L. Ron Hubbard Presents ‘Writers of the Future’ Volume 23, is, not unsurprisingly, the 23rd in the series. More suprisingly, it is the first to be reviewed by Best SF. The reasons for this are mostly simple, and is you have been visiting the site for a while, not a secret : Best SF is a one-person review site, and this one person doesn’t have a huge amount of time, and concentrates on the ‘best’ in short SF. Best SF also takes the view, and not really a controversial view, that stories by new writers, with only very rare exceptions, are going to be of a standard to put them right up there with the best short SF at any given time. So I tend to limit myself to the reading and reviewing of the occasional small press mag.
So why review #23? Well, for the simple reason one of the authors made the effort to get in touch and offer a review copy. So what of this 500+ page paperback?
Douglas Texter. Primetime.
For the novice writer, time travel offers a good route into an SF story as there isn’t too much building of future societies etc. Here primetime TV has started using time travel to get footage from key historical events. We start with a roving reporting getting up close and personal to the final seconds of a British soldier in the trenches of the Great War. Leaving aside a slightly awkward rendition of a Scottish accent, Texter handles the story, which follows through to an observation of the bomb drop at Hiroshima, in an altogther satisfactory manner. Very much of the type of story you get in Analog.
Andrea Kail. The Sun God at Dawn, Rising from a Lotus Blossom.
Kail uses a uni-directional letter format, a technique that has its attractions in getting down a story without having to struggle with narrative, description and characterisation. The intriguing element is that the letter writer is Tutankhamun, and the recipient of the letters is Abraham Lincoln.
As is not surprise, the sun god is a clone from DNA, and we follow his struggle against those who have created him, as he realised what he is and what is in store for him. For me it just overstays its welcome, and could have benefitted from some judicious trimming.
Jeff Carlson. The Frozen Sky.
Carlson appeared in Asimov’s in January 2007, which is good news for him. Less good news for him is that I wasn’t really enamoured of the story. (Mind you, I’m doubtless flattering myself as to his opinion of my review, as he probably doesn’t give a flying fuck).
This story is much more sfnal, set on Europa, and involves an encounter with an alien life. I did read the story, about 3 weeks ago, and remember mentally noting that it was plenty fine enough, and again of an Analog type and standard. Flicking through the story now, I can’t dredge anything up from the dark recesses of my mind.
Tony Pi. The Stone Cipher.
I have to confess to struggling with this one. The story was a bit creaky – statues in museums beginning to make infintesimally small mouth movements, which are being transcribed by a man and wife team. It transpires that a countdown is being given … but for whatever reason it didn’t really ring true.
Aliette de Bodard. Obsidian Shards.
AdB has had two stories in Interzone this year. Its a murder mystery set in the Aztec Empire, with magic called upon to solve the mystery. Not the kind of story that would normally grab me, and it suffers a bit from me having recently finally got round to watching Apocalypto, with its amazing recreation of that culture. In contrast this story feels more like Murder She Wrote, or Columbo, in fancy dress. The dialog and culture just sound 21st Century.
Artem Mirolevich. Ripping Carovella.
A dark story involving the ripping out of skills from the brains of victims by those who wish to posses them.
Damon Kaswell. Our Last Words.
Top marks for Kaswell for going for a big bang story. Here he has us follow a time traveller, one who goes into the future to see if the feared war does actually happen. He is able to communicate back with those sending him, and we follow him as he goes much farther than originally planned, ending up at the end of the universe. Tip for Kaswell – keep this kind of plot behind for when you’re more successful and pitching a 3novel sequence to a publisher!
Stephen Kotowych. Saturn in G Minor.
A young man travels far to see a now-ageing musical maestro, and finds that the maestro’s final work is to be writ on a large scale. Kotowych handles the dialog and relationship between the two quite successfully, which is not easy as you might think.
Stephen Gaskell. By the Waters of the Ganga.
Revelation is imminent for a weary, weak man by the river. However, that revelation is based on his belief that he is not originally of this world, but has an aquatic past. We follow his search for understanding, and Gaskelly very competently handles the narrative, the back story, and structures the story well. Closer to an Asimovs story than many in the volume.
Karl Bunker. Pilgrimage.
A story bookended by a scene of the main protagonist grinding a stone by the shore. The opening scene cuts to the backstory, in which he has an altogether more far-future disembodied presence, flitting between the stars as part of an elite group defending humanity against a very alien, very dangerous enemy. And it is whilst on planet, embodied in an old-fashioned human biological frame, that just how dangerous the enemy is becomes clear, as he is completely disconnected from the net which binds him to his colleagues and to humanity. In the closing moments he finds that his partner is dead, and the net is closing down, leaving him as he is, having to survive until order is restored.
It’s an intriguing setup, but the rest of the story doesn’t quite live up to it. We follow him through many years, as he ekes out an existence, Robinson Crusoe-like. And he finds that, as on Earth, a man’s best friend can be his dog. Or, rather, the alien life force most similar to our canine friends. And it is bond with the dog which he memorializes on stone at the end (having rather forgotten his original human love). Hmm, perhaps he was ‘fonder’ of the dog than the author let on….
Edward Sevcik. The Gas Drinkers.
Standard Analog fayre to begin with, as some dodgy equipment from a dodgy salesman leaves a spacesuited character perilously low on air. How can he survive? A chance encounter with a group of others might help, but they aren’t particularly pleased to see them. However, one of the group turns out to be on his side, and the Gas Drinkers are tricked.
Part of the trick is the lengthy story, told by the one group member, who relates a tale of the Opisthokont of Sokhol. The tale within the tale is complex stuff, a la Al Reynolds, and is more than capable of standing up on its own, so praise for Sevcik for giving such good value for money.
Corey Brown. The Phlogiston Age.
Not quite as successful, as Brown relates a story of an alternate Earth in a style very much of an older era. A Phlogiston powered spaceship is about to be the first into space, piloted by a foxy babe. There is politics afoot, and a reporter from a newspaper arrives at the launchpad with a suitcase full of dynamite. He has (ridiculously) easy access to both the launchsite and the pilot, taking advantage of the former but not the latter. Having reservations about his murderous intent, he attempts to go out a hero. There are knuckle-dragging heavies, and it all feels like a pot-boiler from the 40s.
John Burridge. Mask Glass Magic.
A slightly clumsy title, and at times a slightly clumsy story which could have done with a bit more editorial input. You know that when you’re circling words in a story that the narrative has ceased to hold you. The bit in question was the paragraph which opened”Michelle’s friend, Susan, rode up on a bicycle. “Michelle!” Susuan leaned her bike against a no parking sign.” Now that has 1x too many uses of Michelle and 1x too many of Susan in such a short space. But it gets worse, and in the next two and a bit pages, the names appear a total of 42 times. I counted them!
The story climaxes with two young women ending up in the clutches of hooded, chanting men, and it all feels a bit sub-Buffy.
So, altogether a good showcase of new talent, with only a couple of stories falling below a presentable standard towards the Big Meh. One advantage over the semiprozines is that the authors are given more space in which to craft their story, and that does them a favour, with only a couple stretching the story a bit too far. Whenever I do read a semiprozine I do often find the long-dormant writer in me beginning to twitch – the little voice on the shoulder whispering ‘you could write this stuff with a bit of practice’. Fortunately, there’s always the creature on the little shoulder who wins the argument, who points at the bookshelf full of about 100 year’s best/nebula/hugo volumes in the corner, and says ‘nah’.
Orson Scott Card is quoted on the back as “The best anthology published today…”, which is somewhat overegging the pudding. I’m guessing the … was a crucial edit, and his original quote was “The best anthology published today, the 3rd July 2007” (or whatever the date of publication was), as, whilst it could indeed have been the best anthology published on a specific day, you couldn’t in all honesty make that claim for a more extensive date range.
So, the big question, who are going to be the Writers of the Future from this crop? Well, de Bodard and Carlson have had stories published in Interzone and Asimovs respectively, giving them a head start. Me, I’m going to put my money on one of Gaskell, Bunker, Sevcik as having that little bit something extra over the others. This page will be here 20 years from now, so let’s wait and see shall we?