What I gleaned about the story: After an entire life as a prisoner, Jess is assigned by his masters to help disarm a booby-trapped space ship. But the ship seems to know him somehow, and I’m betting he’s about to escape his life of drudgery with a spanking new ship and a galaxy full of adventure to explore.
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Details: A gang of prisoners are being used to clear some kind of space ship, triggering the booby traps so that their captors don’t get hurt when they enter. This is exactly the kind of opening that catches my attention. 1) I haven’t seen it done before, 2) it immediately builds sympathy for the protagonist (one of the prisoners), and 3) it suggests a much bigger situation behind it. Very nice.
Analysis: In the middle of a very long paragraph (half the first page) I ran into this: Not everyone felt that way. A few tried to escape. Normally those who hadn’t been born prisoners, who had memories of freedom. The problem for me was the third sentence. I assumed that “Normally those…” was an introduction to the sentence that was coming, not an extension of the previous one, so when it just stopped, it left me hanging. Normally they what? That would have scanned much better if it had been a continuation of the previous sentence, connected with an em-dash. But since I’m still on page one and it tripped me out of the story…
Analysis: Infiltrating the ship was a good scene, with lots of tension, but the author has spent a fair bit of time telling us about the shock-collars all the prisoners wear, about how impossible they are to remove, and how miserable life is when you have one on. But then, the very first thing that happens once they’re inside the ship is that the ship’s automated defences disable the control collars. What? How’s that for a giant convenience? And even if there turns out to be a good explanation for why, it’s still a bad move. The promise made by the lead-up is that the collars are going to be a major obstacle. Circumventing them by accident abandons that promise.
Analysis: Jess has been infiltrating this ship with two other prisoners—people he has only just met. It’s been a total of maybe five minutes. And then, when all looks bleak, the woman kisses him, and he suddenly: Realised how much his two fellow prisoners meant to him already. At this point, my eyes rolled hard. The she-prisoner has done absolutely nothing to earn Jess’s emotional connection. In fact, I found her distant and annoying. It felt like the author wanted us to feel an emotion at that moment, so he simply invented it out of thin air. When you paint a bleak existence for your hardened prisoners, you can’t simply decide to give them soft hearts when you want them. Those emotional notes have to be earned.