Book Review: Writers of the Future, Volume 34

Book Review: Writers of the Future, Volume 34 edited by David Farland

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Writers of the Future, Volume 34

Back before he became involved with…you know, L. Ron Hubbard was a prolific author of stories for pulp magazines, including some for the science fiction category.  In the 1980s, he decided to give back to the field (and self-promote) by creating a contest to find exciting new writers in science fiction, fantasy and horror.  Thus, the Writers of the Future competition.

Each quarter, three submissions from hundreds win the chance to be featured in an annual compilation volume.  In addition, a set of Illustrators of the Future compete to be able to present a picture based on one of the stories.  This is the 34th such volume, which is frankly amazing.

The introduction goes over some of the selection process, including that since these volumes may be appearing in school libraries, excessive violence, explicit sex scenes and rough language will usually knock a story out of consideration.  (Some of these stories come very close to the line.)  Next, there’s a description of how the Illustrators of the Future contest works.

The stories themselves open with “Turnabout” by Erik Bundy, about a traveler who discovers that he is owed one wish by a djinn.  He realizes she is under no obligation not to twist his wish, but what if he can grant her a twisted version of the djinn’s own desire?  Note:  there’s an ethnic slur used, but I think the author is well-meaning.

The final story is “All Light and Darkness” by Ami Henri Gillett.  An AWOL super-soldier attempts to blend in with a stream of refugees, but finds himself getting too involved with two of them, young siblings.  At the same time, he struggles with his own abandonment issues.  There’s some musings on what makes a person human.

In between are a number of other stories, and essays on writing and art from past and current contest judges.  (Mr. Hubbard may have left this mortal coil, but he is very much a presence here.)

Standouts include “The Minarets of An-Zabat” by Jeremy TeGrotenhuis, about a junior bureaucrat in an empire that absorbs all magical schools into its own or destroys those it cannot tame.  He becomes fascinated by the wind-calling natives who are the last major holdouts against the Empire’s hegemony.

Also “Mara’s Shadow” by Darci Stone, an effective blend of horror and science fiction.  In the near future, a Vietnamese researcher happens to be called in to the first known case of a human being eaten from the inside out by moth larvae.  We follow her story as this becomes a worldwide pandemic, with flashbacks to how this all got started about a century before.  Content warning:  there are multiple suicides in this story.

My black and white Kindle does make most of the illustrations less effective, which is a particular shame for Jazmen Richardson’s illustration of N.R.M. Roshak’s “A Bitter Thing.”  This tale of a young human’s relationship with a color-shifting alien relies very heavily on colors as a central theme, and the resulting picture doesn’t work in monochrome.

The one exception is Ven Locklear’s illustration for “Death Flyer” by L. Ron Hubbard.  This chiller about a ghost train lends itself to an evocative picture that works just fine in grayscale.

The cover story reverses the process, with Jody Lynn Nye writing “Illusion” to match Ciruelo’s painting Dragon Caller.  A court wizard is in fact just an illusionist, but when his country is invaded, he must come up with a plan to defend it against very real enemies.  It’s a clever story.

Overall, this is a decent enough collection of stories by writers you probably haven’t heard of before (plus Hubbard and a lesser piece by Brandon Sanderson) but at least some of whom you’re likely to hear of in the near future.   Check it and previous volumes out at your library!

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-ups, Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-ups, Volume 1  Written by Bob Haney (mostly), Art by various

The Brave and the Bold started its publication run in 1955 as an adventure anthology, featuring such characters as the Viking Prince and the Silent Knight.  Around issue 25, it switched to a tryout title for new concepts such as the Justice League of America and Strange Sports Stories.  Then in issue #50, the series switched to being a team-up title featuring seemingly random pairs of DC’s superheroes, the first such story teaming  up Green Arrow and the Martian Manhunter.

Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-ups, Volume 1

In issue #59 (1965), Batman was teamed up with Green Lantern against a villain known as the Time Commander.   This criminal scientist had developed technology that well, commanded time.  But it could only do minor effects until the Commander disguised himself as Batman to trick Green Lantern into energizing the device with his Power Ring.

Bizarrely, Time Commander divided his attention between using his hourglass to commit heinous crimes…and attempting to clear himself of a previous crime attributed to his civilian identity.  The story never reveals whether or not he did the previous crime.

Thanks to his television show, Batman was hot at the time, and the issue sold very well.  He appeared more often than any other character in TBatB, and eventually became the permanent “host” for these team-ups.  Thus, this volume only contains the stories with him.

Bob Haney was a very uneven writer, and some stories are terrific, like the first Deadman team-up (with art by Neal Adams!) while others are dreadful.  Mr. Haney was especially noted for not paying attention to continuity or characterization from other writers; thus some of the guest characters come off as warped reflections of themselves.

Particularly bad is #78, which graces the cover of this collection.  Batman is up against a slippery thief named Copperhead, and having a little difficulty catching him.  So the Caped Crusader calls in Wonder Woman and Batgirl to help.  Not, mind you, to help him search for the villain’s hideout or catch the crook.  No, the plan is for these two powerful heroines to pretend they’re both madly in love with Batman and have public catfights about it.

The idea is that Copperhead will believe that Batman is distracted by his love life and get careless the next time he steals something.  This plan is derailed when both heroines get too into it and actually fall in love with Batman.  And then they become distressed damsels that Batman must rescue from the scaly foe.

Nor is this the only poor showing on the sexism front, as one story has Batman spank a woman in public to shame her into reforming.   (She falls in love with him for it.)

There are also stories with Native Americans and Chinese-Americans that are well-meant but come off as racist.  And some weird stuff with sideshow performers.

That said, there’s a lot of goofy Silver Age fun here, and some nifty art by artists like Neal Adams and Ramona Fradon.

The final issue in this volume is #87, featuring Mike Sekowsky on both writing and art.  The guest star is Wonder Woman during her “powerless” period when she hung out with a blind martial arts mentor named I Ching.  She and Batman investigate shenanigans around an international race track.  It includes a moment when Diana could have saved the day, but Batman insists on driving with a concussion.

Recommended to Batman fans who enjoy a lighter version of the character.  If you have a particular fondness for one of the guest stars, check this volume out at the library.

There’s a cartoon inspired by this run of the comic book, so enjoy the opening!

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

Book Review: Headstrong

Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

This is a collection of short biographical sketches of women who made advancements in various scientific fields.  According to the introduction, it was inspired when the New York Times ran an obituary of Yvonne Brill that listed her home cooking as her most important accomplishment, followed by being a wife and mother.  And only then mentioning that she was an award-winning rocket scientist that made it possible for satellites to adjust their orbits.

Headstrong

And it is true that scientists who happen to be women have often been downplayed or outright ignored in books on the history of science.  So in the interest of making these scientists more widely known and giving role models to women and girls interested in the sciences, Ms. Swaby picked fifty-two stories to tell.  One of her criteria was that they had to be dead, so their entire body of work could be assessed; she points out that this made her list less ethnically diverse as women of color and those outside the Europe/America culture area have been even more hampered in pursuing science careers, though strides have been made in recent decades.  Also, she chose to write about Irène Joliot-Curie rather than her mother, as Marie Curie is the Smurfette (the one woman who gets to be in the club) of science books.

Ms. Swaby suggests reading one entry a week, but reviewers have to step up the pace, so I did it in two days.  The biographies are divided by scientific fields such as medicine, physics and mathematics (Florence Nightingale was listed under the last category for her advances in statistical analysis.)  The women profiled go from Mary Putnam Jacobi, who did a medical study disproving the then popular theory that a college education made women infertile to Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar.

Many of the stories are bittersweet; the women had to fight to even be allowed to study, were denied paying jobs in their fields, denied credit for their work, denied promotions, titles and awards–and these are just the ones who persisted!  Things have improved over time, but one can see where systemic sexism has slowed advancements in science and technology.

It should be noted that some of the women in this book did work or had opinions that are still controversial,  Certain readers may object to their inclusion, despite their prominence.

While the book is written for adults, the language is suitable for junior high students on up.  It may be an uncomfortable fit for some male readers, but that’s the way it goes; growth is painful sometimes.  Elementary school readers may enjoy Girls Research more; see my review of that book.  The volume comes with endnotes, a bibliography for further reading, index, and credits for quotes used.

Highly recommended to science fans and those wanting a quick introduction to scientists they may not have known about before.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

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