The First Fifty Pages – Science Fiction Edition Part 1 – Parvus Press

The First Fifty Pages – Science Fiction Edition Part 1


Logo for "The First Fifty Pages" blog post series

Greetings and salutations. With our first book, the amazing Vick’s Vultures coming out on October 4th (pre-order now at Amazon) I thought it might be useful to take a look at another batch of the “First Fifty”, this time pulled from some excellent Science Fiction books. As a reminder, the first two installments in our series can be found below:

The First Fifty Pages

The First Fifty Pages – Case Studies

 

Neither of these posts is required reading to understand what I’ve put together here, but they will definitely provide some context to help you get more out of this. And now, on with the show!

 

Old Man’s War – by John Scalzi

Let’s dive right in, with Old Man’s War.

  • Character Development
    • We meet John Perry on a day that he knows his life is going to change.
    • We follow John, one character, through several different chapters and several different locals. We see “supporting” characters come and go as they are needed, but it’s pretty clear pretty quick that this is not an ensemble piece. John Perry is our guy (the titular “Old Man”, if you will)
    • We’re clearly in for a first person narrative, and as such we get all kinds of sardonic and witty asides. Examples:
      • This attempt at marginally sarcastic humor went ignored and unappreciated, which has been par for the course in the last few years; good to see I had not lost my form”
      • “I had the strong urge to crack open a window and hurl Leon out of it. Alas, there was no window to crack;”

Scalzi uses a numbers of useful tools here in developing John Perry as a character. He gives his protagonist a dead wife to mourn, a son to come to peace with, and an adventure to go on (which unlike so many fantasy stories, he doesn’t get dragged into, or stumble into. God save me from upjumped farmboys…). Scalzi also uses a neato shortcut that I did not see at first read. It comes in the character of Leon, the racist bigot with whom John shares a ride on the Beanstalk. You want to build some quickie bonding between the reader and the protagonst? Create a throwaway character, make him an asshole and give him all the negative traits you can think of, and then have your protagonist hate that person.

  • World Building
    • We’re on Earth, with humans, in the future.
    • Earth is isolated from the universe at large, but we know that universe exists and that it’s not full of warm hugs
    • Regardless of how far in the future we actually are, we don’t see anything on Earth that we don’t recognize. The Earth of the future is much like the Earth of today.
      • This sets up the huge technology gap between Earth and the Colonial Union when we see the Beanstalk.
        • And just in case we missed this point, it is then explicitly shoved in our face

There’s a lot of good stuff to touch on re: World Building and Old Man’s War. My favorite bit is a throwaway segment early in the book, when Perry is sitting in the recruitment station on Earth. It’s this nice allusion to something called “The Crimp”, which was some kind of off-planet illness that caused one in three human men to lose their fertility and is ostensibly the reason for the planetary quarantine.

What’s great about this little story is that it feels so real. It’s a small detail given in an almost off-hand way that really makes it feel like there’s a whole world here. Scalzi only devotes a single paragraph to this, but it exposes us to all kinds of information. It shows that the governments of Earth are not in charge here, makes the universe seem a little more hostile, and gives us yet another opportunity to get inside John Perry’s head.

Also worthy of special mention is the conversation within the Beanstalk between John, Harry and Jesse. When you throw a bunch of people together at what they all know is the beginning of a journey into the unknown, they can talk about their situation in a very natural way. This allows them to share what they know (or suspect) with another without taking a big, steaming pile of exposition.

  • Voice and Story
    • As mentioned before, this is clearly one man’s story. The narrative never wavers from John Perry for a second, and the first person past-sense point of view lets us know that we’ll be riding around in Perry’s head for the duration.
    • We’re in for an outer-space adventure. We’re going to see the universe, meet fascinating creatures, and kill them.
      • Heck, the main “plot” doesn’t really begin until the Battle of Coral, 194 pages into a 311 page book. This is a book that is all about voice, character, and world-building.

 

Live Free or Die – by John Ringo

Man, I like this book. I grabbed this one to read on the plane when heading off to my honeymoon, and by the time I’d landed all I wanted to do was figure out if there was a Barnes and Noble in Maui. This was one of the first books I picked up in both print and on the iPad, so I could read it whenever. This book is all about world building, and I love me some world building. So what do we get in the first 50 pages???

  • Character Development
    • There’s… not a ton. We go through about half a dozen viewpoint characters in the first 50 pages. This is clearly not going to be one man’s story. We have characters who pop up, get fleshed in just a little, move the plot forward and then go away. I will grant that a decent number of those occur in the prologue, but so much happens in the prologue that you can’t just ignore it.
    • We get into the main viewpoint character in chapter 1, after 20 pages or so of really good prologue and we learn a couple of things that are going to make us sympathetic towards him:
      • He’s divorced but not bitter about it
      • He’s a hard worker (we see him at 3 different “jobs”)
      • He’s clever, ambitious, and far-sighted
  • World Building
    • We start at the start. The first day of this book could be today or tomorrow. That first day is a branching off point from Earth as we know it to one where aliens have dragged a gateway ring into space.
    • We see humans go from being fascinated by the ring to being enslaved by beings that issued forth from it. We’re told about the fallout that comes from the Earth having to surrender all of its platinum-group metals. We see the Glatun shrug and say “sorry, not our problem”, which hints at the kind of bureaucratic malaise in which they exist.
    • We go through the first exposure of the Glatun to Maple Syrup, which sets up the rest of the first arc of the story.

I had a problem analyzing the world building done in the first 50 pages of this book, because it doesn’t stop at page 50. Not even close. What’s fun about this is that the world building is our world, as it changes under the influence/introduction of alien technologies and human ingenuity in adapting those technologies. We learn more about the universe at large as well, but that is constantly changing throughout this story too, as we go from a period of galactic stability to one of conflict and war.

Part of this I know from having read a bunch of other stuff about this book, and the webcomic (www.schlockmercenary.com) to which it gives a healthy nod (something Ringo does in a lot of his books). It’s pretty clear that the author set out to tell a story about a set of events, not a story about a guy. I love the main character that he sets up, but frankly it could be someone with a complete different personality and the story would be more or less the same. This is not a criticism, merely an acknowledgement that some stories are not just us looking over a guy’s shoulder for 300 pages. In this way, Old Man’s War and Live Free or Die are polar opposites.

  • Story and Voice
    • Story and world-building are completely tied together in the first 50 pages. This is because we’re not in a strange land. We’re on Earth… we don’t need to be exposed to weird stuff we don’t already understand. All of the world-building we get in the first 50 drives the story forward.
    • For voice on the other hand… we get a lot. The first half of the first page tells you all you need to know. Together now
      • “It is said that in science the greatest changes come about when some researcher says “Hmmmm. That’s odd.” The same can be said for relationships: “That’s not my shade of lipstick…” –warefare: “That’s an odd dust Cloud…” Etc. But in this case, the subject is science. And relationships. And warfare. And things that are just ginormously huge and hard to grasp because space is like that”

This has a very Douglas Adams feel to it, doesn’t it? Anyone who uses the word “ginormously” as the 56th word of their novel is telling you something. And that something is: “Hey. How’s it going. Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you some hot coco? We’re gonna go on a fun romp together, you and I. Just sit back and enjoy, I got it from here.”

Bonus fact, the very best line in all of literature comes from Douglas Adams in the opening pages of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”. If you’ve never read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, Don’t Panic. Just be a cool frood, grab your towel, and share this post on Facebook. We’ll select one of you to receive a Kindle edition of the book.

 

To Be Continued…

Later this week, I’ll be posting an in-depth review of the first 50 pages of Vick’s Vultures. I’m going to attempt to share with you the elements that jumped out at me, and made me want to publish the book. It’ll contain minor spoilers, and you may wish to wait to read the blog until you’ve read the book itself.

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    I like this series so far, I think it’s a really great way to look at Science Fiction in particular. Great Sci Fi (and Fantasy) writers in my mind are better than anyone else at laying the foundations of a fictional world, mainly because there are so many out-there ideas that they have to justify.

    Old Man’s War is amazing, and it has a great first sentence which strongly backs a lot of your ideas about Scalzi’s writing style:

    “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

    Scalzi is brilliant at letting a character’s actions speak for their…character. It probably sounds obvious to say, but I always thought that the first paragraphs, even the first moment of a character being described in a novel will inevitably foreshadow where they end up. It’s serving not just to introduce a character’s mental processes, and their ways of interacting (or avoiding) the world around them, but to create a balance between where they start and end in the narrative.

    I’ll avoid an obvious spoiler about Scalzi’s book, but still say that there’s something so sad and beautiful about the place where Perry ends up at the end of Old Man’s War, given the fact that we meet him on a day when he’s visiting his wife’s grave. There are specific things that he wants, and maybe the only difference between the beginning and end of the story is a kind of hope in the protagonist.

    I’d be very interested in what Parvus would say about the LAST fifty pages of a book (though that has the risk of spoilers) because I think it’s an equally interesting way to approach some of these ideas. This blog is awesome, thank you for writing it.

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