Book Review: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 29, Dave Wolverton, ed. (2013)

August 26th, 2013 12:44 pm by Kelly Garbato

A thoroughly enjoyable collection of contemporary science fiction!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest – now entering its thirtieth year, it’s one of the longest-running short story contests still in existence – attracts thousands of submissions a year. From this, a panel of judges selects just thirteen essays for publication in the annual anthology. Also included are thirteen illustrations similarly culled from the Illustrators of the Future contest, along with three instructional essays on the art of crafting and selling science fiction, written by professionals in the field. (This year’s collection includes one piece by contest founder L. Ron Hubbard himself.)

As suggested by such stiff competition, the essays included in the 2013 anthology are all thoroughly enjoyable, with one exception (Christopher Raynaga’s “The Grande Complication,” which I didn’t much care for). The collection starts of strong with Brian Trent’s “War Hero.” In the distant future, soldiers and war criminals have achieved virtual immortality with the ability to save one’s consciousness, downloading it into a new body (or multiple bodies) as needed – thus assuring the interminability of war, conflict, and the military-industrial complex. (As an added bonus, cross-gender downloading also carries with it some interesting sexual connotations.)

“Planetary Scouts,” by Stephen Sottong, is one of the lengthier stories in the collection – and it’s also one of my favorites. Having long since ventured off earth, humans are constantly in search of new planets to colonize. Enter the Planetary Scouts, who land on and probe (“explore” is too lofty a word) strange planets to determine whether they support “intelligent” life. If not, they’re considered open to human settlement. As always, a species’ intelligence is measured solely in human terms, leading to the genocide of countless “lesser” species who might not be able to grasp arithmetic – but are still sentient, capable of experiencing joy and suffering, with families and interests and lives of their own. On more than one occasion – such as when he and his partner Aidan explore a mostly aquatic planet to determine whether an intergalactic aquaculture company can install one giant fish farm on it – this crass policy leads to a crisis of conscience for young upstart Lester. (As it turns out, the planet is home to one enormous “distributed intelligence,” which is self-aware – and thus worthy of continued existence. More often than not, you’ll find yourself rooting for the aliens.) In more extreme cases, such as when it’s home to “dumb” animals or plant life that’s deemed harmful to humans, a planet may be “sterilized”: stripped of all life, leaving a clean slate for its future human overlords. Talk about your euphemisms!

Also worth singling out for praise is Alex Wilson’s “Vestigial Girl,” which deals with issues such as parenting children in same sex relationships, cloning, and the fear of physical and mental “disabilities” – or, in this case, differences. Young Charlene is a four-year-old girl, illegally cloned from the DNA of her two dads. Lacking in motor control and unable to speak because of the “monster” in her throat, the adults around her mistake her for mentally challenged – and yet, she and others like her are actually more intelligent than their creators. They’re just trapped in uncooperative, uncommunicative bodies. Modern parallels abound.

“Holy Days” by Kodiak Julian is outstanding as well. The author imagines a ‘verse in which the laws of nature temporarily bend on special holidays. On “Break Days,” humans are afforded a 24-hour “break” from their illnesses and ailments, be they cancer, arthritis, or pregnancy. Children visit their parents as younger versions of themselves on “Homecoming Day,” while on “The Day of Return,” the dead can choose to come back to life and revisit their loved ones. On “Secret Day,” you recognize your own most deeply held secrets in others who also harbor them. With one holy day for each season, they mirror the passage of time and stress the importance of letting go. For example, The Day of Return is far from a universally enjoyable occasion, with aging parents and friends struggling to please a boy who died young – and will forever stay that way, even as the people in his life age and move on.

Last but not least is Marilyn Guttridge’s “The Ghost Wife of Arlington.” Death is not just one person, but many: the Immortals are each given a city to rule over, claiming his or her citizens as their time expires. While some Immortals choose to steer clear of human affairs, others take attendants called “Shades.” Sometimes these are women who develop an intimate relationship with the Immortal, hence the nickname “Ghost Wives.” Having unwittingly wandered onto Arlington’s Bone Rattler Street while fleeing from an abusive husband, Vivian is quickly claimed as a Ghost Wife. Over time she falls in love with “her” Immortal – whom she calls the Shaker – and bears him a literal Whisper of a child. Death is not the cruel and capricious ruler so often depicted in popular culture, but rather a sad and solitary figure. Not only does Death watch as everyone around him withers and dies – in the end, he must claim them all, even the ones he loves so dearly.

These are just a few of my favorites; I also highly recommend “Twelve Seconds,” by Tina Gower (CSI 2063); Eric Cline’s “Gonna Reach Out and Grab Ya” (animated tattoos, someone please make this happen); Shannon Peavey’s “Scavengers” (a rather delightful – and chilling – fantasy romp); “Dreameater,” by Andrea Stewart (picture a vampiric Aileen Wuornos); and “Master Belladino’s Mask,” by Marina J. Lostetter (enchanted death masks, oh my!).

The illustrations are all wonderful as well, though a mass market paperback is hardly the ideal medium through which to view them. (Happily, it looks as though they’ll eventually be available on the contest’s website; as if this writing, they have yet to be uploaded.) In particular I loved James J. Eads’s artwork for “Scavengers,” which is highly evocative of a childhood favorite, The Dark Crystal.

For fans of fantasy and (especially) science fiction, Writers of the Future, Volume 29 is a must read. Priced at less than ten bucks, it’s a steal.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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