Honestly, why aren't sci-fi writers treated like rock stars? Reading Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead was like getting inside the brain of an alchemist. When sci-fi's broken, it's broken deeply, and intolerably. You can barely get past a page because the intricate clockwork just doesn't grind together, the whole machine quickly falls apart. In novel's like Skillingstead's, you eagerly jump to the next page. Each piece of the dance is executed with precision, perfectly timed.
Consider this: your classic sci-fi high concept. For mysterious reasons, all of Seattle is placed into a world where the same day repeats, over and over. Our hero, however, is waking up - some days he can remember that he's already been through this, some days he can't. Outside the city, elsewhere on Earth, it's Armageddon, as small bands of humans fight for survival against enemy invaders. A few seek refuge in Seattle.
High concept. Explain it too densely and you rob the reader of mystery, and drag the narrative down. Explain it too quickly and the reader gets frustrated, and feels as though they're not smart enough to read the book. When you finish Life on the Preservation you can take a moment to ponder on the complexity within the world, but as you're reading it, it never feels dense.
Second, narrative. Our hero inside the repetitive world is a young man lost, he's down on his luck, depressed, and seriously considering suicide. On the outside, our heroine has been forced to face all manner of abuse and tough trials in order to survive. These two are destined to meet each other, of course. They're a doomed romance, but an optimistic one.
Narrative. It's your bread and butter as a writer, and not to be ignored. The best ones are usually more clichè than you would've thought. In genres like sci-fi, you let the characters actions speak for themselves. How they deal with the world will tell us all we need to know. Here, Skillingstead is a craftsmen. You're on the hero's side, and you take an emotional journey that's very real. Hard to do in an alien infested high concept world. Nevertheless, Skillingstead succeeds.
Balancing narrative and high concept is tricky enough. Never mind the fact that Skillingstead jumps in with dual protagonists in two different worlds, or manages to keep raising the stakes in a world where everything is on repeat.
It's a tricky business, imagining alien worlds.