The Park, by Voss Foster (21:13)

IOD-TheParkToday we learn that if the reader cannot connect events to what has happened before, the lack of context prevents immersion from properly forming.

What I gleaned about the story: Twelve strangers wake up in a militarized trailer park. They’ve been placed here against their will, but only one will get out alive. And all the mayhem will be televised. Welcome to the next hit reality TV show, The Park.

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Kudos #1: Clever opening device

Details: The story opens with a letter to the POV character, in the form of a briefing note. It’s a simple orientation from the show’s producers, explaining the terms and conditions with which the person is about to join season one of the show. It’s a clever, in-story way to provide backstory for the reader, while at the same time orienting the character.

WTF #1: Continuity error

Analysis: After the introductory letter-to-player, we start the real action, when the first POV character wakes up. But then he says something rather odd – that he hadn’t actually signed up to play any game. The orientation letter, however, seemed to make reference to release clauses that had been signed in the past. At this stage of the game, it’s crucial for me to know whether the players are participating in a show they volunteered for, or whether they’ve been shanghai’d into it. So with this apparent contradiction, I had to jump back and re-read the letter and now I’m wondering whether I’m mis-reading it. And that means I’m not immersed, so I threw the flag.

Note: A bit further on, and several other POV characters have also commented about not knowing what’s going on, so I can only assume that the orientation letter contained a continuity error, or that its wording led me to a conclusion that wasn’t intended.

WTF #2: Unbelievable story point

Analysis: Apparently, a research team has just invented some kind of uber-poweful energy cell, and each of the players in the game has been given one, which grants them some kind of power. But these tech devices aren’t just a single breakthrough—they appear to be 12 different breakthroughs all at once. Each character seems to get a different ability. One device creates an enormous fire, one appears to give the user telepathic or telekinetic abilities, and another makes the user invisible. This stretches credibility too far for me. In a fantasy realm, I’d be able to believe them. But in the context of a scifi story? That there’s some single new tech breakthrough that makes all of this possible? It’s too much for me to believe—especially when the most imaginative thing the inventors can think of to do with this techno-miracle is to create a game-show with it. I can conceive of other explanations for what might be going on, but the author has given me no hint to suggest that this is anything other than what it claims to be.

The solution, of course, would be to hang a lantern on it. Just have some character say, “Gee, isn’t this weird how we each have the same tech but each one does something different?” With that, I’d be confident that the author was well aware of the apparent credibility gap, and that he was asking for my patience while he unfolded the necessary plot elements. And I’d have happily complied.

But without such a lantern swinging from it, this is just a leap too far for my credibility sensor.

Note: The story unfolds in epistolary form, showing journal entries from each player, plus a series of emails and communiqués passed around among the inventors and television production staff. That’s not a problem, but trying to interweave a coherent novel from 15 or more different POVs is going to be a challenge. I’m intrigued, but growing a tad skeptical.

WTF #3: Indistinguishable characters

Analysis: I tried to hang on through all the log entries, emails, phone taps, and other records, few of which were any longer than a page or two. But I finally got lost somewhere around the 30th journal entry. Each one is headed with the time, date, and name of the character recording, but that’s not enough. The name tells me whose eyes I’m looking through, but it does nothing to reconnect me to the growing history of what I’ve already seen through that character. Especially since most of the names are so generic. I’m meeting a new character every page or two, and I’m not getting much with each glimpse to help me construct unique characters in my head.

Since every entry is written in 1st POV, the names simply don’t enter into my mental picture. I don’t think of the characters as Rita, Susan, Nathan, or David. Instead, there’s the guy looking after the sick kid, the woman who seems delighted by the challenge, and the one whose locked herself in a trailer. Just don’t ask me which name goes with which story, because they all just refer to themselves as “I.”

So the problem is that, with each new journal entry, we’re given a name, but that doesn’t help me recall which storyline it connects with. Presumably, this will get better over time, as I eventually get enough repetition to start cementing the names to the stories, but in the early going, there are just too many names to track, and their stories are too similar: Holy shit, what’s happening? I’d better hide until I figure this out.

Making the problem still worse, there is a distinct sameness to the voices with which the characters all seem to express themselves. There are one or two exceptions, who seem to have distinct concerns or manners of expression, but in a cast of at least 15 people so far, being able to distinguish three or four of them isn’t really enough.

So combining the voice problem and the name/label problem, I’m finding it very hard to keep track of what story history is relevant in each new scene. And if I have no context from which to understand what’s happening around me, I can’t really say that I’m immersed in the world.

Note: Despite the immersion failures, I’m enjoying this one and I’ll probably spend some more time on it, after the treadmill has wound down for the night. The journal entry structure and the audacity of the premise are both intriguing enough to keep my attention, for now, despite the problems noted above. I’ll let you know how things play out.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.