I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled across LaMonte M. Fowler, but I know it was through social media. This is another example of an author reaching out and making a connection with readers. In this case, it resulted in an (eventual) sale. Was it LinkedIn, Google+, or Facebook? Does it matter?
Whatever the pitch was, it worked, because I put the book on my Amazon “wanted” list and when I was buying books for school and had a few extra dollars, I added it to my buy list. Not only did I read the book myself, but I had my husband add it to his pile of books to read.
Marketing works, people!
Before we get too far, I would like to caution you that, according to all the information I have available, Cradle is Fowler’s debut work. Evidence suggests that it is also a self-published book. (A publisher, Vicendia Media, is listed, but a search revealed no website and only this as its only published book.) The relevance of this information will become apparent shortly.
Anyway, enough with the backstory, let’s move onto the book itself…
Cradle is what I would classify as a Christian science fiction story. The milieu assumes that God is real, that the Bible is true (though not factually accurate in its entirety), and that angels and devils have continued their war with each other many years after our present day. Furthermore, mankind has “conquered” the solar system and China has taken over.
One problem with religious-driven fiction is that supernatural beings have supernatural powers. If, for example, an angel can come down and make everything better, then what you have is a deus ex machina, which translates as god from a machine. In ancient Greek and Roman plays, they would do whatever they could to get their heroes in tight spots, and if they couldn’t also get them out again they would drop a “god” onto the scene (remember, it’s a play) using a pulley and rope (i.e., a machine). That kind of convenience is no longer tolerated in contemporary fiction. The heroes, to be heroes, have to act. On the other hand, what’s the point of including angels and devils in your fiction if they don’t use their supernatural powers? There’s a desperate need for balance to do this well. Fortunately for his readers, Fowler found that balance and pulled it off quite nicely! Fowler gets an A+ on this score!
One problem with science fiction is the tendency to dump information to set in place the rules of the milieu. In classic science fiction, i.e. not quite as far back in history as ancient Greece, dumping was a common practice. This, too, is not tolerated very well in contemporary fiction. Science fiction, as a genre, has grown up and the skill expected of its authors has grown too, so much so that we expect these authors to provide information by weaving it into the story. I’d give Fowler a C+ on this score, because he did weave quite a bit of information in, but there were a few too many times where I felt dumped on, which made it altogether too easy to set the book down and get back to work.
This book is essentially plot-driven. Basically, you have human beings on the verge of developing the technology required to move from one solar system to another in a (relatively) timely fashion. You also have devils who are desperate to use this technology for their own nefarious purposes. You have angels who don’t want to let them. And you have people caught up in the tug of war between supernatural and political forces. Can the good guys stop the bad guys from stealing the ship? The plot is interesting and solidly on SF grounds. He gets an A here.
Characters, however, are essential to driving the plot. Fowler incorporates a very diverse cast to tell his story. Some of these characters are type-cast in the sense that they reflect the range of people such a society could be expected to develop—you have the priest who clings to the remnants of a mostly discredited religion on a backwater-type settlement, you have the disillusioned scientist who has abandoned his faith, you have the intelligence officer who knows just enough to have some pretty unexpected questions, you have the military officer who has bought into the way things are (socially speaking), and you have the pirate that hasn’t. While these cardboard-like characters are necessary for the plot, the way they have been personalized and individualized and realized empowers the characters to influence the story in ways quite apart from their defined roles. So, for this score, I give Fowler a solid B+, creeping close to an A-.
Milieu, plot, and characters are what make up (for the most part) a story, and Fowler’s uses these elements pretty well. A story’s execution is a slightly different matter. This is where style, voice, and craftsmanship come into play. As I read this story, I kept thinking of the metaphor dynamic among apprentice, journeyman, and master. And, as involved as I became in this story, I have to be honest: The execution of this story is a journeyman’s work.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We writers and readers are an industry in flux. For a long time, publishers have had a strangle-hold on the book industry. There are some pretty nice advantages to that situation, but there are also a lot of disadvantages. Within the old paradigm, this book probably wouldn’t have been published as it is, in which case Fowler would have either given up or spent a few more years developing his craftsmanship to reach the standards expected of traditionally published authors. In the meantime, readers would have been missing out on his work. Fowler broke out of that paradigm by investing his time and effort into (presumably) self-publication and self-marketing.
Whether or not he breaks even or makes a profit on this particular book, Fowler has launched his career—and I would say he’s done so successfully.
Though this book was not a master-work, it was a well-told story. The story, that thing we read books to access, was ready to be told. I will buy the next book. So, calling this work a journeyman’s work might seem like a put-down (which, I assure you, it’s not intended to be), the crux of it is this: Are we ready to support (through our purchases) the work of journeyman writers who will (with our support and encouragement) become masters in their own right? I think, as an industry, we are. I know, as a reader of Mr. Fowler’s debut novel, I certainly am. And I hope, when I reach the same point sometime next year, other readers will be willing to take the risk when I reach out to them.