Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
I'm not that big of a science fiction fan but due to the praise I heard about Fast Foward 2, I had to check out this anthology. For the most part, it lives up to the hype and this is a very solid original science fiction anthology. The quality of the writing is consistent, with the fiction leaning towards above average. It also features diverse cultures, such as "Cyto Couture" by Kay Kenyon and "An Eligible Boy" by Ian McDonald, as well as tackling various themes from horror ("Alone with an Inconvenient Companion" by Jack Skillingstead) to comedy ("Molly's Kids" by Jack McDevitt).
You know you have a good anthology when you're having trouble picking your favorites, or in this case which is my third favorite story. The first two comes easy. "True Names" by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow automatically stand out partially because it's the lengthiest story in the bunch. But word count aside, what's enjoyable about "True Names" is that this is the equivalent of your science fiction epic combined with big sprawling ideas. The narrative is uncomfortable at first since the culture is alien and there's a lot of terms thrown around (and well-read readers might appreciate the allusions) but eventually, everything coalesces and becomes clear. You'd think a story with recurring names of the same characters might be confusing but that's not the case--at least if you're an astute reader. There's a definite build-up and while the plot isn't particularly unique, it's compelling and hooks you along with the intriguing cast.
Another undeniable favorite is Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler" due to its focus on its Vietnamese protagonist. The strength of the piece is Bagicalupi's focus on character and this is evident as we get flashbacks of the narrator's father who is a martyr of sorts. There's a lot of details packed into the story that gives it a rich flavor and makes it believable. Where Bacigalupi triumphs is that while the story could easily have taken place in the modern era, what makes it science fiction is the exaggerated qualities of our culture. By the time we reach the end, the story's fairly predictable, but it nonetheless hits your gut and even I'm forced to evaluate my reasons for writing.
And then we return to my third favorite story and there's a lot of contenders. "The Kindness of Strangers" by Nancy Kress for example is very character-driven with the big science fiction concept set as the backdrop. Skillingstead's story is effective and chilling in a different sort of way, while McDevitt is a welcome respite from all the seriousness in the rest of the book. The tandem of Pat Cadigan and Mike Resnick in "Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter" has a certain lyricism and dark ambience that's quite potent but my gut goes with "SeniorSource" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch which combines elements of mystery with science fiction. Much like "The Gambler," Rusch makes the story compelling by focusing on character and while it's not as detailed as Bagicalupi, it's conveyed succinctly how the situation is cause for anxiety and the protagonist's unique position. She actually walks a thin line between an effective story and one that's a cop-out but in my opinion this works out to be the former.
I haven't read the other anthologies edited by Lou Anders but if Fast Forward 2 is any measure of his work, then I look forward to reading more from him. This is science fiction that's relevant, gripping, and easily one of last year's stand-out anthologies.