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?

Weirdest Planet Ever :D in #scifi #books #bookreview #review #sciencefiction #goldenage

Inverted WorldHere’s a science fiction tale where it helps to know your concave from your convex, spheroids from hyperboloids, centrifugal forces from angular velocities, and what  y=1/x means.

But if you don’t, just follow bewildered Future Apprentice Helward as he joins a secret directorate in a city built on tracks. The tracks are continuously ripped up behind and laid down in front, because the city must keep moving or be destroyed.

I had never before read Christopher Priest’s classic from 1974, Inverted World. The book contains more thoughtful speculation than violent action, and it’s 40 years old, so don’t expect cutting edge physics.

I found the gradual reveal of this truly weird world fascinating. Conveniently, apprentices are kept in the dark, told they have to experience the strange time and space effects outside the city for themselves to understand. That trope allowed me to travel with Helward as he learns both puzzling and terrifying things about his planet. Things that threaten his life, his city, and his relations with friends and family – including the wife in his arranged marriage. Like many works from that era, the restricted women’s roles dates the book, but he makes up for it at the story’s end.

The story opens with a prologue that seems to have mistakenly landed here from a different book, but have faith – towards the end it all comes together. Helward is often puzzled by what he sees (me too!), but I found events interesting enough to keep reading. Just when I thought the weird world had been explored and the tale would end, a twist opens up a new aspect of strange physics. In the end, Priest does explain what’s going on.

I’ll avoid spoilers. Late in the book, women finally take some independent action in this male-dominated world. It’s a woman who discovers what’s happening and explains it to them. She admits she’s no expert, and Helward counters with contrary evidence – since I just went through those experiences with him, his arguments are compelling. But there’s evidence for the explanation, too.

Priest leaves even more up in the air – the ending is uncertain and you can decide for yourself what Helward finally believes and what’s likely to happen next.

That may sound like a knock on the story, but I’m still thinking about it – still going back in the book to re-read sections. What’s real and what’s perception? Does the final explanation truly account for Helward’s experiences? If not, what’s actually happening? The rulers’ secrecy serves the story well, but does it make sense from a social point of view? Whether being left with questions is good or bad depends on your tolerance for ambiguity.

Read the book and post a comment. I’d love to talk to someone about the story.

What others say
Inverted World gets 4 1/2 stars from 41 Amazon customer reviews. Most readers love the “topsy turvy” physics and the final twist, but not all of them. Complaints say the final twist was too rushed. This probably comes from the heavy use of “explaining” in this part of the story. “Explaining” or “telling” in storytelling is not in favor at the moment, but remember the book is a classic.

Others say the physics was fantasy rather than science fiction (though I think this is pretty common in modern scifi, too.) Some readers had better ideas about dealing with the social problems in the city than Priest had.

If you prefer your scifi with feet firmly on the ground – even if that ground is on Mars – try my story. Eight settlers have journeyed to Mars to establish a colony. Now Emma and her team are about to join them. Days before the launched, one of the colonists commits suicide. Something’s terribly wrong on Mars.

Available on Amazon and your favorite online store.

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?

Frontier Mine on the Moon – Crater by Homer Hickam #scifi #sciencefiction #review #bookreview

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.

Hickam’s writing style is straightforward and sparse and he weaves in facts about the Moon.

At the end of the story, Crater has achieved a lot but is uncertain about his future. Hickam leaves other loose ends that will lead into the next book in the Helium-3 series. A few of the unexplained elements are important, like the motivation of the bad guys and the welfare of friends, but since the main plot line is resolved, I thought the ending worked.

The standard writing bugaboo of “show, don’t tell” get’s ignored a few times –

First step about to fall - NASA

First step about to fall – NASA

sometimes as straight “telling” but there is also a side trip with tourists to Tranquility Base, the first lunar landing site. Since that trip is tangential to the main story, it’s close to a “telling.” But it was short and interesting – there’s a factoid about the fate of Neil Armstrong’s first footprint on the Moon that I must look up sometime to confirm.

I had a couple issues with the book. My Epub version had quite a few places where a new paragraph began in an odd place – like the middle of a sentence or in a block of dialog. While I noticed this, it didn’t interfere with my reading, so no big deal.

Towards the end, Hickam uses a technique I happen to dislike. After allowing me to ride along inside Crater’s head, privy to his thoughts and feelings, a character tells him something that Hickam won’t share with me. I realize this adds suspense for some readers, but it just annoys me. Especially since the story would have worked just fine if Crater had been left in the dark until Hickam was willing to tell us readers, too. And then he did it a second time! Sheesh.

Crater has a four star rating on Amazon, with 117 reviews. I guess not many readers are bothered by the trick of keeping secrets from the reader. I only noticed one negative review that specifically mentioned it. Some reviewers thought it started too slow. Others noted it was “geared towards a younger crowd,” and I do think younger tween readers will enjoy it (though there is death and destruction), as well as older readers who simply want a light read. Some reviewers noted the book reflects conservative ideas about society and Christian Values, but I think those themes are included with a light touch.

On balance Crater is a pleasant summer read.

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

Colony Mars #OnMars #ScienceFiction

Cover Concept - not quite done yet, but what do you think?

Cover Concept – not quite done yet, but what do you think?

Colonists take a one-way trip to Mars. They may have made a mistake. They must build a foothold on the cold barren planet, but troubles follow them from Earth and threaten them from space.

Here’s the opening of my new novel.

Standard writing advice says the first few hundred words must grab readers. I’d love to know what you think, what you like and what you don’t, so please comment. I’ll post the first few chapters over the coming weeks. Thanks for the read. — Kate —

Chapter One: Incident


European Space Research and Technology Centre for spacecraft and space technology in Noordwijk, South Holland

The seaside resort of Noordwijk was a strange place to train for a mission to the barren deserts of Mars, but Colony Mars had its tidy headquarters north of the Dutch city, inland from the deep dunes of the beach. Sightseers hurried through the visitors’ center to join guided tours of a Martian colony mockup and settler-candidates stopped between austere block buildings to admire the beds of summer flowers that replaced spring tulips.

Emma was about to start her last English-language tour when her link beeped an incoming message – the tone for “urgent”. One family was still coming up the ramp, two young boys ricocheting among signs diagramming the mockup of the colony they were about to enter. Emma turned discreetly to one side and tapped her headset.

“There’s a mission problem.” Emma didn’t check her contact lens for metadata – that was the mission lead’s voice. “Come to the control room as soon as duties allow.”

A chill ran through Emma. Maybe her launch date had slipped. Maybe they’d miss the window entirely and she’d remain on Earth, temporarily reprieved. Why was that the first thought that came to her? Must be pre-launch jitters.

Balancing the planets’ orbital dance with fuel requirements, Colony Mars could launch a mission every twenty-six months. Emma was about to fly on Settler Mission Three and her ship’s fuel and engines were tailored to an especially narrow launch window. If they missed it, there’d be a two year delay. But Emma excelled at focusing on the task at hand, so she turned her attention back to her tour group… Continue reading…


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.