“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).