After a month of silence and a lot of reading, Team Tar Vol On has begun to make decisions about our first-round entries in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. To refresh your memory, our team of six judges began with 30 self-published science fiction novels, and we’ve spent the last month reading extended previews (10-20%) of each. As each judge finished previewing a book, they made a simple vote to continue reading or to drop the book. The ten books with the most votes to continue will be our quarterfinalists, to be attempted in full by all six of our judges and ultimately whittled down to three semifinalists that are sent to the other nine judging teams.
We still have votes trickling in, and we already know that we will need to resolve some ties, but we’ve seen enough to make a few decisions, and so we’re beginning a series of posts detailing our cuts and quarterfinalists. Apart from a book’s status in the competition, these posts are not organized by quality, so a novel being listed in batch one instead of batch four does not mean it was especially good or especially bad. A lot of the organization is just luck of the draw–in what order did we happen to read them (and you’ll notice today’s post is suspiciously weighted toward the beginning of the alphabet). And, as you may notice with consensus summaries that capture multiple perspectives, a group decision to drop a book does not mean that the book is bad, just that it wasn’t the right book for a few of our judges. So with those caveats aside, let’s check out some books:
Alan Lennox and the Temp Job of Doom
Author: Brian Olsen.
Premise: Alan Lennox is just marking time at work, hoping to fund a life of drinking, video games, and searching for a boyfriend. But, unbeknownst to him, he and his roommates have been brought into the orbit of the faceless corporation Amalgamated Synergy, and that orbit may be deadly.
Consensus: Alan Lennox introduces a different perspective character in each of the first five chapters, but because so many of them know each other, it’s not as overwhelming as rapid head-hopping can be. Olsen’s breezy writing style keeps the story moving, and a series of inexplicable happenings (up to and including a murder) provide a strong hook for the central mystery. Where the book divided our judges was in the tone, with some appreciating the darkly humorous narrative but others feeling that the satire of heavy topics like racism and sexual objectification didn’t quite land. Ultimately, for the group as a whole, the central intrigue was not enough to overcome the tonal dissonance and POV switches that prevented us from attaching to any one character.
Author: L.J. Suarez.
Premise: A man with no memory wakes up in a lab staffed by something other than humans. They tell him he’s recovering from a virus, but he’s sure the truth is much deeper.
Consensus: The early part of The Ancestor alternates between the amnesiac in the lab and a young couple building a life in New York City and talking about Gator football (Ed.: far too much—go big orange!). The prose doesn’t sparkle, rather getting out of the way to allow for a fast, easy reading experience. However, the team felt like the contemporary scenes provided little to hook a reader and stood in the way of the early plot progression, yielding a book that provided no more reason to continue in chapter five than it did in chapter one.
Day 115 on an Alien World
Author: Jeannette Bedard.
Premise: A colonizing mission has gone wrong, with day 115 on a new planet marred by a fatal accident. But was it just the ordinary perils of an alien world…or was it sabotage?
Consensus: Day 115 has a quick hook, with dead bodies in the very first chapter, and that was enough to intrigue our team. There were some complaints about the characters being unnecessarily combative in the early-going, but a generally favorable opinion of the prose and a quick establishment of the mystery were enough to yield a relatively easy decision to continue.
Dusk Mountain Blues
Author: Deston J. Munden.
Premise: A family of backwater mutants have enjoyed a relatively peaceful life of scavenging (and occasionally stealing) on their isolated planet, but outsiders have begun to take an interest in the world, and both sides are prepared to fight for what they see as rightfully theirs.
Consensus: The worldbuilding feels a bit murky as the story opens, but the narrative is a whole lot of fun, with a set of hillbilly protagonists that feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that doesn’t often do country. What we see from the main characters is quirky and interesting, and even if the story doesn’t nail every aspect from the get-go, most of our team enjoyed it enough to want to see more.
Escape from Earth 1
Author: David DuBois.
Premise: A startup founder is taken to a parallel world that needs his help. But they might be asking more than they let on.
Consensus: The team had a variety of opinions on the story itself—some found the lead boring and the premise over-the-top, while others were genuinely drawn in by the mysterious powers of the parallel world representative and their opaque designs on the hero. We were univocal, however, on the prose, wishing for a less matter-of-fact tone and a more varied sentence structure that might have helped engage us in the story and encourage us to continue.
A Hymn for the Dying
Author: J.L. Doty.
Premise: A teenager is captured and forced into servitude by a brutal faction in his planet’s five-way civil war, one in which a race of not-quite-humans may play a bigger role than anyone believed.
Consensus: Our team registered no real complaints about the prose, but the brutality of the opening pushed too far for several of our judges, who disliked the pointlessness of the decontextualized violence. We see murder, torture, and enslavement before we understand anything about the villains’ perspective, and lacking knowledge of motivations, it struck some of us as over-the-top evil for the mere sake of evil. There is another perspective from a character coming out of a military academy, but we didn’t see enough to be hooked by the secondary plot.