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REVIEW: Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders

REVIEW SUMMARY: A good example of why I love reading short fiction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The first volume of a new original fiction series – this one containing 19 stories and 2 poems.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: 15 stories good or better; good sampling of the literary range sf has to offer.
CONS: 4 stories mediocre or worse. 2 short poems that escape me.
BOTTOM LINE: A promising start to a hopefully long-running series.

Fast Forward 1 marks the beginning of a bold, new, annual science fiction anthology series; bold because it is often said that the number of anthology offerings is already high, yet here it is. Its goal is to provide original, sf-only stories that offer “windows on the future”, as Editor Lou Anders’ insightful, reference-laden introduction puts it. Or, as the book’s subtitle puts it: “Future fiction from the cutting edge.” This first volume does indeed have some great contenders to add to the sf field, blasting the series off with a promising start. Take that, crowded anthology field!

It helps that Anders has assembled some of the field’s brightest stars, mostly veterans, and some newer voices, too. Having a cool John Picacio cover to get passersby to notice that is also a great help. The collection of visions depicted here is indisputable proof that science fiction is the literature of ideas.

Not all the stories worked for me, but it’s rare for any anthology to do otherwise. (Insert YMMV disclaimer here.) Even “Best of…” anthologies are hit and miss. But on the whole, Fast Forward 1 has lots to offer. Standout stories here include “The Something-Dreaming Game” by Elizabeth Bear, “p dolce” by Louise Marley and “Wikiworld” by Paul Di Filippo.

Reviewlettes follow, except for the reviews of Robyn Hitchcock’s two poems, “They Came From the Future” and “I Caught Intelligence”. Look, I’ve been a fan of Robyn Hitchcock ever since “Balloon Man“, but not even he can make me like poetry. On the bright side, anthology-rating-wise, the poems’ short-short length had no impact on the book’s rating.

On with the reviewlettes!


STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:

  1. “YFL-500” by Robert Charles Wilson [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: An artist who turns various datasets into beautiful abstractions seeks out the source of one of his most popular creations: a piece known as YFL-500 named after the anonymous test subject who allowed her dream to be recorded.
    • Review: Some cool world building marks this story. There’s an interesting division of a society in that AI bots, meant to perform menial chores and automated services like food and medicine, are freely available to all, but only the rich can afford the human touch. The semi-successful artist Gordo Fisk is himself unable to dream and seeks in YFL-500 a beauty heretofore unimagined. His desire to meet her and reinvigorate his career supersedes measly issues such as personal privacy. Despite being a free-spirited dole gypsy, YFL-500 is as beautiful as he imaged she would be. Unfortunately, there is a reality of economics at work.
  2. “The Girl Hero’s Mirror Says He’s Not the One” by Justina Robson [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: In a world of updatable brain software, a woman known as Girl Hero (real name: Rebecca) is sent to assassinate a man who believes humans should have free will.
    • Review: While the idea of identity mapping sounds cool and the question of determinism vs. free will is of significant weight, I found it difficult to get immersed in this world. Besides the cumbersome narrative, there are too many unfamiliar concepts thrown at the reader who is unfamiliar with Mappa Mundi, the book that depicts the world in which this is set. Maybe if I had read that, this story would have been more enjoyable.
  3. “Small Offerings” by Paolo Bacigalupi [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: Extrapolates a future in which environmental pollutants exact their toll on human reproduction.
    • Review: Although the emphasis seems to be more on the message rather than the story, the disturbing imagery, seen through the eyes of a doctor delivering a baby, has a deep, chilling effect.
  4. “Plotters and Shooters” by Kage Baker [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: Although the emphasis seems to be more on the message rather than the story, the disturbing imagery, seen through the eyes of a doctor delivering a baby, has a deep, chilling effect.
    • Review: A fun story that has you rooting for the “plotters” (the asteroid trackers) who are abused by the “shooters”. The writing style was somehow captures the feel of every good classic juvenile science fiction story.
  5. “Aristotle OS” by Tony Ballantyne [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: Things get weirder and weirder for a man who installs successive operating system upgrades on his computer.
    • Review: This reality-bending story plays with some interesting concepts like computer operating systems mimicking the philosophers after which they are named, but anyone with an even passing knowledge of computers might find this a bit hard to swallow. Eventually, the Twilight Zone-ish vibe gives way to some meaningful character growth.
  6. “The Something-Dreaming Game” by Elizabeth Bear [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: A ten-year-old girl with a quantum chip in her brain communicates with an alien when she auto-asphyxiates.
    • Review: As a parent, the situation described in this story was powerful and gut-wrenching. As a science fiction fan, the once-simple idea of being the only hope for any alien race is made more urgent by the circumstances surrounding the communication. Well done.
  7. “No More Stories” by Stephen Baxter [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: A bioengineer, visiting his dying mother, learns firsthand where his job is leading humanity.
    • Review: Rather uneventful for the majority of the story, until the very end when the future exhibited by the mother’s priest (who is more than he seems) reveals the destiny of man. That’s a jarringly short time span to go from personal tragedy to the fate of the universe.
  8. “Time of the Snake” by A.M. Dellamonica [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: An alien ground squad goes door-to-door clearing a city of pesky humans one at a time.
    • Review: The interesting twist of this well-written, streetwise story is that the aliens, who resemble squids, are being assisted by a human, named Cantil, who is a member of the squid-sponsored Democratic Army. The “bad guys”, fighting for the freedom of Earth, are the Friends of Liberation, who obviously see Cantil as a traitor to the human race. Dellamonica creates a nice air of tension in an interesting setting that tackles questions of loyalty.
  9. “The Terror Bard” by Larry Niven & Brenda Cooper [2007 novelette]
    • Synopsis: In the far future, during the last throes of the dying solar system (by astronomical standards), Kath makes a deal with some non-interfering aliens that appear to lead to a crime against humanity.
    • Review: According to the intro, this story is a sequel to “Kath and Quicksilver”. It seems like this might have been geared towards readers of that story as there are many superfluous references to past events that I must assume were recounted there. For the never-initiated, it’s hard to find sympathy in the characters, something that seems to be attempted when Kath, somehow seeking moral forgiveness, is constantly reminding herself that the task at hand is for the good of the people. On the bright side, there is an interesting situation set up between Kath and the race of aliens who would otherwise sit idly by and wait for the solar system to die. Also, there are seeds of weighty issues as Kath asks Quicksilver, the digitally stored remains of a teacher, to (apparently) once again give his life so that others might live.
  10. “p dolce” by Louise Marley [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: A musicologist sends his consciousness back to the time of 19th century composer Johannes Brahms to find out what happened to a rival sent there to unravel a musical mystery.
    • Review: This seemingly simple premise turns out be dramatic and engrossing with Marley’s tight storytelling. The meaning of Johannes Brahms‘ “p dolce” is the center of the mystery and both characters, the handsome Kristian and the plain Frederica, are desperate to learn the secret. Frederica’s months-long disappearance works in her rival’s favor and gives him the chance to learn the same secret by witnessing firsthand the lives of Brahms and his paramour, Clara Schumann. But what’s more important: finding and retrieving the consciousness of Frederica, whose body lay comatose in their future, or learning the secret to the grand music mystery? Good stuff.
  11. “Jesus Christ, Reanimator” by Ken MacLeod [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: A reporter follows a man claiming to be Jesus Christ, back for the Second Coming.
    • Review: It’s interesting to see the humorous speculation on how the modern world and Jesus interact. (Jesus has a blog!) With regards to the truthfulness of his claims of identity, there are believers and disbelievers. In the end, the truth might not matter so much.
  12. “Solomon’s Choice” by Mike Resnick & Nancy Kress [2007 novelette]
    • Synopsis: After years of isolation, a member of an offshoot race of genetically engineered Homo Sapiens reestablishes contact with humans in order to save her daughter.
    • Review: Some excellent world-building here as we learn not only some nice details of the female-dominant race burdened with racial memory, but also of the unfortunate history between the natives and the humans, mostly centered around the ignorance of the latter. The story itself – the desperate acts of a mother trying to keep her daughter from constantly reliving past nightmares – is told in alternating perspectives between the native mother and the human biologist with a spotty career record. The result is a compelling narrative of a possible redemption for the human race for its past injustices.
  13. “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” by Ian McDonald [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: During the tail end of war, a young boy named Sanjeev is befriended by a group of teen robot jockeys.
    • Review: While the overall focus of this story is how the times change when the war ends, it is brought to life by the cool AI-controlled war robots. McDonald doesn’t quite recapture the magic that he dealt out in River of Gods – the story needed seemed to lack its import – but it was nonetheless fun to return to that world.
  14. “A Smaller Government” by Pamela Sargent [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: Satire in which government building – and the people inside them – are miniaturized.
    • Review: Humorous and fun without being too absurd. I enjoyed the repeated rationalization that everything was OK as long as it still looked good on TV.
  15. “Pride” by Mary A. Turzillo [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: A man rescues a baby sabertooth from a cloning facility and raises it like a pet.
    • Review: Initially unassuming, this story builds up the tension as the cub grows larger and more fearsome. I’m not entirely sure how Kevin attempts to get his life back on track by stealing a lab experiment, but when his ex-girlfriend has a change of heart, he is lulled even further into denial of the dangers that are sure to explode.
  16. “Settlements” by George Zebrowski [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: A man with a hidden nuclear device in his artificial leg is part of a human contingent to meet with aliens who are apparently benevolent.
    • Review: The twist to the story – that the aliens are the descendents of humans that were taken from Earth long ago – pulls the focus from the realm of sf to one of symbolism. The strangers have been nothing but helpful and we choose to ignore it, threatening their destruction because of what is seen as unwarranted occupation. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but the clunky dialogue and the abstractness of it all diminishes an otherwise fine idea.
  17. “The Hour of the Sheep” by Gene Wolfe [2007 short story]
    • Synopsis: A master swordsmen, who in truth lacks any real street cred, is commissioned to write a book of his adventures.
    • Review: Admission time: I read this story twice and still could not decipher any of Wolfe’s trademark hidden meanings. I wildly guess that there’s supposed to be some “pen is mightier than the sword” message here, but damned if I could find it. As it is, I must judge this based on the superficial aspect of the story, which is to say it uses lyrical prose but is ultimately inconsequential.
  18. “Sideways from Now” by John Meaney [2007 novella]
    • Synopsis: A widower named Ryan, the inventor of telepathy technology, dreams of a cylindrical world that contains a moving city. Within this city, a power play is waged as the sleeping Prince Argul absorbs the thoughts of his subjects.
    • Review: Several parallel stories are played out in this well-though-out story with sensawunda and sentiment. Firstly is the story of Ryan whose love for his dead wife, Yukiko, is made all the more painful by the “qTip” telepathy technology that they invented together. Ryan becomes increasingly distracted by what he thinks are vivid daydreams of a cylindrical city, home of the ever-moving Clanking City (a reference to Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World, perhaps?) as it trudges its ways to keep up with the slowly-moving air bubble, sometimes passing over the remains of dead, stationary “demon cities”. Within Clanking City, the ruler, Prince Argul, has the power to read other people’s thoughts – just one of many parallels with Ryan’s story that permeate the story. Not content with Argul being “lost in dreams”, a power play is made by one of his subjects and an attempt is made to set off a Void Egg bomb to break the cylinder in two. Another story played out in Clanking City is that of young Shama, a crystal-making prodigy whose work inadvertently traps the mind of Prince Argul. While this may seem like many story lines, Meaney does a great job of making each of them memorable and distinct; it was never a problem picking up each subplot as they were alternated in the narrative, sometimes in mid-dialogue. Plus, as mentioned, there were numerous parallels between the subplots and it was fun trying to connect the dots between them. The science behind the story is briefly explained as being quantum-based, and that ties in nicely with each thread, particularly at the end. Meaney has created a well-imagined world. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it again.
  19. Wikiworld by Paul Di Filippo [2007 novelette]
    • Synopsis: The back story of how one man started a multi-national trade war in a world reshaped by environmental collapse.
    • Review: Extrapolation is most convincing (at least to my short-sighted thinking) when the imagined future is not too far off from what we know today. That’s the case here where the collaboration culture of wikis has emerged as the basis for society after the world has been radically altered due to environmental changes. Submerged coastal cities are now the prey of treasure hunters looking to score some currency amidst a society formed of wikis – groups of people wirelessly connected to each other (and the global network) and joined for some common purpose. All the wikis are governed by the UWA and “Wkikiworld” tells how Russ quickly rises to power to seek revenge for an accident involving his carefree (and wiki-less) girlfriend, Cherry. Russ’ rise to power, brief though it may be, is egged on by FooDog, experienced hacker who uses his skill to disable “spimed” tech across the globe and put pressure on those nations who might in some way be responsible. De Filippo’s cyber-future is wiki culture taken to logical extremes. (Indeed, the reference-laden text screams to be read alongside a computer pointed towards wikipedia.) For example, people use their wiki connections, implemented via subcutaneous RFID devices, to vote on matters both regional and national. Although the extrapolation of current cyberculture reminded me of Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Di Fillipo’s near-future setting is brilliantly distinctive; one that is simultaneously grim (Can drowned world scenarios be anything else) but cool. Very well done.
    • Note: Also available online.
About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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