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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The PKD Award Nominees, Part 5 - Fast Forward, Vol. 2, ed. by Lou Anders (Reviewed by Fábio Fernandes)

Fast Forward 2 is an above average anthology. So far, it has collected a fair share of rave reviews -- and nominations: some of its stories, like Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow´s True Names and Paolo Bacigalupi´s The Gambler, were nominated for this year´s Hugo Award. FF2 was also the sole anthology running this year for the PKD Award.

Though I´m not familiar with the nomination criteria for the PKDs, my guess is that FF2 was chosen because of its variety. This is not a theme-oriented anthology, like Ann and Jeff VanderMeer´s The New Weird and Steampunk, for example, two other excellent anthologies, but what it would possibly lacks in focus it more than compensates for in strength and quality. Am I being too vague? Ok, then let´s move to the stories. I assure you they are everything but vague.

The anthology opens with a steampunk space adventure. In Catherine Drewe, Paul Cornell tells the story of Hamilton, a seasoned Irish Major in the service of the British Empire, who is comissioned to do an out-of-uniform job. He must go to Mars and kill revolutionary Catherine Drewe, who is working with Russian mercenaries to take over the red planet from the Czar and topple down the domination of the House of Savoy in the Solar System. It´s an intriguing story, in part because of its kind of "counter-steampunk" style: technology here has advanced to cloning and nanotech, though mores and fashion are pretty much Victorian/Edwardian. Maybe not likely, but what the hell! It is appealing, it is beaufitul, and it is believable on the page. It can´t get much better than this.

Kay Kenyon´s Cyto Couture also reminds us of a steampunk-ish setting, but not enough to make us yawn and think, oh, same stuff again? Definitely not. Nat is a trash boy who, after his mom´s death, goes to work in the plantation great house. He is going to be servant to the astonishingly beautiful Lorelei, first daughter of the plantation and designer of haute couture. She makes garments of living tissue, and gives Nat a job taking care of the mitos, somers, and golgi, basically pillars of synthetic flesh bathed in nutrients and that exsude clothing. But he treats them so well that he creates a bonding with them, and, together with fat, ugly Deri, second daughter of the plantation, he will (though in spite of himself, for he´s dumb as a doorknob) change things there forever.

In The Sun Also Explodes, Chris Nakashima-Brown pays a beautiful homage to Ernest Hemingway, telling the story of an impotent man in a far future of posthuman beings where everybody can be (and have) whatever he/she/it desires, and shows that size (not even performance) matters after all - but to be master of your own desires is the most important thing in the all-too-real end. The scenery and the endless, movable posthuman feasts are a treat to the eyes, to the palate, and to the imagination. Nakashima-Brown does a beautiful job with words in this story.

The Kindness of Strangers is one more reason why I love Nancy Kress. She has the ability of telling a story as if it was a real, daily affair - even though it involved major posthuman genetic mutations (Beggars in Spain) or strange alien invasions (the recent Steal Across The Sky). In this story, Kress tells us the end of mankind as we know it. One day, suddenly, every major city in the world is vaporized. Aliens in human form arrive and treat the survivors with exceeding kindness, offering food and shelter. Humans, of course, despise them, and even try to kill them, but they are indestructible (if they are holograms of if they have powerful force fields, it´s far beyond our understanding). Jenny, a woman in one of the refugee camps, caught in the middle of all this pain, suffering, and confusion, must cope with the growing anger of his lover, Eric, who left wife and child to die in Chicago only to make peace with her after a breakup. Jenny must keep her head straight and do all her best to help when things start hitting the fan and people start getting hurt. The Kindness... reads like a classic, top-notch Twilight Zone episode. And I´m a huge fan of the classic series.

Along with David Marusek, Jack Skillingstead is one of the most intriguing authors I have met in the past few years via the pages of Asimov´s. Alone with an Inconvenient Companion is almost a slipstream story, but it keeps nagging at you with that strange feeling you have only know for real when you have known too many hotels in unknown cities (I have); Douglas Fulcher is in a hotel bar, supposedly for a convention, minding his own business, when he is approached by a much younger woman from another convention who just wants to make conversation. He´s not much in the mood, but complies all the same. And, when he starts talking to her about his fervent belief in a sort of "cyborg conspiracy" among us, well, you can´t blame him. If the story was just about that, we would call it a slipstream and that would be that. But there is more (with Skillingstead, as with Marusek, there´s always more). Nothing too fancy, nothing too miraculous. But it´s definitely something that keeps disturbing us long after we finished reading the story.

True Names, by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow, is, along with Chris Nakashima-Brown´s story, another major feat of the written word. In the extremely far future, a being called Beebe (who apparently contains inside herself - the use of the pronoun here is arbitrary, obviously - a plethora of information, a veritable universe of it) is threatened by a former version of herself, who calls himself Brobdignag. It´s a cosmic, eternal (from human POV) battle for dominance. This battle, as we watch the dialogue of Nadja and Alonso (both non-human filters), have already happened many times before - epic apocalypses in a post-human continuum of a very far (and uncomprehensible) future. Cory Doctorow is one of the best names of his generation. He is one the very few writers who knows how to conjure words of technique and make them real, because they are, and them integrate them in science-fictional systems. He pulls a sort of Greg-Eganism, only without all the math and quantum mechanics - or with all of it, but wrapped in a different package. True Names mixes hard sf, mythopoetics, opera (and space opera, to an extent) and a flavor of the 19th Century with a Modernist language - something akin to what the Dada and the Surrealists did, but with a sense. It also has a taste of the French feuilletons of old, like The Count of Monte Cristo - with sockpuppets! References are also apparently abundant: characters like Nadja reminded me of André Breton´s classic Surrealist novel, and wouldn´t Alonzo be a tribute to famous mathematician Alonzo Church? A complex, multilayered story, which should be read not one, but several times.

In the short Molly's Kids, Jack McDevitt plays deliciously with the Frankenstein Complex (or it would be the Hal Complex?), throwing us in the middle of a story (the launching of the first AI probe to a distant system) where not everything is what it seems to be, for the probe happens to be a very reluctant one and must be coaxed in a very convincingly way in order to get off. Ok, maybe all of you will think, "oh, I been down this road before. It´s something Matrix-like, right? " No, it´s not. And it´s not the Wachoswki Brothers, it´s Jack McDevitt. Respect! This story, short as it was, gave me the creeps and made me think of Harlan Ellison and his classic I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Molly's Kids gave me what every short story should give his/her readers: awe.

Paul McAuley´s Adventure is a welcome respite after the emotional rollercoasters of the previous two stories. It is a very short piece featuring some years in the life of Ian Brown, a British guy whose family was killed in the Third World War and who won a ticket in the emigration lottery, a place in one of the arks to the colony world First Foot. He was no hero, but simply a civil servant, who wanted to live an easy, cozy life. Soon after arriving at the planet, he married an American woman he met on the ark, and they settled down, for a quite tranquil, adventureless life. So adventureless that, seven years later, Brown looks around and sees that his life has amounted for nothing. Will he be able to change it? Will he have time yet?

Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter is a Mike Resnick and Pat Cadigan collaboration. It´s a kind of noir story with elements of Outer Limits/Twilight Zone. Apparently it´s a typical murder scenario: a man wakes up with a dead body and he has no remembrance of who the dead is. But he knows one thing: it is not a human being: it is a Dream. For this is a world in which Dreams have substance, and they inhabit it along with "normal" humans, who has no jurisdiction over them. They look like humans, they bleed like humans, they can be killed like humans, but other than that they are very alien. All in all, a good, a bit terrifying story, but it lacks something in the end. It´s as if if - maybe just as the Dreams themselves - they lackes resolution, and also closure.

In Eligible Boy, Ian McDonald returns to his Future India setting of stories like Sanjeev and Robotwallah with this homage (at least in its title) to Vikram Seth´s A Suitable Boy. McDonald tells the exploits of shallow Jasbir Dayal, a boy whose only thought is to be beautiful in 21st Century India. He must take an exceedingly good care of himself and his body, for in a Delhi of twenty million people, "and a middle class with four times as many males as females", things are tough, and if he wants to find the wife of his dreams, then he must fight for her with all his weapons. His parents will go even to the trouble to hire him a matchmaker, but this is only not too disgraceful too him, but also unfashionable, and for Jasbir, as for all Eligible Boys, fashion is of the essence. What Jasbir couldn´t expect is that his housemate, Sujay, also an artificial-intelligence designer for Indian soap-operas, would create just for him a persona to help him winning the hearts of a suitable girl. The aeai "Ram Tarun Das, Master of Grooming, Grace, and Gentlemanliness" will then teach etiquette, discipline, and even Tango lessons to Jasbir. And then he meets Shulka, a very interesting girl with whom he starts a game of seduction - with some interesting, clever twists. It´s a very nice story, with only the appearance of shallowness and suddenly an almost bottomless pit opening from beneath the reader´s feet right at the end.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch´s SeniorSource is an old-fashioned detective story - and old means old. SeniorSource is a Moon-based company which outsources "all kinds of highly skilled jobs, from laser surgery to art restoration. Even detective work, with its combination of interrogation, observation, and forensic skills, could succeed from a distance." And it did: the no-name protagonist, one of the younger elderly workers for the company (because that´s what SeniorSource is all about: hiring retirees who nobody wants anymore on Earth, because they would be literally dead weight down there), finds a corpse - a little boy, son of Shane Proctor, head of the largest mining company on the Moon. The thing is: he has to be not only a detective but also an expert scientist, a lawyer, and an authority on the Moon in just a few short hours - for his own sake, for the tiniest mistake in determining the causa mortis of the kid could mean his being sent back to Earth. And, after five years living on the Moon, that would mean certain death to him. SeniorSource is an intriguing, well-told story not only on whodunits and forensics, but most of all on ethics and morality.

Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell´s Mitigation takes the ecological proactive approach the hard way. Almost in a Kim-Stanley-Robinson fashion (that´s a compliment, by the way), they tell the story of two men, a Caribbean and an Inuit, caught in the middle of greedy companies, ecoterrorists, and UN regulations in the middle of a now ravaged Arctic Ocean and trying to make a difference - but not necessarily being the good guys: they associate with a scientist plus the Russian mafia to steal some patented DNA samples of extinct grains so they can thrive far from the greedy claws of these corporations. But, naturally, things never are what they seem to be: full of twists and turns (not to mention the occasional explosion and shooting) Mitigation reads like a mix of James Bond plus Indiana Jones story. Fast-pacing, action-packed, choose your high-octane adjective and there you go. A hell of an adventure tale.

In Long Eyes, Jeff Carlson reminded me of Anne McCaffrey´s The Ship Who Sang, but only in its basic idea: a spaceship directly connected to the brain of its pilot. All else differs: Clara, the pilot, still a homo sapiens despite being "a human-shaped component in a cradle of gel and splice-wire", was in fact a failed experiment, "grown ex utero, originally gene-crafted to be an asteroid mining dock controller". Then she convinces her creators to let her go, and they fit her into a ram ship, where she become a sort of USS Enterprise of one, boldly going where no one has gone before, in a mission that is already six hundred years old at the beginning of the story. Eventually she gets in touch with human colonies, but she never seems quite to fit, preferring to stay apart - until she finds the wreckage of a ship in an habitable planet, but its survivors, or their descendants, were reduced to the condition of savages, becoming, in a way, less human than her. This is a quite common trope in science fiction, a classical one indeed, but Carlson does a very nice job here, and his portrayal of Clara is so credible that sometimes we tend to forget she´s a post-human entity.

The volume closes with Paolo Bacigalupi´s The Gambler. The story takes place in the near future America, where Ong, a exile from Laos, must use all his gambling skills (inherited from his father) to survive as a journalist interested in feature really interesting ecological and poltical stories. The question is - is the people, so much into popularity, "karma points" and such, still buying human interest stories? Ong will compromise to get what he wants and interview Kulaap, a famous actress from his country who is the talk of the town - and who he despises. But he will play the game - even though, and that´s the supreme irony of the story - he is no gambler at all. And that´s what makes this story a pungent one.

The reason I took so long to review this anthology is that I wanted to read it at least twice so I could review all of their stories the way they deserved to be reviewed. Lou Anders has outdone himself as an editor, and all that I have to say is that I´m looking forward to FF 3.



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