Surveillance by Alexander & Lynette Sofras

This short story discusses a future in which people of genius-level intelligence become government property. Any unusually smart children are regularly assessed to determine if they meet the criteria. The protagonists, a couple that lost their first child to an untimely death, are trying to protect their brilliant second child from government intervention.

The premise is a stock one in science fiction, and nothing about its presentation in this story stands out. The story is too long, the dialogue is too formal and thus sounds unnatural, the authors outright tell us what the protagonists are thinking and feeling, and the twist at the end is a pointless cliché that does not fit with the rest of the story.

First, I should say that I have a strong bias against novellas. They occupy an unhappy space between true short stories and novels, and although some are great, most tend to end up being short stories that spend too much time meandering. In this case, although the story was labelled a short story, its multiple chapters led me to consider it more of a novella, and it suffers from the lack of focus that many novellas do.

The story has one point with a twist at the end, but because of the amount of time the authors take to deliver their message the entire thing struggles to hold the reader’s interest. There’s too much padding, and the entire work suffers for it. For a short story to work, every sentence has to be on point and, as stated, the novella tends to encourage authors to plug in excess words. It’s a trap that many writers fall into.

Second, the dialogue in this work is overly formal. On the one hand, all of the characters are highly educated individuals, but on the other the dialogue sounds like the authors speaking, not the characters. This drains the life from the character and renders them sterile instruments whose sole purpose is to deliver the authors’ message.

Third, the authors have a habit of telling the reader what the characters are thinking. Although doing so is appropriate under certain circumstances, it is usually better to show the reader what the characters are feeling through physical reactions and their interactions with other characters. Although there is a good amount of this in the story, the authors still give away too much by outright telling the reader how the two main protagonists feel about each situation.

Finally, the twist at the end of the novel does not fit with the rest of the story. It transforms what was a relatively uneventful traipse through a common theme in science fiction into a different but similarly uninteresting one in a throwaway paragraph at the end. I will not reveal what the twist was, but it was tacked on and added nothing to the story. Instead of knocking me on my hind end, it made me roll my eyes.

It is difficult to write a good short story, and the authors of this one failed to do so. They handicapped themselves by writing something closer to a novella and a short story and inherited all of the problems that come from doing so. I give it a 2/5.

If you want to take a gander, you can pick up a copy from Amazon.

Wednesdaymeter by Dean Carnby

In a bland world of cubicles, a supernatural force known as contamination is gradually undermining reality. It has brought with it the ability to use magic by consuming fruits and vegetables, but their use is restricted in a society dominated by plant-users who masquerade as polygons. These polygons rule each city as a corporate fiefdom.

This is an odd but interesting hook for a novel. Unfortunately, the author fails to communicate anything of significance regarding the setting, the characters, or the overarching plot until the last tenth of the novel. The other ninety percent felt like an abstract painting produced solely for the author’s amusement that the reader is only begrudgingly allowed to experience. Poorly described scenes and wonky pacing compound the issue and leave the book an indecipherable mess.

Every work of fiction involves a dialogue between the author and the reader. An essential part of that dialogue is communicating enough information about the world to the reader so that she has a coherent lens to view the characters and events of the story through. This is particularly important in works of science fiction and fantasy because the world the reader is used to, and its basic rules, are usually different. Often, it’s difficult to balance informing the reader and leaving enough unknown to maintain a sense of intrigue.

In this case, the author created a wholly unique world and magic system that only shares some vague aesthetic similarities to the world we’re used to. Although not a problem in and of itself, a world like this requires a lot of heavy lifting to bring the reader up to speed, and the author utterly failed to do so. I spent the vast majority of the book frustrated because, until the end, I didn’t have a clue what was happening.

The novel is laced with hints, but they only make sense at the very end of the book. As far as plot and intrigue goes, this normally isn’t a problem, but in this case I had such a small amount of information about the world and characters to work with that I could not begin filling in the blanks. It could have been interesting instead of confounding, but until the final pages of the book I was left wondering what the point was.

The second issue with the book is the author’s use of description and language. Very few of the scenes have a firm base that allows the reader to visualize them. Instead, the author immediately leaps into soaring descriptions of the strangest parts of the scenes and more or less leaves the reader to make everything else up. Mundane objects and surroundings are generally mentioned, not described. This often causes the book to read more like a fever dream than a work of fiction.

Additionally, the author gets a bit lofty with his use of vocabulary and commits the literary sin of trying to be too clever. This is a matter of my personal taste, but I prefer the complexity in a novel to reside with the setting, plot, and characters, not the sentence structure and use of vocabulary.

My final issue is the pacing. The author jumps between a wide variety of character perspectives which, in a novel with as unusual a premise as this one, only serves to dilute and confuse things. Worse, every character leaps from crisis to crisis at a manufactured pace. I felt like many of the events in the novel happened because something was needed to fill the space, rather than because another chase scene, or another break in, or another catastrophe was necessary to the plot. There’s little time for the world to grow on the reader or the characters to become anything more than an odd collection of plot devices and contrived twists.

Ultimately, it feels like the author had a fascinating dream, rolled out of bed, scribbled it into a book, and then failed to render it in language the rest of us can understand. There was the potential for something unusual and fascinating, but it was not realized. This one is a 2/5.

If you want to check out a copy of the book, you can pick up one here.

Luckbane by Tony Breeden

First, the hook: in a future dominated by megacorporations, a virtual reality MMO with permanent character death is one of the major forms of entertainment. Longtime players are ranked based on the points they score in the game as well as their popularity with a viewing public that can watch play sessions. Despite that, the players themselves are more or less anonymous. The hero, Jarrod, plays the most popular character and is selected to travel to an actual world that has been created in the MMOs image to play his character in person.

The hook is the only thing about this novel that stands out. The rest is bog standard fantasy/sci-fi that fails to deliver in its execution. The author spends the bulk of the time telling the reader about the world instead of showing it, an overuse of action sequences leaves the setting little room to breathe, and the characters have no depth.

As fun as the hook is, the author presents the setting in long, descriptive paragraphs that outright tell the readers everything they could ever want to know, and more, about the world. There are few instances in which the author actually shows his readers how the world works. Instead, he feeds the readers just enough to make it to the next action sequence.

Part of the problem is that the author is essentially trying to take the reader through three different worlds simultaneously. First, there is the world of the MMO and the characters within it. Then there is megacorporate Earth. Finally, there is the world on which the real version of the MMO is taking place later in the book. All of this leads to a lot of clutter, and the author never figures out how to present all of this information to the reader well.

In addition, this is a run and gun novel in which there’s little breathing room between each action sequence. Most scenes resolve themselves in some kind of fight or other form of direct conflict. While this isn’t a problem on its own, the author is trying to build a world with this novel, not just enough of a world to connect the action sequences. This leaves the book on uneven footing, like a chemistry teacher trying to conduct a history lesson with explosions.

Finally, the characters are stock archetypes without any nuance to set them apart. Part of the humor in the book is that they’re mostly MMO characters, so of course they have silly names and are over the top. Unfortunately, the joke stops there and the author never really digs down into each character to reveal something beneath the stats on a character sheet.

Even the main character is your typical chosen-one everyman. Of course he’s had a memory wipe, is immune to stasis sickness, has no idea how famous his character is, is a janitor that has the physical skills of a master thief, has a corporate princess seeking his company, he is the representative of the common man versus the corporations, etcetera. He’s a bundle of clichés, not a character. The only difference between him and the other characters is the amount of fantasy/sci-fi chicken stock they were boiled in.

There are other issues with the book: the author shifts between too many character perspectives, he saps mystery out of the story via foreshadowing, the characters shift between emotions at an unrealistic pace, and he uses ‘growled,’ ‘sputtered,’ ‘sneered,’ and the like instead of sticking with ‘said.’

All of that aside, the basic idea was a fun one, and the writing was decent. I didn’t have to fight to get through to the novel, though I found myself skimming rather quickly. I give it a 2/5.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of it, you can nab one here.