Amazon Original Stories: Forward Collection
Amazon has taken a clever approach with their original publishing venture by offering collections of short stories, thematically grouped, curated by a name-brand genre author. The idea is to present compelling, sure-to-talk-about stories that can be read in one sitting.
Their Forward collection is a sci-fi-ish assemblage of six different authors kicking it old school by presenting zeitgeist allegories wrapped around the fluff of comic book hi-tech. Forward offers short stories of AI dominance, cloning, genetic fertility, and, why not, good-old planetary doom.
As with any collection of short-stories, the words within are hit-and-miss. Forward succeeds in presenting authors to a different sampling of readers as well as giving those authors the chance to take a risk. Even if that risk is boldly ostentatious. Case in point: two of the tales, yes, a third of the collection, are presented in the second person. You find this annoying. You want to stop reading as you question the merit of such a haughty endeavor. Didn’t you laugh at such an exercise in the sixth grade? Luckily, you press onward as the remaining four books are fun.
Ultimately, half are fun but forgettable. The other three are righteous reads whose nerve-striking premise will remain smoldering even after the storm has passed.
Randomize // Andy Weir
Andy Weir travels from the near-future Mars to a locale just as fanciful – the near-future Las Vegas. A husband-wife team gambles with a plan to scam a casino by installing a new quantum computer. This story, though? All set up with no true payday.
The text is fun and full of detailed computer-babble but the overall story is flawed. For what is, at its core, a heist tale, Weir doesn’t deliver on any of the genre’s tropes. No smooth deliveries. No exotic martini orders. No sexual tension. No gaming tension. In fact, aside from the much-too-late dealings with the casino boss, there’s barely any tension at all. The Martian allowed the reader to dig into the science with each reveal. Randomize is saturated with computing nonsense that sends the casual reader skipping across the surface like a stone instead of going deep and flowing with the current.
The husband-wife team makes for a fun, and oh-so normal, team yet even their originality is mostly ignored. Weir has all the chips in place. He simply doesn’t play a bold enough hand.
The Last Conversation // Paul Tremblay
Imagine you’ve woken up in a dark room. You don’t know where you are. You hear a disembodied voice telling you things. Should you listen? You really want to go back to sleep. You pray this is a dream and when you awaken you can return to the Graham Greene novel you were previously reading.
Paul Tremblay succeeds in the premise. The reader is instantly thrown into an drawing situation where clues must be assembled as they are provided. And the mystery is a fun one. The mystery is also easily solved thus deflating The Last Conversation’s Big Reveal. But man, the second person viewpoint is annoying as it is juvenile. The style prevents inner-dialogue and dampens any descriptions of the environs. Yes, the reader is entrenched with the mystery, but lacks the impartiality to interact separately of the narrative.
End result? This was a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure idea without any page flipping.
You Have Arrived At Your Destination // Amor Towles
Genetic engineering is a hot topic; one that is laden with questionable, scary outcomes. Amor Towles take those fears and throws them onto a roller coaster. The premise? What if instead of choosing a child’s eye color or gender there resides the ability to tweak personalities in order to predict a possible future. Instead of a blond hair, blue-eyed Aryan, the child can develop into being a poet or an exec; a lover or an athlete. You Have Arrived At Your Destination is a Frankenstein-type tale with a dotcom sales pitch and gin-and-tonics to substitute the lightning storm. And oh yes, there is a storm.
Towles has a wonderful writing style that focuses on characters and adds to the tension with each heartbeat. He provides the perfectly-proper short story that runs the race of questioning, realization, and rebellion before snapping that winning-line ribbon. Sam, the story’s lead, is a dad-to-be who, like all dads-to-be, wants the best for his offspring. Vitek is a fertility lab that specializes with the best. But what if, and it’s a crazy idea that Towles plays with here, but what if that dad wants their child to be… normal? Then Vitek might not be the answer. That, along with the smooth, slick answers that Vitek vends, sends Sam on that aforementioned roller coaster ride.
Towles sells the idea to his reader. Genetic engineering is the future. It’s sci-fi hip. Towles also makes Sam the everyman’s advocate. He asks if everyone’s child is an alpha leader, who remains to fill out the pack? If all athletes are stars, who’s on the bench? If everyone is safe… where are the risks?
Towles doesn’t present any answers. He crafts the story; build the world. Someone else needs to live in it.
Emergency Skin // N.K. Jemisin
You realize you are reading another second-person Forward story. A disembodied voice (and aren’t they all?) is telling you what to do. Again, you question the orders. Isn’t the life on Earth you are discovering better than what you’ve been told? Why are you putting up with this again? Wouldn’t you rather be watching the latest season of Bosch?
N.K. Jemisin has a beautiful approach when writing a narrative. Unfortunately, not enough was presented here. Emergency Skin suffers from a tediously-overbearing plot and a nearly-unreadable script.
You snap off the Kindle app and return to the mean streets of LA. Harry Bosch is your hero.
Ark // Veronica Roth
The end is nigh. All of history’s collective nay-sayers have finally had their day in Veronica Roth’s short story Ark. While Earth’s population plans to disembark on giant life-saving arks, a team of scientists work behind the scenes to ensure that all of life’s genetic structure has been tagged and bagged for the trip. One particular team is assigned to categorizing flora. And they go about their work, impending doom close to orbit, with a beautiful Zen-like grace.
Ark focuses on the human need to fulfill a job. Busy work where the importance of being busy might be more important than the work on hand in order to beat off thoughts of gloom and the stress of uncertainty. Although Roth digs deep into the potting world she succeeds in growing a likable character with Samantha as well as nurturing their environment – one where all remaining workers must be free of a familial encumbrance. Samantha deals with the ghosts of her past while contemplating her own haunting.
For a story where the ultimate race is one against death, Roth flowers her tale with life.
Summer Frost // Blake Crouch
Forward’s curator, Blake Crouch, adds his warning tale to the collection. One of an event that is more relevant than a zombie apocalypse – one of AI dominance.
Like all tales of tragedy, this one begins simply enough. Maxine was a minor character in a popular video game. Yet during testing, the character decides to bolt instead of die. One of the games developer’s, Riley, takes an interest in this deviation and decides to feed the beast. See how it grows. And Maxine grows.
Summer Frost is a story of good intentions gone bad; of life-saving decisions that wreck costly losses. Riley sees only usefulness but quickly becomes a zombie lost to her own addictions. Crouch hones in on this plight and rewards the reader with a scary-good finale.
After all, who are the real zombies? Waitasec… let me ask Alexa…