The emergence of self-published books has transformed the publishing industry, lending a voice to many aspiring authors. As one such work, Writing in the Sand by a new young author, David Munday, is an excellent example of the strengths and weaknesses of self-publishing.
In Ecclesiastes 1:9 of Hebrew scripture, the king of Jerusalem muses, “that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” If that was true more than two millennia ago, it’s certainly far more true today. It’s hard to tell an original story when we’re inundated with more media than ever before, from all across our world and its history. Writing in the Sand does struggle to find an original plot, but succeeds to a degree by combining tropes from various speculative fiction genres. It’s a story of sci-fi survival, horror, mystery, and political conflict, weaving back and forth between our three protagonists.
On an alien world, Harper Mulgrew leads a not-so-intrepid group of crash survivors, illegal interstellar colonists from the former UK. Despite her inexperience, she quickly establishes herself as the group’s leader, and struggles to keep the would-be colonists together. Even as she fights against prejudices and suspicions within the group, she can’t shake the feeling that something about their mission of colonisation just isn’t right. Former military commander Donald ‘Don’ Stafford is working to thwart the Brits’ colonisation of nearby Proxima B, but finds that the notoriety from his days at war has earned him bitter enemies who’d like to see him dead. His experience and good intentions are no match for a web of machinations and long-held grudges that are coming to a head. Finally, on Earth, reporter and everyman Washington ‘Wash’ Parker finds himself torn between fear and a need for the truth as he digs into secrets the British government would prefer remain hidden. All three of them struggle to fill the heroic roles they’ve been thrust into by circumstance, but betrayals and secrets threaten to thwart them at every turn, until by the end of the book nothing is as it first appeared.
As the first book in a series, Writing in the Sand has a fair amount of world-building to do, and does so competently enough. Long-time consumers of science fiction will have little trouble recognising the unevenly-advanced technologies, frustrating bureaucracies, and moral regressions of a theoretical society several decades down the line. Munday’s future Earth feels somewhat too close for comfort to the present day and all of its racism, sexism, and homophobia, and serves as a stage for social and political commentary on our world. Munday clearly has something to say about us — and perhaps the UK in particular. There are a couple of alien planets, and occasional monsters (fewer than you’d expect), but at its core this is a story of humanity and humanity’s faults.
Fans of the most enduring and influential sci-fi franchise to date, Star Trek, will recognise it amongst Munday’s influences. Harper, among other characters, shares a name with a prominent cast member of Trek. The book is scattered with low-key references to science fiction like these, some more blatant than others; it can be fun to keep a lookout for these references, but eventually becomes a little too immersion-breaking. Some plot lines are predictable and recognisable from other science fiction stories, while others are just tweaked enough to be unique and interesting.
As the initial offering of a new writer, the book is passable. For all its twisting and turning plots, the text has suffered for not going through the full publishing process. Munday’s prose is somewhat clunky and confusing, and the text is littered with typos and grammatical errors that would have been caught by a professional editor. It’s by no means a work of teenage fan fiction, but it’s a bit less polished than you’d expect from a traditionally-published work. Munday’s characters, while likeable, are also a bit samey, and struggle to come to life on the page despite an over-reliance on dialogue. The story takes itself quite seriously, with little room for humour. Munday doesn’t shy away from clichés or one-dimensional characters, either. In the end, the world of the Atlas Nations teeters just on the razor’s edge of being believable; and for some readers, that will be a deal-breaker.
In the end, Munday doesn’t presume to be an R.A. Salvatore, but is certainly competent enough. The story is interesting enough to draw a reader through to the conclusion, and £2.99 for the Kindle version is certainly a reasonable price for 200+ pages of decent sci-fi. Don’t go into Writing in the Sand expecting the next New York Times bestseller, but as a diversion from today’s doldrums of quarantine and social distancing, it’s worth picking up. If the series is picked up by a publishing house and given a proper editing pass — along with a few years for Munday to develop as a writer — it could be something special.