L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future: Volume 30 edited by Dave Wolverton
The Writers of the Future contest is held in high regard within the SFF field, largely because of the many fine writers who have had a boost to their early careers through it and the prominence of the judges (and despite its association with L. Ron Hubbard, of which more later). This volume contains some excellently-written stories and some which weren’t to my taste but were well done anyway.
I’ll go through the contents in detail. We start with pages and pages of boosterism from past winners, judges etc., which I skipped. Dave Wolverton’s introduction can probably be skipped, too, as it just says how good it is to be a judge and how great the stories are.
Each writer, including the editor and the other non-contestant contributors, is introduced with a long biography, written in the first person but clearly by the writer in most cases. Likewise, the illustrators get a similar introduction — they are competitors in the parallel Illustrators of the Future contest.
“Another Range of Mountains” by Megan E. O’Keefe is the first story, a moving tale of a woman who can scry using any reflective surface and see what it has reflected in the past. She’s on the run, and gradually we find out why. This kind of gradual reveal is a feature of several of the stories in the collection, and works well to sustain reader interest. In this case, the crumbs of revelation are doled out between character actions, which also keeps it interesting. A couple of issues, though: sometimes I couldn’t figure out who was speaking (easily fixed with more dialog tags), and the author uses “leech” when she means “leach.”
“Shifter” by Paul Eckheart surprised me with its ending. In fact, it surprised me with its everything. I was unclear on why someone who could become anyone he/she could imagine would become a poor black kid living in a housing project, though. Possibly to hide; though, if so, it wasn’t clear from who or what. This one included the word “base” when it should have been “bass.”
“Beneath the Surface of Two Kills” by Shauna O’Meara impressed me with its parallelism between two stories of hunting, one by a nature lover and one by a murderous stalker. It’s another “gradual reveal” story, but the parallelism strengthens the gradual reveal even more.
“Artistic Presention” by L. Ron Hubbard is an odd piece, preceded by an odd and laudatory biography which presents Hubbard as being known “primarily as a writer,” which isn’t, of course, the case. The oddness of the piece appears in leaps of logic, and in sentences like “The less effort a person can confront, the more effect of effort he becomes,” which may contain some sort of transcription error or could just be the kind of deliberately confusing sentence one finds in cult literature. (The piece’s origin isn’t mentioned, but I suspect Dianetics.) It’s followed by a Hubbard short story from 1950, “Beyond All Weapons.”
Now, from the viewpoint of the organisation that funds it, which owns the copyrights to Hubbard’s works, the main purpose of the Writers of the Future contest is presumably to promote the Hubbard name. I’d suggest that this might be better served by not republishing pieces like this. I haven’t read any other Hubbard, so I can’t comment on his work overall, but this piece is an average story for 1950, on the cusp of the post-pulp era, at a time when other writers like C.L. Moore and Murray Leinster were already writing much deeper, more thoughtful stuff. There’s a lot of “tell” and very little “show,” the characters lack any depth and are mainly there to explain the ideas, there’s casual sexism baked right in, and in short it’s a fairly typical pulp story. The introduction makes much of the fact that it’s the first fictional use of Einstein’s time-dilation theory, so I suppose that somewhat invalidates my other criticism, that the story can only occur because the characters are monumentally ignorant of this now-well-known phenomenon. Among the fine contemporary stories in this volume, though, this piece looks like a rusty 1950s tractor set next to the latest in agricultural machinery.
“Animal” by Terry Madden is somewhat dystopian and, in a way, techno-pessimist, which isn’t to my personal taste, but it’s a fair enough exploration of the closeness of animal and human species and the importance of being able to interact with them.
“Rainbows for Other Days” by C. Stuart Hardwick is post-apocalyptic, again not a genre I enjoy, and also tragic. Setting aside the fact that I didn’t care for it, it’s well done.
“Giants at the End of the World” by Leena Likitalo was the first story in the volume that really had me comparing it to Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. It outlines a difficult journey ending in a realisation, which is a rather literal and linear use of the journey metaphor, and the realisation/resolution doesn’t come for the viewpoint character but for another. This seldom works.
“…And Now Thirty” by contest judge Robert Silverberg is a reflection on the anthology series, including extensive quotations from Silverberg’s similar pieces in earlier volumes. It includes a good bit of praise of L. Ron Hubbard and an extended section on how contest winners have gone on to great things.
“Carousel” by contest judge Orson Scott Card is a strange magical-realist story about what happens when the dead are resurrected and left on earth to interact with their families, but without passions or desires. It’s not a good thing. The protagonist convinces God (who he accuses of having a “limited skill set”) to try a different approach. There’s an odd typo: “L. Ron” for “ticket.”
“The Clouds in Her Eyes” by Liz Colter is another piece that seems to be techno-pessimistic, if I’m correct in interpreting the electricity-producing grubs as a metaphor of technology destroying the climate. It also involves a Chosen One, and a magical-realist ship sailing above the land, one that only the Chosen One can see. Again, not to my taste.
“What Moves the Sun and Other Stars” by K.C. Norton tells of a rescue from a bizarre prison comet. It’s a traditional adventure story in structure, dressed in strange clothing, though it does explore (or at least raise) ideas of machine intelligence and emotion. The cyborg narrator is a bit inclined to hyperbole, describing a thousand years variously as “a hundred generations” and “a star’s age.” There’s also the typo “a little father” for “a little further.”
“Long Jump” by Oleg Kazantsev is another techno-pessimist tragedy that I disliked enough not to care how good it was.
“These Walls of Despair” by Anaea Lay, despite the title, is a much more hopeful and complex story, raising moral and ethical questions about emotion and its manipulation from its natural course. The idea of a profession of emotion chemists was well thought of and well handled.
“Synaptic Soup” by Val Lakey Lindahn is a short piece by an Illustrators of the Future judge, similar to Silverberg’s in many ways.
“Robots Don’t Cry” by Mike Resnick shows a master at work, one of the contest judges exhibiting the facility at taking readers on an emotional journey that has made him the most awarded person in history for short fiction.
“The Shaadi Exile” by Amanda Forrest starts with the premise of Indian brides sent by (relativistic, time-dilating) wormholes to other planets for arranged marriages and builds a beautiful human story around it.
“The Pushbike Legion” by Timothy Jordan is that rare thing, a post-apocalyptic story that I don’t dislike. Perhaps it’s the Britishness of it, combined with the hopeful ending.
“Memories Bleed Beneath the Mask” by Randy Henderson posits memory-transfer technology that enables knowledge to be passed — or rather moved — from one generation to the next. It works well enough as a story, but I felt there were better stories in the volume. (Edit: Clearly, the judges disagreed, because I’ve just learned that this story won the contest.)
“A Word on the Art Direction” by Stephen Hickman, contest judge for Illustrators of the Future, is brief, but could be omitted without loss.
“The Year in the Contests” talks about how many past WOTF alumni did well in 2013.
Then we close with the rules of the contests and a couple of ads, one for the “towering masterwork of science fiction adventure” Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard, and one for a multi-volume deal on WOTF collections.
Overall, I enjoyed most of these stories, and I certainly learned something. They are stories of intimate human lives which focus on things of deep emotional importance, and the slow-reveal and parallelism techniques are ones I want to try in my own stories.