Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Review: "The Future is Nigh" edited by C. Stuart Hardwick

For his new anthology C. Stuart Hardwick has collected stories by winners of the Writers of the Future contest. As a winner of the contest himself, he is well-aware of the prestige that goes along with the award. Each of these writers earned their place on the winner’s stage through the merits of their writing and their vision; there’s no other way to do it. This is well-demonstrated in the anthology. The collection of stories is diverse, and will make a good feast for those whose spec-fic tastes are eclectic. The stories Hardwick has chosen include some of the softest sci-fi you’ll ever read, but also much more precise and technical tales, and in between are stories that are adventurous, thoughtful, artistic and literary.

The collection opens with “Sparg,” by Brian Trent, a cute/sad short story about the tenacity of a family’s highly intelligent octopus-like pet, told from Sparg’s own experiences. This gives the story’s language a simplicity that is reminiscent of a children’s book, which makes a good framework for Trent to surprise the reader.

Also included is Marina J. Lostetter’s “Rats Will Run,” a classic that draws on the best tropes from the golden age. It’s an adventure about science gone wrong, exploration on a deadly alien planet, and ancient alien secrets waiting to be found. It’s comfortable territory for sci-fi fans; that’s one of its virtues. Our protagonist, Gabby, is the kind of hero we love to cheer on: a scientist in the thick of alien wilds on the deadly world of Cit-Bolon-Tum, where the stakes are just right.

Other stories are more challenging. “Möbius” by J.W. Alden is a brief tale that doesn’t spend its time on technical descriptions of the technology that the plot depends upon. It’s a sound choice, since by now we’re all pre-sold on time travel. Instead, the story cuts straight to the human tragedy, playing in the depth of the mortal psyche and dragging readers in with it. This will be a familiar territory to readers familiar with the classics, but it won’t be comfortable.

Hardwick’s own, “Dreams of the Rocket Man,” a story originally published in Analog and a finalist for the Jim Baen Memorial Award, is also featured in this collection. If you haven’t read it elsewhere, this is a great opportunity to do so. Rare are the stories that lean more on science fact that science fiction, and provide such vicarious fulfillment to the reader. What sci-fi reader can’t identify with a child’s desire to launch a rocket as high as possible? This portrayal of human growth cuts to the heart of why many of us love science so much in the first place, and being reminded of that is worth the cover-price on its own.

In addition to those, the collection features six more stories wherein the chosen WotF winners show off their best. This collection is polished and smooth, featuring some of the better one-sitting reads I’ve seen in the past few years. As a reader of anthologies, I’ve gotten in the habit of forgiving one or two stories for being just okay, but there’s nothing to forgive here. Every story in the collection knew exactly what it was doing and how to go about it, some of them so well that they left me mystified.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Two Blindspots Encountered in a Workshop

I was at a writer's conference last year that included daily workshops with a regular group of around six writers. I got pretty lucky in that most of the writers in the group had an interest in writing about strange things, even fantasy and gothic horror. It was an interesting spread of interests, even if the work I brought to be workshopped was relatively mundane. My story was largely based on my life experiences, with some thematic ghosts and flubbing of time and relationships. It's a story I've been working on for about three years, and I'm grateful to this workshop group for pointing out something that I would never have noticed on my own, but someone should've brought up to me years prior.

A decade ago, I worked as a waiter at a restaurant in a mall back in Colorado Springs, and encountered a lot of strange customers and unique personalities who worked in the shops around me. One of these people was a lotion salesman who spoke almost exclusively some European language I couldn't quite place. He managed his job mostly through offering free samples and having a nice smile. He constantly proferred his samples of lotion to me and blushed every time. Sometimes we'd be in line near eachother at the Starbucks that was equidistant between our two shops, and he'd smile and try to say something I didn't understand, then get embarassed and clam up.

I wrote him into the story I was workshopping at this conference, and I rendered him as honestly as I could. I didn't change him at all in the telling of the story; I knew almost nothing about him beside his job and his efforts to flirt with me, so what could I change? This honest telling of my interaction with the man left me vulnerable to a blindspot that they brought up only very reluctantly. In my story, the man came off as a homosexual stereotype that I was making fun of.

This was a story I've shared with dozens upon dozens of fellow writers. Why did it take so long for someone to tell me about that? I'd have never known if someone hadn't told me, because to me, in my life, this was a real person I was writing about. To me, his shyness was both amusing and endearing, so much so that I still remember his expressions perfectly. But in the context of the story, an Eastern European, non-English-speaking lotion salesaman with a habit of flirting with the first-person narrator, feels a bit like something someone would imagine who'd only seen homosexuals as portrayed on 90s television.

Writers encounter blindspots like this in our stories, and in our actions. A couple of days later, this same group of writers were going over a different story from the group. The workshop's only black writer had brought in a story about racial injustice in the court system, a first-person narrative based on painstakingly-researched factual events. It was fascinating and well-written, but the plot-focused writers found that its realism made it implausible. In prose, reality often sounds contrived, exactly as my peers thought this story did. They thought the writer should let the historical details wander, telling a story that is somewhat more fictional but, in their opinion, more effective.

Perhaps because I'd just had my own blindspot pointed out by the same group of people when we were going over my own story, I was the one to observe that the workshop had transformed. It had become a room full of white people telling a black man how to write about racism. Moreso, there were white writers in the room explaining to a black historian (he became a historian wehn he researched and wrote a historical narrative as it factually occured) that they found his racial history unbelievable. It is always the job of a writer to convince their audience to trust them, and it's important to feel free to criticize the writer's success in a workshop environment, but it's possible to do this while being cognizant of the racial undertones in the room.

In this case, the right thing to do was let the writer know what our feelings were, and trust him to know what to do with them. Perhaps in any other historical narrative -- and I've heard writers of historical fiction have these conversations -- it would be appropriate to question that value of strict historic adherence to minutiae. Not in this case.

I do hope the writer of that story, and all the others in the workshop, found their way to the stories they were trying to tell. They were some great writers and important stories in that room. My own story hasn't yet found its way to an audience. I found I needed time to expunge the details of the man I met back in that mall, relegating him to memory so that I can write something more appropriate to the fiction I'm trying to craft.