And Now, Some One-Star Reviews of The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire has done very well for me: It sold the most in its first year of any book I’ve written to date, got excellent reviews in the trades and among critics, was optioned for television, and was a finalist for the Hugo Award, and also for the Locus Awards, the winners of which will be announced this weekend. Not bad!

With that said, and as I do here from time to time, allow me to present some excerpts of one-star reviews that The Collapsing Empire has garnered on Amazon:

  • This was not epic and so boring that I couldn’t keep reading a third of the way through. Boring characters, uninteresting plot, and a clear lack of vocabulary from the author. I would pass on this one.
  • Scalzi has apparently forgotten that entertaining his readers is more important than entertaining himself. Although the book was reasonably well paced, most of his characters, as drawn, were not particularly likable. And the ending of the book [NOT A SPOILER ALERT!] stinks!
  • I won’t share any of this with my kids because John continues to sink into the social gutter. Do all your characters need to be sex addicted bisexuals with the pathological need to dwell on their depravity, use profanity as nearly every part of a sentence, and explore the far reaches of their flexible to nonexistent moral compasses?
  • Honestly there is nothing of merit in this book at all. I cannot believe the hype around it, terrible 1 dimensional characters and simply a boring and predictable storyline.
  • This was painful to read. The characters are obsessed with sex, the houses are nothing but virtue signalling, and the dialogue is all in one voice. I thought he could write dialogue? The copyediting is good.
  • I got this book from the library. If I had paid $13 for this book I would be using much more colorful language to describe it here.
  • Picked it up at my local bookstore as the blurb on the back seemed interesting. Unfortunately, that was all that was interesting.
  • I feel like a 12 year old wrote this. I’m still cringing.

I highlight these lovely reviews of my book to make the point that no book is for everyone, and not everyone is going to like your book, whatever it is and no matter how successful it may turn out to be. In fact, some people will actively hate it. Why? Because they are terrible people with no taste or discernment? Possibly they are, but a reason far more likely than that is that they are perfectly normal people who just bounced hard off your work, for whatever reason.

Which is okay! If you try to write for everyone, you’re very likely going to end up making no one happy, least of all yourself. Accept that not everyone is going to like your work, and some people will actually hate it, and then write the story that you want to write. I was very pleased with The Collapsing Empire because it was as close as any story I’ve written has come to being the book I imagined it being when it was in my head. And in particular I knew when I was writing the character of Kiva Lagos that there would be people who would hate her, because (among other things) she’s absolutely foul-mouthed and unrepentantly morally shaky. But I loved her to bits and wouldn’t change her. So the people who were unhappy about her would just have to be unhappy.

If you accept ahead of time that someone somewhere is going to be unhappy with your book and will then write a review of it, on Amazon, or Goodreads or anywhere else — and that’s okay — it will make it easier to deal with when it actually happens (and it will). This is part of the cost of doing business as a writer. Everyone gets one star reviews. It’s not just you. And everyone survives them too.

And sooner or later you may even get to a point where you’re able to have to have a little bit of fun with them. Because, come on. Some of those one star reviews that The Collapsing Empire got are delightfully snarky. I particularly like the one that ends with “The copyediting was good.” In fact it was! So that’s something.

78 thoughts on “And Now, Some One-Star Reviews of The Collapsing Empire

  1. Lady Kiva is not my favorite character, it’s true, but I thought she was hilarious. And then we met her mother!!

    I’m not arguing with those who were offended. I’m just saying.

  2. You can tell when your reviews are being trolled, too, since there are certain stock phrases in vogue only with certain stock critics.

  3. I love Kiva as well. She’s not … likable, but I adore her. I haven’t been able to pick up “Collapsing Empire” yet, but it’s nice to know she doesn’t mellow out. :)

  4. I loved Kiva. She was my favorite! And people have one-starred my work plenty as well. I just shrug it off. I agree with your sentiment 100% in this post!

  5. Kiva was my favorite character! Loved the book and can’t wait for October to read the next one!

  6. An author friend tells this story: while at an SF convention, someone walked up to him and said “I have bought and read all of your books. You are a terrible writer!”

    Our friend said “Many thanks for buying all my books even though you hated them” and shook the person’s hand, who then walked slowly away while looking confused.

  7. I guess a good sales pitch would be ‘People who didn’t like it said it was too smutty!’

    Also, I’d love one day to write a book and have someone actually review it and write ‘it stinks’. Such a classic.

  8. My only criticism is that after reading it, I tend to over-use profanity. I guess Lady Kiva does exercise a lot of influence on my subconscious! (Only in language, not in sexuality)

  9. I think The Collapsing Empire is a great book with a solid story and well-rounded characters. I love Lady Kiva and the Emperox Grayland II, and I can’t wait to read The Consuming Fire. Judging by the comments, I guess the usual commenters here think more or less the same way.

  10. Michael A. Frasca said: “Many thanks for buying all my books even though you hated them”

    Well, I’ve bought and read more than a dozen books of a certain well-known, award-winning Canadian SF writer. I have deeply disliked (or *worse*) every one of them, Ok, not true. There’s one I liked a lot; as things go, is the one the publisher asked for a sequel, but the writer refused and renegotiated their contract to be allowed to write something else. Go figure.

    Why do I keep reading them? The ideas are *wonderful*. The books are quite competently written. Yet every single time (but that one) the plot and the development of the SF ideas seem like a terrible, terrible waste. Imagine you had the idea for “Rendezvous with Rama” and decided to tell the story of an Earth-based bureaucrat who happens to have a distant connection with the Rama exploration team; their accountant or some such. WTF?! That’s how I feel while reading every one of their books.

    And yet I persevere. The wonderful ideas are there, and I don’t want to assume they are incapable of surprising me. They already did, once.

    I buy paperbacks, though, not hardcovers. Or, these days, ebooks. ;-)

  11. I also tend to find myself using language out of whatever book I’ve most recently read! It entertains me when people are able to figure out what it was based on how I’m swearing about stuff.

  12. Hey, I warned people in my review about the profanity. They only have themselves to blame! I liked it though, so maybe that was the problem.

  13. “I won’t share any of this with my kids because John continues to sink into the social gutter. Do all your characters need to be sex addicted bisexuals with the pathological need to dwell on their depravity, use profanity as nearly every part of a sentence, and explore the far reaches of their flexible to nonexistent moral compasses?”

    Sounds great!

  14. I’m glad you didn’t change anything about Kiva. Those qualities are what made me love her as a character. Very much looking forward to The Consuming Fire. Is it October yet? :-)

  15. Anyone who thinks Kiva says “fuck” too much has never been around a bunch of software devs looking at old code.

  16. Wait, you have more than one “sex addicted bisexuals with the pathological need to dwell on their depravity, use profanity as nearly every part of a sentence, and explore the far reaches of their flexible to nonexistent moral compasses”? I thought I’d read most of your stuff…

  17. Personally, I wouldn’t finish a book I considered 1 star, and I don’t rate books I don’t finish.

  18. I get cranky about “one-dimensional characters” complaints. So… they’re all infinitely thin lines?

  19. Listen, there is so much terrible copy editing nowadays (in both ebook and dead tree) that that is a great compliment to your editors.

    I don’t remember *everyone* being a cursing sex-crazed bisexual. Did that person get a different edition from the rest of us?

    S’pose I should re-read it.

    @Aaron Mitchell: There’s a large faction of Mrs. Grundy types who don’t want ANY sex in their romance novels. Romance novels. Even between married hetero couples. So they stomp around all purse-lipped and are frequently thanked by people who are looking for that. Or scolded by people who bought said book on their review of OMG TEH SECKS to find there was, like, one fade-to-black scene after the wedding.

    Same deal with people who get sniffy about characters “taking the name of the Lord in vain” in a book which contains graphic depictions of what serial killers get up to. The mutilation, murder, and rape doesn’t bother them, but let one character see this and go “Jesus Christ, what happened here?” and they’re off.

  20. I wonder if more than a few of those reviews were politically motivated and written by people who never actually read the book. A lot like negative movie and T.V. show reviews of things that haven’t even come out yet.

  21. Anyone who thinks that all the characters in TCE are identical has serious reading comprehension issues, Suggest they go back to coloring books and start again.

  22. I did not like Kiva. In fact I heard you read the chapter that introduces Kiva at ConFusion and I was very worried that I wouldn’t like the book at all. I bought it anyway and was very relieved that chapter turned out to be my least favorite in the whole book. I still didn’t like Kiva, because she’s an asshat, but I did like the book overall.

  23. Wow, these kind of make me want to read it again. First time around was on the day it came out, and I read it in one seating.

  24. I don’t like Kiva, by which I mean I am very glad I do not live in the same universe she does, so I don’t run the risk of meeting her in real life. I also think she is a beautifully drawn, well-developed character with an outstanding voice.

    It took me awhile to learn that “someone I would like if I met them” and “good character in a novel” are not even closely related, let alone the same thing. (I learned it reading Jane Austen when I realized I disliked Emma-as-a-person very very much, but I loved the book, which doesn’t exist without her.)

    I am very glad I learned this lesson before I ran across Miles Vorkosigan, because yeesh, am I glad I never have to be in the same room as him! But I love him as a character, and have read many, many books about him.

    My hope for Kiva is that many years from now, I will have read as many novels about her as I have about Miles, and reread them with as much pleasure as many times, and loved them just as much. The first book in the series gives me hope that this might actually happen.

  25. I mean, I do kinda hate Kiva? But do these people think we’re supposed to like *every* character in a book?

  26. Where exactly is this “social gutter” the reviewer mentioned? Uh, asking for a friend.

  27. … sorry, forgot to clarify – she’s fun to read about. That doesn’t have a ton to do with how much I like the character either.

  28. Another fan of Lady Kiva here. But also, I’ve found that if someone uses the phrase “virtue signalling” earnestly at this point in history, it’s a good sign that I can almost certainly safely ignore everything else that person says. People who use that phrase have a strong tendency not to be deep thinkers.

  29. I keep seeing “virtue signalling” in stuff written by people who resemble the title of a well known Green Day album who tend to support the fascist-in-chief but I’ve yet to find a reasonable and understandable by this Brit definition of what they mean by it.

    And anyone who gives one of Scalzi’s books to their kids without expecting there to be sex or profanity and without expecting a kid under the age of 13 to know about (some) sex and profanity is severely deluded.

    Also, these are not YA or children’s books so do not judge them as if they are. Not that I think that there’s anything wrong with dealing with sex and sexuality in those books or with including a certain amount of swearing at an age appropriate level. You guys know what, I mean, I hope.

  30. Okay, now I really want to read the book! Depravity in space! Sex-addicted bisexuals in space! Spaceships in space! (I like spaceships.)

    I haven’t finished my first novel yet, but did see a negative review of one of my short stories (in the anthology Abbreviated Epics). The reader thought the fact my narrator was literally at war with an all-female organization meant that I’m personally a misogynist. You can’t please everybody, and sometimes people make unwarranted assumptions.

    (And now it occurs to me I need to write a sequel to that story, from the point of view of the previous narrator’s female counterpart.)

  31. johntshea says:

    June 21, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    A review like this would GAR-RON-TEEE that I would pick up the book and read it.

  32. The phrase “I only managed to read [x < 50] pages of this book before binning it" is a time saver! I instantly scroll on; how can that person have anything useful to say? It's a different story if they've slogged through to the end, found the piece not to their liking, and fired off a screed accordingly.

    Still, reviews on Amazon are less about objective merit (is there a Platonic ideal of an SF story?), and more about a reader's expectations, and the satisfaction or violation thereof. E.g. "The parts about the transport system they use, that's fascinating. But the fight over the inheritance is stupid and boring. I'm giving it one star." And right after that: "The author wastes too much time on long boring descriptions of train travel. We never learn anything about the people. I'm giving it one star."

  33. Wil Wheaton reading the words you’ve put into Kiva’s mouth makes me laugh, or at least smile, EVERY TIME I HEAR THEM. And I’ve reread that book quite a few times. Keep sinking, sir.

  34. I hate it when people leave negative reviews for works based on the author’s (perceived) politics. It makes it hard to leave a review saying that you disliked a work for something actually about the work. It just automatically gets dismissed as more hating. Haters actually make criticism less effective, which I’m sure is the opposite of what they intended. Screw the haters, that is what I say.

    And just what is wrong with having diverse casts anyway? Variety is the spice of life, when all is said and done (except on Arrakis). Be a boring old world if we were all the same.

  35. Haha! I was waiting to finish reading your post before commenting on the hilarity of the copy-editor shout-out, but you beat me to it.

    I can imagine my grandma fussing at them that if they can’t say at least SOMETHING nice, they shouldn’t say anything, so they scrounged around…

  36. Hi Crypticmirror,

    I agree with you. Just the other day someone left a review on Amazon of Stephen King’s “The Outsider” that consisted entirely of bitching about Hillary. I thought Amazon should have taken it down as it had nothing to do with the topic. Likewise had the “reviewer” spent the whole space bitching about Trump.

    My review of “The Outsider”: first 200 pages, King tells you what happened in his usual competent manner. Next 300 pages, characters sit around telling each other that what happened couldn’t have happened because it’s impossible. Last 50 pages, monster appears, blink and you’ll miss him.

    Don’t waste your time.

  37. The only one star reviews that have bothered me are the ones where a person just gives one star to all of my books at once and it doesn’t appear that they have even read any of them.

  38. I personally have a problem with Collapsing Empire. It’s a problem I have with a lot of your books too. I believe you’re working on this. But I do wish you’d address it sooner. Or perhaps I should say faster. My problem is that Collapsing Empire ended too soon.

    I look forward to October.

  39. I enjoyed the heck out of The Collapsing Empire. My only complaint was that it was way too short. I think a big SF epic ought to be three or four times longer than that.

  40. I find sex scenes in novels to be boring. Others people’s kinks dont do much for me, so they either land as vanilla or as vanilla trying to be chocochunk cookie dough with ghost pepper filling.

    Also, am I the only one who thinks use of the term “virtue signaling” is itself virtue signaling?

    Lefty: separating children from parents is wrong.
    Trumpy: you’re just virtue signalling.
    Lefty: so, you want everyone to know I’m shallow and fake?
    Trumpy: exactly
    Lefty: and that your convictions are deep and true?
    Trumpy: well…
    Lefty: and that youre so much more sincere than me?
    Trumpy: uh
    Lefty: and you want everyone to know your virtue is superior?
    Trumpy: what i meant ti say was…. fake news!

    It seems like “thank you for signaling to everyone that your virtue is so much better” is the stock response to anyone accusing another of “virtue signaling”.

  41. Scalzi’s postings show his recent books being written under pressure,
    and unfortunately it shows. The books, while readable, don’t have the
    sharpness and flexibility of his earlier writing. I’m glad they are
    profitable, but I don’t particularly want to (re)read them myself, though
    I still reread his first few books.

    Will

  42. I LOL’d at “the copyediting is good.”

    Haven’t read this one yet, but profane and morally flexible protagonists are not a problem for me, so I’m sure I will get to it – and enjoy it – in due course.

  43. One or two aspects of the book annoyed me, possibly on purpose, but the fact that I subsequently read your entire back catalogue (plus numerous other books that you recommended here) speaks in its favour. :)

  44. I, for one, want the second and third books to involve Kiva utilizing dimensional travel to save the universe with a few billion Kivas.

  45. The AI characters are seen more than a few times when tough calls are being made. IMHO the AI characters deserve more “SAY WHAT?!” behaviors AND harder to see boundaries on their mental limits – limits that could be surprisingly dis-similar to those of baseline humans. For example: people often default to the most plausible, intuitive explanation in daily thinking. We know the answer to 2+2= … just like that. Something different happens when we solve 18 x 23 =. What are the AI’s default? Daniel Kahneman (Nobel prize recipient) has this book entitled, “thinking fast and slow” that could be a resource here (available in several audio-formats). Warning – the book is not for sissies…

  46. My take is that John used this book to stretch a bit. In the Old Man’s War series, he typically presents the story from a single point of view. CE has some serious world building going on, with a mix of familiar themes and new ideas. Hardly a novice, John is nonetheless finding some new ground to tread, which is awesome. He is not a noticeably lazy guy. I did wonder if CE got less time and attention because it was written so close to Head On, but I’m willing to be wrong about that. I’m not one of those people who says they don’t like the food and then complains that the portions were too small. I really like CE wished it were longer, or that the sequel had come out sooner, or preferably both. As for copy editing, it can’t persuasively be under-lavued!

  47. Hmm. Interesting reviews. Personally, as others have mentioned, I thought the novel seemed rushed, but it was a great concept, and I think there’s a legitimate hunger for a promising new space opera.

    Regarding the moral depravity, I believe it’s entirely appropriate considering the series is about the collapse of a society. With depravity comes collapse.

  48. Aaron Doukas , so true.
    Each time I look at some 10 year old Java code I swear like a dock worker (and I’m know for not swearing at all).

    Thing is, I know people like Kiva and I know people who are the opposite, the human race is extremely diversified, if people cant grasp that then maybe it’s time to take the head out of sand and look further than their noses.

  49. I rarely see good negative reviews of books. Most of negative reviews do not give me enough details to help me decide if I will not like the book. They are just ‘this sucks’. The best negative customer review I ever saw was for a book I liked called House of the Sun by Alistair Reynolds. The guy listed how this was derivative of a ton of SF books I had not read. The person was certainly better read in the genre than I am. Might be that he read so much SF everything appears similiar to everything else. Gave me a good list of books to read off of that negative review.

    I generally find the 2-4 star reviews the most helpful. 5 star are fanboys. 1 star are usually ‘this sucks’. People in between tend to give better reviews to help me decide if I will like the book.

  50. Lady Kiva reminds me of a guy I know. Not in all the particulars, but in that she’s got *great* stories and I would *love* to play poker with her about once a month to hear more stories and lose money.

    I would *not* want to spend any more time that that around Lady Kiva, because, like the guy I know, that’s when she would go from “teller of great stories” to “insufferably obnoxious” or “instigator of illegal activities”.

    And that’s not a bad thing! Many, maybe even most of the characters I love best are people I would never, ever want to meet. Mostly because I would probably rapidly be dead in a science-fictional or fantastical way, and they generally terrify me. (Specific example: I love Tanya Huff’s Torin Kerr, but I would probably pee myself within a thousand yards of her. And as sorcharei said upthread, Miles would be just exhausting. And again with the illegal stuff.)

    The reason I can like scary competent characters, or entertaining ass characters or any of the rest of them that I wouldn’t want to hang out with is because they are safely trapped in the book. They don’t forward me emails, or review my work reports, or have any interaction with me that I don’t 100% dictate. (OK, a few get to live in my head, but that’s only with special permission.)

  51. @Merz
    Personally I stopped paying much attention to negative reviews after I read a review of An Officer and a Gentleman, published in a major magazine, which started by saying the protagonist joined the Air Force.

  52. I gave it three stars as, while it was pretty good, it was a very straight up standard story. Which isn’t meant as a criticism, it was fun and enjoyable and I will likely pick up followup at some point.

  53. Any thoughts about how many of these one star reviews are from The Official We-Hate-Scalzi fan club who are going to give a new book of yours one star regardless, and how many of them are genuine reviews from people who just didn’t like the book?

  54. This book was so good that I had to read the whole series, although not necessarily in order. Captivating! Just when I thought I figured out the next step in the plot, you you changed it so fast in an unexpected turn. You got me as a fan.

  55. I picked up a second hand copy of Redshirts with an amazing note – I’ve got a photo of it, somewhere. It was written, apparently, to John (because every author sees every note tucked in the pages of one of their books), and basically maligned him as a hack and his plot and characters as being rip-offs of Star Trek. I always meant to send it over, I figure you’d like to see it.

  56. @David Shields

    If you google for award-winning canadian sf authors you won’t have any trouble figuring who am I talking (or not talking) about. ;-)

  57. I loved Kiva! What the hell is wrong with an aggressive pushy opinionated sexually voracious character? Some of my friends are etc etc.
    I can *guarantee* that if it were Lord Kiva swiving his manly way through the cast of demure simpering Proper Women the po-flakes (my new and destined to live forever portmanteau word conjoining po-faced and snowflake) would be applauding the character.

  58. Oh, and Jo – you say “moral depravity” like it’s a bad thing, rather than a pleasant way to pass a quiet evening. What *are* you thinking?

  59. re. N in Portland OR – “his plot and characters as being rip-offs of Star Trek…”

    I often think that irony impairment is the biggest unrecognized & undiagnosed mental illness of our age. Maybe the next version of DSM will correct this oversight…

  60. I think Scalzi should write a few of his own one star reviews, because these real ones are boring.

  61. Three cheers for good copy editing! I’m seeing a lot of work coming out which suffers from a lack of attention to the final edit – even at the level of Hugo nominees.
    Here’s a lovely quotation from an otherwise mundane news report on NPR:
    “Conceived in a garage, its eighty employees …”

  62. Characters you dislike at the outset often develop into the best personal arcs as the story progresses. Like them or not, they make the story better. (Severus Snape would be a prime example.)

  63. @timrowledge — you wrote, “Oh, and Jo – you say “moral depravity” like it’s a bad thing, rather than a pleasant way to pass a quiet evening. What *are* you thinking?”

    I believe that moral depravity is a bad thing. I also believe moral depravity becomes more socially acceptable as civilization gets closer to collapse. That’s what I was referencing.

    I accept and understand that you feel differently.

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