The Sphere: A Journey In Time: A (practice) Review

The Sphere: A Journey In Time is the first book of The Sphere Saga by Michelle McBeth.

First, a little background on why this whole review is even a thing. You can skip to [1] if you want to go right to the review.


As you know, I was chosen to be a judge in the new Self-Published Science Fiction Contest, #SPSFC. 300 science fiction books enter, 1 science fiction book leaves. And I’m part of the Space Lasagna judging panel.

See? I have a badge.

My deep, dark agenda in this contest was pure and simple: take the sting off rejection for the 299 of the 300 authors who put themselves out there only to not win this cruel, cruel competition. In this literary Battle Royale, I’m here to make sandwiches and hot chocolate for the, uh, the dead kids I guess?

The metaphor is a work in progress, and so is the #SPSFC. That’s my point. It’s hard work for the judges and rejection and disappointment comes with the territory. I am determined to soothe this as much as possible, by providing what I hoped the #SPFBO would provide, and which sets these contests aside from viral-popularity bullshit like the Hugos: actual attention and feedback, and concrete reviews on book sites, for the entrants. And that means actually reading the gorram books.

Anyway.

Disappointment starts earlier for some authors, and lingers all the way to the finals for others. But we have already had to make some cuts and the result has been unhappy and angry authors. Basically, if the book doesn’t meet the criteria, we’ve tried to just not include it in the starting 300, but there’s always going to be some hurt feelings over the process, after the anxiety-load of even entering such a contest.

One such disappointed contender (although a good-humoured one, I think, compared to some others [*self-deprecating cough*] I could mention) was Michelle McBeth, whose book just scraped in under the required word-count. I decided, since we’re still waiting to kick off and because blind luck is an important part of the writing game, that I would drop her a review as a consolation prize. The e-book was cheap, I already knew it was nice and short, and so what the Hell.

I can’t do it with every entrant who missed out, but I can do it this time. Just a final quick note about what I’m doing in this review.

Basically, I read a book and make notes about it as I go. What’s good, what’s bad, what takes me out of the story, what I think might happen or think should be focussed on, and whether my guesses panned out. Then I wang all that together into a rambling stream of consciousness about the book. I top it off with four Very Professional Metrics (VPMs): the Sex-o-meter, the Gore-o-meter, the WTF-o-meter and the Final Verdict.

Now, the three meter-scores don’t add up to anything and have no bearing on the Final Verdict. They’re just handy indications of what sort of story we’re talking about. Also, there is no consistency in the scores (or even the points systems) I use – the meters give the results they give.

Are sex, gore and utter existential bafflement the three most important things in my life? I don’t know, I’m a quasi-sentient primate writing about the recorded fantasies of other quasi-sentient primates on an electronic miracle box. You tell me what’s fucking important.

So, now that explanation is out of the way, on with the good stuff.


[1] Edpool here. As I was saying, today let’s take a look at The Sphere: A Journey In Time.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this story, which I was interested to see was a result of the NaNoWriMo movement. The tale of a time-travelling researcher, known as a librarian, and her adventures in and around a secret laboratory facility is intriguing right from the start. The start also includes a solid bit of Shakespearean in-jokery and nods from the author that gave me a chuckle. It’s always a good idea to make the reader feel clever.

The trips back through history are interesting, and done in a sufficiently broad-strokes way as to allow the reader to fill in what might otherwise become a boring showcase of How Much The Author Researched This Stuff. I don’t know about you, but I like my time travel kept as simple as possible – because eventually, it’s never simple. It’s time travel.

Even more interesting, to me, were the glimpses of the future. The post-travel decontamination scene drew me in, the librarians and planters and scouts were all fascinating, the secrecy and the dome and the strangeness of the world was fun to explore – and when I saw the word ‘floogberry’ I knew there was some great creating going on under the hood. And no, I’m not being sarcastic. I want to know what the Hell a floogberry is, damn it.

There were a couple of parts that pulled me out of the story. At one point the story refers to the past fifty years of development which makes it unnecessarily clear that the book was written in the 2020s, and there’s no real reason for that. There’s a Sean Connery reference, which just to be clear, is comparing a computer voice to an actor who died long before the main character was born, so sure – maybe he’s been immortalised because Zardoz turned out to be true, we don’t know based on this book (although the in-story philosophy of a population “deprived” of the struggle for survival and resources becoming stagnant and idle is very reminiscent of the statements from that classic movie). But in the meantime it did distract me. As you can see.

At first I was hoping the story would tackle the very strange lifestyle of the librarians, who would clearly age dramatically faster in their native time as they spent so long elsewhen, but McBeth went a different way with it. This was ultimately satisfying. Adelaide’s journey was very fun to read. I’m a bit dubious that she’d never thought about what was inside a sphere before, but okay. I don’t wonder about what’s inside my computer until it starts making weird noises, so fair play.

All in all this story was super cool, right up my literary alley and really just needed a once-over from an editor. Little things like was loathe at the idea and effecting my ability to cope, and some attention to the pacing of the ending of the book and some of the exposition, a couple too many scenes of characters skipping past each other in time and giving each other notes to explain what to do … the usual stuff independent authors miss out on because the traditional publishers keep the editors out of our price range. It didn’t by any means spoil the story for me.

Sex-o-meter

There’s no sex in this story, which frankly is fine. Not every book needs it. What little flirting and exploration of physicality there is, seems like an obligation being met. I was far more fascinated by the relationship between Adelaide and Noah, and between Noah and Noah. The vehemence of his reactions to various revelations about his life, that was all really interesting. I give The Sphere half a firm-yet-flexible wossname out of a possible five upright throbbing ones.

Gore-o-meter

No real gore, which again is fine. Most violence happens off-page but you still get a nice sense of stakes and peril. I actually liked that the past was impressed upon us as dangerous, but not the absolute fucking bloodbath some storytellers make it out to be, leaving us to wonder how the Hell we even managed to survive as a species (don’t get me wrong, this is still a very valid thing to wonder). Half a quivering flesh-gobbet out of five.

WTF-o-meter

Here’s where The Sphere really shone. Of course, time travel is going to be a mind-fuck every time, and while nobody familiar with Crichton’s Timeline, the MCU’s multiverse and the academic works of Brown and McFly, et al, is going to have much of a problem recognising what’s happening here … it’s still done in a fun new way. There were maybe too many moving parts and switches in how the “technology” really functioned, but it all worked and those were good, chilling twists. I’d be curious to see how the rules of the Sphere Sagaverse change or remain consistent in the following two books. I’ll award this book four floogberries out of a possible five.

My Final Verdict

This was a lot of fun to read and I’m heartily glad Michelle McBeth picked up a pen for NaNoWriMo. I gave this book four stars on Amazon and Goodreads, although I suppose I’d call it three-and-a-half I rounded up, it was a well-deserved rounding. Needing a good professional editor is the eternal curse of the independent author, but a good story and grand imagination shines through.

About Hatboy

I’m not often driven to introspection or reflection, but the question does come up sometimes. The big question. So big, there’s just no containing it within the puny boundaries of a single set of punctuationary bookends. Who are these mysterious and unsung heroes of obscurity and shadow? What is their origin story? Do they have a prequel trilogy? What are their secret identities? What are their public identities, for that matter? What are their powers? Their abilities? Their haunted pasts and troubled futures? Their modus operandi? Where do they live anyway, and when? What do they do for a living? Do they really have these fantastical adventures, or is it a dazzlingly intellectual and overwrought metaphor? Or is it perhaps a smug and post-modern sort of metaphor? Is it a plain stupid metaphor, hedged around with thick wads of plausible deniability, a soap bubble of illusory plot dependent upon readers who don’t dare question it for fear of looking foolish? A flight of fancy, having dozed off in front of the television during an episode of something suitably spaceship-oriented? Do they have a quest, a handler, a mission statement, a department-level development objective in five stages? I am Hatboy. https://hatboy.blog/2013/12/17/metalude-who-are-creepy-and-hatboy/
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40 Responses to The Sphere: A Journey In Time: A (practice) Review

  1. Hatboy says:

    On a personal note, I mourn the dearth of editors in the independent authoring world despite the fact that I am very lucky to have a great editorial team, many of whom read this blog. They know as well as I do that there is only so much a heroic yet unpaid civilian can do.

    • Arina says:

      I am eating up your reviews right now. Can’t stop laughing at the brilliance. Slightly suspicious you’re Ryan Reynolds

      • Hatboy says:

        Well this is the nicest and most multi-layered comment I could imagine starting the day on! Thank you very kindly.

        Amusingly, after years of dressing up as Deadpool this is the first time I’ve ever been compared to Ryan Reynolds. That actually checks out though, I am not a good Deadpool. I only had cancer in, like, two places.

  2. Vincent Vale says:

    Love your review style! Thanks for going above and beyond for this competition. Can’t wait to read all your reviews.

    • Hatboy says:

      Much obliged sir! I really feel like I’m getting into the swing of it now, we should be getting our marching orders pretty soon and then it’s going to be full steam ahead. There are some very interesting-looking books in the Space Lasagna dish.

  3. Zed Dee says:

    Hey, would like to point out that this book probably did not just scrape under the word count and probably exceeded it.

    As far as I understand, the criteria was changed from 50k+ words to 200+ pages on Amazon using the 250 words per page metric. However, there is no basis for this metric. Some examples:

    Hugh Howey’s Wool has about 158,654 words and is listed as 594 real pages on Amazon, making it about 267 words per page.

    Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer has about 458,430 words and is listed as 1220 real pages on Amazon, making it about 375 words per page.

    Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past has about 537,348 words and is listed as 1554 kindle page turns on Amazon, making it about 348 words per page.

    My own book, which I submitted to this competition and was rejected, has 52,569 words and is listed as 132 kindle page turns, making it about 398 words per page.

    If this book that you bought doesn’t have DRM you can check the word count yourself by downloading Calibre and using it to convert to epub or docx. Then you can use the inbuilt epub editor to do a word count report or using Microsoft Word to do it as well.

    • Hatboy says:

      Hey, would like to point out that this book probably did not just scrape under the word count and probably exceeded it.

      As far as I understand, the criteria was changed from 50k+ words to 200+ pages on Amazon using the 250 words per page metric. However, there is no basis for this metric.

      These are really good points and I appreciate you making them here. There’s been a lot about it on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere, and I think it’s fair to say that there needs to be some tweaking but the question is what to do about it here and now. Let me take these point by point (it’s how we roll here).

      Some examples:

      Hugh Howey’s Wool has about 158,654 words and is listed as 594 real pages on Amazon, making it about 267 words per page.

      Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer has about 458,430 words and is listed as 1220 real pages on Amazon, making it about 375 words per page.

      Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past has about 537,348 words and is listed as 1554 kindle page turns on Amazon, making it about 348 words per page.

      My understanding of this is that the “200 Amazon pages” thing was a yardstick introduced by the contest organisers and at a certain point readability kicks in for tiny text. It is all pretty arbitrary and I hope we’ll be able to do it in a different way next time because it seems like the biggest problem we’ve had in whittling our pre-cutoff-time applications list down to 300.

      Personally, I like short and sweet books (and that doesn’t even touch the unfairness of 50K+ word books being rejected in the first place), I think at a certain point you’re looking at a novella or a short story or a pamphlet and those are a bit cheeky (and very common in independent publishing) but that’s not what we’re looking at here, I agree.

      My own book, which I submitted to this competition and was rejected, has 52,569 words and is listed as 132 kindle page turns, making it about 398 words per page.

      That really sucks, and I wish it hadn’t happened this way. I think if this is going to cause similar problems in next year’s contest, we definitely need to find a way of establishing the actual word count rather than using Amazon. By which I mean – yes, we can do it like you mention below, for all of the books in each team. Or else we can make the actual word count part of the entry form and hope the authors are honest about it (I think they would be). Only then double-checking or disqualifying books when we actually read them and find them too short. I don’t know.

      Not wanting to pass the buck (but really having little recourse), I had no part in rejecting any books. Even my team, Space Lasagna, only rejected one book for being under 200 pages and it looks to be solidly over the required 50K. As such, I believe I will review it and raise more of a ruckus (I am already debating it among the teams anyway but I’m definitely a junior spaceman here) if it turns out to be a block of pure narrative gold that should have gone through to the finals from us.

      For context, of the 300 (well, 304 I think) books in the contest, each team gets 30. We have 31 or 32 here in Space Lasagna. So about 10% of the books. We look at those and (eventually) pick three finalists. And we were responsible for identifying any books in our quota that didn’t belong. We have one team member who wanted to cut every single young adult book, but we kind of just went ahead and kept them because YA is allowed, only actual children’s books aren’t permitted.

      What I’m saying is, for 90% of the list, Team Space Lasagna doesn’t even have a say in which ones are cut. However, it seems to be the rule that is the problem here, and it needs to be clarified.

      If this book that you bought doesn’t have DRM you can check the word count yourself by downloading Calibre and using it to convert to epub or docx. Then you can use the inbuilt epub editor to do a word count report or using Microsoft Word to do it as well.

      I have Calibre now (installed it just for this contest and getting all these books onto The Hindle Kindle). It’s bothering me because (like I said) it looks like the one book my team rejected was in fact 70K words despite its Amazon page count, so I’m debating about that one too. All I can really do on a personal level is review it anyway, and hope we fix these issues for next time because it really sucks. Definitely I would say anyone who was unfairly rejected based on word count this year should try again next year.

      I’d also happily add your book to my consolation review pile, in the meantime. But I would definitely urge you (and other frustrated participants) to give this another shot next time and remember that fuck-ups definitely happen.

    • Hatboy says:

      I guess this was your entry?

      Looking at it in Calibre it is definitely over the 50K mark – and it was cut by the organisers before even being filtered out to the teams, so there is definitely room for improvement here. I can only say in their defence that it is a lot of work getting all of this organised and there will be mistakes.

      • Zed Dee says:

        Yes that is my entry. Please don’t feel like you have to buy it and review it.

        Authors had to fill in word count as part of the entry form.

      • Hatboy says:

        They did?? That’s wild, I wonder if there was any double-checking if (as I assume) the author put a 50K+ word count but the page count was under 200. Definitely something we need to look at next time.

      • Zed Dee says:

        The only official source of what happened that I could find: https://twitter.com/duncan_swan/status/1423092543139377153

        So, didn’t seem to be any double checking involved.

      • Hatboy says:

        Right, so it looked like the application form wordcounts were in some cases not true, so they defaulted to whatever Amazon’s page count was, which wasn’t a good solution either and some honest wordcount applicants were punished. That’s a mess.

        Your note about paragraphs vs. pages is also interesting. I prefer more paragraph breaks to less, when reading, but that also seems like a way to break this particular submission requirement. I’ve seen badly-formatted kindle books with line and paragraph breaks all over the place that probably would have passed for larger page counts. I don’t know.

      • Zed Dee says:

        Couple of things can be done for next one:
        1) If book is on Kobo, use the word count listed on the Kobo store
        2) Use software like Sigil or Calibre

        I’ve actually got a step-by-step guide on how to use Calibre to get word counts of batches of books: https://zeddeecee.github.io/2021/08/07/amazon-page-counts.html

      • Hatboy says:

        That’s going to be handy now I have Calibre! All I can do is suggest it to the contest heads, since like I say, a lot of books were rejected before we even got to see them – and I didn’t have anything to do with the process. Hopefully this will be a step towards fixing it though.

      • Hatboy says:

        FYI, I’ve applied this to my Calibre now so at least I have the word counts.

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