Putting the life back in science fiction

Scion of the Zodiac Feedback Post
July 27, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: livable future, science fiction, Uncategorized, Worldbuilding, writing

Simple topic. A few months ago, I self-published a SF novel called Scion of the Zodiac. I just dropped the price and made the first half free. Check it out.

I posted about it on Antipope, where John Meaney guest-blogged about world building. Since I spoke up about it, I figured I’d better provide a venue, in case anyone wants to comment on it.

Criticism is fine, and constructive feedback is much appreciated. Note that “It’s okay,” “I liked it,” and “it sucks,” don’t really qualify as constructive feedback. I’m trying to make the next one better, after all.


9 Comments so far
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I read the extract on Amazon (see inside) fragment in response to your comment on Karl’s “Big Ideas, Little Ideas” post.

The cover blurb definitely prompted me to read the fragment. So far so good. The opening fragment seems like a good start, a standard way to get the reader to understand the setting with a nice hook with the mysterious email.

Stylistically, I was not so impressed. I’m not a writer, so I can’t explain this well, but I thought the style was too “simple”. It gives me the impression of being too sparse with the richness of the language. For someone in the future I might also expect it to sound less contemporary. Remove the SF elements, and it could be describing Philip Marlowe being awakening after being slugged.

Having said that, I have put this on my Amazon wish list as a possible future purchase, because the premise is interesting enough for me to want to read more.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Thanks Alex. That’s a new observation, and I’ll be interested to see if other people agree with the style being an issue.

On Smashwords, I just opened up about half the story as a sample, so if you want read more, you should be able to.

Comment by heteromeles

I read the first 50 pages, and 1 page in 20 up to 190, then pages 195-200.

This is my 2 cents.

1. Style. The sentences are mostly short, with simple structure. Relatively little variation in sentence structure, which makes it read a bit like a long memo. It is mostly telling the reader, rather than showing. Very little use of metaphor. I personally found the first person viewpoint a bit tiring.

2. Plot. After 50 pages in, very little seems to be happening. It was still mostly about our protagonist trying to understand the environment from an observation point inside the host. This is rather like the travel parts of fantasy novels, except that the quest (why is this anomalous situation happening and how can it be fixed?) is rather non urgent. Very little seems to be happening to move the story forward. It really needed something more urgent to create a sense of tension. As it was, it felt more like being driven around in a car on vacation, if you understand what I mean.

Combined, these resulted in a failure to engage me in the story. I wasn’t really identifying with the protagonist, and with little to move the plot along, I was getting bored with the scenery (world building).

Fixing the story. Primarily I would create a stronger plot, with a clear goal. What is the exact nature of the mystery and how to fix it. Why is the mystery important and does anything hang on its resolution? Move the action along. Show the reader the world through interaction, rather than describe it.

I hope this has been constructive and a little useful.

– Alex

Comment by Alex Tolley

Thanks Alex,

That’s exactly how we diagnosed it. Things start accelerating at page 93.

The issue I’ve had all along is figuring out how shorten those first 92 pages down, while still preserving the essential details that matter later in the book.

As for the tone, that’s who he is, an outdoorsman in survival mode, hyper-aware of details, too focused to contemplate. You make a good point, though: I tried to get the voice right for his situation, but that isn’t necessarily an engaging character for someone who is expecting something more literate.

I’m not denigrating your comments at all, and I certainly appreciate them. Solving the issues are a bit harder. Fortunately, since it’s self-published, if and when I do rewrite this thing, I can reissue it.

Thanks again!

Comment by heteromeles

I read the whole thing. I didn’t want to comment until I was finished. As an aside, Smashwords is a good concept but the site randomly became very slow or even stopped responding for me several times over the last few days as I read your book. I should have downloaded the full .epub file and converted it as soon as I’d bought the book.

You’ve built a very interesting world, and given a guided tour of it. In fact I would say that this reads like a very loving, thorough, and novel experiment in world-building with (unfortunately) the minimum of characterization and story necessary needed to show it off.

As I neared the end I realized that the larger story this tale was embedded in wasn’t going to be fully resolved in the pages remaining. It turns out it wasn’t going to be even a little resolved. On the last page I know barely more about how the narrator or the world got into this state than I did on the first page. What caused war among the colonists? What happened in his forgotten later life to make the narrator so well-known and apparently important? Why are the Old Ones still promoting human colonization via sponsorship of different warring tribes? Normally in this sort of setup, I’d expect two stories converging: one about the present circumstances (which you told) and one reflecting on the past and filling in background, gradually catching up to the present and remembering or discovering clues until the narrator connects the past with how he woke up on the first page of the book. It feels like one strand was dropped here, that the narrator was mostly unconcerned about how he got into his present circumstances and strangely terse in explaining the parts of prior life that he could remember to the reader. Even when he’s out of immediate danger, the narrator talks more about (e.g.) how local composting systems work than about the mystery of his own life.

I had a hard time remembering who did what (apart from the most central characters) because the characters blended into the scenery and each other. Certainly you’re not the first author, particularly in SF, to have a hard time writing three dimensional characters. I think that the narrative device is a two-edged sword regarding your characters. It means that the narrator can be embedded in the action without the author trying to think like someone raised in a very different environment, and the reader likewise is spared considerable interpretive labor. The downside is that it can excuse or even demand a superficial description of characters that doesn’t rise much above “written transcription of images from a surveillance tape.”

So far it would seem I’ve just complained, but I wouldn’t have bought your book and read it all if I didn’t find it interesting and enjoyable. In my opinion, despite what I said above, you’ve written enjoyable hard SF, subgenre “wiring diagrams.” It takes quite a bit for me to enjoy wiring diagram fiction nowadays, but you’ve cleared that bar. Your biological/ecological interests are clearly the focus of your fiction, and they’re interesting to me because I’ve read far fewer SF stories with loving detail devoted to gardens and gut bacteria than to rocket engines and robots. The only other writer I can think of off-hand whose ideas are so interesting that I’ll happily forgive his other literary deficits is Greg Egan. If you write more, short stories or novels, I’ll look forward to reading it.

Comment by Matt

Thank you Matt. I appreciate you reading the whole thing, and taking the time to write that review. Better yet, I’m glad you found it enjoyable.

Thanks also for giving me a head’s up on Smashwords. I didn’t realize that would be a difficulty.

I’ve got a sequel on the drawing board, so your and Alex’s feedback are all useful.

Comment by heteromeles

I read the whole thing and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m permaculturist and gardener so the ecological focus really drew me in. I have to agree with Matt though. I wanted more info about his erased past. It bothered me that he didn’t question Aki more closely (once she had recovered) and that he didn’t seem interested in what the other Kane clone knew about his missing memories or the larger political situation.
Over all it was an engaging story and I should say that I would have been happy if the book had been more than 600 pages.

As a side note regarding a sustainable future fiction. While it may be fun to explore how to get from here to there we need that in every novel. We just need interesting stories that show people having rich full lives without fossil fuel dependance or 24/7 electricity. This book did that very well. I look forward to reading your other novels.

Comment by elainekath58

Sorry. This should read: we don’t need that in every novel.

Comment by elainekath58

Thanks Elaine!

Comment by Heteromeles

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