It’s done. Team Tar Vol On has finished our first pass through our first-round allotment of books for the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. We’ve read 10-20% of each book and made a decision on ten quarterfinalists to read through to completion. In the first, second, third, and fourth batches of cuts and quarterfinalists, I advised that the order of appearance was no indication of quality–votes simply came in for some books earlier than for others. That advice is officially out-of-date. This final batch consists of the books that made up a six-way tie for our final quarterfinalist positions. All of them had plenty to recommend them, but none of them made our choices easy. But after another week of discussion, we have our final first-pass cuts and quarterfinalists.
Before and After
Author: Andrew Shanahan.
Premise: A 600-pound man waits in his apartment for a crane to lift him into an ambulance, but outside his window, the apocalypse begins.
Consensus: Before and After has some of the smoothest prose of any of the books in our first-round batch, although it doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions. But it reads like a character study against an apocalyptic backdrop, not a true apocalypse tale. And, while we had a few judges who were intrigued by the setup and engaged by the writing, the judges frustrated by slow plot-progression ultimately won the day. This may be a winner for those who enjoy a tighter character focus, but it will not be progressing in our competition.
Dark Nebula: Isolation
Author: Sean Willson.
Premise: Abigail Olivaw’s family is hiding a secret: their many technological breakthroughs rely on stolen alien technology. And now the aliens are back.
Consensus: Our judges consistently praised the early plot progression, with the premise of aliens returning to judge humanity providing an excellent hook. However, the utilitarian prose and proliferation of perspective characters generated more mixed reviews. Some were happy to let the prose take a backseat to the story, while others found that the lack of ornamentation led to a narrative that felt dry. Similarly, some judges found it easier to connect to multiple POV characters when so many were in the same family, but others disliked the head-hopping or found certain perspectives to be grating. The plot intrigue was enough to bring Dark Nebula: Isolation to the verge of a quarterfinalist position, but not quite enough to get one.
Author: Marc Daniel Acriche.
Premise: In a dystopian future New York, the Independent Coalition Party seems to be picking off Casey’s friends to join their army, though they’re alleged to be voluntary recruits. But her attempts to dig deeper lead Casey into the dangerous world of the Resistance.
Consensus: If that premise sounds like one you’ve heard before, you probably have, and we had judges who weren’t here for another dystopia. But solid characterization and plot setup were enough for others to want to read more. The first 20% wasn’t enough to suggest Drained would be something special, but our judges saw enough quality in the setup to give the author a chance to impress us further.
Gates of Mars
Author: Kathleen McFall and Clark Hays.
Premise: Despite a nearly all-knowing AI with access to all the resources of a surveillance state, Crucial Larsen’s sister has gone missing. The AI knows Crucial has information. But if he can delay disclosure long enough, it won’t matter.
Consensus: Gates of Mars alternates between Crucial in an interview with an AI investigator, using every delay tactic he can to stall the investigation into his sister’s disappearance, and flashback scenes to his initial call to Mars to investigate the disappearance himself. And through 20%, this one had a lot of our judges riding the fence, with some intrigued by the mystery but not yet drawn-in by the characters, some enjoying the worldbuilding with others annoyed by the jargon, and some curious about one timeline but not the other. Ultimately, the intrigue won out, and we’re going to give Gates of Mars an opportunity to win the fence-sitters to its cause.
The Last Shadow
Author: J. D. Robinson.
Premise: A private investigator on the verge of retirement accepts one last case, finding a woman who had disappeared unexpectedly, mysteriously appeared on a surveillance camera, and disappeared again.
Consensus: The Last Shadow cuts between the missing person plot and an autistic girl losing control of her mysterious ability to see through others’ eyes. And, while a couple judges didn’t love the cliched PI lead, our only major problem is that the book reads like urban fantasy. Were there clear sci-fi elements, the quality of the writing and the compelling mystery would’ve sent it to the quarterfinals with room to spare. Instead, it was a difficult decision. But the author claims the work is sci-fi, and we’ve found other reviews calling it a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. Combined with a quality start, that was enough to convince us to keep reading and wait for sci-fi elements to emerge.
The Solid-State Shuffle
Author: Jeffrey A. Ballard.
Premise: A hundred years in the future, major coastal cities have been reclaimed by the sea, and underwater salvage is lucrative, albeit illegal, business. But after what seemed a successful major heist, Isa and her crew find themselves in possession not of money, but of a solid-state drive that makes them targets of local criminal bosses. They must unravel the mystery before it claims their very lives.
Consensus: Snarky thieves are certainly nothing new in speculative fiction, but a couple of our judges found the lead’s unrelenting jibing to be off-putting. That said, the writing is smooth, the mystery setup intriguing, the story well-paced, and other judges responded more positively to the characterization. Even the judges who didn’t care for the protagonist enjoyed other aspects of the opening, and with a lack of dedicated opposition, the supporters of continuing carried the day.
Full List of Quarterfinalists
- Bloodlines by Peter Hartog.
- Bypass the Stars by Kate Swed.
- Day 115 on an Alien World by Jeannette Bedard.
- Drained by Marc Daniel Acriche.
- Dusk Mountain Blues by Deston J. Munden.
- Gates of Mars by Kathleen McFall and Clark Hays.
- Harvest by Olga Werby.
- The Last Shadow by J.D. Robinson.
- Sequela by Cleland Smith.
- The Solid-State Shuffle by Jeffrey A. Ballard.