Operation: Blackflag, by Richard J. Kendrick (12:38)

IOD-OperationBlackflagToday I am reminded that when I have trouble taking the basic premise seriously, I find it hard to stay immersed, no matter how good the writing may otherwise be.

What I gleaned about the story: Vladimir is conducting some kind of pheromone experiments. Later, giant wasps are going to attack the city. I suspect the two story lines are related.

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WTF #1: Prologue problems

Analysis: The story opens with a prologue in which a giant van-sized wasp flies into the park and crushes a statue. Unfortunately, nothing about that scene felt at all necessary to me. It’s well enough written, but by now, most IOD readers will know that my standard for whether a prologue should be included is whether or not it allows us to witness something that will prove vital for our later understanding of the story or its characters, and I definitely did not get that impression here.

I suspect this prologue was included as a way to front-end a more dramatic scene and tease the reader with the mayhem that is about to come, which essentially buys the author time to develop the characters and back story. But when it’s done conspicuously enough for me to notice, it always pops me out of the story to contemplate the structure.

Worse, in this particular case, the prologue actually damaged my ability to immerse in whatever happens next. The problem is that it forced me to confront a somewhat uncredible story premise before I’d had any chance to become invested in the characters. Most older fans of science fiction will remember the flood of post-war movies and stories about monster-sized animals and insects, grown to city-threatening size by the ravages of nuclear fallout. But the science behind that has always been bogus. Sure, it’s possible that genetic alterations might make creatures grow to enormous size, but they couldn’t possibly survive. An elephant-sized mosquito would have insufficient thrust-to-weight ratio to be able to fly. The mechanical systems of exoskeleton and bone would be insufficient for creatures of that mass to even stand, let alone terrorize urbanites.

I find all those 1950s movies to be rather campy and silly now, and by association, that sense of the ridiculous spills over to infect all stories built on that basic premise. I’d be able to enjoy one if it played up the camp angle, infusing humor into the story telling early and often. But that’s not the case here, and it unfortunately clouds my ability to immerse into everything that follows.

WTF #2: Confusing prose

Analysis: The protagonist is watching a young deer flee from some unknown danger, then he tells us:

Some obstacles hidden from view—a gopher hole or some dry brush, possibly—caught up in its legs and it stumbled.

I get how dry brush could have gotten caught up in its legs, but a gopher hole? Sure, the gopher hole could have tripped the poor deer, but a hole cannot get “caught up in its legs.” The disjointed imagery jerked me out to examine the text. But nope, that’s what it seems to be saying. Immersion busted.

WTF #3: Continuity problem

Analysis: Chapter Two begins with a couple waking up. Very early in the scene, we are told: Early morning sunlight snuck through the slats of the window blinds. But a few minutes later, as the still-sleepy husband starts to get dressed, we are told: He shuffled through a pile of clothes, mostly by touch in the near darkness.

The light was bright enough at the beginning that the wife was able to see his blankets rising and falling, but now it’s too dark to see his clothes so he has to feel for them? This visual disconnect popped me out of the story to look back at the earlier text. When I did, I found that the first reference to the light had been modified later, saying that the rising and falling blankets had been “barely illuminated” by the sunlight, but still, that came after I’d already formed the visual of a typical morning with sun coming in. Since I don’t have any information about when this takes place, with respect to sunrise, my overall impression was that the room was lit. Softly perhaps, but lit, and certainly well enough that a later reference to “near darkness” conflicted with that established image and my immersion broke.

Note: As mentioned above, I found it difficult to take the story seriously. It seems reasonably well written, but the entire premise of “giant bugs emerging from a science experiment gone afoul” just puts me off. So if you enjoy that kind of over-the top SF premise, then you may still find this to your tastes, and I urge you to check it 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.