Great North Road #ScienceFiction #Storytelling

great north roadHere’s a story I’ll never finish. I’ll never read it in a 21 day library lending period, but I realize I’ll never finish it anyway.

Peter F. Hamilton’s novel Great North Road put a map and time line right up front, which should have been a clue – any opus that requires such things is going to be ponderous. Indeed, even the bizarre murder of a bazillionaire’s clone that opens the book, and the cool technologies and climate change that form a backdrop, were buried in too much description for me.

Off-world chapters also have great themes that got lost – life in orbit around Jupiter, and colonies on distant worlds threatened by an unstoppable, mindless thing that consumes planets and changes the nature of matter. When one character stopped to explain how searching for an alien reminds him of the fossils of the Burgess Shale (on page 83 of 921 pages in my Epub version), I knew I was doomed. And I like the Burgess Shale! (Read Stephen Jay Gould’s non-fiction book Wonderful Life. It’s getting rather out of date, but is still a fun read.)

I tried my usual trick of reading the first sentence of each paragraph, and some paragraphs drew me in deeper, but that only got me to page 182. I still have the book as I write this commentary – I may take a crack at the two epilogs, one nine years after the story and the other 234 years after. Because I really like Hamilton’s concepts. The book is just too much for me.

So what’s wrong with me? The book has 80% four and five stars on Amazon (overall average of four stars), with 487 reviews. That’s a phenomenal success.

I looked at reviews by disappointed readers who posted three stars: ” LOTS of fluff, random events, boring filler,” “almost set it down many times,” “felt like retreads from his other works; the whole alien monster thing felt clichéd.” There were also readers who loved the characters and hated the plot, or loved the plot and hated the characters.

Most readers – 80% – loved both.



One of the most common tips on writing fiction is “show, don’t tell.” It makes a great bumper sticker and when writers critique each others’ work on, we studiously search out each “telling” for criticism.

Hamilton’s book is full of “telling” but most of his readers love it: “very detailed and rich,” “fine detail and… the plot just keeps going and going,” ” interesting and convincing,” “he writes for the hard core fan of science fiction and endless wonder.”

I think the bumper sticker advice is too simplistic. Maybe it should be “show, don’t tell unless what you’re telling fascinates your readers.” That’s the key – what fascinates the reader, not the writer (and if you’re a writer like me, you find all kinds of fascinating tidbits as you do research for a book.)

Peter F. Hamilton and his readers have found each other to their (I assume) mutual joy. After all, it’s called “storytelling,” not “story showing.”

Help me out, folks. What’s good telling and bad telling?

#GloryOnMars #OnMars Chapter Four: Journey

I’ve finished the draft of my new novel about colonizing Mars. Let me know what you think – I’m still making changes.

If you missed the story’s beginning, start reading here.


Exercising in space – NASA Photo ISS021-E-028204.

The journey soon became monotonous. Emma knew she wasn’t the only one to think so, because the Earth Scan sphere, which continued to float at the habitat ceiling, shrunk and glowed a sedate orange.

Emma expected a lot of things would set her teeth on edge. There was the constant hum of life support’s pumps and compressors, more noticeable than the HVAC systems in earthly office buildings. There was vibration, a tremor always present, that she noticed whenever she touched fingertips against a surface. There was the repetitive sound of the flexion machine; since MEX scheduled each of them for two hours of exercise every day, the machine was in use half the time she was awake. At least the ship provided good headphones and they were trained to not sing out loud with their music. But mostly cabin fever would develop because she was sealed in a can with three other human beings.

Duties were part of her individualized plan and she regularly inspected life support equipment on the upper deck – tightening fittings, torquing bolts, and recording pressures. The hum was louder on the upper deck so sometimes she’d pull on her headphones, curl in a ball above the hatch, and mediate as she floated along the aisle to the air intake.

Meditation helped manage isolation. Every afternoon the crew meditated together, which was supposed to build a community bond. Emma would open an eye to peek at the others. James preferred to place himself, cross-legged, upside down in relation to everyone else. He often had a sly smile on his face as he floated in classic lotus position, a novice achieving the yogic levitation that eluded adepts on Earth. Continue reading

#ScienceFiciton #FridayRead Frontier Mine on the Moon – Crater by Homer Hickam

craterCrater Trueblood is an up-right, low-key teenage hero. He is born and raised on the Moon with an unworthy best friend, a crush on a girl he only argues with, and – soon after the story begins – a new job he can’t seem to get right. He also has a gillie – a fascinating “biological machine” that sits on his shoulder (even the shoulder of his space suit) and runs his communications. At first gillie seemed to be simply an odd detail in Crater’s life, but as the story progresses, gillie becomes more significant and I enjoyed him – it – whatever.

Hickam’s whole story is like the gillie. It starts as an idea about mining Helium-3 to sell to an energy-starved Earth (if you care about how Helium-3 is used, read Hickman’s science-based note at the end) – a nifty look at the characters, dangers, and technologies involved in a Wild West sort of mining colony. Then Crater joins a convoy on a dangerous journey across the lunar surface to retrieve a package for the mine boss, and the story expands. There are dangers, big and small, along the way, and several groups of lunar inhabitants, including some humans who have been genetically tweaked to be very different from normal people. Continue reading

#OnMars #GloryOnMars Chapter Three: Goodbye Earth

Here’s the third chapter of my new book. I’ve got the draft completed and am working on the final version – there’s still time for changes, so please comment. I’d love to see what you think.

If you missed the beginning, start reading here.

space plane futuristic_nasa

Spaceplane concept – NASA – AC86-0699-2

The next morning, slightly nauseous and heads aching, the S-3 crew boarded a spaceport sand coach and set out eastward across a broad desert valley. After a while, Emma looked up, then over her shoulder. The spaceport was hidden by a colorless slope behind them.

“Have you followed the cat debate?” Liz asked. “They’ve been at it all night.”

She used the coach’s link and played some messages out loud. It seemed the colonists started talking to Lunar Base about a cat months ago, ever since the Loonies announced a litter of kittens was on the way – kittens to be born on the Moon and raised at the Collins Space Dock. Emma roused herself enough to wonder why they’d kept it a secret from MEX.

Colony Mars engineers, quite reasonably, balked at adding an element to their mission at the last minute, especially a live animal. But Lunar Base had a complete proposal ready. They’d provide everything, including a plan for feeding a cat long-term on Mars. After Ingra’s extraordinary suicide, the psychologists were inclined to approve anything the colonists requested. The added mass of the cat’s supplies was well within the transport ship’s margin of error for fuel. A cat was formally added to their mission. Claude and James seemed noncommittal, but Liz was delighted.

The coach bounced and Emma squinted out a wide window.

“Where are we?”

Jornada del Muerto,” the driver called out cheerfully. “Named by the Spanish who first explored this desert. The Journey of Death.”

“Ironic name, isn’t it,” Liz said. “We’re on a journey of life.”

“It’s a long ride,” Emma said. Continue reading

Dove Arising – Teens in a Double #Dystopia

DoveI must admit that I did not finish this book. It belongs to the “teens fighting in dystopia” science fiction genre like its more famous sister The Hunger Games. I think I’ve OD’ed on this genre for the moment, so my reaction may not be fair to Karen Bao. Her book includes two dystopias – one on the Moon and one on Earth. The idea of a Moon Base set up by people escaping conflicts on Earth is neat and I enjoyed reading about the base. The young-teen protagonist enters military service for an admirable reason: to earn money to save her family and especially her mother, who has been quarantined for expensive medical care.

Bao’s book is published by the Penguin Group, a well-established traditional publisher, so my comments refer to Penguin’s editing as well as Bao’s writing. I compared the book to a few of the bits of writing advice I keep running into.

  • First is a trend I’ve read about to avoid or at least reduce descriptions of characters. The idea here is that modern readers want to create their own vision of a character. Bao bucks this trend (if it really is a trend) by including descriptions, though they are not detailed. For example: “awkwardly tall body resembles the skinny tree,” “eyes so dark I can’t tell where the pupils and irises meet,” “eyes the…shade of onyx,” “full cheeks and black hair.”
  • A more established writing tip is to avoid saidisms – that is, avoid any words other than “said” or “asked” as dialog tags. Bao tags a lot of her dialog with action as the tip advises:”‘Ah!’ When he spots Tinbie, he hurries to the table.” Though, tips do advise avoiding exclamation marks. But she also uses quite a few saidisms: whispers, drawls, continues, cries, rasps, sobs.
  • Show Don’t Tell, a well established tip to avoid narrative explanations. Bao “tells” quite a bit, especially about how her world works and its history.

So my bottom line is: a traditionally-published author and her publisher are willing to ignore some standard writing advice and still be fairly successful – three and a half stars from thirty-nine reviews on Amazon – a record I would be happy to have. And while I didn’t finish the book, if you are looking for a book in this genre, I’d say give it a try.

More of my posts on writing tips:

Successful Novel Defies Standard Advice – Never Let Me Go

Sphere: Hit SciFi Novels Follows Some Advice, Flaunts Other

Stephen King’s Writing Advice

Maze Runner and Writing Advice

“Star Wars is the ultimate example of Rule of Cool. None of the technology in Star Wars makes a lick of sense, but we love it anyway, because it is awesome.”

Sci-fi “guns”

Writers’ Resource: Critiques Available

#GloryOnMars Chapter Two: Spaceport #OnMars

If you missed the story’s beginning, start reading here.

Virgin Galactic facility under construction at Spaceport America. Jeff Foust

Virgin Galactic facility under construction at Spaceport America. Jeff Foust

Spaceport America’s main terminal squatted like a huge horseshoe crab shoved into New Mexico’s desert floor. Dry mountains rose in the distance and roads crisscrossed a sandy plain to launch pads, past low scrubby trees raising gray-green leaves to the blue sky. It was the end of the rainy season and birds flitted across the landscape, searching for ripening seeds.

The reception party was canceled after Ingra’s death, but a banner still hung at their arrival gate: Welcome Colony Mars Settler 3 Explorers. Colony Mars ground support teams met them, accompanied by spaceport officials. They’d spend two nights in the spaceport’s elegant hotel before shuttling out to the launch site.

Emma carried two duffle bags to her room. Settlers took few personal possessions with them and she dropped the small bag on the closet floor. The second bag held what she’d need for her time at the spaceport. She’d leave it behind.

The room was huge. The bed alone was larger than her room on Mars would be, where she’d have a bunk in one of the repurposed ship modules. Kamp’s dormitory bay wouldn’t be built for years.

She activated her link and made a voice contact.

“Hi Mom. I’m at the spaceport.”

Her mother had vacillated between congratulations and tears throughout Emma’s training. Today it was tears.

“I can’t believe you’re really going,” she said with a sniffle. “Living on Mars! It doesn’t seem real. What are you going to do every day?”

“Mom, didn’t you read the Colony Mars mission site?” She’d tried to explain a dozen times. Her mother never listened.

“Yes. Well, some of it. What’s this about you eating worms? Sounds dreadful.”

“It’s practical. The first two missions have been living on space rations while they build the basic settlement bays. There’s room to plant gardens now and – yes – raise mealworms for protein. Fish, too, if that sounds better to you. But the exciting part is the exploration gear – we’re taking the rovers and walkabout suits I designed at Dad’s company.”

Her father’s early business ventures had all failed, according to her mother. But the robotics company he started about the time she was born took off. Her mother wasn’t interested in robotics or business and Emma couldn’t remember a time when her father wasn’t working long hours. It was no surprise that her parents divorced shortly after she started college.

It was her father who got Emma interested in Mars. After she finished her engineering degree, he gave her a job on his contracts with the colony. All his talk about humanity’s destiny in space inspired her to apply. That, and the chance to personally test the robots on the Martian surface. Emma’s enthusiasm bubbled up as she talked about the walkabouts.

“The adjustable seals on the walkabouts were a real challenge. I had to…”

“It sounds very interesting, dear. I’m sure your father’s thrilled, though I haven’t heard from him lately.”

Emma sighed. She should know better – Mom could only listen to technical talk for so long.

“I’ve arrived at the gallery opening, so I’ve got to go. I’m going to miss you so much,” her mother smiled through tears. “I’m proud of you and so happy you’re following your dream.”

Emma flopped across the coral and turquoise bedspread as the link closed. Her mother never shared her zeal for engineering – Emma was her father’s child in that way. He’d encouraged her, though mostly from a distance. She’d treasured every message he sent her and saved them all. Sometimes it was hard to tell where her father’s passion stopped and hers began. Emma hoped she was following her dream. Continue reading

#Aboriginal Memory Thousands of Years Old #citizenscientist

Panoramic_view_of_King_Georges_Sound_(5)Myths and legends usually belong to folklore, but Australian aboriginal tales helped scientists find meteorites and traces of a tsunami. One “legend describes the landing of a meteor in Australia’s Central Desert about 4,700 years ago.” Anglo prospectors found pieces of meteorites and the area is now Henbury Meteorites Conservation Reserve. Another led to the discovery of “a layer of ocean sediment, about 2m down… between 500m and 1km (0.6 miles) inland” that indicate a tsunami.

These indigenous peoples may have unique legends. Isolated on Australia for 50,000 years, they avoided the invasions, diasporas, and assimilation that swept larger continents. They also developed “very particular beliefs about the importance of telling stories properly… [and] employ a rigid kin-based, cross-generational system of fact-checking stories… rock paintings, drawings and engravings.” Stories that retain their basic truth for five thousand years and more leave me – holding my pile of defunct floppy disks – in awe.

With their devotion to accuracy, these Australians were the first citizen scientists, before science was invented. And they have more to teach us.

“Earlier this year, another team of researchers presented a paper arguing that stories from Australia’s coastal Aboriginal communities might ‘represent genuine and unique observations’ of sea level rises that occurred between 7,000 and 11,000 years ago.” This may be the only human record we have from the end of the last ice age.

Thanks to for their article, which is quoted above.