I’ve been a fan of Writers of the Future since I picked one up in an airport about 5 years ago. Since I’ve started writing seriously (about the same length of time), it’s also been somewhere I’d like to be published.
With that in mind, I’m going to read through the stories in this volume and post analyses here as I go. If you’d like to read along, you can buy it on Amazon as a mass market paperback or ebook: http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Future-Volume-Hubbard-Presents/dp/161986200X/
Here’s story one in the volume, “War Hero” by Brian Trent. (This story was the 2nd place winner in Quarter 4, according to the official blog post.)
I’m coming at this from a slightly different angle from most analyses I write, I think, having just read the first few bits of David Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines. If you’re a writer, or want to be a writer, you should check out MDO, which contains a few really great insights into why people read stories on top of the usual writing manual stuff. Any copies you buy will also help out David Farland, whose son is in ICU following a longboarding accident and who does not have insurance due to a pre-existing condition. You can find more information about David, his son’s current condition, and his writing, at: http://www.helpwolverton.com/
So, without further ado:
War Hero, by Brian Trent
This is a story I didn’t want to like. It’s very heteronormative, and heroic, and generally all the other stuff I find bland in fiction.
But, damn me, it works.
As Ben and Rupert note there categorically cannot be any character development, which is a bit unusual. I was a bit surprised when the story abruptly ended, as well, and it practically ends on a joke—the old harking back to “dog bites man” style newspaper articles.
Also interestingly, none of the characters are particularly dynamic. Nobody really undergoes any huge changes, due to the structure more than anything I think. (Well, we don’t see them undergoing change because of that, anyway.)
So… why does this story work?
Length: 26 pages (something like 7000 words, middle-of-the-road, WotF-wise.)
Genre: Futuristic Science Fiction (almost science fantasy, given the implausability of having a “Save point” that can be used to insert somebody’s essence into an inert body of flesh.)
PoV: First person present. (An effective choice for this plot, and clearly not used only for reasons of style.)
Protagonist: white, male, hero-type
Antagonist: white, male (at least originally), fairly flat-and-evil sadistic puppetmaster-type.
- 1) white, female love interest, flat and pretty much not actually in the story except one side note that mentions the character’s having sex with her once before he died
- 2) white, female boss, flat and not really much in the story
Plot: A war veteran is reincarnated into the body of his arch-enemy’s son, and discovers that his arch-enemy is both the mother and father. He faces torture in the fight to kill his arch-enemy (a war criminal), and ensure that the rebellion for control of Mars and solar system wide peace has been completely effected.
Ending: Presumed resolution. The character has killed his enemy (in both reincarnated bodies) and has been reincarnated again, in his original body, into a presumably post-revolutionary, peaceful Mars. The character is literally the same man he was when the story began, as he has no memory of any events past the “save point” established in scene one.
Setting: I’d just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy when I read this story, so the setting seemed frankly derivative. However, the regeneration areas (original to the story), are well-described and seem fully realized. The few actual descriptions of of Martian city-scapes are also well-handled and original, so that it’s probably just a case of KSR doing such a damn good job in his (Nebula- and Hugo-winning) novels that his martian landscape is permanently etched into my brain…
Prose: Clean and evocative, with a few punctuation glitches. (I noticed two comma splices.)
The assumed audience for this story is white, adolescent, and male. I may seem to be hung up on this a little, but everybody in this damn story is white. Although there’s a female in a non-romantic role (she’s the protagonist’s boss, and seems to be mostly in charge of the rebellion), there’s also a female love interest who gets zero screen time and there’s that weird aside when the just-before-dying narrator tells his newly-regenerated self via e-mail that he got lucky before he died. Weird.
That Feminist/post-imperialist critique aside, the story is handled well, the protagonist is sympathetic and interesting, and even if the cast is not as diverse as I’d like it to be there’s no sense that this is out of deliberate design. Of particular interest is the fact that the antagonist has reincarnated himself into two bodies, one of which is female. In addition to this being just damn creepy, it could also be read pretty well as a critique of authoritarian handling of women’s rights, if you were so inclined.
Er, anyway. (Didn’t I just say “Feminist critique aside”?)
As to why the story works…
In Million Dollar Outlines, there’s a spot where David Farland (DF) talks about story-telling as an exercise in emotional stress relief. In order for a story to have a good pay-off, he says, it has to put a character we care about in a stressful situation where a lot is at stake, and then bring us to a spot where he or she succeeds in achieving his or her goals (personal or political, etc.). This success at the end of the narrative gets our brain to release happy-making chemicals, and makes us feel emotionally satisfied with the story.
In this case, the pay-off is political, not personal, and that makes this story somewhat unusual—especially in WotF, which so often focuses on character growth as essential to story.
What we get at the end of this story is emotional payoff in knowing that the Partisans (the radical, authoritarian government the arch-enemy was at the center of) have been defeated for good—or at least, for good as far as anyone knows. The protagonist’s sacrifice of himself as a pawn in that battle—even if he doesn’t remember a jot of it—is also emotionally effective. And, again, even if he categorically cannot have grown at all by the end of the story, we get the sense that this growth is just around the corner for him and those he cares for, now that the threat of the Partisans is gone.
What makes this otherwise static, priveleged-white-male-soldier character so effective a narrator, I think, is his disorientation. We see him struggling to regain, in some sense, his sense of who he is, and when he is. He’s torn from his life violently several times, and then thrown back into the world with no real knowledge of what’s transpired. This stops him from being an overbearing stereotype and gives him—despite all his privilege—a feeling of underdogginess.
Trent also leaves us a pretty solid clue that he is going to learn about what happened, too. This is why, I think, he ends the way he does—more or less on a joke. That “older, weirder headline” that his boss gives him when he wakes up drives him into her office, where we assume he’s going to drill her for info until she explains everything that’s happened to him, and he’ll be able to move on with his life.
This suggestion, coupled with what we know about his past (while it might be a bit of a cheap PoV trick), is an effective way of showing us that he has suffered, and that his suffering is now at an end. We appreciate his sacrifices, and wish him the best.
Overall, of course, this is a pro-quality story or it wouldn’t have been published in WotF (in a 2nd-place spot, to boot).
Like Ben says, the ending is a bit of a Deus Ex. While there is the suggestion that the narrator has a way out (the early mention of a “dom patch”), it’s not really clear what’s going on, and the information is withheld from us until the protagonist actually needs his out.
But that, and the Feminist stuff I’ve already gone into, is really my only complaint.
A solid piece of work. (And the fact that I can still remember this much about it a day and after reading it shows clearly that it works!)