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SF Signal Exclusive Excerpt: ‘The Age of Accelerating Returns’ by Lou Anders (Introduction to Fast Forward 2)

Here’s an exclusive look at the Introduction to Fast Forward 2, the second book in the all-original science fiction anthology series edited by Lou Anders. The book is due in October 2008 from Pyr and features these 14 stories:

  1. Catherine Drew” by Paul Cornell (read this online right now!)
  2. “Cyto Couture” by Kay Kenyon
  3. “The Sun Also Explodes” by Chris Nakashima-Brown
  4. “The Kindness of Strangers” by Nancy Kress
  5. “Alone With An Inconvenient Companion” by Jack Skillingstead
  6. True Names” by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum
  7. “Molly’s Kids” by Jack McDevitt
  8. “Adventure” by Paul McAuley
  9. “Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter” by Mike Resnick & Pat Cadigan
  10. “An Eligible Boy” by Ian McDonald
  11. “SeniorSource” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  12. “Migration” by Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell
  13. “Long Eyes” by Jeff Carlson
  14. The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Introduction follows…

The Age of Accelerating Returns

Lou Anders


And so we return and begin again.

When the initial volume of this series, Fast Forward 1, debuted in February 2007, it marked the first major all-original, all-SF anthology series to appear in some time. Now there are two other regular series up and running-George Mann’s The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction and Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse (albeit the latter mixes SF and fantasy).1 Certainly, taken all together the three anthology series represent a healthy vote of confidence in the state of short-form SF. What’s more, no less than seven stories from Fast Forward 1 were chosen to be reprinted a total of nine times in the four major “Best of the Year” retrospective anthologies, a wonderful testament to the quality of contributions in our inaugural book.

And here we are back with a second volume. In the time between these two books, the mainstream recognition of and respect for science fiction continues to swell. We’ve seen the Pulitzer Prize committee honor Ray Bradbury with a special citation for “his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy,” and in the same year, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road (also an Oprah pick!). We’ve seen a previous Pulitzer winner, the always genre-friendly Michael Chabon, leap into the science fiction field with both feet with his alternate history novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which was chosen by the Coen brothers to direct as a major motion picture. Meanwhile, Philip K. Dick has become the first science fiction writer to be canonized in the esteemed Library of America line, nine of his novels collected in a two-volume set edited by none other than Jonathan Lethem. Online media company Gawker Media launched the science fiction site io9.com, which while celebrating all the media aspects of SF, includes a healthy amount of commentary on the literary side of the genre. Explaining why Gawker would want to enter such a space at all, io9 editor Annalee Newitz debunked the notion that science fiction had only limited appeal when she said, “We don’t see it as a niche entertainment site. We see it as a pop culture site. So much of our mainstream culture is now talked about and thought about in science-fictional terms. I think that’s why people like William Gibson and Brian Aldiss are saying there’s no more science fiction because we are now living in the future. The present is thinking of itself in science-fictional terms. You get things like George Bush taking stem cell policy from reading parts of Brave New World. That’s part of what we are playing with. We are living in [a] world that now thinks of itself in terms of sci-fi and in terms of the future.”2 In short, everywhere you look, you see the greater world at large waking up both to science fiction’s popularity and to its obvious relevance.

Fast Forward 1 was itself the focus of a weeklong discussion on the very popular blog3 of Stargate: Atlantis writer/executive producer Joseph Mallozzi, who offers this somewhat humorous advice for how to deal with those poor fools who haven’t yet come over to an appreciation of the genre. “Rather than resenting the critics who dismiss science fiction as little more than escapist fun, we should instead pity them for their shallow perspectives born, not of a sense of superiority or a better grasp of the meaningful and worthy, but of a dismal inability to consider the future’s boundless possibilities.”

It was of the future’s “boundless possibilities” that he spoke when science fiction legend Isaac Asimov first said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blind critics and philosophers of today-but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”4

Saved? Yes, saved. These sentiments speak not only to the relevance and importance of science fiction, but to its urgency. To my mind, science fiction is first and foremost entertainment and must be entertainment if it is to function effectively (and some people just can’t see past that, just as some people can’t acknowledge animation as legitimate narrative or cartoons as art). But science fiction will never be just entertainment. It has been, since its inception, a fundamental contributing factor both in how we view our increasingly technological world and in actually dictating the shaping of that technological world, involved in over a century of back-and-forth with the march of science. Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote that “an analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the commonsense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the twenty-first century-it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”5 Kurzweil was introducing the notion of “accelerating returns,” or that exponential growth increases exponentially. He is among a growing body of thinkers who go so far as to suggest that the twenty-first century will be the last one in which we can even speak of one human race, as the coming biotech revolution will change our very notions of humanity, just as the approaching technological singularity may give birth to non-biological intelligences which we’ll have to deal (or merge) with as well. Whether one buys into Kurzweil’s predictions or not, science fiction, as the branch of literature devoted to examining humankind’s relationship with technology, is surely coming into its own as the most important literature of the twenty-first century.

So just what is science fiction?

Science fiction serves four purposes. It can be predictive, and it’s always fun to talk about that, but this is its least important aspect. More important, it can be preventative, as Robert J. Sawyer articulates when he points out, “If accurate prediction were the criterion of good SF, we’d have to say that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was an abysmal failure because the real year 1984 turned out nothing like his prediction. But in fact Orwell’s novel was a resounding success because its warning call helped us to keep the future it portrayed from becoming reality.”6 Third, SF’s importance lies also in its ability to actually inspire the future. Technovelgy.com is a remarkable Web site that currently lists several thousand articles charting when ideas first envisioned in SF become real, and more often than not, the inventors and scientists are very aware of where the ideas came from and were working to them directly.7 Finally, SF is the literature of the open mind-the literature that acknowledges change and encourages thinking outside the box-and that in itself is a good thing, even if the science on display is nonsense. (This is SF’s value as allegory.) No one would take seriously Adam Robert’s Land of the Headless, in which convicted criminals have their heads removed and their brains placed in their chests as punishment for their crimes, as something that could happen, but what the novel has to say about the criminal justice system is illuminating, relevant, and brilliant.

Or, as Paolo Bacigalupi said recently, “SF has tools for writing about the world around us that just aren’t available in other genres. Reading good speculative fiction is like wearing fun-house eyeglasses. It shifts the light spectrum and reveals other versions of the world, mapped right on top of the one you thought you knew.”8

The famous science fiction writer Brian Aldiss may indeed have said that “science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are for ghosts,” but it was science apologist Carl Sagan who proclaimed, “Science stimulates the fiction, and the fiction stimulates a new generation of scientists.” But we need to stimulate more than the scientists. As our world grows ever more fantastical and ever more dangerous, as the ways we have on hand to effect our own destruction multiply, we need everyone-from our artists to our politicians to our neighbors-to start thinking beyond the needs of the short term. Or, to quote Isaac Asimov once again, “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”9

What follows are fourteen tales, from the comedic to the cautionary, as different as the seventeen writers who penned them, as current as tomorrow, and as wild as imagination-and the only constant in them is the reality and inevitability of change. Because, as this volume testifies, the future lies ahead of us, and it’s coming at us fast.

Enjoy!

Or maybe duck!


Footnotes:

  1. Ellen Datlow’s The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy debuted in April 2008 as well, though as of the time of this writing, it isn’t clear if it is to be a standalone volume or the start of its own series.
  2. Brad Stone, “Gawker Media Gets Strung Out on SciFi,” New York Times, January 2, 2008.
  3. Joseph Mallozzi’s Weblog: Thoughts and Tirades, Rants and Ruminations, http:// josephmallozzi.wordpress.com/.
  4. “My Own View,” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. Robert Holdstock (London: Octopus, 1978).
  5. “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” published on KurzweilAI.net, March 7, 2001.
  6. “What Is Science Fiction?” http://www.sfwriter.com/2007/09/whatisscience fiction.html, September 11, 2007.
  7. See also Mark Brake and Neil Hook’s Different Engines (New York: Macmillan, 2007), which examines how science fiction and science have informed and influenced each other. From the book description, “Science fiction has emerged as a mode of thinking, complementary to the scientific method. Science fiction’s field of interest is the gap between the new worlds uncovered by experimentation and exploration, and the fantastic worlds of the imagination. Its proponents find drama in the tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Its readers, many of them scientists and politicians, find inspiration in the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary.”
  8. Paul Goat Allen, “Science Fiction’s New Prophet: A PW Web-Exclusive Q&A,” Publishers Weekly, February 20, 2008.
  9. “My Own View.”
About John DeNardo (13012 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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