Gavin William's Review of Starwalker

I'm not the author of Starwalker just one of the readers but I feel it's worth noting that Gavin's review seems to be a classic case of a reviewer quitting a story early on because they don't like the sort of story it is and as a result missing the fact it isn't that sort of story at all. Obviously I don't know how far he read but I can't imagine that he'd see it in the same light if he'd got to the reveal of why she's 'malfunctioning'.

Why Starwalker's personality is apparently born fully mature like Athena from Zeus's head when she is switched on is the central mystery of the first arc and once that's resolved you realise this is an entirely different kind of story. (Of course I'm biased because I called the twist before it was revealed).

I agree - the twist was clever, and fully explains the conceit. Well done for guessing it - I was close but still completely surprised! :-)

I mention in my review that even the story description on its WFG page hints at what I'm guessing the conceit is. My problem isn't with the conceit -- it's with the reading experience from chapter 2 onwards and the inherent logic, plus the derivative nature of the trope. Something brilliant twelveteen chapters in doesn't make up for problems in chapter 2 that make it unlikely some people will read on.

I'm acknowledging BOTH my bias AND the excellence of the writing. It's good, possibly great writing. I just think it's a waste of talent because either side of the trope (the AI is alive, it's really alive and was never AI) has been done before by many other people. Once I'm aware of that, it gets in the way of my enjoyment.

But it IS a VALID critique, that it's an over-explored trope and possibly her time would be better served on something more original, and that's why I made a review. Because it's entirely subjective and personal, I left out the star review so as not to skew her ratings. But that doesn't change the validity of the observation.

I think it's fair to say I see someone excellent but that I don't like what they're working on. Celine Dion has a great range but I hate her music. Technical expertise and enjoyment are two different things -- so I'm presenting an alternative viewpoint from the positive reactions, which is still pretty positive.

Fair enough - you've read further than I assumed you had.

It is a well-used trope, but then most of the best SF stories use those - FTL drives, transporters, ansibles, robots, even aliens could be said to be unoriginal. For me, it's not about the originality of the concept, it's about the way in which it's used.

I agree with what you said about "For me, it's not about the originality of the concept, it's about the way in which it's used." How something is used is part of creativity and originality. Computers, aliens or spaceships are part and parcel of Science Fiction and it would be incredibly difficult to invent an original genre. I have seen this concept and I've seen it used better, and that's what my review is about.

The accoutrements of Sci-fi (robots, FTL, aliens, etc) are not the same as tropes. That's like saying a sword is a trope for a Fantasy novel. Those are props, setting elements, characters.

Tropes are conventions, things that get commonly used over and over as concepts. Like "AI becomes self-aware" or "Five man band" where there's a hero, a snarker, a smart one, a strong one and the relationship one. It's not just a character, but a common character arc. It's not just an existing item like an alien, but a plot-arc featuring aliens that is common, like the peaceful source of wisdom (ET, Yoda) or hostile (Predator, Aliens).

I've read this trope before, and better. That's a valid critique. That doesn't change the fact it's good writing, the same way Harvey's makes a good burger and isn't McDonalds. But can't we invent something that isn't a burger?

I don't make assumptions about other people's reviews. I saw people were enjoying something and I was looking for something good to read. It is good to read, just not something I can personally enjoy because of over-exposure to similar things. That's worth saying for people who have similar exposure, or want to check it out to see if they disagree. That's why I strive for intellectually honest and emotionally honest reviews, so people always know where I stand and why. My reviews have a character which I am being true to by saying what would bother me about this story and what I like about it.

I look at "Worm" which has a new take on superhero fiction on a regular basis -- there are tons of superhero stories and somehow Wildbow invents superpowers I've never heard of or never would have imagined using the way it is in that story. It takes on the tropes of superheroes and puts them on their head -- while faithfully following other tropes. It's layered and nuanced to a rare degree. That's five star writing.

I think "Starwalker" comes close to 4 stars for its writing -- but I can't rate it that because I didn't enjoy it. It's like eating a burger every day for a week, by Friday you want something new. Could be the best burger of the week, but it had the misfortune of showing up on Friday instead of being the first burger I ever tasted. At least I can take that step of being self-aware and saying "This is probably good to other people, but here's why I didn't like it." There will be people that agree and people who don't, because that part is subjective.

On the objective side of technique, it's excellent. I've never had to give a purely subjective criticism and do a star rating -- usually I stay fairly objective about structure. So I didn't do the stars.

Now I want a burger.

I have to say, this sort of fair and honest discussion is the kind of thing that makes me love this place and this community. You guys are awesome.

I think in the review it came across as "I don't like the 'AI becomes self-aware' trope, so I'm not interested" rather than "This isn't doing anything particularly interesting or original with the 'AI becomes self-aware' trope." Which is fair enough - I suppose it isn't, it's just that I liked the characters and the writing enough to be interested anyway. I liked that it explained how the AI became self-aware, and made a mystery and a kind of tragedy of it, rather than just hand-waving it with "Yeah, we can do that now."

There's writing that's ground-breaking without being that entertaining, and there's writing that's entertaining without being that ground-breaking. I'd ideally like both, but if I'm settling for one or the other I'll take entertaining by preference - but that's just me, and I don't dispute your rationale, now that it's clear. I hope you'll be as honest with Bad Influences, when it get listed. :-)

Thanks for the praise for Worm, GSW.

I haven't read Starwalker, so I can't comment on the author's use of the AI in the story. I did want to note that, in the context GSW's using it, the word trope might be better replaced with 'cliche' (which is an overused trope). That said, I can understand not wanting to use the word cliche because it's a loaded word and can imply vitriol where there isn't any.

I like GSW's review (and marked it down as 'yes, it was helfpul to me' at the bottom) because he leaves no illusions. He's clear and exact about what he saw as flaws and about his biases, he notes the strengths in the work that aren't so subjective, and it thus does a lot to help me figure out whether I would want to read it or not, even though I doubt I have the same issues with AIs. It's exactly what I look for in reviews.

I cite Worm as my benchmark here because it's something well-known within our community -- I don't have to just reference traditional classic literature, television or film. I used to mention Queen of Seven's emotional resonance a lot, because few people illustrate relationships as well as Sarah Suleski. Unfortunately both Sarah and I had our update schedules fall apart, but she's (yay!) back to posting and I'm gradually getting a new groove.

I picked "trope" over "cliche" to avoid sounding mean, thanks to Wildbow for noticing. Because it's not lazy, cliche writing -- but it's not impressively original either. "Self-aware AI" is bordering on cliche, more examples are the Vision from the Avengers, Albert and Elsie Dee from Wolverine, Warlock from the New Mutants, Data from Star Trek, and Barney Stinson made fun of it in a one man play on How I Met Your Mother. And this particular version is pretty close to AstroBoy, which is a kid's cartoon.

"Clear and exact" is what I want to aim for, thank goodness sometimes it's seen that way.

I confess I often feel ambivalent about your reviews, Gavin. You put a great deal of care into them, and you don't have any hidden motives when you write them, but I find that the strengths of your opinions frequently disadvantage the writers who don't share them.

I remember when I was in my teens I came across an old copy of Analog magazine, and I read an editorial by Ben Bova that savaged Star Wars, calling it an affront to all things Science Fiction. It was a blistering attack that urged all good citizens of the SF community to have nothing to do with the movie, which insulted the intelligence of SF fans and undid all the hard work SF writers were trying to do to make the genre more respectable, etc. It was a horrifying review, and (I felt) deeply unfair to the movie and the story, and very limiting for the genre itself.

Ben Bova, of course, is a hard SF writer, and I'm not a hard SF guy--but I recognize it as part of SF. But he had a very definite opinion of What The Genre Ought To Be and there was no room for Star Wars, nor any room for people who might enjoy Star Wars, or anything like Star Wars, or anything that didn't meet the items of concern he listed in his editorial.

I get that feeling when I read your reviews sometimes. You have a very clear idea of what you want, and what you think good writing should be, and you advocate those ideas very passionately. And it's not wrong to do that. But it... I don't know. It excludes beyond what seems reasonable for a site that is so inclusive by default.

Inclusive by default would mean following site standards of reviewing a story for its own merits and posting your own opinion to balance out biased metrics. Fans are going to say "5 stars" for Twilight even though its not Shakespeare. Haters are going to give Tolkien 2 stars even though its a classic. Balance happens when more people share opinions and reviews, and that's how this site is designed for inclusivity. I didn't stare rate the story so I wouldn't interfere in its balance, because I saw I was biased.

Criticizing someone for having a strong, well-argued opinion with a label like "exclusive" but not logical contradictions of their points is an ad hominem attack and not a rational argument. You undermine your own claim to inclusivity by trying to censor a voice of dissent.

Especially when my review points out my personal bias, the strength of the writing, and my sincere wish that other readers will see past what bothered me. I called myself out as a "jerk" because it's nitpicky.

But it is also my honest opinion and that's what people find in my reviews, not ego-petting or hand holding or empty praise. There are authors who have thanked me for the clear appraisal and learned from it. There are likely others who hated it, but in 5 years and over a hundred reviews I have only had one bad experience told to me that I can remember.

Bova was correct about Star Wars from the perspective of science fiction in literature. The correct genre would be "science fiction fantasy" as it has little to no actual scientific merit but draws heavily on fairy tales and knight tropes like Prince Valiant and King Arthur. There's a crazy old wizard, a princess, a dark knight, and a noble farm boy.

But Star Wars put all of its component pieces into an epic new form, so Bova was wrong because it opened the genre to new possibilities and a new audience because they enjoyed Lucas's vision. I think we have writers with high levels of skill who haven't found their own vision yet: challenging them to do so is my recommendation but I don't get a say. Just an opinion that I carefully explain.

Everyone else in this thread is confining themselves to the work and interpreting it and my reviews by their intellectual merits: I know my biases, have you examined yours to identify why you feel the need to come after me as a person when I confine myself to the writing and not the writer?

But if you're ignoring/excluding the part of the review where you talk realistically about your own expectations, biases and tastes (and if someone has strong opinions about what they're reading, such will exist), are you really doing anyone any favors?

I'm not trying to censor a voice of dissent. In fact, I state flat out that it's not wrong to review the way you do. But I'm ambivalent about them. I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't try to explain why.

You didn't explain why. There's no rational explanation or point made that would point to what could be done instead.

I identify rational technical structure in all reviews. I identify my personal emotional bias towards those key components. I come up with a measurement of how those forces balance out so people can see my personal process. I praise strengths and often point out possible solutions to identified weaknesses. I strive for objectivity and point out where I fail. It's intellectually honest. Alternatives to that would include being blind to bias, ignoring technical accuracy and my own opinion -- so there would be no substance to the review. It is a process that I have developed over some 100+ reviews and it is functional.

I don't arbitrarily discount a story -- I compare it in a comprehensive way to other similar stories so there are real-world examples other people can measure it against. "Hey, I see why 'The Ship who Sings' is similar to this, and in some ways better/worse, so I agree/disagree with his point." It's measurable and something that can be investigated.

Historically, I've heard from authors that my negative reviews drive readers to check them out, so I do no harm to writers. It indicates that the process on WFG works, if anything.

You flat out state "it's not wrong" but you also flat out state "It excludes beyond what seems reasonable for a site that is so inclusive by default. " Hence, you're saying I'm unreasonably exclusive, and you use in a pejorative sense, which indicates that it's also "not right." There's no logic to either statement when both exist.

I'm clear about what I want because I know myself. My reviews state it obviously so that people who agree with my point of view can reliably follow my argument, and people who disagree will know how to guage my point of view against their own because it will be consistently the same. "Gavin hates zombies and I love them, but if he pointed out that the narration is strong and gave it 3.5 stars, I might have a hell of a good time with it because it's got to be at least 4.5 as a zombie story." For both those that agree and disagree, there is a reliable consistency. That's helpful.

Ambivalence is not.

Be clearer in an objective sense or don't call me an unreasonable exclusivist. It's a fancy way of saying "irrational snob". I called myself a jerk in my own review, and pointed out an objective reason why. I don't need an ambivalent emotional response -- rationality, however, teaches me things. Primarily because I'm high-functioning autistic, which I've made clear more than a few times in my reviews and my blog.

Right now I feel like I'm in the scene in Superman: the Movie where a member of the Kryptonian Council says to Jor-El "Be reasonable!" and he replies "My friend, I have never been otherwise."