What I gleaned about the story: As wave after wave of enemy fighters swarm his wing team and their base ship, Ethan Ortane has reason to believe that it’s all about to end. And badly. But something tells me that he’s going to find a way out of this pickle, and live to fly another day.
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Note: According to the cover, 100,000 copies have been sold. That’s an astounding figure, so I’m expecting a pretty solid story inside. Let’s take a look.
Analysis: A vast backdrop of stars sparkled all around Ethan’s head, just on the other side of the nova interceptor’s thin transpiranium cockpit canopy. The stars seemed so close he could touch them, but Ethan couldn’t allow himself to be distracted by the view. He targeted the nearest enemy fighter and brought the red brackets under his crosshairs.
Um, too late. By taking the time to even mention the transpiranium and those near-touchable stars, he’s already distracted, and that observation completely discredits the surrounding scene for me, which is supposed to be a desparate dog-fight. In such kill-or-be-killed confrontations, a pilot’s attention is going to be 100% focused on staying alive: tracking enemy bogies, drifting debris, convergence vectors, and a million other things. He isn’t even going to see the stars, except as the background against which he is orienting himself. But even then it is only going to be in passing, on an entirely subconscious level.
I understand the need to paint a vivid image for the reader, especially here in the opening paragraph, and on that basis I might have let it pass, but when the narrator actual hangs a lampshade on it, saying that he couldn’t let himself be distracted, that only called attention to the fact that he already was, and that the author knew he was. So with that kind of implausibility on page one, I threw the first flag.
Analysis: He pulled the trigger and held it down, pouring a continuous stream of bright red pulse lasers into his target. If he had called them pulse cannons or plasma beams, I’d have been fine. But this is one of the most common mistakes in science fiction, and it twists my shorts every time I see it. I understand that Hollywood has created much of the problem here, but in most cases, they call their weapon a blaster, or a phaser, or a plasma cannon, or any other techno-noun for which we are free to invent any kind of physical properties we like. But he said a laser, and that’s something we know all about. For example, we know they’re invisible in a vacuum. So I rolled my eyes at this reference, and when I found myself vamping in my head about the nature of real lasers and Hollywood’s poisoning of science fiction visuals, I realized that I was no longer immersed.
Details: The scene is a dramatic one and it does an excellent job of holding me in the story. It’s also a decent opening structurally, in that it leaves us hanging on a dramatic crisis, and then jumps into the next scene, to provide a bit of “how we got here.” This is something inexperienced authors often get wrong, giving us the backstory before earning our trust, but it’s done quite nicely here.
It’s not enough to simply put your character in harm’s way and then cut to the reminiscence. You also have to make us care that the character is in trouble. You have to make him relatable in his crisis, so that when you step away, we feel that burning need to know how the jeopardy plays out. And in that time, with the hook set firmly in our mouth, we’ll follow you anywhere, just so long as you promise to get us back to that cliff-edge pronto and resolve the hanging tension.
In this particular case, empathy was fostered through the device I call the “good deed gone bad.” It’s like the time you tried to help your wife by watering her prize-winning petunias while she was away visiting her mother, only to realize that she forgot to tell you that she’d left the watering can full of vinegar to clean it out. Ahh! Panic! OMG! What have I done? The reader doesn’t need to be walked through the emotional impact of such situations. We’ve all been there. So when something along those lines takes place in the space battle scene, my heart was pounding right alongside the protagonist’s. And that’s why I was willing to transition into the backstory now. I know there’s a good story for us to come back to. The author has earned my trust.
Analysis: Dark Space was a cluster of black holes with a small pocket of semi-habitable planets and stations inside. A cluster of black holes? That haven’t collapsed into each other? How does that work? I’m not a cosmologist, but my rudimentary understanding of high-density physics tells me that for a “cluster” of black holes to be at all stable, they’d have to be orbiting each other at a ferocious rate. And the gravity field inside that cluster would be so chaotic that nothing could last there for even twenty minutes, let alone be stable and inhabited. If you put the planets and stations outside the cluster, then I’m with you 100%. But inside? If that’s where you need to put them, you’re going to have to do at least a little bit of hand-waving to convince me it’s feasible. By making no attempt at all, I have to assume you don’t understand the physical problems involved. And when I start ruminating on what the author does or doesn’t care about, I’m no longer immersed in the story world.
Note: The biggest problem for me in this one was the physics, but for any reader who is willing to let such details slide, this seems a pretty gripping yarn so far, with solid prose. You might want to check it out.