What I gleaned about the story: Aliens have contacted us and they’re either invading, or initiating a cultural exchange, or maybe trying to sell us Amway products. A mission to visit them is being organized.
Find the book on Amazon.
Analysis: Clichés are like blister packages when it comes to immersion: they make it nearly impossible to get inside. You know those old short stories in which one scientist or space explorer talks to another, and they try to describe these weird aliens they’ve discovered, but eventually, we realize that the scientists aren’t human and the aliens they’ve discovered are us? That pretty much describes the prologue. We don’t yet know if they’re soldiers, or scientists, or diplomats, or salesmen, but the opening few pages gave me an enormous sense of “been there, done that,” as one underling gives his banal report of human achievements to a superior.
In and of itself, this does not need to be a problem. Sometimes, cliches are used in order to do something clever or new with them – to intrigue us with their subversion of the norm, but that’s not evident here. There’s no new twist on the trope. No cheeky reversal or subtle revelation. It’s like the blister pack I mentioned earlier, but now I see that there’s nothing visible on the other side of the plastic. Nothing to tantalize me or make me want to get inside.
To my frustration, I simply could not immerse into this, because there was nothing to immerse into. There were no visuals for me to see, no ideas to contemplate, no character motivations to unravel. And since it was such familiar territory, genre-wise, the very minor mystery of who was being described took almost no time at all to penetrate. Paragraph #3: “The only intelligent species counts about seven billion members.” Oh, I bet it’s an alien anthropologist talking about Earth. Paragraph #5: “[…] they can send manned spacecraft into orbit and to the planet’s only natural satellite.” Yup, it’s Earth.
Usually, a prologue is there to provide a crucial element of back story that gives meaning and purpose to the journey that’s about to come, but I couldn’t find anything in this prologue that could have any crucial relevance to anything, and found myself wondering why it had been included at all. And if I’m wondering stuff like that, I’m clearly not immersed.
Analysis: There’s just something fundamentally underwhelming about the scene. Boring people, sitting in a boring room, going through boring motions for no apparent good purpose. How in the world can the first face-to-face meeting of the men and women who will be the first humans to visit an alien world be so devoid of emotional content? Where is the wonder at the expected journey? Where is the excitement of keen minds jabbering about the thrill of discovery? Instead, we meet Alex, presumably our protagonist, and the only emotions we see from him is a minor thrill of pride when he discovers that he will be the head of his team, and a slight tendency to stare when he meets the lovely Jenny, presumably to be his love interest. But that’s about it. Again, with nothing substantive to engage my fascination, and a degree of blandness acting as surface tension, repelling me from it, I found myself unable to immerse.
Analysis: The entire experience up until I pulled the plug was in tell mode. All experiences were filtered, judged, and pronounced through the narrator/protagonist’s eyes. As I’ve said before, I believe that immersion is essentially the same thing as witnessing the unfolding fictional world and forming personal judgements. So if the judgements are all formed for us, and delivered as a narrative tell, then there is nothing left for me to do, so immersion is not possible. I’m beginning to think a better term for “telling” is “immersion proofing.”
Note: This highlights an issue of concern for the entire ImmerseOrDie series. If the premise of each report is to judge a work’s ability to maintain immersion, then presumably, at some point, immersion must actually begin. And to keep the playing field somewhat level, that immersion needs to happen fairly early. If one book grabs me on Pg 1 and holds me for the full 40 minutes, would it be fair to place it in the same category as another book that didn’t pull me in until the 37th minute, and only held me there for 3? Obviously not.
So I’m going to introduce a new rule. In order to survive this forty-minute gauntlet, a book must actually pull me into its spell – immerse me into its world – and do so quickly. I don’t require that the book start with a bang, or with action, or adventure, or any other artificial structural conceit. Many of my favorite books start softly, without the bang or the crisis. But what they all do, without exception, is weave the words together in a way that turns the real world transparent and draws me in behind the veil. If I can see what’s happening, engage in the protagonist’s viewpoint, and to some minimal degree, disassociate from the world around me, then that’s immersion.
And I’m going to allow ten minutes for that to happen.
If, by the time the clock reaches 10:00, I still haven’t felt pulled into the world, I’m just going to stop. And then I’ll try to spend my time articulating why it didn’t happen. My reading speed is about 450 wpm, so that’s 4500 words for a book to seduce me – longer than many short stories, and plenty of time to establish a voice and the broad strokes of a setting. I don’t have to like the story in that time. I don’t even have to know where it’s all going. But I do have to be drawn into it. And as usual, if you think this is too harsh, or unfair somehow, I’d be glad to hear about and discuss it in the comments.