Analysis, inspiration, process, Reading, Reviews

The Spectrum of Self-Published SciFi

I’m considering self-publishing and so I’ve been researching up a storm. (More on that in a later post.) One thing I did was read some self-published sci-fi novels. I will present my reviews in order from best to worst. The top two best recommendations unsurprisingly came to me by way of a “Best Self-Published SciFi of 2020” list. The third best I found through the thriving youtube platform of the author. The worst I found by chance and its high rating on Amazon.

Before I begin praising some of these and cutting the others to pieces, I feel the need to say that I empathize with everyone who has ever attempted to tell a story and I’m not saying anything here I wouldn’t tell my good friends in my writing critique group.

I dunno, taking the scalpel to self-published authors seems somehow less fair, but here we go.

The Best: Before and After by Andrew Shanahan

The tag line on this book is “An end of the world weight loss epic,” and right away I’m confused and… I guess intrigued?

By the end of this novel I have cringed, laughed, turned away from the page in horror, and bawled my eyes out. The story is surprising, fresh, heart wrenching, and compassionate.

The main character is a morbidly obese man who doesn’t leave his own bed for a shocking amount of the story. The setting is typical zombie apocalypse. So far this comes off as a very difficult sales pitch, but Shanahan not only makes it work, but soars.

There’s a hint of Chuck Palahniuk here, but where Palahniuk is sometimes a little too clever and a little too shocking-for-shocking’s-sake, there is none of that in “Before and After”. Nothing is taken for granted. No food is wasted.

My only criticism is the title. Really? “Before and After” was the punchiest title this author could come up with? I don’t believe it.

The book shook probably come with some sort of trigger warning about realistic depictions of morbid obesity and the sort of grotesqueries you would expect in a zombie apocalypse, but honestly there’s just one chapter you can skip if you get queasy and you’ll be fine. And I hope you do try to stomach it. This is hands down the best book I’ve read all year, and top three in the past five years.

Second Best: Do Not Resuscitate by Nicholas Ponticello

This book is a treat. I was hooked early on by the humor and window-into-real-life feel of this novel. I’ve seen a few folks compare this book to Vonnegut, but that’s an iffy comparison in my mind. If “Do Not Resuscitate” is Vonnegut, then it’s much more “Cat’s Cradle” in it’s very small amount of actual science fiction content and much more “Siren’s of Titan” in its levity. (At least as far as I recall my Vonnegut.)

But forget comparisons, “Do Not Resuscitate” stands on its own as what great fiction always is, a view into another person’s life, a person who defies simple labels of good or bad. Do I like the protagonist? No. Do I enjoy reading about him and his family, very much yes.

And the book is wonderfully written with cherry picked details that make it feel real (or better yet, true) and delightful use of humor and creative repetition.

My only criticism (and I do consider this a minor spoiler, so stop now if in doubt) is that I felt let down by the ending. I was expecting a stronger conclusion from such a strong book, but overall, highly worthwhile and strongly recommended.

Third best: Breach of Peace by Daniel B. Greene

Tight and tidy and short is how I would describe this action-fantasy novella. It can certainly be read start to finish on a single weekend day. The characters felt stiff to me at first, but grew on me. It was a bit too gruesome for my tastes in parts.

But my main criticism is that I was very unclear on the setting for way too long. What’s the technology level? Is this even a fantasy? What time period? I hadn’t a clue. The gradual dribbling out of sociopolitical details did feel deliberate on the author’s part, but that wouldn’t have been my design if I’d written it.

In the end, I hate criticizing this too harshly, because it feels like something that would be brought to my writing critique group and if it had been brought there, I would have said all the above and also added: You are 95% there. This is great work. It just needs a little padding to flesh it out, a little bit more play with simile to brighten the prose. You’ve got room in the word count. I’m so proud of you and happy for you. But there’s still that other 5% of work that needs done.

Note: This book was only on my radar at all because the author has a moderately large youtube presence and I’ve watched his videos before. His hustle is evident and I mean that in a complementary way, but I hope either this blog will take off (unlikely) or that hustle is not the only key to success.

Fourth not-so-best: USS Hamilton: Ironhold Station by Mark Wayne McGinnis

This novel somehow has 4.5 stars on Amazon with 1,351 ratings. It boggles the mind. I read the first chapter and don’t plan on reading any more.

Let me back up and say that the author has clearly studied his craft and has an idea of both what he wants to do and what he needs to do. It’s the implementation that’s lacking.

For example, the first sentence is a hook that’s clearly designed to grab the reader’s attention and keep us interested. But that hook is followed by at least 1000 words of exposition (and it felt like more). Mixed with the exposition was the narrator throwing in some minor curses that in no way gave me any insight into the character.

The first sentence in the book’s jacket blurb says it all:

The surprise attack within the Auriga Star System was worse than brutal, it was heinous.

“Heinous” adds literally nothing to the sentence other than to tell me that the author owns a thesaurus.

The redeeming part of this book to me was that I now grasp that there is an audience for military space opera and I can only hope they are as starving for good writing in the genre as I am. I’m inspired to write my own!


4 thoughts on “The Spectrum of Self-Published SciFi”

  1. “Heinous” is one of those words that got into the bro lexicon somehow. I’ve read way too many books like USS Hamilton that start with a one liner and then mind numbing exposition.

    I’d be interested to find out exactly how many books these folks have sold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be interested too. I think military SF is a bit like romance in that there are some readers who read exclusively in the genre and really churn through book after book, which is fine, nothing wrong with knowing what you like and pursuing it. It’s the supply side of the equation that I’m questioning, rather than the demand.


  2. Thanks for the very kind (well-written) review! Definitely nice to know someone saw my book and took a chance on it! If you have questions about self-publishing, send me a message on Twitter. Good luck with your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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