physical copies?” It then becomes an exercise of “Can I create something visually appealing that fits within all of these weird and specific parameters?” It’s amazing when any book has a decent cover, but it’s clearly a thing that’s possible.

      There are things here that I would consider to be good cover design. It has sharp lines and bold colors. And I would say that in this context, black and white count as bold colors. And they’re used in the most classic way: To draw the eye to the element that’s not black or white. As far as composition goes, it guides the eye correctly. Good book covers have one element that stands out and I would say that the woman’s face certainly stands out. It’s fair to ask whether or not the woman’s face – and her lips and eye in particular – should be the narrative thrust of the cover, but whether or not that’s the case, I’d say it does what it’s supposed to do visually.

      And I think that’s where the cover isn’t blowing me away? My reaction is, “Is this conveying something important that I’m not getting?” It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but I can understand people questioning it. And just as an “industry standard” thing, the author’s name is usually just as large as the book’s title, or close to it. It’s so small here that it almost seems like an afterthought: “It doesn’t really matter that somebody wrote it – just read it.” I’d like to think that this particular author’s name carries a little bit of weight in certain corners of the Internet, so it seems fair to me to maximize whatever juice the name may have.

      A cover that jumped to my mind that I personally think has a good design is a book called The Paper Magician. The book is “meh,” but I think that the cover design is great and it has a near-identical color scheme/distribution to this book. But it works because the elements in the picture are designed to look like paper cut-outs. The cover is thematically recognizing an important element of the story: The paper. It has a clever, metatextual-like relationship to the story being told.

      My general take just happens to be that while it might not win any contest, the cover isn’t as bad as some people may have portrayed it to be. But I think you’ve made a pretty fair point here: The fact that the cover seems designed to draw our attention to the woman’s lips and come-hither stare, it would imply a story that’s sexual in nature and I don’t have the impression that that’s what this story is.

      1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        Every time I see the cover, I think it’s a Mirror’s Edge novel. I, too, wish the book had sold better -even though I didn’t enjoy the sample myself.

      2. Syal says:

        I’ve learned to literally never judge a book by its cover.

        On the other hand, the library here has a $1 used books section, and I’ve gotten used to buying books on just the strength of the title, not even looking at the cover or the blurb.

        (I’ve wound up with a lot of biographies. A lot of biographies.)

    2. Nessus says:

      I really have to second point #2. Like Bloodsquirrel, I don’t want to come off as a downer, but… the cover honestly was bad. It looked exactly like the sort of covers one sees on vanity-press books, where it’s clear the author themselves put something together in Word or Photoshop rather than hiring a designer.

      I didn’t get an “erotic novel” vibe from it, but that’s probably just a matter how unaware I am of erotic novels. Also I think the importance of communicating what the book is about is negotiable: take a look at the shelves at your local bookstore or library, and tell me how many covers you see that communicate ANYthing beyond vague genre or mood.

      HOWEVER: design is important regardless of what or how much is communicated. The cover looks like the work of someone who’s unskilled and overwhelmed by uncertainty and unfamiliarity, so they fall back on minimalism as a “safe zone”. Problem is, even minimalism has a surprising amount of design theory behind making it work, so that safe zone isn’t actually safer.

      I remember these issues being brought up before release, when you first announced the book, and getting drowned out by people saying it was fine or even good. HERE’S THE THING: you blog audience likes you in that particular way where the internet tricks the brain into feeling about a stranger the same way you would a friend. They’re not going to give you objective feedback. They’re not going to judge you by the same yardstick they would Joe Rando author or designer they come across on a store shelf. They’re going to be overcompensitorally forgiving and encouraging the same way they would with a friend or a family member, and they’re not even going to be aware they’re doing it most of the time. And similarly; if someone does criticize, they will rally to drown out said criticism, even if they would otherwise agree with it had the object been someone they weren’t “friends” with.

      When your regular blog audience tells you something is great and not to worry, you have to treat that as a fish story to some degree.

      1. BlueBlazeSpear says:

        With all of this “the cover is bad” talk I’m seeing up and down this comment thread (and me thinking that it’s not that bad), I decided to run a quick mini-experiment. I showed a picture of the cover to a co-worker friend of mine who has no knowledge of this book and I asked him what he thought.

        His first reaction was, “Uh… what’s it about?”

        I asked, “What does it look like it’s about?”

        He looked it over once again and guessed, “It’s about a sexbot who decides she doesn’t want to be a sexbot anymore?”

        And I have to admit, if you have nothing to go on but this picture and that title, it’s not that crazy that he came to that conclusion.

        Because the majority of his job is to write highly-technical instructions in a concise, approachable way, I asked him what was the most basic thing he would do to the cover to make the story more clear. His quick solution was to add a tag line to it that says “A Robotic Murder Mystery” or something like that. Which, I admit, isn’t terrible.

        I’m usually amused by the critical dogpiles that happen around here, but I admit that this one makes me feel a bit… uncomfortable.

        1. krellen says:

          TBH, I’d be surprised to learn that the Gen Five robots weren’t designed, at least initially, as sexbots.

        2. Echo Tango says:

          If Jen Five just didn’t have a sexy look on her face, I think it’d have been good. /shrug

        3. Nessus says:

          This isn’t a “critical dogpile” though. It’s just ordinary criticism. If you didn’t “know” Shamus like you do, you wouldn’t bat an eye at this. That’s exactly the sort of reaction I’m talking about.

          No ones being mean or discouraging or piling on for the sake of piling on. It’s all actually really civil and mild for such conversations. It’s just the fact that feel like Shamus is your friend that gives you that emotional perception of it being a “dogpile”.

          1. Mistwraithe says:

            Hehe. Arguably if we could get everyone on the internet to pretend that the person they are talking to (via comments, twitter, whatever) is their friend then most of the internet’s problems would be solved!

            Inconceivable, I know.

  10. Rick says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed it. The world building was great with plenty of tiny details to help it feel real. It helped sell the “AR glasses aren’t location specific” detail without it being blatantly labelled as a clue.

    I don’t usually solve mysteries easily but got this one pretty early and didn’t have any problems following the timeline of robots at the end but I had been thinking about that as well as the implications of copying, etc. I originally envisioned a class of robots learning cooking etc instead on one then being copied.

    My biggest gripes where the too convenient wrap-ups of the TLP and the Brothers, plus the apparent obsession with smoking.

    Still very much enjoyed it though and I’m sorry to hear it didn’t sell better. I’m really glad you enjoyed writing it and I look forward to your next book.

  11. Mattias42 says:

    Personally, a big reason I so far haven’t picked this book up is that the world-building and story focus mix didn’t really make sense at all to me.

    I mean, a murder mystery in a sci-fi setting in a deeply flawed but not actually dystopian/lawless city—a tourist city at that, with all the unique flavors, problems and opportunities that follows—, and it’s about… robots, AI & hacking?

    That’s a great setting. Fantastical even. Mixed with one of sci-fi’s oldest and most well-worn corner-stones.

    That’s like (to be clear, my opinion, your own may vary) having one of those one-fifty bucks artistional loaves full of nuts, hand milled flour and honey churned in the hands of nuns, and you use it to make croutons for a tomato soup.

    It’s not wrong, as such, by any means, but it’s just not what I’d use that type of ingredient for myself, you know?

    A bit like why I was both attracted and ultimately repulsed by Star Wars, actually. All those fantastic worlds, daring outlaws, massive empires, aliens & cultures, the way droids are both people & property at the same time without anybody blinking an eye…

    But the ‘camera’ always goes back to those space wizards & warlocks with laser sticks. And they’re… fine, but just not what I’d like to see more of.

    1. Bloodsquirrel says:

      What I find annoying about the space wizards part of Star Wars is how insular and flat the Jedi became after the OT. In the OT, we were following somebody who was just learning to use the force, and he whole Jedi order and their history were shrouded in mystery. The PT turned them into a rigid, boring monastic order with no emotions, overused the lightsabers and gray robes, and codified all of the force powers. By the time the ST rolled around, there isn’t a single new or interesting idea to be had with the Jedi or the force, and instead of being flavor on top of a classic Hero’s Journey tale, they became the focus of everything.

      It’s part of why no Star Wars movie will ever be able to be what A New Hope was again- you can’t have that sense of wonder without a fresh slate to start from.

      1. Mattias42 says:

        One of my favorite ideas from the SW-EU was the idea of ‘Grey Jedi.’ Force users that reject both the light side and dark side, and bend both to their own will as just another tool. A high risk, high reward path that both Jedi and Sith alike consider anathema as well as the constant risk of corruption by either aspect, but leaves the Grey Jedi as one of the only force users in the entire galaxy that write their own destiny.

        https://starwars.fandom.com/wiki/Gray_Jedi

        Alas, Lucas apparently (and allegedly) LOATHED the concept, and it kinda faded into this background element even by EU standards. Barely referenced, at least by Star Wars standards.

        Did pop up in KOTOR, though. That was pretty neat.

        Still, yeah. The whole Jedi/Sith dynamic is just SOOOO~ overdone. I get that Lucas was going for some themes of cyclical history, and both tragedies & triumphs repeating… That, I could tolerate in a ‘annoying, but for cool reasons’ sort a way…

        But Disney? They’re just so clearly milking things until the teats run dry, it’s not even darkly funny. Bit of a difference of authorial intent, right there.

  12. Cubic says:

    I hope this doesn’t come across as too negative, which was not the intention, but nevertheless here are some raw comments.

    This is made more confusing by the fact that Max refers to this last surviving robot[8] as “Halona”, because he doesn’t quite follow the chain of body-swaps right away. Andrew goes along with it because Andrew doesn’t care about names or genders or faces.

    Easily fixed, I think. Just make Max a bit more clueful and have him call the robot ‘Andrew’ instead. Now, I didn’t read the book but on the level described above, an alternate, if puzzling, explanation for a reader might for instance be that ‘Halona’ wasn’t such a bimbo after all.

    In the larger scheme of things, though, are people in this setting really comfortable with various backups and copies swapping bodies and roles willy-nilly, or would there, for example, be something like serial numbers and authentication schemes? I can’t even connect my iPhone to my laptop without providing a PIN.

    off-screen

    I think off-stage is the more conventional term.

    Jupiter/Saturn

    Um, what was the payoff of this whole thing again? Once you got into the weeds of ‘well, it’s not the actual roman gods but something similar enough …’ it seems like you could just have cut it.

    Next, the overall impressions. In general, I got a feeling that you may have played this a bit too close to your chest. You mention a number of times where you’re hinting stuff that perhaps didn’t come through.

    The professor side-plot(?) seems like it might have lacked tension and stakes, perhaps that was the problem. I don’t think SF readers mind some background or world building in general though.

    Also, if you have a complex setting you might consider breaking the first-person perspective temporarily and just write an intro prologue with background. (Or maybe the professor or a robot or someone could narrate it?) Some authors do this very nicely indeed, like C.J. Cherryh or Jack Vance. It’s not absolutely haram.

  13. Philadelphus says:

    A few thoughts:
    —I didn’t solve the mystery before Max did (though I guess I’m not great at solving mysteries in general), so it kinda worked for me, though not quite in an “Of course! Why didn’t I see it before?” way, more of an ‘Oh, I guess that makes sense of all the clues. Huh.” way.

    —On the other hand, I had no problem with keeping track of the robots in the ending, or at least, your explanation there didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know (or strongly suspect, though it’s always nice to have confirmation!). I did like the twist there, with “Halona” actually being Andrew. That did feel like an appropriately out-of-the-box strategy for an intelligence for whom a body is just, well, an avatar.

    —Finally, I’m one of the people that the namedropping Jupiter/Saturn thing really, really bothered. It’s like having Gandalf comparing Frodo and Sam to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or something; it completely threw me out of this cool, different world you’d so painstakingly built—and, importantly, differentiated from our world—over pages and pages. (Virtual pages, I read it on my phone, but still.) What I, personally, would have liked, would have been some more world-building of pantheons and religions in the book, perhaps just some hints and scraps scattered here and there, so that when the name reveal comes it makes you feel clever for remembering it and catching it (and just have it that the mythology is just old enough/uncommon knowledge that son-oracle not getting it would make sense given his age and fixation on technology rather than ancient literature.) Granted that would’ve required some set up, instead of drawing on the years of exposure to Greco-Roman mythology (most? some?) people have, but I enjoyed your explanation of Halona (the goddess, not the robot) and wouldn’t have minded some more religion/mythology-building in the background. Though I get that that wasn’t really the focus for the kind of atmosphere the book was going for…

    Edit: I too am sad that it didn’t sell really well, because I want to see more of these interesting settings and worlds you conjure up. Watching you tear apart other settings is quite entertaining, for sure, but you also have no mean skill in creating them.

  14. Lee says:

    Ultron / Data-Lore / CLU 2.0 / AM

    OK, I know 3 of these. I get the Lore and CLU references. Does Ultron actually have any good stories out there? To me, he’s always been invincible antagonist until suddenly he’s not invincible anymore. And who is AM?

    Regarding the farm oracle character, I’d suggest making him a victim, or at least an assumed target. Give the reader a reason to care about him, and some time crunch on Max going to see him. Plus, victim generally means trustworthy in fictional shorthand.

    The TLP were, indeed, too random for me, though I did like their comeuppance at the end. On the other hand, I had no issues at all with the exposition.

    1. Kylroy says:

      “AM” is the name of the AI in “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”.

  15. Lars says:

    Well, that are almost exactly the gribes I had with this book. Especially the introduction, TLP and Max is too slow.
    The farmer is important in the story, but the scene itself is to long. After repairing the farming robot, everything that needed to be said in that moment was said. The part on the refueling machine was not necessary at the moment. And you could have brought the character back to give him more meaning. Leave out the kid in the arcade ad let Prof. Farmer analyse the haunted circuit. Max knows him, he is established and he has the know-how. That solves the Saturn/Jupiter thing as well, as this characters are not needed anymore and could have been cut.

    Another flaw is that most characters do only enter the story twice, so no one really sticks. Blackbeard has two scenes, TLP has two appearances and a flashback. Casino moguls, Kvest, Clare do only have two scenes. Former robbery colleague has one scene and a phone call. And the murder has only one scene – in wich he dies.
    You wanted the reader to imagine the city correctly, but haven’t given him time to imagine most of the characters.

    On the plus side: I liked the ending. Not to expose the body swapping at that point made me think about the book after I finished it. And that is a good thing.

  16. guy says:

    My big gripe running through the book was that at no point did Max ask “how do robots determine what is human?” Particularly during the farmer scene when robot crop dusters are killing mass quantities of animal life. I didn’t catch on to the AR goggles trick before Max, but I figured out pretty much right away that if robots won’t ever harm humans, the only way to get them to kill is to mess with their perception of what is human.

    1. Lars says:

      IPO – Input, process, output. If the process cannot be harmed, you corrupt the input. I had that thought right at the farm talk and was reminded of it when they found the haunted circuit.

      1. RCN says:

        It became clear to me the moment it was shown that Jen-5 nor any of the robots put any value in the life of other robots. Jen-5 kills robots just because their memory and registry might be an inconvenience. I got that it is because the robots don’t really evaluate their lives over the attachment humans might put on them, but this also made it kinda obvious that all you need to do is make a robot confuse a human with another robot for it to go psycho on them. So the moment the haunted circuit was found in the visor area of the “crazy” robots it was clear what was happening. And it was kinda frustrating that it took Max a dozen chapters to realize it, since this wasn’t such a tech-savvy problem, it was precisely the kind of sleight of hand Max himself did…

  17. Lino says:

    I loved your book. It’s a real bummer it didn’t get much traction :(

    For what it’s worth, compared to most old-school sci-fi, the exposition at the beginning was very mild. I, at least, didn’t mind it. But I guess there’s a reason fantasy is generally more popular than sci-fi….

    These guys aren’t untouchable bullies hurting people for laughs, they’re three conspirators in a death spiral.

    As one of the people who didn’t like TLP much, had this been revealed earlier, I might have been less put off by the scenes with them (actually, did it get revealed at all?). Maybe if we also had some scenes where we see just how ruthless and dangerous they can be (to people other than the protagonist, since you can’t really have them go too overboard on him), then they might have seemed like a more credible threat.

    The problem is that a lot of people said [the farm section] felt sort of pointless.

    This was actually one of my favourite scenes in the novel. Not only was it vital for worldbuilding, but it was a very nice change of pace from all the techno-cityscapes where 90% of the book takes place. I also really liked the flow of conversation between the two characters.

    In mythology, Saturn was a Roman god and the father of Jupiter. The problem is that this story isn’t set in our world.

    I didn’t even notice that when I was reading the book…

    With regards to the ending, I’m one of the people who were confused after all the body swapping, and I’m such a simpleton that I had to read the explanation here a couple of times before I got it :D
    But, in general, I really do hope you continue writing (even if it’s something set in a different world or genre). I haven’t read Free Radical or the Witch Watch yet, but I plan to do so in the near future.
    Next time, however, you should definitely take marketing more seriously – you have a blog with a healthy readership which is much more than most authors can say. If you can combine that with a more active social media presence (as crummy as doing that is), and an actual marketing campaign, I think your next book will be much more commercially successful. I also think the fact that the book released too close to Christmas hurt it as well – not only did people not have enough time to get hyped, but most of them had probably already done their Christmas shopping.

    Anyway, I hope this isn’t the last book you write, because I know the next one will be even better!*

    * Unlike coding where nothing can ever be better or more stable than the very first program you write. After all, what can be more stable than “Hello World!”

  18. Asdasd says:

    I actually really enjoyed the opening. I appreciated that you arranged the worldbuilding such that it made sense for the character to be thinking about the city. I think you’re good at exposition: rather than neat silos of information, what you told us about the city gave us insight into the character thinking about it and vice versa. I appreciated not instantly being thrown into long A/B shot expository dialogues and ‘as you know, your father, the king..’

    Agree completely with your analysis of the Three Little Pigs. I’d add that the choice of that name only helped to trivialise the threat they posed in my mind.

    I thought the farm scene, and especially the ‘would you eat a baby?’ part of the conversation, were a very important way of shaking me out of genre expectations and understanding that this wasn’t my grandaddy’s AI-sci fi. The call-back later to ‘would you eat a baby’ would have been really funny, the only problem was that by that point I’d forgotten the scientist character and so I was confused as to why Max and Jen were repeating the conversation (which of course they weren’t).

    As I was reading, I was wondering if you were maybe doing a meta thing where by not dropping a red herring that the scientist was a suspect, you were setting him up to be revealed as the secret baddy. But that would have seemed horribly contrived. In any case it didn’t seem to me that the scene was superfluous; every investigation has to start somewhere, and Max (and the audience) gets some important information from it.

    Maybe you could have made the scientist less forthcoming with the information? Secrets are more enticing than information freely given – forbidden fruit and all that – and it would have given Max an obstacle to navigate, which makes the scene more interesting.

    Trivial as it sounds, my single biggest nitpick was that I didn’t believe Max would be able to make that throw with the lighter at the beginning. I didn’t have any problem imagining him beating up goons or redirecting their punches, but for some reason I couldn’t imagine him nailing the guard’s head at a distance on a moving boat. Maybe protagonists being able to fight is more acculturated to audiences of fiction than other feats of athleticism? Or maybe it’s just because I’m rubbish at throwing?

    Overall I loved the book. I thought Andrew/Jen in particular was one of the most memorable and strongly written characters I’ve encountered in a long time. The ideas were big, but characters never felt like they got lost or neglected among them. Action and dialogue were clear, well-written and enjoyable. Everyone (TLP excluded) had clear, sensible motivations and established goals. That this feels convincingly true for Jen, whose nature is fundamentally different to a human’s, this feels like an especial achievement. And it was funny!

    I really loved the ending, with the fundamental difference in the nature of Max’s relationship with this robot compared to any other person being key to how so many facets of the story play out.

    1. krellen says:

      A scientist who doesn’t have a government clearance being unwilling to share “secrets” would be horribly out of character. The farm-scientist being cagey would have disrupted his role as Oracle (necessary to the story, this guy is explaining AI both to Max and to the readers) and been a pointless red-herring.

      But I’m not a fan of mystery novels, so their tropes do little for me.

      1. RCN says:

        For me the most important part about the farm was how it informed the reader about what MAX doesn’t know. Everybody is assuming he’s a hacker, or has access to a high-tier hacker, and is very knowledgeable about robots to carry his heist. But the farm scene shows how not only Max knows very little about robots, he barely ever even registered their existence. Robots were always just “scenery” to him that he didn’t have to think about, but now his life depended on him figuring how robots think and what drives them. And so there he is, asking the equivalent of “so, 1 plus 1 IS two, right?” about robotics and AI programming.

  19. Crimson Dragoon says:

    I bought the book shortly after it came out, but it sat on my backlog for a while, I just finished it a couple of weeks ago, so this post is very timely for me.

    Overall, I really enjoyed the story. I think Witch Watch is still my favorite of the two, but this one was still very good. The worldbuilding was great, with Rivergate having a very distinct feel from the typical cyperpunk setting. Max made for a great lead, and the chemistry with Jen Five worked like it needed to. It seemed clear to me that the murder mystery was a set up to explore your vision of robotics and AI, and for the most part it really worked. I liked a lot of the details about robots in this (little things like their voice control were a nice touch), but I also think they were a part of the book’s biggest weakness.

    You hit on few problems that I also had, particularly the three little pigs, but my biggest gripe came from the exposition. It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it really felt like almost every chapter the characters would stop what they were doing so someone could bring out an analogy to explain some aspect of AI behavior. In a story about robots killing humans, establishing how your AI behaves is very important, and again it seems like what you were most interested in, but it was too much, too often. I found myself taken out of the story everything someone (usually Jen) would pause the investigation to explain something again. There had to be some simpler or shorter way of explaining a lot of this.

    So it feels really strange criticizing a story (sorta) directly to its author, so I’ll end by saying again that I really liked the book, and look forward to whatever your next project in fiction will be.

  20. Dennis says:

    I loved the inner monologue building the city at the start of the book, and the farm. Figured out the mystery about the same time as Max, although looking at these comments it sounds like I maybe shouldn’t be working in a compsci-adjacent field. Saturn and Jupiter not being mythological gods in this universe never occurred to me. The ending made sense to me, but it felt a little rushed. The only real issue I had was with the Three Little Pigs disappearing, and then being “solved” instantly. It made me wonder why Max couldn’t have just set them up from his first meeting with the casino bosses. I still liked the book a lot (slightly edges out Witch Watch for me) and gave it 5 stars on Amazon.

    FWIW I gave my copy of the book to my dad, who doesn’t read sci-fi but enjoys mysteries. He liked it a lot but said it felt a little slow. He didn’t figure out the mystery until it was explained, but he also can barely use the computer.

  21. Jack V says:

    I do in fact really like reading these self-analyses.

    FWIW, my impressions. I really appreciated the book, sad it didn’t take off better. Firstly, guesses about why the book didn’t sell as well.

    1. Marketing. You always sounded kind of halfhearted about it? I was pretty sure that wasn’t because you weren’t actually excited by the book. But sadly that probably affects whether people pick it up :(

    2. It’s really hard to put into words, but I think when people get energised about a book, it’s not so much whether it avoided flaws as whether the good bits really blew them away. I really enjoyed Max, and I really really appreciated the alt-history cyberpunk setting, but somehow it didn’t “pop”, it didn’t scream “oh my god, you have to read this”, and it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why.

    3. This isn’t something that would be easy to fix, but it seemed kind of hard to pitch to people. Like Witch Watch, I could describe as “fantasy by the DMotR guy” or “imagine you’re brought back to life by a necromancer’s cult but you’re wrong guy, what happens then?” or “a rollicking urban fantasy proto steampunk historical novel about a secret society of government sanctioned but poorly paid mystery hunts” or “he just wanted to do a normal soldier’s day’s work, she wanted to something something father magic, together they fight necromancy”. The details aren’t important, just that there’s lots of exciting pitches. ToKoL I enjoyed lots of things in it, but they were all hard to describe to anyone and I’m not sure why. “Like asimov but not?” “Heist/cyberpunk novel with lots of introspection about robotics”? That should be a big sell but somehow it didn’t work.

    Finally, mixed impressions on things you said or individual aspects of the book:

    * I really appreciated the alt-history city with it’s mix of geopolitics and social politics kind of different to the real world. But I totally didn’t get that it wasn’t supposed to have a similar sort of *history* to this world. I just assumed ancient greece and rome were much the same, the present was different, and didn’t think too hard about where they diverged. Now I think about it, maybe you should have played that up more, mentioning more fictional empires in the past of the current big players, etc, etc.

    * You talk about the three pigs motivation. I think it’s not necessarily that the reader needs to know, as needs to be aware via Max’s perception of rising stakes. Like, Max thinking “why are they gunning for me so hard?” recognising that there’s a threat more than he originally thought. And then the resolution comes as payoff for the question raised earlier.

    * You mention the farm scene didn’t connect. FWIW, I often really like background scenes like that. IIRC it did connect to Max emotionally which is often enough. But I think it’s often enough if it connects in a necessary but coincidental way, like, say one of the people after Max tracks him there (I think that did happen? I can’t remember) and then he traces that back. It doesn’t have to tie into all the parts of the scene, but some parts of the scene need to lead to future plot, even if main parts of it are primarily worldbuilding.

    * And yeah, I got muddled by the pacing in the end.

    But there’s a lot I DID enjoy. 2020 is a good time for cyberpunk-y AI-y teetering-city novels, and this felt like a good example of that which doesn’t otherwise exist much. I will certainly buy another book if you write one.

    1. Kylroy says:

      “…it’s not so much whether it avoided flaws as whether the good bits really blew them away.”

      Mark Rosewater has given us the line “If everyone likes your game but nobody loves it, it will fail.” Talking about game design instead of novel writing, obviously, but i think the idea holds.

      1. Jack V says:

        Yeah, Maro has a lot useful to say about creative anything! :)

    2. Jack V says:

      PS. I thought the (retouched) cover was pretty much fine, but if lots of the most likely readers are put off by it, that really is a big problem. It’s really unfair, when it feels like everything about the cover is fine, and what people are objecting to doesn’t make sense, but it does almost always mean you need to find something most people are ok with (or at least, that some people love and some people hate).

      Come to think of it, that ties into the “how to communicate the elevator pitch”. I thought it conveyed “introspective thinky cyberpunk”, but apparently most people didn’t, but maybe part of the problem was not being sure what it was supposed to convey.

    3. Khazidhea says:

      “It’s really hard to put into words, but I think when people get energised about a book, it’s not so much whether it avoided flaws as whether the good bits really blew them away… but somehow it didn’t “pop”, it didn’t scream “oh my god, you have to read this”, and it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why”

      I had similar thoughts while reading. I absolutely loved reading the book each time I picked it up, but for some reason it didn’t compel me to get to the end to find out what was going on, or to see what happened next, or what the characters were going to do. I guess it had a more sedate, drop-in drop-out feel, a bit like a slice of life anime. Always happy to drop into the world to see what was going to happen this week, but not waiting with bated breath for the next episode.

      Probably because the Spider-man series has been running while I was reading it, but I ended up comparing the chapter pace to issues of a comic. In comics you’ve got your main story plot for the issue, ending in a twist/reveal/important moment that makes you want to pick up the next issue/keep reading to see how it resolves or plays out, which they often delay a bit til midway through the next issue/chapter. Next thing instead of just finishing off the chapter it’s 3am because you just had to keep reading.

      On everything else, liked the cover (but to be likely was comparing to another self published book I like, Going Grey by Karen Traviss: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1499713045/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tpbk_p3_i4), the exposition and writing voice, the opening, the farm, the main characters, the mystery and solution. Didn’t have trouble following the end scene. Missed the Jupiter/Saturn connection (and wouldn’t have bothered me anyway, felt enough like Earth but different that it wouldn’t be jarring to share some same mythology). Felt the 3LP worked in a vacuum as an element of the world building to show the state of the city, but not within the story (too shoehorned, annoying elements that kept popping up ‘in cutscenes’ that had to be passed to get on with the rest of the story).

  22. MilesDryden says:

    I have nothing substantial to add that hasn’t been brought up in other comments, so I’ll just say that I really enjoyed the story, including the internal monologue and farm scene. The way you handle AI in this book was what attracted me to it in the first place, so I loved how in-depth the discussion was, regardless of whether it furthered the plot.

    My only real complaint was the ending. Not that it was too complicated, but that it was too quick. It felt like you had a reached a point where you were just done with the story and were in a rush to wrap things up. An epilogue showing where Max went afterwards and how Jen/Andrew’s new generation of robots turned out would have been appreciated.

  23. Karma The Alligator says:

    I’m a big believer in the idea that the text is the text and everything outside the text is fanfic

    Funny how that thought process ended up being the cause of one of the biggest arguments in the comments back in the Mass Effect 3 analysis (I believe that was the part about Thessia and Kai Leng).

    Incidentally, bought the book a while back but haven’t gotten around to reading it, so I’ll skip this article for now.

  24. BlueBlazeSpear says:

    As it is, I own the Kindle version of this book, but it has sat pretty far down my reading list. But if you’re going to be doing a critique of it, I’ll move it right to the top.

    I read the snippets that you posted on here and I rather liked what I saw. Being a big fan of your larger body of work, I suspect that I’m sitting right in the bullseye of your target audience. But having said that, there was nothing that motivated me to think “I have to read this right now.” So I can’t imagine that the larger “on the fence” audience was jumping at the chance to buy it.

    When you posted those snippets, I insisted on my wife reading them because she’s in the throes of writing a book herself and she’s always fascinated by what her contemporaries are doing. But her paying gig is marketing and she got totally side-tracked by this book’s marketing, or lack thereof. She was like “Is this all of the promotion?!” Her book is still a few months from release, but she and the book already have a huge online presence in a wide swath of the places where people would be interested in the type of story she’s telling. Apparently, it takes that sort of aggressive selling strategy in order for a book to sell well upon release.

    But I’m with you, man. I suspect that we have a similar personality type. I’m self-deprecating to a fault. And your sales pitch included a lot of self-deprecation. And that tends to not inspire confidence. If the writer can’t get 100% behind it, how can the reader be asked to do so? Again – I get it. Marketing is weird and gross and something that I’m not capable of myself. It feels thoroughly wrong to say “Here’s this thing that I created and it’s so freaking fantastic that I think you should pay money to have it.” It’s like there’s this implicit admission of, “Therefore, I’m freaking fantastic and deserving of public recognition.” If you’re at all like me, questions like “But what about my brand?!” make your skin crawl. Nothing about it feels natural or comfortable. I would suggest that when you publish another book that maybe you get someone with the appropriate marketing experience to handle that part for you: Let them do the dirty work, as it were.

    As for your initial gripes of the book here, I can only speak as someone who read the excerpts as of this writing. As it is, I happen to really love some hardcore worldbuilding and the early monologue section scratched that itch for me. It even helped with the characterization of the protagonist. Not only did we get some history, but we got his version of history, which is just as telling about him as it is about the world. I get that this is not for everybody, so I suppose it’s just a matter of taste.

    I can’t really speak much about The TLP because they only popped up once in the excerpts, but I do admit that in that one scene I read with them, they did come across as a bit cartoony to me. I did have the sense that they were capable of making the protagonist’s day miserable, but they seemed like such ridiculous caricatures that it would be hard to imagine them as a credible long-term threat.

    As far as the names “Saturn” and “Jupiter” go, I can say that I’m not a big fan of those names – not because of the confusion there might be with the real-world mythology, but rather because I have strong feelings about fictional hacker names. I think that they need to be both eye-catching and telling of the character. One of my favorites is the classic “Dixie Flatline.” Initially, the reader’s like “that’s interesting,” but then it also tells you a lot about the character even if you don’t initially realize it – he’s a “redneck” and he’s died three times while trying to crack an A.I. and was miraculously brought back. To me, “Saturn” or “Jupiter” might as well have been pulled out of a hat. But this is just a weird nitpick of mine.

    I look forward to reading your book and seeing what you have to say about it.

  25. Syal says:

    So I really liked parts of the book, and then other parts jarred enough I hesitate to recommend it, especially since the cover and blurb is… really bad. (Not that it would matter if I did recommend it since I pretty much only talk to people here.)

    I liked the opening, but I do think I felt it was too long.

    Disagree about the Three Little Pigs needing to be more of a threat. They don’t need to be more dangerous or complex, any more than what’s-his-name from True Grit needs to be more dangerous or complex. It’s a revenge story; they’re not main characters, they’re reflections on Max. Their past wrongs are the driving force, not any present dangers.
    The problem I had with them was that Max stopped treating them as important about halfway through, for no explained reason. I was having a good time with Max juggling the big robot problem with all of his personal ones, and then the personal side just completely stopped moving forward. Tying them into the robot plot wouldn’t have helped with that. In fact it annoys me when stories start with two distinct goals and then one gets completely absorbed into the other.

    I had no problem with the farming scene, or the guy not coming back. It made sense for Max to consult someone who could give him the framework for the problem. The one that bothered me was Uncle Dad. The first flashback to him was really jarring, and the second conversation with him was just empty space that could have been cut. His only contribution was in being a red herring by dint of how superfluous he would be if he wasn’t involved.

    The ending was confusing more for the standoff than the reception reveal. I guess the goal was to get the guy overconfident by dying? Weird confrontation there.

    …Work on your covers.

    1. Syal says:

      Since this feels pretty negative, I feel like I should throw in some positives. I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but outside Brandon Sanderson this is one of the most enjoyable ones I can remember (and if I can’t remember them, that’s also telling, huh?) I didn’t catch either the how or the who until the reveal. The ‘who’ felt a bit obfuscated by most of the characters not getting a lot of screentime, but that felt justified by the scope of the problem and Max being distracted by his own stuff. And the characters that were fleshed out, Max and Jen, were very good.

  26. “There was probably a better way to do this, but it’s not coming to me. I can’t think of how to fix this that wouldn’t break something else.”

    Well, you had a tool there for fixing the farm scene that you didn’t really use–this is Max’s family. He didn’t exactly do much to hide that this was his family, and there were a number of people who had an interest in getting Max to reveal himself.

    It didn’t even necessarily need to be a high-threat scene. But family can have all kinds of pulls on you without needing a lot of setup or explanation.

  27. Alpakka says:

    Sad to hear the book didn’t do well, I guess I’m one of the few people who have a physical copy then.

    I didn’t mind the farm scene with the robot scientist, it had good worldbuilding. However, others have also mentioned that the scene with the… step dad? Anyway, the guy who killed a dog in a flashback… felt like it could have been cut. I didn’t quite understand why it was included. Also I didn’t really find the start _that_ slow, since it contained interesting information about the world and the main character.

    I also did not mind the Jupiter/Saturn reference, I did not realize that the world was supposed to have _that_ different history. Pretty often even if e.g. the book’s world has had magic publicly available for millennia, you will still get the same historical figures.

    Present tense does take a bit of time to get used to, although I didn’t even remember it until people mentioned it in the comments. Seems that many people really dislike it, though.

    I didn’t pay much attention to the cover, but then again I usually don’t. Now that I took a closer look, I guess it did not really seem to tell much about the story or the world. The only time I really recall not picking up books based on their covers, was the Discworld books with the really colorful covers. I avoided them for years, until I finally picked some up at the library was immediately impressed. Terry Pratchett is pretty much my favorite author… I still hate the covers though.

    Overall I really enjoyed the book, it reminded me a bit of Altered Carbon. Certainly I liked it much more than I liked Neuromancer =)

  28. King Marth says:

    I found that snippet of the introduction to be too painfully accurate a representation of a dystopian future, especially the part where your bank/phone provider would add arbitrary fees to an account for not picking up an “upgrade” while you’re in jail. It sounds like a fascinating world in these overview pieces, but after seeing the part of it that Max deals with, I don’t want to be there.

    The second snippet with Jen talking about non-interaction did a much better job of reflecting the non-Azimov robot philosophy.

  29. krellen says:

    I think the vast majority of faults with this book were the marketing (the cover and the blurb are included in marketing). Most of the other problems you mention didn’t really seem like problems to me (I still needed Max to tell me why Landro was the ultimate culprit) – the exposition was necessary and largely not pointless, because it all established the facts of the world and clarified what it was Max knew and what it was Max didn’t know.

    You just needed to market it more, harder, and longer. You said “I’m writing a book”, “oh, it’s done, you should buy it” and “oh btw here’s a sample”, and then basically dropped it altogether (leaving Twitter around this time didn’t help, that’s another audience you could have marketed to). Hardly anyone had any time to get excited about it, and all discussion was pretty spoilery, which cut off another audience.

    Was it perfect? Obviously not, nothing is. But it was definitely on par with most professional works I’ve read.

  30. Dreadjaws says:

    I’ve said before that I think the reason it failed was precisely lack of marketing. The way certain movies, book and videogames make billions despite mediocre to awful quality should clue you in to the fact that quality has very little to do with success. And I know the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing is true, but that cover is, to be honest, kind of crap. It doesn’t even do anything proper to convey this isn’t a human. Sure, the eye is a giveaway, but you have to look carefully into it from up close and I guarantee you most people who reach the Amazon page won’t notice, since it can’t be seen unless they deliberately decide to zoom on the cover.

    I loved the book, but I’m not gonna pretend the thing was perfect. I was definitely bothered by the fact that I kept forgetting about the TLP the moment they left the scene. And I felt Max’s character did a 180 entirely out of left field at the end, which was a bit annoying. I didn’t care about the exposition, because I like the worldbuilding, and I didn’t see anything strange about the whole Saturn/Jupiter thing because for whatever reason I already considered this an alternate timeline rather than an alternate reality.

    You will never convince me that the whole “Present Tense” complaint is anything but petty silliness, so that’s definitely something I never gave any thought to while reading.

    So you know, for next time, promote the hell out of it. Hell, you can do what Marvel did with Captain Marvel and pretend it’s necessary to read it to understand Endgame. It’s not going to be any less true.

  31. RFS-81 says:

    In Three Laws stories, it’s sort of taken for granted that robots will want to harm humans, but then be restrained by the pesky three laws. A lot of the stories involve a bit of rules-lawyering and mental gymnastics on the part of the robots as they try to circumvent the laws.

    I don’t remember any of Asimov’s stories being like this. Asimov’s robots don’t need the First Law to stop them from random rampages. Maybe the problem is that the three laws are presented top-down? A bottom-up view would be something like: We want robots to step out of the way when an anvil drops down on them. We want them to do what we tell them, which may include sending them into danger. We don’t want them to become murder weapons, though, and we don’t want them to stand by when a human is in danger.

    Asimov’s robots can be duped into harming a human, much like in your book. I don’t remember any story where they actively seek out loop holes.

    1. guy says:

      It’s considered in one of the short stories, where a facility researching gamma ray exposure (low levels and short duration) kept having trouble with robots rushing in to force test subjects out of the field, which then burned out their positronic brains. So the facility got robots that dropped the “or through inaction allow a human to come to harm” section of the First Law. When one of them goes missing, Dr. Calvin notes that it could potentially drop a heavy weight on a human secure in the knowledge it could catch that weight, and then stand there and not catch it.

    2. Hector says:

      That did come up, especially in regards to the “0th law” later on. Which really let the Robots do whatever they wanted in practice. And implicitly it was an issue in Foundation. I’m not really an Asimov fan personally. Of all his stories I read, some were interesting but I can’t say I actually enjoyed them.

  32. Michael Anderson says:

    Wow … I have spent a long while reading the comments and there is some excellent stuff there – sure much of it takes different sides, but as usual there is plenty of great context and explanation.

    I evidently have the distinction of being the ‘Top Critical Review’ on Amazon right now … and yet I really did enjoy the book, I just couldn’t recommend it. And much of that is based on what I called ‘internal inconsistencies’ and ‘character betrayal’. I am one who loved the introduction and even the overly long layout of thoughts and worldbuilding … I didn’t think it dragged, but that is me.

    I was back & forth on TLP as well – missed opportunity but not killer flaw.

    Disappointed it didn’t do better – it is a pretty good work and one that when I saw this post I could immediately recall in some detail (both good and bad).

  33. RJT says:

    I mean, the book did have a few problems, but I wouldn’t list these as the top contenders. Some things that did bother me: 1. I read this blog weekly, but I missed the release of the book for about a month because there was I think one post about it which was immediately buried. 2. The cover of the book is not appealing. It is a nice enough picture, but it is kind of a joke at this point how often sci-fi action covers are “generic woman looking at you with an expression halfway between wanting your body and wanting your blood.” 1 & 2 mean I would not have picked up the book had I not been a long-time reader of the blog. And, having read the book, 3. Jen Five wants to prove its nature as a truly intelligent form of life by solving the mystery, but it doesn’t really end up contributing much to the solution of the mystery. Eh…I felt that was the emotional thrust of the book for me, and it just petered out.

    That said, I did enjoy the book, especially the detail of the setting and the philosophical discussions about the nature of robots. And I _liked_ the farm.

  34. Retsam says:

    I’ll second the “most of this stuff in this list is pretty minor” which a lot of people have said, though I do agree with this post that the TLP were a weaker aspect of the book. A lot of these points are about worldbuilding and exposition, but overall I thought the worldbuilding and exposition was excellent.

    Especially the Jupiter/Saturn thing is a non-issue, IMO. You can handwave that as Translation Convention, that the “translator” of this book into English (since they don’t speak English in your fictional world, either) also changed the name of whatever parent/child pair of deities they’re actually named after into “English” equivalents.

    (I’ve also seen books that will invent new deities, but just pick names that are close enough to the ones you’re trying to invoke, but that solution actually feels worse to me than just letting it be)

    If I had to pick a complaint (and I think this came up in some of the earlier discussions), the relationship between Max and Jen Five can be a bit bland. It felt like the story was doing the “buddy cop”/Odd Couple thing where you throw two very different characters together and force them to solve a mystery together – and on paper Max and Jen are obviously quite different – but in practice they worked together pretty well from the beginning of the story. IIRC, the climax is really the only real falling out between them.

    I don’t think there needed to be major conflict between them; but I do think more minor disagreements between them and sharper contrast between their perspectives could have been drawn. They have different perspectives – for example they disagree over Max’s whether a million small slights by a corrupt system justifies a life of crime or not – but I don’t really remember cases where those different perspectives really impact the plot outside of mere mild conversational disagreement.

    And when the two leads of a “Odd Couple” story already have a pretty functional and amicable partnership from the outset, there’s just not much room for the characters to go anywhere in terms of character growth. Maybe this is an inevitable issue with the book’s vision of robots as largely incredibly helpful and conscientious, and maybe its weird that I’m expecting a robot to “grow”, but I did feel that Max and Jen were a really interesting pairing that the story didn’t get its full mileage out of, either as a pair or individually.

    But like I said, I really enjoyed the book and it’s a shame more people didn’t read it.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      I totally thought Max was in our actual world, but just in the future a couple decades. So, the Saturn/Jupiter thing felt fine to me, since it’s just future-Earth. Like, everything else in this book seemed like Earth, so I was surprised when Shamus started claiming that it’s some alternate-universe or whatever.

    2. Paul Spooner says:

      I really like the idea of a translator as an element of a fiction narrative. The one that leaps most readily to mind is “The Princess Bride; S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, The “good parts” version, Abridged by William Goldman” (which, true story, I kept trying to find the un-abridged version of until I gave up and checked out the abridged version from the local library) because it addresses the desire to insert exposition about a setting by way of translator’s commentary, while still allowing the narrative itself to be clean and well paced.

  35. guy says:

    I found the TLP a pretty awkward inclusion. They just seemed to show up at random intervals to beat up and threaten Max then leave. I’m not even sure how they kept finding him when they work customs and aren’t very bright and it’s the City Of Broken Cameras. I also always find it a bit silly when extortionists demand money people don’t currently have and incentivize them by damaging their ability to make money.

  36. Fizban says:

    Before we get started, I should repeat what I said a few months ago: I’m a big believer in the idea that the text is the text and everything outside the text is fanfic, even if it was written by me. If something isn’t explained well enough, then making up shit later doesn’t fix that. If part of the book doesn’t work, then this article can’t fix that.

    See, this is a thing that bugs me- who cares if you made shit up later, when you can put that in the book. I feel like in the (very extremely important) need to draw the line somewhere and say “this is the thing, no more edits,” or “oh god don’t be George Lucas aaahhhh” a lot of simple one-line fixes are just being completely ignored because they weren’t thought of until after publish/airing/etc.

    But. . . . if you know you can fix it, why not fix it? Some videogames have had major story changes in updates, DnD books (used to at least) have errata, webcomics and serials can and have gone back to previous entries to clarify lines or fix a panel, why is a novel any different? You can make the changes, add a page or two to the back of the book with the original text for people who want it available, post the changes for anyone who’s already bought it who doesn’t want to re-buy it, and then you have an improved V2.

    Which, pursuant to marketing, you could then use as a talking point. I dunno, maybe the backlash is supposed to be too strong for this sort of thing to ever work, but I don’t see why not. This isn’t a 5lb hardcover people have been anticipating for years and will be bent about if you suddenly change things and make their copy invalid, it’s either a standalone one-shot or the first book of a series (if you ever felt like you had another story to tell there). I don’t think it would make anyone mad here, and adding a subtitle to the cover to catch more interest seems like a zero-loss/all-gain scenario, unless they make you pay to make changes like that on amazon/etc.

    Granted, the only really super easy fixes are the TLP reminder, a subtitle, and maybe the Saturn/Jupiter thing, but unless you want to save that one honest post-launch revision chance until you’ve figured out how to rewrite one of the bigger things, I just don’t see why it’s such a bad idea.

  37. General Karthos says:

    Some people believe in the concept of “Word of God”. If the owner (read: creator) of the media explains something afterwards, then it’s canon. Take the Tolkien letters for example. A lot of them provide more extensive analysis on Lord of the Rings and on other stories from Middle Earth that give us more information on some things (and leave us agonizingly short on other things.) Of course, it’s your creation. So if you feel you should take some lumps for not explaining things as clearly as you might have, that’s always fine too.

    I’m glad you had fun writing it. My Mom’s last novel didn’t do so great sales wise either. We kept getting royalty checks from the publisher of less than $100.00 a month. And unlike the books published through Ace, she didn’t get a monetary advance. (She never self-published. She went the old-fashioned route of getting her book published by a physical publisher. It took her nearly 30 years, but she got a trilogy based on her second book and got her first book published a few years later.)

    But she always had far more fun writing than she did doing the job that paid the bills.

  38. Liam says:

    I read the snippet you posted and was quite interested in reading more. I asked about a Google books release (as I have a lot of Google Play store credit to use up) but I think it was lost in the flood of comments.

    Any chance of a Google Play books release?

  39. Stu says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed it, and have recommended it to friends who have also enjoyed it. For what it’s worth, none of the things that bugged you jumped out at me when I read it.

    I’m sorry it didn’t do better in terms of sales for you, but it’s an interesting world and a compelling story, and I’m looking forward to reading more from you (if you do this again).

  40. Write a sequel–they sell each other.

  41. zompist says:

    I’m also a guy with a website who’s also written books. A couple thoughts…

    Fiction is a hard sell. My nonfiction sells at an order of magnitude higher than my fiction. If you’d gone through a small publisher, 3000 sales would have been way better than average.

    Your site is completely not helping your sales. There’s no link for your books. There’s no category for “My Novels” or whatever in the dropdown. They don’t appear under “Top Content”. If you’re relying on your blog for marketing, you need to showcase your books… who else is going to do it?

    A minor thing: your Kindle and paperback pages aren’t linked. Kindle’s customer service will happily fix this for you.

    Also minor, but it kind of bugs me: no curly quotes.

  42. kdansky says:

    I think a large part of the problems could have been solved by changing narration style. A few scenes where Max is not present (from the perspective of Jen Five or a lab assistant or the villain) would have cleared up the ending and prepared the twist. Such scenes could also have been used to flesh TLP out, or the other villains, or other characters, or even events that happened but we only heard about through dialog that was told to Max (of which there is SO MUCH – the book felt like 90% dialog to me). Nothing was gained from the unusual choice of narration (3rd person internal monologue in present tense), but a lot of writing flexibility was lost.

    The book is chock-full of Tell, Didn’t Show, and that really hurt its fun factor when reading it. You lament that you had to spend 25 pages on exposition, but the reason is really that the choices you made for how to write it conflict with what you wanted to write. I am not saying one cannot write an internally focused personal story and also do a lot of world-building, but doing it puts a lot more work on the author.

    I have the theory that a scene always accomplishes the following things: Further the plot, tell us about the characters, or tell us about the world. A good scene does two things (like tell us about a character in rewards to the world). A great scene does all three (like having two characters have a fight about their morals which are grounded in the world they live in). Brandon Sanderson is a master of doing that. This book usually only managed one thing at a time. The farm scene is the epitome: All exposition, nothing else.

    As for the Saturn/Jupiter thing: I think everybody assumed this to be some sort of parallel earth, and it’s completely fine to have a common background in the past. I did not notice until you pointed it out just now.

    1. Lino says:

      I think almost every single scene in TOKoL was either worldbuilding, a character beat, or some sort of statement on the nature of AI, and/or the world we live in. The farmig scene served for both worldbuilding and exposition.
      Although I’ve only read Legion, I think Brandon Sanderson writes a very different type of fiction – he’s more focused on characters rather than worldbuilding, and the topics he explores aren’t as compicated as the ones in TOKoL.

      1. Retsam says:

        FWIW, your view of Sanderson is pretty skewed if you’ve only read Legion. I like the Legion books (…reminds me I should read the third, it’s sitting on my bookshelf unread), but they’re not really representative of Sanderson as a whole. He’s absolutely more world-building focused than character focused, one of the most dense world-builders out there.

        1. Lino says:

          Hm. Well, guess I’ll have to take your word for it. I was so disappointed with Legion that I don’t plan on giving him a second chance, and see for myself. To each their own, I suppose…

        2. Syal says:

          I haven’t read Legion, but The Way of Kings is high on my list of favorite books (even moreso than the sequels, unfortunately.) It and Dune Messiah are the most fascinatingly alien worlds I’ve read about.

      2. kdansky says:

        > The farmig scene served for both worldbuilding and exposition.

        Yes, that’s *one* thing. World-building and exposition do not count for two in my list: It did not further the plot, nor give us any new insights about the main characters, or made them change.

        Raw world-building is like the Silmarillion. Sure, some people like it, but it’s still a history book and not a novel – and that needs exceptional skill to pull of without losing the audience.

        I hope nobody is mad when I claim that Tolkien is a better writer than Shamus.

        When I said before that choosing an unfitting writing style for the plot was a bad idea, that does not mean nobody is allowed to do it. It just means that the onus of execution lies with you. Just like when you play a competitive game: Making a bad choice during draft or character creation does not mean you lose. It just means you need to play extra well to win.

        TOKOL has a bunch of choices that would have worked for a top tier author, but not for someone who is “only” good. I mean I liked it, but it goes to my “it was alright” bucket with all the other books that were not quite a waste of time, but also did not impress me. Still better than Jim Butcher.

        It had a great idea, but mediocre execution.

  43. Philadelphus says:

    So I’ve been pondering, and I think I finally figured out why the Jupiter/Saturn thing bothered me so much, and it has to do with this quote from the start of this post:

    Great, now I realize I’ve been picturing it wrong and I’m probably going to continue to do so because the image has become ingrained.

    When I start a new story, I know nothing about the world, so I start with what I imagine is the default for most people, “Like Reality Unless Specified”. But those first couple paragraphs are a great place for a new story to let me know what to expect. At the most basic level, does physics work the same, or does it mention jumping to light speed in the opening narration? That tells me a lot about the world. Are species that don’t currently exist—either extinct ones or fantastical ones—mentioned as being real? Great, biology is different or we’re in a different time period (or both). Does it mention a real historical figure? OK, some sort of historical fiction. And so on, and so on.

    Your opening sequence spent a good deal of time impressing upon me that THIS IS NOT EARTH. Sure, physics and biology seem to be the same, and technological development seems to have followed a roughly overall similar pattern (industrial revolution/age of steam –> electricity –> robots), but with the different geology and hundred-plus years of fictional history (including a brand-new goddess with some fleshing out of how her ancient mythological aspects had been reinterpreted for the modern era) I concluded that I couldn’t assume anything about the rest of the history of this world (which is cool, it gives the author freedom to weave in anything they want). Then in comes a real-world name drop over halfway through the book (I think)—and not something that could be brushed off as a coincidence, something that explicitly requires this world to have Greco-Roman mythology somewhere in its history—and like you said, it comes off like finding out that Queen Elizabeth I was canonically a queen of Naboo in the past, or something. I suppose part of it’s on me; I’ve been expecting this fantastical new setting where anything can suddenly emerge from the depths of history, and suddenly it turns out nope, it’s the same old Greco-Roman mythology we’re all (except Saturn) familiar with. I’ve lost a bit of the magic I felt from the metaphorical curtain being raised. Some might call this a case of unrealistic expectations, but from my point of view they were exactly as realistic as I could deduce from the information given to me up to that point.

    It’s cool that there are people out there that it didn’t bother (I assume they’re simply more willing to fill in the blanks than I am). I just finally put my finger on why it was a big deal for me, and felt the need to explain in excessive detail and at great length.

  44. Gahrer says:

    I really liked this book. It was one of the best science fiction stories I have read in years. The worldbuilding in general and the depictions of the robots in particular really carries the book even though the actual mystery was “merely” 4/5 stars in my opinion. For this reason I never even noticed the problems with the farm scene, I was just happy to get more information about the robots and the world.

    Besides the robots I really liked Max as a character. I found his personal mini-crusade/rants against the petty annoyances of the world endearing and his fast-talk/bullshitting skills were a joy to read about. Those parts connected nicely to the strange combination of xenophilia and xenophobia present among the people of Rivergate.

    My knowledge about roman mythology is patchy at best, so when I reached the Jupiter/Saturn part it didn’t even occur to me that it might refer to the family trees of the roman gods. Instead I thought about the planets and spent a couple of minutes trying to figure out how that worked: “Jupiter is the bigger than Saturn and closer to the sun, so it would make sense for the son to be named Saturn”, I thought. “So in what way is this backwards? Also, why are those planets here, in a story not set on earth?” I concluded that I didn’t get it and moved on.

    I also liked that Max didn’t get everything at the end. He solved the case, neutralized his enemies and managed to find Clare again, but their relationship face obstacles Max doesn’t really know how to overcome. Clare leaves for the tour (I think) without him and there doesn’t seem to be much future for them.

    More please.

  45. Thomas says:

    I loved the open questions with Jen 5, particularly about the implications that she was protecting her ‘mindset’. How universal might that trait be? If you’re programmed to value certain things, then is it natural to want to stop people from changing what you value? If they change your motivation then you’re less likely to fulfill the objectives you had wanted to fill.

    And I loved the explanation of the colonial history of the city. The Witch Watch is more Prachett-y but this was the closest to that.

    It’s those bits that would make me come back again.

    Next time try to overcome your embarrassment about marketing. Campster does that a bit too. We won’t mind if you get behind your book, and enthusiastic marketing feels much better and less awkward than unenthusiastic marketing. I really enjoyed the posts leading up to The Witch Watch. Particularly the one about rewriting the first scene.

  46. RCN says:

    “São Paulo, but high tech”

    As a Brazilian I feel the need to point out that unless by “high tech” you literallymean “futuristic”, São Paulo IS a high tech city. It is Brazil’s industrial center and its center of technological development. It has a stark contrast of poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods, like any place in Brazil, but underdeveloped it is not. And that’s said by someone who despises São Paulo in general.

    As for the other things, I’d like to point out that as one of the people bothered and taken away from the story by the Saturn/Jupiter characters, the problem doesn’t come from the names. The names ARE slightly off from the place but WORK because they are obviously exoterical aliases. It’d be simple textual reference and short hand if you left at that.

    What kills the scene and the immersion is Max commenting on the names clearly referencing real-world mythology. Then suddenly these names aren’t just textual references nor wacky aliases, but direct reference to OUR WORLD.

    1. Shamus says:

      That’s actually what I meant: “Futuristic”. Poor choice of words. I should have said something like “Future Tech”.

      1. RCN says:

        No offense taken.

        Also São Paulo would be a terrible analogue to Rivergate because while the later is compact, São Paulo is SPRAWLING. If you follow a map of urban development of São Paulo, it looks almost literally like a tumor growing and consuming lesser cities. Technically, it is a city over 100 km away from the litoral, and yet it is so big that part of it touches the ocean.

        Back on track, I adored your grounded and less anthropomorphic take on AI and I mean to steal parts of it. Like with you it always irks me when an AI in a story develops pareidoleiac characteristics. (Ugh, Detroit: Become Human I’m talking to you. EDI, I’d expect better from Mass Effect than an AI whose purpose is to bone a human, but I guess I didn’t from the sequels.)

        I’d like to ask if there is any work of fiction that does “AI right”, in your opinion.

        1. RCN says:

          BTW, I liked the farm bit. Except for the fact that the scientist was too eccentric maybe? But the conversation was about what a robot thinks was great and I felt it was important to develop the world building AND robot characters like Jen 5.

          My favorite part though was “creative solutions” supercomputer. And how safeguards were kind of unnecessary because it was impossible to make a robot willingly harm someone. Which is why I figured the robots were tricked by the moment of the farm scene, but that’s alright.

  47. baud says:

    I didn’t mind the inner monologue start, I feels like it did a good job of explaining the universe. And during all that part, we still get some events all along the way; even if they are not meaningful, they do a good job of telling what kind of character Maxwell is.

  48. Ben Matthews says:

    “Amazon makes this process so hopelessly convoluted I’m seriously wondering if the obfuscation is deliberate.”

    Then switch to the beta version, it’s FAR superior and gives you specifics on everything, including books sold, markets sold in, page reads (if you’re in KU), and even a royalty estimator. It’s so much better than the garbage that is the default dashboard.

    Also, email list. You need one if you want to sell books. Go to Youtube and do a search for Derek Murphy Email List and watch all of them. His other videos are also invaluable if you struggle to sell copies, especially his videos on cover design, blurbs, and marketing in general.

    edit: also, just bought The Witch Watch. Been meaning to read it for a while now, and seeing someone mention that it’s Pratchett-esque piqued my interest instantly :D

    1. Ben Matthews says:

      Grr, went to edit again and the limit was up. Pls increase to 30mins or something.

      Anyway, just wanted to add that if you want more detailed sales reports, then the other option that most serious authors use is BookReport.

  49. Rane2k says:

    Hey Shamus, I got your book directly when it came out, based on the fact that I read almost everything you write here on the blog and I like most of it. :-)

    Inner monologue: I think this was fine, the inner world of Maxwell was very interesting. However, it did make the start of the book a bit slow. My reception of the first few chapters was very lukewarm, until about the point where Maxwell meets Landro.

    Three Little Pigs: I did not realize that these guys were connected to the main plot at all, instead I thought their purpose in the book was just to ramp up the pressure on Max.

    The farm: This scene was absolutely fantastic in my eyes, it did not matter to me that the scientist was not that connected to the plot. I think it helps that the reader gets their information about the tech in this world from multiple sources (Max´s inner monologue, the hacker guy (Saturn?), the scientist, Kvenst, Jen 5, etc.).

    Max seemed too slow: I did not feel that way, so count me in the 50% that didn´t notice/mind :-)

    Saturn and Jupiter: This one went completely over my head until you mentioned it here. I think it´s okay to have this reference here. To my understanding this story was set on “Earth but different”, not “Random planet with no connection to Earth and it´s history”. On the other hand, maybe the reference was really not necessary.

    Ending: I loved it! The one thing that threw me out a bit that I did not have “Andrew” in my mind anymore, to me the character had morphed to “Jen-5”.

    As others mentioned above, I think the story itself was not to blame for the bad sales, the marketing or lack thereof was the problem. The cover did not attract me at all, I got the book _despite_ of the cover, based on your writings.
    I have no idea of marketing, but perhaps it would be wise if you outsourced it to someone (throw a few hundred bucks into someones maw, someone who has an idea of how this works ^^). This would also ease the burden of “management/marketing” a bit.

    Anyway, I hope the bad sales do not discourage you from writing another novel. I would buy the next one. :-)

  50. Jeff says:

    Sorry, Shamus. I keep meaning to buy your book on Amazon, but I also intend to buy a bunch of other stuff to get the free shipping. I keep procrastinating getting the other stuff, so now you don’t have my sale yet.

    Also you managed to talk me out of getting your book (with the insufficiently clever protagonist) and then back into getting your book (with the curious android swapping) over the span of this post, which I found interesting.

  51. Dawn says:

    I didn’t realize it was available yet, but I bought it when I noticed you talking about it here.

    For me, the first part was very slow. No objection to the farm scene or the worldbuilding or how you built the mystery, but I felt like it took forever to work through the first third of the book with a character who isn’t a robot and who I hardly like. He grew on me, but it’s a long slog with no perspective that cares about robots yet.

    I am here for the robots and AI and it would have been nice to get some hints up front that there really will be cool robot characters.

    Sorry for the critique! I loved Jen when I got to her. Congrats on your book and good luck figuring out how to sell more.

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