Interstellar Colonization or Soap Opera? Not the usual mashup #scifi #space #interstellar #review #bookreview

arkwrightArkwright – the name of a pivotal character and a wonderful title – is a story based on interstellar travel that is rooted in real physics, limited by the speed of light. No warp drives here. Author Allen Steele divides the story into four “books” plus one “interlude,” each separated by at least a generation. While the interstellar project spans the whole story, each “book” stands alone.

Book One, the first third of the story, follows a science fiction writer who gets rich and uses his money to create a private foundation dedicated to interstellar travel. This section is set in the world of 20th century scifi, though it could really be set in another industry, and – considering the money the writer must accumulate – probably should be. If you read classic scifi the name-dropping will be fun, but the famous names are only background noise.

The characters’ various relationship issues are featured but don’t follow through the entire story.

My favorite quote comes from a character complaining about science fiction stories.

Everyone who writes about space travel gets it wrong… the people who write it either pay no attention to science or simply get it wrong…if you want to distinguish yourself from all the other fellows who are writing science fiction… get the science right.

Steele embraces this advice and offers his fascinating premise for getting space travel right. It’s a grand idea backed up with awesome technology, which I won’t spoil here. This doesn’t mean the rest of the story’s science is ho-hum. Robotics, artificial intelligence, and especially bioengineering and terraforming exceed our current abilities, but don’t seem to violate getting the science right. There’s even a bibliography if you’d like to check for yourself.

Relationships and hook-ups are featured (Sex mostly occurs “off-screen”)
Given Steele’s nod to the early 20th century’s Golden Age of scifi, which is often considered short on characterization, it seems odd that he spends most of his writing on relationships. Discussions of the starship are fairly short and often feel incidental. This seems doubly odd since the book’s description calls Steele a “highly regarded expert on space travel and exploration.” I would have liked more from his space travel expertise.

If you’re keen to follow the starship plot, you can skip Book One and Book Three. There’s enough recap in the other sections that you won’t miss anything – perhaps this reflects the story’s beginnings as a serial.

Steele has a habit of shifting back and forth in time as he writes, using flashbacks or a structure where a character tells you the outcome and then goes back to relate the events. I got used to the style easily enough. It does result in characters “telling” their story which is a supposed no-no for modern fiction where “show, don’t tell” is the writing tip.

What others say
Arkwright has an Amazon Sellers Rank in the top 16% of its category of Hard Science Fiction – that’s a popular book. There are 65 customer reviews that average 3 1/2 stars – not bad. Complaints reflect my review – too much soap opera instead of the starship promised in the description.

Even reviewers giving the book 5 stars note that the “science fiction doesn’t start until well into the book,” but if they liked the cross-generational family dramas, they liked the book.

What is Hard Science Fiction?
Since both fans and critics notice the emphasis on relationships, it makes me wonder about the Hard Science Fiction category. Certainly the notion that hard science fiction is mostly about detailed technology is wrong. How many technical terms must authors throw in – or replace with common English – to gain or shed the category?

In my own series about a colony on Mars, I try to get the science

Join the first colonists Settlers have technical training to keep their life support equipment and robotics operating (the robots are rather cool if I do say so myself). Some have relevant university degrees, but they’re people, not walking technical manuals. Their mission is more like the real-life Mars One and less like NASA. They face danger, have conflicts, and explore the Red Planet as they try to build a home on Mars. Some of my readers today may step foot on Mars tomorrow – or morrowsol as Martians say – and will be able to tell me how well I did.

Reviewers who have commented on categories, though, call Glory on Mars hard science fiction, so I followed their lead and added that category on Amazon.

Subscribe to my readers’ club and I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Check out all four of the On Mars books, post reviews, and let me know: are they hard science fiction?


Great North Road #scifi #book #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 detail 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 epilogues, 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 of “show, don’t tell” 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?

Dove Arising – Teens in a Double #Dystopia #ScienceFictionBook

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

Michael Crichton’s Shuffled Deck of a Story #ScienceFiction #Book #review

NextI’ve done a series of posts to look at how popular science fiction books relate to standard writing advice. This post will look at a popular author, Michael Crichton, and one of his novels that gets mixed reviews: Next.

The edition I checked on Amazon had an impressive 599 reviews:

  • 18% five stars
  • 18% four stars
  • 22% three stars
  • 23% two stars
  • 19% one star
  • as always on Amazon, some poor reviews reflect delivery problems and not the content

Averaging just under three stars (which means 58% of reviewers didn’t hate it), this is a surprisingly mixed set of reviews for a popular author. It also surprised me that the book made the New York Times Bestseller list, though that may simply reflect Crichton’s overall popularity.

I wonder if Next was perhaps an experiment in formatting. It feels like a collection of short stories that Crichton split into parts and shuffled together like a deck of cards. The stories are united by the field of genetics and most have overlapping characters. There are tales of body snatching, poaching, living art, bounty hunters, and illegal research; along with cheating spouses and lawyers. Crichton inserted short faux newspaper articles about genetics and the ethical dilemmas the field creates – the ultimate “data dump.” He even completed one storyline with a short faux article to simply tell what happened to the character.

Crichton introduces new characters and storylines throughout most of the book. As the main stories resolve towards the end, an exciting action-packed cliff-hanger in one chapter is followed by a judge explaining legal issues in the next chapter. There were three or four stories I liked and I found myself flipping past chapters to get to the next installment of the story I wanted to read.

Crichton pulls a lot of the storylines together at the end, but I think the book would have worked better for me as a straightforward collection of short stories.

Amazon reviewers who liked the book were fascinated by the world of genetics [“fantastic premise… terrifying implications” says Jennifer Sicurella] and enjoyed the complicated cast of characters. One found Next to be humorous and was “amazed that people didn’t get the joke. This was satire!” [Sally Forth]

Those who did not like the book found it confusing, an “extended info-dump” (though that is Crichton’s trademark) or thought the transgenic animals were implausible. (Personally, I liked the animals better than the human characters.) Apparently Crichton named a disreputable character after a real-life person he dislikes. (I’d expect a traditional publisher to edit that out.)

The book seems to have a message or agenda about the genetics industry. Whether you find the message a useful warning or fear-mongering probably depends more on you than on the book.

Reading Next leaves me with some interesting questions. Once an author becomes famous, will they continue to sell large numbers of books no matter what? For how long?

New authors, like me, wish readers would take a chance on an unfamiliar name.

Click to see my books – colonize the solar system!

The used hardback copy of Next I picked up for $1 at my Friends of the Library sale was listed at $27.95 USA – quite an investment. Maybe inexpensive e-books will allow readers to try unknown authors, but Amazon advertises various editions of Next from $12 to 1¢. (I assume the 1¢ doesn’t include shipping – lol.)

Oh, and by the way – I think the cover art for Next is pitiful. Clearly, all the publisher needed to do was print Crichton’s name in big letters. Maybe that answers my questions.

Lois Lowry’s #SciFi The Giver #WritingTips #amreading #review #bookreview

GiverIn my continuing quest to understand popular science fiction, I recently read The Giver  by Lois Lowry. The book won a Newbery Medal and was made into a movie. In an author’s note, Lowry relates mail she received from people who say how important the novel was for them and that some have named their own sons after one of the characters. The edition I checked on Amazon has 7,099 customer reviews and 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. That’s 83% 4 and 5 star ratings which certainly qualifies as popular. (As always on Amazon, some of the poorest ratings refer to receiving a damaged book and not to the content.)

The Giver is a short book – 125 pages
for the story (not counting the introduction, sample from another book, etc.) in my Epub version. My version contains the first chapter of the next book in the series and it seems to be a different set of characters in a different setting, but from Amazon

I recommend reading all three books, The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger. The final book does sort of bring a finalization of these characters. Jennie M

The next book had absolutely nothing to do with the first. Natalie Martinez

The book opens in a utopian world
following the young boy Jonas. We learn about aspects of the world that are uncomfortable and disquieting – it would not be a utopia for us. But the people in it seem content. Then, at age twelve, something unusual (almost unique) allows Jonas to learn more about his world. The book becomes a thought-provoking examination of good and bad in our own world, and what trade-offs a society might be willing to make between pain and pleasure.

The book veers off
in a different direction at the end. After being primarily cerebral, the story ends in ambiguous action and (perhaps) hopelessness. One Amazon reviewer, a middle-school teacher, says she assigns her students to write their own ending, which I think would be a fun assignment.

The Giver’s type of ending seems to belong to literary fiction
rather than science fiction. (The movie version is called a drama/fantasy.) One piece of advice I found on Smashwords says “never mislead your readers” about the genre of a book. Smashwords offers 27 genre categories and 11 sub-categories within science fiction – “utopia/dystopia” is a subcategory.

Not for everyone
Once again, I have learned that even the most successful book does not appeal to everyone. Keep that in mind when your own work gets a negative review.

Wonk warning
What about standard writing tips? I don’t think following or violating any of these tips figures in reviews of The Giver. But if you get a mechanical aspect of writing correct, I suppose no one will comment. Here are a few tips I considered:

Advice: Tag dialog only with “said” and maybe “ask” and nothing else. Omit the tags when it is clear who is speaking.

Lowry omits many tags. For example: “His mother agreed, smiling. ‘The year we got Lily…'”

But she is not afraid to use saidisms. All these examples tagged dialog:

Father confided, he went on, the attendant told him, muttered, pointed out, began, replied, called, suggested, commented, whispered,

Advice: Characters should have demographic, family, and psychological histories.

Lowry does this for Jonas and it is important to the story.

Advice: Show, don’t tell.

Lowry follows this advice and provides an interesting way for the Giver to “show.”

Advice: Paragraphs should be neat and utilitarian, don’t use show-off vocabulary, avoid passive tense. These tips come from Stephen King.

Lowry uses all these tips.

Advice: Purge adverbs.

I found 13 uses of “very” in the first 18 pages and didn’t count further. “Just” appeared 15 times in 44 pages. Words ending in “fully” (such as carefully, fretfully, painfully) appeared 18 times in 53 pages.

I haven’t tried counting adverbs in other books so I don’t know how this compares, but Lowry does use adverbs.

Aside: Adverbs are words that describe (modify) verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. English Club lists the 25 most common adverbs. “Very” is 13th; “just” is 4th. A more interesting list is at Grammar Revolution.

Scifi colony on Mars - Kate Rauner

Click the image to see my new covers

All my books, including my space-inspired science fiction, are available at AmazonBarnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and other major online retailers. You’ll also find paperbacks at Create Space and all major digital formats at Smashwords. Read one today.

These are links to some of my other posts on writing tips:

Writers’ Resource: Critiques Available

Successful Novel Defies Standard Advice

Sphere: Hit SciFi Novels Follows Some Advice, Flaunts Other

Stephen King’s Writing Advice

Take That! Standard Writing Advice #ScienceFictionBook #MazeRunner

Maze RunnerThere are lots of writing tips out there. I am reading popular science fiction to help me understand the “rules”.

The Maze Runner (book one of a series that also includes a prequel) certainly qualifies as popular. It rates 4 1/2 stars out of 5 on Amazon, with 324 reviews for the version I checked, and was recently made into a movie. It’s easy to read and I finished it in a weekend. I feel a bit overdosed on teenagers in dystopian worlds, so I don’t think I’ll read the next book.

The story’s setting is its strongest point – an enormous maze built from unclimbably-tall walls, some of which move at night, inhabited by weird and highly imaginative monsters. (How could movie makers resist these way-cool monsters?) The monsters may wander the maze during the day, but always, murderously, come out at night. Several dozen teenage boys live in the safe, central “Glade” where they raise crops and farm animals. Memories of their previous lives have been “wiped” and a new boy arrives once a month on an underground elevator. A few “runners” map the changing maze each day, seeking a way out. In over two years, they have failed to solve the maze.

The story follows Thomas, the latest arrival.

It seems obvious that author James Dashner intended The Maze Runner to be the first book in a series. Writing advice says “each book in the series must have satisfactory individual story arc resolutions.” It’s hard to discuss the ending without spoilers, but, while there is a major development, there is no solid ending to The Maze Runner – the ending sets up the next book. This criticism pops up in reviews of the movie, too. Thomas and the surviving boys (sort of) learn why the maze was created and why they were imprisoned there. The actions of the Creators of the maze seem counter-productive to their own goals – how did this help them? Baffling. And one of the characters, the only girl to ever arrive at the Glade, seems superfluous, only introduced to be there at the start of the next book.

One review on Amazon says such criticisms are misplaced, that everything is explained in the rest of the series. If you love the book, realizing there are two more books to buy may be a good thing. Personally, I appreciate each book in a series having its own ending.

Here are a few more observations.

Advice: Edit out typos.

Dashner’s book was beautifully edited.

Advice: Show, don’t tell.

Dashner provides a lot of action, so he follows this well. I did notice that the characters often refuse to answer each others questions. A little “telling” among characters would have been okay with me.

Advice: “There’s a concept behind [a series] that ties the books together and gives readers a reason to come back book after book… This concept will be at the heart of every core conflict. It will likely be the thing you say first when describing your series to people, as it will define what the series is about.” Janice Hardy

Dashner: The hook for The Maze Runner is definitely the maze, and it seems unlikely to me that the maze will reappear in the rest of the series. The second book has equally stellar reviews on Amazon, so this doesn’t seem to have been a problem.

Advice: Avoid saidisms – that is, the tags on dialogue should only be “he said” “she said” and, where it’s clear who’s speaking, drop them entirely.

Dashner: He mostly avoids saidisms – for example:

  • Thomas nodded at him. “A beetle?”
  • “Cuz you’re the newest Newbie.” Chuck pointed at Thomas and laughed.

But he’s not afraid of saidisms:

  • “asked” (To me, this one seems impossible to avoid when the dialog’s a question.)
  • “shouted”
  • “responded”
  • “murmured”
  • “demanded”
  • “yelled”
  • “replied”

A few times I stopped reading to go back to specifically check on what Dashner had used, so his saidisms didn’t interfere with my reading. But saidism advice is repeated so often, I’m intimidated and try to stick to “said” and “ask” in my own writing.

One other note on dialog. Dashner uses invented swear words, and uses them liberally. (Is it true teenage boys can’t form a sentence without a vulgarity?) It worked okay for me, perhaps because invented swear words don’t hit the same spot in my brain as real ones. I find endless use of swear words annoying.

Advice: Characters should have demographic, family, and psychological histories.

Dashner’s whole premise of the boys having their memories wiped negates this advice. Take that! standard advice.

If you’ve read The Maze Runner and can compare Dashner to standard writing advice, or have other thoughts on writing advice, please leave a comment. Let us know what you think.

These are links to some of my other posts on writing tips:

Writers’ Resource: Critiques Available

Successful Novel Defies Standard Advice

Sphere: Hit SciFi Novels Follows Some Advice, Flaunts Other

Stephen King’s Writing Advice

Destiny in Dystopian World Results in the Book “Divergent” #WritingTips #scifi #review #bookreview

divergentDivergent is one of the current crop of dystopias, perhaps inspired by Hunger Games, where teenagers fight each other and sometimes kill. Divergent offers a society inhabited by people like us in a world detached from time and place. It might be a future Chicago since there are a few references like Michigan Avenue and the Hancock Building, but the location doesn’t matter. The technology in this world seems about like ours (although fluorescent lights are called “ancient”) except with more advanced mind manipulation techniques.

In this world, citizens are separated into five factions that dislike and distrust each other. The factions are based on the virtues they venerate – Candor values honesty; Abnegation (now there’s a word!) – selflessness; Dauntless – bravery; Amity – peacefulness; and Erudite – intelligence. But an individual’s personality also has an influence. At age sixteen, a virtual reality test is given to determine if the teen fits their parents’ faction and only the teen is supposed to know the test’s outcome. Then they must choose the faction they will live with the rest of their lives. A bit contrived, but I always give a story it’s premise if possible.

The hero is a girl who changes factions and must struggle through a training and initiation period that is both mentally and physically grueling. Most of the book follows her through these trials with the friends and enemies she makes along the way. Eventually she discovers a dark plot brewing and must move beyond her own problems. Towards the end, some adults actually take positive roles.

Thousands of reviewers on Amazon love this book. A comparative few simply couldn’t accept the premise or didn’t like the characters, or felt Divergent compared poorly to Hunger Games. Some felt “there are way too many books about kids killing each other these days.” (Lisa Babcock).

The book kept me reading right along. This is clearly the first book in a series, and some interesting elements, like “factionless” loners, were introduced (I assume) to be used in the next book. The book does, however, have an ending of its own. Perhaps if you’ve ODed on teen dystopias, you should give the genre a rest. But otherwise this is a good read.

Writing Advice
I’ve been trying to learn something about writing science fiction as I read successful novels.

I found it interesting that the world of Divergent only adds one “high-tech” improvement – mind manipulation. Fists, knives, and guns form the weaponry. Everything from transportation to food seems pretty mundane. This may be a wise choice. Trying to introduce and explain multiple technologies may produce a pedantic book. Omitting explanations may leave readers bewildered. It’s a tough call because, for me, experiencing a different world is part of the fun of science fiction and obviously the future (or an alternate universe) will be different from my world in many ways.

A writing tip I’ve seen is to grab the reader with action in the first 250 words. Divergent begins with the hero (first person narration and present tense) looking at herself in the mirror and thinking. Suspense is added shortly after as she worries about her aptitude test and we begin to learn about her world.

Did it work? Even some of the book’s fans say it starts slow. The start didn’t stop me from reading, but then, personally, I don’t need a James Bond movie sort of first scene.

In Writing Fight Scenes, Rayne Hall recommends:

  • Build suspense with the immediate preliminaries,
  • Avoid prolonged stretches of blow-by-blow description,
  • Provide a surprise – (something happens that is outside the fighters’ control) and a climax when the character may be close to giving up or being defeated.
  • Depending on how realistic the story, an aftermath should take stock, feel pain, and check injuries.

Divergent follows this advice fairly well across a series of fights, though without the surprise/climax. Like most action adventures, I suspect in reality the characters would be reduced to hospitalized immobility by some of the action scenes, but we all seem to accept that in movies so why not in books.

I am closer to understanding “show don’t tell” advice. When Roth writes

The houses on my street are all the same size and shape. They are made of gray cement, with few windows, in economical, no-nonsense rectangles”

I think she is showing me the street via description. “Show and Tell” also relates to pacing: To write “I try to smile convincingly” takes fewer words than describing her appearance. How would you even describe that face so readers would easily understand?

Some adverbs do creep in violating the advice to choose a better word rather than add an adverb. But I think even Stephen King slips an adverb in occasionally.

As for “saidisms,” Roth mostly sticks to “say” and “ask” as current advice recommends.