Fiction Reviews


Fast Forward 2

(2008) ed. Lou Anders, Pyr, 9.99 / US15.00, trd pbk, 359 pp, ISBN 978-1-591-02692-1

This is the second in what is clearly now a series of an annual collection of SF shorts edited by Pyr's commissioning editor Lou Anders. Tony reviewed the first one that came out last year. Now it has to be said that the principal focus of our news and reviews is primarily British Isles and then mainland Europe. However near commonality of language and that over a third of Concat's traffic is from N. America means that we do occasionally run reviews of titles from the other side of the Atlantic but really only when it is worth it, and as far as Fast Forward is concerned it most certainly is. For starters, unlike a number of other annual multi-author SF collections, the stories in Fast Forward are all clearly science fiction: many of the other SF annuals actually stray into territory that is better described as fantasy. Then again these tales are all commissioned and so are new, and not reprints. Also being commissioned this gives the collection a certain additional focus. Finally, the book does what is at least suggested by the collection's title and that is feature stories that look forward to the future. Indeed - an additional minor point this - its internal design relates to 'fast forward' on video and DVD players with the use of the 'fast forward' double arrow triangle icon at the end of each story, the 'play' icon at the beginning of each and the 'pause' icon where there is a break in story narrative. Of course the last thing our British regulars need to know is that Pyr do distribute in the UK so your specialist SF bookshop should have this (you should not need to be told to go there first) and indeed so do Amazon UK.

The collection is preceded with an interesting introductory non-fiction editorial article, 'The Age of Accelerating Returns', on the value of SF. Now this really is an interesting article and I do agree with almost everything it says. This alas made it a little frustrating that Lou Anders had not gone just that little bit further as well as underpinned his case with quantitative facts, not just qualitative views (which he does well with the space available). I will not dwell on this but to give you an inkling of where I am going I'll give you one additional example of SF's value and a link to some underpinning quantification. SF does not just (as Lou Anders says) 'inspire the future' but it inspires folk to actually become scientists and engineers to generate the value science and engineering practically bestows on us daily. There has been some work on this and indeed I reported on one item of such research a few years ago. Anyway, I had better leave this topic here (as I feel a potential article threatening to dominate a day) and instead move smartly onto a teaser list of the stories. Here there is something for everyone:-

Catherine Drew by Paul Cornell. In a parallel Earth (with parallel physics) in the not too distant future Britain was a superpower only rivalled by Russia both across the planet and out into space. What the Empire needed was a skilled, ruthless secret agent that upheld British values and who knew a good wine. Armed with skill implants, memory control, Major Hamilton was going to go undercover on Mars... A rip-roaring, dashing yarn of derring-do and gung-ho action worthy of Flemming. (Loved the black hole gun.)

Cyto Couture by Kay Kenyon. Growing more refined non-food crops necessitates tailoring plants. Kay takes this 'tailoring' to its logical conclusion and on the way touches upon some bio-ethical issues (albeit in a cartoon extreme way) that real biologists are beginning to address.

The Sun Also Explodes by Chris Nakashima-Brown. Someone else is going to have to summarise this story as I found it more than a little incoherent and (I assume?) I totally missed the point. The writer seemed to use molecular biology trappings in a way to which I (as more of a whole-organism biologist) could not relate. Maybe some post-modernist point was being made about the potential for biology or biotech products as an art form of commercial value necessitating intellectual copyright? Perhaps a lay-reader unencumbered with bioscience luggage can get more out of this science fantasy. (If you do get to read this story and see me at a con then do please explain it to me. Editor Anders quotes a review liking Nakashima-Brown to J. G. Ballard with a Texas twang. It must be that I find the 'Texas twang' incomprehensible: I guess blame me not the editor or the writer.)

The Kindness of Strangers by Nancy Kress. The aliens came, took our cities and a small group found themselves in a field isolated by a force field. Why? This story of bleak hope is for neo-Malthusanists.

Alone with an Inconvenient Companion by Jack Skillingstead. Life can get a bit too much. By himself in a hotel, Doug meets a woman. Can he find solace? It would help if the bar's urinal did not try to help him by providing a diagnostic service, and the receptionist was not a bit strange. Artificial intelligence was getting invasive. What was really real?

True Names by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow. Now this is the best concept story in the collection and some real brilliance shines through . It explores the life (lives) of some computonium: part of a vast sea, adrift in space. More than this I shall not say lest I spoil the story for you. Yet having said that,in terms of concept this is the best story in the collection, in terms of delivery it is badly let down. The story is three or four times longer than it needs to be! Clearly the two authors were sparking off of each other and revelling in the writing of this tale (which is fine) but took far too much pleasure in the creative process (which is not) and so had difficulty quitting while they were ahead and editing down. Nonetheless wade through the bloat and enjoy.

Molly's Kids by Jack McDevitt. Another story that touches upon ethics, and in this case it is the ethics of sending (or sentencing) someone (or even something) to many decades in effective solitary confinement on a voyage of interstellar exploration. (Charles Stross briefly cited this concern in an article elsewhere on this site.) Here McDevitt makes it personal.

Adventure by Paul McAuley. A lottery winner decides to up stakes and make a new life on a new colony world. However he soon finds out that life's' mundanety is inescapable no matter how exotic the backdrop... This one may cheer you up (or as likely not) should you read it on your commute to work.

Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter by Mike Resnick and Pat Cadigan. What happens if you need others to dream for you and then the dream turns into a nightmare...

An Eligible Boy by Ian McDonald. Set in a future India (the same setting as his novel River of Gods). With future technology arranged marriages should be easier... Shouldn't they...? Ian McDonald writes a rich narrative and reading his works must in no way be rushed. So take your time and if you do you'll especially enjoy this yarn's conclusion.

Senior Source by Kristine Katherine Rusch. Rusch presents us with a novel detective set up. Think a physically geriatric, but intellectually similar, version of BBC's Space Cops. In the future the elderly infirm who are still mentally active can cushion their bodies in the weightlessness of Earth orbit. However this is expensive and so earning your keep as a detective for hire is one option...

Mitigation by Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell. A biopiracy heist, set against the backdrop of global warming, provides an informed foundation for this gung-ho yarn.

Long Eyes by Jeff Carlson. A sense-of-wonder tale of interstellar travel, speciation and survival.

The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi. A look at the age-old conundrum that folk are more interested in gossip than real news. This makes for a bit of a dilemma for journalists wanting to tackle meaningful issues. In the near future, where circulation value is replaced by story hits, which would you gamble on: a story of a species about to go extinct or a celebrity's night out? What if you might use the latter to sugar the former; would that sufficiently change the odds? Either way it is all a bit of a gamble.

And so there you have it. For my money easily far more hits than misses and, bearing in mind that collections inevitably have both, this says something about Fast Forward. Of course for me what does help - as mentioned earlier - is the collection's decidedly SF focus and one at that, that tends to the harder end of the genre as opposed to its softer, soggier dimensions. If you are into this sort of science fiction then you might find Fast Forward a regular annual treat.

Jonathan Cowie


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