Sunday, October 21, 2007

Anthology Review: Writers of the Future Volume XXIII

Good stories from new authors.

L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of Future Vol 23, edited by Algis Budrys. Galaxy Press (Hollywood): 2007. 562 pages. $7.99. ISBN-10: 1592123988; ISBN-15: 978-1592123988.

The Writers of the Future Contest publishes an annual anthology of each year's winners. Each of the winners is previously unpublished, but the standard of the contest is high, guaranteeing that the new stories are of good quality. This is regarded as a very important annual anthology, and many of the new authors go on to become top sellers in the science fiction and fantasy field. Each volume also includes brief essays by top authors and illustrators, offering writing and publishing advice. Included with the stories are illustrations by the winners of the Illustrators of the Future contest, each of whom, after winning, is assigned a story to illustrate. Altogether, that makes this an important annual collection for the serious sf fan.

Readers of this blog will be pleased to know that religious themes are apparent in a number of the stories, indicating that religious issues will remain strongly present in the genre. Each of the stories addressing religion does so intelligently without foolish caricature or rancor, marking these new writers as more thoughtful than some of their established elders.

I cannot discuss each story in any great depth, so I will prejudice my remarks to the stories in which religion is most obviously at the forefront.

For starters, we have Andrea Kail's "The Sun God at Dawn, Rising from a Lotus Blossom." More than once in science fiction I have encountered the concept of bringing famous people from the past into the present so we can meet them personally; the notion forms part of the background of Isaac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy," for example. Kail has given the idea a fresh face: in the future, museums make living displays of famous people reconstructed from their DNA. The story takes the form of several letters from Pharaoh Tutankhamen, who lives in the Cairo Museum, to Abraham Lincoln, who lives in a museum somewhere in the U.S. Islamist politics and religion stew in the story's backdrop, and Tutankhamen becomes aware of them only gradually as the story builds to a shocking and very satisfying conclusion.

Tony Pi's "The Stone Cipher" has a new and brilliant idea: all the statues in the world simultaneously begin speaking, and the story surrounds a linguist, Pierre, and his wife, Marie-Claire, who are trying to figure out what the statues are saying. Marie-Claire, a Catholic, is inclined to believe the speaking statues are a miracle, whereas Pierre, a fallen-away Catholic, wants a scientific explanation.

Pi's story has a fantastic central premise, and his attempts to address religious matters are what I would call a good try. However, he leaves a little to be desired. Supposedly, Pierre left the Catholic faith because he couldn't reconcile it with science--but then to explain the Stone Cipher, he leaps immediately to the Gaea Hypothesis without any evidence whatsoever. If science conflicts with religion, it also conflicts with the notion that the Earth is a superintelligent collective organism with magic powers. Perhaps the story would have worked better if Pierre arrived at his conclusion through a scientific process rather than through blind intuition.

Aliette de Bodard's "Obsidian Shards" prefers to remain in the comfortable atmosphere of extinct religion. A true high-concept tale, it is in essence an Aztec fantasy murder mystery involving magic rites, taboos, and angry gods. How cool is that?

Damon Kaswell's "Our Last Words" is something like The Time Machine Reloaded. It isn't especially original, but it is competent. The story surrounds a man who has lost all family and friends and who agrees to take part in an experiment in which he is disconnected from time and enabled to travel into the future at a rapid rate in order to report through a com link on whether or not our side will win the big war. However, he can never travel backwards in time nor exit his small living capsule. As you might expect (spoiler alert), he makes it to the end of the universe and along the way rediscovers his connectedness to all things. The religious overtones cause this to remind me of Ian Watson's "The Very Slow Time Machine," and anything that reminds me of that story is a good thing.

In a sense, however, Kaswell is behind the times. With the threat of nuclear Armageddon looming in the early pages, this is basically a Cold War story, but because of the absence of a Soviet Empire, Kaswell improbably imagines a nuclear tension with a Middle Eastern Islamist bloc. Also, the depiction of the end of the universe, though evocative, supposes a collapse and rebirth, a concept I thought was exploded by the discovery of Dark Energy, though perhaps I'm mistaken.

Stephen Gaskell's "By the Waters of the Ganga" brings us India-centered science fiction, which may become a distinct trend in the future thanks to Ian McDonald's River of Gods. Gaskell's work might particularly interest members of our monthly Blog Tour as it could be described as evangelistic Hindu sf. The story's narrator is an extraterrestrial reincarnated as a human in Benares for the purpose of reaching enlightenment and gaining immortality. The story as it develops has a vaguely similar outline to Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. Perhaps more surprising than the openly religious nature of the story is the anthropocentrism: the narrator has to be reborn as a human in order to reach enlightenment. Christian-centered stories in which missionaries experience trouble while trying to convert aliens have been around in sf for a while; in particular, I point the reader to Ken MacLeod's "A Case of Consilience," which is reprinted in Year's Best SF 11. However, a story of an alien who must actually become human in order to be part of a religion is unique in my experience. This idea deserves further exploration.

Cory Brown's alternate history, "The Phlogiston Age," imagines a world somewhere around the turn of the century in which William Jennings Bryan is president and the discovery of phlogiston has America preparing its first space mission. The mission is controversial, however: the point-of-view character is a newspaper editor who believes the millions of dollars spent on the rocket could have been better spent improving conditions for the poor. Consistently throughout the story, belief in spaceflight is analogous to religious faith. Those who believe in it are sometimes willing to do underhanded things to get others to believe, and those who don't believe in it are sometimes willing to resort to terrorism and murder to put a stop to it. This is a fine story with a fast pace and a unique setting for a tale of spaceflight.

Finally, John Burridge's "Mask Glass Magic" presents a down-on-her-luck glass artist who ends up apprenticed to a powerful alchemist. The research on this story must have been significant, as Burridge shows a good deal of knowledge about glass-working, and the hocus-pocus appears to be informed by genuine alchemical knowledge as well. A mostly hapless, largely confused New-Ager makes frequent appearances in the story, tries to explain what's going on, and gets everything about half-right. The ending is rushed and the conclusion a little flat, but this is on the whole a strong tale.

Also in the collection are Douglas Texter's "Primetime," a story of reality TV gone really, really bad; Jeff Carlson's "The Frozen Sky," a brutal hard sf adventure capable of leaving the reader almost as exhausted at the end as the protagonist; Kim Zimring's "Ripping Carovella," a cyberpunky tale of street-wise brain surgeons who steal talent from artists and sell it to wealthy patrons; Stephen Kotowych's "Saturn in G Minor," a predictable yet original story of a maestro determined to make a planet his orchestra; Karl Bunker's "Pilgrimage," an Enemy Mine-like story suggesting the Technological Singularity isn't all it's cracked up to be; and Edward Sevcik's "The Gas Drinkers," a simultaneously nostalgic and original tale of out-of-control metal-eating fungus.

Highly recommended.
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