Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Anthology Review: Writers of the Future Volume XXIV

More good stories from new authors.

L Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future. Edited by Algis Budrys. Volume 24. Galaxy Press (Hollywood): 2008. 503 pages. $7.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-59212-374-2. ISBN-10: 1-59212-374-0.

Once again I have in hand a volume of the annual winners of the Writers and Illustrators of the Future Contest. As always, the anthology features new writers with minimal previous publication and artists with minimal previous exposure. As usual, the quality of the volume is solid thanks to the high standards and stiff competition. This is an excellent collection of sf short stories.

As I did previously, I will limit my lengthier comments to the stories of most interest to this blog.

If the volume this year can be said to have a theme, it would be the subject of artificial intelligence and how it might cause people to rethink what it means to be human. Four of the sixteen stories deal with the subject. The protagonists of these range from a biological simulated human (J. Kathleen Cheney's "Taking a Mile) to an android (Sarah L. Edwards's "Simulacrum's Children"), to a personable but not especially brilliant missile guidance system (Patrick Lundrigan's "Hangar Queen") to a massively intelligent and rather self-righteous supercomputer (Erin Cashier's "Cruciger"). Each of these asks, directly or indirectly, whether it is possible for a computer or similar artificial construct to, in effect, become human. The answer is always yes, of course, since that is, after all, the most emotionally satisfying answer. Another theme, perhaps encompassing even more of the stories, is that of servants (often artificial beings) or employees who decide they want their freedom and autonomy, and either rebel or work the system in order to get it.

The story that most struck me in this collection is Ian McHugh's "Bitter Dreams." A work of dark fantasy, it has a distinctly Australian flavor, depicting a world in which colonists huddle in rune-protected towns while out in the desert roam Dreamings tossed up by the angry land. These Dreamings, in various horrific ways, suck out people's souls, drink up their shadows, and sometimes mutilate their bodies horrifically in the process. Then are the zombies, the somber and unapproachable natives called Blackfellas, and the spooks who steal shadows to gain magic power. It is quite grim. McHugh's prose captures the mood perfectly. His colonists sound, feel, and act like people who know they're out of their element.

Al Bogden's "Girl Who Whispered Beauty" is unique. It is possibly set in the future and is perhaps a story of bioengineering run amok, but it reads more like a fantasy tale. The protagonist is a "whisper girl," formerly human but altered into a physically pliable, almost snake-like creature whose duty is to expel life energy through her breath into her wealthy employer. Like most of the other servants and slaves and automata in the collection, this whisper girl decides she wants her freedom. This story is easily one of the best in the collection.

J. Kathleen Cheney's "Taking a Mile" is reminiscent of Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson's "Doomship" (1973). In Cheney's story, a company produces "avatars," clones with all the mannerisms and memories of their originals, but designed to disintegrate after completing prearranged tasks. Some of these avatars, of course, decide they're getting a raw deal and want to do something about it. The religious side of the matter is touched on briefly with the appearance of a Catholic priest convinced that avatars are fully human.

Sonia Helbig's "Crown of Thorns," also a distinctly Australian story, features a post-apocalyptic Australia where a special "crown" is used to test children for superior mental faculties. Those who the crown chooses are whisked off to a hidden United Nations compound where they apparently do some kind of advanced research and development. The story is a little too vague, and it uses a good deal of religious imagery to no great effect, but it has a lot of emotion and falls just short of being overwrought.

Patrick Hundrigan's "Hangar Queen" is especially likable, mainly because of its personable title character. The protagonist is an artificially intelligent guidance system for a missile intended to be launched from a spacecraft engaged in a neverending war. Removed from the missile due to some malfunction or other, the AI befriends two generations of mechanics in the hangar bay. Hundrigan throws in a couple of good plot twists; the ending, though predictable, is satisfying and features a well-constructed space battle.

Paula R. Stiles's "Snakes and Ladders" is an ambitious work. It isn't entirely effective, but it deserves an A for effort. It features an injured man who receives an injection of nanoprobes to repair his body, but the nanoprobes achieve intelligence, become convinced the man they are saving is God, and start building a cathedral in his innards. That right there is such a good concept that the story could be a complete failure and I'd still praise it, but it is most certainly not a complete failure. A couple of things don't make sense to me, and I'm not sure I understand the train of logic that leads to the conclusion, but a vision of God at the end is quite well done.

Erin Cashier's "Cruciger" features a supercomputer trying to restart the human race on an alien planet after Earth was wiped out by a plague; the only problem is, the planet chosen for the new human population is already inhabited. Of the stories with heavy religious themes, this is probably the poorest. The computer is preoccupied with religious questions, but doesn't do a good job of addressing them. Religious fanaticism, with no real explanation, is thrown in as the motive for creating the plague, though we never learn how exactly the computer figures out it was a religious fanatic who created it--it is merely assumed--and we never learn what would drive a person to that level of fanaticism. In exploring religion, the computer considers that God might be nonexistent or, as indicated by the plague, a total screw-up, but never considers the other possibilities, that God is a sadist, or that there are multiple gods, or that God doesn't exert his will to trump human action, or anything else. The story works from the theme that, even though God may not exist now, it might be possible to create him with technology. That puts this piece in dialogue with many other stories, including for example Isaac Asimov's "Last Question" (1956).

Sarah L. Edwards's "Simulacrum's Children" is a steampunkish tale set in New York in the early twentieth century, featuring an automaton who is trying to create other automatons in order to better understand his own being and his reason for existence. The matter of free will is central to the plot. It's an excellent piece with some interesting characters.

Other stories in the collection include Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon's "Man in the Moon," a knowledgeable but over-long story about a talented astronaut who helps colonize the moon, Laura Bradley Rede's "Epiphany," an excellent fantasy about circus freaks who rebel against their master, J. D. EveryHope's "Circuit," a pretentious but engaging story about an artificially intelligent book of literature that inspires future Bohemians, David Parish Whittaker's "War Bird in the Belly of the Mouse," about World War I pilots brought to the future and forced to take tourists on simulated air battles, and Kim A. Gillett's "Bird Reader's Daughter," a fine story about fortune-telling and the consequences of knowing the future.
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