I'd be willing to bet a month's pay that most of the people who visit sites like SFReader.com and read reviews like this one are either actively trying to become published writers themselves or have at least thought about it more than once. One of the best opportunities for would-be authors of speculative fiction is the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future (WOTF) contest, held quarterly, with first, second, and third place winners for each quarter and a grand prize winner every year. Check out their website for more details: Writers of the Future
One of the many rewards for placing in this contest is publishing your winning story in the annual WOTF anthology. As I write this review, the latest anthology is number XX, showcasing the winners of the four quarters in 2004. But I've only read up to number XIX, so that's the book I'm reviewing now. (Maybe you can beat me to number XX and write your own review.) The judges for this contest are always successful speculative fiction writers, some who are veterans and well known such as Algis Budrys, who just recently relinquished the post as the lead judge and editor of the anthology, and others who have arrived on the scene more recently -- including previous winners of the WOTF contest, which has been going on for twenty years now (in case you don't know how to read Roman numbers). The judges for the XIX anthology were Kevin J. Anderson, Doug Beason, Gregory Benford, Algys Budrys, Orson Scott Card, Hal Clement, Brian Herbert, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Eric Kotani, Anne McCaffrey, Larry Niven, Andre Norton, Frederik Pohl, Jerry Pournelle, Tim Powers, Robert Silverberg, K.D. Wentworth, and Jack Williamson.
You can see by the list of judges that this international contest is a serious one, and the quality of the stories shows it. While I would love to know how these famous authors duke it out and finally choose the top three stories from the thousands of manuscripts they receive, the end result is a collection of tales from new authors that outshine most of what comes out of the major speculative fiction magazines and webzines each month.
First story in the anthology is "Numbers" by Joel Best (second place, second quarter), a beautifully written story, almost literary. I didn't think much of it during the first reading, but the more times I read it, the more fascinated I became with the concept and with Joel's lovely use of the language. As I work on my own writing, I constantly go back to this story and try to figure out how he manages to fit so much emotion into each individual paragraph.
"Trust Is a Child" by Matthew Candelaria (first place, first quarter) won the annual grand prize, although you wouldn't know that from reading the anthology since the book is published before the final winner is selected. "Trust Is a Child" is the only story in the anthology that has what I consider to be a traditional science fiction slant to it, the kind of story I grew up reading in Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction back in the seventies. I wonder if this more conventional formula is the reason the story won overall, because I do not consider it the best story in the bunch. The writing is not as good as some of the other stories; the plot is not outstanding; and the characters are not overly sympathetic.
"A Boy and His Bicycle" by Carl Frederick (first place, third quarter) is a cute little tale, but it's one of those stories that really makes me wish I could be a fly on the wall during discussions between the judges. How did they pick this one as first place over all the others? I can only imagine that the author's commentary on the pervasiveness -- and perhaps perversity -- of information technology in modern society outweighed the mediocre storytelling. I will credit Carl with authenticity and credibility in the subject matter.
I did not care much for "A Few Days North of Vienna" by Brandon Butler (second place, first quarter), but I am biased. I don't get the whole vampire culture thing, and I'm flabbergasted by the amount of literature about vampires that continues to pour out like blood from a bitten vein (sorry, couldn't resist.). Of course, each new story about vampires has to have a new angle. This story's angle is the introduction of indigenous American tribe mysticism in Europe during the days of the Crusades. I also thought this story had the most amateurish writing of any story in the book.
"A Ship That Bends" by Luc Reid is one of the anthology's published finalists: a story that didn't place but was good enough to fill up extra space in the book. The plot is very unique, based on a world that is flat and inhabited on both sides. The narrative is well written and the characterization is good. I don't care much for the ending, and perhaps the weak ending is why the story did not actually place.
"Bury My Heart at the Garrick" by Steve Savile (second place, third quarter) is in my opinion the best written story in the anthology. It's a historic fictional account of Houdini: not exactly my preferred type of literature, but I really got into the intrigue and mystery of this tale. Like so many stories, though, this one has an ending that I consider weak and not worthy of the rest of the story.
"A Silky Touch to No Man" by Robert J. Defendi (third place, second quarter) is one of those stories about a society that exists primarily in virtual reality. I'm not a big fan of this type of literature, and the story is a whodunit to boot -- again, not my cup of tea. The story is entertaining enough to read, but I think you'll be disappointed at the end. You'll probably guess who the culprit is long before the big revelation. The protagonist is rather cocky, and I don't think the humor comes off as well as the author had hoped.
"Dark Harvest" by Geoffrey Girad (third place, fourth quarter) is a dark fantasy tale that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout. This story has a surprise ending that I don't mind warning you about because you'll never guess it. In fact, the ending is such a surprise that I consider it incongruous with the plot and the personalities of the characters. But this story is one that will keep you thinking, long after you've read it.
"From All the Work Which He Had Made." by Michael Churchman (third place, third quarter) is an emotional tale about a robot, reminiscent of some of Clifford D. Simak's works. The story is well written although I question the effectiveness of the narrative format. Most of the story progresses by way of one character explaining past events to another character. The part of the story where the protagonist is actually doing things is written in italics -- quite annoying. However, I did like the ending of this story -- finally!
I disliked "Beautiful Singer" by Steve Bein (second place, fourth quarter) more than any story in the anthology. My assessment is probably unfair, because the story is well written and set in an interesting setting, Medieval China. The story may accurately describe an important legend from that era, but the fantasy element of the story did nothing for me. I disliked all the characters so much that I disliked the story itself. Again, I'm probably not being fair, because at no point did Steve try to convince readers that his characters are likeable. Maybe you'll enjoy the story, so please forget this review until after you've read it yourself.
"Gossamer" by Ken Liu is another one of the published finalists, although I think this story is better than many of the winning stories. The writing is lovely and has some of the best characterization in the anthology. Ken brings up an interesting concept about just who may be onboard alien spaceships if they ever arrive. The only problem with the story is the incredulous ending where the protagonist goes through a realization that should have been obvious from the beginning.
"Walking Rain" by Ian Keane (first place, second quarter) is a Stephen King-style dark fantasy/horror, only written better (I'm not a fan of King's verbose prose). The story is based on the mythical religion of the indigenous American Hopi people. It starts out slow, but the plot is worth the wait. And guess what. Yes! I liked the ending.
"Blood and Horses" by Myke Cole (third place, first quarter) is a fast paced story about high-tech weaponry versus horse backed nomads who try to steal oil from pipelines in a future Kazakhstan. Myke tries to interrupt the brutal action with descriptions of the complex culture that has grown up around the pipeline and with explanations about the internal conflicts of the protagonist. The juggling act is not quite successful due to the brevity of the tale. This story would do better as the opening scene in a much longer work where there is time to explore the culture and better develop the characters.
As far as I'm concerned, the editor saved the best for last. "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" by Jay Lake (first place, fourth quarter) is the story I would have chosen as the annual grand prize winner. I'll be the first to admit that it took me a while to get into this particular story, mostly because I thought it was going to be nothing more than a whimsical fantasy. As you follow the unusual pair of protagonists through their odd adventure, however, you realize that Jay has merely created a highly original, bizarre yet plausible future for our world. Without explaining how things wound up this way, the author shows where genetic engineering and nanotechnology could take humanity (and Animals!). While "Trust Is a Child" represents science fiction from my day back in the 1970's and 1980's, "Into the Garden of Sweet Night" represents where science fiction is headed in this first decade of the new millennium.
All in all, a loveable collection of stories that I believe you'll enjoy if you regularly read things such as Analog, Asimov, and F&SF -- especially if, like me, you are constantly disappointed by the stories in those outlets. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get working on my manuscript so the WOTF editors have something to put into the WOTF anthology volume XXII. And if you know what's good for you, that's what you'll do now that you've finish reading this review.