Review: Writers of the Future XXIX

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

Welcome to my yearly review of the Writers of the Future anthology. This marks my sixth review of the contest. An explanation on my approach to reviewing this anthology I provided in my review of WotF 28. WotF 29 marks a change in tenure of Coordinating judge. Dave Wolverton (a.k.a Dave Farland) , gold award winner of contest #3 and bestselling author of the Runelords series, takes over for the departed Kathy Wentworth. With the exception of a portion of the first quarter, all the entries from last year went across Dave’s desk. Many writers had studied and pondered on what it took to impress the late Ms Wentworth. The abrupt change in first reader sent shockwaves through the forums populated by writers hoping to crack into the anthology. The big question was ‘would the standards change’ for winning the contest. If the winners are indication, my answer would be a soft yes, but by all means, judge for yourselfâ€

 

“War Hero” by Brian Trent second place, fourth quarter
Harris Pope is the hero of the resistance. The only one to successfully infiltrate the enemy, he destroyed the Partisan’s Phobos base and won the war to free Mars. Feigning loyalty to the isolationist’s cruelest commander , Corporal Peznowski , he is eager to put his past behind him. A simple saving of his conscious and he will begin his post war life , it is the last thing he remembers when he awakes forty years in the future in a new body.

“War Hero” is set in a future where death can be a new beginning. Memories of who you were are downloaded and can be uploaded later in a fresh body. What had seemed like a war that was almost over for Harris, turned to hell for Mars when a Partisan last resort protocol nuked the red planet’s surface. The resistance has learned Peznowski has returned and lives in the body of mid-level official. Harris’s conscious has been loaded into his nineteen-year old son, Peter , the victim of an accident. Harris’s mission is to kill his ‘father’ and learn what he can of Peznowski plans, but the sadistic Partisan commander has doubled his chances of success, downloading his mind into a second person he can trust. As horrifying as it is for Harris to learn his most bitter enemy is now his father, he discovers that the same man’s mind is also in the head of his mother as well.

“War Hero” is a futuristic sci-fi war story , not unlike the fast action tales woven by the likes of Dickerson, Drake, and Pournelle. I got the impression that the two sides had no qualms about total annihilation for all over defeat, a complication amplified when downloading a conscious can resurrect friends and enemies. The twist of one man becoming two and mating with himself was , I’m not sure how to identify that type of creepiness , and unique. It made the second half intriguing and a delight to read. Not as gripping was the interview opening with a bookish type of technician , I found the Shane character needlessly wooden and was glad he wasn’t in the second half of the story. Although I found the premise, protagonist, and antagonist worth the price of admission, the solution to the protagonist’s dilemma was nothing more than a cheat; an out-of-the-blue convenient rescue early short cliff hanger films would spring on their audience. No hint it was coming, nor an indication that the hero set it up from before.

“War Hero” makes for a good opening for a speculative anthology–quick and smart. It also strikes a tone that is different from past editions: darker, more intrigue, but with no promises that the ending will be a happy one.

Grade B+

 

“Planetary Scouts” by Stephen Sottong third place, first quarter

The scouts need a few brave (and naÃ’ ve) men and women, and Aidan Pastor is one of the best. At nineteen missions, he has survived five partners and is six missions away from retirement. Lester, fresh out of the academy, is his newest partner. He has a ten percent chance of surviving his first mission, but Aidan doesn’t plan on losing another partner and isn’t above teaching Lester some hard lessons so he can learn about survival quickly. The galaxy is a mean place. Humanity needs fresh worlds and it’s up to the scouts to find them, regardless the cost.

Stephen Sottong is an author who grew up reading the old Cold War science fiction masters of the 50’s and 60’s. “Planetary Scouts” honors those old action classics. The story is set up like many old cop movies where the wise veteran is saddled with an eager rookie. Aidan instills in Lester that idealistic notions – like sparing all intelligent life – is the best way to get killed. The galaxy is filled with life , hostile, aggressive, and territorial. It is the scout’s job to find out which worlds out there harbor intelligent life. Those that aren’t are sterilized for human occupancy.

“Planetary Scouts”‘ main protagonist is a hard man whose amusing but harsh tactics of training reminds me of a couple John Wayne and Clint Eastwood characters they brought to life. The worlds the pair land on are full of crafty and murderous lifeforms. The author deserves high praise for coming up with a round variety of hostile, yet original, natives. The story is one of the longest of the anthology but it read short to me. It is an idea that could , and should , be lengthen to a novel, with room for many sequels afterward. The humans of this future are narrowly pragmatic; the scorch and raze solution for colonization would horrify the progressive of our today. Life, as it seems, does not mix well with extraterrestrial newcomers. If you want to colonize a new world, you best exterminate the natives.

“Planetary Scouts” is so much like the stories I would find in the book stores of decades ago: adventurous humans taking on a mean galaxy not unlike the old explorers that braved the west of two centuries before. I found the tale gripping, exciting, and a complete delight to read. The character’s lives are filled with struggle, but most of that turmoil is of an outward variety. The inner turmoil past anthologies practically demanded, is only superficially present here. The ending to this piece is less than a happy one. That may disappoint some, but not me. Personal growth of fictional people matter less than riding shotgun in a wild ride like this story gave me.

Grade A

 

“Twelve Seconds” by Tina Gower first place, first quarter, Gold Award winner

Howard works for the police department. It is his job to process memory siphons; the image of the last moments a person sees before their death. Sera Turner’s siphon is off. It is only nine seconds and is missing something Howard has never failed to see in one before: the halo marking the end of life.

“Twelve Seconds”‘ protagonist is an autistic man. He wears special goggles to filter out the overload of sensory input, and help him to decipher the proper social protocols he often misses. The absence of a halo bothers him. Most view the halo image as proof that an afterlife exists: the light marking the opening to heaven. Howard’s investigation uncovers other siphons who failed to show a halo as well. Howard’s colleagues become impatient with him as he digs for answers. Ava tells him to look for a common thread. His simple mind has a hard time figuring out what is common, but he eventually stumbles on what others have missed , and his friend may be in danger when he does.

Ms Gower braved a risky tactic when she chose to write a first person perspective through the eyes of a mentally disabled protagonist. Howard is a functional handicap, made partly possible with the same technology created by the two doctors that made siphons possible. Howard is a man who has a hard time interacting with others. His co-workers all have socially disabling issues as well, but Howard appears to be the one having the hardest time fitting in among his colleagues. His desire to be more than what he is motivates him. He has dreams of becoming a real officer, often imagining that his closest colleague, Eddie , a policeman who lost his wife , as his partner and fellow detective. He is told to forget about the halo but the more he digs the more reports he uncovers of similar siphons.

“Twelve Seconds” is a different type of mystery. Howard takes on the role of a detective but unlike all the other mysteries I read before, he is successfully written as one not as bright. His inability to absorb the overload of sensory input in this futuristic society helps him to maintain a laser like focus on what is wrong with the vision of the last moments of Sera Turner’s life. The trail leads him to a cover up, and to a source brighter detectives may have overlooked. It easy to see why the judges chose this story as their Gold Award winner: it is different, brave, and with a protagonist you can’t help but to pull for. As much as I loved the idea of the memory siphons, and admire Ms Gower’s ability to write a convincing mentally handicapped protagonist, I wasn’t satisfied with the way the story rolled out.

The first half of the tale I thought was dynamite: good mystery, intriguing technology, and a likeable protagonist. The problem I had with it was the conclusion. The mystery on why the halos were absent from the victims was never explained to my liking. I also didn’t understand the antagonist’s motivation for their crime. Why was a cover up even necessary? Nevertheless, I found the tale very worthy for inclusion into the anthology. Nice work.

Grade B

 

“The Grande Complication” by Christopher Reynaga first place, fourth quarter

Nine-year old Neil’s world comes to a stop when he is about to board the train taking him to the orphanage. His handler isn’t nice and he wants to go home, but all his problems come to a halt when time stops around him. The only things that still move are himself and an old man who claims to be the caretaker of the World Clock. Time is breaking down, and it is up to the old man to fix it. He needs an apprentice, and Neil is the only person for the job.

“The Grande Complication” is a story that reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode title “A Kind of Stopwatch”. The world has frozen into place. Only Neil and the mysterious old man can move in it. The old man takes Neil into the realm of the World Clock through a seam in reality. The clock is home to things that have fallen out of time. Some, like Jack the Pigeon, were living beings but now exist in a metal-like shell. The clock is broken, and has been falling apart for some time. Chronaphage’s , small metallic locusts , have been chewing away at the clock. The clock caretaker is old and does not have long for this world. He must teach Neil how to repair the clock but Neil has never been good at putting things back together , only at taking them apart.

“The Grande Complication” has an opening with a sudden start. We are immediately thrown into his world and quickly become familiar with the problem he faces. The introduction to Neil trying to escape the clutches of the woman trying to send him away made for an excellent hook. Like the previous tale, I fell for this story right away. I became intrigued with the dilemma young Neil faced. But also like the previous tale, the conclusion left me unsatisfied. So not to spoil the outcome, I won’t reveal the ending scene that baffled me.

I rather liked how this story unraveled and adored the writing. However, I became confused with the shifting events and with a solution that seemed more like an accident that worked out for the protagonist.

Grade B

 

“Cop For A Day” by Chrome Oxide published finalist

Mark Rollins, convicted felon, has been selected for law enforcement detail for the day. He is given all the equipment they can spare for him to perform his duty , bullet proof vest, an AI disabled car, weapons , and is told if he collects a half-a-million dollars he can keep the job. A resourceful man like him just might have a chance to succeed, but then again, when it comes to the government, the rules keep changing to stack the deck against him.

The setting and premise for “Cop For A Day” is a libertarian’s worse nightmare. The government is nothing but semi-organized thuggery. Taxes are collected by theft. Any attempt to conduct an honest business is seen as capitalistic shenanigans that must be dealt with by with heavy-handed authoritative methods. The crime Mark was convicted of was conducting a black market repair service. His business was fair, and he was good at it, which made him a competitive danger and an avoider of taxes for not turning in all his profits for government confiscation. Mark is given a car that is barely functional. He is able to repair the vehicle’s AI brain thus making his job easier. The trick to being a good cop is taking advantage of crimes in progress so he can seize any evidence for the greater good. With the help of his car, he is able to interrupt a very big crime in progress.

The premise of “Cop” is one that teeters on edge of seriousness. The background characters have been dumbed down to a common denominator so low it defies belief. The community Mark lives in makes the most depressing and crime-ridden city of today seem like a paradise getaway in comparison. The government departments have colorful acronyms , which lends to a light-hearted tone, at the expense of the serious nature of the piece. The car (nicknamed EDGE by Mark) has a cold personality that makes moral judgments, reminding me of a mothballed KIT (of Knightrider fame) brought out of retirement.

Despite an abundance of cartoonish characters, “Cop For A Day” has a decent foundation for a science fiction tale seeking to achieve a futuristic moral premise. Mark is written effectively as a hero existing within the cracks of an oppressive society; a believable anti-hero hero. I can imagine a few of my progressive leaning friends disliking the message of this piece , government, left unchecked, is a government destined for corruption. I can see why this right-leaning tale of dystopia would fail to crack the top three, but I am one that is glad it made the pages of the anthology. I found it amusing and can imagine further adventures involving Mark and his EDGE.

Grade B+

 

“Gonna Reach Out and Grab Ya” by Eric Cline second place, second quarter

Dr Molly Boyle is left alone in the corner office when the sheriff delivers a naked John Doe for her to examine. Her colleagues have been called into Fort Benteen to deal with a quarantine event emergency. The dead man was found outside the military base. He is young, has three unique tattoos, and a clenched fist. His tattoos are remarkable. A woman depicted on his chest is done so well it almost looks like a photo. Molly wonders if they may hold a clue to his identity, but the mystery only deepens when she breaks protocol and touches the tattoo with her bare finger. The woman in ink moves under her touch.

“Gonna Reach Out” has a premise fitting an old Twilight Zone episode. Molly is a woman filled with anxiety. Her desire to become a doctor has left her in debt, overworked, and depressed. She is drawn as a lonely woman riding on the edge of a mental breakdown. John Doe is a handsome cadaver full of mystery. The dead man has tattoos that replay like short film clips when they are touched. His hand proves to have a life of its own, grasping at anything close enough to grab. It becomes clear to Molly that the man is part of something secret and big from the base. She is certain that the military will suppress anything Molly discovers, and the hasty , but lame , cover story only confirms her suspicion.

One way to describe “Gonna Reach Out” is as a Roswell cover up from another time. I found the mysterious John Doe as intriguing as Molly did. The setting for this story was ripe for a horror premise but the author chose a direction a little less scary. The presentation, protagonist, and overall premise I found very appealing and kept me glued to this story throughout , well done. Not as intriguing was Molly’s backstory. I found them to be mildly distractive. I also thought the protagonist solved the mystery a little too easily. Her conclusions were, in my opinion, a lucky guess.

“Gonna Reach Out and Grab Ya” is a story I wished would have been longer, invested less in the protagonist’s mental state, and been a bit creepier. Nevertheless, the tale is a good one. The premise reads peripherally familiar, but is unique enough to qualify as an original work of speculative fiction. In short: I liked it, but wished it had more.

Grade B-

 

“Vestigial Girl” by Alex Wilson third place, third quarter

Charlene is a genius. She is four years old, has the physical development of a pre-toddler, is the biological product of same-sex fathers, and is plagued by a monster. The monster is clever. It is wrapped around her voice box, inhibiting her ability to communicate with her fathers. CAT scans have failed to detect it, but Charlene has seen it with the help of a mirror she has constructed from bits and pieces around her home. Charlene knows the monster is against her, but she has a plan to free herself from its clutches. She has but one chance. It is now or never.

“Vestigial Girl” is a prison escape tale. Little Charlene’s prison is the underdeveloped body she is locked in and her jailer is the monster constricting her voice box. There are other children like her. Charlene briefly met such a girl capable of communicating the only way she could , through whistles. Her parents believe she is mentally and physically handicapped: her Daddy Oliver believing the science that merged his and Gary’s cells as being responsible for her condition. Charlene is more sophisticated than any child , and most adults , have ever been. Her plan is to conduct surgery on herself. The gambit is all or nothing. She knows that if she fails, the monster will have won, or will kill her for trying.

Alex Wilson is a name I was surprised to see in this anthology. I’ve seen his work in other places before, enough to make me believe that he was already a veteran professional writer. “Vestigial Girl” is an indication that he is indeed a seasoned speculative author. The backdrop of this story is of a same sex couple arguing in the next room. Charlene has heard it before and has become bright enough to know what the meaning in the tone and inflections in their voices really mean. The monster in her throat has her locked in a baby’s body. What its origins are is never explored in this tale but it may be responsible for Charlene’s underdeveloped condition. Other than possessing a mind Einstein would have been envious of, the one thing that Charlene has going for her is a glacial level of patience to cope with her fumbling digits. The tale is gripping as we follow along with her battle to defeat her monster, knowing her well-meaning parents can bring it all to an end if they check on her at an inappropriate moment.

Although I enjoyed the struggle of the patient and brilliant protagonist, the back drop of arguing couples took me a bit out of tale. Not only did I find it mildly distractive(parents who argue so loudly about a child, are irresponsible in their own right), but the nature and tone of a same-sex male couple, came off as clichÃ’ . Do all gay men fight like diva self-centered women? I would like to think not. It sounded as if they were attempting to one up each other in self-pity. That aside, the tale made for a wonderful slice in a greater drama. I would have liked to know more of the monster and why it chose children like Charlene to torment. Was it a conspiratorial attack? I would like to have known. Perhaps that may be told in another tale.

Grade B

 

“Holy Days” by Kodiak Julian third place, second quarter

The days of remembrance fill our lives. Four magical days mark what we once were, what we have lost, and what we would sooner forget. Evie is expecting her first child. It is her second pregnancy. For her bright and full-of-life but sick sister, Rosie, these days is a chance to step away from her chemotherapy. Her husband, James, tries to use the days to reconnect with his wife. The days are opportunities to get closer with family and loved ones but they instead expose the wounds we had allowed to callus over with time. Scabs that are exposed are scabs we can’t help but pick.

The “Holy Days” in Ms Julian’s story are miracle days. There is a day where our aliments leave us, a day where we return to a happier state, a day where the secrets we hold are revealed to those who share their common sin, and a day in which are departed loved ones come back. The protagonist in this tale is about to give birth to her daughter. The days are bitter sweet ones for her, as they are for others she is close to. Instead of appreciating re-experiencing the things and people she has lost, a forebearing regret fills her as it becomes apparent the people that are close to her will be leaving her soon.

I confess, the days in “Holy Days” would be ones most of us would embrace. Wouldn’t it be great if the arthritis and sickness that plagued us took a day off? And wouldn’t it be nice if you could spend one day with the parent you lost again? How about a day as the innocent and precise child your mother remembered you to be? Instead of looking forward to them, the protagonist in this tale treats the days like family get-togethers; days that force the ill feelings you’d rather not remember to the surface. The events that should have been looked upon as a gift from above, instead they make the reader feel dirty from the emotive residual that came with the package.

Although I liked the premise of “Holy Days” I found the subplots that dotted the story distractive. One sidetrack to the piece told of a relative of Evie’s husbands, a child that died at a young age. The sidebar was long and barely related to Evie’s dilemma. I was surprised it survived the authors final cut. The subplots and depressing tone of the tale, I admit, affected my final analysis of this piece. A few years back I would have likely given “Holy Days” a higher grade, but the quality of the writing and the appeal of the stories has raised the stakes of what I consider a good tale for WotF these days. Although I had no qualms with Ms Julian’s skill as a writer, or of her ability to tell an intriguing tale, the story was one of my least favorites.

Grade C+

 

“The Ghost Wife of Arlington” by Marilyn Guttridge second place, third quarter

Vivian is Arlington’s Shade. She serves as the town’s ambassador to their immortal; a much feared supernatural being she has named the Shaker. She is a divorced outsider who stumbled onto the immortal’s doorstep in the middle of the night. The town folk are frightened of her but are grateful she took a role one of the locals would have had to fill. Shaker is unlike other immortals Vivian has known. He acts more a like an aloof Lord to the people of Arlington than a mischievous deity that toys with mortals. Serving as Shaker’s Shade gave Vivian a purpose in life when she needed it the most. Assuming the role of Death’s companion is not a job most mortals would want. She never expected to fall in love with a man with no heart, nor had she ever thought she would crave having a child with him.

If I were to choose the author who would be most likely to succeed as a bestselling author in this anthology, my vote would have gone to Marilyn Guttridge. This very young winner has an intuitive talent of capturing the attention of a reader. The opening scene to “The Ghost Wife” unravels like the first chapter of a fantasy romance novel. Vivian is shown as a woman with a very unusual job, a servant to a powerful being that is treated like an equal by her master. Shaker is a distant ruler. Mortals confound him but being the only immortal around leaves him lonely. His home is filled with ghostly things called ‘Shadows’ , shy and elusive around Vivian. Shaker is a being that mimics the shell of a human. He can change his form at will but can’t maintain a consistent skin temperature. His touch is usually ice cold but he can burn like a hot stove if he chooses. He works hard with his relationship with Vivian, a difficult task when you have no idea what it is like to be alive.

“The Ghost Wife” is Beauty and the Beast retold. Shaker’s beast is of a being that is alien to the concept of what it is to be human. Try as he might, he can never really be like a man, but his efforts in trying for Vivian’s benefit make him more of a man for a woman who lived with an unkind husband for years. The first half of this tale is warm. You can feel Vivian’s sympathy for a man who is feared by the town he watches over. He is the bringer of death, escorting the souls of the departed to his street until they are ready to move on. When Vivian asks for a child, Shaker becomes angry. Children he sires cannot be alive, eventually becoming the Shadows that hide in his home. The warm opening scene of the first half of the “The Ghost Wife” gives way to a tale that reads like an epilogue. I found the proceeding story to be rushed , as if the author crammed the remaining chapters of her novel to fit into a short story. As a result, the tale lost some of its luster and warmth that captured me at the opening. The last ten percent of the tale where a new, and important, character is introduced, devolves the story into a footnote status , an explanation of what happened to Vivian in the end. It was so distant I came to not care of the character who burst onto the scene.

“The Ghost Wife of Arlington” is a tale written with two dynamic players. I cared about them and I could see many readers falling in love with them. Of all the stories in this anthology, this tale fits in to what I imagine the late Kathy Wentworth searched for: character led tales of speculation. I can’t remember a tale in all the years of the contest where the story would have been better served as novel, if only to see the characters evolve to their full potential. Perhaps Ms Guttridge will one day rework it and create one for Vivian and Shaker.

Grade B+

 

“Everything You Have Seen” by Alisa Alering first place, second quarter

Min-Hee is a young Korean girl caught in the middle of a war. She hides from the shells bursting overhead, hunts down the chickens that have fled the coop, and avoids her cruel brother. Her family is in shambles. Her father has gone to war and left her mother to care for a baby, Min-Hee, and Chung-hee , Min-hee’s older brother. Min-hee discovers a strange boy hiding in the chicken coop and names him Turtle. Turtle wears strange clothes, speaks a foreign language, and can summon food at will. The strange boy is unlike any person Min-hee had met and represents something she had little of before; hope.

“Everything You Have Seen” is a tale told from the frontline of the Korean War. Min-Hee and her family are villagers who have the misfortune of living where the armies have stood to fight. Chung-hee has joined a gang of boys. Their mother has lost control of the family. Turtle is a refuge but Min-hee cannot fathom from whence he came, or if he truly exists. He is lost, but what he is lost from is a mystery. Helping Turtle be found will help Min-hee find herself.

My description of Ms Alering’s story is imprecise. The tale had two themes; the destructive nature of war on a family’s structure and the fantasy element of a lost and magical boy. Turtle, scared and lonely, offers Min-hee a glimpse of a better life. His vision of peace and serenity are a sharp contrast to Chung-hee’s descent into savagery and barbarism. It becomes clear to Min-hee that accepting current events as they are will not serve Min-hee, her mother, and infant brother.

I found Ms Alering’s winning entry tough to follow. For example, I assume her story was set in the Korean War of the fifties from my own knowledge of history, but truth be told I could be wrong. Turtle was more of mystery to me. What he really was I could only make an educated guess. His exit from the story left me unsatisfied and was set way before the end of the tale. Far more intriguing to me was Chung-hee and his choice to attach himself to a marauding band of thugs – deciding his own family were nothing but exploitable items to barter and control. A fascinating subplot. I found her tale interesting but I failed to find solid ground with her premise.

Grade B-

 

“Scavengers” by Shannon Peavey third place, fourth quarter

Mara is a girl with poor sight. Her sister, Keera, serves as the guard for Goldwater , a job that was meant for her. The Lady and her metallic finches warn Mara when a Harvester – dangerous men from outside Goldwater – approaches. It is up to Keera, Mara, and Keera’s husband, Rey, to shoot the Harvesters before they can harm the village. Keera and Rey’s sharp shooting has never let the town down, but when the latest intruders fail to hold scythes suspicion brings to creep into Mara’s mind.

“Scavengers” is set in an isolated town. Goldwater is watched over by the Lady , a woman who is half vulture. Mara was chosen in her youth to be the guard for the town but an illness that struck her sight barred her from the job. The Lady has cared for Mara and has been working to improve her vision. She cares deeply for the town, and for Mara. The trio has the task of assassinating any scythe-carrying men who dare enter their area. Their latest kill are two men who proved to not be holding scythes. Keera decides she must find out the truth and leaves Goldwater. Mara and Rey are left to defend the town, and when another Harvester arrives, Mara suspects the worst when the dangerous man is found riding the same horse Keera rode out on.

“Scavengers” is a tale very much like recent winners from Ms Wentworth’s watch; character-building struggle set in an unusual speculative element. Mara is a woman racked with guilt. Guarding the town became Keera’s by default when Mara’s deteriorating eyesight prohibited her from assuming responsibility. The uneasiness Mara feels toward the Lady is apparent from the start. Although she is grateful to the vulture woman for treating her sight, she can’t help but wonder why the self-appointed guardian would care so much for the town, setting up a mystery that was very thin from the start. The tone of the piece was quite solemn, in my opinion. Regret, guilt, and suspicion bleeds from the story, leaving this reader feeling a little icky. The story was well-written, with an intriguing premise, and stocked with interesting characters, but if you’re looking for an uplifting tale you better come back to this later.

Grade B

 

“Dreameater” by Andrea Stewart first place, third quarter

Alexis and her mother, Linda, are drifters. They travel the southwest in a car without air conditioning. Linda earns a living stopping at motels to meet strange men. The men aren’t usually kind, but they lose their mind when Linda lets down her hair. Eventually, Linda will take their mind for good.

“Dreameater” is a horror story in the narrowest of terms. Alexis lives a life no teenager should experience, a daughter of a prostitute without a home. Complicating Alexis’s predicament is her mother’s temper. Linda would never hurt Alexis but she can be deadly to others. Dumping bodies of Linda’s clients is a common practice the pair has endured. Alexis has lived with this horror but when the police stake out the hotel room where met her latest client, the scene Alexis witnesses is worse than she could have ever imagined. Life for Alexis takes a turn she never expected. Child services have found her father, and he hints at a grim future for Alexis.

If there is one story that would mark the difference between a Wentworth edited anthology and this one, this would be the piece. “Dreameater” is the darkest tale I can ever remember reading for the contest. Alexis’s father is a ‘dreamcatcher’, a man who can shape the dreams of people. Linda is a ‘dreameater’, a person who consumes them. She is a monster who will eventually consume all a person has to offer until she feasts on their brains to satisfy her insatiable hunger. It doesn’t take long for Alexis to realize that no jail will hold her mother, and she knows Linda will come for her when she escapes.

I am a fan of dark tales. “Dreameater” has a premise fit for a Stephen King novel. Alexis is dealt a bad hand in life, leaving a wealth of sympathy for the reader to grasp onto. The opening pages left me wondering about Linda, not sure if she was a desperate woman doing what she can to provide for her child or an irresponsible parent of the worse kind. I found the set up for this horror to be enticing , a good ambush to spring on an unsuspecting reader. While I adored the premise to this piece, the narration is one that didn’t grab me. Ms Stewart stayed true to telling the story from a teenage girl who has neglected an education while traveling from town-to-town living in a car. Her first person account was done with a girl subtle in a solitary life absent a sound social setting , making for a simpler dialog and narrative. This approach made the tale less appealing to me, I confess. Nevertheless, the story was original and worthy its first place finish.

Grade B-

 

“Master Belladino’s Mask” by Marina J. Lostetter second place, first quarter

Melaine seeks a miracle. Her mother has been wasting away from disease. Only one man can cure her but he is dead. Fortunately, a mask of his likeness still exists. Melaine has gathered all the bottled time in her possession and hopes to don the mask and create the cure as Master Belladino. But renting the mask will cost more than she has, and there is a danger. To wear a mask is to assume their personality, and sometimes the will trapped inside the mask can be greater than the wearers.

“Master Belladino’s Mask” is layered tale. A number of subplot twists leant to this gripping premise. The story revolves around two and half characters (more on the half character in a moment). Melaine is a girl from the country that has been caring for her ailing mother. She has come to the city with her mother to find the master healers mask. The mask shop clerk is unsympathetic to Melaine’s blight, unwilling to rent her mask she needs with the currency she possess. Fortunately, the Inn keeper, a man named Leiwood, takes pity on her and covers the fee while offering a place for them to stay. He has had a bad experience with a previous mask, putting on his departed father’s in an effort to understand the cruel man. He is leery of Belladino’s mask but knows it will be Melaine’s only chance to save her mother.

Ms Lostetter’s story would have been solid if she just stuck to this narrow premise, but an effort to fill out a complete world with magical rules widen the scope of “Master Belladino’s Mask”. A novel concept of selling time , taken from newborns , was particularly intriguing; a sort of deposit for future needs. Leiwood’s backstory with his father also supported the girth of the storyline. His experience made him an advocate against mask wearing and time selling. It is only Melaine’s desperate predicament that allows him to overlook his opposition to the practice.

It isn’t until halfway through the tale when Melaine first affixes the mask to her face, an appropriate point of the story based on the subtle building of tension. The gradual realization of the power of the magic and of the strong personality (the half character) it stores becomes apparent to Melaine and reader alike, setting up a carefully crafted climax. Well done.

A note of admiration for the editor of the anthology. Although “Master Belladino’s Mask” was one of the shortest stories in this year’s contest, it was fullest tale in the bunch , a fitting finale to a complete collection of short stories. It is unfortunate that Ms Lostetter’s story competed in the same quarter as Ms Gower’s. I believe if she were up for the big award, it would have been her story that would have walked away with the champion’s honor.

Grade A-

 

 

As Predictedâ€

In my previous review of the yearly anthology, I commented on how the choices for the finalist nominees would differ with the passing of the previous coordinating judge, Kathy Wentworth. After reviewing the past anthologies where Kathy served as first reader and editor, and as a reader of Dave Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants writing tips, I noted how I thought the winning stories may have a different flavor to them. While I can’t make a definitive conclusion on a new direction the anthology may be taking in its choices in winners, I can note on how this collection of stories have differed with the recent past.

Darker

Violence, cliffhanging scenes, avenging heroes all had a place in past anthologies but finding one that had less than a happy ending was a rare find. A good third of the tales in this year’s collection would have left readers who demand a happy ending disappointed. For readers like me, tales where the outcome could go either way is how I prefer them.

Funnier

Aside from one tale, all of the stories here had very serious premises, but there were a couple that employed a light hearted tone to establish a characters personality. Humor was rare to see while Ms Wentworth ran thing, warning to writers that it would be a hard sell. Mr Wolverton has asked the submitters to please send your funny tales, and Chrome Oxide proved that it does indeed have a home in the anthology for now.

Less robots

With the exception of a talking car, this year’s anthology was absent of artificial intelligences. I once commented in a review that a WotF anthology could have been titled “I, Robot” by the abundance of android-like creatures dominating each tale. I believe Ms Wentworth had a soft spot for Tin Man characters. Mr Wolverton has no such attachments.

I commented in the past that Ms Wentworth had a preference for stories with a fairy tale-ish quality to them. The genre didn’t matter but most followed a familiar blueprint. Whenever I spotted a pattern to the ones that made the final cut, I would do my best to share my findings here. It wasn’t always easy to spot, and I may have not always been right, but I believe my instincts proved to be largely correct. Finding a pattern that best suits Dave Wolverton may not be as easy but I do believe I have found one common quality that is present with many of the stories in this year’s finalists; unforgettable finales.

The soft landing for endings I would see in past anthologies are largely missing here. The finales of these tales are sharper, more definitive, and written as stories that leave little room for a follow up sequel. More importantly, the tales in here have more of an exclamation point finality to them. That could be just my perspective of what I read, but I will be looking for that same flavor of a sharp end in the stories in next year’s anthology.

As for similarities with this collection compared to the ones of the recent past , if I were to pick out the pieces that would have been mostly likely to catch Ms Wentworth’s eye, I would have chosen the four first place winners. They all had that character building, compelling struggle, storyline that dominated past winners before. Although the finalist choices may have changed, what attracts the attention of finalist the judges, have not.

 

FrankCurtainFrank has been reviewing the Writer’s of the Future anthology for years. You’d think he would use that knowledge for good and win the damn thing outright, but alas, he hasn’t yet. He’s been close (oh so close) but he’s still the guy who outside looking in.

Someday…someday.

Review: Writers of the Future XXVIII

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

Before I cut my reviewing teeth at Tangent Online, before Daily Science Fiction came to life, I shared my thoughts on the Writers of the Future anthology here at Diabolical Plots. WotF is a contest like none other in literature. The dream child of the late – and controversial – science fiction author, L Ron Hubbard, WotF is a contest reserved for the amateur writers of speculative fiction. Its judges are staffed with the icons in the industry. Winners of the contest have often gone on to greater success. Skeptical? A simple roll call of Hugo and Nebula nominees of the past decade plus is all the evidence you need. Many authors who now make writing their career , including the last two coordinating judges , made their first steps as a successful author winning this contest.

Because the Writers of the Future contest is so unique, I have made my reviews unique. It is the only publication where I assign letter grades for each story. I do so for three reasonsâ€

a) Because I’m a loyal reader.

I bought the first anthology when it debuted so very long ago (I was young then, I swear). With the exception of a few in the 90’s, I have read them all. Some of the stories have moved me, some have left me scratching my head and left me wondering on how they managed to be place in the contest, but most fall in that murky middle. A simple , I liked it , doesn’t accurately reflect on how I felt about the stories, but the letter grades do.

b) Because I’m a contestant.

I first started to submit to the contest when I began to review the anthology four years ago. I’ve done well enough to average about three Honorable Mentions a year. With the exception of one Silver Honorable Mention, I have yet to do better. But if the estimates that only the top 5 to 10% reach the level of HM, then I can reason that I’m not doing all that bad. The stories that have won have bested my best. The letter grades reflect my analysis of my competition.

c) Because they’ve passed the test.

Most writers who have submitted a story to a professional publication have a lofty dream of making it in the industry. Dreams that their names will someday stand with the prestigious authors of today motivate many, but there is a wall they must first scale, a note of accomplishment that a writer can hold up to show that they have indeed made it. The WotF contest has proven to be that mark of excellence that they have.

Scores of writers have known the contest opens a door that they have been turned away from. For most who have won, entry into the anthology is their first professional sale. It is a rare contest. If you’ve made it in the industry, you can’t enter it. It’s for the writers who have been searching for their big break. For a lot of past winners, make the table of contents is the beginning of greater things to come , and you need not look any further than list of Hugo and Nebula nominees for the past decade to see just how true that is. It’s the reason why , according to Kristine Kathryn Rusch in her excellent essay in this year’s anthology , the contest receives thousands of entries each quarter. Amateur writers have learned winning the contest can mean everything for their career.

So, this contest is our Bar exam, the dissertation to earn our doctorate, our finishing line of our marathon, the peak of our mountain. It is the final exam to our professional writers degree. With that in mind every exam I ever took came with a grade. So how did our graduates from amateur-hood do? Take a look for yourself†.

 

“Of Woven Wood” by Marie Croke first place, first quarter

Lan’s creator, Haigh, is dead. Murdered by unknown assailants. Worse, Lan’s wicker head now has a hole in it, and he has a headache to boot , an odd feeling for a creature constructed out of branches. Now his head cannot hold items, a dilemma that stresses him much. Haigh’s neighbor, Jaddi, comes to get Lan and takes him into her home. Haigh’s talents as the local apothecary will be missed. Lan’s role as Haigh’s assistant and storage curator leaves a hole in his purpose as gaping as the one in his head. The emptiness inside him forces Lan to reflect who he is, a question that is compounded when Haigh’s murderers return to find what they were looking for, the item that led to Haigh’s death.

“Of Woven Wood” opens as a mystery. Lan awakes confused. He doesn’t understand the pain he is in or how he received the hole in his head. Vague recollections of his master stuffing him with important items, while their home is being invaded, flash in his mind. He is more concerned about Haigh’s reaction to the missing items in his head cavity, and of the broken things on the floor, than he is about Haigh’s unresponsive state. Lan is a walking wicker basket. His insides are a concealed storage container. As Haigh’s assistant, he picks up the pieces of his life and assumes his former masters role as the apothecary of the town.

“Of Woven Wood” transforms as a story almost from the beginning. Lan’s character is convincingly shown as a magical servant. He is robotic in design with the indifference in attitude fitting the fantasy equivalent of a heartless machine. I found it surprising when the author accomplished this so successfully yet spent the rest of the story showing he was anything but. The emotionless creature at the start evolves into a Pinocchio like character. I found the writing sound – the smooth prose and intriguing opening had me very curious from the start. However, the plot lacked a firm footing for me to remain grounded. The story, and its protagonist, drifted as if they weren’t sure what they were or where they should go next. The first half of the piece was a lengthy set up of Lan searching to find himself. The last half hinged on a twist that came out of nowhere. The result was a tale that I found enjoyable to follow but with an ending that was flat and a conclusion that felt like a cheat.

Grade B-

 

“The Rings of Mars” by William Ledbetter first place, second quarter

Malcom is chasing his best friend, Jack. He has recommended that his long time bud be returned to Earth. Now Jack has taken the robot rover, Nellie, and like a hurt child, has run away and left Malcom alone on the red planet’s dry surface. Malcom has no reason to be concerned, until an unexpected solar flare warning puts him in danger. Loyal to his friend, but still feeling betrayed, Jack returns to rescue Malcolm. Malcolm uses the opportunity to explain why he made his decision, but Jack has his reasons for not being a team player for the company. He has found something, something too valuable to leave in the clutches of a heartless corporation to exploit.

“The Rings of Mars” is a good old-fashioned science fiction tale. The story starts off as a buddy tale. Malcolm has valid reasons on why he has recommended Jack’s recall. An accomplished geologist, Jack has spent all his time exploring the red sands yet has failed to find any mineral deposits for the company to use. But Jack has indeed found just what the company needs, water, and tons of it. Giant pillars frozen in the sand, but the pillars appear to have a pattern to them, as if they were a puzzle left long ago for a budding species on a neighboring blue planet to solve. Malcolm isn’t so sure but can see the benefit the find would be for the company. Jack is disappointed with Malcolm and abandons him again, leaving him for the company to find as he runs off. But while Malcolm waits, he discovers there is far more to this puzzle than even Jack has discovered. He is left with a choice; be a hero to the company or help Jack unravel the greatest discovery in human history.

“Rings of Mars” reminds me of the short 70’s sci-fi adventures I fell in love with as a youth. The slow pace of the first few pages ends up paying off halfway through. Mr Ledbetter’s experience as the editor for the National Space Society’sannual Jim Baen’s writing contest is put to good use in this tale. A fine mixture of solid science and astronomy knowledge supports a well-crafted premise. I was taken in with the dilemma the two men faced and was quite satisfied with the story’s eventual solution. Well done. The one thing that did disappoint me was the art attached to the story. I thought the tale deserved a depiction as imaginative as the storyline.

Grade A-

 

“The Paradise Aperture” by David Carani first place, fourth quarter, Gold Award winner

Jon has lost his wife. He is a photographer who stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries in history, the ability to develop doorways that lead into pocket universes. Two years before, he lost his wife inside one of those universes and now he is obsessed to find her. His ability to capture doorways has made him wealthy. Each universe is a paradise. One can step into one and not feel pain, hunger, thirst†the ultimate alternate reality for those who want to disconnect from the real one , and the perfect environment for those who want a place to conduct less than ethical business practices.

“The Paradise Aperture” is a well thought out and original concept. People and corporations are willing to pay him millions for each doorway. Jon needs the money to help him finance his search for his lost wife but is having difficulty turning a blind eye to what they are being used for. His teenage daughter tags along with him on his trips to photograph new doorways, even when she hates doing so. His mother-in-law begs him to stop, to accept that his wife is gone for his daughter’s sake. The government has threatened to put his work to a stop, concerned with the ethics of creating new worlds. He is running out time to find his wife and is beginning to lose hope that he will. He has one last idea, an idea that might bring unimaginable catastrophe.

“The Paradise Aperture” is Mr Carani’s first published work, a fact that I am having a hard time believing. The characters are drawn well. Jon is conflicted, short in patience and annoyed with the people who crave his work. His teenage daughter, Irene, is successfully written as a spoiled teenager of a single, but wealthy, parent , bored, disrespectful, and judgmental. The tale is written on a foundation of a fresh and fascinating premise. Who wouldn’t love to step into a doorway leading to paradise? Particularly impressive was the author’s ability to craft subtle hints that have huge implications later in the tale. Although the storyline itself didn’t knock my socks off, the exceedingly impressive crafting of the story did. I foresee a brilliant writing career in Dave Carani’s future.

Grade A

 

“Fast Draw” by Roy Hardin published finalist

Jake is about to be shot by his G-1, basic grade human, quick-drawing girlfriend. He has less than two seconds before the bullet reaches him. Plenty of time for a G-30 to down a few drinks, make his moves on the lovely girl seated next to him at the bar, and step out of the way. Now if he only knew the grade of the alluring woman seated next to himâ€

“Fast Draw” is set in a future where new and improved models of androids are created each year, making ‘new’ brands obsolete after a few years. Jake had been very important when he was relevant, but that was long ago. He is an anomaly, living way past his expected twenty years of life. At seventy, Jake is an antique compared to the G-100’s of today. He is slow, mentally and physically, to the advanced models, but is blazing quick to his bio-original girlfriend, Gloria. His new interest, another android whose grade he doesn’t know, is a wild card. She encourages his advances but there is something that doesn’t feel quite right about her. The quickly evolving events , set to slow motion , unravel as a speeding bullet crawls toward him.

“Fast Draw” is a story with entertaining characters set in a basket full of coincidental circumstances. Jake, Bunny, and Gloria are moving at wildly different speeds in a ridiculous offset of time dilation, setting up the first of many premise stretching scenarios. In the span of less than two seconds, we observe two people flirting, receive a history lesson on Advanced Platform androids, get an in depth report of Jakes life up to that point, and watch a blow-by-blow quick draw in slow motion. The cherry to this over-the-top premise is Gloria’s happens to wear a six-shooter on her hip. Despite the avalanche of convenient subplots, I found this story enjoyable to read.

Grade B

 

“The Siren” by M. O. Muriel second place, third quarter

Janie is awake, one of the lucky few in the collective human conscience known as the Honeycomb. The rest of humanity is asleep while invaders from another dimension known as the Grunge have taken over their bodies. Janie is a manipulative, bi-polar teenager. She has a habit of rejecting the status quo and rejecting authority. Her antagonistic trait may serve her well as a member of the resistance in the sub-conscious world of the Honeycomb, or her arrogance may bring about her downfall.

The Siren is set in a ‘Matrix’-like world. Janie has memories of a news report involving an ancient artifact under the ice of Antarctica and little else after. The few who have escaped from the clutches of the Grunge have the ability – or illness – to perceive reality differently than the masses. After wandering alone among the labyrinth of sleeping consciousness, Jamie stumbles upon the COP Phoenix, a base of operations occupied with Tibetan monks and mentally ill. She learns the Grunge hunt the few who have the ability to resist them, like the Tibetan master, Lobsang. Death is also possible in this subconscious state as one of a multi-personality alterego’s learned when they fell into the abyss. Survival and gathering others like themselves have been the goal of COP Phoenix but neither will win humanity’s freedom back. Janie preferred a more proactive approach in the real world, and won’t hesitate to do the same in this one.

“The Siren” is an imaginative world, one that stretched my range of comprehension. The story is a difficult one to soak in, but somehow my saturated brain managed to absorb it all. There was much to be confused about – flashbacks, mind-bending manipulation, mirrored personality images , it took me awhile to put Ms Muriel’s premise into its proper perspective. The large story does have a clear direction and outcome, but like the surreal world of the Honeycomb, it is one that the reader could find themselves hopelessly lost in and give up. The tale does have a satisfactory solution to Janie’s problem but does open up the tale to an even larger story. The conflict Ms Muriel introduced us to was only an opening salvo.

Grade B

 

“Contact Authority” by William Mitchel first place, third quarter

Jared Spegel’s job is to protect the human race from annihilation. So when his cover is blown in the Kaluza station weeks before humanity is set to make first contact with the Caronoi – an alien race on the verge of space travel , he must take a risky step by revealing the nature of his visit to the station commander. Someone has been leaking information to the Caronoi on the station, a clear violation of Alliance protocol. Earth is the newest member of the galaxy-spanning Alliance. Species deemed worthy are invited into the Alliance. Those who aren’t, are eliminated as threats. Humanity barely averted annihilation sixty years before, and Jared isn’t the only who thinks that extermination may still be in mankind’s near future.

“Contact Authority” is a tale of species under the eye of a real Big Brother. The species of Man is on a very short leash. The Alliance is a mysterious organization that takes no chances with emerging intelligences. Rory Temple’s grandfather was the man who first initiated contact with the Alliance. Now Rory is on hand for first contact with the Caronoi. He has decoded their sing-song way of communicating. Suspicion first falls on him as the leak. Not much is known of the Alliances criteria on what makes a violation in their protocols but leaking information to an emerging race is clearly a no-no to them. Angering the Alliance is the last thing Earth wants to do. Man’s fate rests on Jared’s shoulders on finding the source of the leak. But as he digs, the weight of two races fate bears down on him. Can he find the perpetrator in time?

“Contact Authority” is story with a premise I would describe as flimsy. An overbearing, overseeing, collective race of advanced aliens is easy to imagine, but their criteria of what they determine is dangerous I found hard to believe. Nevertheless, with that premise in mind, the actions Jared and his comrades took was beyond irresponsible. I can’t imagine that anything less than a full court-martial would be waiting for him when he got back to Earth. I will say though, the ending line was fabulous.

Grade B ,

 

“The Command for Love” by Nick T. Chan second place, second quarter

Ligish is in love with his master’s daughter, Anna. A war golem like himself has no use for such a command but he can’t determine which symbol is love in his skull. The homunculus in his head is becoming senile, just like Anna’s father, Master Gray, is now. The emotion makes life more difficult for the titanium machine when General Maul arrives to take Anna’s hand in marriage, and all Master’s Gray’s belongings , including Ligish , as his endowment. Ligish is the true prize for the power hungry General, but Ligish can’t bear to think of Anna becoming the concubine for this man. He will do anything for Anna, even circle the world to God’s mouth if he needs to.

“The Command for Love” is a steampunk story set in an extraordinary fantasy world. Golems, the homunculi controlling them, and women, are all under the servitude of men. The world is in the shape of a man with the sun and moon resting in each hand. The arms are raised and lowered to mark the passage of each day. Ligish is the last type of golem that was built long ago. He is far more advanced than any war machine in General Maul’s arsenal. Once Maul’s marriage to Anna is complete, Maul plans on installing his own homunculus into Ligish, but Ligish has no intentions of committing violence. He must find a way to nullify the contract the senile Master Gray has signed but that may require nothing short of divine intervention to overturn it.

“The Command for Love” has an awful lot of content in a few pages. Homuncoli, ghost rifles, a golem shaped world, and so much more, are thrown at the reader. Despite the fact I had to play catch up determining what the hell a ‘homunculus’ was, I was immediately taken in with this story. General Maul cares only about furthering his own goals. He made it very plain to Ligish that he and Anna would be his property to use and abuse once his marriage to Anna is complete. The first half was set as a wonderful battle of wits between a unique protagonist and an excellent villain. But alas, that formula proved to be not in this plot’s mix. The story took a turn halfway through when the premise went from extraordinary to head-spinning. I will not divulge any more so not to spoil it for readers but let me just say it became different to follow.

This is a story I wished would have stuck to the narrow premise of the first half. Where the second half had some intriguing characters and mesmerizing settings, the expansion of the story just seemed too much for me. It read like ‘Lord of the Rings’ might have if it were cut down to 10,000 words, an overload of twists and subplots crammed in too tight of a space. Nevertheless, “The Command of Love” does have a satisfactory conclusion, but the ‘happy ending’ it provided came off as a Pyrrhic victory for the main characters. I will say there is a good story in there, but finding it is like trying to trace a solitary wire through the spaghetti mess you’ll find behind your stereo system.

Grade B

 

“My Name Is Angela” by Harry Lang third place, first quarter

Angela’s place in a pecking order is set. She is a grade school teacher who isn’t expected to teach. She is in a relationship that isn’t expected to grow. She is looked down upon, a societal minion, a cog in the machine, a thing to keep others occupied. She wants more, but more isn’t meant for androids like herself.

“My Name Is Angela” is speculative tale of growth. It is a story that would easily fit in a Blade Runner universe. Angela is a human-mimicking machine who strives to be more human. The grandfathers that built her did not design her to be any more than a functioning element in civilization. But she wants more and only the Soul Man can get her more. Angela lives with an android companion, Bruno. Their mundane lives take a turn when Angela smashes Bruno with a hot iron when her ‘no’ for sex wasn’t a satisfactory answer for Bruno. Angela is like any person who tires of a going through the motions. She wants more and is about to get it.

“My Name Is Angela” is a human tale. Angela is like many people who have settled into a life and is now unsatisfied with it. Unlike the rest of us, all she has to do is find the Soul Man to tweak her perspective. And change it does. Her unauthorized reprograming is viewed like an epiphany for Angela. Guilt for what she had done to Bruno wracks her. Suddenly, the lesson plan she has given her children is lacking in content. She wants to make a difference in her student’s education, be a better girlfriend to Bruno, and strive to make a positive mark on society. But society already has a place set for her, and upsetting the apple cart is not welcomed.

Harry Lang’s tale of a woman who expects more in life is one a colleague of mine could describe as a ‘never beginning story’. For a reader who didn’t go through the effort of submerging themselves in Angela’s character, the tale would read like an ordinary person’s ordinary life. Many of the characters in the story don’t like Angela’s enthusiasm. Bruno seems quite satisfied with the mundane quality of his life. “My Name Is Angela” unravels just like any tale of woman who was too eager to jump into adulthood discovers , there just has to be more to life for her. Compounding Angela’s problems is the prejudice androids experience. They are designed to take jobs humans look down on, so are naturally looked down upon by their human masters.

“My Name is Angela” is an ordinary character tale about an ordinary character who strives to be more than just ordinary. If you were ever looking for the type of story K D Wentworth loved to read, I would guess this one would have served as an excellent example. She loved character driven stories and this one runs on the sheer strength of the protagonist alone.

Grade B

 

“Lost Pine” by Jacob A. Boyd third place, third quarter

Gage and Adah have worked out a fine life for themselves at the Lost Pine. The former camp is now their refuge from a world devoid of adults. It has livestock, supplies, and doesn’t exist on a map. Gage’s carefully constructed concealment is comprised when a thin boy named Monk crashes through Gage’s barrier. Gage doesn’t trust him but Adah doesn’t want Gage to harm the stranger. Monk was once a camper at the Lone Pine and is surprised to find it occupied. He is willing to do his part to help, and says he will go if not welcomed, but Gage thinks that there is something to his story that doesn’t ring true.

“Lone Pine” is set in a world where aliens have sent spores to cocoon the adults and injured of the world. An armada approaches and is set to arrive any day. With the adults gone, civilization has degraded into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ society. Those cocooned are not quite dead. Why the aliens have chosen to preserve most of the people on Earth in such a way is never satisfactorily explained. The story takes a slight turn when the aliens land and begin to take the cocoons away. Gage doesn’t know if the alien’s motives are noble or sinister but is sure those imprisoned will not survive without their help.

“Lone Pine” centers around Gage. He is protective of Adah. She came to him when her parents were first cocooned years before. Now the once-small child is blossoming into womanhood and he can’t help to think of her as his possession. Monk represents competition and a connection to a harsh world that he has protected Adah from. He is jealous of Monk and of the interest Adah begins to show in him.

I confess, I did not like the way the author choose to tell this tale. Monk’s voice is virtually absent. What he says is relayed through Gage’s interpretation , a backhanded second person perspective but useful for the author to show the jealousy Gage has in himself. The arrival of the aliens is an attempt to add an extra dimension to the tale. Instead, it makes the characters more transparent than they already were. I believe the aliens were not needed. The story already had all the elements it needed. A pair of kids trying to live while the world outside has crumbled, makes for a good story all on its own.

Grade C+

 

“Shutdown” by Cory L. Lee third place, second quarter

Private Adanna Amaechi is a long way from a ballerina’s dance floor. The talents she picked up as a dancer makes her a good candidate for a scout. The aliens who have conquered Helenski Five had swept away the defenders with ease. Small insect-like robots that slice through anything that moves guard an alien base. The army needs someone who can steady their heart, control their breathing, and survive a cardiac arrest, to infiltrate the base. All Adanna will need is the will to come back after she has died.

Shutdown is a tension-filled sci-fi. Humanity knows very little about the aliens who have invaded and altered the worlds mankind already claimed for their own. The army needs intelligence but the robotic sentries guarding the alien base are movement sensitive. An earlier attempt to infiltrate the stronghold ended disastrously. Their solution is to kill their own scouts and revive them when the sentries are satisfied the infiltrators are not a threat. Adanna is a perfect candidate to carry out this mission. She is a former ballerina, her career cut short in an industrial accident. The life-like prosthetic to replace her fingers are beyond her means but the military promises they will pay for the operation if she completes the mission. Ballet is her life and she would do anything to regain the luster of the stage, even if she has to die for it.

The setting for “Shutdown” is on a conquered planet. Adanna is edging her way into the labyrinth of occupied territory. Her suit is instructed to kill her before a timed alien scan can detect her. While she is dead, flashbacks , as if her life is passing before her eyes , becomes the focus of the tale. I confess, the tactic the author employed was a little jarring at first but the story became very compelling once I caught up to speed on what was going on. Adanna is drawn as a character who has little left to lose and much to gain by accepting the mission. Earth needs intel. The aliens have effectively neutralized man’s technology and converted the atmosphere to a poisonous one. Just getting a look at their foe would be an intelligence coup.

I have mixed feelings about this tale. I loved the action and raised-hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck tension that ran throughout the story but the premise was filled with holes for me. If the aliens were that formidable, how did the army manage to get anyone within a light year of the planet? If they could get a ship close enough to land, couldn’t they get satellite images from above? Those were just a couple of the issues I had with it but I still managed to enjoy the story.

Grade B

 

“While Ireland Holds These Graves” by Tom Doyle third place, fourth quarter

Dev Martin returns to the scene of the crime. He is one of the programmers who created the AI reconstructs of Irish literary lore. The goal for the UNI was to enhance Ireland’s tourist industry but it instead ignited a nationalist revival. Now Ireland is about to be the lone nation to divorce itself from the one-world government. Dev wants to help set things straight but he needs to reach his former partner , and chief antagonist for the independence drive , Anna in hopes of convincing her to leave the European island.

“While Ireland” is a story for you if you have a special attachment for classical Irish authors. In fact, I can see why this story was picked by a panel of professional authors, the allure of rubbing elbows with some of the greatest poets and authors of the 20th century would be like playing in the outfield in Field of Dreams for a baseball enthusiast. One of the first characters Dev runs into is iconic James Joyce. Dev and Anna did such wonderful job reconstructing the personalities of the long dead, that Joyce is every bit like the real thing. Dev recruits Joyce to accompany him. The duo follow a trail of other famous literary giants in hopes of finding the programmer-turned-revolutionary before the borders of Ireland close for good.

The opening to “While Ireland” is first class. I was pulled into the narrative, but like other early 20th century classics (especially ones written by Irish giants), I found the story convoluted and heavy with a message I cared little about. Of course, I never had much interest in Irish literature (an attempt to get through the first ten pages of Finnegan’s Wake is a nightmare I sooner forget) so a day drinking in pub with any of these characters is not what I would consider time well spent. A bigger problem for me was the premise and sequence of events. It seemed the only people Dev walked into were reconstructed Irish author personalities, allowing him a virtual straight path to find Anna in three days on Ireland when he had no idea where to look from the start. Either all the rest of the real people in Ireland thought it wise to avoid the computer regenerations or Dev was one lucky seeker.

Although I found the writing top notch, the story itself wasn’t much more than a man’s stroll through the green hills of Ireland. Dev met his goals, attaining them remarkably easily (especially when no one , except Joyce , wanted him there). I felt the same way much of the world felt about the Irish nationalist movement and their icons , let them have it.

Grade C+

 

“The Poly Islands” by Gerald Warfield second place, first quarter

Liyang is on the run. A Hong Kong tong (organized crime syndicate) is after her and the valuable computer chips she has stolen. Desperate to escape, she navigates her boat into the island of plastic garbage floating in the Pacific. The tactic is foolhardy because she has no hope of escaping the tong if she runs aground. Fortunately, salvation comes in the form of a mysterious man in a plastic suit. Adam is one of the residents of the Poly Islands, a refuge from the world. With no boat, Liyang has no choice but to trust him. She soon discovers she, and her stolen chips, have become part of a power struggle, one that will decide the fate of the Poly islands for years to come.

“The Poly Islands” is a rare WotF stories for me. The further I read, the more I liked it. The islands are ruled by an Indian Guru figure known as Crab. Liyang first believes she has stumbled upon a new age community but the people who live here do not act like a cult. The residents are divided into two camps, the Chinese and everyone else. Liyang rubs the Chinese wrong when she elects to side against her own kind in favor of Adam and Crab. The island existence is the result of an ecological activist solution gone wrong. The short lived nation of California attempted to collect, then sink, the trash with buoys designed to attract the floating garbage. Instead the experiment changed the nature of the trash, creating a bonded material that travels on the currents of the Pacific as one large mass. The Chinese faction is led by Madam Woo. She wants to sell the chips and use the money to conquer the solid ground of a Pacific island, but Crab has other designs for them. Liyang wants no part of the power struggle, only wishing to escape the inhospitable islands and start her own life anew.

The story of “The Poly Islands” evolves, changing from a knuckle-grabbing action to an elaborate puzzle. Crab does not seem like a Buddhist monk to Liyang. She suspects his altruistic motive’s is nothing but an act, but he does know more about the Poly Islands than anyone else. The mystery of who he is and the nature of the islands, and how they relate to her computer chips, is the true allure of this tale. Although I did like this story, I felt the addition of the final scene did it a disservice. The story had a fitting finale without it. Instead, the author chose to write in a ‘where are they now’ type of epilogue that made the story more of a message piece than a straight up work of science fiction. Without it, I would have likely made The Poly Islands my personal pick of the anthology.

Grade A-

 

“Insect Sculptor” by Scott T. Barnes second place, fourth quarter

Adam Clements is a talented insect sculptor but has much to learn. He has traveled thousands of miles in hopes of apprenticing for the Great Gajah-mada. He must impress the Hive’s director, the gorgeous Isabella, first. Adam is good, but to be great he will need to overcome his fear wall; the fear of falling too deeply into the hive mind.

The premise of Insect Sculptor is intriguing and inventive. The sculptor’s form a psychic link with a colony of insects, creating works of art with the mass bugs. Adam can do much with his termites, commanding them to facilitate an elephant as his entrance test for Isabella. He quickly learns his abilities are elementary when he gets a sample of what Gajah-mada’s troop can do when he witnesses a show first hand. The Great Gajah-mada is able to mimic people so well they are passable as living humans, to the point where his own director proves to be a mass of bugs that has become sentient.

Adam is first turned away but earns a second chance. Gajah-mada no longer makes public appearances, leaving the show to his star, Wasserman, to hold it together, but Wasserman lacks the control needed to keep Gajah-mada’s complicated designs intact. Gajah-mada needs someone greater for he is not long for this world. Adam has the talent but has never learned to break down his own fear wall, but he is determined , for the show, for himself, for the Great Gajah-mada, and for the love of his life , Isabella.

It isn’t hard to see why this one won the contest. Unique, full of lively characters, and with a protagonist that develops with the storyline. The only thing that I can complain about it is it gave me the heebie-jeebies *shiver*. Nevertheless, a strong contender that was written well.

Grade B+

 

A Changing of the Guard

The Writers of the Future contest and the speculative fiction community suffered a great loss with the passing of Kathy Wentworth last year. A winner of the contest (when the number following Writers of the Future was in the single digits), she went on to become its coordinating judge and editor. It had become her primary job, occasionally crowbarring a novel for us to read, when she had time to step away from her judging duties to write them. All the stories submitted over the past few contests had to pass through her first. The stories you read in this anthology, as well as the ones of the past few years, were part of an exclusive pile she thought were the best of a very big bunch. It was her job to pick eight stories each quarter for an impressive finalist panel to read. Granted, the stories of the anthology make up only 40% of the entries she chose as the finalists, but of the thousands submitted they represented a good cross section of what she felt were professional material worthy of publication.

Many writers sought the secret elixir to winning the contest. Kathy would offer a few tidbits of what a writer needed to do win , the speculative element needed to be on the first page, the story had to be character driven, and writers should steer clear of well-worn tropes (vampires, dragons, and the like). She would warn writers that humor had little chance but for the most part, it was submit your best. After reading the anthology over all these years I think I can finally see the type of story Kathy gravitated towards , the submissions that worked hardest at telling a story.

I imagined in her youth, a young Kathy who refused to go to bed without a bedtime story. I can see that love carrying her into adulthood. If you could tap into that childhood craving, she likely read your entry from beginning to end. If you gave her a protagonist she could fall in love with and a world worth exploring, you probably had her hooked. And if you didn’t deviate too far from your plot, you were likely in the running. Following the rules of writing that our often dictated to the amateur writer didn’t matter as much to Kathy as unraveling a premise she wanted to view. If you failed to appeal to her fairy-tale loving child hidden within, you probably never stood a chance , no matter how good your first readers said your story was.

Taking over the coordinating judging duties is previous Gold Award winner (WotF 3) Dave Wolverton (a.k.a Dave Farland). He has been a consistent finalist judge and a previous coordinating judge for the contest. His credentials are extensive , it can be argued that he is the most successful author to come out of the contest. Although you can still expect the winning entries to be the best stories submitted, don’t be surprised if upcoming anthologies have a different flavor to them.

On one of my writer forums that I often frequent, a sort of study group was committed to identifying what impressed K D Wentworth. Her words and advice were dissected. Semi-finalists would share their critiques. Honorable Mentioned, and others not as lucky, would puzzle on why their entries didn’t do better. They need not dig so deep for Mr Wolverton. The new coordinating judge teaches a workshop for writers. He offers free advice on his Daily Kick In The Pants blog, and has dedicated a few articles on tips for the contest, and here is my own Cliff Notes version of what he has to say on the subject.

The trope restriction will not be as confining, so for the humorist and dragon writers , submit away. But if you tend to slip into the clichÃ’ , expect an early out from Mr Wolverton. Marie Croke’s, “Of Woven Wood” (a story that opens up with a waking up clichÃ’ ) may have been a tough call to make the finalists list. If you like to write long prose, you may be in luck. If there are equally well-written stories, and Dave’s short list needs trimming, the longer piece will likely get the nod. But the biggest difference between Kathy and Dave is Dave expects that his finalist writers already know how to write, professionally.

Now I’m not saying the winners that came through Kathy first weren’t of a professional quality, nor am I saying those winners wouldn’t have been picked as a finalist for Dave, but I will say motivations between the two are different. I can sum up the differences between them in two sentences.

Kathy Wentworth expected writers to be able to tell a story.

Dave Wolverton expects writers to be able to write.

So, I am expecting less of a fairy tale quality in the anthologies to come and a sharper prose for the winning stories. I am also betting that the new winners will have a little more action in them but with a little less heart in its characters. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Writers of the Future Vol 29 is on the way and I can’t wait to see what it holds.

 

K.D. Wentworth
K.D. Wentworth

Kathy D Wentworth (1951-2012) was a fixture in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community. Four time Nebula nominee, WotF coordinating judge, and all around alright gal, She Who Must Be Impressed (my pet name for her , I already trademarked it so don’t even think of it) will be sorely missed. Her story, Daddy’s Girl, debuted in Writers of the Future Vol 5, and marked the beginning of an impressive career as a writer. She was the willing participant for one of Diabolical Plots first interviews (which can be found here) , something we are very grateful for.

I owe her a degree of thanks, for the Honorable Mention certificates I have tucked safely away, and for her appreciation for my quirky sense of humor. Although my bribery attempts were never successful, she made me feel as if she looked forward to receiving them every quarter.

Fare Thee Well, KD Wentworth

written by David Steffen

I heard the sad news today that the long-time contest coordinator of the Writers of the Future contest, K. D. Wentworth, has died from pneumonia. I didn’t know her on a personal level, apart from the occasional forum exchange, but by everything I have seen she was a very friendly person, and very patient with the questions all of the eager entrants of the Writers of the Future contest. She was one of the first editors I submitted a short story to, and I’ve sent her one story per quarter ever since. She was also one of our very first interviews here on Diabolical Plots back in August 2009.

K. D. was a writer as well as the coordinating judge and she leaves behind several books and dozens of short stories and novellsa to remember her by. The contest won’t be the same without her. She will be well remembered.