“So just what is science fiction?” asks editor Lou Anders in the preamble to his second and latest volume of Fast Forward, an annual collection of original genre stories (you can find my review of the first edition here). Theodore Sturgeon, whose definition Anders includes in the epigraph, used to seem to say it best: “…a story about human beings with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content.” Maybe back when Sturgeon was writing, that covered all the bases. What, then, would you call this anthology’s “True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctrow, in which nary a human can be discerned in a computer generated simulacrum? And while Paul McCauley’s “Adventure” does take place off-world, this would be an example of where you could take the science out of it and still have a story in which the protagonist attempts to confront his illusions, with disappointing results.
Another reason for continually posing the question is to distinguish science fiction even while mainstream literature adopts conventions of the genre that dare not be named by publicists and marketing programs. Another, related, part of the challenge is that we live in science fictional times. Used to be, a character accessing a globally connected computer network to get directions to the nearest sushi bar could only be taken seriously in the funny pages of Dick Tracy wrist communicators. These days, it’s merely another mundane background detail.
Anders’s definition has multiple aspects, but the one notable criterion is that, “To my mind, science fiction is first and foremost entertainment and must be entertainment if it is to function effectively…” (15). While he goes on to say that it should be more than just entertainment, I think the reason most people start reading science fiction in the first place is that it is great fun, something that frequently gets overlooked in the sometimes ponderous discussions about what is, or is not, science fictional. If Fast Forward 2 has an overriding theme, it is that the fourteen stories here are highly entertaining (though, as it happens, the stories I found the most intriguing were actually the least purely escapist).
The tone is set immediately by Paul Cornell’s futuristic alternative history adventure, “Catherine Drewe,” in which a government secret agent for one of Earth’s ruling empires faces the fabled head of a peasant uprising on Mars, with classic 007 kind of results. Yeah, maybe you could make a case about the dehumanization of war, or the futility of developing an “ultimate weapon,” but it’d be a bit of a reach.
Similarly, Kay Kenyon has fun with a genetic engineering escape and love story concerning the downtrodden (both in terms of class and conception) in Cyto Couture. “The Sun Also Explodes” by Chris Nakashima-Brown also uses a genetic engineering trope that takes the bohemian/hippie lifestyle literally to epic proportions (a joke I hope you’ll get once you’ve read it).
Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. And Nancy Kress and Jack Skillingstead don’t seem to be bothered by that. In “The Kindness of Strangers,” Kress revisits the classic SF idea of Earth invaded by inscrutable superior aliens. While some of this violates the storytelling notion of “show, don’t tell,” there’s an interesting enough riff about the main character who “finds herself” by disobeying conventional human wisdom, although the alien justification for their actions is, unfortunately, all-too human in its treatment of other species. Even though you can figure out where “Alone with an Inconvenient Companion” is heading, Skillingstead takes you there in a highly entertaining way in a tale about a man looking for an authentic relationship.
Similarly, Ian McDonald in “An Eligible Boy,” another of his highly regarded stories set in a futuristic India, depicts the illusions of computerized dating. The theme that relationships are not always based on what they seem like is also explored by Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell in “Mitigation.” It also involves Russian expansionism and the value of genetic codes in a near-future that, as the cliché goes, is nearer that you think.
Jack McDevitt revisits the classic notion of sentience of artificial intelligence, and how it might outwit the human variety, in “Molly’s Kids.” In Jeff Carlson’s “Long Eyes,” a hybrid of human intelligence physically fused with an exploratory starship makes a decision no mere machine would.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch frequently combines science fiction with the detective story, and, just as frequently to my taste, the detective angle is a little lame (though, to be fair, from what little reading I’ve done of detective mysteries, it seems to be a genre convention). The “whodunit” of “SeniorSource” here is largely irrelevant; what’s hilarious is the idea of outsourcing private investigation cases to the retired elderly whose continued assisted care depends on their ability to solve cases. Look for it in a future near to you.
“Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter” by Mike Resnick and Pat Cadigan is a bit more surreal than its fellows, depicting a symbiotic relationship in which an alien life form feeds on human emotions by providing a narcotic dream experience, a relationship that goes drastically wrong for the narrator. Entertaining if your idea of a good time is “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
Perhaps the most challenging story here, is the least entertaining, if only because you have to work to figure out just what the hell is going on, is the aforementioned “True Names.” It took me awhile to get into this (and at novella length, it’s quite awhile) and fortunately I continued to slog on; just as I was about to give up in exasperation, it started to get interesting.
The characters are some kind of computer generated avatars and there’s some sort of war going on amongst various, I don’t know what to call them, operating systems, maybe? Complicating things is that the characters have multiple incarnations and there’s a lot of “geek-speak” that I imagine the authors found vastly amusing to themselves in creating, though much of this went over my head. Towards the end, as our heroes fend off an intruding viral (?) attack and survive only by reverting to a previously saved version, the story started to come together in what I think is a parable to answer the question of what preceded the Big Bang.
However, the story here that I’d pick for the “hit single” (you can read it here)
is “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi. The narrator is a web journalist in a near future in which readership – and the news feed’s stock price – is measured instantly. Reporters who file stories that get the most clicks directly contribute to company profitability. What kind of stories get the clicked on most frequently? Well, if you’re guessing that it might be the tabloid celebrity stuff as opposed to detailed analyses of government reports, you’d be making a reasonable extrapolation based on the current state of media “news” coverage.
The “gamble” is that there might be an audience for something more substantive than the usual fluff. That the gamble might have a chance of winning is why it is a science fiction story.
Publications to be considered for review should be sent to David Soyka, 3820 Red Hill Rd, Charlottesville, VA 22903-7917. Electronic/PDF publications may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.