Response to Ian Wood's Review of READER

Ian's review is located here:

Hi Ian,

Thanks for taking the time to write so much of your response to my novel, even if it was mostly negative. I have many reviews that are negative (for a spectrum of reasons, some quite different from yours) and many positive, and I’m happy to let subjective responses lie.

In the spirit of communication, I wanted to comment on a few things that you wrote, however, some things that I felt were distorting of the novel and aspects of science and science fiction. This is to provide a different POV for any prospective readers who might encounter your review.

I also have spent some time thinking about many of these topics over my career (e.g., evolution), and I would like to share my perspective on some of the points you raise.

1. Gratuitous violence

"This novel began with a series of appallingly depressing chapters filled with gratuitous violence."

Gratuitous: “uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted”

Of course, this is a somewhat subjective issue, and one’s response to whether it is justified or not might be strongly shaped by one’s stomach for violence, but I’d like to focus on whether or not a reasonable argument can be made for narrating the violence Ambra experiences (both psychological and physical).

I would start by trying to frame the alien-human relationship (a point you criticize later on for being too harsh). The frame or analogy is the human relationship with domestic animals. We maim, disfigure, slaughter, experiment on, cage, drug, physically and mental torment (often only for sport) non-human animals. To numbers and in manners most people would be stunned to face (the industries hide this, for obvious reasons). We do this mostly for our own pleasures and rarely for any existential/survival need anymore.

Imagine this replicated on a broader plane, with humans functioning as the cattle that aliens treat, well, like cattle. We are caged, branded, experimented on, used, sold, killed, implanted, drugged, and otherwise exploited and demeaned as a consequence of the value we provide within their economic system. The only constraint is preserving the function they need. The aliens have developed a system that does that with terrible efficiency (just as we have with animals).

For the reader to understand the implications of such a system, especially for a species that is normally at the top of such a food chain, experiencing the horrors of it committed against a person is almost required. It is also realistic and consistent with the world built. Finally, it is part of Ambra's character development, a triumph over terrible adversity and trauma. 

In Ambra’s case, the surgeries also have a justification in being directly tied to the central aspect of the story: her Reader powers. Those surgeries help establish her powerful “sixth sense” which ends up driving so much of the coming narrative. Additionally, the reality of human slavery and exploitation, even down to the sad state of humans forced to work within that system and commit evils against other humans, is made clear in the human scientists and doctors who take part in this.

So, I don’t think the violence is “gratuitous”. On the contrary, I think it is strongly called for, justified, even NECESSARY for the tale. 

Or at least I think one can make a strong argument in that direction. 

2. Xix pacificism and evolution

"To me, this made no sense at all. They're either capable of aggression or they're not!"

I want to begin by contrasting utter pacifism with a more “shades of gray” spectrum of abilities to commit violence. Your characterizations and critiques seem to rely on a black and white idea of the Xix. The story makes it clear, in fact the Xix say this themselves, that they are “relatively” non-violent, and cannot summon (on average) the ability to be nearly as violent as the Dram. This does not mean they don’t act, often with some violence, or through other ways that certainly lead to violence (their whole underground resistance). But when faced with a deeply, inherently violent species with terrible weapons, they are foolish to engage in that manner. Failure would lead to much more suffering than refraining (historical planetary massacres mentioned in the text).

***Evolution and violence***

"Nature is, at its very roots (sometimes literally!) a battle ground. It's not possible for an organism to survive, much less thrive, if it isn't in effect a soldier. Aggression is almost paradoxically a necessary evil for any organism which rises to the top of the intelligence scale as humans have done."

You argue that evolution is inconsistent with a pacifistic species, but I would suggest that evolution is not so black and white. I would also suggest that violence, in the long time frame of millions to billions of years, does not necessarily possess a distinct survival advantage over other forms of behavior. 

A view of violence as inherent to any species would be consistent with a 19th century idea of evolution, but modern evolutionary theory considers many forms of non-violent, cooperative, symbiotic, and altruistic behaviors in the context of natural selection. There is also much debate about what are the true elements of selection, as the simple ideas of “genes” have been shown to be inadequate to explain phenotype. 

And especially for complex social groups, these ideas of what traits/behaviors confer long term survival advantages are very much at the fore. There are countless examples of predominantly cooperative interaction in nature, and the idea that this might play out strongly on another world might not be so crazy. Some argue that such interactions would predominate. (I don’t, but I'm open to that idea.) 

A good example might be the relationship between a bacterium and its host (my field of research). A simplistic idea is the “war” between a pathogen and a host, called often an “arms race” of evolution. But this is more an anthropocentric viewpoint (and an outdated one at that). MOST bacterial-eukaryotic cell interactions are NOT virulent. Many are commensal. Some are symbiotic to the point where the bacterium and “host” are actually integrated into a single organism, even at the level of genetics (e.g., mitochondria). We are an example of the latter.

The reason for this is simple and relates to the (wrong) idea that violence is always adaptive: virulence is a very inefficient way to insure replication. At one extreme, it kills the host, negating a potential vector to spread the disease further. It also puts pressure on the host species to develop countermeasures, selects for them (e.g., immune system). Over hundreds of millions, billions of years of back and forth, pathogens (especially highly virulent ones) turn out to be the EXCEPTION, and are usually short lived. Pathogens trend to lower virulence over time.

The norm is peaceful coexistence, with frequent examples of cooperation. There are 10 times as many bacteria in our guts as human cells in our bodies, and they are critical for our health and we provide them a living space and food. We biochemically communicate with them. They have been shown to shape our neural biology and behavior. We are symbiotic. Every cell in our body has the remnants of internalized bacteria from billions of years ago that have fused with their one-time hosts to make a “super organism”. We’ve even swapped DNA with those buggers.

Same with viruses. Our genomes are littered with their remains. They have diced and spliced our genomes, helping to drive evolution on the planet. Our adaptive immune system can be traced to a piece of parasitic DNA that ended up becoming part of our defense against pathogens.

And on and on. The ideas of a simple “survival of the fittest” as “fighting” or “competition” is just very outdated and the product of a limited cultural thinking. Evolutionary adaptations are far, far more diverse and interesting, as one might expect them to be.

***Xix and violence***

"First of all, their pacifist claim is effectively negated by the fact that they did attack the ship, and were successful in doing so." 

Back to the spectrum thing. You call it not only hard to believe that the Xix are non-violent (see above discussion on evolution), but say that is contradicted by their attacks on the smugglers (to rescue Ambra) and the Dram later.

But this is only a contradiction if you assume a binary “violence mode.” The Xix can attack, but only some of them (more rare than soldier-types are in humans), and only to a certain level. It is a matter of degree (like most things in biology and behavior). They prefer stunning and capturing opponents. Most Xix can’t even do that well. And only when strongly motivated.

I’m not saying my psychological profile of the Xix is without flaw, but I think it can be coherently maintained that violence, the ability to commit it, can be of a degree, and that the universe might provide a large enough set of petri-dishes for diverse organisms to develop.

For me the biggest critique of the Xix and all the aliens is that they would have any sort of comprehensible psychology at all!  (to humans, anyway) But to write a novel, one must have it in somewhat human terms or what is the point?

3. Space Operas and resources

You argue that space operas in general, and this one in particular, are flawed in their foundational aspects because resources are available in any system = no need for space travel and galactic empires.

I think this is definitely a question mark within which there is room for stories. 

Already on Earth we are resource-troubled (including space). Assuming any other planet in a system (assuming the system has other planets) is practically accessible is a big assumption to my mind.

Firstly there is the issue of GETTING the resources, should those we need exist on other words (another assumption as Earth has unique chemical compounds we need). We have a lot of trouble living in space or the moon (getting there was relatively easy, but living there?). We will have more trouble in the hostile environments of planets outside the habitable zone (for humans). Gas giants are basically going to crush and cook anything deep enough to get solid materials (and "solid" would be a very different set of materials than are found on earth). Maybe robots could do it, etc, but that is all far from proven. Deep sea work is a cake walk in comparison.

If there were developed a practical interstellar form of transport to habitable worlds, how much easier might things be? It might not be for everyone, but that conceit I think has been satisfactory for enough people to suspend disbelief.

More to the point, the only resource relevant in this novel is human Readers. They are available nowhere else in the galaxy, a unique physiological trait to Earth (well, unique in degree). In fact, because Readers greatly aid in interstellar navigation, you can say that the empire is supported, made possible, in its current state by human Readers.

Finally, there are the Orbs. These predate the galactic empire (in fact all known technological civilizations), are a mystery, and were "there for the using" when species developed to the point of space travel. It throws a curve ball into your analysis as there wasn't a need to DEVELOP interstellar space travel, no need for resource or other motivation: it was handed to every species for "free" basically, once they learned to use it.

Orb Travel Before Humans (added day after post)

"How the aliens ever arrived at Earth if they needed humans in the first place to even get here goes completely unexplained."

Readers are present in the alien populations. It is only that their numbers and powers are far weaker. Both Thel and Waythrel, two primary Xixian characters and friends to Ambra, are Readers, for example (and it is so noted and spoken about). In fact, it is through their Reader experiences that the Xix train Ambra to use her powers to greater effect. So, alien Orb travel was possible before humans, but it is humans that have allowed the present form of the galactic civilization to become what it has.

4. Ambra’s “sight”

"how is she able to envision anything from her own PoV? This isn't explained at all! Nor is it explained how she sees in such vivid detail."

You claim it’s not explained how her sense of spacetime - past and future - can give her “sight.”

I would argue that how we “see” with our eyes is equally unexplained (or close to it). 

To make this point and how it relates to her “sight”, we need to distinguish the act of absorbing electromagnetic signals of a certain frequency range (what the eyes do) from our perception of those photons as images (what the brain does).

What our eyes detect are electromagnetic waves/photos (quantum mechanically the same thing). Energy is absorbed by receptors on cells in the retina and transferred as electrochemical signals to the brain. 

What on earth does that have to do with the color blue? Or the Mona Lisa? We have no idea. It’s a black hole spanning science to philosophy. How the neural networks in our brain organize to take those signals of energy absorption and turn it into what we subjectively perceive as “images,” is utterly mysterious at present. 

Since we don’t understand any of that, I would argue that my conceit about her “sight” sins no worse. 

Her tumor is a sense organ detecting undulations, fields, particles (say “gravitons” instead of photons) of the spacetime matrix. That organ then interacts with the rest of her brain (already shaped by 15 years of sighted organization) in the only ways it can: by forming images, albeit of an odd and strange nature. It makes what sense it can out of this new data from a new organ. But the process of turning sensory signals into images is still in the black box of our human neural organ. That part is the same as with “eyesight”.

One might argue that the brain just wouldn’t be up to that, switching to a different decoding, and that is a valid response. I would say that it is hard to know this, however, given the demonstrated plasticity of the brain as seen in response to drugs (smelling colors?) and injury, and given our feeble understanding of how any of that works anyway. 

5. Aliens treatment of humans

 "Despite the fact that humans are evidently invaluable to the aliens and very much in demand, after foolishly risking killing off the children or driving them insane with this inhuman treatment, the aliens auction off their trainees, even allowing smugglers to buy them! None of this makes any sense. Despite how critical humans are to space navigation, non of the aliens have any respect for the health and welfare of their vital 'components'."

You object that the aliens wouldn’t treat the humans this harshly, as humans are a valuable resource.

My response, outlined above, is in the framework of the “humans in analogy to domestic animals.”

We use animals for many purposes, and always we treat them only as well as we are required to get them to function as we need them to. Beyond that, anything goes and is ongoing in factory farms to scientific experimentation.

The aliens need human animals that can perform one task adequately in groups and survive confinement outside their natural environment. Over hundreds of years they have developed methods that achieve this (and yet that are still harsh and detrimental to their human stock, which they constantly replace). 

Humans live short lives with their alien masters (depending on the master), are twisted versions of themselves in many of these alien environments, but as a group of cattle, they can interface with the alien tech well enough to provide the navigational guidance required through their Reader senses.

I certainly have not developed this exploitation to a realistic biological and economic level, but given the way this has worked on earth, to me anyway it is not a big stretch to imagine it applied to human-alien interactions.

6. First person perspective

You say that “This novel is written in first person PoV, which is a serious mistake for most books”

This is in large part an utterly subjective position (one I disagree with), and I’ll let it pass. Except for this statement that you also make:

“this teen-aged girl is supposed to be telling us of events she can't remember because they were so bad, and she was so brutalized that things overwhelmed her. This not only makes no sense, it's completely unrealistic.”

Whether or not it would be unrealistic is debatable, but this is NOT what is happening in the novel.

Ambra remembers everything very well (with her visions, she can revisit any event). She might not WANT to go into certain details or think about highly traumatic events (avoidance thought). But that is a different issue, a realistic psychological adaptation well documented in the literature. She mentions this when relating her time on the smuggler ship, for example. 

But this story completely requires a first person narrative. The nature of the “breaking the 4th wall” is a central plot point. For better and worse, it was part of how the novel was imagined (contrary to critics who think I just ended it like that because I didn’t know where to go with the story: the reality is that this ending IS the story to a large degree). 

Ambra is in our future, reaching back in time to communicate this story to us (for a purpose revealed at the end of the novel). It is an eye-witness testimony of events followed by a plea directly to the person reading the novel. The author (me) is just taking it down as best he can.

Whether or not that was all done well is obviously the reader’s reaction, and that has definitely varied, being a low point for some and a high point for others. The overall conceit-and the ending in particular-is polarizing.

7. Alien appearances

"The aliens are the standard, trope, clichéd, unimaginative, tedious sci-fi aliens which are inevitably rooted deeply in non-mammalian Earth life forms"

Mea culpa. At least they aren’t just elves from another planet. ;) 

More seriously, it is hard to write engagingly about creatures that would be utterly different from human experience. Hard for the writer to imagine and hard for the reader to relate to. Compromises are the norm in this genre. The second book in the series, WRITER (which I know you won’t be reading!), goes more out on a limb here (creatures that are composed of time-crystals in the center of a gas giant!), but I fear those are some of the hardest chapters for readers to get into. I liked writing them, however. :)

One correction: you say that the Xix are more like humans with “inexplicable differences”. Perhaps I needed more description, but the Xix are perhaps even less human looking than the Dram or Sortax (bugs and squids, respectively), however Ambra liked to think of them (they were her saviors after all, and, as you note in criticism, this is a first person narrative). For example, they have no head! They are radially (sixfold) symmetric. They have six appendages with very different biomechanics than human limbs. Their neural cluster (not a brain, and not neurons) is in the center of their torso. They have 18 visual organs sprouting from their midsection. They don’t have mouths.

8. Ambra not mourning her parents

“they end up kidnapping Amber, and slaughtering parents. This apparently has no effect on Ambra, at least as judged by the fact that she never mourns them in any way at all.”

This is just not the case. Ambra painfully recounts both in her dream-vision and later her parents’ murder. Consider this from Chapter 5:

“When I lay unconscious on the ground in the cornfields my dad had planted himself – that was my last day in Nebraska. I never returned. Now, returning is impossible. That day was the last time I would ever see my parents. At the time, I didn’t know what had happened to them. You might think that ignorance of their fate would have been a curse. I’m sure it would have. But it is also a curse to know exactly the fate of those you love, when that fate is evil. The past is not hidden from me, especially when it concerns me closely. It wasn’t a year before I had experienced a vision showing me their murder, the cruelty of the men who visited my house, how they disposed of their bodies without respect, dignity, or care.

I’ll spare you details. But I wasn’t spared. And even if I suspected, the visions mercilessly gave me no chance to hope or doubt. By the time I was twelve, I knew I was completely alone and in the hands of monsters.”

As for actively mourning them outside her head, given her slavery and punishment for not doing except as told, she really had no options to do so. By the time she has that freedom late in the novel, her parents' murder is years in the past and she has seen far, far more carnage to others she loves, indeed, the entire Earth.

9. Twice Pi Press Website

This is my imprint (obviously), and at present it does have a website:

Basically just a repeat of my author website with worse design. I’ll likely ax it soon. A product of an era when artisanal authoring needed to build respectability. I think my website is enough now.


Again, thanks for taking the time to read and review READER (especially as you didn’t like reading it!). I’m not here to change your mind about the novel, but to provide a different perspective for prospective readers to some points I think can be viewed very differently.

-Erec Stebbins