Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review - L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 30 by Dave Wolverton (editor)


Stories included:
Another Range of Mountains by Megan E. O'Keefe
Shifter by Paul Eckheart
Beneath the Surface of Two Kills by Shauna O'Meara
Beyond All Weapons by L. Ron Hubbard
Animal by Terry Madden
Rainbows for Other Days by C. Stuart Hardwick
Giants at the End of the World by Leena Likitalo
Carousel by Orson Scott Card
The Clouds in Her Eyes by Liz Colter
What Moves the Sun and Other Stars by K.C. Norton
Long Jump by Oleg Kazantsev
These Walls of Despair by Anaea Lay
Synaptic Soup by Val Lakey Lindahn
Robots Don't Cry by Mike Resnick
The Shaadi Exile by Amanda Forrest
The Pushbike Legion by Timothy Jordan
Memories Bleed Beneath the Mask by Randy Henderson

Essays included:
Artistic Presentation by L. Ron Hubbard
. . . And Now Thirty by Robert Silverberg
A Word on Art Direction by Stephen Hickman

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The thirtieth installment in the annual Writers of the Future competition, this volume is what all of the previous volumes have been: A collection of stories by mostly previously unpublished authors that were submitted to and placed in the writers of the future competition originally created and funded by L. Ron Hubbard. Bolstered by a few stories by veteran authors, and dragged down by the inclusion of some of Hubbard's own writing, this volume delivers a collection of work by fresh faces that is mostly good, and sometimes great.

The first entry in the volume is Another Range of Mountains by Megan E. O'Keefe, a tale that features a protagonist with a fairly interesting magical ability, but is somewhat thin when it comes to delivering an actual story. Lacra possesses the gift of being able to see and paint images reflected from long ago that are found in mirrors, panes of glass, pools of water, and other reflective surfaces. She is also on the run from a vengeful king who she had once been involved with and is trying to keep a low profile. But, at the behest of the local ruler, Lacra begrudgingly uses her abilities to try to track down his kidnapped girl. Things go well until the plot turns and Lacra discovers too late that the kidnappers weren't after the girl at all. Then Lacra uses the other power that mirror painters have: The ability to change the memories people have of the past by painting a different reflection. In an act of self-sacrifice, Lacra uses this ability to rewrite the memories of her estranged lover and the story ends. The idea that memories can be erased in this manner is somewhat unsettling, but the implications of the existence of this sort of power is not remarked upon, which seems to me like a missed opportunity. The fictional setting seems like it would be best served by a longer piece of fiction that explored these questions.

As one might expect from the title Shifter by Paul Eckheart is about a shapeshifter. In a twist, Eckheart's protagonist isn't a lycanthrope or any other kind of "traditional" shapeshifter, but rather someone who can assume both the appearance and personality as they choose to - but only so long as they can write the assumed form's attributes down. With the central character starting the story as Fat Reggie, and ending it as Officer Tricia Palmer, the story implicitly asks the question of who such a person could truly be said to be: Is he the down at the heel and somewhat dopey fat kid? Is he the macho and deadly killer? Is she the honest police officer? When your very identity can change based upon who you want to be, is there any identity that is truly you? The story wraps up with something of an answer to these questions, but the answer is still somewhat unsatisfying, although that is probably for the best.

Beneath the Surface of Two Kills by Shauna O'Meara is kind of a disappointing story that seems to be trying for deep meaning and falling completely short. The protagonist has been sent out into the wild on a hunt as part of a strange justice system in which his success at tracking down and killing the correct prey will determine the outcome of a court proceeding. The entire story is told via the internal monologue of the main character, including a number of flashbacks as he remembers what brought him to his current quest. The trouble is that this is such a limp way to try to build emotion that to the extent that the somewhat unclear back story is understandable, the reader just doesn't care. The end result was that I simply didn't care if the protagonist succeeded or failed, and his intended to be momentous decision at the end didn't really seem to matter.

Human overpopulation and the resulting species extinction takes center stage in Animal by Terry Madden. Mackenzie is a scientist at the last animal preserve in the world, attempting to breed the last known gorillas to preserve the species. She is informed that even the modest amount of land and money consumed by the preserve has been deemed too expensive, and it will be shut down. At the same time, Mackenzie detects and anomaly in the fetus being carried by one of her gorillas, which results in a rather startling revelation from her assistant Sierra. The story is, on the whole, dark and somewhat depressing, as terrible things are done in the most reasonable manner possible by people who think they are acting in the best interests of their fellow humans. The story serves to cast a harsh light upon the selfishness of humanity as a whole, but in the end it holds out hope that some people can transcend this racial failing.

In some ways Rainbows for Other Days by C. Stuart Hardwick shares the same thematic territory as Animal, but differs in that it attempts to show the hard process of recovery following a collection of poor decisions. Cara is a city-dweller, having spent her whole life living inside a massive self-contained concrete refuge that both keeps the human population safe from a wrecked and hostile outside world, and keeps the humans away from the environment they destroyed with their rapacity. She escapes from the city and is found by a ranger she calls Frey, a half-man, half-machine charged with serving as caretaker for his section of the wilderness. The story reveals the extreme damage done to the natural world, but also the extreme measures that have been taken to try to restore it, including the devastating human cost - including the cost to Frey himself. The story is both sad and depressing and ultimately hopeful at the same time, and despite the two characters mostly serving as mouthpieces for opposing viewpoints, the two sides of the argument are well-thought out, so neither feels like a caricature.

Another story with a vaguely environmentalist theme is Giants at the End of the World by Leena Likitalo, which is framed as a journey taken through the desert by a wealthy heiress while accompanying a trade caravan as it heads to the sea. The giants in the story are an unexplained presence, massive beings who emerge from the wilderness to take a pilgrimage to the ocean. The story has a melancholy tone, as the gentle and awe-inspiring giants have seen their territory progressively shrunk by the encroachment of civilization, and the route the caravan is taking is slated to be replaced with a railroad in the near future. It is clear that the reader is intended to take the advance of the railroad as an end of the giants' way of life, but this also stands in as a metaphor for the end of the caravanners' and those who accompany them to the end of the route looking for a better life away from the civilized world they left behind. The story is, ultimately, a paean to the lost frontier, and the lost wilderness that it represents.

Following in the environmentalist theme of this installment, The Clouds in Her Eyes by Liz Colter is a piece of fantasy fiction that posits a world that has become progressively more and more parched as its denizens try to eke out an existence by farming the "shockers" who live in the dry soil. Amba, the main character, lives with her father and tries to replace her deceased brother's contributions on their farm as they struggle to achieve a subsistence level existence. Through the story Amba sees a ship in the distance, sailing across the prairie towards her farm, but when she asks him, her father says he cannot see it. Eventually the spectral ship gets close enough that she can speak to is ghost crew, and then she unlocks her inner power, destroying the way of life she has known, but restoring the land at the same time. The story is far less effective than the other environmental-based stories in the book as the solution in the end effectively amounts to Amba deciding it should be so. As a coming of age story for a girl discovering her hidden power to bestow life, it is not bad, but it doesn't rise to more than that.

K.C. Norton borrows a bit from Dante for What Moves the Sun and Other Stars, the tale of an artificial intelligence rescued from a supposedly inescapable cometary prison at the behest of the mysterious Beatrice. The story's tone reminded me somewhat or Fritz Lieber's Ship of Shadows, with everything shrouded in an almost dreamlike quality that sometimes seems ethereal, and sometimes seem terrifying. The viewpoint character - an ancient robot with the name VRG11 - encounters a would-be savior who goes by the name Pilgrim. They pick up two more companions in their quest to escape, and three implacable pursuers that the companions must overcome to reach their destination. By the end, it becomes clear that VRG11 isn't the hero of the story - Pilgrim is, and VRG11 is merely the sidekick, which is an interesting twist that isn't apparent until very close to the end.

Despite the fact that What Moves the Sun and Other Stars involves breaking out of a metaphocrical hell, the terror it portrays almost pales in comparison with that found in Long Jump by Oleg Kazantsev. The darkest and most horrifying story in the entire volume, Long Jump follows Ulysses, who starts the story a mostly broken man who has turned to alcohol after his wife left him and took their son with her and ends it having gone almost completely insane following an obsession with a simulated model of a deceased friend's ex-girlfriend. In between, Ulysses participates in an experimental space travel program, eventually becoming a test pilot on a flight that will take years and from which there are only a handful of viable exit points. To keep him from losing his mind from loneliness on his journey, he is provided a virtual reality to spend time in and interact with simulated humans. While there, he finds a simulated version of Nancy, the ex-girlfriend of Ulysses' friend and fellow test pilot Milo. Ulysses strikes up a passionate relationship with Nancy that goes terribly awry when she becomes aware of what she is. Meanwhile, Ulysses' ship misses its exit points, presumably trapping him in his relativistic journey forever. Ulysses ends the story alienated from his virtual reality and trapped in a tiny ship with no possible escape, although still hoping against hope.

As one might expect from its title, These Walls of Despair by Anaea Lay is another story that is dark and frightening. The main character is Georg, who works as an apprentice "sentimancer", capable of mixing various concoctions that can induce particular emotions in his clients. He opens the story working a prison shift in which he is required to counsel a defendant accused of trying to wake one of the "Moras", a pair of sleeping beings that, if roused, will destroy the world. Georg is rebuffed by his court-appointed client, and sets out to find more information about her. His investigation uncovers both the terrible secret that led her to take her destructive action, and the reasons for both despair and hope. In the end, the story is about whether one should accept a comfortable lie or face the painful truth, and it seems to come down squarely on the "comfortable lie" end of the scale, which seems like something of a disappointment after a series of plot developments that seemed to be heading in the opposite direction.

The Shaadi Exile by Amanda Forrest imagines a world in which travel between distant star systems is possible, but takes time. The story also imagines a vast culture that involves arranged marriages between men and women who hail from different worlds, and the complicated dance of time management that this entails, as well as the sacrifices that are required of the shaadi brides who must leave behind everything they know to marry men they barely know light-years away from home. But religious fanaticism is mixed into the culture portrayed - a fanaticism that doesn't really do much to inconvenience those who demand others follow it, but weighs cruelly upon a young bride. The central character was once a shaadi bride herself, and once the mystery at the core of the story is unraveled, she stands against the fanaticism that threatens the innocent, albeit in a very small and mostly unobtrusive manner.

The Pushbike Legion by Timothy Jordan is a quirky story about Aleck, a young boy serving in his villages "legion" of bicyclists who patrol the borders around their town that has been isolated by a mysterious and deadly desert. The story kind of meanders along as Aleck deals with the responsibilities of being a legionnaire and the pressures of being a nascent adult who will be expected to take a job, keep a house, and marry. Everyone is focused on the desert that has been an omnipresent feature of Aleck's life, but which some of the older adults remember arriving to surround their village years before. Eventually Aleck is able to get the town's oddball, a man named Charlie Potato, to open up to him and discovers the secret of the outside world, and a tiny sliver of hope to lean upon. There's not a lot of substance to the story, and it seems like it should have been the opening chapter to a novel, but it is well-written and has just enough plot and character development to be interesting.

Class stratification and cultural stagnation are the foundation of Memories Bleed Beneath the Mask by Randy Henderson, a story that posits a future in which those with means can bequeath their memories to their descendants, ensuring that they will have the advantage of multiple lifetimes worth of experience and learning. This seems to have had the effect of creating what is essentially a permanent underclass called "plebs" who are unable to compete in the marketplace and are condemned to a permanent state of poverty. This process of handing down memories from generation to generation is also implied to have created a fair amount of stagnation, as old attitudes and prejudices are perpetuated. Trystan is the somewhat estranged grandson of Jurist Bryant, a powerful jurist, whose father had married a pleb against Bryant's wishes. But Bryant is dying and when choosing who to give his memories to he unexpectedly passes over Trystan's wealthier relatives and gives them directly to his grandson. With access to his late grandfather's memories, Trystan quickly figures out why Bryant did what he did, revealing a rather long-range and ambitious plan with a fairly lofty goal. The background and world-building is better than the actual story, but it is so good that the rather thin nature of the story is more than overcome.

In recent years the Writers of the Future editors have taken to leavening the annual installments with a few stories by established authors. The first of this year's entries of this type is Carousel by long time judge and contest advocate Orson Scott Card. In the story people who die immediately come back to life, for a certain value of "come back to life". The risen dead don't eat, don't have any others desires, and don't seem to have any real ambitions, so they don't actually seem to be alive in any meaningful sense. The plot involves the death of a man named Cyril's wife, who then proceeds to treat Cyril horribly and coax their two children into dangerous activities that get them killed as well. Eventually Cyril finds an odd little carousel tucked into a little building and operated by a lonely dead woman who died as a baby and had her mother reject her when she returned. Cyril then meets God, who says that he made it so the dead come back because so many people asked them to in their prayers. God is depicted as kind of bumbling, unable to understand why people are now upset about their returned relatives, apparently oblivious to the fact that they have been returned in a manner that makes them entirely inhuman. Card is clearly making a point about grief and letting go of the past, but he does it in such a clumsy manner that the story simply lacks any notable impact.

The other veteran with a story in the volume is Mike Resnick, whose contribution is Robots Don't Cry, a story about a robot dug up by scavengers several hundred years after the machine's owner had died. The story is fairly predictable, with a faithful robot serving a sick girl who grows into a sick woman and then dies, all the while becoming more and more human in its thinking. Eventually the two scavengers make a decision that was almost a foregone conclusion from the start, and the story ends. Robots Don't Cry is pretty straightforward, with minimal characters, just a small bit of plot, and a fair amount of treacle that almost manages to make the story cloying, but pulls up just short enough that the story is still palatable.

It is unclear to me why the editors of Writers of the Future insist on including embarrassingly bad pieces of fiction by L. Ron Hubbard in more recent volumes of the series, but this year's terrible work by the man is Beyond All Weapons, a cliched and badly written piece of space opera. The premise of the story is that Mars is losing a war against Earth when some of its engineers come up with a way to travel at the speed of light, at which point the remnants of the Martian fleet take their families and head out of the Solar System. After decamping their women and children on a convenient planet, the manly men return to get revenge on the Terrans, and then the completely predictable twist in the story is revealed. The story is hampered by the fact that the only real character is the cigar chomping lantern jawed fleet commander who isn't even well-developed enough to call a caricature. Beyond All Weapons might have fit in as filler in the issue of Tales of Super Science it appeared in in 1950, but when lined up next to the other stories in this volume, it looks positively amateurish.

Hubbard's essay titled Artistic Presentation is almost as bad as his pulpy fiction. In it he erects a convenient strawman and then knocks it down with the fairly banal advice that when one is engaged in an artistic endeavor one should use the most effective means of accomplishing one's goal. This is the sort of non-advice that I have come to expect after reading Hubbard's bromides in previous installments of the Writers of the Future series, and is yet another indication that he was not a man who should have been taken seriously on any subject.

The other three essays in the book are . . . And Now Thirty by Robert Silverberg, Synaptic Soup by Val Lakey Lindahn, and A Word on Art Direction by Stephen Hickman. All three are relatively short, and not particularly interesting. Silverberg's essay starts by praising several works by Hubbard, pointing to them as evidence of Hubbard's enduring popularity, apparently unaware that they have been mostly forgotten by everyone at this point by everyone who is not one of Silverberg's contemporaries or a member of the Church of Scientology. He then talks about the last thirty years of the Writers of the Future contest, highlighting several notable writers who have first appeared in one or another of the annual collections. Synaptic Soup basically gives a background concerning the creation and intent of the Artists of Future contest, while A Word on Art Direction is merely Hickman explaining that he's the art director for the volume and giving a rather cursory description of his personal process.

Overall this is a good example of the Writers of the Future volumes, with a fairly interesting and diverse array of science fiction stories. The collection is enhanced by the inclusion of some fairly good artwork as well, including several full color plates towards the end of the volume. The only real weak points of this volume are the contributions from Hubbard which are both pretty lousy, and to a lesser extent Card and Resnick, who seem to have both brought their C-game to the field, as the stories by the contest winners are for the most part quite good.

Previous book in the series: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume XXIX
Subsequent book in the series: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 31

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