Some eight months ago, I promised that from time-to-time I would do in-depth reviews of books, especially anthologies, when I felt that the limited space of the monthly reading roundup's usual capsule review was too limiting. Since then, I haven't done a single one. Perhaps this is a promise that you're all relieved I've failed to keep, but as an early Christmas present I've decided to supply all of you with a review of Pyr Books' new anthology of original sf, Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders, just to prove how rubbish I am at reviewing short stories.
Steve, the attentive reader of this blog might say, you never buy new non-tie-in sf. What gives? And you, hypothetical and implausibly astute reader of this blog, would be right. Whenever I pick up an sf book, it is usually about ten years old at the very least. I would pretend that I am trying to rectify that, but in reality, I was drawn to this collection by the presence of one of the world's foremost tie-in writers, Doctor Who's own Paul Cornell. That man is my king in any medium-- novel, audio drama, comic, anthology-- and I was happy to follow him to the short story. And, in actuality, I am trying to broaden my sf horizons, and this is as good an excuse as any.
"Catherine Drewe" by Paul Cornell
Despite it being what drew me to this book, I was actually somewhat underwhelmed by Paul Cornell's contribution. Not to say that it was bad. But it was sort of insubstantial, really-- Jonathan Hamilton of British intelligence infiltrates a mercenary gang on Mars to stop the Russians from gaining hold of a piece of alien technology. It's a bit consciously James Bond, and Cornell plans to turn it into a series, apparently; story #2 will be appearing in the forthcoming Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3. But despite Cornell's usual mixture of deft characterization and fun antics, I find it hard to get very excited about another Hamilton story. (I'll buy the book anyway, though.)
"Cyto Couture" by Kay Kenyon
This is fun little story about a genetically mis-engineered child working in a factory that grows clothes from plants. Enjoyable.
"The Sun Also Explodes" by Chris Nakashima-Brown
Another story about genetic engineering, and it won't be the last. There's some interesting ideas in it, but none of the characters ever really interested me.
"The Kindness of Strangers" by Nancy Kress
Aliens destroy most of the world's major population centers yet do their best to assist the survivors. Why could this be happening? You won't really be surprised by the answer, and neither was I. These sort of better-than-you-primitives aliens who like lording over us were sort of done to death by Star Trek in the 1960s, you know? Except here, there's no getting out of the situation with a grand, moralistic gesture, just some empty nihilism. I'm pretty sure this same story turned up at least twice in Brian W. Aldiss's Galactic Empires collections, anyway.
"Alone with an Inconvenient Companion" by Jack Skillingstead
After reading this, I felt vaguely unsettled and unsure of the world around me-- which was exactly what Skillingstead was going for, I assume. Strange and really quite good.
"True Names" by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow
The longest story in the book, I wasn't quite sure what had happened after I read it, because I didn't know what the protagonists were. Artificial intelligences? Memes? Post-singularity entities? Disembodies consciousnesses? Biological programs? Demiurge knows. But I enjoyed the story anyway. Whatever the protagonists actually are, they have a fascinating culture and way of life, one that Rosenbaum and Doctorow exploit to good effect. The characters are actually quite well drawn for entities of uncertain provenance, and there's some serious craziness going on at times to add to further enjoyment. Another good one.
"Molly's Kids" by Jack McDevitt
It's like McDevitt thought of a good problem for his characters, but he couldn't think of a solution. So he ends the story with the characters promising they'll think of a solution. And I don't understand why waning public support for a space probe would result in its launch being terminated mere minutes before its scheduled time. Surely by that point you've spent all the money; what would you gain? The characters themselves almost point this out, but no one ever answers it.
"Adventure" by Paul McAuley
At times this reads like a synopsis of a good story, but it comes together in the last few scenes, which make you realize that human existence will probably be just as meaningless and purposeless once we can live on other planets, and that growing up will still suck. Thumbs up.
"Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter" by Mike Resnick and Pat Cadigan
This one left me lukewarm. It's well-executed, but most of the ideas are a bit old hat, and I'm not sure that the spin the authors put on them is that different from what's gone before.
"An Eligible Boy" by Ian McDonald
A contender for my favorite of the collection, this is a story of Future India, 2047. The culture McDonald devises for the subcontinent in the mid-21st century is fascinating, and it makes a welcome break in a genre where the only country in the future always seems to be America. It's a great look at what these amazing technologies would do to society other than my own. The story's only flaw is that though the plot is quite good, it's wrapped up with some fairly humdrum stuff about two AIs falling in love, meaning that the story doesn't really live up to the potentials of its fascinating setting. Apparently McDonald's written a novel and several other short stories about this Future India; I'll certainly be checking them out.
"SeniorSource" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The entire story of this story turns out to be a distraction for the real story, which is brought up and resolved in one scene. Not so great.
"Mitigation" by Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell
This is a fun story about an environmental terrorist working for the Russian mafia who's not quite the player that he thinks he is.
"Long Eyes" by Jeff Carlson
A story about an intelligent spaceship with a human brain in it feels like it should be old hat, but it really works in Carlson's hands for some reason, probably the good characterization of the spaceship itself.
"The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi
A sweet little story about an ex-Laos journalist, and his attempt to change a world that increasingly doesn't care about the kind of stories he has to offer. A little simplistic and preachy perhaps, but still effective because it feels all too plausible.
I didn't really hate anything in this book-- even the worst stories just left be disinterested more than anything else-- but I didn't really love anything, either, though several of the stories were quite good. Oh, and for an ostensibly unthemed anthology, there sure were a lot of stories about a future Earth with its ecology either on the verge of collapse or already collapsed. Maybe that happened because it's what's actually going to happen, but it got a little tiring after a while. Overall, a fine enough anthology, but I wish that it had provided a little bit more bang.