Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 12 (December 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
The Man from Downstream by Shane Tourtellotte
Home Is Where the Hub Is by Christopher L. Bennett
Primum Non Nocere by H.G. Stratmann
The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned by Brenda Cooper
Deca-Dad by Ron Collins
Happy Are the Bunyips by Carl Frederick
A Placebo Effect by Brian C. Coad
Probability Zero: Spell Czech by William Michael McCarthy

Science fact articles included:
Tips for the Budget Time-Traveler by Shane Tourtellotte

Full review: The December 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is a strong issue that is marred by one truly disappointing story. Unlike many issues, there appear to be no overarching themes to the stories that appear in its pages, and this variety results in a mostly good collection of stories that are by and large quite enjoyable to read.

The Man from Downstream by Shane Tourtellotte is a subtle time travel story, told from the perspective of a citizen of Rome who meets and establishes a relationship with a mysterious stranger. It becomes pretty clear very quickly that the stranger is more than he seems, and even his origins are only thinly disguised from the reader. The story confronts one of the primary questions of time-travel more or less head on, or at least the primary actor in the story attempts to intentionally do so, but the resolution is ambiguous, giving the story a pathos that elevates it to more than the standard time traveler tale. Connected to the story is the science fact article Tips for the Budget Time-Traveler, also by Shane Tourtellotte. In this companion piece, Tourtellotte describes methods by which a frugal time-traveler could earn a profit by transporting goods back with him on his journey. The article is fairly light on the "science", being mostly an exploration of how prices for luxury goods have changed over the centuries, but it is still interesting, especially in the context of the accompanying fiction.

Home Is Where the Hub Is by Christopher L. Bennett is a sequel to The Hub of the Matter, which appeared in the March 2010 issue of Analog. All of the characters return to study the mysterious hub, David still seeking to break the monopoly held by the alien Dosperhag, and the Dosperhag still willing to go to murderous lengths to preserve their secrets. Despite this rather dangerous background, the story is quite humorous, with strange alien motivations confounding the human characters at every turn. The story twists and turns until it reaches something of an equilibrium, a situation that the protagonists aren't particularly happy about, but which they are forced to accept. As with the previous installment in the series, the story is enjoyable, and this new tale strengthens and builds upon the previously laid foundation.

Dystopian futures are a classic feature of science fiction, and the dystopian vision of a government that regulates the behavior of its citizens for their own good has a fairly long-standing pedigree as well. Primum Non Nocere by H. G. Stratmann posits just such a world, in which the government, though not explicitly compelling people to eat healthy and exercise de jure, has constructed an interconnected web of incentives and requirements that result in just such a situation de facto. The story is set in a treatment facility intended to rehabilitate those who have managed to circumvent the rules and bring them back to healthy status. The story has a major twist at the end, but unfortunately, the twist only works because Stratmann has played dirty pool with his viewpoint character, an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise strong story.

The issue features two first contact stories, although they are markedly different. The first, titled The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned by Brenda Cooper, is set on a distant alien planet with a failing human colony struggling to survive an environment full of hostile fauna. The protagonist seeks to domesticate the one nonthreatening creature the colonists are familiar with. Things don't go exactly according to plan, and there are some surprising revelations made in the story which lightens a fairly depressing story and makes for a satisfying conclusion. The other first contact story is Happy Are the Bunyips by Carl Frederick, which takes a decidedly more comic tone than Cooper's grim tale. A zookeeper at odds with the zoo director in a failing zoo is sent a pair of unusual, and apparently unnatural animals to care for. As with The Hebras, the new arrivals turn out to be more than anyone expected. Although the "twist" in the story is not entirely unexpected, it is still fun.

Dealing with the effects that time dilation might have on future space travelers, the story Deca-Dad by Ron Collins is told from the perspective of an Earth denizen meeting his distant ancestor returning from a lifetime of interstellar voyages. Though divided by time and attitude, the two turn out to be more alike than the narrator believes, and the story ends on a note that I found to reflect my own feelings about the human spirit.

Although it is set in the future, A Placebo Effect by Brian C. Coad seems somewhat out of place in a science fiction magazine. The reason for this is the central "technology" of the story is a placebo pill that apparently works better than actual drugs. The story hints that this may be due to the homeopathic basis for the pills, which moves the story directly into the realm of fantasy as opposed to science fiction. The story more or less meanders pointlessly until it wraps itself up in a somewhat silly manner. Overall, the story seems like an attempt to do something of a dramedy-type story in written fiction, and for that reason, plus the stupid "science" it features, the story seems to be more or less a waste of pages. Continuing the long-running humor series, this month's Probability Zero: Spell Czech by William Michael McCarthy also seems set in the future but lacks any real science fiction element unless equal employment opportunity standards run wild could be construed as science fiction. The story is at least humorous and, as usual for Probability Zero segments, quite short, so it is enjoyable nonetheless.

With the exception of A Placebo Effect, which a reader should, in my opinion, simply skip, the rest of the December 2010 issue of Analog is quite good. The remaining stories are all above average to very good, and present a variety of different types of tales that the science fiction genre has to offer. Overall, this is another very good issue of what I would almost certainly classify as the consistently strongest genre magazine of which I am aware.

Previous issue reviewed: November 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: January/February 2011

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