The saving grace when reading a truly terrible book is that you can
learn interesting things about what it takes to make a good story. If
the failure is obvious, then the novelty pales fast, but I managed to
sustain myself all the way through Mr. Blackhall's terrible novel
"Stealth Planet" by asking myself what the difference was between a
story and a sequence of events.
It wasn't until about a third of the way through that I put my finger
on that failing as the cardinal sin of this book. Until that time, I
had been struggling, page after page, maddened by all of the more
superficial sins he commits. At times, the book was so unbearable
that in order to keep reading, I had to literally hold it out at arms
length and give it the finger before continuing. But, pleasant as it
would be to simply write off the whole mess and punt it into the
corner, Mr. Blackhall has enough going for him that I could never
quite do it.
Part of the problem is no doubt his publisher. Dusty Spark Publishing
is a little outfit---maybe it's a vanity publisher, maybe not, it's
hard to tell from its limited online presence. At least one of their
other titles has done quite well on Amazon, so they're not a
fly-by-night. But they clearly don't have much in the way of
editorial resources, else Mr. Blackhall wouldn't have been able to get
away with his more egregiously banal failures. Still, they sent us
not merely a preprint, but two review copies, and I figured I'd give
it a shot.
So, let's get back to that big question. What is the difference
between a story and a sequence of events? Not an easy thing to nail
down. Do you need to care about the characters? Most stories you do,
but in Stephenson's "Zodiac" the main character is an ass, and you
still get sucked right in. Do the characters need to think and
reflect on what's going on? Again, it helps, but there's quite a bit
of Golden Age sci-fi where you pretty much just get to watch the space
boyscouts doing their thing, and never hear anybody's inner thoughts.
Does it require action and world-shaking events? Clearly not, because
Stealth Planet tells us straight-faced "mankind had just taken an
evolutionary step," and yet it's not a story.
The missing elixir is subtle, but so important. My best guess is
suspension of disbelief. If you can't suspend disbelief, then you
can't enter the author's world. If you can't suspend disbelief, then
there is no tension about what will happen, and whether the characters
will make it through their close call or not. If you can't suspend
disbelief, then you aren't reading a story, you're just listening to a
child babble at you. Maybe they're telling a story, but there's just
nothing in it to follow.
I can tolerate a lot of insult to my suspension of disbelief, and
still enjoy the story. Magic and psionics? Sure. Wacky future tech?
Sure. Wooden characters? Sure. Hackneyed plot? Sure. Completely
different beliefs about the world? Sure. But the author has to at
least throw me a bone. Like, I enjoy Weber's "Honor Harrington"
novels despite the fact that his prose is practically machine
generated, because of the intricacy of his machinations and his
determination to show you the rhyme and reason of every cog and gear
in the working of his universe.
So it's hard to pin down the main thing that makes this such an
execrable book because it comes from many sources, each eating away at
my ability to distinguish "Stealth Planet" from the febrile ravings of
a paranoid schizophrenic. Let me list the main offenses:
* Show, don't tell. Mr. Blackhall has clearly never heard of this
principle, and abuses it so tenaciously that several of the other
offenses I will list are really just elaborations of this basic
* Two of everything so the first can fail dramatically. I know that
NASA likes backups, but can't at least one thing work properly on
the first try? As a corollary, no part of the trip is allowed to be
boring and routine, even at the expense of bringing back one of the
worst offenses of old Hollywood sci-fi.
* Unmitigated adjective abuse. Just because you can add an adjective
doesn't mean you have to. Especially when we've read the same
adjective applied to the same situation many times before.
"Skillful" is perhaps the worst offense, but "amazing" and
"dangerous" are close contenders.
* Abuse of mystery. "Mysterious" is so badly abused that it gets its
own category, especially since Mr. Blackhall so rarely condescends
to tell the reader any answers. The worst example of this is the
planet itself (whose name is changed from "Enigma" to "Stealth
Planet" apparently by authorial decree to the ISS). The book starts
with the discovery of a mysteriously hard to see planet; by the end,
despite sending an expedition there to learn its secrets, all we
know is that it is hard to see for mysterious reasons, but that it
may one day give up its mysteries.
Sometimes it felt like Mr. Blackhall was deliberately insulting the
reader as he wrote about all the amazing things being learned
without giving so much as a hint as to what they were. So Norm
analyzed the mysterious soot that gave them so much trouble; what
did he learn? At least give me some techno-babble!
* Making a character monologue a recap of what the reader just
finished reading. Speaking of insulting the reader, this odious
habit of Mr. Blackhall was the thing that caused me to give the book
the finger. Every time he did it (that's right: it happens *often*)
it felt like he was deliberately spitting on me. This habit of his
was also what first convinced me that there was no editorial
oversight on this book.
* Everybody's awesome! All of the characters are super-humanly
pleasant and heroic, so we keep reading things like "no hard
feelings, no bruised egos, and an exceptional camaraderie ... The
sense of duty and dedication to the program was the greatest asset
of the entire group." Throughout the whole book, no character ever
actually screws up---even when they're in the process of passing out
from injuries, they do exactly the right thing.
* Tension comes from potential danger, not unexpected turns of events.
Sometimes it seems like Mr. Blackhall has modelled his plots on a
Disney ride. Every ten pages or so, something pops up yelling
"surprise!" and frankly, the surprise wears off. Moreover, despite
all the characters overly vaunted skills, they never actually manage
to head off a disaster in advance---it just pops up yelling
"surprise!" and they skillfully skill their way to stop the bleeding
before it kills them.
* Just because you say it doesn't make it so. This is doubly true if
you tell us about a long-time super-important personality trait or
policy just so that we can be impressed when it's violated. If you
tell us he's a stickler for detail, then have him say screw the
forms, then who are we to believe, the author or the character's
This applies doubly when the author is trying to tell us why we
should be impressed with the scope of his vision. Somehow, I just
don't find "the greatest technological creation in the history of
the Earth" or "a fitting end to the incredible adventure" very
convincing when that's the entirety of the description.
* Repetitive deus ex machina. For some reason, Mr. Blackhall decided
that he should add a psychic who was "not exactly sure how she had
made the crew," despite the fact that his universe doesn't believe
in psychics, so that she can act as the crew's dowsing rod and tell
them the solution to every puzzle they encounter. To quote Mr.
Blackhall: "Her uncanny gift of inexplicable sensory abilities had
guided them to a potential escape route."
* Matchmaking. Depending on which part of the book you're reading,
there are either ten or twelve members of the crew, four of which
are women. At the start of the book, nobody's in a relationship.
At the end, there are four deeply committed couples emoting deeply
at each other every time another danger pops up yelling "surprise!"
* Making things up as you go along. Several times, Mr. Blackhall
starts adding history in the middle of the book, suddenly telling
you about a contingency plan that he's apparently just invented, or
a regulation that's totally been there all along, no really, that
can make things a bit more dramatic. That's bad enough, but if
you're going to make things up as you go along, you'd better not
forget what you made up in the last chapter.
I could go on, about the pointless villain, the lack of curiosity on
the part of the characters, their wooden portrayal, etc, but I've
already ranted and rambled for long enough, and I think his prose is
trying to infect me. Let me simply close by saying that this is one
of the worst books I have ever read, and warning all and sundry to
stay away from it.