Writers of the Future, Vol. 30, edited by Dave Wolverton

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

Writers of the Future, Volume 30

Edited by Dave Wolverton

(Galaxy Press, May, 2014)


“Another Range of Mountains” by Megan E. O’Keefe
“Shifter” by Paul Eckheart
“Beneath the Surface of Two Kills” by Shauna O’Meara
“Animal” by Terry Madden
“Rainbows for Other Days” by C. Stuart Hardwick
“Giants at the End of the World” by Leena Likitalo
“The Clouds In Her Eyes” by Liz Colter

“What Moves the Sun and Other Stars” by K.C. Norton

“Long Jump” by Oleg Kazantsev

“These Walls of Despair” by Anaea Lay
“The Shaadi Exile” by Amanda Forrest

“The Pushbike Legion” by Timothy Jordan

“Memories Bleed Beneath the Mask” by Randy Henderson

Reviewed by C.D. Lewis

The thirtieth volume of the Writers of the Future anthology contains thirteen original stories, three reprints, and three essays. The original fiction is reviewed below.

Megan O’Keefe’s sets “Another Range of Mountains” in a fantasy world where mirrorpainters can sketch suspects from reflective surfaces that saw their crimes. Although the story opens like a sorcerous CSI, we learn of a heroine loner and outlaw private investigator in the service of a mountain town’s Count. Naturally, her case doesn’t resolve smoothly: reversal after reversal confronts her as she matches wits with an informed adversary. The extent and limits of the magic O’Keefe invents give a plausible feel to both the story problem and its limited range of solutions. The impossible problems facing the protagonist and those she cares about give the story a melancholy feel; every solution has an awful cost. “Another Range of Mountains” proves to be about sacrifice. O’Keefe reveals her heroine in a series of choices that place her at risk and change her life. The resolution, though a personal disaster for the protagonist, neatly resolves the story problem in favor of those she holds dear.

In a story, characters must change. Paul Eckheart’s “Shifter” turns this rule into a superpower: with a few lines on a page, the protagonist changes weight, height, skin, gender – you name it. “Shifter” explores the sacrifices we make as we choose what we will be, and depicts their cost: hedged choices that allow change, and all-in commitment. Eckheart’s alternate-present-day tale opens in present tense, delivered in dialect, showing strangers pursuing a youth who’s himself hunting for a lost brother. Soon the protagonist’s power is employed to effect such change even the narrative voice must alter to fit the story: thereafter, it continues in past-tense, though it keeps to the close-third-person narration. If you enjoy meta-story, you’ll love “Shifter”.

The self-referentiality in a fictional character’s power to alter him/her-self by writing words – the appearance on one side, and the interior on another – immediately entertains. But “Shifter” is no comedy. The protagonist’s hopes and desires are too serious for the protagonist to brook the abuse they receive at every turn. Effort after effort fails to find the right character the protagonist should wear to achieve success. The hard choice, ultimately, is real transformation: to live a real life with meaning and connection to the world, the protagonist must reject a past spent hiding from reality, clothed in false personas. The setup is masterful; the sacrifice feels heroic and heartbreaking. When the story concludes in first person, we know the narrator has succeeded, and we see the terrible price paid for his – I mean, her – success. The depth and novelty of “Shifter” makes it a must-read fantasy.

Shauna O’Meara’s “Beneath the Surface of Two Kills” follows a hunter thinking about two story lines: his hunt for the last meal of a condemned man, and the condemned man’s detailed-in-a-diary stalk and hunt of his murder victim. The story feels like it might have been set in a near-future world with realistic physics and technology, but the employment of fanciful quarry nudge it into the realm of fantasy: the requested last meal is an animal that doesn’t exist in this world, and seems at least to be rare in the story’s. The hunter emotionally connects his prey with the murder victim, and feels conflicted about proceeding, but tells himself that supplying the Justice Department with the condemned man’s last meal is essential to carrying out the execution that will allow the dead woman to “get her justice.” The hunter’s conflict with his mission builds until, at last confronting his intended target, he’s forced to make a decision. The tale is sparse on description: we don’t know the appearance of the hunter, the quarry (besides how its pelt is striped), the murderer, or much of the mist-shrouded terrain.

Since the conflict in “Beneath the Surface of Two Kills” derives principally from the protagonist’s framing of his problem, emotional engagement by the reader turns at least in part on accepting the protagonist’s world-view. Readers who are unconcerned with meat-eating or hunting as a moral concern, or who doubt that executions actually benefit the deceased, may have a hard time feeling depth in the conflict. The resolution – suggesting that truth and justice don’t ride in the same cart – amounts to a compromise between the desire not to kill another animal and the desire to support an execution.

“Animal” by Terry Madden depicts a dim future in which overpopulation-driven resource constraints close the last place that living wildlife is cultivated and bred through frozen embryo banks designed to enable their replenishment once global population is in check. But the protagonist knows people better than to believe their government will in some better future volunteer resources to some long-dead beast humans got along without. We soon learn that technology to safeguard species against extinction can be employed as easily to circumvent rules preventing humans from breeding beyond licensed limits. The protagonist discovers her subordinate’s subterfuge on the eve of the facility’s closure, following an order to euthanize every animal in the place: if the protagonist intends saving an unlicensed human infant, she must involve herself in her subordinate’s offense. The responsibilities placed on the protagonist, and the choices she makes, reveal her values and the extent of her commitment to her beliefs. Her cause may be doomed, but we learn she really owns it: the resolution reveals just how far she’ll go. The story would feel much more hopeful if the character’s final decision didn’t feel like an empty gesture, or seem guaranteed to break the heart of an innocent who loves her. Unfortunately I felt convinced of both, and it robbed me of the ability to really like the ending. I was, however, convinced of the character’s dedication and impressed with her commitment.

C. Stuart Hardwick opens “Rainbows for Other Days” on an artist unable to complete an outdoor painting before a storm hits. References to “subsystems” and “upgraded sensors” suggest early that the artist is an android or cyborg, and from the first paragraphs we get clues this carefree soul lives in a post-apocalyptic world scoured with sour rain and struggling to re-grow a lost wilderness. Hardwick’s off-the-cuff explanation for complex SF biowizardry (“I steel myself and run the script”) suggests the reader should be familiar with a world of detail the narrator blithely skips as unnecessary explanation. The technique helps immerse the reader in a world one assumes to be driven by rules, standard operating procedures, and laws that all make perfect sense to those who know them. The world’s detail and rules prove dark: the narrator isn’t generally carefree as when distracted by painting, but driven by duties whose full scope is intimated early to include dark work in the service of unrevealed objectives that – being bigger than individuals – crush humans who don’t conform.

The dim future is a great place to set stories; such settings have fueled SF since long before even Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, whose questions about individuality and freedom gave Blade Runner, the film it inspired, so much of its force. “Rainbows for Other Days” provides a wonderful dismal-future setting. The narrator’s interactions with the story’s human lay out the miserable state of humanity and the world’s ongoing opposition by describing a world-rebuilding program driven by inhuman intelligence while depicting a desperate population of humans who’d rather die than be farmed in anticipation of re-introduction to a world brought back into balance in some future age. But even a great setting needs a story: we see none of this conflict in action. The sacrifices that brought the human into the wild occur off-screen, before the scene opens. The senseless environmental disaster that kills her also occurs off-screen, in circumstances in which she has neither choice nor agency – only oblivious wonder as she’s destroyed. She’s clearly not the protagonist. The narrator? Conflicted between his programming against invasive species and his romantic notions of human potential, the narrator is never put to a choice between the individual in his care and the preserve in which he serves as Ranger. He suffers with the tension, but we never learn who he is when the chips are down. We just read that he feels bad when the girl dies.

“Rainbows for Other Days” depicts a dark world that fills the narrator with regret and loss, but the setting begs for a worthy conflict, one that culminates in a hard choice that reveals the characters and their values. It’s sad to see a dreamer die young, and it’s easy to sympathize with the regret of her loss. But killing a character off-screen in an environmental disaster in which she has no agency isn’t satisfying, and we can’t feel either passive observer is our protagonist. The end fits into the story’s image of future humans doomed by the awful state of the world left them by their ancestors, but without agency and decision it’s hard to feel for either character’s resolution. Surely we’d feel it all the more intensely once emotionally involved with an active conflict.

Leena Likitalo opens “Giants at the End of the World” on a quest to the End of the World. Making such a quest humdrum, by creating a regular route, presents an entertaining change. The traveler who attracts the narrator’s attention quickly defies older end-of-the-world quests’ high expectations: she buys a one-way ticket. The trip isn’t taken on the soon-to-be-built railway, but on a slow plodding wagon crossing an enormous desert, in scenes delivered with the pace of Tolkien’s travel. Unfortunately, these scenes don’t culminate with exciting destinations: arrival at the end of the world proves a non-event.

The deep melancholy depicted in the female lead purportedly derives from concern about a railroad’s development ruining the destination. However, she’s never been there and has no connection to it; the place, as described, seems a fairly poor place to end up. Until one considers the power of depression, one doubts the leading lady would kill herself over the place’s fate. One is tempted to look for causes that don’t appear in the text: her relationship with her industrialist father, for example.

To believe her climactic decision will have the effect she predicts, one must believe not only that she has great influence in her relationships back home, but that she believes in her own power in those relationships. This appears to contradict what we must believe to credit her desire for suicide; her motive seems thin if undertaken to solve what she so easily concludes can be solved just as easily by making a straightforward request.

Since stories are about characters’ change, readers must believe in the change for stories to work. “Giants at the End of the World” doesn’t show how the female lead suddenly gains confidence in her ability to effect positive change in the world using her power in relationships back home, when only a page before she evidenced suicidal depression. The narrator’s suggestion that her father would value her return seems implausible to explain so enormous a change; if she could believe that, how could she have gone so far as suicide to effect the same result? Since the character’s climactic choice is hard to credit, the story’s force seems to rest on the reader’s interest in the character’s stated purpose, which drives the location of her suicide: to prevent railway access through a desert to a silver-mining town. Even if this purpose feels worthy, it should be delivered believably by characters whose motivations and decisions make sense.

In “The Clouds in Her Eyes” by Liz Colter a fantasy protagonist sees a ship her father doesn’t, sailing across her father’s fields. Early on, Colter establishes a theme of separation. The protagonist can’t talk to her father about the ship she sees, and about which he won’t address her. She’s lost her mother and a sibling, and with them her father’s availability for anything but work. The “sparkers” she herds aren’t creatures to which she can relate to, but hostile tunneling beasts she directs by hammering metal rods into the earth about them. Her dreary life makes her unknowns all the more tantalizing: the ship, the fever that first let her see things, her future …let’s face it, you know a farmer’s child lost in some dreary wasteland will turn out to be meant more for ships flying on an unseen surf than for wrangling overgrown earthworms.

The cliché of the obvious child-with-a-destiny isn’t fatal; it’s a fantasy staple. But, a mysterious stranger. A name that overtly promises the power to solve her barren world’s biggest problem. A curious talisman. Destiny revealed in a dream. It’s hard not to expect the story problem to vanish in the revelation that the magic’s been in you all along! Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with tropes; like their building blocks words, they’re neither good nor evil. Jim Butcher (of The Dresden Files) put his finger on it: an author can mix a callow youth from the hinterlands, a hidden message, an old wizard, and a black knight into the kind of hackneyed tiredness only its mother could love – but if you bake it right it’s Star Wars. The concern in “The Clouds in Her Eyes” isn’t that it contains a cliché, but that it becomes predictable too early for anticipation to yield the kind of payoff available when the ball remains concealed until closer to the reveal.

On the upside, “The Clouds in Her Eyes” does a pleasant job building a plausible basis for the protagonist’s ongoing inattention to her destiny and non-pursuit of her potential. Denial, self-doubt, and sense of plodding obligation all appear without suggesting the bitterness that could get a protagonist dismissed as a whiner. The resolution lays out an environmental revolution, and it’s fun to see a community’s disaster averted by one introvert. The conclusion feels like it needs something, though: there seems little connection between the young protagonist’s magic and her sudden community-wide authority to coordinate its strategic response to the availability of water by allocating personnel to tasks and commanding other magic practitioners in their arts. Whether the story reaches too far or explains too little, the sudden role in command seems disconnected from her power, and distracting.

K.C. Norton’s “What Moves the Sun and Other Stars” is SF narrated by an android a thousand years out of manufacture. Confined to a comet it regards as a hell, the android never imagines escape and can’t imagine why its interlocutor would interrogate it about its long life and off-comet experience – but it’s fascinated by his touch, and luminescence. One would expect a thriller’s excitement in the discovery of an aged AI just as the characters begin an escape from a prison comet, but the whole feels dampened by the narrator’s initial disinterest. The simple character names, the bare setting, the lightly-sketched opposing forces and the detail-free escapes – all seem to beg the story to be read as a metaphor for something one hopes soon to recognize. The story’s grip seems to turn on whether the reader will find tantalizing a tale constructed from elements that make plain that most of the picture remains hidden. There’s irony in the narrator’s efforts to motivate others to accomplish what the android is sure can’t be done, though, and some clever dialogue offers promise.

“What Moves the Sun and Other Stars” gains momentum once the narrator’s mood turns: when the android begins behaving playfully and cleverly instead of merely practically, hope for the story improves just as the android gains hope for its own condition. The story’s lessons and developing themes begin to pile onto one another, building toward a climax: endless persistence yields success; hope conquers fear; the strength of the meek; the power of love; the feeling of belonging. Contrasting elements – dark/light, ennui/zeal, fear/hope, death/life, and so on – lend a bigger-than-life feel. By the time the narrator finally drifts back to sleep, it’s with a certainty the universe is filled with limitless opportunity, and worthwhile company, and the promise we’re more than our constituent parts. Readers who expect each step of a tale to be built of consistent, believable details may grow frustrated early, but those able to hold on for the end will enjoy it.

Oleg Kazantsev’s SF tale “Long Jump” opens on the hard-worn narrator’s unhappy date in virtual reality with a sullen woman who completes suicide. Repeatedly. In flashback, we see images that depict his miserable path there: his last moment seeing his son in a busy spaceport, before the boy’s mother flew him off-world with her new lover who didn’t diligently look after the child; his decision to join a revolution on another planet as a pilot, despite his faulty eye implant; his capture by government agents to be shanghaied into dangerous service. Rather than the Utopian uniformity promised by The Jetsons, we find the future a dazzling bazaar of African-Martian accents, Korean fashion, recognizably Chinese and Nigerian individuals on Mars, and the same dysfunctions and oppressions that haunt the world we know. Those differences don’t prove a multicultural dreamworld, and they don’t seem to be the fuel for discernible conflict: the world full of differences mostly support the narrator’s sense of alone-ness. Unlike in Star Trek, the technological improvements don’t improve the quality of life, just the quality of the escape offered to those who suffer a world whose problems’ root causes have gone unfixed. When the flashback works forward to the opening paragraph, the story has answered why the narrator’s date keeps killing herself. It’s tempting then to ask what else the story has answered.

The answer isn’t obvious, but the author posits that our broken lives and challenges and losses may be what keeps us sane. The narrator’s melancholy isn’t without humor, but it pervades his life, and gives him perspective. An improved VR engine that allows in-world characters to function when the user is offline – presenting a facsimile of realism instead of a fantasy-land of happy dreams and good news – allows the same kind of lost opportunities and disappointments one suffers in the real world. So when the narrator is launched in an experimental transport that previously stranded a young optimist with nothing to occupy him but happy things, the only difference presented to the reader seems to be the mental health impact of a “realistic” virtual world where the user is out of control and can suffer loss. Stuck in his experimental transport after the exit plans fail, the protagonist expects to share the same fate as his lost comrade; it seems the narrator’s miserable relationship with a woman who’d rather be dead may be the very thing that keeps him sane long enough to last the trip. But, the narrator’s no optimist: maybe that sound outside the ship is a symptom of madness, finally setting in. “The Long Jump” offers a delightful set of SF scenery suited to a dismal future, but its real purpose is to explore what makes us tick and prove the utility of adversity.

Anaea Lay’s “These Walls of Despair” is a fantasy quest narrated by an apprentice Sentimancer stuck with a prison shift. Lay’s Sentimancers employ their art to induce or ameliorate emotional states in their patients by injecting them with sentiment mixtures compounded from component parts and stored in vials. The narrator’s patient turns out to be a strangely calm incarcerated woman facing trial for a capital offense, expressing interest in despair. Research into his patient’s problem leads the narrator to the scene of her crime, to knowledge about the gods whose slumber keeps the world safe, and to the unknown “hollow ones” that took his foster brother and routinely kill whomever disturbs their nests. Loss and regret give way to hope as the narrator learns what’s really behind his patient’s zeal to destroy the world. The narrator’s decision puts him at peace with his own demons even as he condemns his patient by administering an unwanted intervention.

“These Walls of Despair” depicts ideas and relationships that provoke thought. Involuntary “treatment” of a helpless, unconsenting victim feels like a breach of trust and an attack, particularly when she isn’t suffering and is no danger to herself. Employing vigilante justice against a suspect already in custody and doomed to execution has an alarming feel, though the threat she may destroy the entire planet certainly seems a plausible motive to act. Employing force against a woman who’s been deprived of her own lover to keep her from allowing two trapped gods to reunite in their love isn’t especially sympathetic, but involuntarily imposing hope on an individual so filled with despair at her own loss that she is willing to destroy everyone she knows doesn’t seem unreasonable at all. Conflicting sympathies make it hard to feel the resolution when it comes. “These Walls of Despair” never addresses who the “hollow people” are, who put “hollow people” in charge of maintaining the sleeping gods’ prisons, or why humans know nothing about “hollow people” when they’re apparently crucial to the world-protecting prisons the humans are at least accused of maintaining. Although the theme of hope conquering despair has great emotional attraction, the presentation feels like it leaves enough loose ends, unanswered questions, and moral uncertainties that it undermines the feeling of triumph readers presumably are intended to share with the narrator as he conquers his own loss and looks forward to getting on with his life.

Amanda Forrest’s “The Shaadi Exile” is SF flavored with vocabulary and imagery from India. It opens in a marketplace where a woman makes memory boxes for brides whose families will have died of old age before the young women arrive, after a period of faster-than-light transport, at the scenes of their arranged marriages. The story’s conflict revolves around data, sent for a memory box, that doesn’t seem at all calculated to evoke fond memories of home or encouragement about the future. The protagonist’s investigation reveals the new bride’s homeworld’s government is oppressive, enforces religious proscriptions against medical interventions even for stroke victims, and uses blackmail and surveillance to control subjects even on a distant planet. “The Shaadi Exile” explores oppression and sacrifice, both on the part of the young bride’s family at home and on the part of those who feel for her where she arrives. The short story’s pleasant resolution comes at a cost, which works in the tale’s favor: its most uplifting element may be the narrator’s willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of strangers.

“The Pushbike Legion” by Timothy Jordan depicts an SF future in which a neo-Roman Legion travels in full armor on wooden-seated, leather-wheeled, brakeless bicycles. Wearing – some of them – helmets of repurposed bean cans. Sixty years after encroaching deserts ended life in England outside a starkly-defined perimeter, the story is set inside a green circle from which departure means death by disintegration before a body even hits the ground. But some things don’t change: the protagonist’s mother wants him to marry a nice girl, and pretties up the house with fake flowers for her arrival. The protagonist, too young to have developed interest in girls of his own, seems skeptical of being married off to keep up the population and ducks out to run errands for his Legionary commander.

Alarmed at the future planned for him by his elders – the house, employment, even a mate – the protagonist of “The Pushbike Legion” inadvertently discovers something about the force behind the desert and disintegration while avoiding his community. An old man preparing to ride into the desert to die explains how nanotech took over the world one day after a major software update. The post-apocalyptic world’s twin hazards – uncontrolled nanotech, and a fearful community urged to employ Dark Age solutions against those who depart from norms – drive the narrator to hunt in secret for the truth about the world. When at last he gains the ability to leave the green circle of Land without destruction, he gains also the power to choose what to do with his life. “The Pushbike Legion” shows how our homes and lives and jobs don’t determine our satisfaction, but our power to choose them. Jordan’s tale shows a world full of promise for adventure, and a narrator who matures enough to choose carefully what to do about it. More than that, Jordan’s tale shows the power of choice itself.

Randy Henderson’s short SF story, “The Memories Beneath the Mask,” is about inheritance in a world where memories – and career opportunity – can be willed like tangible property. The story addresses class, oppression, class prejudice, and opportunity. In the tradition of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this rags-to-riches tale doesn’t reward a hero for cunning in pursuing wealth and fame, but instead bestows unexpected gifts on the one good contestant in a field otherwise crowded with loathsome competitors. A protagonist from a struggling family visits his dying grandfather’s palatial estate after a severe coaching by his mother to ask for his most financially-rewarding memories, but he asks instead for happy memories of his deceased father. Instead of concealing the protagonist’s big decision until late in the story – after the author has laid a foundation for the reader to understand what it means – “The Memories Beneath the Mask” shows the big decision early and uses the story to reveal the result. Disaster, or deliverance?

“The Memories Beneath the Mask” upliftingly depicts the boy’s altruistic ambitions and unwillingness to pursue his mother’s financially-calculated scheme as visible proof to his grandfather that his character surpasses that available in the foyer full of sneering and grasping uncles. The boy hasn’t just found a golden ticket, he’s won the contest. His reversal of fortune feels good, and when a child with a heart of gold inherits the means to effect change, so does his sense of hope for social improvement. Lest the reader worry he’s a passive recipient and pawn in the schemes of cold old actors, the boy demonstrates agency in deciding to pursue his own plan to improve society rather than execute the playbook described to him by his grandfather. The boy hasn’t merely won a lottery, but come of age as his own man – and a good one at that.

Writers of the Future, Volume 30 includes many stories whose scenery and themes involve physical or social wastelands. The concern that we live in a physical wasteland or are making one easily resonates with readers, as does concern about the state of the environment. But timely topics don’t relieve authors of readers’ desire for a complete story, internally consistent characters, and decisions we can understand a character making even if it horrifies us. The best stories in the volume deliver all these. The stories that are not so strong stand as a lesson: the scenery doesn’t make the play. Stories are about characters.

When Kazantsev’s “Long Jump” depicts Ulysses abandoning his effort to rebuild his vehicle’s VR into a fantasy land and deciding to take care of himself in the real world, the story isn’t about his judgment of the VR or the people depicted in it, it’s about his relationship with adversity. The resolution of Henderson’s “The Memories Beneath the Mask” may create an optimistic feeling because the character dreams of improving the world, but the only reason this is a victory is that the protagonist has resisted the pressure of his elders to do practical things in order to pursue greater dreams. The sacrifice in O’Keefe’s “Another Range of Mountains” would have no meaning if the heroine hadn’t the choice to shift its backstory’s burdens onto others; it’s her choice, and nothing else, by which she demonstrates her love by showing what she’ll bear to protect those she loves. Until Jordan’s protagonist in “The Pushbike Legion” actually has a choice to leave the house he’s given, the place feels like a prison; only when he can stay there by choice does it become a home. The gold-star tragic transformative choice in this volume of Writers of the Future must lie with Paul Eckheart’s “Shifter,” the story premise of which is entertaining by itself – what a superpower! – but requires choice after choice to make the story what it is, and to render it dark, frightening, then heroic and tragic.

Frank Herbert’s Dune has a great setting, but how would we enjoy a whole book about it without choices like Duncan Idaho’s to sacrifice himself to save young Paul during his escape? How would we read book after book about Larry Niven’s Ringworld if we didn’t see its zany characters take risks and suffer the consequences? If not lured into Corwin’s high-stakes search for himself and the truth about his own story, how would we read book after book of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber? What would we get out of Jim Butcher’s colorful courts of Faerie without mortals exercising free will in the face of temptation and terror? Normally I direct reviews at readers looking for stories that suit them, but I’d like to take a moment to make a plea to authors: give us characters forced to make choices. We might hate villains’ decisions, or feel shock at protagonists’ decisions plainly doomed to go wrong – there’s no rule we must admire every decision – but show us a choice, and make the consequence stick.

C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.