Clutch: Book One of The Wrecked Earth, by CEL Welsh (5:14)

IOD score cardToday we see that opting for a “big-picture history” prologue is like attempting a triple-lutz in figure skating: sure, there are people who make it look easy, but the risk of spraining an ankle is high.

What I gleaned about the story: Rocks fell, then civilization followed.

Find this book on Amazon.

Kudo #1: Excellent art

Analysis: Before I’d even started in on the reading, the cover art and some well-done inside art hinted that action and adventure lay ahead. A good opening move.

WTF #1: Past-perfect problem

Analysis: Beginning of the second paragraph: “Certainly their governments had to have some warning…”

The current narration is talking about past events, so it should have been, “had to have had some warning.” Which looks a little awkward on the page, so more substantial rephrasing might be necessary.

I fully endorse Jefferson’s policy of penalizing early mistakes harder. First impressions matter. Since this came in the second sentence, I threw the flag.

WTF #2: Astronomic anomaly detected

Analysis: We’re still in the second paragraph when:

“…a belt of asteroids five times wider than the circumference of the planet was going to intersect with their home.”

This description is open to several interpretations, the most straightforward of which don’t jive with my mental model of space rocks. Some sources of confusion:

  • To be in a belt, the asteroids have to be circling some center of gravity. The scale given is only a few times larger than the Earth, so the default model (circling the Sun) seems to be precluded. Are they orbiting a black hole? Circling their own collective center of gravity? I suspect an orbit like that would be unstable.
  • “wider than the circumference of the planet [Earth]” – since “wider” describes linear distance and circumference talks about the distance around the circle, it takes some guesswork to decide how I’m supposed to relate the two sizes.
  • Is the description of its size meant to convey awe? The tone suggests it. But the size given is small in astronomical terms, and things like the size, speed, and composition of the rocks are what would make it destructive (rather than just a pretty meteor shower).
  • [Jefferson’s note: I’m wondering what was five times bigger: the belt or each of the asteroids in it?]

The book isn’t subtitled “Book One of the Wrecked Earth” for nothing. Rocks gotta fall. And maybe there’s a good astrodynamic model that can fit this description to physics, but in its current form it raised a bunch of questions in rapid succession, and undermined my confidence in the narration. I suspect it could have been dropped entirely without making much of an (ahem) impact.

A reader who was less of a space nerd wouldn’t have seen anything amiss here. And even I’m not entirely unforgiving: I loved The Force Awakens even though Starkiller Base makes no astronomical sense whatsoever. But Star Wars has a long history of entertaining me despite playing fast-n-loose with science. Clutch and I haven’t established that sort of rapport yet.

The questions resurfaced as the rocks kept falling. The barrage of meteors lasts an entire month, which I think is an implausibly long time for an asteroid belt to intersect with Earth’s orbit, but since I’ve rambled a bit already, I won’t dive further into the details.

The simplest fix: give fewer specifics. Focus on the effects: rocks fall, not everyone dies.

WTF #3: Distracting typo

Analysis: The third WTF landed when I saw the word ‘levees’ spelled ‘levies.’ But while spelling errors are a troubling sign in a finished manuscript, and would almost always trigger a WTF during an IoD review, I might whistle on by on a more casual reading, if the story is riveting.

After stopping the clock, I stepped back for a bit, and looked at what the prologue was trying to do. It’s worth discussing. Prologues are tough as nails to get right, and the sort that Clutch is attempting is doubly difficult.

Structurally, Clutch’s prologue is explaining how we got from this-world-we-know to the-world-of-this-novel. To do so, it describes the global cataclysm the survivors would come to call “Rockfall,” how it broke the world and how governments responded (or failed to respond), how society broke down, etc.

It describes globe-spanning events from an omniscient, 30,000-foot POV. The narrator is a non-entity. This sort of storytelling can succeed, but it’s hard. At least, I’ve tried, and I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the results.

In the most successful attempts I’ve seen in fiction, not a word is wasted. Every consequence and counter-move is unexpected, but inevitable in retrospect. It feels like playing chess against someone who sees six moves deeper into the game than you: every move made comes as a surprise and a revelation. The prologue to James P. Hogan’s Code of the Lifemaker is a great example: a crashed self-replicating probe births an entire ecosystem of self-replicating robots. It’s gripping, while also being the clearest illustration of evolution I’ve ever seen in fiction.

But when narration tries for this kind of big-picture scope without living up to its ambition, the results can feel somewhat dry, or vague, or predictable. It’s much easier—and usually more satisfying—to narrow your scope and tell a more personal story, even if you end up only hinting at the whole.

Most dystopian tales don’t require much introduction beyond “there was a big, vague disaster in the past, and now everything sucks and I’m being chased by cockroaches with spears.” ‘The Event’ can then be used as a continued source of mystery, rumors, speculative bickering, and even character development. Exploit your reader’s curiosity to keep the pages turning. Exploit your character’s curiosity to drive the plot forward.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

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