Beneath the sea, a race of fluid-breathing people wages submarine warfare, oblivious to threats from the world above. On a flat Earth, a girl dreams of building a bendable boat that will sail safely over the edge of the world to the other side. In settlements that cling to the walls of a bottomless pit, people live subject to an iron law: no littering.
These are the premises of successful entries in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. To the uninitiated, it may sound like an ingenious promotion for Scientology. But Hubbard was a novelist as well as a mystic, and the contest funded by his estate has no official connection to the religion he founded. Rather, it's a way to get unpublished or under-published writers into print. This year, two Vermont writers are hoping the ghost of Hubbard will push their careers into high gear.
"The Writers of the Future program...is the largest, the most well-known and the best established discovery vehicle in the field," boasts the official website. The contest has four quarterly deadlines, each with several prizes. A grand-prize winner is chosen from the four first-prize winners at the end of the year. "Shipwoman," by Roxanne Hutton of South Burlington, took second place in the third quarter of 2003. Luc Reid of Burlington, whose story "A Ship That Bends" appeared in last year's Writers of the Future anthology, recalls the thrill of finding the book on sale at his local Shaw's.
All the winners of Hubbard's contest receive cash prizes and publication in the anthology. Then there's the trip to Hollywood, where they attend a week-long writers' workshop and a glitzy awards banquet, complete with acceptance speeches. Last year, David Carradine was the guest of honor, and sci-fi writers Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven and Tim Powers showed up. Reid describes the event as "Red carpet, limousine, tuxes... which is actually kind of unfair, for writers, because you're never going to get that kind of treatment again."
Detractors see science fiction as the province of nerdy kids who need to get out more. Since its origins in the wacky speculative literature of the 17th century, the genre has been associated with radical individualists and visionaries. Science fiction today brings together people who share little besides a passion for speculation. Take the two Vermont winners -- Hutton, 50, who has an engineering background and attends gun shows, and thirtysomething Reid, who works in marketing and was one of the founders of an "intentional community" in central Vermont called Meadowdance. Hutton's writing features fierce action and advanced technology, while Reid's is more reminiscent of myth and folklore. But both broach one of the genre's perennial themes: the meeting of disparate cultures and world views. And both like to contemplate the lessons of real as well as fantastic history.
"There are some who feel that science fiction predicts the future. Ray Bradbury says that sf doesn't predict the future, it prevents it," says Hutton. The sea-dwellers in her tale live in a dangerously insular world: "You have barely a hundred years left," a visitor from a more advanced society informs them. Hutton is currently working on a novel about "a civil war that takes place in the U.S. in about 80 years," after "the government goes too far in terms of taking liberties away from people."
Some of Hutton's writing is more utopian, such as a non-fiction proposal for "building a sort of railroad in space" that she calls an "intersystem transport ring" -- a cable railway that would follow the Earth's orbit, with electromagnetic assemblies for accelerating ships or cargo containers. Like many futurists, Hutton believes that Earth's dwindling resources will eventually turn space into the new frontier.
Another of Hutton's themes is the soldier's life. She's a World War II history-buff who collects vintage rifles -- primarily American, Russian and Chinese. The characters in her story have a freewheeling, authentic-feeling military banter, even though they communicate by means of pocket computers and hand signals. Hutton, who grew up on Long Island, says she's been writing "pretty much my whole life," but didn't get serious about publishing until she moved to Vermont in 1998. Since then, she's had some minor successes; this L. Ron Hubbard win was a breakthrough.
Luc Reid has paid his dues, too: He entered the Writers of the Future contest five times before becoming a finalist, and won on his eighth submission -- this year's -- for the novelette "Bottomless." A Colchester native, Reid counts among his influences Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, C.S. Lewis, Orson Scott Card, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling -- a motley assortment, but all with some interest in using fantastical situations and/or low-tech cultures to explore the ethical dilemmas of life on Earth.
Reid sees his writing as analogous to his work co-designing the rural, self-sufficient community Meadowdance. In his fiction, "I'm interested in how societies work together," he says. His stories depict social worlds that are close-knit but also sometimes painfully restrictive, physically as well as psychologically. When you live on a flat Earth or clinging to the wall of a bottomless pit, there's nowhere to go but down -- or so it appears.
"Those two [prize-winning] stories are special in that they have vertigo in common," Reid says. Sometimes the best thing a character can do is surrender to the vertigo of the unknown. In "Bottomless," the hero falls into the pit willy-nilly, only to discover that falling is not that different from floating and flying -- for reasons that only become clear at the story's end.
"For me one of the most exciting things about science fiction is that you can create situations that are really hard to create in mainstream fiction," says Reid. "You can work out problems before we get to them, like artificial intelligence. It's... stretching our brains to address situations we're not prepared to address right now." The "alien first contact" story, Reid points out, is a metaphor for "dealing with other groups of people. The contact right now between the Western world and Muslims is a good example."
Neither of the Writers of the Future winners seems to suffer from writer's block. Reid, who has a Web-development job at the Burlington marketing firm Kelleher Samets Volk, wrote about 200,000 words last year, he says. He keeps 15 to 20 short stories in circulation and is currently at work on several larger projects, including an adult novel, a young-adult fantasy and a series for 8- to 12-year-old boys.
Hutton quotes fellow science-fiction writer Ben Bova's advice: "Write every day. Finish what you write. Send it out." As for herself, "I'm OK writing standing up on a hammock during a thunderstorm," she says. Over a year ago, Hutton was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She's managed to beat the original prognosis and keep on with her work. "I'm a tough old bitch," she says with a chuckle. "You've got to live your life... Everybody has 168 hours in a week. Nobody gets any more than that."
That's a down-to-earth sentiment from someone who designs imaginary worlds. Some may equate science fiction with escapism, but Hutton and Reid make it clear that you can't be a "writer of the future" without tackling the here and now.