Writers of the Future XXIII
While I would not normally be seen dead reading something with the words "L Ron Hubbard" on the cover, it's hard to see what he has to do with this particular book, seeing as he's been dead for quite a while now. In fact, the book is the annual result of a regular contest for new writers, with no apparent connections to Scientology* (apart from Hubbard's big ugly name being splurged across the front), and actually contains some very good writing. Of course, there's some crap in here too, not least of which are essays by Hubbard himself and hackmeister extraordinaire Kevin J Anderson (one of the contest judges), but really no worse than you'd see in a collection by established authors.
The phrase "sense of wonder" is often used to describe the appeal of SF, which I rather dislike - it just conjures up the image of some small American boy in the 1950s with his mouth hanging open - but it's true that much of the joy found in SF comes from the wealth of ideas, making the short story its true home. Plenty of the stories here would not stand up to a book-long test of their central concepts, but they certainly provide the requisite wow! factor of sparkling new vistas and What If? scenarios. A few of the themes here have been doing the SF rounds recently (time travel by projection, life discovered on Jupiter's moons, reality TV and hippy new-agery) but the stories mostly avoided any feeling of staleness.
Not counting the Hubbard and Anderson essays, the worst thing in here was Tony Pi's The Stone Cipher - a promising idea about the world's statues all starting to speak, but hampered by clunky writing, waffly pseudoscience and the author's need to stuff in too much of his knowledge of linguistics. The only other contender for the bottom spot was Mask Glass Magic by John Burridge, some fantasy-lite new-age witchy chick-lit fluff with an incomprehensible twist, but it was well-written and harder to dislike than I expected. At the other end of the scale, we have a few good stories and a couple that even approached greatness - Karl Bunker's far-future survival tale Pilgrimage, and the moving time-travel story Our Last Words by Damon Kaswell. And a shout-out to Stephen Gaskell too, a local writer who kindly gave me this copy of the book.
The establishment of this contest for unpublished SF writers was a good thing, even if it was just to add a veneer of respectability to the Hubbard brand; on the other hand, having the association with Scientology may be as much of a hindrance as a help. Still, if the Hubbard name puts you off, you could always invest in a marker pen and scrub his name from the front to no great loss; there's no other reason to avoid the book. Go on, give some new writers a chance!
*Following the arrival, several months after this review was written, of a Hubbard disciple demanding I remove all my anti-Scientology comments (see below), I'm afraid I have to retract my recommendation of this book. It seems apparent now that the Writers of the Future brand is NOT separate from Scientology, and so I can't in all conscience recommend it to anyone, and would urge new writers to steer clear; there's better ways of getting published than by associating yourself with such a fraudulent and free-speech-hating organisation.