Tuesday, October 04, 2011

On a Departure

On a previous post someone who signed in as Northern Fop had this to say in the comments section, and I’ve brought it here because my reply is going to be a lengthy one:

Hi Neal. I'm a long-time fan so I was a little taken aback by the negative reviews "The Departure" has received on Amazon. I was curious how a writer (well actually, you) deals with this.

Do you ignore it - after all, the book is still selling by the bucket-load - or try and view it as constructive criticism?

I suspect some of the whining is driven by the "but it's not the Polity!" brigade, but the reality is these reviews will have a negative impact on your income, which has got to hurt. [I get the impression from your blog that you're not yet on Tom Clancy levels of income...]

Nope, I’m not on Tom Clancy levels of income, but the pain is not about income. Even when I can logically rip apart such reviews, or when there are a hundred positive reviews to balance against them, they still hurt and feel personal. No writer wants his book to be disliked and no human being wants to be personally disliked. However, anyone who paid the entry fee, i.e. bought the book, has a right to a say. If what they say is constructive I’ll absorb and inwardly digest it, but let’s be honest here, when someone dislikes a book, their comments are usually completely negative. ‘Like’ or ‘dislike’ usually come first whereupon the reviewer searches for justifications. I can be as guilty of that as anyone and, because I know how it feels, I generally try to avoid reviewing a book I didn’t like, or didn’t finish.

So, what I have to do is just take it on the chin and carry on. The title The Departure, it’s now becoming evident to all, has a double meaning. It is also a dystopia which for me is also a bit of a departure in itself. The Polity books are all usually set on the Line – some border or war zone – but in essence are somewhat utopian and positive in their outlook: the people have all the wonderful toys of advanced technology, the prospect of living forever in a lurid and busy universe full of wonder. In writing The Departure, I half expected to be punished for ‘departing’, for there are those who feel betrayed when a writer doesn’t produce more of the usual. So why did I take this risk? Why not just keep on pumping out the Polity books?

When I look around at other writers I see many of them confined by their fans, by their publishers, and by fear of failure, to a single narrow milieu. Continuing to write the same thing they can become dry and stale, and quite often just fade away. Also, those who followed their initial success with lots more of the same, are always punished for daring to venture off into something different. After the lengthy Thomas Covenant fantasy, Stephen Donaldson tried science fiction and got pilloried (though I’m going to be reading his first two SF books soon). Martina Cole, trapped in her narrow London gangland milieu, is being steadily dropped by her fans. And I’m sure you can all also think of writers who produced one excellent series, then seemed to just disappear.

Because of this, right from the start I tried to keep myself out of the trap. This is why you didn’t get the Cormac series delivered one book after another, or the Spatterjay series, and why various outliers like Hilldiggers and Cowl were also dropped into the mix. In itself this wasn’t too risky, since most were Polity books, but I can see how, if I had written the Cormac series first then followed it with the Spatterjay series, there would have been those protesting the change and demanding another Cormac book. I did take a risk with Cowl and, when I delivered it, an editor’s response to someone else was, ‘We might have made a mistake here’ whereupon that book went on to be shortlisted for the Philip K Dick award. I took a risk writing Orbus in present tense, and that polarized opinion with some hating it and some thinking it my best book to date.

So, I departed with The Departure because I did not want to be trapped in the Polity forever. I took this risk because I didn’t want to become stale. I’ve opened up another option, another future in which to set books because I’m here to stay and intend to keep on writing books until they nail me into a coffin. Yes, I’m getting some negative responses, but I’m also getting some very positive ones too. I suspect that most of those Polity fans that dislike this book are not going to dump me at once. Maybe they won’t buy or read the next two books in this trilogy (which would be a shame because it gets a lot more sfnal), but they’ll probably pick up the next Polity book I produce (which I’m thinking of calling Penny Royal – I may have ‘departed’ but that doesn’t mean I’m never coming back to the Polity). Meanwhile, this book is attracting new people to my stuff, and it’s expanding my market, since many of those new people will go on to try my previous books.

Note One: I never judge a book’s success or otherwise from reviews on Amazon. Over the last ten years I’ve seen books there roundly praised in hundreds of comments, but have known, from those in the industry, how few copies actually sold. So, in answer to your question, Northern Fop, the reality is that there isn’t much in the way of a ‘negative impact on my income’ because of them. I’ll just wait and see what sales figures the publisher comes up with which, thus far with that visit to the top 20, may well be good.

Note Two: I don’t bother with reviews from those with a political axe to grind. I’m aware of reviewers who are quite prepared to attack me solely because my political views are contrary to their parochial left wing stance. Of course it’s okay for writers they agree with to wax lyrical about the delights of socialism and anti-capitalist greenery, but I must keep silent. Don’t you just love the stink of hypocrisy?


Pavlov's Cat said...

Hi Neal

I have just finished The Departure and thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes it is very different and a whole lot darker than most of your other stuff. but you make an excellent point in the post above about not getting stuck in a rut (I'm sure Lee Child just has a computer program writing his books now)

Now looking forward to the next, whatever it may me. Please write faster.

BTW Ambush Predator coincidence or a nod to Essex blogger JuliaM?

Neal Asher said...

Thanks Pavlov's Cat. The words 'ambush predator' stuck in my mind ever since watching 'Walking with Dinosaurs' and 'Walking with Beasts'. I think they were applied to the Allosaurus?

j purdie said...

"When I look around at other writers I see many of them confined by their fans, by their publishers, and by fear of failure, to a single narrow milieu."

Do readers really expect authors to be one trick ponies? Maybe the casual reader but not the real fan of an author. Part of the joy of reading the newest work of a favourite author is that it's by definition new and different. And a major strength of a writer is the variety in their work.

Maybe I'm just old fashioned: other favourite authors are Bob Shaw, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip Dick, Robert Silverberg. Go through their bodies work and there may be central themes they revisit but they don't (with the exception of Silverberg 'didn't') pigeon hole themselves. Shaw did a couple of trilogies and sequels but in the main his work was very varied. I can't think of Dick or Sturgeon writing sequels to their work, though there may be some; I haven't read everything by them yet. And Dick wrote buckets of novels.

On The Departure I enjoyed it overall, although I didn't much take to Saul as a character and was much more engrossed in the Mars story - so much so that I didn't spot the obvious reveal late on.

I appreciate most writers are expected to deliver door stops nowadays but I think the Departure would have been a lot better if it was a hundred or so pages less. Again, maybe just showing my age. I grew up reading novels that were a couple of hundred pages long on average and I prefer them like that. That was the main reason I bought the first book of yours I read, Prador Moon. The short story collection The Gabble was next and after that I dived into a 3 for 2 from Waterstone's and haven't looked back.

DrBMBridge said...

Your "Note Two" got me steamed, on your behalf that it is, not at you. Attacking your work because they disagree with your personal views rather than because they actually can be bothered to have an opinion about your work on it's own merits is so, so ridiculously childish. You and I are about as far apart on the political belief spectrum as it's possible to get, but I still rate you as one of my all time favourite authors because of how much I enjoy your very excellent books. So as one member of the (hopefully) more grown-up residents of that end of the spectrum please accept my sincerest apologies.
On an unrelated topic, as a Brit living in the States I really appreciate your first-hand perspective commentary on what's going on in Greece (the gardening bits are pretty cool too, wish I had your climate here in New Jersey). Global news coverage over here is always (left or right) horribly biased, distorted and usually only dwells on large, banner items. Hearing about what's happening 'on the ground' is very refreshing and really helps bring those bigger headlines into perspective. Thanks very much.

Arth said...

Hi Neal

As long as your stories are entertaining and are well written I will continue to buy them.

Therefore my message (if ever taken seriously) is please continue to put your imagination down on paper because as long as you continue to produce the goods I will continue to buy your books.

The criteria for buying your books is that the stories you present must be well written and entertaining. The first point is crucial because if a writer is crap at writing then as far as I am concerned they do not deserve to be read (Clive Cussler springs to mind here) The second one is self explanatory because I cannot read a well written boring book.

And I am not fussed if the setting is in the polity or some other universe you have invented. That you can "jump" around is pretty amazing to me.

Just keep on writing because your fan base will keep you employed if you continue to produce the stuff!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Neal

I'm pretty sure you're aware how much of a fan of yours I am, and how much I've enjoyed the Polity books - I've read 4 of 5 Cormac books this year alone, plus The Technician, and thought they got progressively more awesome as they went along.

But I had to put The Departure down halfway through reading it. I struggled to enjoy what was there and it very much reminded me of The Line of Polity (my least favourite Polity novel, incidently). Perhaps the fact that I LOVE your Owner stories hasn't helped - The Departure is very different from them. I think I had false expectations going in.

But I'm not writing you off, not by a long shot. I'll wait for the sequel and give it another shot then. I know the story is going somewhere good, but The Departure didn't float my boat.

As an interesting note, I mentioned that TLoP is my least favourite Polity novel and one that took me a couple of attempts to read, but the payoff for the series was worth the effort. Perhaps I'll be facing the same thing here?

Neil said...


I'm all for a bit of a change. I may not always like the result, but without it I think it's all to easy to become stale.

Is The Departure my favourite of your books? No, but as of yet I don't have any real attachment to the characters. However I see it as an opening gambit, in what will hopefully be a new universe.

There's always the danger of becoming a one trick pony and ultimately becoming a slave to your child.

Northern Fop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Northern Fop said...

Thank you for such a long and considered response! It was fascinating to read.

I love the universe you've created to house the Polity, but for me Cowl is your best work by far.

I see many similarities with your experiences of diversifying your writing to Iain M Banks' and his non-Culture books. He always gets a bit of a shoeing from his 'loyal fans', but both The Algebraist and Feersum Endjinn are wonderful. As a side-note, I find the numerous parallels between the Culture and the Polity wryly amusing given your political views are polar opposites (to put it mildly).

tl;dr version:
Cheers! Keep up the good work, and I'm glad to hear you'll continue to write non-Polity books.

Xanares said...

Hehe Northern Fop, I like how you tl;dr your otherwise not hugely long post! :-)

I'm looking forward to The Departure, but am trying to wait until paperback as usual. Unless I get a Kindle for xmas... I just love the smell and feel of books too much, I think, and those books I really like I like to have physically on the shelf.

Anyhoo, I actually have no business in this thread.. so back to work! :-)

Adam said...

I always try to avoid any different political views a writer has from getting in my way of enjoying a book and I think you're absolutely right in avoiding getting stuck in just one or two popular universes.

Another favourite author of mine is China Mieville. He's a socialist so his political stance is probably as far away from me as you are from me (I'm mostly centrist), but I still enjoy his books. I was annoyed when he stopped writing his BasLag books and did other stuff, but he has grown in appeal and as a writer due to it.

But I do have to admit I've found The Departure a struggle. I like a good dystopia story, but I'm just not engaging with the characters, the situation and even the action. It's hard to get an emotional hook, and I'm finding it hard to care what happens. I am going to pick up the next book in the sequence, though.

The only time I disagree with politics in a story is when it completely overwhelms and dominates the fiction. Even if it was totally in line with what I believe in I still wouldn't like it one bit. The Departure isn't even close to making this mistake and the future it paints is clearly based on the wasteful, corrupt, brutal and bloated government of the old Soviet Union.

One book I have read recently which I think did go too far was Flashback by Dan Simmons, where a good plot was strangled by repeated tracts about how Obama and the Democrats started the whole economic mess that destroyed America in the book.

Kaunaz Isa said...

Hi Neal

To be honest, I haven't had the chance to read The Departure yet. But I like the plot summary and I am looking forward to reading the book.

It is always a problem not to be still, to keep the writing original and interesting. And I must say you've done a great job so far. In fact, I cannot decide which of your novels I like the most. Perhaps The Skinner (but just because it was the first book I've ever read from you) or Orbus (what can I say, Sniper is my favorite character).

The writer should never give readers what they want. At least not everything they want. You see, I would love to read a novel about the war with Pradors. But just mentioning the stuff is much better, because it keeps me reading more quickly.

And two more things. Firstly, we should never consider the writer's opinion about politics. Who cares? As long as he's writing well... I mean, the writer's thoughts are connected to his texts but it is not the author we are reading, right?
And secondly, there should be some movie about the Polity. Seriously.

jeremy goslin said...

I have to say that having just finished the book that the negative amazon reviews are pretty representative of my own opinions. I never usually read the reviews, but I was so disappointed that I was curious as to whether I was alone in noticing a difference in writing quality, it seems I was not.
One can mention the linear plot line, weak characterisation, and rather heavy handed political subtext, but the main problem was simply the lack of new ideas. There was nothing significant in this book that has not been used elsewhere in prior polity or non-polity books.
All previous writing has always meant that any new books were always an automatic preorder in anticipation of an excellent read.

This is the first time I have been tempted to write on a 'blog' , and I don't believe that the negative comments are spite. They are from avid readers who might wish you to take a critical look at something that may have gone awry. The aim that you will return to your excellent form, not necessarily to continue old ideas, but in whatever genre of new idea you wish to present to us.

Jimmy Devine said...

Well said Mr Asher, a more considered and even handed response, I have not seen from an author.....and I read Donaldson a lot, check out his "gradual interview" for full stop, weapons-grade responses to any one who gets "a bit shirty" they are your worlds Neil, we are all just renting space in them!

Pippa Jay said...

I enjoyed The Departure even though it does differ. In a way that's WHY I liked it. Not because I'm bored with the Polity novels in any way, but I don't see why any author should HAVE to be confined to repeatedly churning out the same thing every time.

Neal Asher said...

I have to wonder, bearing in mind all these comments, what the response will be to the next two books. More tech, more spaceships and more off-Earth action. However, the dystopia is still there and, of course, for me to try and write about it believably I must believe it myself. Politics is sometimes unavoidable.

Arth said...

you wrote that your next two books will have "More tech, more spaceships and more off-Earth action" Well, I for one cannot wait.

Secondly you confirmed that the dystopia is still there. Absolutely great because I thought in the Departure the dystopian setting if anything gave the book nmore substance, as it targeted our anti-hero's hatred.

Therefore I cannot wait to continue the story...any chance I can be a proof reader for you? I will do it for free!!!!!

Arnaud said...

Slightly off topic but, while I cannot stand the Thomas Covenant books, I really enjoyed the Gap series by Donaldson. Hugely recommended!

Lauris M said...

Thanks for this book, I really enjoyed it and it saddens me that only Cowl remains unread from all of your books.

Departure still had you, it still read as Asher was writing it, nothing alien in it. :)

It almost felt like some early ages of Polity universe.

I will wait for your next books!
You are great writer.

Jebel Krong said...

opinions are like a$$holes - everyone has them. i love the polity universe, but i also loved the departure (and cowl), so just continue doing what you love and people will continue to buy :)

Unknown said...

Like everyone else I enjoy Polity novels, but I enjoyed The Departure, Zero Point and Cowl because reading books written againt multiple backgrounds makes Science Fiction an even more "mind expanding drug" - though it takes more initial effort to learn a new universe.
I sometimes find a book hard to recognise from it's Amazon reviews, which is worrying - and sadly the reviews for the Departure often seemed to bear little resemblance to the book I read. Good job I ignored them! Amazon book reviews now seem to need to be sifted before paying (limited) attention to them.