One of the pitfalls of being an editor is that I tend to notice patterns in whatever I read. Eventually, if I notice a trait or pattern often enough, it will stick out like a sore thumb, and I focus on finding new instances of the pattern instead of enjoying what I’m reading.
Sometimes, though, something I read will stick out to me so noticeably that a pattern isn’t necessary. And when that happens, it invariably lodges in my throat and prevents me from enjoying the work at all. So here I’m going to talk about one of the things that will tear me away from a person’s writing – factual errors.
I don’t notice a lot of factual errors when I read – if what I’m reading does contain errors, I probably don’t know enough about the topic to recognize them – but when I do, they irritate the living daylights out of me. I understand that fact-checking is hard, and that some information is difficult to confirm, but…it’s 2012 for Pete’s sake! We’ve got Google. We’ve got Wikipedia. Hell, with my library card, I can download articles from peer-reviewed journals
It has now become ridiculously easy to verify information, which is why I positively screamed when I read a short story that Daily Science Fiction distributed to its mailing list a few months ago. The story in question was called “The Mind of Allah” by Stephen Gaskell. I’ve linked to it here. Take a minute to read it over. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Read it? Good.
It’s a story that takes place in Moorish Spain and involves a Christian mathematician trying to understand a Muslim mathematician’s method for determining the digits of Pi. The conflict between both cultures and religions is shown plainly enough, but the course of the story mentions 2 things (at my count) that just don’t fit.
The story mentions both vanilla and tobacco in passing – at one point, the Christian mathematician thinks to himself that he must be “as sweet as vanilla pods” to curry the favour of his rival, and at another point, both men smoke tobacco from hookah pipes. The problem is that both plants came from the New World – they weren’t brought to Spain until at least a few centuries after the Moors were driven out, not while they were still there.
The upshot is that these errors have caused me to question everything else about the story – should I trust the author’s description of the city? Would a mathematician really be rich enough to afford a robe of pure silk, considering the length of the trade routes between Spain and China?
I know this is a small quibble, but it’s illustrative. Lack of research engenders a lack of confidence in your audience.
What about you? Can you think of factual error in a book that makes you want to tear your hair out?