BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An original science fiction anthology of 14 stories by 17 authors.
PROS: 13 stories good or better; 3 of those are outstanding.
CONS: 1 story hovering slightly above mediocre.
BOTTOM LINE: Not a bad story in the bunch.
Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders is the second installment of his well-received new original science fiction anthology series. Looking at the lineup of top-notch talent contained therein, it’s not hard to see why it’s gained such positive praise. The author roster here contains mostly seasoned veterans, but it also includes some of the newer voices in science fiction with promising futures. And as if that weren’t enough to grab your attention as a reader, then perhaps John Picacio’s stunning cover art, which itself has a story to tell, will do the trick. (Some cover art is based on the book it graces. Picacio’s artwork here demands to have it’s story told.)
In his introduction, The Age of Accelerating Returns, Anders says, “science fiction is first and foremost entertainment and must be entertainment if it is to function effectively.” Finally, concrete documentation about what should be obvious, but gets lost amidst so many discussions of capital-L-Literary merit. Anders also goes on to emphasize that it is, at the same time, much more than just entertainment and talks about the purposes of science fiction: to be predictive, preventative, inspirational, and be a forum for open-mindedness. The stories of Fast Forward 2 exhibit all these qualities, making the anthology itself a remarkable example of science fiction’s capabilities. And yes, these stories do meet his preliminary requirement as well: every story in it is entertaining in some fashion.
Standout stories in this volume are:
- “The Kindness of Strangers” by Nancy Kress
- “Molly’s Kids” by Jack McDevitt
- “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi
A review of each story contained in the anthology follows…
Paul Cornell’s “Catherine Drew” takes place in an alternate future where the British Empire seems to be trying to keep Russia away from Mars. When the hero of the adventure, Jonathan Hamilton, goes undercover (under dual cover, actually) to kill the mysterious Russian agent Catherine Drew, he gets more than he bargained for when he discovers that the goings-on have less to do with espionage than originally believed. This is good, fast fun and a rich universe that promises adventures to come. Most intriguing is Hamilton himself, who seems augmented in ways that demand further exploration. The story also had a wonderfully creepy first act.
In “Cyto Couture,” Kay Kenyon takes us to a futuristic plantation where designer clothes ate genetically engineered through plants. The story is told through the eyes of Nat, a poor orphan with a cleft pallet. The lead designer dangles “normal looks” in front of Nat to get him to tend to menial duties, but she has something else up her genetically-grown sleeve. Nat is as affecting a character as could be, and his deformity, ironic in an age of genetic engineering something as trivial as fashion, lends him sympathy. But Nat will have none of that as his street smarts make up for any other shortcoming he may have. His story is interesting from a sf-nal aspect and totally engrossing.
A wounded ex-Marine finds solace in art and designer drugs in Chris Nakashima-Brown’s “The Sun Also Explodes”. The art, in this case, largely leverages genetic modification. Nathaniel can handle that easily enough, especially as a veteran who has benefitted from the resulting advanced prosthetics. What’s much harder to handle are the true motives of his love interest, Elkin. I have to admit that this story was hard to get into initially. Brown’s prose is energetic to the point of schizophrenia. But once I had grown accustomed to the style, and the story began dealing with moral and ethical questions, it really started to shine.
“The Kindness of Strangers” by Nancy Kress is simultaneously a human drama and a science fiction warning that echoes The Day the Earth Stood Still, albeit with more proactive aliens. The world’s cities are disappearing and a small group of refugees are contained inside a force field in upstate New York, including Jenny, who is having trouble dealing with Eric, the married man who just ended their affair. Kress expertly weaves that personal drama with the mystery of their alien caretakers who, despite removing the world’s cities, seem benevolent to the refugees, resulting in a story that is thought-provoking (with regards to human kindness) and completely absorbing.
The theme of loneliness pervades Jack Skillingstead’s story “Alone with an Inconvenient Companion”. Doug seems to wander through life, looking for something real after a series of liaisons ended his marriage, but all he finds are people who are genetically modified with enhanced beauty. The tone of the story is suitably moody as Doug stumbles trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not.
“True Names” by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum appears to be a nod to the Vernor Vinge story with the same title (which I have not read). The story (the logest in the anthology, clocking in at 96 pages) focuses around several characters: Beebe, a collection of autonomous sprites and sims; Paquette, Algernon and Alonzo, 3 entities who are sub-parts of Beebe; Demiurge, an entity existing at a different scale that runs Beebe as an emulation (I think); Firmament – the offspring (a messiah, of sorts) of the forbidden union between “strategy” and “filter” entities and who also houses a fragment of their assumed nemesis Demiurge. All of the characters here seem to be artificial intelligences that reside in an emulation — and by characters, I mean sentient entities called sprites, or more specifically classified as strategies and filters (and adapters, monitors, registries or synthetes) in the Standard Existence. But what does this mean? Are they posthuman intelligences? Are they simulations? The AIs, I suspect, seem to be the only survivors of the Singularity. So, characters can spin copies of themselves and merge them back again, or they can decant themselves into multiple forms, including sock puppets — but characters traits and actions remain: parental sacrifice, tantrums, jealousy, etc. If all this sounds a little confusing, it’s because the authors are always several steps ahead of the reader. It’s the kind of story where you kinda know what they’re talking about…and you get the gist of the environment. While playing catch-up-to-the-author is fun, to a certain degree, it shouldn’t do so at the expense of the story, which in this case desperately needed a more concrete handle to hold on to. But the end result is still a satisfying story that is sometimes thrilling in its mysteriousness but sometimes annoyingly abstract.
Jack McDevitt’s “Molly’s Kids” is about a mission to Alpha Centauri that is threatened by imminent budget cuts and a reluctant AI. The AI (Cory) claims sentience, but George, the Mission Control operator, doesn’t believe it. What follows is something that could easily have been plucked from the pages of our science fiction past: a simple story, well-told and thoroughly enjoyable.
In Paul McAuley’s “Adventure,” a dissatisfied man named Ian emigrates to a colony planet to escape his humdrum life, but life might have something to say about that. This is a simple story, a portrait, really, of someone who cannot seem to shake his unhappiness. The ending leaves something to be desired, but that is perhaps the point the author is trying to make.
Mike Resnick & Pat Cadigan team up to present “Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter,” a thoughtful story about hopes and dreams. Here, the Dreams are a race of mutated humans (or maybe aliens) that enable humans to experience pleasure and pain, yet they feel no emotions themselves. The main character wakes beside a dead Dream and is picked up by the police — but he’s not there for long because the Dreams demand custody. At its most superficial, this story works as an interesting portrayal of murder and possible revenge. But there is a deeper meaning here, though a little too obscured, that makes the story more substantial.
Ian McDonald returns to his futuristic India with “An Eligible Boy”. It’s the story of Jasbir, a young man so focused on the rituals and games of dating and finding a mate that he is blind to anything else. Beautifully written and stuffed with Indian culture, this story re-evokes the wonder I had reading his River of Gods. Well done.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch interestingly combines issue of healthcare and outsourcing in her detective story “SeniorSource”. The narrator lives in a space station orbiting the Earth that is reserved for senior citizens, a convenient solution for their aging but long-lived bodies. He solves crimes on the Moon using virtual reality equipment and his latest case, which concerns the death of the company CEO’s son, is nearly unsolvable. The solution, though, although it does blend nicely with the world the author has created, is something of a MacGuffin. Reading this somehow reminded me of Asimov’s Elijah Bailey stories because the story was not just about the case, but also intertwined with the futuristic setting.
Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell team up to present the near-future heist story “Mitigation”. Chauncie is an eco-activist for hire in an eco-ravaged future. He’s hired to accompany a scientist (named River) to a protected vault where rare seeds are stored. Chauncie is being paid to sequence their DNA and transmit them to his employer, the Russian Mob. This is an attention-grabbing premise and a well-painted bleak future. Chauncie wants to do what’s best for the world, even if it means breaking a few laws. Of course, things may not always work out the way the way they are headed, much to the enjoyment of the reader.
In “Long Eyes” by Jeff Carlson, Clara is the result of a genetic experiment gone wrong. As compensation, she is merged with a deep space vessel in which she can explore the galaxy. Sadly for her, she is rarely in control, existing mostly as passenger who can view the wonders of space, but rarely control the ship’s direction – that is, until the ship discovers an inhabited planet where Carla confronts her humanity. An interesting premise, to be sure, but this somehow lacked some much-needed characterization for Clara who waffled between a strong desire to control the ship herself, and willingly giving in to its programming.
“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi is the type of story that reinforces my love for short fiction. It’s such a well-crafted story; simultaneously engrossing and thought-provoking. Ong is a Vietnamese refugee in near-future America working for an online media conglomerate, writing stories about social and environmental issues. His work visa is in jeopardy because his ratings are low. Ong’s colleague, on the other hand, is securing huge bonuses writing about the latest celebrity gossip. The message here is that nobody really wants to read about depressing issues, no matter how important; collectively, we’d rather read about Paris Hilton than global warming. Ong’s desire to raise social awareness in a media orgiastic society is in stark (and fascinating) contrast with his father’s desire to express discontent with the tyrannical government, a rebelliousness that ended with him being taken from his family when Ong was a boy. Bacigalupi also prognosticates a likely future of media giants, not only technically (where hit rates are visually tracked in a “maelstrom” of living blobs of color), but also at a meta-level, where the information is a living, breathing thing that is tailored to the lowest common denominator of interest. Powerful stuff and, in Bacigalupi’s capable hands, a marvel to experience.