Con Report: WorldCon 74 (aka MidAmericon 2)

written by David Steffen

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I am back from WorldCon 74, also known as MidAmericon 2, which was held in Kansas City, Missouri from August  17-21!  I am back into my normal swing of things and trying to work my way back into the normal everyday types of things that WorldCon wasn’t.

I had such an incredible time.  Sitting at my desk, back in the real world, my brain is still trying to process everything, it has been a very densely packed 4 days.  I am introvert.  I use the word “introvert” in the sense, not that I hate social situations or hate people or anything like that, but that social situations use energy and being by myself recharges energy–as opposed to an extrovert who recharges by being around people and uses energy when they’re alone.  I was expecting to have fun, but I was also expecting to slam into my social limits halfway through each day and then come home feeling like a wrung out washcloth.  But, it seems that in this very specific environment, I am more of an extrovert–most nights when I finally retired to my room the reason was more because of aching legs and knowing that I should try to get some sleep than being unable to cope with the social scene anymore.

I arrived at the hotel around midday Thursday and left around midday Sunday, so I had a solid 72 hours around the premises.  I hear there are a lot of really interesting things to go see in and around Kansas City.  But I didn’t go to any of them, figuring that I had such a limited time here and the people and things I came here for were all concentrated in the area by the hotel and convention center.

The biggest difference in my convention experience between this time and the last time at WorldCon in Chicago in 2012 is that I have become somewhat more notable in the speculative fiction publishing community.
Since 2012:
–The Submission Grinder was launched.
–Diabolical Plots started publishing original fiction and became a SFWA-qualifying market.
–The Long List Anthology was published.

So the biggest difference is that it wasn’t uncommon for complete strangers to actually know of what I do.  Some would recognize me from checking my name badge alone.  Others wouldn’t recognize the name, but if I mentioned the Grinder or someone else mentioned that I run the Grinder then many writers would recognize me, would often say very nice things about the site.  This was a very big difference for me–When I last attended a convention I had had some published fiction and had been running Diabolical Plots for nonfiction-only for 4 years , but those had never spurred this kind of reaction.

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David Steffen and Neil Clarke

In the past, when I was just getting started at writing, I had some miserable experiences at conventions–I just thought they weren’t for me.  I couldn’t seem to get anyone to really talk to me and whenever I tried I just felt like I was shut out by everyone there.  This time around, since I was more well-connected than I’ve been in the past, I tried my best to try to help people have a good convention who looked like they might’ve been in the same boat as I had been when I’d had miserable conventions.  First, if I was standing in a circle of people talking and I saw someone standing outside the circle looking like they wanted to join, I would try to step to one side and wave them in, make it clear they were welcome to join the conversation.  Second, if I was with some people I knew, and I saw other people that I suspected didn’t know each other, I would try to introduce the two groups to each other, maybe with a bit of bragging-up, since it is much easier to talk about another person’s accomplishments than your own.  I feel like these simple practices might’ve helped make the con a little better for some of these people, and I know that when I saw such similar behaviors directed toward me I greatly appreciated the person taking a moment to make my day much better.

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Marguerite Kenner, Alasdair Stuart, and David Steffen

I was namedropped on at least three different panels, and each one was for a different project–this was a novel experience for me.  I have heard secondhand from people who’ve gone to other conventions that the Submission Grinder is often mentioned in panels as a resource, which is great!  I hear that I was mentioned in a Kickstarter panel as an example of someone who has run a successful Kickstarter (for the Long List Anthology last year)–this was before I arrived onsite or I might’ve been there myself.    I hear that I was mentioned in a panel aimed at new writers that in part discussed the topic of how to find markets for your work, and the Submission Grinder was mentioned as a resource–I had intended to attend that panel just to see if I could witness a namedrop for the fun of it, but I ended up seeing a perfect opportunity to hang out with someone I had barely seen yet, so I took that opportunity (and didn’t regret it since my intent to visit the panel was really just a vanity novelty).  And the one namedrop I was there to witness–Finding the Right Podcast For You, in which Alasdair Stuart mentioned the Diabolical Plots “Best Of” podcast list as a good way to get samplings of fiction podcasts… and then he also commented on the shades of pink I was cycling through.  So that was all very exciting.

Aside:  This might be an appropriate time to note that being able to have an unrelentingly wonderful time does not mean that everyone was treated well–see this thread by Alyssa Wong about being targeted by harassment at this convention and a previous one she had gone to.  Alyssa had very positive things to say about how the WorldCon organizers handled it (which is good!) but it is horrible that it got as far as it did–people should know better.  This isn’t rocket science.  Read her thread and other threads that spun off of it if you aren’t aware of this kind of horrible behavior from some small subset of fans.  It’s nasty stuff. I did not see any of this kind of thing happening personally, but it did happen.  It’s not necessarily surprising that I didn’t see or experience it personally, since I am an able-bodied heterosexual white man of unremarkable appearance who is not a household name, and so it would be less usual for me to be the target of such abuse (not impossible, mind you, but less common).  It is a mark of privilege that I don’t generally need to worry about that, and I’m glad that Alyssa Wong and others are willing to talk about this kind of thing still happening, because it’s easy for people who don’t experience it to forget about it or to think it’s not a problem if the people who ARE experiencing it feel like they can’t talk.  On the other hand, since this is a post about my experience of the con, I will leave it at that for now–if you weren’t aware of that thing happening, consider taking some time to read her tweets.  There have been some other tweet streams of interest on the subject of harassment that have run since WorldCon, such as this one by Rachael K. Jones and this one by Julia Rios

My Programming

I wasn’t involved in a lot of programming.  I actually hadn’t thought that I would be on any programming at all–I had applied early in the year and received a rejection quickly after.  But I did end up being in two bits of programming.

Writer’s Workshop

I co-led a critique session with C.C. Finlay (editor of F&SF and a writer), which was a lot of fun.  We read synopses and excerpts from novels by three authors, and then all five of us gave our impressions and we discussed ways that the synopses and excerpts might be improved.  I had never met Finlay before, and it was wonderful to get a chance to not only meet with him but to interact with him for a couple hours to discuss strengths and weaknesses of fiction.  Obviously I can’t say much more than that–these were unpublished novels and the discussion in a private room, so I can only speak about it in generalities.

Fiction Reading

SteffenReadingI was very excited to find out not too long before the convention that I had been assigned a 30-minute fiction reading (Well, 25 minutes, to allow some time to let the next author get prepared).  It… wasn’t what you would call an ideal timeslot, being from 7-7:30 on the night that the Hugo Awards start at 8–so at that time most people who were at all interested in watching would be finding seats in either the auditorium or in some other group viewing area where they were streaming.

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Brian Trent, Benjamin C. Kinney, Thomas K. Carpenter, Marina J. Lostetter, Tina Gower, and Andrea G. Stewart

But to my surprise, approximately 13 people were there just to hear me recite things I made up!  This is a quite large turnout for someone like me who is not well-known for their writing.

Of all the readings by other people that I attended, most people read either one work that fit very closely into the time allotted, or maybe two things, or an excerpt from a longer work.  I flipped through upcoming stories and though I would’ve loved to read part of my upcoming story that will be in IGMS, it is a bit of a sprawling story so that it would be hard to find a representative sample.  And, well, in my opinion my best writing is very short, punchy stories of 500-1000 words.  So, I decided to buck the trend and I ended up reading 5 stories in my allotted time.

I read “My Wife is a Bear in the Morning”, written as an complaint letter to an apartment manager by a man whose wife is literally a bear in the morning (you can hear it in audio at Podcastle).

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Sunil Patel and David Steffen

I read “So You’ve Decided to Adopt a Zeptonian Baby!”, written as a brochure to help those who’ve decided to adopt those invincible alien babies that keep falling from the sky in meteor showers.  (you can hear it in audio at Podcastle)

I read “This Is Your Problem, Right Here”, which is a story about a woman who has recently purchased a  water park and finds that the plumbing doesn’t work properly when she opens in the spring, and it starts as a plumber tells her that this is because all of her trolls have died (the existence of trolls are not common knowledge in this world).  That was originally published in Daily Science Fiction, you can also hear it at Cast of Wonders.

And I read two others that are as-yet unpublished, so I won’t discuss their details here.

The reading seemed to go over well.  I got some compliments, and people said they liked the quick changeups of stories, especially at the end of a long day when everyone was getting tired.

Books

20160820_172557The one book that I knew ahead of time that I was going to buy was The Flux by Ferrett Steinmetz.  I already own the book.  I already love the book.  But I only had it in ebook, and I love these books so much I felt like I should have a signed paper copy.  And, since Ferrett was onsite, it seemed best to go ahead and buy it so that I could get him to sign.

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Ferrett Steinmetz and David Steffen

I knew that Ferrett’s next book, the third in his ‘Mancy series, was coming out soon, but that the release date was not for a little while yet.  But Angry Robot Books had the book on sale at their vendor booth!  So, obviously that came home with me too.  And I am SO EXCITED to read it.

So I showed up at the Angry Robot booth to buy The Flux, and knew I had to buy Fix, a very nice man (whose name I didn’t immediately recognize and so didn’t pay all that much attention to) behind the counter told me that I could get a discount if I bought one of the larger form-factor books.  Not really intending to buy a lot of books (because I have such a stack at home, I am a slow reader) I saw that United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas was on display, and I had heard someone talking about how good that was earlier, so that was the first one I picked up.  The guy behind the counter started telling me about it and I tried my best to unrudely say “yeah yeah let me just read the back cover descriptio myselfn” (I hope I didn’t across as rude!  I like taking verbal recommendations from fans of a book but at pretty much any kind of store I would rather just look at stuff without staff discussing everything I look at–it makes me very nervous if I feel like the staff are hovering and I will be much more inclined to scurry away than to buy).  It did indeed sound really interesting, a story where Japan won World War II and ended up in control of the United States.  I glanced at some of the other books, flipped a few over to read the back, but decided that United States of Japan caught my eye much more solidly than the others.  So I decided to buy United States of Japan.  The guy behind the counter rang me up and then offered to sign my book… at which point I of course realized that I was talking to Peter Tieryas, the author of the book I’d just bought, so I laughed at the fact that I had not noticed the matching book cover and name badge and took him up on his offer.  (This concludes my telling of “The Time That I Wouldn’t Let Peter Tieryas Finish Pitching His Book To Me But Then I Bought His Book From Him Anyway Without Realizing He Was the Author of Said Book: A Tale of David Steffen’s Inattention to Detail”)

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Tina Connolly, David Steffen, and Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim and Tina Connolly both had book releases from Fairwood Press at WorldCon.  Caroline’s book is a short story collection titled Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World.  Caroline is an incredible short story writer, and consistently hits out of the park for me, so I am buying the ebook for this one.  Tina‘s short story book is a short story collection titled On the Eyeball Floor.  Tina (along with Caroline) is another writer who, when I hear they have something new out, I don’t ask for a pitch I just say “shut up and take my money”.  So, I’m buying that ebook too.  It was quite fun to watch these two launch together–they made it a friendly competition where they made a wager on it and the Fairwood Press vendor table had a running tally sheet of sales.  They ended up tying at the end, which is hilarious and perfect.

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Jon Lasser and David Steffen

I stopped by the freebie table once, at a time when it was a twenty minute wait to get to the table.  After that wait I felt like I had to grab the maximum of three books even though I don’t really need more books.  I saw a stack of Briarpatch by Tim Pratt and grabbed a copy even though I already own and love the book, so that I could give a copy of it away to the next person I talk books with.  I also picked up a copy of Fearful Symmetries, edited by Ellen Datlow, and a short story collection by Matthew Johnson titled Irregular Verbs and Other Stories.

I also had a few extra copies of the Long List Anthology left over from last year’s Kickstarter and I decided that there was no better way to use them than to bring them to WorldCon and give them out to people when I chat with them.  I saved one to give away at my fiction reading and gave three out when it felt appropriate, so that was fun!

Programming

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Kate Baker and David Steffen

I did not attend many panels this time around.  I attended a very select few that were on very specific topics that were very near and dear to my heart or to specifically try to meet some of the panelists that were on my mental list of people that I wanted to meet.

Other than that, I tended to favor readings of authors:  I went to readings by Caroline M. Yoachim, Terra LeMay, William Ledbetter, Loren Rhoads, Stefan Rudnicki, Kate Baker.  And readings of magazines:  Escape Artists, Flash Fiction Online, Asimov’s.

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S.B. Divya and David Steffen

I loved all the readings, but the highlight was the Flash Fiction Online reading, particularly “I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything.” by Laura Pearlman, which was read by a full cast of readers, including Sunil Patel as Graalnak himself, and was a riot to listen to.

As well as kaffeeklatches, which are really just organized hangouts with people of interest–you signup in time to claim one of 9 slots and then you spend 50 minutes hanging out with that person.  I did kaffeeklatches with Kate Baker, Ken Liu, and S.B. Divya.

The People

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Tina Gower and David Steffen

So.  Many.  People.  So wonderful to put faces to names for people that I have known online for years.

I am not even going to try to make a comprehensive list, because there is no way that I will remember everyone and I don’t want those that I do forget to feel left out.  But I will list out a few.

Shortly after rushing to the critique session that I was almost late for, I met up with my writing group friend Doug Engstrom–we’ve swapped critiques and discussion for years, so it was great to meet him in person and to interact with him off and on throughout the weekend.

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Sheila Williams and David Steffen

I got to meet Stefan Rudnicki and Gabrielle de Cuir, the masterminds (and mastervoices) behind Skyboat Media.  They are most well known for producing the Lightspeed Magazine and Nightmare Magazine podcasts, and for performing much of the voice-acting for those productions.  I have a direct professional connection with them in that they produced the audiobook version of the Long List Anthology last year–of which they sold out at their booth during WorldCon.  They both have voices that I have heard for so long in story narrations that it was both wonderful and very weird to meet them in person–I associate their voices so strongly with storytelling that my brain sinks into story listening mode and I kind of had to yank it out of that mode because, hey brain I’m trying to talk to people here!  It was great to meet them and talk business and chat.

Speaking of meeting people whose voices are incredibly familiar to me:  I met Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner.  They are the owners of Escape Artists, which is the parent company of most of my favorite podcasts: Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, and Cast of Wonders, as well as the quarterly ebook zine Mothership Zeta.  Alasdair has been on the staff of Escape Artists for more than ten years, and he was the host of Pseudopod at the time that I made my very first fiction sale of all time to Pseudopod and decided that maybe I ought to try listening to the show (which has resulted in an 8 year listening binge of all the podcast fiction I could find that still continues today).  Marguerite is the editor and host of Cast of Wonders.  They are incredible, smart, nice, welcoming, helpful people, and I want to hang out with them forever.

Kate Baker, is another one of those familiar-voiced people and I was happy to get a chance to hang out with her at kaffeeklatch and elsewhere.  (And again with the barely being able to talk because I am so familiar with her voice from podcasts!)

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David Steffen and Dionne Obeso

It was wonderful to meet Sheila Williams, Neil Clarke, C.C. Finlay, Caroline M. Yoachim, Tina Connolly, Martin L. Shoemaker, Marina J. Lostetter, S.B. Divya, Ken Liu, Alyssa Wong, so so many others.

I got to meet a few writers whose short stories I have purchased: Andy Dudak, Tina Gower, Sunil Patel, Jon Lasser, Andrea G. Stewart.  (it makes a handy icebreaker to say “Hi!  I bought your story!”  🙂 )

Meeting people was easily the highlight of my convention experience.

The Hugo Awards

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Host Pat Cadigan and Jan Siegel

The Hugo Award ceremony was held Saturday evening and was hosted by Pat Cadigan.  Cadigan was a wonderful and hilarious host, and really overall the awards went as well as I could have hoped given the ballot they started with.  Lots of awesome things won.  A couple categories got No Awarded (Related Work and Fancast I believe?) but none of the fiction categories which are my main interest in the awards.

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Michi Trota of Uncanny Magazine

Uncanny won Best Semiprozine in its first year of eligibility!  Naomi Kritzer won for Best Short Story for “Cat Pictures Please”!  Hao Jingfang and Ken Liu (who was the translator in this case) won for Best Novelette for “Folding Beijing”!  Nnedi Okorafor won for Best Novella for “Binti”!  N.K. Jemisin won for Best Novel for The Fifth Season!  Neil Gaiman won for Best Graphic Story for Sandman!

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Astronaut Stan Love accepting Campbell Award for Andy Weir
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Astronaut Jeanette Epps accepting Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form for The Martian

The Martian won Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, and its author Andy Weir won the Campbell Award!  For each of them an astronaut accepted his award for him and talked about how much The Martian meant to them, that it got the science and the feel of the interpersonal relationships of the astronauts right!

Yes, there are a lot of explanation points in this section, but they are all deserved.  Especially after last year with the fiction categories getting so many No Awards, it was a major relief that all the fiction categories were awarded, and to such incredible people and recipients.

I watched from the very crowded SFWA suite this year, in part because my reading was too close to the ceremony to have much chance of finding a seat.  It… was more than a little cramped, but it worked out pretty well.

The Long List

Most of you who follow me at all already know about the Long List Anthology, but I’ll give a quick rundown for anyone who might not have heard about the project.  Every year, after the Hugo Award ceremony, the Hugo administrators publish the longer list of works that were nominated in each category–approximately 15 including the 5ish that are on the final ballot.  In most years, these works don’t receive a great deal of extra attention even though that longer list makes an excellent recommended reading list.

Last year I launched the Long List Anthology, which published stories pulled from that longer nomination list.  It totalled 180,000 words, about 500 pages in print, and featured some of the most popular contemporary short story authors like Sam J. Miller, Amal El-Mohtar, Elizabeth Bear, Ken Liu, Kai Ashante Wilson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and others.  The book continues to sell steadily even now, and has sold more than 9000 copies (which is more than the Hugo voting population has been in any year).

The project was so successful last year, that I have decided to repeat the project this year–the list is here.  I am in the process of reading stories in the different categories and sending queries to the authors.  Last year the cover art was reprinted art from Galen Dara.  This year I’m taking that to the next level and commissioning original artwork from Galen Dara.  And I’ve got a few surprise ideas to try out for stretch goals, too.

There will be a Kickstarter to fund the anthology–I look forward to sharing links and the good news with you all–I am aiming for mid-September.

WSFS Meetings

You may not know what WSFS Meetings are, but you’re probably familiar with the Hugo Awards, awards that are nominated and voted on by supporting members of WorldCon.  WSFS meetings are held every year at WorldCon, and they define rule changes to the Hugo Awards.  Anyone who has an Attending WorldCon membership can show up and debate, vote, help decide new categories or nomination rule changes and so on.  I fully intended to go to at least one meeting while I was at WorldCon, because I do value the Hugo Awards and this once-a-year batch of business meetings defines everything.  But…  I was a horrible person and didn’t attend any of them.  Nonetheless, some important rule changes went through this year, which I have been reading about after the fact, so I shall list out some of the more interesting ones (of the ones I understand) and give my reaction.  My primary source for the WSFS Meetings that last couple years has been Rachael Acks’s blog.  Rachael is a writer and editor, and is also involved in WSFS, both liveblogging updates as the meetings happen, and giving summaries and reactions afterward–which gives a very nice place to catch up on what you missed if you can’t or don’t go to the meetings.

Here is a list of the business agenda they started the weekend with, with a daily meeting scheduled from 10am to 1am.  Or for a more informal version with Rachael’s reactions to items, you can check out this page.

I am honestly just catching up on these things now, so it’s entirely possible I got something wrong typing all this up.

Best Fancast category is now a permanent category

The Best Fancast category was defined a few years ago, and has been a trial category that would have expired after this year if it hadn’t been ratified again.  I have mixed but mostly negative feelings about its permanent addition.  I do feel that the Hugo Awards have been slow to consider publications in new media–it took quite awhile for online magazines to be considered seriously and audio-only publications have been slow to start to get some recognition, even when they are publishing original fiction of excellent quality.  When the Fancast category had first come out I was excited that maybe this little niche would encourage more serious recognition.

Part of my disappointment has been that every nominee, except for StarShipSofa, has been nonfiction.  That’s… fine, I guess.  People like nonfiction podcasts, apparently.  But I really want to see fiction podcasts recognized, especially fiction podcasts that pay their contributors and which publish original fiction and don’t need to beg their listeners for votes in every episode.

The rest of my disappointment is that, for my favorite podcasts, it is quite unclear what category they actually qualify for.  They could be a Semiprozine or they could be a Fancast.  The differentiation between the two is not well-defined in the current rules.  If Fancast is supposed to actually be nonfiction, as voters have been treating it, then I would prefer that it would just be defined as such, so that this differentiation was at least clear.  And a common point of confusion is that people assume Fancast is the A/V equivalent to Fanzine, meaning that it’s defining trait is not paying its contributors.  (I have had discussions with people who advocate for the Fanzine category and they insist that this is NOT the defining feature, but according to the rules that are actually used to administer the award that is the main difference).  But the rules seem to imply that Fanzine is also the A/V equivalent to Semiprozine.  And what happens if a publication published in both audio and text?  There is some precedent in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clarkesworld and Lightspeed and others who both publish in both and who have gotten Semiprozine nominations, but other publications that also get both like Escape Pod came at it from the other direction and I think most voters think of them differently as a result.

I liked the Escape Artists editorial strategy last year, suggesting that if anyone wanted to vote for them, that EA would prefer they do it in the Semiprozine rather than the Fancast category.  I thought this was a good idea, to encourage the fans to pick one specific side of the equation because one issue with having an ambiguous category is that maybe you have enough fans who want to vote for you to get you on the ballot, but if they’re splitting their nominations across two categories that kind of ruins that chance.  Also, I don’t believe it’s possible to absolutely determine whether something is eligible for one category or the other unless it actually reaches the ballot level–at which point it will either be invited to be on the ballot, or it will be removed as being ineligible.  Either case you’ve learned something which can help future voting, and it may even help push through some changes that better define the rules in the future.

The Five Percent Solution

Prior to this year there has been a requirement that all but the top 3 entries in a category must have at least 5% of the overall vote, or they are simply not on the ballot.  This rule was a bit silly because it caused a reaction to larger pools of award-worthy worker and larger nominating group by REDUCING the category.  This didn’t start hitting the ballots until a few years ago–that’s why you sometimes saw the Short Story category with only three items on it instead of five.

Very glad to see this bit removed from the constitution, so now you’ll see five items no matter what.

Electronic Signatures for Site Bids

Historically WorldCon has kindof been more USA-con.  A lot of people have been trying to put the World in WorldCon and encourage it to be more internationally located.  I’m a proponent of having it be more international (even though I will probably not be able to afford to go to most non-USA located years), and this helps more people vote for it without having to be physically present, so I think this is a positive change toward that goal.

Best Series Category

The idea behind this one is that some people felt that series of books that were remarkable and awesome series may not be likely to be nominated for Best Novel for their individual books.  This category would be for those kinds of books–a series would be eligible after so many words have been published in the series, and would be eligible again after so many words have been published  again after the first nomination.

I… don’t really see the point in this category.  Individual books are already eligible, and if those individual books aren’t winning awards… it doesn’t seem like we really need to define new categories to handle that because maybe just some things are less likely to win, but we don’t need to make new categories for every little thing.

Not only that, but the eligibility would be harder to determine than any other category, since it would depend on when the last nomination for a series was, and how many words were in each book (which isn’t generally immediately obvious).

Nominee Diversity

The idea behind this change is to  prohibit the same entity from being nominated more than one time in a category (in which case I think the highest ranking item for that entity would be on the ballot).   This was probably proposed in part based on John C. Wright’s shenanigans-related 5 nominations of a couple years ago.  But more importantly, to me, this should make the Dramatic Presentation Short Form category much much more interesting, because there are many years where that is effectively the Best Doctor Who Episode category.

I am glad to see this go into the constitution, primarily for the Dramatic Presentation Short Form category.

Two Years Are Good Enough

Presently, anyone can nominate for the Hugos who was a supporting member last year, a supporting member this year, or who has registered already to be a supporting member next year.  This proposal would remove the last of those options.

I don’t have strong feelings about this one–I wonder how many people actually pre-register for next year early enough that they can nominate this year?  Maybe it’s just that my life rarely allows such pre-planning, that I find it hard to conceive this mattering one way or the other.

This passed for the first time, and would need to be ratified next year to go into effect.

YA Award

This has been proposed before as a Hugo category.  This time it was proposed as a not-a-Hugo that would nonetheless be voted for on the Hugo ballot and awarded in the  Hugo Award ceremony with the rest of the Hugos (much as the Campbell Award for Best New Writer is).

This one passed but would need to be ratified next year to become an official category the year after.

It seems positive to me.  YA is important to the genre world because it’s often the first thing that young readers pick up that transitions them into the adult fiction (and adults can love it too).  I think it’s worthwhile to give it its own award.

Three Stage Voting

This was proposed as a way to avoid future Hugo Award shenanigans by adding an extra stage between nomination and the final ballot. The nominations would result in 15 semi-finalists which would be published.  Then voters can upvote the things they think are good enough to be on the final ballot, which eventually becomes a final ballot, and then the final ballot would work now.

One concern I’d originally had was that it would increase admin workload, but it sounds like it might not be much different, especially by taking advantage of some crowdsourced effort.  The middle stage would not have had eligibility verified, so the voting group can help point out ineligible works.  And the nominated entities would only be checked for their interest in the ballot between the 2nd and 3rd stages, so that cuts down on “waiting for communication to happen” in the timeline.

I’m a little concerned that people voting against the spirit of the intent of the 2nd round might end up nuking categories, but I think it has a lot of potential.

This one passed, to be up for ratification next year.

E Pluribus Hugo

This is a new proposed nomination system which is intended to reduce the effectiveness of large numbers of voters with identical ballots for the same category (primarily to reduce the effect of slates).  Last year I was in favor of this when it passed its initial vote, because I hadn’t heard of any better ideas and I didn’t want to wait a whole nother year to see if a better idea came around.  But…  though I think the concept makes sense, but it is more complicated than the current system–the current system you can look at all the numbers and sort them out by hand given the overall voting numbers.  This one, you really can’t because it depends on the exact contents of individual ballots, and you end up having to basically count it by program given the full voting data.

And the major difference is that I think that the better solution might have come along in the form of three-stage voting.  But three-stage voting also passed and so goes into effect next year, so we’ll visit that next year again.

5 and 6

This was another measure intended to make it harder to sweep the ballot with slates.  Normally, a voter can nominate up to 5 works, and 5 works end up on the final ballot.  So voting collusion can sweep the ballot with only a little discipline–just all fill out the ballot in the same way.  This change makes it so that one still nominates 5 works, but that the top 6 end up on the ballot–so if one wanted to force 6 items onto the ballot it would require more complicated coordination.  It increases the chance that at least one item will be on the ballot that was not related to the slate.

This was ratified so this will go into effect next year.

E Pluribus Hugo +

This is a new proposal that appears to be a new alteration of E Pluribus Hugo?  But I don’t seem to be able to find any additional information–I’m sure it’s out there.  It passed, and is up for ratification next year, head to head with Three-Stage Voting.  (NOTE:  David Goldfarb explains EPH+ in his comment on this post–go read that!)

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.