Greg Spry's Reviews > Rule-Set: A Novel of a Quantum Future

Rule-Set by Merrill R. Chapman
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Recommended for: Patient, educated hard sci-fi fans

Solid But Needs Polishing

After author Rick Chapman was gracious enough to read and review my first novel, I wanted to return the favor. Plus, Rule-Set sounded intriguing irrespective of any unofficial review swap.

Overall, this book had definite moments of brilliance but suffered from a handful of pitfalls that made it hard to read at times. I almost didn't make it through the beginning third of the novel. Fortunately, the sheer coolness of the core premise combined with the promise-of-things-to-come found in the book summary kept me going. Rewarding me for my patience, the book becomes a real page-turner in the final two-thirds when the plot starts to unfold. However, the end left me a little unsatisfied. I was cheering for the book to merit at least three stars, and it just barely made the cut (I don't post reviews less than three stars).

Below, I've outlined what I think the author did well followed by what I believe could stand improvement, formatted in the way I present my editorial comments in writing critique groups.

Done Well
- The book portrays a top-notch vision of future virtual reality. Of all the holodeck premises out there, this one feels the closest to how things might actually work someday.
- The core concept of the novel--struggling professor of Japanese culture hired by the US Army to crack into a super computer--is one of the more original concepts I've seen. In the modern entertainment world where most everything has been done before, this book is refreshing.
- The research behind the science shows. Everything that happens feels authentic and seems like it could really happen, which is the cornerstone of quality hard science fiction.
- The main protagonist is compelling--by no means lovable but nonetheless compelling. Clarence Hamilcar possesses one of the most unique and interesting backgrounds I've read about. He has clear goals, albeit selfish ones. I tend to better empathize with noble do-gooders, but Hamilcar's aims were realistic and understandable. His character and viewpoint came across with consistency from start to finish, and his knowledge of Japanese culture, his military background, and his familiarity with artificial intelligence combine to create a unique sort of super sleuth.
- The conflicts that arise from interacting with the virtual reality settings in an attempt to solve the mystery of the super computer are the gems of the novel. The back-and-forth between the main protagonist, Clarence, and the main antagonist, Narihisa, is entertaining. I almost came to like Narihisa more than Clarence.

Potential Areas for Improvement
- In my mind, the two interrelated areas that killed the story at times were the (1) slow pacing and (2) verbose descriptions.
- (1) Pacing: The first third of the story, up until the main character interacts with the virtual reality environments, is long-winded and mostly unnecessary setup that doesn't move the plot forward. The author could literally begin the story around the point when Hamilcar arrives at his destination (more than ten chapters in), intersperse setup information from that point forward, and lose very little. The first few chapters show the main character hanging out in town and going about his daily life. A little of that is necessary to introduce the character and world but not multiple chapters of it. Hamilcar endures a couple significant losses in these early chapters that set up his motivation moving forward, but again, that doesn't require multiple chapters. Then we get additional chapters of discussions in his apartment to set up where we already know he's going if we've read the book summary on Goodreads or Amazon. And even when Hamilcar finally makes it to his destination, he spends time hanging out for awhile before getting down to business. This is what's termed "getting there" syndrome, and I see it in a lot of the stories I critique. An author should place focus on the important, high-conflict events and gloss quickly over the low-conflict sequences that only transition the reader between key events. Put another way, a story needs valleys to connect the peaks, but reader interest wanes if those valleys run too deep or last for too long. For example, let's say we're writing a story about someone robbing at a convenience store. It wouldn't be very compelling to start by writing about the main character opening the door to his car, sitting down, sticking the key in the ignition, turning the key, starting the car, putting the car in reverse, looking behind him, backing out of the driveway, putting the car in drive, driving to the first stop get the idea. The drive to the store has nothing to do with the robbery in the store. Get the guy to the store and show him robbing it. Keep the focus on the main conflict to keep the tension level high.
- (2) Description: When writing a description of a character, setting, or object, or when explaining a concept, the information needs to come within the flow of the story, and only as much information as is needed to move the story forward at that time should be presented. Otherwise, the information becomes an "info dump" as the transgression is sometimes called in creative writing. For example, the reader doesn't need to know all the technical details of particle accelerators to enjoy the story. As a matter of fact, providing too much explanation kills the tension and pulls the reader out. There are places in the book, especially in the first third but all throughout, where the author goes off on multi-page tangents about various topics from technology to Japanese culture to the personal histories of characters. Some readers may forgive the police reports because they find the specific topics interesting, but a work a fiction shouldn't contain segments that read like peer-reviewed technical journal articles. Personally, I have great interest in many of the topics the author covered, yet I still skimmed these parts, skipping ahead to places where the story started to move forward again. Returning to our previous example about robbing a store, the author sometimes does the equivalent of explaining the workings of the internal combustion engine within the robber's car. The reader doesn't care about how the car engine works. Nor is this information relevant to the robbery.
- To sum up these two points, the story would've been much more engaging if the author had moved the pace along more quickly and limited the verbose dumping of descriptions. More to the point, the opening third of the story would benefit from being shortened to a third or maybe even a quarter of the current word count.
- Once the interactions in the virtual reality environments started, my interest level in the story skyrocketed. The author did a masterful job building upon each interaction up to a halfway decent reveal...and then suddenly all hell breaks lose and the story ends without any explanation about what happened. When I turned from the last page of the last chapter to the glossary of terms, I was dumbfounded. I thought I might be missing words or chapters. The book's one saving grace is that this is only the first of a series, so the answers should be coming in subsequent novels. However, I didn't feel as if I got enough questions answered and experienced enough wow factor by the end to feel satisfied. In many series, the main conflict in any one book gets resolved but a larger conflict looms. In this novel, I felt like the core conflict never got resolved. Rather than leaving me wanting more, the end left me questioning whether I want to read book two. Do I have the patience to wait until book three or later if book two still withholds too much?
- Lastly, a professional editor and proofreader could've helped take the book to another level. An editor could've tightened up the pacing and verbosity, and a proofreader could've flushed out the minor mechanical issues. The number one recurring issue I noticed was the misuse of double-quotes with continuing dialog. Sometimes the quotes were missing. Other times there was a closing quote on the preceding prose rather than an opening quote on the next bit of dialog. There were also places were dialog and prose should have been broken up into different paragraphs, or dialog tags should have been included to better identify the speaker. Still, these were minor offenses that didn't impede the story. For not being professionally edited or proofread, the novel is reasonably clean.

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Reading Progress

November 18, 2014 – Shelved
November 18, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
November 22, 2014 – Started Reading
January 22, 2015 –
page 50
February 5, 2015 –
page 100
February 14, 2015 –
page 150
February 20, 2015 –
page 200
February 26, 2015 –
page 300
March 5, 2015 – Finished Reading

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