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?


Wonderful Story Takes Us Inside Real & Imagined Societies, an Unexpected First Contact #scifi #space #firstcontact #alien #review #bookreview

BimtiBinti is an unexpected scifi novella – highly successful in Amazon’s Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Read subcategory – 4 1/2 stars with lots of reviews. Complaints center on the story being too short and readers wanting more!

Author Okorafor offers a tale of human contact with a strange (not anthropomorphic – hurray!) alien species, but centers on a real life human society that will seem alien to most Anglo readers. That culture is beautifully evoked and Okorafor is not afraid to interrupt action with beguiling descriptions.

While there is one violent episode, the story is about Binti’s enigmatic relationship with her own culture – honoring her heritage while moving far beyond to attend an interstellar university. The story abandons some of the “common wisdom” rules of fiction that dictate action and denigrate characters telling the reader anything – which proves rules are meant to be broken by talented authors.


She encounters thoughtful alien adversaries and prevails through her own growth and sacrifice rather than bang-up violence. Her mathematical abilities, which are magical, make her uniquely suited to encounter this alien race. Her bravery and intelligence endear her to readers – and perhaps open our eyes to the customs of our own kin here on Earth today.

Binti shares her journey to a strange place. Thoughtful readers will enjoy this short (55 page) novella with a scifi flare. Scifi fans of the more common shoot-em-ups will find the story short enough to hold their interest in a setting with a different feel. Give this novella a try.

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

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.

Sirens of Titan – a trip to planets and satire #ScienceFiction #Book and Vonnegut #amwriting #scifi #review #bookreview #writingtips

Vonnegut during his military service. I get the impression he didn't like the experience much.

Vonnegut during his military service. I get the impression he didn’t like the experience much.

Kurt Vonnegut is a giant of 20th century authors and Sirens of Titan, his second novel, is now available as an ebook. While Vonnegut is usually called a science fiction author, this book offers his views on religion, politics, business, social classes, the military, and the meaninglessness of life: “the boundaries of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.” It reminds me of Albert Camus’ absurdism.

This isn’t simply a space adventure, though time/space phenomena and space travel allow the characters wide and imaginative experiences. Vonnegut’s book is copyrighted 1959 – if the story were written today, it would say “quantum physics” often (much to the annoyance of real-life theoretical phyicsts, no doubt, but the quantum world is a great place for fantasy). There’s a lot of striking metaphors and some fun visions of other planets. Also one fleeting, archaic anti-homosexual remark made in passing – 1959 was a long time ago. (Let’s hope the past stays in the past.)

The book is full of tangents and philosophizing.

I’ve sent humans to Titan for the first time, too, in my new release. I’m no Vonnegut! I’m a midget of 21st century authors. But give a new author a try 🙂

Titan - science fiction book coverFynn learns the Kin’s secret when he’s shoved into a stasis pod.

He’s not going back to college, he’s going with his father’s cult to settle on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Halfway across the solar system, cut off from Earth, the Kin believe they’ll create a paradise. But their leader’s bizarre behavior may be more dangerous than the profoundly cold moon with its dense, unbreathable atmosphere. Read it now, on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited too.

How does a 1959 book compare to today’s writing wisdom?
It doesn’t seem appropriate to compare Sirens to today’s writing tips. Vonnegut isn’t afraid to “tell” the reader something. He includes an “excerpt” from an encyclopedia to explain his premise – without even bothering to frame it as something a character is reading. It’s cast as from A Child’s Cyclopedia, which avoids any need to justify things technically.

Vonnegut conforms perfectly to one piece of writing advice that I’ve absorbed: use “said” as the tag for dialog (though he does slip in the occasional adverb – my favorite is “schoolmarmishly.”)

I also considered this advice from Smashwords: don’t mislead your readers as to what your book is about. While this relates to the description and cover rather than writing the book, I think it’s important. On Amazon, the description calls the book a “romp through space, time, and morality… and a prophetic vision about the purpose of human life.” I’m not sure I’d call it prophetic – I’d emphasize the black comedy and satire. But the characters certainly romp around and the story reveals a humbling purpose for humanity. The cover, alas, tells nothing.

Vonnegut suggested eight rules for writing a short story in 1999. That reflects decades of writing experience, and even though Sirens is a novel, I thought I’d look at them.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. Judging by the four star average on Amazon, Sirens does this for most readers.
  2. Give the reader at least one character to root for. Not so much. I never connected with any of the characters. But, it was only his second novel.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Most of the characters want something, though two have their memories erased so things change. The character responsible for most of what happens is a puzzle – it’s not clear he wants anything – he’s just trapped by the space/time phenomenon.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. (Of course, there’s more room in a novel than a short story.) Vonnegut abandons this advice – if he wants to go off on a narrator’s tangent, he does. Mostly, these were short enough and interesting enough that I didn’t mind, but in the last chapter I got impatient – I just wanted to know how the story ends.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible. Given the narrator’s explanations of some character’s early lives, I’m not sure he sticks to this.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of. Vonnegut subjects his characters to lots of trouble. This is advice I need to remember when I write.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. Compelling advice. I imagine he wrote Sirens for himself. I’ve seen related advice that says: Write for your self and edit for your readers,
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. I don’t think I would have finished the story the same way, but the character the narrator primarily follows knew exactly what was going to happen to him on page 20. The story arose from how it happened. Vonnegut deviated a little, though – the character’s final situation was not revealed until the end.

Vonnegut added that great writers tend to break rules.

I’ve posted on writing advice before:

Writers’ Resource: Critiques Available

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