With the Hugo Awards coming up, I’m going to a break down of some of the nominated works for this year’s awards, This week I’m starting off with Fast Forward 1, edited by Lou Anders, who is nominated for a Best Editor, Long Form award. As this is a collection of short stories, the usual review framework doesn’t quite apply, but I’ll try to fit the usual beats in there.
Title: Fast Forward 1
Editor: Lou Anders
Originally published in 2007
The premise behind the Fast Forward series is to collect short speculative fiction of the hard SF variety covering the way things could turn out in the future, but is still enjoyable to read and isn’t necessarily dry and boring.
First up is “YFL-500” by Robert Charles Wilson. The story is set in the same universe of one of his earlier short stories, “The Cartesian Theater”, and marks the start of a trend – of authors building on some of their other universes in this work. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does effect the anthology’s ability to stand totally alone. The story follows Gordon “Gordo” Fisk, a transrepresentationalist – an artist who uses data to generate art. This is a concept that is novel and is an out-growth of some existing concepts – I got a flier in the mail recently advertising classes in how to build more visually interesting infographics. Gordo hasn’t been dreaming, and goes to a therapy clinic to find out why. While there, he finds an interesting dataset from a patient that inspires him, so goes looking for his muse. The best parts of the story are related less to Gordo’s search for his muse, and more related to how he goes through the creative process.
Next is “The Girl Hero’s Mirror Says He’s Not the One” by Justina Robson, set in the wake of her novel Mappa Mundi. The title character is the Girl Hero, who is an assassin works for the government and helps them fight against the Cartomancers, people who rogue “maps” (which are described in Mappa Mundi, which I haven’t read). It’s an interesting little story, and I found myself slipping some of the trappings of the Magical Girl onto the Girl Hero – she has a gadget that’s a compact, and can communicate through the mirror. She has a companion animal. However, she’s a little less like Usagi Tsukino and Nanoha Takamachi, she’s a bit more like River Tam. It’s a decent story, though I really felt like I was missing a lot for having not read Mappa Mundi.
Multi-time Seiun Award Nominee Paolo Bacigalupi comes up next with “Small Offerings”, an incredibly dark story about a polluted future Earth where the birthrate has dropped due to pollution in the atmosphere and ecosystem (among other things). This was a really big shift towards the grim, that rather surprised me, though apparently grim is right in the middle of Paolo’s wheelhouse.
We move on to the first of two poems by Robyn Hitchcock, titled “They Came From The Future”, about the shifting perception of what the future has to offer, as shown in speculative fiction and eventually in popular culture. Poetry isn’t necessarily my thing (though Hitchcock does do music as well, and I wouldn’t mind listening to some of his music), but the slight hopeful note at the end does temper some of the grimness that the book’s had from Bacigalupi to here.
Kage Baker moves us into lighter tonal fare in “Plotters and Shooters”, about the plotters who set up intercepts for incoming asteroids, and the shooters who fire the actual killshots. The dichotomy between the more technically able plotters and the Dude-Bros-by-way-of-Rob-Liefeld Shooters is very well written.
“Aristotle OS” by Tony Ballantyne has an interesting concept – what happens if you base operating systems off of philosophy. The concept is interesting and the story is extremely well written. There isn’t a lot of characterization here – but there doesn’t need to be. The escalation from Plato to Aristotle and up is incredibly fun, fantastic.
We get another story in an original universe with “The Something-Dreaming Game” by Elizabeth Bear. The story involves a woman whose daughter, while passed out after taking part in the titular game (also known as “The Choking Game”) says that she’s been mentally contacted by an alien. This is probably one of the few cases where being in a collection of speculative fiction can work against a short story. If this was in The New Yorker (or one of the pieces of short fiction published in Playboy, like some of Phillip K. Dick’s work), then as a reader I’d question whether the contact by the alien is real, or a hallucination. If you’re in a SF anthology, then you can safely assume that the kid is telling the truth, and is contacted by someone or something not of this world.
Stephen Baxter comes next with “No More Stories”, a story about death and it’s importance to humanity. I like how they tie this in to the singularity in the end of the story..
“Time of the Snake” by A. M. Dellamonica is a bit of a military SF story set in a future Earth in the midst a civil war between one group of Humans and another groups with military assistance. The story has a bit of a commentary on the occupation of Iraq going on.
After several straight stories set in original universes, Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper have “The Terror Bard”, a sequel to their earlier story “Kath and Quicksilver.” The story features Kath, over a hundred years after the last story, with Kath working on sending Mercury into the currently expanding sun for a race of aliens so they can see what happens For Science! I’m not sure about what to think about this one. The story doesn’t particularly grab me. The real conflict here is between Kath and the digitized consciousness of her mentor, Quicksilver from the earlier story, and relates to the death of an instance while the original “file” exists. However, it just doesn’t quite click, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Maybe it’s because it feels like adding a level of existential angst onto the transporter from Star Trek or the Transmat from Doctor Who.
“p dolce” from Louise Marley is about uploading consciousnesses into computer systems and diving into them to find inner truths. In this case, it’s a program to figure out what, precisely, Brahms meant by the notation “p dolce” in some of his compositions, and when things go poorly, an attempt to pull the subject out. It’s an interesting concept. I haven’t seen Inception yet, so I don’t know how this compares with the degree of consciousness within consciousness (along with dreams within dreams) that’s in Inception, but some of the imagery was interesting.
“Jesus Christ, ReAnimator” by Ken MacLeod take the concept of Jesus’ return and puts an interesting spin on it. What if Jesus returns, and sticks around for awhile, and spreads his thoughts through mass communication, such as the internet and blogs, and so we can preserve his actual words and deeds, rather then having to interpret them through a multi-millenia game of telephone. The story is interestingly executed, and I have to give props to MacLeod for taking the agnostic route with the story, instead of potentially taking the “Religion is slightly malign at best, outright evil at worst” route that some speculative fiction writers take.
“Solomon’s Choice” by Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress is the first story in the collection that’s not set in our Solar system. The story involves a research outpost on a planet where humanity had a disastrous first contact with the locals – and our hero learns that the first contact was far more disastrous than we may have realized. The ultimate root of the problem in the story, where the women of this world can pass memories from mother to daughter and onwards is interesting, though logistically I can’t figure out how the solution can work in the long term.
“Sanjeev and Robotwallah” by Ian McDonald is also particularly interesting – an interesting little story about what war might look like to an outsider when everyone fights with piloted drones (and similar sorts of things). It’s a somewhat sedate story, but that’s part of the point. It’s similar to war as we know it, but not. It’s not quite the video-game war type of story that most people think of when they talk about future wars and drones, but it’s not totally dissimilar either.
Pamela Sargent’s second contribution is “A Smaller Government”, an little piece of satire that, basically, takes the concept of “smaller government” literally. The concept is fun, but it hits the “and then what” point and kind of gets a little lost. The story still has its appeal, but I can’t say it’s fantastic.
As an Oregonian, and someone who has watched plenty of programs about exotic pets, “Pride” by Mary A. Turzillo hits all the right points for me. Basically, it’s a story about a guy who steals a cloned animal from a research laboratory as an animal rights thing, not realizing that it’s a cloned Saber-Toothed Cat. Still, he tries to keep it. While I’ve only heard of the hazards of keeping exotic pets second hand, from what I know, Turzillo hits all the hazards, and adds some nice twists related to having the pet possibly be one of the most dangerous predators in the history of mammals.
Robyn Hitchcock’s other contribution is the poem “I Caught Intelligence”, which is dramatically more nihilistic then his other poem, which hurts the poem’s appeal to me (I’m practically the anti-nihilist).
George Zebrowski has the story “Settlements”. The story spends much more time talking about it’s ideas than its characters. All the earlier stories in this, even the ones that are more idea focused like Aristotle OS, have characters that act like characters. The characters in Settlements exist solely to discuss different ideas on the same point. I can’t help but feel like this story would be better suited as a philosophical essay instead of as a SF story.
Gene Wolfe follows this up with the significantly better short story “The Hour of the Sheep” which is more of a fantasy story about the difference between book smarts and practical smarts, particularly when it comes to any sort of martial art.
We follow this up with what is probably the best story of the anthology, John Meaney’s “Sideways From Now” This is an impressive story of love, loss, angst, telepathy and alternate universes. It’s also the longest story of the anthology and takes advantage of every page of it’s length. It paints wonderful pictures of two different universes connected through our hero and his subconscious, and tells two great (and eventually interconnected) stories, one in each.
Finally we have “Wikiworld” by Paul Di Filippo. Basically, the story creates a universe that’s a little too different, and I really wasn’t quite able to find my bearings in it, which is unfortunate, because I came in hoping the concept would be interesting. Maybe if he expanded the story into something longer so the reader could be eased into it. Maybe.
All in all, this is an excellent book, and proof positive that Anders merits his nomination for a Hugo award (yes – this book is 4 years old, but I couldn’t find anything he’s edited more recently at the library to read).