My First 5 Votes in Stage One of SPSFC 3

We are currently in the first stage of the third Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC). Each team of judges is sampling all books in our team's allocation to decide which ones to read in full. For SPSFC 3, the team was assigned 25 books.

As one of the judges, I have been reading 15 percent of each book before making a Yes/No decision on whether to recommend it for a full read. My votes will be tallied along with the rest of the team's judges and the six highest vote-getters will become our quarterfinalists.

Here are my first five Yes/No votes, which reflect my own personal views and not those of the entire team.

Cover of W.J. Long III's science fiction novel Children of the Black

Children of the Black by W.J. Long III begins at the end of an intergalactic war that's older than any living humans. A special ops team is sent on one last mission, and like a movie where a gray-haired cop says he's just three days from retirement, you know something terrible is going to happen. After it does, a time jump propels readers into the post-war lives of survivors from the team without revealing what went wrong. The far future setting is well-crafted and the author does a nice job of giving just enough information to keep readers interested while the overall story remains enigmatic. I gave this one a Yes because it was so hard to stop after 15 percent.

Cover of Nick Snape's science fiction novel Hostile Contact

Hostile Contact by Nick Snape is a science fiction thriller about an AI-powered spacecraft headed towards Earth. While the world's governments grapple with the proper response to first contact, the alien attackers breach our atmosphere and unleash staggering weapons of destruction, rendering the policy debate moot. Self-published novels sometimes start plot too slowly but this was too fast for me. The action commences on the first page without time to learn reasons to care about the soldiers neck-deep in battle, though the author demonstrates aptitude for hard-charging military science fiction. This reminded me of a Daniel Craig James Bond movie that begins with an extended chase scene where he races along a rickety roof on a motorbike. The spectacle left me with more exasperation than exhilaration because I had no idea why anything mattered. This novel's malfunctioning AI drops some clues but that wasn't enough to hook me, so I voted No.

Cover of N.R.B. Markcum's science fiction novel The Earthen Pioneer: Part 1

The Earthen Pioneer: Part One by N.R.B. Marcum is about an Earth captured by aliens where ragtag humans have escaped their control by living out of reach. Omid is a headstrong young man who relieves the boredom of farm chores by making daring raids on an alien outpost until he amasses enough kills to become alien enemy number one. Marcum's writing style has lofty ambitions and delivers real beauty in some passages while missing the mark in others. A stylistic flourish I didn't like was the frequent use of verbs other than "said" in relating dialogue. "That really wears me out when I read a novel," I sighed. Because I liked the protagonist Omid and hit the 15 percent mark during a dilemma that had me eager to continue, I voted Yes.

Cover of Travis M. Riddle's science fiction novel On Lavender Tides

On Lavender Tides by Travis M. Riddle is a coming-of-age novel about a young man whose dream is to master the summoning of real creatures called Jekua so he can train virtual versions of them to win battles in his island nation's most popular spectator sport. I don't know if he gotta catch 'em all, but the novel is broadly inspired by Pokemon. Riddle has created a colorful world full of well-chosen names for people, places and animals. By the 15 percent mark I was intrigued by where the story was going even though the primary plot had yet to be revealed. However, the SPSFC is a contest for science fiction and I found little of that in a book full of spellcasting, manna powers and enough fantasy creatures to fill a Pokedex, er, Jektionary. For this reason my vote is a No.

Cover of Andrew McGlinchey's science fiction novel Cloudthinker

Cloudthinker by Andrew McGlinchey is about a tech journalist investigating the death of the burned out child prodigy mathematician Boogie Wu at a rapacious dot-com whose AI is claiming a dominant role in everyone's lives. The novel jumps forwards and backwards in time upon each new chapter but the author kept me from losing the plot, which is not an easy feat. By the point I needed to make a decision on continuing to read I was extremely curious about where it was going no matter the time, so it got a Yes.

If you have a different opinion of these books after reading them yourself, I hope you'll speak up in the comments or elsewhere on social media or the web. Evaluating a book after 15 percent is an imperfect process. As a judge in previous SPSFCs I've had novels that got a No from me at 15 percent that I later read in full and loved.

The 25 Novels We've Received for SPSFC 3

Team has received its allocation of 25 books for the first round of the third Self Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC).

The seven judges on the team, who you'll be learning more about this week, will be reading the first 10 to 20 percent of each book to make a Yes/No recommendation on whether to read further. Some judges are planning to read all 25 in full!

The six books that get the most Yes votes will be our quarterfinalists. Each of these will be read in its entirety by all judges on the team and scored from 1 up to a perfect 10. The two highest scoring novels will advance as our semifinalists.

Here's our 25 books. If you'd like to read any of them along with the judges, click the covers to open the novel's page on Amazon.Com.

/GRACE by Creighton Hoke

Cover of Creighton Hoke's science fiction novel /GRACE

/GRACE is the world's first artificial general intelligence, evolving as she learns -- faster, deeper and wider than any mind before her. Waking to self-awareness in a near future of climate disruption, techno-pessimism and social fracture, she finds herself to be unexpected, unwelcome and even hated.

/GRACE is a meditation on what it means to be a self among others, and to care and be cared for by those you can never fully understand. In this novel about choice and its consequences, /GRACE races to understand her story and share it with others before it's too late.

/GRACE on Amazon

Children of the Black by W.J. Long III

Cover of W.J. Long III's science fiction novel Children of the Black

Humanity has survived.

On the far end of the universe, with Earth little more than a faded memory, they thrive on worlds where once they were enslaved. In the millennia since, these persistent beings have built new societies, but when the two greatest nations among them met for the first time, there was war. The all-consuming conflict bent the wills and morals of both powers beyond recognition, leading to levels of experimentation and cruelty once thought impossible. Yet, in a universe drowned in blood, an opportunity for peace is seized.

In the uncertain aftermath, a broken soldier and a lost psionic girl, both shattered by the war, work tirelessly to make ends meet. In the dusty streets of Minerva City, a shadow from their past returns to offer more than enough credits to break them out of the city's slums.

In exchange, the two must find a powerful secret once capable of bringing solace to a desperate war-torn universe, but in a time of uneasy peace, it holds a more destructive power. Uniquely qualified and entirely in over their heads, the pair put their lives on the line and embark on a harrowing adventure where they discover not only the answers to their broken pasts but a hint of the dangers lurking in the Black.

Children of the Black on Amazon

Cloudthinker by Andrew McGlinchey

Cover of Andrew McGlinchey's science fiction novel Cloudthinker

Numbers don't lie. But people do.

Seasoned tech journalist Parham Nasiri is convinced there's something sinister behind tech giant Magenta's new product, Cloudthinker. The ambitious AI service sent shockwaves through an already fragile economy, decimating the workforce and tightening Magenta's stranglehold on society.

After his employers subscribe to the service and put him out of a job, Parham becomes determined to uncover the truth. His digging leads him to Boogie Wu -- an enigmatic math genius who died in a corporate jet accident -- and he's quickly ensnared in a shadowy web of mystery and deception.

Tangled up with a corporate whistleblower, a human-like autonomous hacker, AI-powered robots and the increasingly blurry line separating humans from software, Parham fights to expose the secrets behind Cloudthinker and its elusive creators.

And when he realizes the world-shaking consequences of Magenta's real intentions, he'll be forced to make impossible choices to stop the world from tipping into crisis ...

This science fiction novel by a tech industry insider grapples with profound modern issues surrounding artificial intelligence, consciousness and humanity. Cloudthinker is a must-read for fans of high-concept techno-thrillers like those by Blake Crouch, Daniel Suarez, A.G. Riddle, Max Barry and Neal Stephenson.

Cloudthinker on Amazon

Cydonia Rising by Dave Walsh

Cover of Dave Walsh's science fiction novel Cydonia Rising

The Emperor of the galaxy has fallen, slain at the hands of his own son.

Forced into exile, Katrijn was tasked with a mission sent to her by her father from beyond the grave: Free the people of the Andlios Republic. Her biggest hurdle? First it's the assassins sent after her by the emperor. After years alone on the fringes of the galaxy, who will be there to help her dethrone the mad emperor and reclaim the throne? Then, it's dealing with her brother ...

The Mad Emperor himself.

Katrijn must carve her own path forward, forging new alliances and swallowing her pride to take whatever help she can find along the way, no matter how ... unconventional that help seems, even from sworn enemies.

If dethroning her deranged brother isn't hard enough, she's not the only one gunning for the throne, making it a deadly race to save the people of Andlios in this action-packed space epic.

Cydonia Rising on Amazon

Drones by R.J. Haze

Cover of R.J. Haze's science fiction novel Drones

Emotional Transference has become the drug of choice.

Garrick is a Drone, going to ever-increasing extremes in order to sell the emotions. But he does it for a reason -- because some memories are just too painful to bear.

When his dealer is murdered, Garrick must search for a new way to remove his unwanted emotions, but soon finds himself embroiled in a plot that threatens to go deeper than he ever imagined. Between terrorists bent on preserving the inner space, assassins with a debt to pay and a social media giant with its claws in the government, can Garrick survive long enough to uncover the truth and let the world know?

Drones on Amazon

Fear and Fury by Jamie Jackson

Cover of Jamie Jackson's science fiction novel Fear and Fury

Meet Megaera, Meg for short. She's like Deadpool, except for funner.

For a girl with the power of fear the recruitment attempts from both sides are never-ending. A self-described not-a-hero, villain-leaning humanoid, Meg just wants to live her life, work her dead-end job and have everyone else (especially the heroes) leave her alone. But when a bigger fish who can turn superpowers back on their users enters the picture and threatens the person Meg loves the most (herself), she must turn to the last group of people she would admit she needs help from.

Forced to team up with the heroes she despises (but won't murder, because let's face it, orange is not the new black), Meg will have to face the choices from her past that she won't get therapy for. Self-centered, snarky, sarcastic and a little bit dramatic, she's going to have to save the world, even if that wasn't her intention. And try not to get shot in the process. Because that shit hurts.

Fear and Fury on Amazon

Holtondome by Ryan Southwick

Cover of Ryan Southwick's science fiction novel Holtondome

In a future Earth ravaged by storms, a farmer named Seg uncovers a dangerous web of intrigue, prophecies and ancient artifacts hidden within Holtondome that may change everything.

When Seg's truck breaks down just as a menacing storm approaches, he is unexpectedly rescued by a mysterious woman named Fi, who returns him to the safety of his dome, then declares that he will be sharing her room.

Information and literacy bans prevent Seg from learning more about the enchanting outsider, but when another storm triggers a premonition about his brother being in mortal danger, he and Fi become inextricably tangled in a cascade of events that blur the lines between reality and destiny. Seg must choose between the stable but suffocating existence he and his dome have lived for centuries, or face an ugly truth that may tip the balance in a world teetering on the brink of collapse.

Step into the captivating world of Holtondome, a thought-provoking science fiction dystopian thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.

Holtondome on Amazon

Hostile Contact by Nick Snape

Cover of Nick Snape's science fiction novel Hostile Contact

Hostile Contact, a sci-fi survival thriller with a military twist.

Finn had thought he'd seen it all, but no, he had to admit ... not quite everything. There was a big universe out there and it was about to land in his lap. Just how bad could it be?

The modern-day world panics as a small alien force flies unopposed through Earth's ineffective defences. Countries circle, the promise of alien weaponry breeding greed and fear amongst opposing governments as they struggle to bring the aliens down.

Disgraced war hero Finn is forced to lead his ragtag squad of rookies in a desperate struggle for Earth's future when the alien incursion lands slap bang in the middle of Delta Squad's training session -- killing indiscriminately and pitting his soldiers against the power of alien technology.

In this fight for survival, Delta Squad discovers the aliens are more than they seem, and that alien technology can be just as deadly in the hands of humans -- when they unearth the Weapons of Choice.

Hostile Contact on Amazon

I Am An Astronaut by Zhangqi Bai

Cover of Zhangqi Bai's science fiction novel I Am An Astronaut

A drunkard woke up in an escape pod, drifting in space. He had no idea what happened since drinking with his friends was the last thing he could remember. Who put him in the escape pod? What happened to the Martian spaceship? Why were there also three bottles of wine with him?

Hostile Contact on Amazon

In the Slip by F.D. Lee

Cover of F.D. Lee's science fiction novel In The Slip

There are three rules to corporate time travel:

Do not deviate from the assignment brief. Do not stop taking the pills. Do not, under any circumstances, hook up with someone from the past.

Unfortunately, Kong missed the memo. All hell is about to break loose ...

Kong is the leading Trans-Temporal Copyright Protection officer, charged with policing the past to protect the mega-corporations in the future. After all, without them, the human race would have perished when the world burned. The corporations provide domed cities to live in, clean water and recycled air. Farm-fresh food delivered directly to your door, shopping malls, instant credit and personalized advertising experiences.

Sure, some things might have been lost along the way, but what other option is there? The planet's dead, the seeds of its destruction planted too deeply, too far back, for even Kong to rectify. And why bother -- it's not like the folk in the past weren't warned about what was happening. They had their chance to save the world over and over again and they blew it.

Then Kong meets Joe, a mysterious tempo-terrorist who claims that the past isn't doomed and the future can be rewritten. Who seems to know more about Kong's life than Kong knows himself. Who lies and tricks and pretends to love him. Now Kong must decide whether to trust Joe and the strange connection they share, and he needs to decide quickly because, for once, time is running out ...

In the Slip on Amazon

On Lavender Tides by Travis M. Riddle

Cover of Travis M. Riddle's science fiction novel On Lavender Tides

Ever since he was a kid, all Balt Vana wanted was to be a world-renowned Jekua Summoner like his grandmother, battling other Summoners in front of audiences of thousands. But from where he stands now, living up to the Vana name feels impossible.

When his best friend Alani, an initiate at the local Church, is sent on a pilgrimage to find her path in life and the god she will follow, Balt sees the perfect opportunity to launch his career by escorting her across the archipelago and its purple seas. The islands are filled with monsters to imprint and Summoners to battle, with every victory bringing him one step closer to his dream.

It will take more than just his family name to reach the same heights as his grandmother, but Balt won't stop until he does.

On Lavender Tides on Amazon

Quantum Reaction by Marc Wayne

Cover of Marc Wayne's science fiction novel Quantum Reaction

Life-altering tech is on the horizon, and someone wants it stopped -- permanently. Can a murder witness escape paying the ultimate price?  

Near future. Angela Kapp struggles with her past. Working remotely from an isolated cabin in a dead-end customer support job, she drinks too much and spends her days avoiding the world. But while on shift using a visual-interpretation headset to assist a blind person, the cynical loner is horrified when she virtually experiences the other woman's gruesome slaying.  

Shocked the next day when she recognizes the killer closing in on a second sightless client, Angela shouts for the software engineer to run. And after learning that he and the first victim are connected by a soon-to-be-released teleportation innovation, she convinces him to go to ground in her secluded home ... only to become a target herself.  

Can her paranoia and his unexpected skills thwart a sinister plot?  

Quantum Reaction is a gripping science fiction mystery. If you like resilient heroines, unique blind heroes and high-adrenaline action interwoven with humor, then you'll love Marc Wayne's flash forward to adventure.  

Try Quantum Reaction to take a leap into tomorrow today!

Quantum Reaction on Amazon

Randolph Runner by David Dvorkin

Cover of David Dvorkin's science fiction novel Randolph Runner

Butler, warrior, moral philosopher, robot. Randolph is all that and more.

He is the prized product of Superior Domestics, a Silicon Valley firm dedicated to producing robot servants for people who grew up watching British period costume dramas on PBS. The company's motto is, "All the gracious living of Upstairs with none of the unseemly drama of Downstairs."

Randolph is the perfect butler, adept at running the household of General Henry Redgrave, who is behind the assassination of the American king, Donald II. Great events are underway, but Randolph is merely an observer, a servant of humanity.

War is raging on both hemispheres. Directed by Redgrave and using robot soldiers, America's armies are forging southwards through Mexico. Anton Moravec, European dictator and Redgrave's nemesis, is eating away at Russian territory, aided by his ally, China. Two beautiful women, natural enemies, are the objects of passion of both men. Lurking in the background are the surviving members of the Trump family, scheming to get back into power.

What a mess!

As the world descends into chaos, Randolph is drawn in, ever less the observer and ever more the participant, until at the end he is the very center of all.

Randolph Runner on Amazon

Reality Breaker by Daniella A. Gnollwood

Cover of Daiella A. Gnollwood's science fiction novel Reality Breaker

Humanity is threatened.

Without a way to conquer their enemy, Earth has resorted to a strange -- but effective -- form of weapon. These flesh-and-blood Breakers are Earth's last hope against the mysterious Xoa, an alien species bent on eliminating everyone.

But, something terrible is happening in the shadows, and the Breakers may not be able to hold their enemy in check any longer.

It's up to Sierra and Desmond to navigate the tangled threads of this mystery before it's too late. But Sierra also has to figure out herself ... And Desmond needs to figure out where he stands with Sierra.

Time is running out, and annihilation looms on the horizon.

Reality Breaker on Amazon

Riders on the Storm by Eric Summers

Cover of Eric Summers' science fiction novel Riders on the Storm

Pyk is a lazy yet stout-hearted fisherman who just wants to coast through life and hang out in a seaside town with a few close friends. But when the centuries-old, god-like tyrant who orphaned him resurfaces, Pyk gets dragged into a road trip of revenge with a dubious gang of companions: a drunken blacksmith with a literally world-shattering secret; a tiny chef armed with a couple of sharp knives and a giant squirrel; and an alluring, smart-aleck tomb raider piloting one of the rarest treasures in all of Elarin -- the skipship Storm.

He's no fighter, but Pyk is on an unavoidable heading to face off with Kaira, an indestructible superhuman with monstrous appetites and power to match. And he's got no clue how to beat her. To uncover a shred of hope, the Storm's ragtag crew must brave warlike islanders, navigate overgrown cities teeming with the undead of ages past, explore long-forgotten military bunkers and infiltrate a towering desert stronghold to resurrect ancient technologies. If they can manage all that and not kill each other in the process, they might just bring down an unbeatable foe and begin to put the world back to its natural order.

Combining post-apocalyptic adventure, action, humor, horror and a dash of romance, Riders on the Storm is a rollicking fun read for fans of old-school science fiction and fantasy.

Riders on the Storm on Amazon

Siphon: Power Comes with a Price by Jason Fox

Cover of Jason Fox's science fiction novel Siphon: Power Comes with a Price

Apollo, a human-alien hybrid with the otherworldly and unwelcomed ability to kill with a touch, is born and imprisoned in Area 51. A moment of skin-to-skin contact with Apollo instantly turns a person to ash -- and creates a massive surge of energy that temporarily ignites other superhuman powers within him. Apollo's government jailers look to study and exploit him, but he escapes as a teenager and, for a time, finds the simple joys of living as a human before his discovery and recapture.

When dark days threaten humanity's future, will Apollo play the reluctant hero?

Combining the mystery of The X-Files, the action of Independence Day and the humanity found in the Superman mythos all rolled into a riveting tale of loss, destiny and the price of power. Is our protagonist a man, monster, or hero? Perhaps he's all three?

Siphon: Power Comes with a Price on Amazon

Star Keepers by Paul Adams

Cover of Paul Adams' science fiction novel Star Keepers

In the distant future, peace is kept between worlds by the Star Keeper Corps, a fleet of elite ships that fly around the galaxy, responding to calls for help and stepping in to settle disputes and counter threats of invasion. One such ship is the Arrowhead, captained by Captain Gavin Kent and manned by crewmembers such as first officer Aghri kei KibaZhoka, pilot Nikola Yakimenko, and communications officer Long Tail.

One day, the Arrowhead answers a distress call to the water-covered planet of Hedes, famous for its two hundred and eighty-four moons and giant floating cities that drift on the water's surface. One of these cities had been attacked by what seemed to be outside invaders, but all is not as it appears.

Digus is a young maintenance worker living inside the attacked city. He loves to tinker, and has built a powerful weapon from scraps he picked up here and there. A mysterious benefactor has offered to buy the weapon and provide him with transport off the planet, as long as he will do one thing in return:

Sink the city.

Star Keepers on Amazon

The Darkness Calling by Joe Coates

Cover of Joe Coates' science fiction novel The Darkness Calling

When a contract goes out on the head of a human trafficker living in one of London's most exclusive suburbs, romantically deprived hitman Archie Nyx assumes it's just another day at the office. In a profession that usually comes with minimal moral high ground, being paid a hefty sum to expunge an excrescence like Andras Janos is as close to a good day at work as Archie gets. It's a nice thought, but when the hit goes south and the unexpected elements rear their heads, Archie must track down the mysterious client who seems to want more than just Janos dead.

Beautiful but hard-boiled Detective Inspector Valentina Galanti is back at work at the Met after an accident that tore her life apart. Her old friend and boss, Detective Superintendent Jack McNeill, assigns Val to a brutal multiple homicide by way of a welcome back. Val embraces the carnage as a pleasing escape from the grief and fury that are threatening to overwhelm her.

By chance, or so it seems, Archie and Val meet one afternoon. Lies and deceptions breed more lies and deceptions, with the assassin and copper having no idea that they are both working towards the middle of the same problem from opposite sides.

Set in a near-future London not too dissimilar to the one we know, The Darkness Calling is a soft sci-fi novel that explores whether any silver lining can be found in the midst of a son's hatred for his father, a mother's heart-crushing grief and the place where the bullets fly.

The Darkness Calling on Amazon

The Earthen Pioneer: Part 1 by N.R.B. Marcum

Cover of N.R.B. Markcum's science fiction novel The Earthen Pioneer: Part 1

What would you do, if Earth fell to invasion?

For Omid, the question never seemed to come up. He was always too busy fighting, thieving and causing mayhem to think on it; until the aliens that had taken Earth looked to take him too. Cast adrift and on the run, Omid finds himself swept far from the planet. There, in the world of aliens, he meets with an unexpected hope, and is soon the center of a mounting plan to free Earth of its captors, once and for all.

But the world of the aliens, the world of Mooi, is not so simple as it seems, and while he enters into it with the intent of helping Earth, he soon finds that few things he sees and learns are as they appear. To get back to Earth, and to find a way to help his people, he will have to navigate a world intent on sucking him into its depths and entombing him there.

Will he make it?

The Earthen Pioneer on Amazon

The Gottingen Accident by James Mordechai

Cover of James Mordecai's science fiction novel The Gottingen Accident

What if three renowned scientists, each with unique superhero powers, teamed up to defeat a villain who seeks to alter the fabric of the universe by employing non-Euclidean geometry? Imagine if Germany emerged victorious in World War I and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution never occurred. Time is not always linear and can sometimes expand or contract. Charles Darwin would have the ability to alter the evolutionary fate of all living beings, existing simultaneously with Marie Curie, who possesses X-ray vision that allows her to see through walls. The result of a catastrophic event, known as the Gottingen Accident, turned them into superhumans or perhaps monsters.

The Gottingen Accident on Amazon

The Other by Marilyn Peake

Cover of Marilyn Peake's science fiction novel The Other

Fear can blind you to the truth.

The news is ominous and terrifying. People are seeing UFOs and strange, alien-looking creatures with humanoid shapes, green skin and large black eyes. In places where this occurs, doctors report the spread of a mysterious virus that scrambles people's thoughts and causes hallucinations. Many experts believe the virus came from the aliens. The pathogen has not yet been identified; there is no cure.

Psychology professor Dr. Cora Frost has a different theory: the bizarre symptoms are nothing more than mass hysteria, not unlike the hysteria that caused people in our not too distant past to see witches flying through the sky, which justified hanging them or burning them at the stake. Intense stress within societies gives rise to scapegoats. Doing field research within the compound of a cult in Roswell, New Mexico, that reveres the exact same kinds of aliens being reported on the news, her entire worldview is shaken and upended. In a shocking series of events, her past and future collide, forever changing her life.

The Other on Amazon

The Rise of Manifesto the Great by Kerrie A. Noor

Cover of Kerrie Noor's science fiction novel The Rise of Manifesto

Manifesto the Great comes from a dynasty of leaders who treat women like breeding machines. When his father dies, he must take over as leader, but will he be able to keep control of the women?

Planet Hy Man is a planet as pure as a baby's belly button until a spaceship arrives. A spaceship full of celibate men and women; sex, like roast chicken and football being off the menu until a planet was found.

They hurl themselves into a frenzy of real meat, real air and real sex until a leader emerges to create order, civilization and a sewage system.

Manifesto the Great watches as his forefathers pollute the planet, treat women as walking wombs, and make doggie robots until it is his turn. Will he rise over the tidal wave of discontented women, or will he drown under a sea of underwire and oestrogen?

The Rise of Manifesto the Great on Amazon

The Widow's Tithe by T.R. Peers

Cover of T.R. Peers' science fiction novel The Widow's Tithe

Sasha Michaels has it all.

She's got the looks, some natural, some bought-and-paid for. She's got the fame, with over one-hundred million Omniverse® subscribers and a shot at breaking into the coveted Top 100. She's got the wealth that comes with both.

And she has the ultimate accessory, an even more famous husband. Alex Michaels is a HotDropper®, a cybernetic corporate mercenary whose missions are streamed worldwide.

But when Alex is killed on only his second mission, Sasha soon finds out that everything she thought she owned is now property of his paymasters, who invested hundreds of millions in him and intend to collect on the debt. Now she must serve as a rank-and-file trooper in the militia of the LifeWise® corporation, until she pays off or she dies. Some people call it indentured service, but the troopers know it by a different name.

They call it the Widow's Tithe.

The Widow's Tithe on Amazon

Who Built the Humans? by Phillip Carter

Cover of Phillip Carter's science fiction novel Who Built the Humans?

In the first universe, an afterlife simulated Lucy vows to bring the humans back, no matter the cost.

In the second, Professor Nori Furukawa reinvents the time machine; Bill Bines discovers the dark truth about the Swamphenge UFO crash, and Darlene plots to assassinate Lax Morales, the enigmatic founder of Virtualism and Earth's last hope.

In the third, Tin foil Tim tries to convince his readers that his erotic novel about aliens is based on a true story; shaky cyborgs start having nightmares about weird creatures called "Humans" and for some reason you have complete control over how this comedic universe ends.

And this is just three universes out of eleven. Which one will you visit first?

Who Built the Humans? on Amazon

Woe to the Victor by Nathan H. Green

Cover of Nathan H. Green's science fiction novel Woe to the Victor

It's Earth's last day and Captain Lewis Black drifts though space, watching it burn.

The pilots under his command are dead. The war with the Maaravi is lost. Air hisses into space from around the stump of his severed arm.

In the distance a Maaravi ship approaches. Whether to torture him for information, capture him as a prisoner or take him as a trophy, he'll have one last chance to hurt them.

Natasha Palmer, lead engineer on the failed Reaper missile program, knows humanity's last, desperate, plan won't work. She's got one chance to change that, but it will mean a leap of faith beyond all others.

Humanity is vanquished, but some battles bring only woe to the victor.

Woe to the Victor on Amazon

Those Left Behind: 'All of Us Go, or None of Us Go'

Cover of N.C. Scrimgeour's science fiction novel Those Left Behind, Book One of the Waystations Trilogy, which depicts a spaceship with jets firing and a sun's light forming a corona around a planet. The book was entered into the second Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC)

N.C. Scrimgeour's Those Left Behind did extremely well in the second Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC), emerging as one of the seven finalists from a field of over two hundred novels.

The book begins as a tale of humans desperate to flee their overpopulated, desiccated and dying planet New Pallas, sending a small crew of cybernetically enhanced humans called Exodans and a few humans with vital skills through an ancient and technologically enigmatic wormhole to a distant universe. Little is known about their destination, so it is a blind gamble that whatever lies at the other end can't be worse than starvation and societal collapse.

Captain Alvera Renata has emerged to lead the Exodans after a successful mutiny against her predecessor Ojara, a Machiavellian woman who regards humans as backward "sletes" unworthy of being saved. She only cares about the elite Exodans.

When the humans make the spaceflight through the wormhole, which is called a waystation, this puts them under so much strain that six crew members are dead on arrival. At this point Those Left Behind feels like a compelling first contact novel where Alvera, her crew and the powerful AI sharing her brain must find a way to fulfill her promise to the teeming billions of her homeworld, "All of us go or none of us go."

Instead, she has brought them to an enormous multi-species galaxy on the knife's edge of war after thousands of years, leaving the plight of New Pallas less a concern than a curiosity to the locals. And it doesn't help that their arrival causes all waystations to begin pulsing the same signal.

One of my favorite passages in the book is when her people's non-centrality dawns on Alvera:

Their hopes of stumbling upon a rich, empty galaxy with resources to spare and new worlds to pick from had disappeared with as little trace as a dream come morning. The new beginning they had been looking for was the middle of someone else's story. They didn't belong here.

A savage twist leaves Alvera and two other crew members as the last hope of New Pallas.

At this point the novel broadens its scope with each chapter and becomes a full-on space opera, introducing additional protagonists from this end of the worm who are destined to play important roles in the war. One welcome surprise is that we get a rootable protagonist on both sides. The Idran-Var are an enemy in the same sense of the word as Klingons, who never met a generation of Starfleet they couldn't upstage.

Two of the protagonists are aliens -- a radiation-absorbing siolean named Niole and a thick-exoskeletoned dachryn named Rivus. Niole's one of those "I vant to be left alone" characters you know will never ever get that wish -- and woe be unto those who deny it. She's the second-best protagonist behind Alvera.

Scrimgeour's a talented writer who has created a sumptuously lived-in setting, chock full o' planets and characters who have more to do than just serve plot.

With five lead characters having no involvement with each other for most of the book, it became difficult at times to avoid losing the thread of the story. Sometimes a protagonist shift left me unable to get my bearings. I had to just roll with it and hope that understanding would come.

Because the scope of Those Left Behind is enormous, it was clear by the last third that this novel was primarily setting up the rest of the series instead of rising to a big finish. That structure helped sell me on the next book but may have knocked its overall score in SPSFC. Contest judges evaluate each novel on its own merits and eligible books must be a series starter or standalone.

The Waystations Trilogy continues with Those Once Forgotten and ends with Those Who Resist. There's also a prequel to the trilogy, The Exodus Betrayal.

Related links

Announcing Our SPSFC Semifinalists

Each of the 10 teams judging the Self Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC) chooses three books from their allotments to be semifinalists.

After two months of reading, the team has selected these three books as tribute. They will be sent to the Capitol, where they will engage in ferocious battle against the 27 books chosen by other teams until only one book remains standing.

Even a young adult book can be sent into battle in the SPSFC Games.

Semifinalist 3

Dim Stars: A Novel of Outer-Space Shenanigans by Brian P. Rubin.

This space opera novel's a bit lighter in tone than most entered in the contest, but it's a witty and engaging tale about a 14-year-old girl genius who learns why people always say to never meet your heroes. Hers is Captain Dash Drake, who saved the entire galaxy but ended up helming a tramp freighter broke and bitter.

In his review, judge Joshua Scott Edwards praised the novel's humor: "Dim Stars is story with unique and imaginative worldbuilding, showcasing a range of interesting non-human characters, such as a talking octopus, people made of rocks who puke gravel, and let's not forget, Frawgs. Not frogs. Frawgs. But yes, they're frog-humanoids. One of the standout elements of the book is the humor, which while subjective, always worked for me. The author even managed to make chapter titles funny. Multiple times. Let that sink in."

Semifinalist 2

The Peacemaker's Code by Deepak Malhotra.

This science fiction novel feels like a fast-paced political thriller you find on the train, start reading and become so engrossed you completely miss your stop in Cos Cob and end up in Stamford.

The protagonist Kilmer is awakened by government agents in the middle of the night and whisked to Washington, where he is shown the top leaders in government discussing how to deal with a situation that humankind has never faced -- first contact with hostile extra-terrestrials.

Kilmer's a historian renowned for negotiating peace. Edwards offered high praise for Malhotra's storytelling: "It's a masterclass of surprising plotting and ratcheting up the tension until the whole thing feels like it's going to burst apart at the seams. The stakes just keep getting higher, and problems are always solved in brilliant but historically grounded ways. ... I really think this is a book that everyone should read, regardless of if you're a fan of science fiction. It's just that good."

Semifinalist 1

The Last Gifts of the Universe by Rory August.

This is a space exploration novel in which space feels exceptionally enormous. Lonely space archivists jump from one extinct galactic civilization to the next, looking for some kind of data that will explain why their civilization is the only one that remains.

The Home worlds archivist Scout finds an ancient message left by the long-dead Blyreena, a leader who was the last of her people.

After wondering whether it would suit his tastes, Edwards was surprised when the novel gave him all the feels: "Despite being led by the early chapters to believe this would be a well-written but fairly light adventure, this story features some particularly poignant writing, including one moment that just ... emotionally destroyed me. Seriously, no exaggeration, I was ugly-crying during one chapter. Any story that can pull that off gets an immediate recommendation from me."

Congratulations to these books and to the other four that made up our quarterfinalists. The scoring was extremely close.

Happy Semifinals! And may the odds be ever in your favor.

Announcing Our SPSFC Quarterfinalists

You might wonder about the quality of novels submitted to a self-published competition open to the public. Are they a slush pile of unpolished prose where a story that's well-written and compelling is the exception, or do enough good books get entered in the contest that it makes choosing the best of them genuinely difficult?

The team of judges in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition sampled 27 books in our allocation during the first round and had to pick the seven most worthy of being selected as quarterfinalists. It wasn't easy to choose just seven.

For this round, judges read the first part of each book -- usually 10 to 15 percent, unless we got carried away -- to decide whether to keep reading. The books that got the most Yes votes advanced.

Here are our seven quarterfinalists, in no particular order.

Dark Theory by Wick Welker, a science fiction adventure that deposits readers into a broken civilization in a galaxy on the verge of collapse.

In a village of the desperate and exploited ruled by a succession of absent feudal warlords, two humans who scavenge for scrap discover a sentient robot that is still operational. Beetro has no memories and only one goal -- to find his creator.

The close-knit scavengers Lucindi and Miree have strikingly different reactions to the find. Miree, who trusted no one until she met Lucindi, would just as soon let the robot stay turned off and be sold for parts. Lucindi sees the bot as another being to look out for, like she does a starved but resilient waif everybody calls Ribcage.

As Beetro and the humans are still navigating their new relationship, an ominous figure arrives in the village with a legion of soldiers at his command. Things take a turn.

One of our judges called Dark Theory "my favorite of all," noting the quality of the writing and how quickly they became hooked on the plot.

Another said "I liked the main characters from the start," calling the scene that follows the arrival of the soldiers riveting and the setting "full of surprises."

"Even this early in the book, I'm pretty invested in the story," a third judge stated. "The inciting incident and the questions it presented have already hooked me. I want to read more right away."

Old Bolts: An Ironshield Novel by Edward Nile, a book listed under two quite different top-selling categories on Amazon: gaslamp fantasy and steampunk science fiction.

After a civil war has ended, diesel-powered warsuits and their Kaizer engines are now outlawed, left to decay and rust because they are forbidden. But a team of mechanics cut off from the world in the frozen mountains of the north are keeping guard over a Kaizer warsuit they've named Old Bolts.

Their leader Viktor learns that a new mining settlement has been established near their hideout, putting his people and Old Bolts at risk. So he must make a decision.

A judge declared this novel "their favorite so far" as they sampled our allotment of books.

Another said, "I like the main character, Viktor, and love the idea of following the losing side in a war. The descriptions and world building all feel very immersive too. Would definitely like to read more."

Dropnauts: The Redemption Cycle Book One by J. Scott Coatsworth, a science fiction adventure in which an apocalyptic disaster on Earth a century ago has left the ten thousand humans in the Moon's Redemption colony believing they might be the last of humanity.

Something detected on the Moon has forced the colonists to choose 20 of their own to become dropnauts who will return to Earth to determine its suitability for life.

The extreme risk of the trip is made clear in the opening pages, which dive right into the countdown sequence as five teams of dropnauts are about to ride jumper ships off the lunar surface, nervously reassuring each other that everything's going to be OK. (Spoiler alert: It is not.)

Several judges praised the strong LGBT representation in the novel, which includes transgender, disabled and non-binary characters among the leads. "It gives us protagonists from a diversity of backgrounds and life experience to root for," a judge noted.

"This one has a lot of characters and we jump pretty rapidly between them, which concerned me at first," another judge wrote. "But from what I read they're all well-written, and the plot and setting are intriguing."

Another judge asked, "Can these books stop being good?"

No, sir. They can't stop. They won't stop.

Dim Stars: A Novel of Outer-Space Shenanigans by Brian P. Rubin, a young-adult space opera about a fourteen-year-old girl genius and the intergalactic space legend she hero worships.

Kenzie Washington signs up for two weeks as a cadet aboard the spaceship of the great Captain Dash Drake, who isn't what she expected him to be at all -- since you wouldn't think someone who once saved the entire galaxy could end up so broke and bitter. But that's where Drake finds himself today, helming a tramp freighter and not doing that job well at all.

This novel's subtitle promises a different feel than a lot of science fiction novels and the judges felt that promise was kept. "I really enjoyed the tone of this," said one judge. "It's light-hearted and feels sharp, as you'd expect from a ‘novel of outer-space shenanigans.'"

Another judge observed, "It's got a fun cast of characters, the plot is low-stakes but engaging, with good pacing, and the writing has been solid overall." The judge praised the quick-witted writing and "especially liked Kenzie and her overactive sense of righteousness."

A third said, "I'm a sucker for stories about spaceship crews doing odd jobs in a broken-down vessel while barely making ends meet, and this seems like one of those. The captain long past his glory days is appealing."

The Peacemaker's Code by Deepak Malhotra, a science fiction novel that shares ancestral DNA with the hard-driving political thrillers found at drugstores that are all written by somebody you don't recognize whose first name is "James Patterson And."

The novel finds Kilmer, a historian of war and diplomacy, being whisked from his home in the middle of the night to the highest levels of government in Washington. (Why don't government agents ever whisk at a reasonable hour?)

The whiskers need him to watch a meeting of top leaders faced with a situation humankind has never faced in before, so he can privately give them his advice that might be absolutely crucial.

The novel rolls out in a sequence of events that feel densely bureaucratic and grounded but exciting at the same time, doling out secrets meticulously to make the reader hungry to understand more about what is going on.

Kilmer has a bit of Sherlock Holmes to his personality, relishing the chance to be one step ahead of everyone else in what he's learned -- and eager to explain how he did it.

One of our judges said, "This is a sophisticated near-future science fiction thriller that reminds me of the movies Arrival and Contact. The book does a good job of foreshadowing twists ahead. I didn't want to stop at the cutoff."

Another judge enthused, "I need to stop myself. I'm 55 percent of the way through this book already. This surprisingly twisty plot just keeps giving. I'll definitely be reading this one to the end, even if we don't advance it."

We are advancing it and the judge did keep reading, finishing the whole thing faster than this announcement could be written.

Starhelm Epsilon by David Viergutz, a pleasingly cynical science fiction adventure that brings together three intriguing protagonists with extreme skills and dangerous secrets.

A galactically famous mech pilot named Royce Burgess has left that life behind for one in which he bounces among backwater planets doing odd jobs, trying his best to keep his identity a secret.

He flies a newly purchased A2-class Tugboat, a barely space-worthy hulk that he views as a large piece of junk outfitted to carry smaller pieces.

His co-pilot is Jarmet, a six-eyed wormlike sentient who finishes meals by eating the metal tray they came on.

Royce and Jarmet soon meet Keira, a woman who needs to get off-planet to put distance between herself and the Family, a star-spanning criminal enterprise that owns deep-space Waystations.

"I really like the characters so far, each of whom has secrets -- and I'm always a fan of a loveable rogue type of character," a judge said. "The writing is fast-paced with some fun banter between the three characters. I want to learn what all three are hiding!"

"I wasn't immediately sold on this one," another judge admitted, "but by the cutoff I was actually really enjoying it. I especially liked the Jarmet bug/worm character."

A third judge said, "This feels like a rollicking space opera and has three protagonists who each is carrying secrets, which is an appealing combination. Extra credit for the presence of space pirates. I can't get enough of those."

The Last Gifts of the Universe by Rory August, a space exploration novel about space archivists whose job is as fascinating as it is lonely. They jump from one dead galactic civilization to the next, hoping to find something to download that will explain the greatest mystery of the present -- why their own civilization is the only one still in existence.

Scout, an archivist for the Home worlds, travels a vast universe of dead planets, looking for anything in their tech or their culture that might enable her people to survive whatever killed everybody else.

She chances upon an ancient message left by Blyreena, a leader who had the tragic fate to be the last of her Stelhari people.

"I love the cover so I'm glad this one is just as enjoyable as I hoped it'd be," one judge said. "The two main characters are well-written, and I enjoyed the main character tone of voice."

"Sometimes a book grabs you instantly and the premise of this one did that for me," a judge declared. "There's also a cat."

These are the seven books we will be reading in full. Congratulations to the authors on advancing!

Each of the quarterfinalists will be given a numeric score from 1 to 10 and reviews by judges will be posted. The top three novels will advance to the semifinals to compete with 27 books from the other nine teams.

If you don't want to wait for our opinions, you can begin reading these novels now. Five of the seven are on Kindle Unlimited.

Hello Universe

This blog achieved liftoff on September 2, 2022. The purpose is to cover the self-publishing and indie scene in science fiction, with a particular focus on the Self Published Science Fiction Competition.

The SPSFC has just begun its second contest after the first was won by Iron Truth, a vast and devastating epic of lost generation ships, mech-suit warrior cyborgs and cosmic horror by the Swedish author S. A. Tholin.

I’m Rogers Cadenhead, a longtime science fiction fan and Hugo Awards voter who is running a seven-member team of judges in SPSFC 2.

In coming days you’ll meet the team and learn about the 27 books we were allocated in the first round. After sampling all of them, the team will be reading seven of those books in full to decide which three to advance to the semifinals.

I was a judge in the first SPSFC with File 770 and it was my first experience reading self-published science fiction. I was surprised at how many good books are being written in the field by authors who said, “Publishers? We don’t need no stinkin’ publishers!” Now I’m well and truly hooked.