An AI looks at 5 Science Fiction bestsellers - Authors A.I.

JD Lasica
May 9, 2024

5 titles

This is part of a series looking at A.I. analyses of bestselling novels by Marlowe from Authors A.I. Today we look at Marlowe’s critique of five Science Fiction bestsellers.

In recent weeks we’ve taken a look at how our artificial intelligence, Marlowe, sizes up the bestselling novels of 2023 (here and here) and the bestselling Fantasy novels of 2024 so far (here and here). Now let’s take a look at top-selling Science Fiction novels and what an AI can tell us about the patterns it detects in the titles that hit the top of the charts.

As authors in the space know, the genre is quite different from other genres (Romance and Fantasy, for instance) where specific subgenres pop up and trend wildly for a year or two before tailing off. In Science Fiction, the classics from the 1950s, ’60s and early 2000s still do well alongside newer titles in Space Opera, Military Sci-Fi, Alien Contact, Post-Apocalyptic, Cyberpunk, Time Travel, Hard Science Fiction and others. (I write high-tech sci-fi thrillers, a blend of Science Fiction and Thrillers.)

So let’s take a look at some bestselling titles, including one enduring classic, to see how our AI’s takeaways. To see the full AI report on each novel (at no cost), click on the module below each book jacket.

Project Hail Mary

Click here to see the Marlowe Pro analysis of this novel

1. Project Hail Mary

By Andy Weir
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Hard Science Fiction
See purchase and reading options on BingeBooks

Publisher’s book description

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission — and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company. His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery — and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species. And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he’s got to do it all alone. Or does he?

narrative beats in Project Hail Mary
Narrative beats in Project Hail Mary.

Marlowe Pro report takeaways

Project Hail Mary uses the Rags to Riches story archetype (a reminder that the story type doesn’t just apply to peasants and maidens).  Marlowe found that the rhythm of its plotline most closely resembled Kiss of Frost by Jennifer Estep, and while a Young Adult novel might seem like a strange match, our AI thought there were enough similarities in the plots’ twists and turns to warrant a comparison.

Weir is an accomplished writer, and you can see that in the spacing of the major story beats (see graphic above). Pacing is irregular, with lots of dramatic shifts and a crisis at the outset that likely plunges the protagonist into a crisis by the 13% mark. Characters are well differentiated — including the narrator. Dialogue hits a perfect sweet spot of 30% vs 70% narrative. Marlowe detected a good deal of joy in this work to contrast with an ample amount of fear and surprise. Explicit language is relatively tame, with 13 butts, 11 hells and four f-bombs.

Project Hail Mary clocks in at a hefty 162,001 words. The reading grade level comes in at 5.07 — very accessible for a sci-fi novel. The average length of a sentence is 8.49 words (fantastic) and the complexity score is 2.36 (again, superb for a general readership). There are quite a few sciency terms introduced, however: petrovascope (19 instances), astrophage (355 instances), etc. 

Subject matter book comps: Ghosts by Peter Cawdron and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.

Writing style book comp: We Are Legion by Dennis Taylor.


Click here to see the Marlowe Pro analysis of this novel

2. Foundation

By Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Spectra
Genre: Hard Science Fiction
See purchase and reading options on BingeBooks

Chat GPT-4 book description

In Foundation by Isaac Asimov, the first book of the acclaimed science fiction series, mathematician Hari Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire through his science of psychohistory. To minimize the dark age that will follow, he establishes the Foundation, a colony of scientists and scholars tasked with preserving knowledge to guide humanity’s future rebirth. The story revolves around the Foundation’s rise amid political, religious, and commercial challenges over centuries, as its leaders contend with warlords, religious zealots, and economic pressures. The core question is whether the Foundation can withstand these obstacles and fulfill Seldon’s vision to ensure a faster restoration of civilization. The stakes involve the preservation of knowledge and the fate of humanity, with the barriers including unpredictable human behavior, external threats, and the monumental challenge of influencing history.

narrative arc
The narrative arc of Foundation vs the classic Quest story archetype.

Marlowe Pro report takeaways

What lessons can we take away from one of the greatest Science Fiction classics of all time? (I remember devouring the book during high school.) First, the story follows one of the most classic story archetypes of all time: The Quest (see above). Marlowe says its plot twists resemble most closely those of another all-time bestselling author, James Patterson’s 1st to Die.

Narrative beats in Foundation are a thing of beauty, with conflict beats coming in at the 11%, 32%, 52%, 73% and 95% mark and positive beats coming in at the 22%, 41%, 63% and 81% mark. Pacing is wild, with a flurry of frenetic action at the outset and a crescendo at the 67% mark before a rapid slide downward at the climax. Gaal Dornick and Hari Seldon, brilliant mathematicians on the water planet of Synnax, are two of the book’s central characters, and Asimov capably imbues them with distinctive characteristics: Where Seldon is industrious and confident, Gaal is perceptive, responsive and physical.

The characters in Foundation like to talk! Asimov gives us a book with 60% dialogue (well above the average of 25%) and 40% narrative. Joy, trust and fear are the main emotional ingredients. The classic work contains nary a curse word: 6 damned and 3 hells. Cliches are almost nonexistent — in fact, I’ve never seen a Marlowe report with so few cliches (arguably, none). “Of the foundation” is the most repeated phrase in the book, occurring 19 times.

The book has a reading grade level of 7.12 and a complexity score of 2.63, within the normal range. The 70,484-word book has an average sentence length of 11.14 words, a bit above average. The most frequently used adjective? “Nuclear.”

Subject matter book comps: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

Writing style book comp: 1984 by George Orwell.


Click here to see the Marlowe Pro analysis of this novel

3. All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries

By Martha Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: Hard Science Fiction
See purchase and reading options on BingeBooks

ChatGPT-4 book description

In All Systems Red, Martha Wells introduces us to an unnamed security robot, known as “Murderbot,” who has hacked its governor module to gain autonomy. Despite its dark designation, Murderbot is more interested in consuming media than killing. The story is set in a futuristic world where Murderbot must protect a team of scientists conducting research on a distant planet. The central question revolves around whether Murderbot can overcome its own apathy and protect its clients when their lives are threatened by a mysterious danger. As it grapples with conflicting emotions about humans, it faces not only the external threat but also its own distrust of the humans it’s meant to protect. The stakes are high as the team navigates unknown dangers, and Murderbot confronts its programming and self-identity while learning to operate beyond its intended role.

Marlowe Pro report takeaways

Wells’ novella is the first in a series so we need to keep that in mind as we evaluate the 32,793-word work. All Systems Red faithfully employs the classic Man in the Hole narrative arc. Given that it’s a shorter work, the major story beats — what you might think of as set pieces — are fewer: three positive and three conflict beats. Pacing looks just about perfect, with smoothly rising and falling highs and lows.

Characters seem well developed, though we might want to see more differentiation between Arada and Mensah with respect to certain traits. Dialogue is at 20% — the low end of the sweet spot — vs. 80% narrative. The color wheel for primary emotions shows a preponderance of joy, fear (always a good mix in a sci-fi novel), trust, sadness, disgust and surprise. Explicit language is on the light side, with only two f-bombs. There are a handful of go-to catchphrases used by the author that may warrant a look, but nothing major.

All Systems Red has a reading grade level of 7.37, about average for American readers, and its complexity score is 2.76, a bit higher than the norm. The average sentence length is 13.63 words, well above the average for a bestseller. The author uses the passive voice a bit too much, according to Marlowe.

Subject matter book comp: Neuromancer by William Gibson.

Writing style book comp: The Beach by Alex Garland.


Click here to see the Marlowe Pro analysis of this novel

4. Starter Villain

By John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Superhero Science Fiction
See purchase and reading options on BingeBooks

ChatGPT-4 book description

Starter Villain by John Scalzi is a comedic science fiction story that follows Charlie Fitzer, a down-on-his-luck substitute teacher who unexpectedly inherits his estranged uncle’s supervillain empire. This empire is anything but ordinary, featuring trained dolphins, unionized talking cats, and high-stakes corporate intrigue. Charlie soon finds himself thrust into a cutthroat world of global villains, forced to navigate a complex web of conspiracies and power struggles. As he learns the ropes of his new inheritance, he discovers that he’s up against formidable enemies vying to control his uncle’s legacy. At stake is his own survival and the future of his newfound empire, while the barriers involve ruthless adversaries, betrayal, and learning how to wield power in a world full of unexpected twists.

Marlowe Pro report takeaways

You don’t see many comic Science Fiction novels, but the Scalzi touch means that anything the author writes has a good chance of becoming a bestseller, and so it is with Starter Villain, a novel that breaks many of the rules of the genre, starting with a narrative arc that doesn’t resemble any classic storyline. Interestingly, Marlowe found that its plot twists resemble that of a modern take on a classic fable, Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

Scalzi has an assured hand at story beats, and so we see a solid formulation of story beats at every 10% or so. The story appears to begin with a languid pace and a series of climaxes and resolutions with the low point occurring at the 58% mark before the story takes off again. Two of the main characters, Dobrev and Gratas, appear to be unusually happy (I haven’t read the novel, but that’s what you may want in a comedic telling). Dialogue is unusually prolific, one of the highest I’ve seen: 60% dialogue vs. 40% narrative. Not surprisingly, joy and trust are the predominant emotions detected.

There is quite a bit of foul language in the book: 60 f-bombs, 39 shits, etc. Starter Villain has a reading grade level of 5.67 — a gauge of comprehension level, not suitability. The complexity score is 2.63, near the norm of 2.5, and the average sentence length is 10.2 words in this 80,977-word story. Only a handful of unknown spellings, like “toxoplasmosis.”

Subject matter book comp: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.

Writing style book comp: Wild Fire by Nelson DeMille.


Click here to see the Marlowe Pro analysis of this novel

5. The Primal Hunter

By Zogarth
Publisher: Aethon Books
Genre: Cyberpunk Science Fiction
See purchase and reading options on BingeBooks

ChatGPT-4 book description

The Primal Hunter by Zogarth is a thrilling progression sci-fi fantasy that follows Jake Thayne, an ordinary office worker who suddenly finds himself thrust into a new, brutal reality. He must survive a cosmic “tutorial,” where the rules of the world have shifted into a game-like system full of mythical creatures, dangerous beasts, and other humans willing to kill for power. Guided by the mysterious System, Jake quickly discovers his newfound abilities as an archer and becomes determined to master them to survive and thrive. The story revolves around Jake’s transformation from a regular corporate employee into a ruthless hunter who must overcome deadly beasts and rival humans to prove himself worthy of ascension. At stake is not only his survival but also his potential to unlock his ultimate, primal strength amid a hostile world full of enemies and challenges.

Marlowe Pro report takeaways

The Primal Hunter uses a classic Rags to Riches narrative arc. For plot twists and turns, Marlowe finds similar patterns in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone … which is high praise. Major narrative beats are sparse in The Primal Hunter, Marlowe says, with only one major conflict beat and one positive beat in the first two-thirds of the book as the author sets up the conflict in the final third. 

Pacing is somewhat subjective, and to my eye Zogarth delivers one of the most well paced stories in our grouping, with lots of high peaks and deep valleys. Dialogue clocks in at only 10%, with a whopping 90% of the story devoted to narrative. Trust, joy, fear, anger and surprise are the primary emotions found. Explicit language is in abundant supply, with 76 f-bombs and a fair sprinkling of shits, hells and damns.

The Primal Hunter has a relatively high reading grade level of 8.04. Sometimes that’s due to the complexity score, which is a higher-than-usual 2.74, and sentence length. The story comes in at a plump 207,805 words with an average sentence length of 13.42 words — the highest in this grouping. The passive voice is much in evidence, with 4,147 uses of “was,” for example.

Subject matter book comp: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Writing style book comp: The Shack by William Young.

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