Monday, November 21, 2011

Review - L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII by K.D. Wentworth (editor)

Stories included:
The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts by Jeffrey Lyman
Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee by Patrick O'Sullivan
The Truth, from a Lie of Convenience by Brennan Harvey
In Apprehension, How Like a God by R.P.L. Johnson
An Acolyte of Black Spires by Ryan Harvey
The Dualist by Van Aaron Hughes
Bonehouse by Keffy R.M. Kehrli
This Peaceful State of War by Patty Jansen
Sailing the Sky Sea by Geir Lanesskog
Unfamiliar Territory by Ben Mann
Medic! by Adam Perin
Vector Victoria by D.A. D'Amico
The Sundial by John Arkwright

Articles included:
How to View Art by L. Ron Hubbard
Making It by Mike Resnick
Creating Your Own Destiny by Robert Castillo

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: Short story collections are prevalent in speculative fiction - much more so it seems than any other publishing genres. As a result, someone who reads and reviews science fiction is often going to find himself reviewing one of these collections, which can be problematic. Many collections have a defined theme, or are the collections of the works of a particular author, or a particular time period, and so you can try to look for some sort of unifying theme to them. But the Writers of the Future theme is simply this: writers of speculative fiction who entered the Writers of the Future competition and have not previously been professionally published. As a result, this particular collection is more or less a grab bag of whatever fiction happened to be the best in the submission pile that quarter.

That said, there are a few commonalities to the stories, which is only natural given that they were all evaluated by the same panel of judges. A couple of stories which seem to evoke an older era of science fiction are the hard science fiction stories The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts by Jeffrey Lyman and Sailing the Sky Sea by Geir Lanesskog, both of which evoke the kind of engineering fiction of the early works of Asimov, Heinlein, and Niven. The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts envisions a future in which desperate or nihilistic individuals set out into the Kuiper Belt in tiny ships to hunt for miniature black holes in voyages that last for years, and for those who don't find their elusive quarry, are one-way. Against this backdrop Lyman builds a cozy love story between two people who had both given up hope of having a human connection again. The story is not bad, but a bit formulaic and the romance feels a bit forced. In Sailing the Sea Sky the protagonist finds himself having to figure out a way to rescue himself from falling into the heart of Uranus after the floating platform he had been working on was destroyed by a surprise attack. He picks up some unexpected help along the way, and as each problem comes up, he and the group he falls in with manage to buy themselves just a little more time even though it never seems to be quite enough to get them to safety. The story wraps up fairly well, and is one of the better crafted stories in the volume.

While the focus of the Writers of the Future contest seems to be mostly science fiction, there are a handful of fantasy stories in the volume as well. The first, Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee by Patrick O'Sullivan, is a kind of paranormal mystery with a youthful protagonist who participates in a magical contest despite some fairly obvious prejudice against her species. The contest serves as a framing device for the real story, involving a strange competitor in a cabinet, but the story is just a little too mysterious and never really seems to come together. The second fantasy story, An Acolyte of Black Spires by Ryan Harvey, seems more like a snippet of a much larger story than a story on its own. All in all, Harvey seems to try to take on too much to reasonably accomplish in the space he has to tell the story. An alien culture, an alien political structure, a strange alien racial curse, all of which are crucial to the plot. So much background has to be explained in the story that little actual action takes place, and what does happen seems to leave so many unanswered questions that the resolution is somewhat unsatisfying. The final fantasy story, The Sundial by Joan Arkwright, is a tale of love and death set against the backdrop of the U.S. Civil War built upon Egyptian mythology. The story takes a bit to get going, but it is the best of the fantasy stories in the volume.

The volume has two stories featuring humans trying to understand an alien culture, which is fairly well-trodden science fiction territory, and consequently both seem more or less formulaic. The first, The Dualist by Van Aaron Hughes, is about an envoy sent to a planet by a humanity seeking to obtain resources from an alien planet, but also charged with preventing one of the resident alien races from killing the other resident alien race. The difference between the two factions basically boils down to a theological difference that seems so slight to human eyes as to be negligible but is clearly a huge issue for the aliens. After stumbling about, the envoy solves the conflict by essentially ignoring the cultural mores of both alien races, leading to a fairly cliched resolution. The other, This Peaceful State of War by Patti Jansen, also revolves around a human envoy trying to make sense of an inexplicable conflict between two alien species. There is also a religious element in the story, but this time it comes in the form of meddling humans who think they know what is good for the aliens based upon little more than their own prejudices. The mystery of the alien conflict comes to a head in a way that won't really surprise most science fiction fans - the source of the "conflict" was fairly well telegraphed - and makes one wonder how stupid the human characters really are and as a result just didn't work form me.

In a post 9/11 world coupled with the undercurrent of anti-authoritarianism that runs through a lot of science fiction, it is almost de rigeur to include stories about plucky  hero confronting a vast government conspiracies. The Truth, from a Lie of Convenience by Brennan Harvey features a washed up reporter covering the memorial observances on the tenth anniversary of a horrific terrorist attack that sparked Lunar independence. As the story unfolds, our hero uncovers a sloppy cover up that unravels almost immediately. The story is very reminiscent of the sort of tales told by the fringe lunatics that go under the label of "9/11 Truthers", with the distinction that in the imagined reality of the story the people ranting about a shadowy conspiracy are actually right. The story proceeds in a fairly linear fashion to a mostly predictable conclusion. The other conspiracy story is Vector Victoria by D.A. D'Amico, a tale set in a dystopian cyperpunkish future in which the heroes are covertly spreading a counter-virus to counteract the evil viruses the government is spreading among the populace. They run across a government agent, and through the rest of the story the confused viewpoint character (and the reader) learns that what they thought was true may not actually be the real story. The story ends on an ambiguous note and is thoughtful and thought-provoking.

In addition to Vector, Victoria, the collection has a few other explicitly cyberpunk style stories, including Bonehouse by Keffy R.M. Kehrli, a cyberpunk story about what happens to the bodies of those who jack into cyberspace permanently. The story delves in to how those who are left behind react to their loved ones being sucked into a world that they don't approve of or even necessarily understand. The protagonist is ostensibly acting on the right side of the law and on behalf of concerned loving families, but as events unfold it becomes clear that the law, and the protagonists profession, may be out of step with where they should be. But only maybe, because Kehrli doesn't make either side of the issue clearly correct, which is one of the marks of a strong story. The other cyberpunk style story in the volume is In Apprehension, How Like a God by R.P.L. Johnson, featuring a murder mystery at an institution run by a group of monastic academics who maintain the information net that underpins civilization. The story is filled with interesting ideas - the biggest of which is that the information net is actually an outgrowth of the Higgs field, and consequently anything that exists in reality is incorporated directly into the next as long as someone takes the time to do it. Against this background the murder investigation is fairly mundane, and given the identity of the killer seems a bit too easy to unravel. On the other hand, once the murderer is uncovered, it becomes clear that there is no reason for the murderer to fear exposure, and one doubts the security of humanity's future. It is an unsettling tale, even if it is executed somewhat blandly.

Unfamiliar Territory by Ben Mann is a space based mystery involving a protagonist working for a space salvage company tasked with guarding the engineers who actually do the salvage work. Our hero is teamed, to her dismay, with a rookie engineer. Despite the fact that this element is harped upon a fair amount in the story, it turns out to have almost no impact on the actual plot. Ships start mysteriously turning up derelict, and our hero is sent to investigate. The story meanders along until there is a dramatic but poorly explained turn of events and the story ends. The story seems promising, but it appears the author tried to pack a story that should have been larger into a short story format, and it just doesn't work very well. Finally, Medic! by Adam Perin is a fairly standard tale of military science fiction featuring a medic pressed into service in a war against an alien race. It turns out that the protagonist was given a choice to enlist or go to prison had been given a quota of lives he had to save before he could go home. In the story he is coming to the close of his term of service and desperate attempts are being made by the military hierarchy to get him to reenlist, but all he wants to do is go home to the love of his life. The "twist" ending at the end is horribly predictable, and on the whole, the story is nothing particularly memorable.

The handful of essays in the volume are fairly bland. The reprint of How to View Art, an essay written by L. Ron Hubbard, is mostly noteworthy for the worshipful and unintentionally hilarious introduction that claims that at one point Hubbard's name was "virtually synonymous" with American popular fiction. The essay itself is pretty bland, but I suppose it might be of use to someone who had never thought about art before. Making It by Mike Resnick is about the process of getting your writing into print, and Creating Your Own Destiny by Robert Castillo is about taking control of your creative life. Both are serviceable, but neither was particularly noteworthy.

Many short story collections are decidedly uneven in quality. Coupled with the fact that this volume is comprised of authors unified only by the fact that this is their first professional sale, this is very much true with respect to this collection. While none of the stories are great, a number, including Bonehouse and Sailing the Sky Sea, are quite good, and the rest are decent despite some niggling problems. The only really subpar elements of the volume are the essays, which are mostly bland and uninteresting. One has to wonder if the other uninspiring essays contributed by contemporary writers were chosen for their blandness so as not to expose the utter banality of Hubbard's included essay. Given the limited number of venues for finding debut speculative fiction these days, for anyone interested in seeing new writers it is always worth picking up the annual volume of Writers of the Future, and this year's edition is no exception.

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

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