My team has been given 28 books to evaluate in the first round of the second annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2), with the ultimate task of whittling them to three by the end of January. Those semifinalists will be passed to other judging teams for another round of evaluation before the finalists are chosen next spring. But as other judges well know, going straight from 28 to three is a daunting challenge. For this reason, most judging teams have implemented some method of sampling and narrowing the initial field. In particular, we have decided to assign each book to two of our five readers, have them read as long as their interest lasts, and return with a recommendation. The books recommended by our initial readers will be named quarterfinalists and passed to the remainder of the team for full reads, and the others will be eliminated.
I must emphasize that an elimination at this stage does not mean that a book is low-quality–we’ve seen SPFBO finalists eliminated in the first stage of SPSFC, and one of my personal favorites was a first-round elimination by another team. Tastes vary widely across the spectrum of sci-fi readers, and sometimes a book’s randomly assigned judging team just isn’t the best fit for the book. We’ve tried to mitigate that by allowing our team members to choose their own “initial reader” assignments from our randomly-assigned stack, but it’s impossible to keep every good book from falling through the cracks.
Yesterday was the first of three elimination posts leading up to the announcement of our quarterfinalists, and today is the second. While we were not able to provide full reviews for the eliminated books, we’ve done our best to give a brief summary of the strengths and weaknesses as we saw them, and of our reasons for making the cuts. And, as a final note, the order in which a book appears has no correlation with how close it was to becoming a quarterfinalist.
Title: Kotov Syndrome
Author: Tim Baughman, Jr.
Consensus: A woman mocked as a teenager for allowing herself to fall for an AI now finds herself the only one who can save her former love from decommissioning. It’s a fascinating premise with plenty to say about love, anxiety, companionship, and acceptance. But the execution is a bit too on-the-nose, with heavy-handed comparisons to contemporary politics and a few too many one-note secondary characters for us to really immerse in the central story.
Author: Matthew S. Rotundo
Consensus: Our readers were excited by the concept of a prison planet escape and appreciated the critique of privatized prisons, but the plot ultimately didn’t provide enough to keep us engaged, with a predictable set up and inconsistent pacing that saw much of the action occur offscreen.
Title: Rhonda Wray: Raptor Wrangler
Author: Charon Dunn and Sally Smith
Consensus: Our readers enjoyed the lighthearted introduction of a concert-loving teen protagonist who finds herself shipwrecked on a planet full of dinosaurs, but the life-threatening dino encounters just didn’t generate the tension necessary to hold their interest for the long haul.
Title: Scribes’ Descent
Author: Dylan West
Consensus: This YA piece provides an excellent hook with inexplicable earthquakes that may have a tie to the secret facility on the grounds where indigenous people had been forced into mining camps, but as the book progresses, it takes more and more out of the hands of the protagonist, dissolving too much of the early tension. For more detail, check out Jay’s full review.
Title: Utopia PR
Author: Adam Bender
Consensus: An extremely on-the-nose satirical novel in which a reality TV star becomes US President and takes a hard authoritarian turn. The narrative centers the PR specialist tasked with papering over the President’s many missteps, and as you might imagine, it’s long on cynicism and short on sympathetic characters. This may appeal to fans of Don’t Look Up [Ed.: Jay is very much not], but the unrelenting cynicism in the early stages failed to whet our appetite for a full novel.
Title: The Cost of Survival
Author: J.L. Stowers
Consensus: There’s a fascinating premise, with the lead joining a team trying to turn a desolate planet into something habitable, only to discover a buried document in a strange language whose very existence insinuates that everything he’s been told is a lie. But the lead’s tragic backstory and spurts of heavily descriptive prose fail to anchor the reader in the story, and the plot developments and interpersonal conflict plunge ahead regardless, leading to a tale that doesn’t have the connective tissue to support its primary plot.
Title: Behind Blue Eyes
Author: Anna Mocikat
Consensus: Short on likable characters—starting with the cyborg killer tasked with enforcing the world’s dystopian ideals—but well-paced and with an entertaining plot, Behind Blue Eyes definitely piqued the interest of our initial readers. But the characters didn’t go as deep as we’d have hoped, and coupled with some inconsistency in the dialogue, it wasn’t quite enough for a quarterfinals spot.