Blurbing the line between truth and fiction

8 09 2016

In 1999, I read a book. (To clarify: if memory serves, I read several books that year, and have read others since. But I speak, here, of one particular book.)


John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass is the second in his ‘Thousand Cultures’ series, which centres on the exploits of cultural agent Giraut Leones. The series posits an interstellar human diaspora, colonising dozens of planets around other star systems, then falling prey to a ‘dark age’ which sees the capability for interstellar spaceflight lost, for a couple of millenia. The series explored the difficulties in re-establishing contact, and then trade relations, with a disparate group of cultures that have been, for as long as their own histories record, alone in the universe. It’s an interesting concept, and Barnes wasn’t the first to explore such a theme, but he handled it well. The first book in the series, A Million Open Doors, is one of my favourite SF novels; its followup, Earth Made of Glass, is also an exceptional novel—I enjoyed it too, though it’s a much darker book than AMOD. (There are two further titles in the series: I’ve read the third, but haven’t yet tackled the fourth.)

But it’s not so much the series I wish to highlight here, but a blurb, the blurb for the UK-published hardback edition of Earth Made Of Glass. I’ll reproduce it here, in toto:

At the furthest reaches of the galaxy exist the Thousand Cultures, societies scattered across 31 inhabited worlds in 25 star systems. The inner complex—which includes Earth—has been able to exert control over the Thousand Cultures because it contains 90% of all human population and because all traffic must pass through it. But humanity is expanding and the complexes are beginning to fight over access to the frontier worlds. At the frontline—Quidde, base of Chaka Home: a culture based on a Millenialist black American sect claiming spiritual descent from Chaka Zulu’s army—Giraut and Margaret must prevent the outbreak of a repeat of ancient history: a war of hatred as three cultural factions threaten a struggle with echoes of the bloodiest genocides of the 20th century.

I’ve emboldened the final, rather lengthy sentence, because that’s the one I’d like to draw your attention to. It’s quite a specific sentence, and having read it, one might imagine oneself to be somewhat better prepared for the contents of the book within the dust jacket. There are numerous details referenced, after all. And yet (spoiler alert) almost every component of that final sentence bears no relation to the book itself. Earth Made of Glass does, I’ll concede, feature Giraut and his wife Margaret, there is indeed a war of hatred threatened, but the rest of it: Quidde, Chaka Home, a Millenialist black American sect, Chaka Zulu … never mentioned. Not one reference in the entire book. The planet central to the book’s setting is Briand, not Quidde, and there are two cultural factions—derived from the Tamil and Mayan cultures—not the three the blurb mentions. It’s kinda like the back cover to Alien casually mentioning that the movie is about a mining crew that lands on a desolate planet and finds a werewolf, or the summary of Fahrenheit 451 letting slip that the book is set in a society where ambulance drivers steal paintings. (Wouldn’t you be like ‘That ambulance driver better show up soon, or I’m shelving this‘? Or ‘Where’s the werewolf? Dad, you promised this movie had a werewolf! Let’s just switch—oh, yuck, that’s gross. I’m never eating breakfast again.‘) And this blurb also appears frequently on Amazon and Abebooks and elsewhere, so it’s not merely restricted to an out-of-print hardback edition.

I’ve always wondered: how does this happen? How can a blurb be this precisely, this meticulously wrong about the book it describes? I’m accustomed to blurbs sometimes missing the point, or saying (for example, in this instance) ‘at the furthest reaches of the galaxy’ where they mean ‘maybe fifty light years, at most, from Earth’, or suggesting the story pivots around a particular plot point which really turns out to be a quite minor detail in the unfolding storyline. Such things are all grist for the mill, and I doubt that any reader does more than bat an eyelid or three if they notice the blurb proclaims ‘intergalactic’ where ‘interplanetary’ is indicated; but in EMoG‘s case, the final sentence of the blurb, where it gets down to brass tacks, is is clearly something different. Here there are at least five specific, significant interlocking plot details (Quidde / Chaka Home / Millenialist black American sect / Chaka Zulu’s army / three cultural factions) which are comprehensively incorrect.

It’s difficult to see how this occurs. Did the blurb writer have too much on his or her plate, and mixed up the content of two books for which she or he was simultaneously drafting back-cover summaries? (Except I can’t find any trace on the internet of books other than EMoG which reference ‘Quidde’ and ‘Chaka Home’, so this appears unlikely.) Or does the blurb accurately reflect the content of an earlier version of the manuscript, accepted by the publisher, blurbed, and then very drastically revised at an advanced stage of the publication process, perhaps to avert controversy arising from the story’s original content? (In which case, didn’t anyone notice that the blurb no longer fitted the drastically-revised story?)

I’m all for mysteries in fiction, but I’d prefer them not to reside in the liner notes.




4 responses

9 09 2016
Charlotte Nash

I’ve no idea why this happens either. Friend of mine showed me a book once where the back cover blurb had no resemblance whatsoever to the novel. Wrong characters, wrong plot. It was SF too, but can’t remember the title.

12 09 2016

Given the dramatic variety of glitches that can befall words upon the published page (and I’ve been on both sides of that problem, so I can sympathise with publishers as well as with writers), I suppose it’s not entirely suprising that weird blurbs do materialise sometimes — but it still doesn’t explain how it happens.

22 10 2016
John Barnes

Stumbled across this while ego-searching, a favorite shameful occupation when I feel like being shamefully occupied, and as it happens, I know exactly what happened.

Originally the material that is now EARTH MADE OF GLASS and MERCHANTS OF SOULS was going to be about 1/3 of a single volume, to be called JUNCTION OF FEAR. JUNCTION OF FEAR, as proposed, would have woven together the OSP’s engineering a genocidal disaster on Quidde to get rid of cultures it didn’t want to keep, Giraut’s grief and shame when he realized he had been part of that, his struggle to prevent a similar destruction of a hopeful (but politically threatening) religious revolution on Briand, and his eventual ambiguous limited victory/accepted cooptation by the OSP as run by Margaret (after Shan’s death). Along with a lot of Earth politics and whatnot, especially whatnot, of which as you note I am fond.

The trouble was that JUNCTION OF FEAR was threatening to clock in at maybe half a million words, maybe more. So the publishers (Tor, Analog, and Millennium, all were involved) asked for me to take out two good pieces, fuse some things over, and turn that into two novels of a bit over 100,000 words each. They explained this very clearly in terms of money (and whether I wanted any).

So I chopped and channeled, reshaped and recast, and the result is the EMOG and MOS you have today.

However, somebody in the British offices apparently never threw anything away, and at the last moment they realized they didn’t have a blurb for EMOG, so that same somebody apparently grabbed a couple of pages from the original outline of JUNCTION OF FEAR, and slapped it on the first British edition. Periodically, Amazon (which of course didn’t exist when all this was happening) sends low-level flunkies through the book descriptions and reviews, “correcting” as they go, and whenever one of them happens to read that JOF description first, they copy it into other places.

Sooner or later, generally much later, I notice and drop them a note saying “You did it again,” and they fix it — till the next time.

In the data age, we are all prisoners of a too-perfect memory that can reactivate any old time it happens to.

Anyway, thanks for the review! Nice to know somebody still reads my old stuff! And yes, somewhere in my files, there’s some outlines, development material, and a few chapters of A FAR CRY, the really-final Giraut book.

22 10 2016

Thanks very much for setting the record straight! It’s good to have that question answered. (And I wonder if anyone’s ever done a proper survey of how many ‘phantom’ book blurbs of this kind there might be out there? There’s possibly a thesis in it, if someone (and it would have to be someone more diligent than I) were to rigorously investigate the subject …)

And I’ll hold out hope that A Far Cry does, at some point, eventuate — the Giraut books have resonated with me since I first encountered A Million Open Doors a couple of decades ago.

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